Monday, August 16, 2004

Unimaginable under Baath Party rule

Shiites at the Iraqi national conference loudly protested the forthcoming Battle of Najaf. The WaPo, oddly, calls it a “scene of political activism that would have been unimaginable under Baath Party rule.” Really? I think Saddam would have allowed protests against an American invasion of Najaf.

The attempt to overthrow Hugo Chavez by referendum has failed, and I am of two or more minds. I don’t especially like Chavez, but he pisses off some of the people I like to see pissed off, is what it amounts to. The US and the National Endowment for Democracy has been going after him using all the techniques familiar from their campaign against Allende in Chile in the early ‘70s, white-skinned Venezuelan capitalists are horrified at having a government that doesn’t reflect their interests. But the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

Maybe the best approach is regional rather than national: what’s best for South America as a whole? The transition over the last 20 years from military dictatorships to something resembling representative democracies has been impressive, but the veneer of democratic sensibility may not be very deep. From the perspective of democracy, events in Venezuela are close to a wash. Before winning office, Chavez headed a failed military coup; he should never have been allowed to run, but that was 6 years ago and he’s won several elections since then. His instincts are authoritarian and his followers use intimidatory violence, but he hasn’t moved against the newspapers, radio and tv stations which are almost uniformly hostile to him. He has trashed the institutions of government, courts and so on, but they were controlled by the country-club elite, but Chavez’s so-called populism is not embodied in any institutions--with any leader, you can gauge their relationship to real democracy by asking what would happen if they died suddenly in a plane crash, and Chavez (like Putin, say) does not score well there.

As for the referendum, well, Chavez allowed it to occur, but only after many delays, but I don’t believe that the opposition actually collected the required number of signatures (the US told the election commission it should ignore such “technicalities”). The opposition won’t accept the results, and Chavez probably wouldn’t have if it had gone the other way (assuming that the counting was reasonably fair, of course). Neither side is committed to democracy, both sides have shown a willingness to resort to coups and see the electoral process only as one weapon in their arsenal. Whatever works. Whether the electorate viewed the process so cynically and instrumentally, I’m less sure.

At any rate, the referendum in Venezuela would probably also have been unimaginable under Baath Party rule.

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