"The real difference between countries today is not how [Hugo] Chávez would like us to believe that there are “Right” countries and “Left” countries, but rather between countries that are drawing investments and countries that are scaring investments away. And the country that is attracting the most investment in the developing world is a communist country, China. That drove [Chavistas] crazy. That’s why Chávez spent one of his speeches lashing out against me."
-- Andres Oppenheimer, Latin America expert and author of Saving the Americas: The Dangerous Decline of Latin America and What the U.S. Must Do
I have one quibble with Andres Oppenheimer's brilliant analysis, which I feature in full later in this post.
I think the Leftist tilt in certain Latin American countries does not only reflect an anachronistic view of government; it also reflects a backlash against the elites in those countries who abused neoliberal economic policies, which include an acceptance of virtually unlimited foreign investment.
Yes, it's throwing the baby out with the bath water to throw out foreign investment, but some Latin American governments were falling because they couldn't translate the benefits of foreign investment into perceivable gains for the majority.
The excuse was that it would take time for the benefits to trickle down. But when an a powerful elite backed by de facto military rule controls the government, and blocks programs that would allow the majority to see some benefits of foreign investment, a Leftist backlash is inevitable.
Oppenheimer mentions Poland, but Poland and other developing countries set to join the European Union got tremendous help from the EU while they struggled to apply various aspects of neoliberal policies. Latin American countries such as Venezuela did not receive such help.
US policy toward the poorest Latin American countries must recognize that such countries are not Britain or the United States, where the introduction of Thatcher and Reagan economics, which are reflected in neoliberalism, was softened by a large middle class and strong liberal democracy.
In 2005 a reader sent me a report about a group that was making inroads at converting the 'natives' to Islam in a particular Latin American country. The name of the country escapes me at this moment but the point is that the report noted that the natives in that country were so downtrodden that they could not even step on the same sidewalk used by descendents of the Spanish conquerors.
When citizens are greatly malnourished and see no way possible to ever move up in their society, don't expect them to say, 'Okay, we'll just tighten our belts through this rough patch while foreign investment trickles down to us.'
And that is a big difference between China and the poorest Latin American countries, a difference which Oppenheimer's analysis ignores. Yes, Beijing encourages foreign investment, but they are also very careful to encourage upward mobility for the impoverished masses, and to hurl government resources at their worst-hit economic regions.
All that said, Oppenheimer is on target when he argues that the Left-Right framing of politics ignores the realities of this era. Today, it comes down to how well a government does governing. That includes getting up the gumption to read the riot act to the elite -- a point I pounded home in my 2005 rant Why Vicente Fox is going straight to hell.
If they put you in power, that doesn't excuse them being so greedy they risk touching off a Leftist revolution. A leader has to stand up to an elite that's gone that far around the bend, even if he's scared they'll bump him off. He has to capitalize on the fact that he has a majority at his back, and sell that point to the military.
Part of standing up is figuring ways to temper the long agonizing wait for the benefits of foreign investment to trickle down. This is not rocket science, for crying out loud.
Now to Andres Oppenheimer's discussion with Foreign Policy, which throws much light on Hugo Chavez's problems at this time.
Foreign Policy: Why do you think Venezuelans rejected Hugo Chávez’s proposed changes to the constitution?
Andres Oppenheimer: Conflict fatigue. About 40 percent of the Venezuelan population was opposing Chávez to begin with, and many of the others who supported Chávez were tired of his habit of picking fights—daily—with anybody who came across him. If it wasn’t the Catholic Church, it was the businesspeople; if it wasn’t the businesspeople, it was the students; if it wasn’t the students, it was the United States; if it wasn’t the United States, it was the king of Spain; if it wasn’t the king of Spain, it was the president of Colombia. And the Chávez supporters just got fed up with this polarization.
FP: How much of a factor was his failure to make good on his promises to cut poverty?
AO: There’s no question that many Venezuelans thought it a bit of a contradiction for Chávez to be talking about creating a socialist state when there were shortages of basics foodstuffs such as milk in Venezuelan stores. And there was also a lot of resentment among Chávez supporters for him to be spending billions of dollars helping what he calls “alternative Bolivarian movements” throughout Latin America. A lot of people sent him a message saying, “Why don’t you focus on your own country?”
FP: In your book, Saving the Americas: The Dangerous Decline of Latin America . . . and What the U.S. Must Do, you describe how and why Latin America, including Venezuela, has been so unsuccessful at fighting poverty. What was Chávez’s response to your argument?
AO: I wrote the book to find out why poverty has been reduced by half across the world during the past 25 years and why this phenomenon has happened almost everywhere but Latin America. That’s why I went to China, to India, to Ireland, to the Czech Republic, to Poland, among other places. One of the main things I discovered is that [economic development] doesn’t have anything to do with ideology.
The real difference between countries today is not how Chávez would like us to believe that there are “Right” countries and “Left” countries, but rather between countries that are drawing investments and countries that are scaring investments away. And the country that is attracting the most investment in the developing world is a communist country, China. That drove [Chavistas] crazy. That’s why Chávez spent one of his speeches lashing out against me.
In Beijing, they are putting out a red carpet for foreign investors, whereas in Latin America, many presidents are going out to the balcony and yelling against foreign investors. [In my book], I tell the story of when I arrived in China, and the first thing I read in the [local] paper was that the entire Chinese government was celebrating the arrival of the board of directors of McDonald’s, who were there to announce the opening of 400 restaurants in China. I had just come from Venezuela, where the Chávez government had just suspended McDonald’s restaurants for three days for some phony tax investigation and the government was taking pride in “teaching foreign capitalists a lesson.”
FP: Do you think this rejection at the polls will harm his reputation and popularity in the region?
AO: Chávez’s reputation in the region has never been very high. In the region when he’s polled, he scores at the very bottom of the list, alongside President Bush, and only second-to-last before Fidel Castro. He has strong support among very vocal, radical, leftist support groups, but his base is not widespread. I think it will embolden opposition forces in Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia who will now feel that there’s nothing irreversible about radical leftist leaders who win democratic elections and try to erode democracy from within.
Chávez is down, but not out by any means. He still controls the presidency, Congress, the military, 20 of 22 governorships, and much of the media. If this is a boxing match, he lost the round but by no means did he lose the match itself.
FP: You’ve spent a good deal of time comparing Latin America to the rest of the world. One easy comparison I see is between Chávez and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both are semiauthoritarians who are ruling petrostates; both are hostile to the United States. Yet on the same day, they had very different electoral results. What do you make of this?
AO: Well Chávez’s concession was not a trial of his democratic instincts, although one has to be happy that Venezuelan press reports today are talking about the fact the military high command told Chávez to accept his defeat. he conceded. He delayed the announcement for about seven hours in Venezuela, and according to a government-sanctioned monitoring group, the opposition victory was larger than officially reported. So we shouldn’t rush to celebrate Chávez’s sudden conversion into a Jeffersonian democrat.
In Putin’s case, he uses the same methods Chávez uses in Venezuela: massive uses of public resources; control of much of the media. There’s not such a huge difference. [But] Putin may be focusing more on Russia and the Russian people than Chávez is focusing on the Venezuelan people. A lot of Chávez supporters resented the fact that he spends most of his time in Saudi Arabia and Iran, talking about the world revolution when they want bread and butter.
FP: You’ve written about the much-discussed wave of neopopulism in Latin America and said it is misunderstood. What do you think an election result like this says about this so-called populist wave, if anything?
AO: Well, that’s the key question. Of course I’m worried about Chávez, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa scaring away investments and making the countries poor, but that’s not the key issue in Latin America; because if you put all these countries together—Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua—they barely amount to 8 or 9 percent of Latin America’s GDP. U.S. officials and we in the press love to write about Chávez because he screams and yells and is colorful and insults everybody and he makes great copy. But the real story of Latin America is being written elsewhere: in Mexico; in Brazil; in Colombia; in Chile.
What really worries me about Latin America’s future is that we’re falling behind in education, science, technology, and research and development. If you look at all the international standardized tests for kids, Latin America has among the lowest scores in the world. When you look at the London Times’s ranking of the world’s 200 best universities, this year only three Latin American universities are among the world’s [top] 200 and they’re all between 195 and 200. This is scandalous. And it’s because, when the rest of the developing world is moving rapidly to create more skilled workforces, Latin America is talking ideology.
Look at Chávez. He speaks to the nation every day in front of a huge painting of Simón Bolívar. He changed the country to name it after Simón Bolívar. In every speech, he cites Bolívar as inspiration for every single measure he takes. The trouble is that Bolívar died in 1830—four years before the invention of the telephone and 150 years before the invention of the Internet.
FP: Do you think then that a lot of people who are agitating for democratic ideals would be better off if they channeled all of their anger and resentment toward Chávez and people like him into issues like education?
AO: When it comes to his opponents in the United States, I think Washington should bypass Chávez. Instead of focusing on Chávez and responding to him, Washington should build bridges with Brazil, with Mexico, with Colombia, with Chile, with Peru and simply ignore Chávez. If Washington is really serious and really worried about Chávez, the thing it should do is be serious about reducing America’s dependence on imported oil. The United States is financing Chávez. We buy $34 billion a year worth of Venezuelan oil. That’s what keeps Chávez alive. Ironically, the United States is financing Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution.
Andrés Oppenheimer is the author of “The Oppenheimer Report,” a prize-winning column on Latin American affairs in the Miami Herald, and Saving the Americas: The Dangerous Decline of Latin America . . . and What the U.S. Must Do (New York: Random House, 2007).