Monday, August 24, 2009

curly goes to school

I read it while sitting on the patio eating my cornflakes.

It seemed innocent enough. Lying there like a boa sunning itself on the shoulder of the road.

The words in The Economist briefing paper seemed almost neutral:

Venezuela’s parliament, dominated by supporters of President Hugo Chávez, rushed through a controversial education law under which school lessons will be based on “Bolivarian doctrine”.

I wonder how an American expatriate living in Mexico in 1940 would have reacted to a short news blurb: "Today Germany announced plans to build a work camp at Auschwitz"?

The analogy is not entirely accurate. President Chávez is merely interested in killing the past to ensure his future.

Latin America is going through tough economic times -- as is the rest of the world. In past worldwide economic downturns, Latin America has suffered much worse than Europe or the United States. The usual result: loan defaults accompanied by currency and banking disasters.

This time, the Latin American countries who have adopted and applied liberal democratic economic principles are actually doing much better than most nations. No bank failures. No toxic financial instruments. And it appears that they will survive the downturn with their middle class credentials intact.

There are problems. Anti-poverty programs have suffered. But their financial structures are sound. Or most of them are.

The biggest success story, of course, is Brazil. Brazil was well on its way to creating a strong economic base under President Cardoso. When the leftist Lula de Silva, a close friend of Fidel Castro, replaced him, the world watched to see which economic path he would choose.

He chose wisely by applying liberal democratic principles. And Brazil was the better off for it.

Brazil continued to prosper -- making Brazil the mentor for other center-left governments. Chile, Uruguay, and Peru could easily have abandoned liberal economic principles. Instead, they chose to follow Brazil.

Along with Mexico and Colombia, those four countries have central banks that target inflation. And those policies have paid off.

That has been the general tale of success. Latin America is no longer a series of military coup-ridden, central-government-controlled economies.

Well, mostly not. There is Argentina, which has staggered from success to disaster like some populist prodigal son not yet fed up with eating swine pods. And Bolivia and Ecuador wander in the authoritarian wilderness.

But none are as worrisome as their coeval: Venezuela.

I call him Curly (of Three stooges fame). Felipe calls him a Latin American Mussolini. I fear Felipe is far closer to the truth.

We are speaking of that buffoon of the comic opera: Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, smiter of neoliberalism, globalism, and the United States; father of dodgy Bolivarian socialism; president of Venezuela, and yet-to-be-certified crackpot.

I suspect no one would pay much attention to Chávez if he had confined his Cuban-inspired fascist policies within the borders of Venezuela. After all, if the people of Venezuela elect a president who takes away their free press and restricts their economic and political freedoms, who are we to tell them that he doesn't even make the trains run on time.

Of course, he didn't stop there. Like most bully dictators, he picks on his neighbors: Colombia, in his case, by funding narco guerrillas. And then tries to use his big economic tool, oil, to get his neighbors to follow his bidding.

There have been victories. Honduras's Congress and Supreme Court told Chávez's buddy and authoritarian-wannabe, President Manuel Zelaya, that he would probably be happier pursuing a career in time share sales in Nicaragua.

The question is whether there will be enough left of Venezuela's civil society to move on to another government when the majority tires of Chávez. Venezuela's economy is beginning to suffer in the same way Cuba's economy has suffered -- from the imposition of economic principles that simply do not work.

But why should a blog centered around Mexico care what Chávez does?

Because Mexico came very close to becoming a Chávez ally. Three years ago, the Mexican presidential candidate who came in second was a strong supporter of Chávez. The fact that his party almost self-destructed in July's election is some comfort. But the July victors (the PRI) bear watching.

Before they were sent into the political wilderness, the PRI had a rather authoritarian streak. It is the successor party of the coalition that came out on the winning side in the Mexican Revolution, and had the honor of introducing the losers to the honor of a firing squad death.
They took the revolution part of their name very seriously. These are people who thought the Soviet Union had a good thing going.

In the 70s they traded ideology for old-fashioned corruption. That is what eventually lost them the presidency two elections in a row.

And now the party will be back in power in Congress in December.

The chances are extremely good that the PRI will take the same route as President Lula. They will support leftist policies, but they will rely on liberal democratic principles to get there. And that is what they say they are going to do.

If so, we should all wish them Godspeed.


Felipe said...

Unfortunately, Mexico supports Manuel Zelaya.

Diego said...

Good to know you keep up with Mexican politcs, Steve! I was happy to see the PRD self-destruct and Lopez Obrador's sphere of influence contract. Yet, Mexican politics is full of phoenixes that can be reborn from ashes. A good example is the PRI. I think calling its government an "authoritarian streak" is putting it mildly. A 70-year corrupt single-party government is more than that. However, after two overwhelming defeats they are now back on top. I think it will be interesting to see how they redefine themselves as they try to occupy the spaces lost by the PRD, woo the upper and middle class that give PAN its strength, and position themselves towards the 2012 presidential elections.

Ruth said...

My first reaction was, wow, he reads The Economist and even remembered to italicize the title of the publication. I am not really up on politics in Latin America, politics at home keep me aggravated enough. It is good to be reminded of what is happening elsewhere as everything becomes interconnected.

Arnie said...

I also applaud you for following Mexican politics. You may not get the amount of replies that you get when the subject is "what I am going to eat this morning" but I am sure your readership is just as high. The answers are a little more complex and won't be found on the top of your shoes.

FWIW, Mexican politics is a major reason my parents decided it was easier to raise a family as Mexican Americans. For those that have left the North for political serenity and clarity, you have seen nothing yet. Disengaged corruption, maybe. Systematic, total corruption that is designed to keep you down, stick around. It is coming. Gringo pricing is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to double standards. In Mexico, you are either a "have" or "have not" and that philosophy comes directly from the top.

For those American Mexicans that have decided to fully embrace all things Mexican, no problem you say, I just have to pick a side and it is pretty easy to figure out not a lot of people are going to voluntarily pick the "have not" side. However, it gets a little harder when you have to pick between these two. Plata o Plomo. Three words you never want to hear but unfortunately those who have lived in Mexico for a long time have learned to fear. Now that you have some flesh in the game, such as in laws, those three words mean a whole lot than to someone who can bounce back across the border leaving only behind material possessions. Not directed to you Steve, you are an extended stay tourist. And that in itself is not a bad thing.

Mexican politics is a subject that Mexican Americans NOB keep a very close eye on. For those who want to go back, it is just a matter of timing. The manana attitude actually works in this case because making a move in the last few years would have been a little premature (given the recent elections). For those that don't want to go back, it is just justification to keep your nose to the grindstone.

As I have alluded to, as a Mexican American I am more than curious of the workings down south (thru your blog and others) when the roles have been reversed. You seem to keep yourself well educated and informed. Just when things start blowing up around you, it might be a good idea to look elsewhere. Just friendly advice. Your mileage may vary of course.


Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- I know. As does the misguided American Sate Department.

Diego -- The PRI is going to have a tall order to accomplish anything during the next three years. The general belef is that they are simply going to be as much of an impediment as they can to the president to maximize their chances to regain the presidency. They do have the whip now, with no accountability.

Ruth -- If Mexican politics reverts to its old post-1970s ways, the United States will see reactions. If it reverts to its 1930s ways, Mexicans will pay a terrible price.

Arnie -- And I am going to keep an eye out -- just like you. For some of the same reasons.

Inmigrante Rentista said...

A very smart friend once wrote - -
"The Mexican Constitution refers to us as "foreigners." The eccentricities of guests are usually tolerated by a host. Political activity (especially, interfering in economic matters of the state) will not be. No sense in inadvertantly winning the Porfirio Diaz travel package. The road to deportation is paved with good intentions. And some developer is just waiting to fill in the pot holes."

Steve Cotton said...

Immigrante Rentista -- You are very correct that the Mexican Constitution defines us as "foreigners." And foreigners we are. Mexican authorities have also been very tolerant of political discussions as opposed to political activity. As an example, several American leftist students were deported on their way to my little town because they had marched in an anti-airport, pro-labor rally in Mexico City. The people who strictly construe the constitutional proscription against political activity are also those who believe that all activity is political. But you are wise to advise caution.

Anonymous said...

Pity the schoolchildren of Venezuela. It's quite clear that the "Bolivarians" can neither do math, nor understand economics.

And with store shelves bare, and active disincentives to fill them, it's only a matter of time before the Venezuelans turf out their "dear leader."

Meanwhile, despite the current economic woes (which can certainly be laid at the doorstep of the USA, more specifically the Federal Reserve), Mexico is enjoying perhaps its longest stretch ever of peace and relative prosperity, with no financial crisis. I don't know how the PRI runs successfully against that.

But then who thought an ex-KGB would be "elected" president of Russia after Yeltsin?

Alas, everywhere electorates seem to have very short memories.


Kim G
Boston, MA
A single-party state where you are free to vote for the unopposed Democratic candidate for whatever.

Anonymous said...

You do realize that Chavez is to be congratulated, yes? First, he survived a US-sponsored coup attempt (which is enough to make us like the guy)...secondly, he survives the daily VOA (that's Voice of America for the un-annointed) barrage of nonstop foreign-monied propaganda that pours into his cities and villages on a daily basis; and lastly, how can we criticize someone who actually believes in returning taxpayer money to the public? It's beautiful...

Steve Cotton said...

Anonymous -- Nice to see that Venezuela has its agents on the prowl these days. But sycophancy is probably not the best desfense for tinhorn fascistts like Chavez. First, even though the United States (and the rest of the free world) would have been delighted if the local insurrection against Chavez had succeeded (just as it would have been had their been popular uprisings against Mussolini or Hitler), it clearly was not sponsored by the United States. Dictators simply cannot admit that they sometimes are not popular despite their affectations. Second, VOA is about as propaganda-oriented as the BBC. The Chavez response, of course, is to shut down the local press that criticizes him. That recipe was used in Germany and Italy. Why not Venezuela? Third, stealing money from one group of people and giving it to another is what we usually call theft. The fact that it is tarted up in class warfare rhetoric does not change the fact that Chavez is wrecking the economic future of his country -- and he is doing it for his own selfish reasons. Have you no shame in attempting to defend this man?

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- Venezuela is taking leap after leap going from a democratic thuggery to an authoritarian asylum to a totalitarian prison. While there is still an opportunity, I hope the Venezuelans jam on the brakes -- if it is not already too late.

Anonymous said...

Funny how quickly the Right is to discard the fact that Venezuela enjoys a thoroughly democractic electoral process and enjoys a popularity unseen by any US president (including Obama). Comparisons to Hitler, Steve? Embarrassing. It's funny how much this is rearing it's ugly head lately... The Right is even trying to compare Obama to Hitler these days. Bush, who has actually invaded a foreign country, can indeed be more closely linked to Hitler than Chavez, who at his best can be faulted for wanting to provide for his people, and at his worst is guilty of nationalizing his country's oil infrastructure (which, of course, is the thing that led us to attempt the coup against Chavez, and in the same sense, led Bush to reclaim the losses suffered during Iraq's nationalization efforts under Saddam).

Steve Cotton said...

As the other Marx brother said: time will tell.

Felipe said...

To anon: Steve puts his name on his opinions. Opinions should have names attached.

Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- Thanks. I was going to make the same point in my comment to Anonymous's first post. The line between polemic and parody is narrow. It would be nice to know the author to help us all make the call.