The Bolivarian Temptation: An illiberal democracy?

America is ungovernable; those who served the revolution have plowed the sea. – Simon Bolivar

In The General in his Labyrinth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has the exhausted Liberator sighing, “I’ve become lost in a dream, searching for something that doesn’t exist.” For Filipinos of a certain age the more relevant novel may have been his The Autumn of the Patriarch. ( Incidentally, The (Former) General in his Labyrinth by Mohsin Hamid is an interesting experiment in interactive storytelling.) That novel was in keeping with the corrupt and corrosive times of the dictator’s fall; but perhaps more relevant today, where reformists are bedeviled by the Sisyphus-like problems of the nation, is the story of embittered exhaustion in Marquez’s Bolivar Novel.

Last Sunday, in its editorial, Democratic Haste, the Inquirer pointed out that neither side in the Honduras coup comes out lily-white; but that the onus may lie heaviest on the politicians who had public opinion on their side up to the moment of the coup, but who, in proclaiming they acted to preserve democracy, set back the democratic process.

In our own minds, at least for those of a certain age, the era of martial law hangs heavy still; hence the habit of looking at current events through the prism of events in the 1970s. The visit of the CIA Chief has been invested with, perhaps, greater political significance than it deserves. Manila Bay Watch for one, thinks it is suggestive of the weakness of the President, or, to be precise, her pining for signs of American interests, period.

But this can’t stop observers here at home from trying to find possible precedents in the goings-on in Honduras. And they are, after all, striking.

The Economist reported the situation and the fallout as follows:

The toppling of Mr Zelaya took the region by surprise. Honduras, although small, poor and ravaged by corruption and violent gangs, has seemed a more solid democracy than, for example, neighbouring Guatemala. Mr Zelaya, a Liberal, alienated the leaders of the country’s main political parties last year by joining the leftist Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, an alliance led by Venezuela’s populist president, Hugo Chavez. Yet Mr Zelaya’s policies have been only mildly social-democratic, such as an increase in the minimum wage.

The cause of Mr Zelaya’s downfall was his attempt to emulate Mr Chavez by organising a referendum to call a constituent assembly. He seemed to hope that this would enable him to remain in power, perhaps by changing the constitution to allow him to stand for a second term in an election due in November. This embroiled Mr Zelaya in a conflict of powers. The Congress and the courts both rejected the referendum.

But Mr Zelaya would not be stopped. He issued a decree for a consultative poll on Sunday, asking Hondurans whether they wanted presidential-election ballots in November to include a question about holding a constituent assembly. And he ordered the army to distribute ballot papers (which by one account came from Venezuela).

When the head of the armed forces, Romeo Vásquez Velazquez, refused to carry out the directive, the president sacked him. The Supreme Court reinstated the general, and an independent electoral tribunal ordered the ballots to be confiscated. In response, Mr Zelaya himself led a group of supporters to an airforce base where they carted off the ballots.

But hours before voting was set to begin, the army seized the president – “arresting” him for defying the Supreme Court, they said. The president of the legislature was quickly installed as Mr Zelaya’s successor. Though several hundred supporters of Mr Zelaya protested in the streets, Tegucigalpa was mainly quiet, as the army imposed a curfew. There were no reports of casualties.

The story is unlikely to end there. The coup was swiftly condemned, not just by Mr Chavez, whose ambassador (along with those of Cuba and Nicaragua) was briefly roughed up by troops, but also by the United States, European Union and Organisation of American States. Barack Obama called on Honduras “to respect democratic norms”, and the administration said it would not recognise the new government. “It brings back nightmares of a period we thought was over in this region, one full of blood and abuses of power,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, of Human Rights Watch, a campaign group.

Mr Zelaya was unpopular, thanks to Honduras’s economic troubles, violent crime and corruption. But the new government will find itself friendless.

How does Honduras enter the domestic picture, then? It is relevant in the questions the Honduran experience raises in terms of political questions that have arisen in recent years.

1. How is democracy to be defended? At the point of attack, or when the forces are gathering to attack it?

2. By what means is it to be defended: within the flawed institutions that exist, or by applying pressure from outside?

The residual strength of institutions capable of resisting the administration’s attempt to dominate things, is running out. The Senate, for example, could end up with an administration majority in the 2010 elections. The Chief Justice retires in 2010, too. These two institutions, then, would be hard-pressed if, by some major feat, the President gains a new political lease on life as the undisputed leader of the administration coalition even under a new president.

But even before that, there is the possibility of other forms of presidential mischief. Basically, these all revolve around the administration being able to either create, or take advantage of, terrorism to provide a pretext for emergency rule, or the elections ending up a failure because regardless of whether or not the planned computerization is flawed, or actively being subverted, the public cannot or will not fight such efforts tooth and nail and make the elections credible regardless of the Palace’s intentions.

All these suggest a kind of public exhaustion which only fortifies a kind of child-like faith in Washington solving the country’s problems. And so, much has been made of Leon Panetta’s visit to the President. But in the absence of more tangible signs of American intentions, we can glean what the Obama administration might do, from the way it handled Honduras.

The United States condemned the ouster of the Honduran chief executive; The Toronto Sun reports United States officials pushing the line that they’d tried to dissuade the Honduran military from acting (immediately, mind you: this report is from June 28, the day of the coup):

The officials said that the Obama administration in recent days had warned Honduran power players, including the armed forces, that the U.S. would not support a coup, but Honduran military leaders stopped taking their calls.

The officials briefed reporters by phone Sunday on condition of anonymity, under ground rules set by the State Department.

So dissuasion seems to be the name of the game: but action only when the chips are down and always calculated in a manner that harmonizes with global opinion.

Joel Hilliker frames the goings-on in this manner:

South America, to take another example, is rife with anti-democratic democracies. Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, supposedly democracies, have all been rigged by autocrats. Colombia’s president is trying to strike term limits from the constitution in order to maintain his grip on power.

Honduras was treading the same dark path. Manuel Zelaya, a close ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, was elected president – but he has since grown fond of classic big-man tactics. He disagrees with the Honduran constitution, which says his current term should be his last. He sought to shred it and try to repeal term limits through a popular referendum – following a greasy pattern established by Chávez (and copied by Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales). His thugs strong-armed and threatened citizens into supporting it. The whole process, besides being reprehensible, was against the law, which says the constitution can only be amended by Congress. The Honduran Supreme Court appropriately ordered the illegal referendum canceled. Zelaya, ignoring both the court and the constitution, continued to prepare for the sham vote. The military expressed its opposition to his lawlessness by refusing to distribute the ballots. Zelaya responded by firing the chief of the army.

These are not the actions of a democracy-lover. They’re straight from the despot’s playbook. The Hondurans know it, which is why Zelaya’s approval ratings are in the basement.

The Supreme Court felt justified in removing the budding dictator from office. It ordered the military to detain him. Soldiers captured Zelaya early Sunday morning and exiled him to Costa Rica. Later that day, Honduras’s Congress formally stripped him of office “for repeated violations to the constitution” and installed congressional leader Roberto Micheletti as interim president until November elections. It’s not your typical military “coup” when the military bows to the legislature, which installs the president’s constitutionally mandated successor, who vows to proceed with free and fair elections in five months as already scheduled.

Yes, Zelaya had managed to spook virtually the entire government – judiciary, military and legislature – with his slide toward tyranny. They united to reestablish the integrity of the constitution and the rule of law.

A kind of Bolivarian Axis? In Green Left, there’s this counter-assertion:

The great fear, from the point of view of imperialism and of the oligarchic ruling classes in Latin America, is that Zelaya will become embedded and tied to the mass movement and its class interests, unleashing a Bolivarian” upsurge from which they will never recover.

That is the source of their demonisation campaign against Chavez, Morales, Ortega and Cuba.

But the US and Latin American ruling classes’ great fear can only be our great aspiration – to unite the mass resistance in Honduras and across the region into an unbeatable force, and to use the attack on the Honduran people’s elected government by the military “gorillas” to score major advances towards popular, democratic rule in Honduras.

To move beyond formal, restrictive “representational” democracy (where we get to vote every five years or so about how long the slave drivers’ whips should be) to participatory democracy that takes us out of servitude and towards real self-government and self-determination.

The Obama government does seem more inclined to take the soft approach and not the hard line one of its predecessor; the cynical would call it subverting Socialism by undermining it by means of reopening ties so as to foster commerce, for where there’s commerce, there Socialism begins to transform. A more Socialist but moderately so, Latin America, after all, would be no more obnoxious than the welfare state democracies of Europe.

But this leaves the remaining Cold Warriors -and in this, the current Republicans are proving less pragmatic than say, their idol Ronald Reagan- unimpressed; while Obama swiftly -and succesfully- left Hugo Chavez blustering about the USA, only for the Americans to embrace his cause, leaving him muttering impotently about invading Honduras -something liable to be as unpopular as the Honduran coup itself- thereby un-demonizing the Americans, there remains the problem that the Latin American Right remains the traditional allies of the Americans; and with that Right comes the instinct to solve democracy’s problems with the sword.

This is a problem related to the second point above: how is democracy to be defended? By a pre-emptive strike, as in Honduras this year and what was essentially proposed here, at home in 2006, by soldiers who wanted to march out of their barracks to bring down an increasingly despotic government?

But that sort of pre-emptive strike is undemocratic itself; and public opinion in Honduras and the Philippines immediately recognized -and rejected- this kind of argument.

The famous photograph of Augusto Pinochet -a man, said Posthegemony, who “produces effects rather than arguments” and whose “ideological deficit” produced the candor that marked a man who didn’t even bother to argue his own innocence, a case of “the general has no clothes, but he is happy to parade naked.”

As he himself put it, in in an interview,

The former dictator… confided in an interview with the former Santiago mayor and journalist Maria Eugenia Oyarzun that he obscured his eyes on purpose in a famous photograph taken just after his 1973 coup against president Salvador Allende. Pressed to explain the menacing image, with its folded arms and chin jutting out under black lenses, General Pinochet said: “It was a way of telling things. Lies are discovered through the eyes, and I lied often.”

A Nietzschean strongman -“pure will without the confusion of intellect -how happy, how free!”? The question is relevant in that there’s the debate on whether Filipinos are, by nature, conservative, and thus, inclined to the Right; and it ties into the Right-wing appeal to authority, institutions, mobilized by the government in recent years. That it can mobilize, for example, the threat of Communism -and count on indifference, in certain sectors, to the liquidation of the Left- points to a reservoir of public opinion that genuinely exists, much to the frustration and alarm of the Left. The preservation of public order, the conspicuous displays of presidential piety, all these play to the conservative gallery. The kind that happily applauds those who reach for a revolver the moment an argument breaks out.

A “juridical democracy,” and not a substantive one -but substantive for whom?

While some have argued -recall my linking, in the past, to Rethinking Pinochet (and Franco) in Scriptorium– that authoritarian dictatorships such as those of Franco and Pinochet gave way to democracy, totalitarian government never did -they had to fall, and fall hard, for democracy to be restored. Marcos was authoritarian in that he -unwittingly, to be sure- allowed the public to “restore democracy by the ways of democracy,” as Cory Aquino famously put it. As Scriptorium dares to argue,

To begin with, we must understand that the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is not fundamentally that the former is Rightist and the latter Leftist, as Kirkpatrick herself seemed to think (Nazism is as totalitarian as, and in fact copied from Leninism; and Titoism is as authoritarian as Somoza), though it is relevant as we will see later. Nor is it necessarily the degree of coercion imposed; for as Walter Miller asks in A Canticle for Leibowitz, when murder is answered with murder, does it matter whose axe is bloodier? Rather, I think, the difference lies in the motive for and scope of the coercion, whether it’s for a “conservative” or a “progressive” purpose. Thus:

A government that seeks to effect radical change, either forward to a progressive utopia (e.g., Communism) or backward to a lost golden age (e.g., Nazism), will be driven to use comprehensive coercion against all sectors that oppose the change. Where the change is sought by a small, Bolshevik-type cadre, the process will entail a struggle between the pro-change minority and a majority composed of groups that either oppose the change per se or desire different changes. The minority must endeavor to force these social groups to toe the line, thereby creating a society that is more or less totally controlled by a single social faction. Hence totalitarianism.

On the other hand, a government that seeks to stop change, or to have limited or gradual change, will only need to use limited coercion. For unless most of society is united in desiring change justified by a widespread social myth (e.g., in 1789 France), the various social groups with their several objectives would easily reach equilibrium with a non- or limited-change government; for such a government, because it does not pursue an all-or-nothing agenda, can compromise with most sectors. So this government will generally let the sectors alone, reserving its ire for those with irreconcilable agendas who defy its authority to rules the whole. Hence authoritarianism.

It’s obvious, then, why the latter would more easily transition to democracy, whose very essence lies in the principle of subsidiarity, that individuals and groups should be allowed in reason to make their own choices. Subsidiarity would directly conflict with the radical-totalitarian program, for it would allow groups to opt out of the State-mandated change; and it’s inconsistent with the total social control demanded by radicalism. However, gradual-authoritarian governments would tend to preserve the relative autonomy of social groups if only by default; and it is these groups that tend to lead the fight for democratic structures.

The contrast then, is one of scale? Tens of thousands arrested, hundreds of desaperecidos, but never in total numbers equaling the concentration camps of those with ambitions of refashioning society as Lenin, Hitler, Mao attempted? For all these regimes functioned on the mobilization of state power to crush class enemies, not individuals or even specific movements, but broad categories of their own people. Returning to Scriptorium-

Thus, the reason a Rightist dictatorship more easily leads to democratization is that the preservation of social groups (families, faith-communities, etc.) is often a major part of the often vague conservative/moderate stance of Rightist autocrats. This vagueness is another reason, of course, for it means that Rightist autocrats usually have no definite program that they seek to impose on society, often settling for ad hoc solutions that seem vapid compared to the clearly drawn (but sometimes too abstract) blueprints of Leftists. This means that the Right often imposes more limited coercion than the Left with its systematic program, and is thence less totalitarian and more vulnerable to democratization.

I think part of the reason for the demonization of Rightist authoritarian leaders has been their apparent association with or similarity to the Nazi government. This is, however, a taxonomic mistake, for the Nazis were reactionary rather than conservative, and notwithstanding their frequent equation in polemical literature, reaction and conservatism are not the same: Reaction wants a radical change back in time (e.g., to the pure Aryan past), while conservatism wants preservation of present forms. Reaction, then, is closer to revolution and has the same transformative agenda; and indeed, both often use the same restoration and better-tomorrow motifs, as witness Marx’s nostalgia for primitive communism and Hitler’s drive to build a 10,000-year paradise under the Reich.

But that is only if the choice is down to one between authoritarianism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. We aren’t at that point.

What troubles me is that there may be too many pinning their hopes on omens and portents from Washington, because of defeatism. and here, I think, the past is useful in terms of examples from the more recent and more distant past.

In 1986, Marcos thoroughly controlled the Comelec, no one doubted there would be monkey business, and some actually believed even in a clean election there was a chance Marcos would win. But the cheating was not only exposed, but resisted on the ground; and in 2004, the cheating ended up exposed; in 2007 it was almost derailed in the ARMM. I don’t see why it couldn’t be actively forestalled in 2010. Public opinion is primed to reject any tinkering around with the Constitution before 2010; and even if it were to get to the point of a plebiscite, would be so heatedly contested as to present graver risks to the administration than if it simply tried to retain the cohesion of its coalition going into 2010, and beyond.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

17 thoughts on “The Bolivarian Temptation: An illiberal democracy?

  1. I think that the coup in Honduras had the blessing of the US inspite of Obamas’s protestations in public. It’s usually termed as double-speak or something, which means saying something to cover up for what has been done to avoid international condemnation.

    If so, our present government has something to worry about. If it can be done to a leader with popular mass support then it follows that it would be a lot easier to do it to one without popular support.

  2. “The threshold at which international intervention is appropriate I think has to be very high.There has to be strong international outrage at what’s taking place. It’s not always going to be a neat decision.”Barack Obama

  3. On present US foreign policy – Obama is a sheriff in the Bush Senior mode. He will only ride into town if he has a posse with him, a real posse like Senior’s not a fake one like Junior’s.

    On lessons from history – When you look all the way back to 1972, what stands out is the lack of resistance to the imposition of martial law when it was actually imposed. There was a lot of noise against it in the run up but that petered out fast. It’s strange because I don’t think Marcos was popular then. He was in a popularity situation similar to the one GMA is in now. But Marcos was able to count on a certain segment of the population to back him up. Loyalists in business both local and foreign, in politics, in the security forces, among the clergy, and in the general population. The loyalists were cohesive, they all saw that the country was descending into anarchy and/or communism, and they were determined to give Marcos a chance. The opposition, on the other hand, was a loose coalition of politicians, concerned citizens, some elements in the security services, and militants who were united by a general agreement opposing Marcos and preserving democracy, whatever meaning democracy held for their particular group. The rest of the population, although it was generally believed that they didn’t like Marcos, didn’t dislike him enough to resist his martial law. They went on with their lives until things became unbearable. I find that we are in a similar situation today. Although demos, bombings, strikes, and other forms of destabilization are not as rampant, the thing that I think will make a GMA revolutionary government possible is the cohesiveness of GMA loyalists. GMA’s foreign trips serve a purpose, they are meant to make fence sitters of the international community. I believe if she pulls the trigger, she is going to get away with it. The elements in the security services, those whom the opposition are counting on to preserve and protect the Constitution as it were are will be neutralized because once martial law or a rev gov is imposed they will be perceived as political partisans. That’s what happened in 1972. I think the only thing that can prevent this thing from happening is GMA losing her guts.

  4. the filipinos were misled by macoy’s cohort. the perception then was was martial law vs the crazy commies.

  5. “I think the only thing that can prevent this thing from happening is GMA losing her guts.”-manuelbuencamino

    Hmmn. I think that “losing her guts” would be preferable to any president than “losing her head”, heheh.

  6. The opposition, on the other hand, was a loose coalition of politicians, concerned citizens, some elements in the security services, and militants who were united by a general agreement opposing Marcos and preserving democracy, whatever meaning democracy held for their particular group. The rest of the population, although it was generally believed that they didn’t like Marcos, didn’t dislike him enough to resist his martial law. They went on with their lives until things became unbearable. I find that we are in a similar situation today.

    Strangely familiar indeed…

  7. to Bert: that it can happen — a leader with popular mass support being overthrown — does not need USA participation.

    Pinas should always remember Thailand where the duly-elected Thaksin head-of-government, while still very popular to that nation’s rural and poor populations, was still overthrown via orchestrations and plotting by the national-capital-area minority population.

  8. It is worrisome that even after Pinas has witnessed PeoplePower-the-brand being used into nothing more than an instrument for a tiny group of people to obtain their goals, it still remains popular —- the imagery of “surge the gates (of course, for the greater good!)” and the romance of People Power.

  9. The GMA fantasy/science fiction movie “Gloria: 2010 and Beyond” will not be a box office hit with the masses because the movie preview has been hammered incessantly on television and the plot leaked on blogs in the lead up to the movie premiere.

    The movie is discussed and dissected thoroughly by movie critics who, familiar with the Ferdinand Marcos classic “Marcos: the Genesis of Power”, have found the plot and script of “Gloria: 2010” to be an almost page by page, scene by scene copy from the old classic. In addition, the actors of the new movie are thought of by critics and the movie going public as less charismatic and generally worse actors.

    The few curious movie buffs who have seen “Marcos: the Genesis” will undoubtedly watch the new GMA “remake” to relive the glory days of Philippine cinema. But the masses, who have heard of but not actually scene “Marcos: the Genesis”, will stay away in droves owing to the fact that Hollywood has caught a significant mind share of their movie tastes and preferences with recent US mega-blockbusters such as the action filled “Let’s Burn the Flag while Mooning the Riot Police”, the comedy “Livin’ Large: The Rise and Fall of Joe Schmocreditcarddebtfuelledconsumerbinge”, the feel good sleeper hit “Capitalism Will Provide” and the local remake by director/producer Fidel Ramos “Philippines 2000:Capitalism Will Provide 2”.

    The Loyal GMA fans will of course flock to see the GMA: 2010, even though they are fewer and far between, since the phone scandal that diminished the diminutive star’s mass appeal.

  10. UPn, much as the French celebrate the fall of the Bastille and the Americans the Boston Tea Party or even hold concerts at the Lincoln Memorial.

  11. I can’t think of any Philippine President who was summoned on such short notice and went. Someone recently pointed out that as recently as Cory Aquino’s time, when the Americans sent a Secretary of Defense to Manila, Cory had her Secretary of Defense meet his American counterpart.

  12. “Was Macoy ever called to the Principal’s office? Why are so many congressmen dying to go with her?”

    taxj, palagay ko magmamano lang sila kay barack, kasi malapit na ang pasko, umaasa na mabigyan ng gift. alam mo naman ang mga congressmen, nasanay makatanggap ng gifts. eh, ang presidente natin, atat na atat, maski nga hindi inimbita pumunta, ngayon pang may imbitasyon, siempre kandarapa, heheh.

  13. GMA and her minions may be playing chicken, or is it a calculated risk? Will the people preempt these possible scenarios or just wait for them to make their move first? I don’t believe we have ever been proactive generally speaking. We’ll just have to wait and see if GMA really does it, Manolo and others will get their “I’ll told you so!” Then we just let it ride for a couple of years, maybe even see some pockets of resistance which are quickly suppressed. By this time we are riding on the crest of progress, massive infrastructure projects widelly advertised on television, radio, billboards, etc., even school children will be singing praises. Of course, eventually massive corruption will be found out, an expose of a burgeoning national debt, more disappearances, perhaps rallies get bloodier, until the people will finally get fed up and boot them out – when GMA’s probably 70 years old. And the usual drama unfolds…
    Then again, this time around it just might work, GMA becomes the real deal, ushers the country into the first world status and we all sing (including me) the new version of “Bagong Lipunan.”

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