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Misery in the Name of Democracy


The Bush Administration is touting Iraq’s December 15 election as a giant leap forward for freedom guaranteed to ignite fervor for democracy across the entire Middle East. But closer to home, the Administration has discovered that democracy has created a monster and that the monster is democracy. In Latin America and the Caribbean, popular movements are demanding that the United States’ “gift to the world” make good on its promise of majority rule. That would likely disrupt a system—otherwise known as “free-market democracy”—that has benefited a small elite and worsened poverty for most people. The possibility has so alarmed CIA Director Porter Goss that he recently labeled the spate of upcoming elections in Latin America as a “potential area of instability.”1

The Bush Administration is fighting back, stepping up USAID’s “democracy promotion” program to ensure that those who have long had a monopoly on wealth continue to exercise a monopoly on government. The program’s main targets in this hemisphere are Venezuela, Bolivia, and Haiti.2 National elections in these countries—all occurring within just one month of the Iraqi ballot—provide a flashpoint for how hard the Bush Administration is working to keep democracy out of the wrong hands, both in this hemisphere and in Iraq.

Venezuela

On December 4, Venezuela’s main opposition parties chose to boycott congressional elections rather than face certain defeat at the polls. In 2002, these same pro-business parties—financed directly by the US National Endowment for Democracy to the tune of about six million dollars a year—resorted to a military coup to oust Hugo Chavez from the presidency.3 The coup failed in less than two days because millions of Venezuelans (including the lower ranks of the army) rallied to Chavez’s defense. Most Venezuelans continue to defend-and vote for-Chavez and his brand of participatory, bottom-up democracy, which has mobilized millions of citizens in national dialogues on governance, produced the region’s most democratic constitution (written in gender-inclusive language recognizing women’s unpaid work and guaranteeing a pension to housewives), launched an ambitious land-reform program, and improved rates of illiteracy, hunger, and infant mortality.

At last month’s Summit of the Americas in Argentina, Chavez was a lightning rod for widespread opposition to US-driven economic policies that have further impoverished most Latin Americans. Afterwards, Bush accused him of trying to “roll back democratic progress.”4 Yet, most of the world seems quite impressed with Venezuela’s democratic progress, even by the rather narrow standard of elections. Indeed, all eight elections held in Venezuela under Chavez have been declared free and fair by independent observers, including Jimmy Carter.

This is precisely the problem: despite the opposition’s extensive US backing, it can’t beat Chavez at the polls. Democracy just isn’t working (says the only US president to be appointed by the Supreme Court after losing the popular vote). For decades, Venezuela was controlled by two alternating elite parties, both allied with US business interests (sound familiar?). Most of the population was effectively disenfranchised and elections could be counted on to confer legitimacy on a compliant leadership. Now, Venezuela’s poor majority has seized on the rhetoric and procedures of democracy to win control of the state. This is what the Bush Administration calls a crisis of democracy.

Bolivia

Bolivia is suffering from a similar crisis. When Bolivians go to the polls on December 18, they are likely to elect Evo Morales to be their first Indigenous President.5 Morales is a social democrat whom the Bush Administration vilifies as a radical leftist and the US Ambassador compared to Osama bin Laden. But Morales’ platform is extreme only if you consider policies that guarantee mass poverty and vast inequality to be moderate. His platform reflects the Bolivian social movements’ demand for increased government regulation of natural resources and the formation of a popular Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution that would make government more inclusive.

Apparently incredulous that Indigenous peasants could be strategic and organized enough to overthrow two presidents in two years (Gonzalo Sanchez in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in 2005), Donald Rumsfeld says that Hugo Chavez must be pulling the strings in Bolivia.6 Yet, it is the Bush Administration that has meddled openly in Bolivian politics since the Indigenous movement rose to prominence in 2002. That year, the Administration publicly threatened to cut off economic aid if Bolivians elected Morales. Since then, the US has steadily expanded its “democracy promotion” efforts in Bolivia, pouring millions of tax dollars into building a parallel, pro-US Indigenous movement and turning out public relations campaigns for a series of doomed, US-friendly governments.7

As in Venezuela, US “democracy promotion” in Bolivia supports a limited notion of representative government enacted by pro-business elites over more direct participation in government by the poor majority. The big headache for the Administration is that Bolivia’s Indigenous-based social movement is playing by the rules, working within the system to gain more legitimate representation within government.

Haiti

Two weeks ago, Haiti postponed its presidential election for the fourth time in five months. With the vote now set for January 8, the Interim Government (installed by the US after it helped overthrow Haiti’s democratically-elected President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, in February 2004) will hold on to power past its February 2006 deadline (just imagine if Hugo Chavez tried that). Regardless of when elections are held, conditions in Haiti make a mockery of democratic process. Yet the Bush Administration has demanded that elections go forth.

Secretary of State Rice has hailed Haiti’s election as “a precious step on the road to democracy.”8 But look closely. Haitians are being denied the right to vote: only a few hundred registration and polling sites have been created to serve eight million people (compared with 10,000 provided by the deposed Aristide government) and some large, poor neighborhoods—with few government supporters—have no registration sites at all.9 Haitians are being denied the right to campaign: the government’s potential challengers have been jailed on false charges or no charges. And Haitians are being denied the right to organize: in September, the government outlawed political demonstrations in violation of Haiti’s constitution; and anti-government protesters have been repeatedly attacked by the Haitian National Police. The Bush Administration fueled this repression by sending $1.9 million worth of guns and police equipment to Haiti just in time for election season.10

In fact, repression is the Haitian government’s primary campaign strategy. Since 1990, every internationally-validated election in Haiti has produced a landslide victory for the Lavalas Party. Once the standard-bearer of Haiti’s pro-democracy movement, Lavalas—like its exiled leader, Aristide—is a casualty of US “democracy promotion.” After US-backed forces ousted Aristide, the party splintered into factions, including unaccountable and violent groups. Despite its flawed human rights record, Lavalas would no doubt win again in January if its candidates were allowed to run. The reason is simple: Lavalas is the party of the poor and most Haitians are poor.

Far from supporting constitutional democracy in Haiti, the US has twice helped to overthrow Aristide, who resisted Washington’s prescriptions for Haiti’s economy by insisting on social spending for the poor. The first time, back in 1991, “regime change” was still a covert business. The US had to deny that it was sponsoring the military thugs that took over Haiti and killed thousands of Aristide supporters (and poor people in general, just for good measure). By last year, when Aristide was ousted for the second time, things had changed. A Pentagon plane flew him into exile. The US warmly welcomed the “new” government, including remnants of the 1991 coup who are poised to win next month’s sham election.

Democracy in Iraq: The Freedom to Do What We Tell You

The first fact of Iraq’s election is that it will take place under the distorting influence of military occupation, precluding a free and fair vote from the start. Iraq’s “march toward liberty” has been marred by US intervention at every step, starting with Paul Bremmer’s 2003 decision to appoint reactionary clerics to the Iraqi Governing Council. That move has helped Islamists dominate Iraq’s interim government and roll back the democratic rights of Iraqi women-a majority of the population.

In fact, the Bush Administration has no intention of allowing a majority of Iraqis to determine key policies. The Administration has tried to avoid holding direct (one person, one vote) elections in Iraq, giving in only because of pressure from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a Shiite cleric who wants Iraq to be an Islamic state. And Bush’s two most important objectives in Iraq—creating an extreme free-market state and maintaining a long-term military presence—have been placed well beyond the reach of Iraqi voters.

As in Haiti, democracy in Iraq is to be mainly a procedural matter, demonstrated by periodic elections regardless of political chaos and widespread violence against candidates and voters alike. And as in Venezuela and Bolivia, the government that is produced by the elections will be entitled to the label “democracy” only as long as it follows a US policy script.

In 1819 Simón Bolívar observed that, “The USA appears destined by fate to plague America with misery in the name of democracy.” The Bush Administration is intent on extending this destiny to Iraq and the whole Middle East. Iraqis may be having an election this week, but the Bush Administration is no more interested in genuine democracy in Iraq than it is in Latin America and the Caribbean.

By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Communications Director


End Notes

  1. Dan Glaister, “Bush Isolation: Elections Likely to Bring New Alliances and Governments that Defy Old Ideological Labels,” The Guardian, 14 November 2005.
  2. Tom Barry, “Transitioning Venezuela,” Americas Program, International Relations Center, 9 December 2005, http://americas.irc-online.org/am/2977.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Michael A. Fletcher, “In Brazil, Bush Continues Trade Push,” Washington Post, 7 November 2005, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/06/AR2005110600636.html.
  5. John Pilger, “America’s New Enemy,” New Statesman, 11 November 2005, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/print.php?artno=1600.
  6. “US warns of Bolivian interference,” BBC News, 17 August 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4158998.stm.
  7. Reed Lindsay, “Exporting Gas and Importing Democracy in Bolivia,” NACLA, November/December 2005, http://www.nacla.org/art_display_printable.php?art=2603
  8. Larry Birns and John Kozyn, “Haiti – and You Call This an Election?” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 11 October 2005, http://www.coha.org/NEW_PRESS_RELEASES/
    New_Press_Releases_2005/05.106_Haiti_and_you_call_this_an_election.html
  9. Brian Concannon Jr., “‘Electoral Cleansing’ in Haiti Violates Human Rights and Democracy,” International Relations Center, 29 September 2005, http://americas.irc-online.org/am/816
  10. Marjorie Cohen, “US Pulls the Strings in Haiti,” truthout, 29 September 2005, http://www.truthout.org/docs_2005/092905I.shtml

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