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Althea Campbell: Parachuting Democracy

Venezeula: Parachuting Democracy

By Althea Campbell

An article in the Washington Post “Dead air in Caracas” (reproduced by papers in New Zealand) puts a western perspective on the closing of the television station RCTV in that city, and indeed there has been a huge amount of publicity all over the world about that incident in the life of a developing country. It is difficult for people from different cultures to get a handle on what is really happening in Venezuela, but it is important to look further at the overall situation, not just for that country, but for all developing nations which are striving to survive in the modern world and progress their people out of poverty.

Where the West attempts to enforce or parachute its brand of democracy there are inevitable problems. Most countries, particularly in Africa where borders were artificially drawn by the 19th-century carve-up by European powers, have within their borders multiple ethnic groups with different cultures, different ways of seeing things and of governing themselves. The result is that people simply do not understand the Westminster notion of “loyal opposition” - accept defeat at the ballot box, work and wait for the next election. Instead a loss at the polls is often seen as a slight which has to be avenged.

This is why Venezuela’s system has a much greater chance of growing stability. It is “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” and gives people at all levels a say in how they are governed, which merely placing a voting paper in a box simply does not do.

Trouble is, wherever nations have brought in this more appropriate system they have been run down and told, “It’s not democracy”. The irony is that when the Palestinian people did vote “democratically” the US and Europe decided it was not good enough. Their sanctions have driven innocent citizens, already suffering deprivation and the destruction of their physical surroundings, into abject poverty and deep misery. No wonder the scramble to survive has erupted into fighting and worse.

Why doesn't the West leave people alone to get on with their lives? The answer of course is that in most cases it covets their resources. For long they have had free rein to pillage minerals and agricultural products to the detriment of local people. Now that in many places their leaders are taking steps to stem the flow by creating structures which give their own people a real part in their countries’ resources the West hits back - “It’s not democracy”.

In the case of Venezuela, whether or not RCTV was involved in the attempted coup in 2002, as asserted by President Chavez, the fact that some people tried to stage a coup rather than follow the democratic process, shows that being in opposition is not understood – a fact which can be exploited by outside powers who don’t approve of the incumbent government. It further undermines the US position of “democracy-promotion” when it rails against elected governments it doesn’t like and is not above supporting people who try to stage coups.

The RCTV debate obscures reality in other spheres. Julia Buxton is visiting professor at the Centre for Latin American Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She notes: “The economy is booming, country risk perceptions have fallen and despite the perception of antagonism, Venezuela remains north America's second most important regional trading partner, and the twelfth largest in global terms. There is a vibrant new community media and a highly combative and antagonistic opposition-controlled private-sector media – despite the dispute over the licensing (of RCTV).

“As for the ‘misiones’ (Chavez’s social policy programmes for the people) nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans receive some form of state-sponsored health care, education, housing assistance or food provisions. Poverty and critical poverty are on a downward trend and the World Bank has acknowledged that, “Venezuela has achieved substantial improvements in the fight against poverty.”

Polls by Datanalisis show that 64.7% of Venezuelans have a positive view of Chavez’s performance in office and are optimistic about the future. That Venezuelans have a different perception of democracy from the West is evidenced in another poll by Latinobarometro which shows satisfaction with their political system rose from 32% in 1998 to over 57%. 71% expressed confidence in elections as the most effective means of promoting change in the country.

This is because of the people’s positive experience of local governance. To quote Buxton again: “In 2006 legislation was introduced recognising community (i.e. grassroots) councils as a principle form of political organisation. The councils complement and bring coherence to the multiple networks of social organisations that deliver the misiones programmes and organise political activities, such as water committees, land committees, health committees, electoral battle-units and endogenous development groups. Based on 200 to 400 families in urban areas and twenty to thirty in rural settings, the councils are governed by citizens’ assemblies and their financial affairs overseen by public auditing processes. By the end of 2006, there were 16,000 communal councils across the country.”

This is true participatory democracy or governance by the people and is part of Chavez’s plan, which, while giving “enabling powers” to the executive as a means of introducing reforms in every field, is strongly nationalistic in influence and is driving the country towards the model of “21st-century socialism”, as distinct from the “failed” Marxist experiments of the 20th century. One example of “enabling powers” is President Chavez’s decision to withdraw from the World Bank, which is seen in much of the developing world as a resistance to the enormous pressure the Bank exerts over governments to pay debt or follow its privatisation of services rules, rather than use revenue for social spending.

The Venezuelan model of communal councils is favoured in many parts of the developing world. For example, Uganda still has them; Mobutu tried to institute them in the Congo long before Uganda, but that was thoroughly laughed out of court by the West. In India there are local non-governmental organisations which have organised thousands of poor people into similar unofficial councils to work for the betterment of their communities economically and socially.

If the developing countries, which represent two-thirds of the world’s population, are able to work out the best way of creating stable societies where the majority benefit from their own resources, they will be making great strides towards rising out of poverty. This is what Christian World Service has learned over more than sixty years’ experience supporting grass-roots movements. When the majority are able to participate actively in the economy it will be advantageous for everyone and they will no longer need to experience the indignity of receiving aid.


Althea Campbell
Information Secretary Christian World Service

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