Monday, December 03, 2007

Democracy in Latin America

The champagne must be flowing in the White House over the vote in Venezuela. The vote cheered me for very different reasons: to me, it shows that while Latin America wants systemic change, people no longer believe a strongman is needed to achieve that.

For as long as I've been politically aware -- and I started young -- I have known that the key political issue in the region was, and remains, the redistribution of income and wealth from the neofeudal socioeconomic structures that have persisted for half a millenium to ... something else.

What else, and how, has been a widely debated and hotly contested question.

In the 1930s, movements such as the APRA in Peru proposed a kind of socialism with autochtonous flavor and revindication for the peoples of the Inca Empire. In Nicaragua at that time a peasant rebel named Augusto César Sandino, who conceivably never read Marx, prompted the intervention of U.S. Marines.

During the 1940s an 50s individuals like Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina and Getúlio Vargas of Brazil offered a different way -- a right-wing form of anti-imperialism and labor power and redistributionism. It was an era of strongmen.

In the 1960s and 70s came César Augusto Pinochet's theory of "the national security state," which he proposed in a military journal in 1965, just as the Brazilian military regime that most successfully embodied it began to take shape. By the decade's end, with the connivance of the CIA-run "traffic school" torturers wearing military boots were in power in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago and other Latin American capitals.

With the 1980s democratization began. We are still in the democratic era. One in which almost all countries have tried wild and extreme laissez faire policies -- in Buenos Aires the municipality went so far as to privatize parks! -- and abandoned them.

Now Nestor Kirchner, soon his wife, in Argentina, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil along with others, represent a wave of social-democracy, expanding rights from the civic realm to social and economic arenas. These are reformist, pro-union, pro-worker leaders who nonetheless recognize the need to rule from consensus and compromise.

This is what people have long wanted. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, along with Evo Morales of Bolivia, represent the vanguard of Latin America's "new left" -- neither is too far apart from what solid majorities want. At least in their ideals.

What the Sunday vote in Venezuela showed, however, was a new maturity. Left-leaning majorities have learned that power foes not grow from the barrel of a gun, as Mao and a good number of guerrilla leaders have suggested. They have also learned not to trust even the greatest of saviors, such as Chávez.

In Sunday's plebiscite Venezuelan voters rejected by a 51 percent to 49 percent the proposal to expand Chávez's powers and accelerate his move to socialize the economy. The slim margin suggests that the country is deeply divided and that his program has not been resoundingly defeated.

Instead, it seems clear to me that Venezuelans are quarreling mainly with the strategy. They want economic and social democracy. But without a strongman. Cuba without Fidel and one-party rule -- or perhaps merely Sweden.

To me, having watched decades of blood flowing in the streets to no good end, over strongmen and guerrilla strongmen-wannabes, over militaries and ideologies, it is heartening to see Latin Americans choosing, indeed forcing, peaceful debate and the ballot box on their own leader. Chávez looms greater also in my esteem for accepting the verdict.
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