Our Times 3

Huge Chavez confronts (neo) liberal democracy

Latin America and the Caribbean

There has been much written about the erosion of democracy in Canada under the Liberals but even more egregiously under the Harper Conservatives (and PLEASE don’t call these libertarians “Tories”). There is a very long list of grievances from the abuse of prorogation, to deliberate sabotaging of Parliamentary Committees, to election robo-calls, to the gagging of public employees.

But there is a more sinister anti-democratic undercurrent at play here and reading the media coverage of the Venezuelan presidential elections brought it home in spades. That coverage — in which reporters and pundits could barely bring themselves to recognize Chávez’s historic victory and his trouncing of the opposition — oozed contempt for Chávez and the 55% of Venezuelans who voted for socialism. They couldn’t stand it: beside themselves with outrage over the result even though the voting process was impeccable and beyond criticism — indeed far more tamper proof than the American farce that passes for democracy.

In its story on the election results the Globe and Mail, like many of the world’s capitalist press, referred to Chávez as a “strongman” a term normally used to describe dictators, this despite at least half a dozen democratic election and referendum wins. Ignoring the people’s choice, the G&M summed up the results: “…renewed ability to do economic damage.”

John Graham, a former Canadian ambassador to Venezuela, volunteered an absurd scenario which had Chavez “…engaging in fraud by rearranging enough votes through blatant manipulation or creating disturbances and power outages in opposition strongholds, so that citizens can’t vote or are inhibited from voting.” He apparently forgot that it was key members of the current opposition who attempted a coup against Chávez in 2002.

British coverage of the election and its results were just as bizarre and shameful — especially coming from the BBC (describing an opposition rally as ‘Venezuela rallies for opposition’s Henrique Capriles’ [my emphasis]), and the Guardian newspaper which estimated a Chávez rally of over a million people as having attracted “tens of thousands.”

The neo-liberal media was even more outrageous when the 2002 coup took place. The New York Times pronounced that Chávez’s departure meant “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator” — neglecting to mention that the only dictator on the scene was the man who had just taken over. The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune (for whom, apparently, irony is a mystery) declared: “It’s not every day that a democracy benefits from the military’s intervention to force out an elected president.”

At the root of this disgust with Chávez’s repeated election victories is the consensus amongst the big media players and their commentators that democracy is fine so long as it produces the correct — that is, free market — results. Otherwise it is highly problematic and even dangerous.

The embarrassing commentary and spin on the election (following a virtual flood of wishful thinking about a Chávez defeat) reminded me of the comments made by then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger just months before the he fomented a violent and ultimately fascist coup against the similarly democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1971. Kissinger commented on the election of Allende thusly: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.” Until that coup, Chile had the longest functioning democracy in Latin America.

There you have it — democracy if necessary but not necessarily democracy.

This will hardly come as a surprise to students of so-called liberal democracy, a fine little oxymoron which tries to merge capitalism (and its inherently grotesque inequality) and democracy (which is supposed to be the essence of equality) into one system. It has never been a comfortable fit. Our system of democracy has always been assigned the job of managing capitalism in the interests of capitalism so when any upstart rabble rouser actually refers to him or herself as a socialist – and wins – the alarm bells go off and continue ringing until the threat is disposed of. With Chávez the bells have been ringing in the ears of the US empire for fourteen years.

Globalization has done a thorough job of emasculating democracy almost everywhere and it is backed by a handy-dandy ideology. The late Milton Freidman was one of the most famous purveyors of this perverse rationalization of the use of coups and interventions to teach the rabble who’s in charge. Friedman once stated: “I believe a relatively free economy is a necessary condition for a democratic society. But I also believe there is evidence that a democratic society, once established, destroys a free economy.” He went on to say that “…it was the pursuit of wealth that was the ultimate social value, while the pursuit of justice would lead to total ruin.”

So, if your fondest political dreams include a truly equal society brought forward by our current democracy give your head a shake. They would never let it happen.


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