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Welcome to Ukraine: Wild West of Populist Politics

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Interview about Venezuela on Charlie Rose

To see my interview yesterday on Charlie Rose show about Venezuela, click here. By and large, this was a lively discussion with different shades of opinion. Other panelists included Jorge Castaneda, a Mexican political figure who has undergone an intriguing evolution over the years from Communist to Foreign Minister under Vicente Fox, and Greg Grandin, an astute scholar from NYU.

As the conversation turned to Maduro's razor-sharp victory in Venezuela's presidential election, I voiced concerns that Chavez's successor might lack enough legitimacy to push through truly revolutionary programs. In a sense, Maduro's narrow victory demonstrates the "perils of populism," because only a charismatic leader can push through political change. Take the charismatic leader out the equation, however, and your movement can get in trouble or become derailed.

In putting together a new "Latin American left 3.0," Venezuela should carry out more communal councils, economic cooperatives, and barter exchanges. Unfortunately, Maduro seems to represent the old, ideological left and has failed to demonstrate much creativity in foreign policy. Perhaps, if the left can adopt some of the more innovative measures of Chavismo while integrating environmental concerns, which was always Venezuela's Achilles heel, the left can move ahead.

So, who's the next Hugo Chavez, Charlie asked? Perhaps, I said, it could be Rafael Correa of Ecuador who has some innovative environmental ideas. Just like Chavez, however, this populist is a decidedly mixed bag and his country is much smaller than Venezuela and doesn't have nearly as much oil.

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Speaking about Hugo Chavez's Legacy on CNN and al-Jazeera

As Latin America and the wider world seek to come to terms with the death of Hugo Chavez, many may wonder about the Venezuelan populist's political legacy.

In the immediate term, the deceased comandante's shadow will loom large over Venezuela's next snap presidential election which will be held on April 14. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's former Foreign Minister, will face off against Henrique Capriles Radonski, who previously challenged Chavez for the presidency and lost.

As I discussed on al-Jazeera English this evening [apparently no link available], the election may hinge on who can best come off as "Chavez-lite." Capriles is unlikely to question Chavez's adherence to social programs which redistributed wealth to the neediest. Indeed, while he served as Governor of the state of Miranda, Capriles actually emulated Chavez by adopting similar populist social programs himself. In this sense, Capriles is probably the most electable candidate to spring from the opposition, which was historically fractured and extremely fanatical. On the other hand, there is a great deal of sympathy for Chavez, and Maduro will benefit from his association with the Bolivarian Revolution. Even though Maduro lacks Chavez's charisma, he can bank on favorable blanket coverage from state-run media and support from Chavez's own PSUV political machine.

As I stated on al-Jazeera, my concern is that there will be very little space for a more radical discussion during this short-lived campaign. Though the candidates may disagree about foreign policy, they essentially agree on the overall contours of domestic social policy. Indeed, the fundamental psychological mindset of the Venezuelan poor has shifted so dramatically under Chavez that it is unlikely that any president, let alone a conservative one, would dare to turn back the clock and reintroduce the kinds of market reforms which characterized political life during the 1990s.

With no substantial disagreements on the social front, the campaign may center upon other issues such as urban crime. But while frightening homicides in Caracas and other cities are certainly important, such concerns pale beside the larger question of the Bolivarian Revolution and radical transformation of political life. What of the economic cooperatives, communal councils, ALBA and alternative currencies? These are all measures which serve to reconfigure fundamental power relations, and though some programs have been linked to cronyism and corruption, they represent an idealistic challenge to the underpinnings of the capitalist state.

A couple of days ago, while speaking on Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, I touched on such vital questions during a roundtable panel discussion [apparently the entire segment is unavailable, though you can watch this snippet which unfortunately does not include me]. The other guests included Moises Naim, a Venezuelan writer and columnist who was previously associated with IESA, a conservative business school in Caracas which pushed economic reforms eschewed by Chavez. We were also joined by Rory Carroll of the Guardian newspaper.

With Naim staking out the predictable anti-Chavez right, maybe Zakaria thought I would take up the full role of Chavez partisan. At the beginning of the interview, the CNN host turned to me and asked, "you like Chavez, right?" It's a perfectly reasonable question, though I wasn't entirely sure how to respond. Discussions about Chavez tend to split between ideological partisans on both sides, and there's often very little space for additional views. As readers are aware, I have some mixed feelings about populism, a very polemical subject in Latin America. In the end, I think I answered something to the effect of "it's a mixed bag," though I might have easily added "it's complicated!"

It's difficult to convey a minority within a minority viewpoint sometimes, though hopefully the viewers will have understood that I am critical of Chavez --- not from the right but from the left. I said that Chavez was wrong to have embraced Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, which in the long run discredited Venezuela amongst the international left and revolutionaries associated with the Arab Spring.

In an effort to move the conversation into provocative territory, I also argued that Chavez had actually not gone too far but not far enough. Whatever the problems with the cooperatives, I declared, they should be improved upon in an effort to promote worker democracy. Predictably, Naim trashed the cooperatives and went on a rant about how Chavez had wrecked the economy. Rather disappointingly for a leftist Guardian columnist, Carroll kind of chimed in by pointing to flaws in the cooperative system.

I hope that the media will continue to touch upon Chavez's political legacy, and particularly the more radical and anti-capitalist measures which deserve more systematic attention and scrutiny. Perhaps, socialist constituencies within the Bolivarian camp or even anarchists can force likely presidential winner Maduro to deepen the ongoing process of social transformation. It's not an easy task, however, because Maduro --- like Chavez before him --- also answers to rival constituencies such as the managerial capitalist class.

As Latin America and the wider world ponders the post-Chavez landscape, it's hardly clear where the left goes from here. While Chavez radicalized the Venezuelan people through innovative programs, his haphazard government failed to follow through on lasting bottom up revolutionary change. Though populists like Chavez mobilize the people, they typically only go so far and never overturn the social order. If anything, Maduro seems more cautious and diplomatic than Chavez and seems to eschew the inflammatory rhetoric of his mentor.

Perhaps, Rafael Correa of Ecuador may inherit the Chavez mantle. Like his Venezuelan mentor, Correa is a populist who also employs fiery rhetoric to mobilize the masses. He is pretty popular, too, having just won reelection in a landslide. Whether he has the vision or even the desire to transform Ecuador into a radical social laboratory, however, is open to doubt. To be sure, the Ecuadoran has some interesting ideas about climate change and challenging the Global North on global warming, but overall Correa seems pretty intent on pursuing the extractive economy and this hardly bodes well for his relations with social forces on the ground. Over in Bolivia, meanwhile, Evo Morales also made noises about climate change at one time but even he has run afoul of the Indians who dislike the government's boondoggle projects.

From about 2002 to 2006, before he started to pursue more questionable and retrograde policies, Hugo Chavez injected a welcome note of idealism into Latin politics. If it wants to be successful, the next generation of regional leaders should think about taking up some of Chavez's empowering ideas such as economic cooperatives, ALBA barter, alternative currencies and communal councils, while avoiding all of the potential downsides like patronage networks and cronyism. If future leaders can build upon such an agenda, while incorporating concerns over climate change and the extractive economy, they just might succeed in bringing about long-term revolutionary change and not just charismatic populism which can often prove transitory or even ephemeral.

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Talking Venezuelan Election on al-Jazeera: The Perils of Populism

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Banana Republic, USA? Populism Comes to America

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Hugo Chavez and Moral Lapses of the Left

Having survived a U.S.-supported coup d'état in 2002 which briefly removed him from power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has sought to encourage solidarity amongst impoverished nations in an effort to counter Washington's hegemonic and imperial designs throughout Latin America and around the world. That impulse is certainly understandable, but Chávez has now gone so far overboard that he has lost all moral standing and any shred of credibility. Just in case you missed it here is Chávez's latest gem for the ages: "I don't know, maybe he [the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin] was a great nationalist, a patriot."

While Chávez has certainly made some obtuse statements over the years, this remark was so offensive, so insensitive, so utterly devoid of any moral compass that it ought to give severe pause to Chávez's international supporters. If Chávez were so inclined, he might have taken a moment to conduct a cursory google search before holding forth on the subject of well known African dignitaries. Perhaps the Venezuelan might have come up with the following obituary from London's Guardian newspaper, dated 2003: "Idi Amin," ran the piece, "was one of the most brutal military dictators to wield power in post-independence Africa."

After militarily seizing power in 1971, the Ugandan made himself president, dissolved parliament and suspended elections. Under Amin, the secret police exercised absolute power over life and death while the courts and press were subjected to the president's whims. Even more disturbingly, Chávez's "patriot" killed hundreds of thousands of his real and perceived political opponents. To this day the true death toll is not known with estimates ranging widely between 80,000 and 300,000. Amnesty International, compiling figures with the help of Ugandan exiles, put the number even higher at 500,000.

It's odd that Chávez would cast Amin as a nationalist since other contemporary leaders held the exact opposite view. Indeed, Tanzania's former president Julius Nyerere once remarked that Amin actually damaged the cause of African nationalism. Perhaps, what Chávez meant was that Amin was a black nationalist to the detriment of other ethnic groups: in 1972 the Ugandan expelled 35,000 Asians from his country in the course of three months.

It's difficult to see what was going through Chávez's head when he made his recent speech: not only were his comments morally repugnant but also politically self defeating. In Uganda, officials said they were offended by the Venezuelan. President Yoweri Museveni's secretary Tamale Mirundi declared that Amin's soldiers had murdered both his parents right in front of him. "The way he [Amin] killed Ugandans in big numbers cannot qualify him to be a nationalist," Murundi added.

The withering criticism hasn't deterred Chávez from pursuing diplomatic alliances with tin pot African dictators such as Muamar Gaddafi. But the Venezuelan has embraced more loathsome despots. Take for example the case of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who Chávez calls a "brother." The African leader, Chávez says, has been wrongly branded a "bad guy" in the eyes of the world. Chávez once presented Mugabe with a replica of a sword wielded by Latin American independence leader Simon Bolívar. In another vintage Chávez gem, the Venezuelan leader told Mugabe that he was "a true freedom fighter [who] continues, alongside his people, to confront the pretensions of new imperialists."

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 and refused to leave office after disputed elections. He has presided over a humanitarian crisis which has pushed thousands to the point of starvation and left many dead of cholera. Zimbabwe once had one of the best health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa, but under Mugabe hospitals had to be shuttered because staff could not afford to buy necessary medicine or equipment. Instead of castigating Mugabe, Chávez came to the African leader's defense: the health emergency in Zimbabwe, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry stated, should not be used by other nations to "politically destabilize" the government in Harare.

In 2000, Mugabe began an oftentimes violent campaign to take over white-owned farms in Zimbabwe and hand them to blacks. Ultimately most of the land wound up in the hands of Mugabe's cronies and agricultural production plummeted, thereby wrecking the economy. Predictably, Chávez came to Mugabe's defense. "I pay tribute to Mugabe," the Venezuelan said, adding "the president of Zimbabwe is made out to be a villain - because he takes land from those who don't need it to give it to those who need it to live."

As if it could get no worse, Chávez has also embraced Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, a leader who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in Darfur. The ICC has charged Bashir with five counts: murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape. The court has declared that Bashir is criminally responsible for atrocities in Darfur as he was the head of state and commander of the Sudanese armed forces during a five-year counter-insurgency campaign waged against armed groups.

According to the Guardian, few independent observers doubt Bashir's culpability for the humanitarian disaster in Darfur which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since 2003. After a mainly non-Arab uprising broke out in Darfur, Bashir's government armed, trained and financed bands of Arab nomads to ransack villages in the region, murdering, raping and pillaging as they went along. The Sudanese army provided air and ground support. Human rights groups have hailed the ICC's decision to pursue Bashir. The Sudanese leader meanwhile counters that the ICC arrest warrant is a western plot to arrest his country's economic development. The ICC, he says, should "eat" its warrant.

Coming to the aid of an ally, Chávez has done his utmost to rehabilitate Bashir. "The recent indictment against the Sudanese president Bashir is one of these ridiculous cases. It's a farce," he said during an Arab summit in Doha. Going even further, Chávez spoke personally with Bashir and invited the Sudanese leader to visit Venezuela. "I spoke with al-Bashir and asked him about the risks he is facing when he visits a foreign country," Chávez said. "I invited him to visit Caracas, and I told him, 'I hope you do not have any problem there.'"

Chávez added that the ICC decision was based on racism and was "a legal eyesore and a political abuse, not only for Sudan but for the people of the third world." Unlike Chávez, other Latin American leaders have refused to demonstrate any solidarity with Bashir. During an official session at Doha, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kircher walked out so as to avoid being photographed with the Sudanese leader.

Chávez's African exploits are but the latest chapter in the Venezuelan's long embrace of autocratic despots. It's a long and tangled history, and I've written extensively about it before. Chávez has thrown his political and diplomatic support behind the likes of Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example. The Venezuelan leader has even warmed up to the likes of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. In Belarus, opposition activists are closely monitored by the secret police--still called the KGB. Anyone joining an opposition protest, Lukashenko has said, should be treated as a "terrorist," adding: "We will wring their necks, as one might a duck." During a visit to Minsk, Chávez remarked bizarrely that Belarus was "a model social state."

But by far the lowest moment came during the Chinese crack down in Tibet. Once again Chávez was on the wrong side. Defending China's repression, he argued that Tibet was part of China. Chávez moreover ridiculed attempts to protest China during the Olympics and in another flight of fantasy claimed that "The United States is behind all that is happening as it wants to derail the Beijing Olympics."

Everything that I've reported on here is on the public record, yet troll through the left blogosphere and you'd be hard pressed to find any mention of Chávez's moral lapses. Indeed, it would appear as if Chávez can do no wrong in the eyes of his international supporters.

Speak to leftist Latin American experts and they'll privately concede that Chávez is out of line. However, these same experts are very selective about what they will or will not sign or publish. Left academics will be the first to rush to Venezuela's defense when Caracas is attacked by the likes of Human Rights Watch for example. I haven't seen any mention however of Idi Amin or Omar Al-Bashir. Where are the heavy hitters on the left? The silence is becoming more and more apparent.

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Summit of the Americas and the Political Limits of Populism

The Summit of the Americas, to be held this week in Port of Spain, Trinidad, should in theory offer Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez a great opportunity to enhance his political profile. The war in Iraq, never popular in Latin America, lingers on and Washington is gearing up for a long fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile the financial meltdown on Wall Street threatens to wipe out many of the positive social and economic gains achieved throughout Latin America in recent years as the region is hard hit by recession.

It sounds like fertile ground for the colorful Chávez, who has long criticized U.S. economic and military interests. The Venezuelan leader travels to Trinidad in the context of long-simmering grievances, including:

---Ongoing U.S support for the futile drug war which has resulted in nothing but violence and mayhem in Colombia and Mexico.

----No progress on U.S. immigration reform which angers many Latino residents in the United States as well as their relatives abroad.

---U.S. stalling on climate change which has exacted a heavy toll on Latin America in recent years.

----No substantial change in official U.S. policy towards Cuba with the trade embargo still firmly in place.

Given that the U.S. will not change any of its fundamental policies at Trinidad, could Chávez ignite the conference in opposition to the United States? The Venezuelan leader certainly has a colorful history of such activities. In 2001, when he was not nearly as known on the world stage, the Venezuelan leader attended the Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Surrounded by anti-globalization protesters, George Bush stayed holed up in his hotel. Chávez, who attacked U.S.-style free trade as inadequate, later remarked that the event was an epiphany for him and that protesters were unjustly subjected to “gas warfare” at a police “wall of shame” surrounding the city center. At the summit, the Venezuelan leader was repulsed by the bullying attitude of Bush and his entourage, intent upon ramming through the corporate-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA.

Four years later, Chávez again roiled the waters in Mar del Plata, Argentina during another summit of the Americas. Having by now deflected a U.S.-sponsored coup d’etat, Chávez was now much more confident and well known on the international circuit. Speaking before a crowd of 25,000 at a local stadium, Chávez famously baptized the site as the “graveyard of the FTAA.” The summit ended in fiasco: Bush returned to Washington empty handed without any trade deal.

Today the U.S. free trade agenda is in tatters and Chávez has significantly pushed his own more socially progressive trading arrangements. Indeed, just this week in advance of the Trinidad summit Chávez hosts his own meeting of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA) in the Venezuelan city of Cumaná. Since its inception in 2004, ALBA has enhanced solidarity and reciprocity amongst governments in the region including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Caribbean island nation of Dominica.

The Cumaná summit should be Chávez’s coup de grace: after years of battling the U.S. free trade agenda, the Venezuelan leader seems to be building up something of a regional constituency. Indeed, one might argue that the meltdown on Wall Street vindicates Chávez’s more progressive economic philosophy since the Venezuelan leader has long railed against the excesses of market capitalism and deregulation.

Yet, ALBA is ironically foundering at precisely the moment when it should be ascendant.

With the exception of Venezuela ALBA nations don’t have much economic clout and it’s unclear whether the regional alliance will be embraced by major countries. While a host of small nations such as Antigua, Barbuda, El Salvador and possibly Ecuador and Paraguay may join ALBA in future this probably won’t alter fundamental power dynamics within the region.

What happened?

At this point, Chávez may be running up against the political limits of his own populist model. Like other Latin American populists, the Venezuelan leader has developed a highly emotional and paternalistic relationship towards his followers. In his rhetoric, the Venezuelan leader stresses his own personal crusade against vaguely defined internal and external threats. Through such rhetoric and his skillful mastery over the media, Chávez has been effective in politically mobilizing Venezuelan society and attracting attention from afar.

In the absence of perceived threats however populists run into trouble. While Venezuela still has a vibrant political opposition Chávez handily defeated his enemies in a recent constitutional referendum which will allow him to stand for indefinite reelection. Internationally, Chávez no longer faces the Bush White House and many Latin leaders want nothing more than to be granted a photo-op with President Obama in Trinidad.

Thrown off his game, Chávez has dealt with Obama schizophrenically. A recent article for The Hill about the upcoming Trinidad summit, amusingly titled “Chávez loves Obama, loves him not, loves him,” catalogues the Venezuelan leader’s contradictory statements. Prior to the November presidential election in the U.S., Chávez was upbeat about the prospect of a Democratic victory and remarked that he was looking forward to meeting “on equal and respectful terms” with Obama.

Reaching out to the “black man,” Chávez declared “Tomorrow the U.S. will have an election. The world awaits the arrival of a black president to the United States, we can say this is no small feat. ... We don't ask him to be a revolutionary, nor a socialist, but that he rise to the moment in the world.”

Days before Obama’s inauguration however, Chávez attacked Obama for linking Venezuela to Marxist guerrillas in Colombia. “We need to be firm when we see this news, that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC,” Chávez remarked. “He goes and accuses me of exporting terrorism: The least I can say is that he's a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality,” Chávez added. Later on, the Venezuelan didn’t sound much more optimistic. “I don't have much hope, because behind him [Obama] is an empire. He's the president of an empire.” Laying it on pretty thick, he added that Obama had “the same stench” — the smell of sulfur that Chávez said he smelled on the floor of the United Nations in 2006 after “devil” President Bush addressed diplomats — as his predecessor.

Bizarrely pivoting back however, Chávez later said “There is still time for [Obama] to correct these views, though. We will wait and see, we will know him by his actions. He is really an unknown. No one should say that I threw the first stone at Obama; he threw it at me!” As Obama turned his attention to the economic recession, Chávez said “It’s regrettable, the crisis that the U.S. is living through. I recommend to Obama — they’re criticizing him because they say he’s moving toward socialism — come, Obama, ally with us on the path to socialism, it’s the only road. Imagine a socialist revolution in the U.S. Nothing is impossible.”

In advance of the Trinidad summit, Chávez has confounded the public once more with his contradictory views. At one point he said he would like to “reset” relations with the United States and that Obama had “good intentions.” Then however, Chávez explained that he was preparing his verbal “artillery” in advance of the Trinidad summit. “What will Mr. Obama come with? I don't know. We're going to see. We'll see what the pitcher throws,” Chávez declared. Calling the U.S. embargo against Cuba “absurd and stupid,” Chávez then switched into English and remarked cryptically that the upcoming summit would be “very interesting.”

What’s with all of the indecisive back and forth? As long as Bush was in power Chávez’s populist style politics served the Venezuelan politician well. Thriving on political conflict, Chávez was effective at mobilizing public opinion both domestically and abroad in support of such initiatives as ALBA. But now that the U.S. has “re-branded” itself, Chávez is in a quandary. Because the wider Latin American public may not view the United States as much of a threat anymore, Chávez will have to come up with a second act. Can Chavismo survive in the absence of obvious political threats? Over the past couple of months Chávez has seemed unsure about how to navigate the new political milieu.

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Enough with the Chavez Hero Worship

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Chavez and the anti-Semitism debate

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The Stimulus Imbroglio: What Obama Might Have Learned From Chávez and Populist-Style Mobilization

When historians look back, they will point to Obama’s inauguration as a missed opportunity. At the zenith of his popularity, the new President might have used his bully pulpit to declare the need for a good economic stimulus, one which would have aided people who were strapped for cash. Instead of delivering a cliché-ridden, mundane and thoroughly unmemorable speech, Obama should have talked forcefully about the need to expand programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps. He might have made a poignant plea for providing relief to state and local government which had been pummeled by the ever deepening recession. If he had gone back to campaign mode, eloquently rallying the crowd on the Washington mall for an equitable stimulus to reverse worsening inequality brought on by the GOP, he would have really gotten his presidency off to a bang.

Obama had the country in his hands and the Republicans at his mercy. But now, it looks like the GOP has the upper hand. What happened? In an effort to attract House Republican support for the stimulus, Obama fashioned about one third of the package out of tax cuts, which the GOP loves. For all his gracious overtures, Obama was rewarded with a complete and total rebuke: not a sole Republican Representative voted for the $819 billion bill, which passed 244-189.

Having been snubbed in the House, Obama now got clobbered in the Senate. For a week at least the GOP went on the offensive on the cable news shows, talking about the need to rein in wasteful spending. The momentum started to shift, and Obama found that he had to beg for every last vote. At the end of the day he managed to attract three moderate Republicans and the Senate reached a tentative deal, but only at a tremendous political price: the final bill amounting to $780 billion shaved off more spending, “much of it among the most effective and most needed parts of the plan” according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. The deal was particularly damaging, Krugman adds, because it cut out $40 billion in aid to desperate, cash-strapped state governments.

What went wrong and how could Obama’s political clout have gone down so dramatically in just two or three weeks? In a sense, the young President’s failure to rally public opinion is perplexing. During the presidential campaign, the Illinois Senator demonstrated exceptional ability to organize, inspire and mobilize millions of supporters. But Obama failed to successfully capitalize on his mass base to help pass the stimulus, choosing instead to concentrate much of his effort on courting Republican lawmakers. Not only did he fail to sway the GOP to his side, but the President probably discouraged many within his old base which was ready to take on entrenched interests.

At long last Obama seems to have realized the gravity of his situation and has turned up his rhetoric somewhat by attacking the Republicans and Wall Street. This coming week, he will embark on a PR blitz by traveling to Elkhart, Indiana, and Fort Myers, Florida, where he will conduct town hall meetings to whip up support for the recovery package. Imagine for a moment however if Obama had hit the ground running and carried out a poverty tour immediately following his inauguration. He could have staged a number of high profile rallies in public parks or stadiums across the country, talking about the need for a good stimulus. Imagine the psychological impact had Obama held a couple of mass marches through poor neighborhoods where people faced housing foreclosures. The President would have dominated the cable news cycle for a week or more through this type of strategy, making the GOP’s messaging campaign that much more difficult.

He could have rammed a better stimulus bill through the House, perhaps even amounting to more than a trillion dollars, and then dared the GOP to filibuster in the Senate. At this point, with the country tilting in his direction, it would have proved problematic to say the least for the Republicans to be obstructionist. Best of all, if Obama had gotten a good stimulus he would have been better positioned to take on future political battles such as health care. Instead, however, he finds that he must defend a very lukewarm bill that will probably not succeed in getting the country out of recession.

Hugo Chávez: The Master Populist

Though it might seem strange to say so, Obama might have learned a trick or two from Latin American populists like President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela during his recent scuffle with Republican lawmakers. Unlike Obama, who has distanced himself from his core base since winning the election, Chávez has understood the importance of mobilizing people before, during and after electoral campaigns. Indeed, if Chávez had not mobilized the poor and disenfranchised it is doubtful whether he would have had such a long and enduring presidency [Chávez has been in power for ten years; his term expires in 2012 unless the President succeeds in passing a constitutional referendum which would allow him to run again for another six year term].

Like Obama, Chávez came to power at a time of acute economic and political crisis. Instead of resting on his laurels however, the President set about encouraging so-called participatory democracy through such mechanisms as the new 1999 constitution which declared the need for popular mobilization. Civil society participated in the drafting of the constitution through a variety of forums, workshops and committees.

Chávez followed that up by creating the Bolivarian Circles in 2000 which had originally functioned as community groups studying the Venezuelan Constitution. Later, the Circles began to address larger concerns such as health and education. During the 2002 coup which briefly dislodged Chávez from power, the Circles played a pivotal role in mobilizing people in the streets in defense of the President. Chávez later created the so-called Electoral Battle Units which got out the vote for government candidates.

After winning reelection in 2006, Chávez experimented with other forms of popular democracy. Under the guidance of the Ministry of Popular Participation and Social Participation, the authorities spurred the creation of the Communal Councils, local groups concentrating on public works projects. At the neighborhood level, council members were elected and each oversaw a separate issue such as youth services or health care.

On a psychological level, Chávez has proved to be a master of communication. A skillful orator speaking in a colloquial style, Chávez quickly bonded with the masses. The President routinely derided vaguely-worded enemies such as “the oligarchy.” Chávez also created his own TV call in show, Aló, Presidente!, which drew him closer to ordinary people.

For Latin American populists, it’s extremely important to create a sense of accessibility. If the people do not believe they have access, the populist will be unsuccessful at creating vertical ties between leader and the masses. In addition to his media strategy, Chávez has cultivated ties to his supporters by holding mass marches and rallies. He has even fashioned an official color for his supporters: red. Indeed, as I explain in my recent book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), color has served as an important badge of belonging and party identification for the Chavistas.

Obama’s Failure to Mobilize

Obviously Obama is not going to mobilize people to write a new constitution, create communal councils or give his followers an official color. Venezuela and the United States have a vastly different political culture and Chávez and Obama are totally dissimilar in terms of their temperament and style. Nevertheless, the idea of popular mobilization is hardly a foreign one to the United States, and there have been plenty of instances in the twentieth century when popular presidents have pushed their agenda by unconventional means.

During the Depression for example, Franklin Roosevelt relied on civil society groups to implement and carry out government policies. Rather than impose wage and price regulations to stabilize the economy, the government’s own National Recovery Administration allowed business associations to establish standards and actually empowered unions to enforce the rules. By supporting the Wagner Act and labor’s right to organize, Roosevelt got much needed union support and was able to mobilize new blocs of voters. The mobilization of civil society and the growth of the industrial union movement proved essential in Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 and deepened the President’s commitment to social democratic reform in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

We haven’t seen mobilization on that kind of scale for a long time though there are some more recent examples. In 1981, Ronald Reagan delivered multiple televised addresses and urged his supporters to call their members of Congress and demand tax cuts and reduced government spending on social programs. The President’s strategy paid off when people called Capitol Hill and Reagan’s legislation was passed over the objections of the Democratically-led House.

Obama is uniquely positioned to remake politics through the internet and to spur more popular engagement. Unlike Reagan or FDR, or recent Latin American populists for that matter, Obama has an amazing thirteen-million name contact list with 2 million volunteers. No president has ever entered office with this much information, which could truly revolutionize progressive politics. “It is a mechanism that could truly morph the power structure in Washington,” notes a recent article in Esquire magazine, “waking up the unused, overslept public…and making an end run around lobbyists and interest groups.”

Recently, Obama launched the formation of a new group known as “Organizing for America” which seeks to continue the grassroots advocacy of the presidential campaign and capitalize on the e-mail list. But up to now, “Obama 2.0” has failed to live up to its full potential. Belatedly, Organizing for America sent out an e-mail on January 30th, urging supporters to hold “house parties” designed to discuss the economic collapse and back Obama’s stimulus. By that point however, the GOP had already taken to the airwaves, effectively blunting the President’s message. What’s more, house parties are hardly the most effective method of grassroots organizing.

Could Obama be America’s first “techno-populist”? He has certainly squandered his first opportunity, begging the question of what the President has in store for Organizing for America. Perhaps, Obama has been listening too closely to party hacks such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who has disdain for the netroots. Or, perhaps Obama simply saw web organizing as a cynical tool to get elected and later abandoned. Either way, ignoring Web activism is hardly a positive blueprint for political success. While Obama is only in his third week at the Oval Office, his failure to achieve a meaningful stimulus will have far reaching consequences for his presidency.

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