On Sunday, Venezuela goes to the polls. The likely triumph of Hugo Chávez, writes Daniel Hannan, reflects a phenomenon sweeping Latin America that feeds not on hope but on hatred
There aren’t really any proper dictators left in South America, but Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is getting close. His first attempt at power was through an old-fashioned putsch. When this failed, he tried the ballot box, winning a more or less free election in 1998. Once in office, he quickly set about undoing the democratic system that had got him there. Previously autonomous institutions — parliament, the judiciary, the Catholic Church, employers’ federations, trade unions — were subverted. Private firms were expropriated, television stations obliged to broadcast approved programmes, and the constitution rewritten.
A proper caudillo, Chávez is authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad. He has a handful of overseas allies — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Muammar Gaddafi, Hu Jintao — but excoriates most foreign leaders as thieves, liars and dickheads. Yet on Sunday this chippy, belligerent ex-colonel expects to be re-elected with a landslide. His final election rally was a victory celebration, in which he dedicated his coming triumph to Castro, telling the roaring crowd, ‘Viva Cuba revolucionaria!’
Chávez has cause to be confident. He has stuffed the electoral commission with his placemen, commandeered chunks of the media and nationalised the company that runs the electronic voting system, thereby convincing many Venezuelans that their ballots will be identifiable.
Yet he would probably win anyway. His support owes something to the surge in oil revenues: as a Venezuelan aphorism has it, there are no good or bad presidents, just presidents when the oil price is high and when it is low. But Chávez’s success is not fuelled by petrol alone. A bigger tremor can be felt underfoot, pulsing through the entire continent.
Every recent South American election except Colombia’s has returned a Leftist demagogue. Not all Leftist demagogues are alike, of course. Some, such as Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, are quite respectable. Others are not. Bolivia’s Evo Morales won power earlier this year on a single-issue pro-coca platform and, once in, started nationalising everything in sight. Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner has filled the courts and armed forces with his cronies, rescheduled debt repayments and played shamelessly to anti-yanquismo.
These men are anti-politician politicians. They loathe the idea of free trade throughout the Americas, preferring to build up a South American bloc as a counterweight to Nafta. They want to repudiate foreign debt. They love large-scale public works schemes. Above all they portray themselves as men of the people who will break the old parties: chavists, as it were, in both the Venezuelan and the British sense.
Some of them have managed to pull this off despite having what the police call ‘previous’. Alan García was president of Peru in the late 1980s, throwing my native land into a squalor from which it has still not recovered. When he left office, inflation was at 7,649 per cent, per capita income was at a lower level than it had been in 1960 and the country was $900 million in debt. In June Peruvians decided they wanted him back. Daniel Ortega, the commander of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government during the Cold War, won his first democratic election four weeks ago. I met the old rogue on the eve of poll and found him still seething with resentment at his countrymen for failing to appreciate him in the 1980s.
Even Uruguay, the squarest kid on the block, has joined the tearaways. After 170 years in which power alternated between the Blanco (white) and Colorado (red) parties, it elected a socialist–communist coalition last year. On Sunday Ecuador completed the sweep, voting in a firebrand on the usual anti-Washington, anti-debt, anti-elite platform.
What is going on? It is not easy to find impartial commentary in Britain since, for some reason, Latin America is almost a monopoly for BBC types who spent their gap years on coffee collectives. The most recent opinion pieces I have seen here have been by Tariq Ali and Richard Gott, who, naturally enough, have a straightforward explanation for what is happening: Latin Americans are reacting against failed neo-liberal economics and US imperialism, the indigenous peoples are rising up against Whitey, blah blah.
There is something in their analysis. In Latin America, as in Europe, the end of the Soviet menace allowed people to indulge an anti-Americanism which is both ideological and visceral: disapproval of the Iraq war blends with a resentment of émigrés who throw their dollars about when visiting their home pueblos. It’s true, too, that many of the Centre-Right governments of the 1990s were ineffective and corrupt. Too many South American conservatives still see politics in the Left’s terms as a class struggle. This is partly because, as the Guardianistas point out, there is a racial component in the politics of many of these countries that hardly anyone mentions, but that everyone thinks about. Ethnic division is, indeed, a major factor in South America’s misgovernment, making voters want to stick up for ‘their’ candidate even when they can see that he is a crook.
Yet this is only part of the picture. What we are witnessing is the alarming sight of whole nations giving up on politics. For as long as they can remember, people have seen the democratic process run as a racket. And how better to show those sinvergüenzas what you think of them than by voting for the candidate who most visibly horrifies them? The one who has already tried to overthrow them in a coup, for example?
A series of opinion polls conducted last year showed that, across South America as a whole, 60 per cent of voters have no confidence in democracy. Is it any wonder, then, that they are relaxed when they see Chávez closing down his national assembly? Never mind that the poor are as poor as ever. They didn’t vote for him in the hope of economic betterment — they have long given up on that — but as a howl of rage.
Although few chavists are convinced democrats, they are usually concerned with what Rousseau would have called the general will of their peoples. They want to articulate their voters’ frustration but, being themselves in power, they cannot keep bashing the system at home. Hence their determination to pick fights with Washington and the IMF.
So South America’s structural flaws go unmended. Across the continent, the state does too much and too little. Too much in the sense that it seeks to run industries, own resources, dictate wages. Too little in that it fails to provide a system through which the individual can seek redress.
Only one government acknowledges the problem: that of Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, the region’s last untoppled domino, who has succeeded in strengthening property rights, reducing corruption (by reducing government activity and thus the opportunity for it) and attracting investment. The result? He was re-elected in May with 62 per cent of the vote, a margin that the chavists would kill for. Populism is not always the surest route to popularity.
Daniel Hannan is Conservative MEP for south-east England.