11 - 17 July 2002
Issue No. 594
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
But can they afford it?Not content with destabilising several Latin American economies the US is spearheading more political interventions, writes Hisham El-Naggar from Buenos Aires
Is democracy finished in Latin America? The question does not arise among the majority of Latin Americans. Though many Latin Americans believe that their governments are corrupt and inefficient, very few think that this means that democracy has failed in the region.
The fact is, elections work in Latin America. Candidates may concentrate excessively on the inconsequential details of 'image-building', a pursuit that makes for irritating theatricals, but elections are never boring. The two front-runners often have different ideas and, yes, even ideologies. I would be hard pushed to say the same of some of the European elections we have seen lately.
As it turns out, Latin America -- and that includes both what foreign media condescendingly call 'success stories' and 'failed states' -- has by no means accepted such internationally sacrosanct notions as free trade and globalisation. The reason for this is that these concepts have been tried in this part of the world and the results have ranged from unencouraging to just plain disastrous.
Hence, at least once in a while, a candidate whom the corporate media label 'unfathomable', perhaps even a 'populist' and a 'utopian', can make it uncomfortably close to the top of the opinion polls. Two such figures -- Inacio Silva da Lula and Elisa Carrio of Brazil and Argentina respectively -- have done just that.
And that is one reason why some non-Latin Americans, especially those with commercial or financial interests in the region, may think democracy a singularly bad idea for this part of the world. The renowned George Soros has warned that economic doom awaits Brazil should it opt for Lula.
Soros' statement was received as a verbal trampling over Brazilian national pride and seems to have instigated a popular groundswell of support for Lula.
A similar mistake was made by Manuel Rocha, the US ambassador in Bolivia when he chose to inform the press that, should the Bolivians elect Evo Morales, the representative of the peasants and a one-time coca leaves cultivator, they could kiss US aid goodbye. Of course, he was telling the truth and not everybody thinks that restoring coca cultivation will solve Bolivia's problems. But ambassadors are not supposed to make partial statements about candidates. Would the representative of the same power have opened his heart quite so effusively on the subject of political contenders for office in Canada or Europe?
The fact is, such careless talk is proving counterproductive. Lula's standing in the polls has improved while the US ambassador to Bolivia's undiplomatic faux-pas has considerably boosted Evo Morales.
This brings to mind the mother of all faux-pas when US Ambassador Sprouille Braden attacked Juan Domingo Peron during Argentina's 1945 election. That attack allowed Peron to present himself as a nationalist leader and sweep the election.
It is not a matter of overwhelming national pride. Most people, however modest and unassuming, have a way of resenting foreign meddling in their national affairs. Diplomats and international businessmen have many functions to fulfill -- telling locals how to vote is not one of them.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that Latin America should be so misunderstood by those who seek to represent foreign interests there. The triumphalist mood espoused by the advocates of unremitting globalisation, endless announcements about the end of history and the assumption that ideological debates are a waste of time might silence most critics in those parts of the world where the growth of prosperity has been achieved without compromising too much in social terms. That has not been the case in Latin America.
Nor are Latin Americans the least bit reticent when it comes to posing ideological questions to their own, so often bitterly disappointing reality. Violence may be what foreign correspondents think makes good copy back home, but there is much more to the debate than violence. Indeed, the most serious candidates posing a challenge to international orthodoxy are usually unflinching in condemning violence.
Argentina's Elisa Carrio was particularly adamant about rejecting violence in the aftermath of demonstrations that ended in the tragic death of two young protesters. She, like Lula, believes there is an alternative to violence. Both of these figures, who make international financiers so uncomfortable, think they can compete for office in elections. What is more, they believe they can win.
It is precisely the sturdiness of the Latin American democratic model that has allowed it to withstand the many odds stacked against it while continuing its struggle for a non-violent resolution of Latin America's pressing problems. It may well be that Lula and Carrio miserably fail in solving these problems. But that is something for their compatriots to decide. It is not for the likes of George Soros to prejudge the issue.
There was a time when rich countries used to argue that poorer ones cannot 'afford' democracy. The Third World's great unwashed, according to such theories, just do not understand what democracy is all about. Speaking for Latin America, where people have debated, voted and often brought about a real change in the direction of policy, I beg to differ. The Peruvians who voted against Fujimori, the Mexicans who ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party decades-long monopoly on power and others in the same mould seem to understand very well what democracy is all about.
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time