Pobre Bolívar, Tan Lejos de Dios, Tan Cerca de Chávez

The above was the scene late on Thursday in Caracas at the tomb of Simón Bolívar whose earthly remains were disturbed so as to indulge a fantasy of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Bolívar died in 1830 in Santa Marta on the Colombian coast. He died there on his way into exile. The cause of his death was believed to be tuberculosis but Chávez seems to think that he was murdered. His remains were exhumed with Chávez narrating a play-by-play on Venezuelan television to test a theory that will prove nothing.

I don't want to get into a long detailed history of the breakup of La Gran Colombia, the ill-fated union of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador that dissolved bitterly in 1830 with each country going its separate way. From afar these countries may seem similar but they are not and in 1830 they were vastly more different than they are today. The saying goes that the Venezuela was a barracks, Ecuador a monastery and Colombia a university. It's a remarkably accurate assessment. Venezuela would be ruled by caudillos, strongmen, well into the second half of the 20th century, Ecuador would become a theocracy under Gabriel Garcia Moreno (who was actually killed by a distant relative of mine but that's another story though I am proud that my family has seen a number of radicals for 250 years) and Colombia consumed in an eternal debate between conservatism and liberalism, between protectionism and free trade, between clericalism and anti-clericalism and the other great debates of the 19th century.

I've long ago stopped to trying to understand the mind of Hugo Chávez but this is beyond the pale. It's macabre and frankly Bolívar deserves better. Mind you, I'm no fan of Simón Bolívar. He's not a political hero of mine. He was a bloody dictator who was rightfully sent packing into exile. My heroes of the Colombian independence movement are Francisco Paula de Santander, Antonio Nariño, Francisco José de Caldas, Policarpa Salavarrieta, and the Ecuadorian-born José Antonio de Sucre who in truth was the military genius behind the battles that eventually liberated South America.

Suffice it to say that Bolívar's proposal for a chief executive was one that ruled for life and who then got to pick his successor. In his defense, it was another day and age and typical for someone of his social standing. Bolívar argued for the enlightened despot. That model worked fairly well in Paraguay where under José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and his successor Carlos Antonio López that landlocked country would become the wealthiest and most egalitarian country in the South America by 1850. But Paraguay under Rodríguez de Francia may have been efficiently managed but it also was a one-man state with El Supremo as he was known even deciding marriages. 

An enlightened despot would not have worked well in Colombia because we are a country of regions crisscrossed by three jungle covered mountain ranges that rise to over 18,000 feet. To travel from Bogotá to Cali, a distance of 200 miles, took three weeks during the dry season and three months during the wet season. Colombia required a federal system that devolved power to its nine regions that then included Panamá. Santander proposed this while Bolívar sought to implant a centralized regime in Bogotá. When, in 1828, a constitutional convention rejected amendments to the constitution that Bolívar had proposed, Bolívar assumed dictatorial powers in a coup d'état. What followed next was a period of extreme oppression and rebellion throughout the country. In 1830, having survived an assassination attempt, in declining health and with uprisings occurring in various parts of Gran Colombia, Bolívar resigned all his political positions and sulked towards exile but never reaching it. So despised was he in his native Venezuela that it would take 12 years before his family was allowed to bring his body back to Caracas.

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US-Latin American Relations Heading South

The US Under-Secretaty of State for Latin American Affairs Arturo Valenzuela has set off a firestorm in Buenos Aires when making remarks critical of Argentina's legal protections for foreign investment. The remarks have so angered the Argentines that Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana sought out Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the margins of the World Climate Conference in Copenhagen to lodge a protest.

What set off the fireworks were comments by the Under-Secretary in Buenos Aires as his initial trip to region since being confirmed was wrapping up Wednesday. Valenzuela relayed some criticism he had heard from the representatives of US companies doing business in Argentina about the local investment climate.

"I noticed a change: In 1996 there was much more enthusiasm and intentions to invest; today I heard concerns about legal insecurity and concerns about economic management; unless there are changes, the expected investments can't be carried out," he told local press on Wednesday. Valenzuela was also the Under-Secretary for Latin American Affairs during the Clinton Administration, the hey-day of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus when free markets economic policies were all too often rammed down Latin America's throats.

That comparison to 1996 and the criticism of legal protection regime for foreign investment (inseguridad jurídica) is what triggered a ferocious response not just from the Argentine government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner but from various sectors within Argentina that has been front-page news for the last two days.

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St. Sarah of the Dispossessed, St. Glenn the Conspiratorial

The cartoon from 1896 depicts William Jennings Bryan as a giant anaconda named populism devouring a hapless ass. Substitute Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck for Bryan and a pachyderm for the ass and you have a modern day version. Perhaps a two-headed snake is warranted; perhaps even a multi-headed hydra is in order for a GOP bent on playing to its lowest denominator. Populism has a long trajectory in America and while it has knocked on the door of the White House, it has never managed to get in with perhaps the exception of Andrew Jackson. Otherwise, populist fervor has either been on the outside looking in or political elites have managed to successfully co-opt it, nipping the furor by addressing the complaints and concerns of the discontented.

Historian Michael Kazin, an expert on William Jennings Bryan, calls populism more a style of organizing than anything else. He finds that right-wing populists typically drum up resentments based on differences of religion and cultural style while their progressive counterparts have focused on economic grievances. Chip Berlet, a journalist, and Matthew Lyons, a historian, who have done extensive work on the subject of right-wing populism, argue that right-wing populist movements are a subset of repressive populist movements. In their view, a right-wing populist movement is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. They argue that "this does not mean that right-wing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains." It is, thus, to be expected that any Democratic administration, never mind one headed by the first African-American President, would spark a backlash.

Populism is an ideologically diverse ism. Populism can come from the left, the right or even the center as is the case in present day Slovakia. Defying a simple definition, it is easiest to describe populism as a mass-based reactionary force in response to some event or pressure. Populism most often arises in societies under duress and it takes on an anti-elitist character. In Latin America, for example, populism is what happens when elites fail - Hugo Chávez's Venezuela being the best modern day example of Latin populism. His rise is wholly explained by the failure of elites to create a more egalitarian Venezuela. Previously, Latin American populism had more of a decidedly rightist tinge under Getulio Vargas' Estado Novo in Brazil or Juan Domingo Perón's Argentina though there have certainly been leftist populist regimes as well, for example Bolivia's Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario that took power in 1952. But as of late Latin American populism has tacked left in response to the failure of neo-liberalism, while American populism has tacked right in response to the exact same failure of free market ideology.

That, I think, is due to the unique character of American conservatism, one that is now evermore imbued with populist trappings. Since the 1960s whenever mainline conservatism is defeated at the polls, conservatives hunker down and get even more radical. Richard Nixon's narrow defeat at the hands of Kennedy in 1960 begets Barry Goldwater in 1964; Gerald Ford's 1976 defeat opens the way to Ronald Reagan's triumph in 1980; and Bob Dole's 1996 loss enables a George W. Bush four years later. In the wake of the loss of the mainline McCain in 2008, the GOP of 2009 has again decided that its problem is that it is not conservative enough. So out with Dede Scozzafava, Newt Gingrich, Charlie Crist, Bob Bennett, and Lindsey Graham and in with Doug Hoffman, Marco Rubio, Chuck DeVore, J.D. Hayworth and Jason Chaffetz. In today's GOP, the RINO has been marked for extinction. Putting them on the endangered species list is likely of no avail. This Jacobin party is ready to consume its own. It is also in marked contrast to the Democratic party which has generally headed to the center after crushing electoral defeats. After the liberal McGovern came a centrist Carter, after the liberal Mondale came the less liberal Dukakis followed by the even less liberal Clinton. More recently after the openly liberal Kerry comes the pragmatic centrism of Obama. While Democratic defeat has been followed more often that not by a reflective introspection, on the GOP side electoral defeat brings an emotive rush seemingly off the cliff of orthodoxy.

Another defining characteristic of American conservatism is that it is intimately intertwined with American evangelicalism and as long as this remains the case, populism in America is bound to have a right-wing flavour. It is not a coincidence that this crowd runs with Jesus, albeit one more in tune with Leviticus than any Sermon on the Mount. Evangelicalism is but a petri dish for the bacterium of right-wing populism. Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and now Mike Huckabee are three who have melded their Christian faith with a right-wing populism in recent years.

The other fertile plain of American right-wing populism is the white nationalism now respouting across the redder corners of America. These people feel that they have lost their country and they want it back. It should be noted that in the 19th century, left-leaning American populism had agrarian roots - James Weaver was from Iowa and William Jennings Bryan from Nebraska but right-wing populism has its roots in the South. It is the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, a counterrevolutionary backlash against the abolition of slavery and the political rights provided blacks under the Fourteenth Amendment, that marked the advent of right wing populism in the United States. And the second iteration would come in the 1920s first in Georgia before spreading elsewhere again courtesy of the KKK in response to increasing immigration and other perceived social ills. In 1924 the Klan played a decisive role in engineering the elections of officials from coast to coast, including the mayors of Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon. In Colorado and Indiana, they placed enough Klansmen in positions of power to effectively control the state government. Known as the "Invisible Empire," the KKK's presence was felt across the country. Right-wing populism, part of that nativist legacy, today remains largely the province of white America.

It is, indeed, bizarre that the dispossessed of this land should embrace the country club ideology of the Republican party but neither logic nor erudition are a defining quality of this crowd. While populism can be roughly defined as the call for the empowerment of ordinary people in all areas of life, its language is one of an us versus them. Its ethos all too often subsumed in vast conspiracy theories. It is a faith-based politics that spurns reason and eschews anything smacking of intellectualism and elitism. Theirs is a worldview defined by their own notions of what they believe to be "common sense" and they see nefarious plots afoot everywhere they look. And modern day American right-wing populism has now spawned two patron saints - St. Sarah of the Dispossessed and St. Glenn the Conspiratorial not to mention a whole host of other minor characters that include the white knight Pat Buchanan and the queen of zany Michele Bachmann. Even Doug "Acorn Stole My Election" Hoffman, a millionaire with a half million dollar antique car collection, is seen as a populist.

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The Threat of Continuismo

In 1830, Colombia sent General Simón Bolívar Palacios packing. Dispatched from power, Bolívar would die on his way to exile abroad melancholic and regretting that he plowed the sea. By any standard, Bolívar was a tyrant, an autocrat who wanted to perpetuate himself in power. That political tradition runs deep in the veins of Latin American history. It is called continuismo - the tendency of heads of state to extend their rule indefinitely - and it has been the lifeblood of Latin America's authoritarian tradition. One that unfortunately remains very much alive today.

More than any other country, Colombia has avoided continuismo by enacting strict term limits. For much of the 19th century, Colombian Presidents served two year terms. They are now allowed a four-year term though in Colombia the law allows for non-successive terms. Still, only one man, Alfonso López Pumarejo, managed to get elected for a second term. That is until Álvaro Uribe Vélez who will complete his second consecutive term in August 2010. Though he is still mulling a run for a third term and remains undecided, President Uribe would be undermining Colombian democracy should he choose to run just as Hugo Chávez Frías' tenure is undermining Venezuela's democracy.

Latin American political traditions favor a strong chief executive and weak legislative bodies. Presidents have wide appointive powers and sweeping powers of decree. Recall the protests in Argentina last year. Those protests were set in motion because President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner raised export tariffs from 35% to 48% on soy beans and other agricultural products by decree. Faced with six months of protests that shut Argentina down, President Fernández de Kirchner was forced to seek Congressional approval for her decree. She lost that battle by one vote in the Senate, ironically that of her Vice President Julio Cobos. This is one of the rare times that a presidential decree has been overturned.

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The Carnival in Trinidad

The carnival came to Trinidad twice this year. It held its festive pre-Lenten rite of carnal debauchery a few weeks ago and a post Easter one filled with verbal excess, mostly courtesy of Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. Danielito, as we not so fondly call him, went on a near hour long tirade providing an overview of the tragic legacy of  US imperialism in Latin America. To be honest, I am surprised that he could manage it in only fifty minutes. While all Nicaraguans know who William Walker is, not too many Americans are aware that he attempted to install himself top the perch in Managua in the 1850s.

And while the filibustering of William Walker has been long assigned to history if not folklore, events during my lifetime continue to impair US-Latin American relations. It's hard to trust when one thinks that Jaime Roldós and Omar Torrijos were murdered in 1981 on the orders of William Casey. And while the Bush Administration distracted by its global wars of necessity in Afghanistan and of choice in Iraq and the Philippines and who knows where else ignored the region except to demand eradication of coca crops, it is also impossible to ignore in the attempted coup against Hugo Chávez that the United States didn't exactly uphold the inviolability of democratic norms. Tsk, tsk. So forgive us for chiding you because it seems that United States only values Latin democracies when it's convenient for the United States. But democracy in Latin America is ever more vibrant and likely in the near term if not the longer term to be rather inconvenient for the United States. Danielito, Hugo, Rafa and Evo aren't going anywhere so get used to them. I personally don't care for them either but it's not for me to approve or disapprove the electoral choices of my Latin brethren.

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