Do we need another president for life?

Ex-foreign office minister Denis MacShane gives his analysis of the Venezuelan constitutional refere

This weekend, the world will see another president for life emerge. A referendum in Venezuela will vote to endorse changes to the nation’s constitution to allow President Hugo Chavez to stand as often as he likes to be president.

Unlike Mexico with its one-term rule or Brazil where a president has to stand down after two terms, Venezuela will now join those countries like Uganda, or the Maldives, or, if he gets his way Musharraf’s Pakistan where the people will enjoy the blessings of living under one leader for the foreseeable future.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chavez was the last expression of the golpismo – coup d’état – movement of South American militarism.

While the generals had been forced back into their barracks in Brazil after the great metalworkers’ strikes of 1978-1982 led by Lula, or been humiliated in Argentina by British soldiers on the Falklands, Lt Col Chavez saw himself as the man of destiny when he tried to stage a golpe in 1992.

He failed and had to wait a few more years before his chance came again, this time by electoral means. Still today, he wears uniforms as much as civilian clothes. Like his hero, Fidel Castro, his leadership is sartorially expressed by dressing up as a soldier and commandante, rather than the wearing the attire of civilian democracy.

What then should we make of Chavez? He is today’s idol for a global left that is looking for new bearings. Hagiographic biographies of him have appeared in several languages. For the British writers tired of the stubborn, patient search for a workable social democracy by a Cardoso in Brazil or a Lagos in Chile, the excitement and revolutionary rhetoric of a Chavez is thrilling to focus on.

To submit Chavez to the same critical analysis that other leaders have to put up with is to produce instant denunciations from those who search for the shining path to socialism in Latin America.

Probably Gabriel Garcia Marquez got it right when he wrote that there are ‘two Chavezes’. One might perform wonders for Venezuela. The other was ‘just another despot.’

For Gaba, whose left credentials are unchallenged to describe Chavez in such Jekyll and Hyde terms shows the deep doubts across the Latin American left and intellectual world about the Venezuelan president’s credentials and ambitions.

In the 19 November edition of Libération, the French left daily paper, sixty mainly Latin American intellectuals, writers, journalists and political activists, published an open letter critical of Chavez.

They argued that this weekend’s referendum would ‘abolish all controls on the powers of the state and the actions of the executive’. They further alleged that Chavez was spending a fortune on arms expenditure instead of using the golden showers of oil wealth Venezuela enjoys to develop a balanced economy based on sustainable development. The authors also claimed that Chavez was setting up his own private army, an armed militia that exceeded the size of the nation’s armed forces.

Naturally, not a word of this cry of alarm was published in the British media. Newspaper coverage of Latin America, other than in the Economist is a joke. The New Statesman, to its credit, has published reports on Venezuela which have been both supportive and critical of Chavez.

The most recent (published 15th November) showed a picture of a gunman on the back of a motorbike firing shots at students demonstrating for democracy in Caracas. As with the Mexican students in 1968, or other students movements over the years, the young men and women of Caracas are taking a huge risk in expressing concern about the slow death of democracy in Venezuela.

It does not have to be like this. Chavez presents no threat to capitalism in Venezuela. Businessmen are doing very well.

Like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria we are witnessing the arrival of unrestrained market economics fusing with centralised state power.

Chavez’s oil populism allows him to hand out money to the poor. In past eras of high oil prices, notably under Carlos Andres Perez (CAP) in the 1980s, a populist president acted charitably.

CAP was a hero of the global left and the international trade union movement as he supported the Venezuelan corporatist trade unions, especially the union controlling the country’s petrol industry.

In 2002, Chavez smashed the union to take full state authority over the oil industry and installed military trusties in key sectors of the economy and civil society.

It was this assault on a trade union which forced the trade union bosses into an alliance against nature with elements of the Venezuelan right that launched the abortive coup in April 2002.

I was in Caracas in the days before the coup in my then capacity as the FCO minister responsible for Latin America. The tension was palpable.

The streets were full of pro and anti-Chavez demonstrations. It was impossible to sleep at night as women lent out of their windows banging saucepans to express discontent. In the first years of Chavez’s rule, before the post-Iraq invasion oil price spike gave him more money to spend than any leader in Latin America has ever enjoyed, Chavez’s economic rule was unsteady. Poverty actually increased and growth slowed.

Since then of course Chavez has been oil rich and some of that income has found its way to the poor. Other countries like Brazil or Chile have made bigger strides in combating poverty and done so without the oil windfalls Chavez has enjoyed.

Chavez is lucky in having one of the most arrogant, elitist, disconnected rightist oppositions that it is possible to imagine.

There are some exceptions like Teodoro Petkoff, a trained Marxist now editor of Tal Cual, but for the most part the right-wing press and opposition are boorish, arrogant and unworthy of support.

Nevertheless in 2002 they came together to do to Chavez what Chavez had done ten years previously – organise a golpe against the elected government of Venezuela. I had spent hours late at night in Miraflores , the presidential residence in the heart of Caracas, speaking to Chavez.

He claimed to be a supporter of Tony Blair and a fan of New Labour. The Labour government had gone out of its way to encourage Chavez, organising high level visits to London in 2001, in the hope that he would become an effective partner of the EU and Britain in a Latin America which needs to build bridges across the Atlantic in place of the region’s fatalistic obsession with the United States.

Other than the rightist government of Aznar in Spain there was no anti-Chavez feeling in any EU government. On the contrary, Britain invested in Chavez with John Prescott laying out a red carpet to greet him and in my 18 months as Minister for Latin America I detected no hostility to Chavez from British politicians or diplomats. The sentiment was rather one of curiosity at how this charismatic but politically unclear leader would develop.

I think Chavez was happy to meet a European politician with enough Spanish to listen to his views. We finished our talk towards midnight. He signed and gave me a copy of a biography of Bolivar. I gave him one of the wind-up radios invented in Britain. I wonder if he still has it? I left for the UN in New York when news arrived of the coup.

I put out a statement calling for a return of democracy in Venezuela. Britain was the only country to react this way. Other government bided their time to await the outcome of the coup.

Chavez now calls Aznar a fascist which is a silly, inaccurate insult unless we call every conservative a fascist. He says the US was behind the 2002 coup. All I know is that there was a planned naval exercise between the US Navy and the Venezuelan navy due to take place in the week of the coup. Against the protests of the US Navy who had spent $1 billion organising their biggest southern Atlantic exercise in years, the US State Department ordered that the exercise be cancelled. In the build up to Iraq, Washington could not afford, want or need accusation of supporting golpes in Latin America.

As a minister I was a useless civil servant. I wrote an article for The Times in which I described Chavez as a demagogue. I also said I was confident he would come back to power but sub-editors on The Times cut out that prophesy. Since then the uncritical Chavez worshippers have tried to paint me as some dark agent connected to the coup. If only. I was not sure of the man but I was clear democracy should be upheld in Venezuela.

Since then, like many, I have been tracking Chavez, more through the Spanish press than the useless puff or hate pieces written about him in the English media.

Michael Reid’s new book, ‘Forgotten Continent’ (Yale University Press) has a clear and objective chapter on Chavez. Reid is the Economist’s long-standing Latin America editor.

The 20 November edition of Le Monde, had a powerful editorial of concern about Chavez. ‘The concentration of power in his hands, the absence of dialogue with the opposition, the denunciation of the student movement as ‘facist’, the green light given to armed gangs, in short the militarization of political life is matched by unparalleled corruption’ the paper declared. Le Monde is no fan of the United States but its judgement cannot be ignored.

On the international scene, Chavez has embraced Robert Mugabe and told Belarus’ dictator, Lukashenko, that he is right to put down the democratic opposition in Minsk.

He has made five high profile visits to Teheran and calls Iran’s Jew-hating, gay-hanging, nuke obsessed president Ahmadinejad ‘my brother’.

There have been unpleasant outbursts of anti-semitism in the Venezuelan press and Chavez himself has made remarks which have frightened the Jewish community in Latin America.

So inefficient is Chavez’s economic management that the country has to import most of its requirement.

Petrol is a few cents a gallon as Chavez refuses any environmental politics that would lessen dependence on oil. At some stage, the uncritical admirers and promoters of Chavez will have to adjust to reality.

He is not yet a dictator like Castro, locking up poets and journalists and throwing away the keys. There is an opposition press. Elections are held and Chavez wins just as he will win the referendum this weekend. 20th century dictators are old hat.

This century we have Mugabes, and Lukashenkos, and Musavenis, and Putins, and Musharrafs, and now Chavez who cannot give up power. We need an adequate political science to describe this new type of populist, authoritarian but elected leader. Whether it is a direction the world left should go is for all of us to decide.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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