Latin America’s revealing reaction to the Venezuelan election

The Bolivarian Revolution vs. the Brazil model.

As the whole world looked on, the indefatigable Hugo Chávez overcame his strongest obstacle yet to claim another six-year term as Venezuela’s President, keeping him in power until 2019.  

“Venezuela will continue along the path of democratic and Bolivarian socialism for the 21st century”, Chávez thundered from the balcony of Miraflores palace, holding aloft the sword of Latin American revolutionary Símon Bolivar.

This election was so salient because it showcased a clash of two different ideologies; of two different futures. It was a battle of two visions that pitted a leftist firebrand against one of the Venezuelan 1 per cent; between a populist demagogue and a wealthy elite out-of-touch with Venezuela’s bulging underclass.

Henrique Capriles promised major changes for Venezuela. He pledged to move the country away from quixotic idealism to pursue a more pragmatic foreign policy; away from pariah states such as Belarus and Iran and towards a more sanitised global image.

He promised to depoliticise the economy through spurring private investment and reviving oil deals with outside partners - a notion unimaginable under the current government that holds economic self-sufficiency and state nationalisation as sacrosanct principles of governance.

Crucially for Chávez, Capriles threatened to undermine Venezuela’s role as the flag-bearer for the continent’s radical left; as the leading extoller of Latin American anti-imperialism.

Naturally, for supporters of the chavista cause, Sunday was most certainly a red-letter day; a democratic endorsement of the Bolivarian revolution espoused by Chávez.

“Forward, comrade Chávez”, tweeted Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. “All Latin America is with you and with our beloved Venezuela”.

“The victory of President Chávez is a victory for democracy, for the Bolivarian alliance, and all of Latin America”, declared Bolivian President Evo Morales.

“Your decisive victory ensures the continuity of the struggle for genuine integration in our America”, proclaimed Raul Castro, Cuba’s de facto President.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also paid effuse tribute to him, labelling him an “indisputable leader that will continue leading the Latin American revolution”.

These sentiments were echoed in Argentina as well, with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner praising the victory whilst Argentines rallied outside the Venezuelan embassy in Buenos Aires to celebrate the news.

However, the response from other major regional players, particularly Peru, Mexico and Brazil was muted, highlighting a degree of indifference to the radical model of leftist politics extolled by South America’s chavista movement.

There is no question over the importance of Latin American independence on the continent. Last year, the establishment of a 33-country “Community of Latin American and Caribbean States” (CELAC) intentionally excluded Washington and other “Western” powers from membership, cementing the region as a power bloc with its own interests and agendas.

But the “Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas” (ALBA), conceived by Chávez in 2004, is a step too far for some. That only the most radical of Latin American governments claim membership (Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela) is a telling indicator of the state of South American leftism.

Many often interpret the left-leaning approach of most South American states as a unified, cohesive ideological movement against imperialist forces, but a more nuanced approach reveals some major fault lines.  

To some, Bolivarian governance has hit a crisis. With soaring inflation rates, over-reliance on nationalised industry and bloated bureaucracies rife with cronyism, much of Latin America’s far-left finds itself in an unenviable position.

The alternative model, embodied by Brazil, offers a different brand of leftism; one that embraces private property rights and upholds the sanctity of democratic institutions. Since the election of Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva as President 2002, Brazil has shown that you do not have to stack the courts, censor the media, and politicise a country’s financial system to ameliorate poverty. As an emerging player on the world stage, Brazil has also shown that you can have sovereign independence whilst integrating into the global economy; that you can resist imperialism without having to denounce capitalism.

A signal that the Brazil mould is gaining momentum in Latin America came with the Peruvian election of Ollanta Humala in 2011. Humala originally campaigned under the chavista banner in 2006 and and lost. For the 2011 election, he rebranded as a more moderate socialist and has governed as such ever since.

Does this reveal a political schism in Latin America? Not exactly. Whilst fault lines have appeared, it doesn’t mean incompatibility. Nevertheless, the Brazilian model shows that Latin American governments can have their cake and eat it too; they can remain economically and politically self-sufficient without resorting to authoritarian and isolationist policies that breed malaise.

Whilst Sunday’s election victory has not derailed the Bolivarian revolution, its tight victory margin and the increasing appeal of the Brazilian mould has certainly taken the wind out of its sails.

A pro-Chávez mural in his hometown of Sabaneta, Venezuela. Photo: Getty

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue