[A] very good way to judge a political leader is by what he leaves behind, and so far the tumult and mismanagement in Venezuela does not speak in Chávez’s favor. Instead, it seems as if recent Venezuelan history, often so farcical, were attempting to replay itself, and ending up as tragedy instead.
For what it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts on the de-institutionalization of the Chávez regime—and its consequences.
It would be useful if those who uncritically praised Chávez would read some of the history of other populist regimes, whether Peronism in Argentina or Nasserism in Egypt, of the 1950s. What was said about the “progressive” nature of those regimes then? What is said of them now?
The sad reality is that “revolutionary” regimes in developing countries have been used by Westerners—on the right and left—as proxies for their own internal domestic ideological disputes. In the end, the critiques descend into “it’s all about me” (look at the comments on to the above linked piece, and see how quickly they descend into name calling about left/right stereotypes of Americans). For those of us looking in at this debate from the outside, it rings hollow. At least those on the right are defending their interests. But those on the left? Using the very real, lived history of other people as backdrop for anecdotes in abstract disputes—without bothering to actually learn about the actual “facts on the ground”—is remarkably disingenuous. I get a clear sense that, deep down inside, most Western Chávez supporters don’t really care about the Venezuelan people and their issues—they care about what chavismo as a “brand” does for them.
But here’s a link to the PDF of the IAD’s weekly Latin American Advisor newsletter with my comments, as well as those by Carlos Mesa (former Bolivian president), Kathryn Ledebur (director of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network), and Iván Rebolledo (president of Bolivian-American Chamber of Commerce).
I was asked to comment on the recent announcement by Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, to expel USAID from Bolivia on WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR affiliate) for their midday Worldview program. It was a pleasant conversation, and you can listen to the podcast here (when it’s available). But I wanted to flesh out some of my main points (some of which I didn’t get to pursue adequately).
1) US Secretary of State John Kerry used a poor choice of words when he referred to Latin America as “America’s backyard.” To be fair, the full context of the statement referred to reviving US interests in the region. But because he used the term “backyard” rather than “neighbor”—and in particular because of how that term has been used in the past—it came off as offensive. Morales made sure to mention Kerry’s statement in his own May Day announcement.
2) Morales made the announcement on May Day. Since his first May Day as president (in 2006), Morales has used the event to announce a major policy program or the nationalization of a significant industry. But after eight years, there’s no much left to nationalize. This was a good substitute. Besides, he’s been threatening to expel USAID for years (he previously expelled the DEA and the Peace Corps, as well as the US ambassador), so in many ways it was simply a question of when.
3) Morales is preparing to run for a (constitutionally dubious) third term as president. That means that he’s in campaign mode and couldn’t let May Day pass without a major announcement. The US is not particularly popular in Bolivia, and making nationalist and anti-imperialist pronouncements are always popular moves.
4) USAID has a long history of involvement in Bolivia, working in development projects. In the 1980s, this began to include democratization and civil society projects. And in recent decades, USAID projects have tended to be smaller in scope and decentralized. So while the 1960s USAID model was to fund large infrastructure projects (the airport in El Alto was a USAID project), recently it has funded grass roots organizations and smaller projects (if you’re drinking Bolivian fair trade organic coffee today, thank USAID). But this means that a lot of grass roots organizations have ties to USAID and are trained in “political” skills like advocacy, organization, promotion, etc. In particular, Morales has been upset that environmentalist organizations (with either direct or indirect links to USAID) have recently challenged many of his government’s big development projects (such as the TIPNIS highway).
Overall, I think this is a combination of several factors that can’t easily be addressed. US-Bolivian relations (at least in terms of rhetoric and public perception) are too far frayed to resolve quickly or easily. The seeds of this run deep and stem from US support for the military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s to heavy-handed US-led coca eradication campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s. US diplomats have to be very careful and avoid any missteps.
But there’s also a critical problem of perception from Morales himself, both about what the US is “doing” in Bolivia and what the proper role of development assistance is. If the argument is that Bolivia should not depend on foreign donor assistance, then this is difficult to sustain. Bolivia is more self-sufficient than it was in the past, but “international cooperation” (as it’s locally called) plays a key role in the country’s development strategy. International donor countries (and organizations) tend to prefer to retain some oversight and not just hand wads of cash to recipient countries. That’s understandable. Morales will have a tough time convincing any donor country/agency/organization to simply hand over money earmarked for development programs and not allow some degree of “interference.”
The second problems is that international donors today take a much more holistic approach to development. This is true for USAID as well. The old model was that a foreign agency would show up, drill a water well, and walk away. Today, the approach is different. The agency will help the local community discuss their problems, establish a policy process, and use the water well as a way to help build social capital. Today, economic and social development goals go hand in hand with democratization goals. This means that development aid is “political” in the sense that it encourages grass roots organizations to take an active role in determining and defending their interests. Some of the “graduates” of these programs may very well go on to challenge political authority structures (either at the local, regional, or national level).
Does that mean that these programs are “politically subversive”? Yes. Of course they are. Socioeconomic development is by its nature subversive. If we increase a community’s literacy, it becomes more educated, which makes it more politically aware. Studies regularly demonstrate that higher educated, healthier, wealthier people (those with more resources) are more likely to participate in politics. Any development project that improves the socioeconomic conditions of local people by its nature alters the political landscape.
The real underlying problem, of course, is that Morales is trying to build a hegemonic political project. It’s why he wants to run for a third consecutive term. Allowing grass roots organizations independent access to resources makes them a threat to such a project. It’s much easier to keep local organizations in line (whether you call it co-option or coercion is irrelevant, if you’re looking at the behavioral results) if they depend on state resources.
So that’s the real dilemma. Morales won’t allow USAID to return to Bolivia so long as it is involved in promoting pluralist visions of democracy. And the modern development paradigm inherently seeks to promote pluralist democracy.
President Evo Morales acted on a longtime threat Wednesday and expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development for allegedly seeking to undermine Bolivia’s leftist government, and he harangued Washington’s top diplomat for calling the Western Hemisphere his country’s “backyard.
I was going to comment on this. But I’ve been asked to do so on NPR affiliate WBEZ’s Worldview tomorrow. So I’m going to hold off until after that. Plus, I want to get my thoughts together on this.