Wednesday, October 08, 2008

How voting kills democratic intentions: Chavez and gay marriage in California

The constant ritornello of Chavez supporters, that since he won so many elections he is henceforth the utmost democrat, has been long punctured by Chavez actions. I need not revisit this issue, except to remind the readers that the referendum defeat of December 2007 has not stopped Chavez from imposing by fiat most of what he wanted in that constitutional reform. That is, the 2007 campaign and vote where totally unnecessary as they did not solve at all the real issue for Chavez: how to become legally life long autocrat. At least we can be happy about on result of the outcome: it has flushed Chavez out of his democratic make up. Since December 3 2007 when he recognized the "Pyrrhic victory" of the NO he has not stopped giving us examples of what a potential tyrant he is, from the most vulgar name calling to the constant constitutional violations to remove anything in his way to absolute power. Right now as he is facing a difficult election we are offered daily evidence on how chavismo is trying to make that result meaningless, effectively using the vote to validate our loss of basic rights.

But electoral manipulation so as to curtail the rights of the people is not only a Venezuelan privilege: we have right now a similar drama being played in California. After years of legal wrangling California judges finally stated that there was no real reason to stop gay people to enter into marriage agreements. I use "marriage agreements" term as a way to underline that it is a legal matters and that the tradition of marriage through religious activities only still existing in the US was not violated: no church is forced to perform gay marriages, these only happen through City Hall. Yet, this has not stopped an enraged minority to put on the ballot a Proposition to place in the California constitution a ban on gay marriage in the state. Let's look at this issue by parts.

First, in the XXI century to deny same sex partner to have some form of legally recognized is not acceptable anymore, at least in Western societies. True, a case can be made on putting some form of limitations to such unions though often those reek of hypocrisy such as the cases of gay couples allowed to adopt handicapped children but finding all sorts of barrier to adopt "normal" children. We can still understand restrictions for a while as society as a whole gets used to the idea of gay marriage. We come after all from a strong judeo-christian tradition and even the right of vote for women was not an instantaneous gain.

Second, California has been a Mecca of gay people almost since the Gold Rush. Today San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego have between them hundred of thousand of gay people, gay business, gay pride events, gay papers, etc, etc... Considering that other areas of the state have also significant gay presence it is fair to assume that the large majority of the state of California has been "exposed to the gay life style", the one that holds a job, pay taxes, takes care of its front yard, participate in community events. Going against the social norms might still be argument in Arkansas, but it cannot be anymore in California where society is more open in general and where it is in fact a minority society as no group today holds a clear command of the social composition.

Third, since California has allowed for gay marriage the numbers have not been that high at all, the more so when you consider that many of the gay couples are from out of state. The New York Times article cites: 11,440 couples since marriage was allowed last May. How many "straight" marriages since then? Less? The same number? More? Way more? For comparison Massachusetts since 2004 has has only 10,300 unions. If the threat of the ballot has incited many gay couples to rush to city hall, we can safely assume that allowing gay marriage in California has been far, very far from being a threat to the social fabric. The contrary perhaps as marriage brings social obligations. In fact if the estimate of a little bit more than 100,000 gay couples exist in California we can extrapolate to only a million or so people directly concerned by gay marriage. The rest are either straight folks or gay folks that keep hitting gay and lesbian bars for one night stands.

We are thus confronted to two facts that whether you disagree with them still remain facts: gay marriage is a minor issue even in a state with such a large gay population as California, and gay marriage became a full right last May there. The vote on Proposition 8 is thus a clear case of deliberate use of the vote to remove a civil right from a group of people. And as such it sets a terrible precedent because its eventual success will allow for future such propositions to remove established rights. That is, the vote becomes a weapon to control small portions of society. It would have been a different matter if last May the California courts had asked for a constitutional decision through vote. But they decided that according to the present constitution the right had to be granted as it implicitly existed. Thus Proposition 8 is clearly a regressive action.

Now if such a travesty of legality can take place in a country like the US, imagine what could happen in the currently lawless chavista Venezuela. Having the uncouth masses vote on legal packages such as the one of December 2007 could be a quick way to legally control portions of the population that could be perceived as threatening the regime at some point. The 2007 package failed because it was too extensive, too complex and because it obviously was trying to hide the real point, Chavez president for life. People saw through it, even some of the "uncouth chavista masses" Chavez relied on. But chavismo will have learned its lesson and next time it will produce more compact packages. For example it might want to make the 35 hours work week as a constitutional rule. It can send it to vote but can attach to it clauses that will restrain certain jobs to certain group of people. Such restrictions being perceived as only minor compared to the positive effect of 35 hours work week we can expect them to pass. Thus we could have women banned from certain army positions, certain jobs state banned for people whose relatives are noted opponents to the regime, etc, etc.... The Tascon/Maisanta list are only one step from being included in the Constitution! After all, it would only be a "partial" discrimination put inside the constitution....

If you think that I exaggerate look at the example of Bolivia. The Altiplano folks are demanding that the tax revenue of the "media luna" be used for their social programs way up the mountain. The only problem is that the economic growth and prosperity of the media luna was made almost against the will of the central governments of La Paz. The people in the media luna feel, and not without reasons, that they owe nothing to La Paz since whatever they got they got it through their hard work. And now you are asking them to vote on a constitution that will siphon away the taxes they pay? I am simplifying the problem of Bolivia in this example but it is the root of the current violence there: the media luna is not opposed to some form of solidarity and power sharing, but it is sternly opposed to outright exploitation for an Altiplano misery that has not been of its creation. After all one century ago there was little in Santa Cruz, which was little more than a village when the Altiplano had been enslaved since the time of the Inka!

And thus we have it, from California to Bolivia going through Chavez as its most successful agent so far. Driven by access to cheap mass media messages (be it FOX or VTV, same difference, only sophistication and the degree of partisanship varies) unscrupulous leaders are using referendum/plebiscite like votes to trump real democracy, a system where first and foremost minority rights are protected or at the very least respected from the abuses of the majority of the moment who such leaders try to embody for their own profit. These can be white religious folks in California or indigenous coca growers of Bolivia, it does not make much of a difference when the dark side of human nature is at play.

-The end-

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