Venezuela: still a democracy

Planned Venezuelan constitutional reforms are portrayed as 'another Chavez power grab', a notion ch

On 2 December Venezuelans will vote on a number of amendments to their constitution. Generally speaking the proposals have been portrayed in the media as the next step on the road to dictatorship.

That's because the mainstream media generally abandons quaint notions of balance and objectivity when reporting on Venezuela. Curiously, this often extends to left-of-centre newspapers not known to slavishly follow the Bush administration's lead when reporting on other oil states where regime change is either sought, Iran, or in process, Iraq.

The biggest fuss this time seems to be the amendment that would abolish term limits for the presidency.

Perhaps it is because I am from Chicago, and had only one mayor from the time I was born until I graduated college, that I am unable to see this as the making of a dictatorship.

Not to mention that if Hillary Clinton is elected next year, we will have Bushes and Clintons as heads of state for a full consecutive 24 years, and possibly 28.

President Lula da Silva of Brazil defended Venezuela last week, asking why "people did not complain when Margaret Thatcher spent so many years in power". He added: "You can invent anything you want to criticise Chavez, but not for lack of democracy." Lula has repeatedly defended Venezuela's government as democratic, but these comments are never reported in the English language media.

Chavez is also castigated for proposing to get rid of the independence of the Central Bank, which is inscribed in the 1999 constitution. This is portrayed as just another "power grab." However, there are sound economic reasons for this amendment.

Central Banks that are not accountable to their elected governments are not altogether "independent" but tend to represent the interests of the financial sector. In the trade-off between growth and employment versus inflation, the financial sector will always opt for lower inflation, even if it means stagnation and unemployment.

The increasing independence of central banks, and the resultant overly-tight monetary policy is very likely one of the main reasons for the unprecedented long-term growth failure in Latin America over the last quarter-century.

There is also an amendment that would provide Social Security pensions to workers in the informal sector, which would be a major anti-poverty measure, given that this includes about 41 percent of the labour force.

Another would reduce the working week to 36 hours. This is being reported in the media as a 6-hour day, but more likely it will be interpreted as four eight-hour days plus four hours on Friday.

There are also amendments that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or physical health; provide for gender parity for political parties; guarantee free university education; make it more difficult for homeowners to lose their homes during bankruptcy. It is hard to argue that these are punishing or repressive measures.

Another amendment would reverse the 1999 constitutional provision protecting intellectual property. This would not abolish patents or copyrights but would allow more flexibility for the government in addressing the enormous economic inefficiencies caused by state-protected monopolies, e.g. in areas such as patented pharmaceutical drugs. This is difficult to argue against on economic grounds.

There are other amendments that are more controversial, most of them added not by Chavez but by the National Assembly (Chavez cannot veto amendments added by the Assembly; these have to go to the voters).

For example, one amendment would allow the government to suspend the "right to information" (but not due process, as reported in the international media) during a state of national emergency. Another would allow the President and the National Assembly to create new federal districts and provinces.

Some of these provisions have drawn opposition even among Chavez's supporters. If they are approved, it will likely be because the majority of voters trust Chavez and the government not to abuse their powers.

And there is some basis for this trust: the National Assembly earlier this year gave Chavez the power, for 18 months, to enact certain legislation by executive order. The pundits screamed about Chavez "ruling by decree," but in fact this power has not been used much at all, except in dealings with foreign corporations.

In any case, the voters will decide, with a far stronger opposition media than exists in the United States proselytising against the government. Venezuelans have not lost civil liberties the way people in the U.S. (or even the UK) have in recent years, and ordinary citizens continue to have more say in their government, and share more in its oil wealth, than ever before. It is doubtful that the referendum will reverse these changes, regardless of the outcome.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan and has written numerous research papers on economic policy.
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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.