Thursday, May 10, 2007

The idea of democracy: Chavez, Buxton and the French election

There was something left to say about the French election, the one thing that perhaps applied the most to Venezuela.

On Sunday night right after 8 PM, losing candidate Segolene Royal went on the air to give a great concession speech. She held a paper to which she referred often as she was carefully exposing her thoughts and projects as a consequence of the electoral results. Then a couple of hours after, on the roof of a Paris small neo-classical “hôtel” where microphone in hand she had no problem improvising for an adoring crowd.

Around 8:30 PM Nicolas Sarkozy, the winner of the election, was as poised as Ms. Royal was, and like her held notes that he followed closely as he gave his victory speech. A couple of hours later, on the grand stage of Place de la Concorde he was improvising a speech with gusto, surrounded by a crowd of pop artists, as he was thanking the adoring crowd.

Both candidates are certainly able to improvise speeches on the stump, good speeches at that. But when words matter, they follow a script. It does not count that they are socialists or neo-liberals, they represent a group and they must be careful when they speak in the name of the group that carried them to their exalted position.

I describe these scenes because that very Sunday night I remembered the silly incident during the Venezuela electoral campaign. When Rosales did his first Caracas rally many were afraid he would not be able to wake up the opposition from its torpor. But the rally in Caracas was a huge success and really launched the Rosales movement allowing him to grow from a totally losing proposition to manage, against incredible odds, to get 37% of the vote, or so we are told.

The incident was that a chavista camera noticed that on occasion Rosales was reading from a paper. And chavismo poked fun on Rosales as much as they could saying that Chavez did never use notes on his speeches and thus that was supposed to tell us of his superior intelligence. Maybe, but they missed the point completely. Rosales was speaking in the name of a group of democratic people and for what was more than likely going to be the most important speech of his campaign. He had to be sure he said all the right things, without forgetting anything, but without adding anything. In many other appearances Rosales would make speeches without papers in front, and even if he was not a great orator, he certainly could manage a speech without a safety net. No, just as Sarkozy or Royal, when the moment counted, when he spoke to represent a group of people, Rosales did not take chances; he was not talking for him, he was talking for us.

If I write this it is because it illustrates once more, though from a different angle perhaps for many, how democracy operates. For the people in France or behind Rosales, democracy is a social pact, seriously discussed by a group of people holding different interests at heart. For the people who follow Chavez, the only thing that matters is what the leader decides or says. Even if during the endless hours of speechifying, where inanities and truth are happily mixed into an indigestible mash, Chavez supporters have a way to waddle through the unpleasantness and latch themselves to the part of the speech that reflects better their interest. But at the end the will that will prevail is the one of the powerful leader who unexplainably has a way to make his followers believe that he is in fact granting their innermost desire. Unexpectedly the decisions of single man and his small group of close allies become perceived as a majority decision that should apply to all, no matter what level of participation in the process they had.

A way to illustrate how this works comes unexpectedly from a paper by Julia Buxton and published in Open Democracy. This respectable web site publishes great articles promoting true democracy expansion but it also publishes on occasion real duds such as the one from Prof. Buxton. One should not be surprised if one remembers the indirect encounter I had with her last November when the BBC asked 6 people, three form each side of the divide, to describe what kind of leader Chavez was. Of the 5 texts that accompanied mine hers was clearly the poorest one, a disappointing performance for an academic that cannot be half as convincing as the youth organizer Abraham Aparicio.

Let’s gloss over Ms. Buxton paper at Open Democracy, “The deepening of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution: why most people don’t get it”. Her words do not bring any new data, describe often true elements though sometimes reflect the myths, or are simply incomplete in what an academic should report (she is on some sort of sabbatical at Georgetown University). But then again it is now impossible to be truly objective when discussing Venezuela and Chavez.

No, the problem in her article is that she is discussing religion and not politics. And we get this from the very subtitle of the article: “The radical project led by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela can’t be understood through the distorting lens of its inveterate opponents”. Since we do not know who and how decides what are ‘inveterate opponents’, this has for effect to dismiss everyone, including Teodoro Petkoff. This is exactly the type of speech that is thrown at Islam when people want to encompass all of Islam into a fundamentalist primitivism. Or by the Daily Kos crowd when it attacks Lieberman in Connecticut. She might word it very academically but the message is clear and we get it.

The article indeed rings at times like a religious preach.

We have the devil: the NED (National Endowment for Democracy) is pictured as the root of all evil in the anti Chavez propaganda, and is even elevated to the rank of demonic presence “why NED-backed groups are so reviled”; we have the liturgical corpus when the references given are all pro Chavez, including such poor books as Eva Golinger magnus opus; we have the dismissal of the false prophets “A cursory glance at the reports of the Inter American Press Association or NED-funded Reporters Without Borders reflects a country where freedom of speech is under threat and human rights under daily assault”; we have the miracles that validate the cult “A March 2007 poll by Datanalisis shows that 64.7% of Venezuelans have a positive view of Chavez's performance in office”; we even get the creationism time twisting methods to void evolution theory “the reductions achieved to date are a significant achievement given the critical situation Chavez inherited, the disastrous impact of opposition stoppages on the economy in 2001 and 2002” where the 1999, 2000, and 11 months of 2001 disappear in a geological strata put there by the devil to confuse us.

We also have the pious necessary beliefs required by any religion such as “the historical absence of state institutions capable of delivering welfare provision” accompanied with the unavoidable act of faith “we all have a stake, direct or indirect, in the politics of Venezuela”. All of this is nicely complemented with the moral arguments necessary to steel the faith of the believer “The disconnect needs serious discussion, not least because it may illuminate why US "democracy promotion" is proving so counterproductive, anti-American sentiment so prevalent” or those who imply that the other side is the antichrist depicting unfairly the divinity “If there are lessons that can be learned from one, some or all of the misiones, they should not be discarded simply because of subjective prejudices toward Chavez”. Buxton is even sensitive to the Church Synode function (“The aim of the PSUV is to bring organisational coherence to the Chavista alliance of twenty-four party political organisations and the multiple grassroots groups that support the government”) in dictating the codes of the faith: Central to this process is the concept of the "five motors"; Communal councils are a vitally important; electoral battle-units [goodness gracious!, the terminology!] and endogenous development groups.

In a way this is all on the par for an apologist of chavismo who happens to hold a faculty chair in a time where too few apologists of any substantive level can be found. What is more worrisome is that in that this sort of religious approach Julia Buxton does not notice the obvious. Just to give an example, I will quote her once more, her words on the communal councils: “bottom up vision of democracy in which national government is balanced by grassroots power”.

For me it is absolutely unthinkable that an academic who manages political sciences can think that there is no need of intermediaries between an all powerful president and 26 million of subjects. How could it be possible that during a single 6 years term such a president could interact at least once directly with each and everyone of the 20 K + councils planned? It reminds me of that circular e-mail that pops up at Christmas time where if Santa Claus indeed existed he would have to go so fast at Christmas night during his gift distribution that the laws of physics would make him explode. In 6 years, visiting a communal council everyday, Chavez would still be able to visit only 2190 of them out of the 16 000 that are already existing according to prof Buxton.

Julia Buxton has missed the crucial point in all of Chavez programs and projects: to make sure that there is never any one that can challenge him, that there is no political structure that could allow a single citizen to rise to enough notoriety that somehow that citizen could effectively challenge Chavez. The projected communal councils who will eventually eliminate the need for elected governors and mayors, replacing them with some form of appointed link personnel, is the ultimate tool of atomization that leaves only one relevant power: Chavez. This is exactly what all religions have tried whenever they had a chance, to eliminate any possible source of dissent. The Inquisition did it so as recently as two centuries ago. Al Qaeda is doing this today to cower into submission all Islam that does not agree with its goals.

This is even more unforgivable as prof Buxton comes from the UK, where the regular Question Time at parliament has made possible for the UK to be the only major country that has never experienced the need to have a written constitution. In Venezuela we might keep changing constitutions on a yearly basis, nobody will be allowed to go up to challenge Pope Chavez and question his results. Buxton seems fine with that.

Has Julia Buxton ceased to be a democrat and is she now simply a believer? Is that why she can applaud Chavez speeches (without papers in front of him whereas at Question Time, even Tony Blair carries a few folders with him)? These folders, these pieces of papers that hold presidential candidates such as Royal or Sarkozy or Rosales at important moments become the symbol of community, of democracy, of messages expressed by a spokespersons who will never be deified the way Julia Buxton seems to already idealize all what Chavez does, to the point of curtly pretending that no one is able to see her idol for what he is, a no-no for any serious academic.

-The end-

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