Friday, November 04, 2005

Chavez packs them in 

Some of you may have noticed there is a little hemispheric summit going on down in Argentina. Both Bush and Chavez are in attendance. But they seem to be getting starkly different receptions as Chavez is speaking to stadiums packed with adoring fans while Bush just hopes to make it out alive. For excellent updates on the goings on down there (in Spanish) you can read here and here.

It is not surprising that Bush isn’t popular in Latin American. It’s not just his imperial arrogance that does him in. Rather it’s the two decades worth of failed economic policies that the U.S. has foisted on Latin America that has created much bitterness. Lets recall just half a decade ago the Argentine economy was joined at the hip with the U.S. dollar at the urging of the “we know what’s best for you” economists of the IMF and the U.S. government. Of course, all that accomplished was to completely devastate the Argentine economy and make anything emanating from Gringolandia not too popular, Bush being no exception. What’s more, Bush isn’t even too popular in his own country. So the rude reception he is receiving is no surprise.

None of that, however, explains the rock star status of Hugo Chavez. Why exactly is he so popular throughout Latin America – so much so that he regularly upstages other Latin American leaders in their own countries? To understand that I think we have to look at what is going on in Venezuela, and look at it not in isolation but in comparison with the rest of Latin America. That is, how do Venezuelan’s perceive their country vis-à-vis how other Latin Americans perceive their own countries?

That is not something easy to do but fortunately a Chilean polling firm, Corporacion Latinobarometro, did it by carrying out extensive polling in 18 Latin American countries the results of which were published in Ultimas Noticias on Wednesday. Lets take a look at some of what they found out.

First they asked people how democratic they thought their country was on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the most democratic). Venezuelans, more than any other Latin Americans, consider their country to be democratic giving it a rating of 7.6. That was followed by Uruguay with 7.1, Costa Rica with 6.5, Chile 6.2, the Dominican Republic 6.1 and Colombia 5.8. So Venezuelans know they live in a vibrant democracy.

Another key question asked in all countries was do people view their own countries as “progressing”. In Latin America as a whole only 32% thought that their countries were progressing. Chile had the highest percentage at 62% while Venezuela was second with 54%. So it is also clear many more Venezuelans think their country is progressing than is the norm in Latin America.

The third key question was whether people approved of the current government in their countries. In Venezuela the percentage approving the governments performance was 65% (note how closely this matches the many Venezuelan polls which give Chavez a 70% approval rating). That was fourth highest in Latin America after Uruguay with 72%, Argentina with 71% and Colombia with 69%.

So when other Latin Americans look to Venezuela what do they see? Not only a country with a booming economy and improving social welfare indicators but also one of the most, if not THE most, democratic countries, a country that is “progressing”, and a government that enjoys the support of a large majority of its citizens. Tell me who wouldn’t want to emulate that!

And in fact that is what we are witnessing in the pictures from Uruguay. Latin Americans are tired of right wing governments that care more about selling off everything the government owns than whether or not the average person has enough to eat. And they are even more tired of so called “leftist” politicans who turn far to the right as soon as they take office (and Venezuela had LOTS of them before Chavez came to power).

What people want is a break from the orthodoxy of the “Washington consensus” that has done nothing but enrich a corrupt few while impoverishing millions for two decades now. They want politicians who actually govern as they campaign. And they want leaders who are strong enough to stand up to the furey of the old elites when their privileges are challenged in the interest of helping the 80% who have always been marginalized.

The see that in Chavez. But not only do they see him challenging the right wing orthodoxy, standing up to rabid elites, and doing what he promised to do all along – they see him actually being successful in doing all that. The economy booms, poverty is down, and people who were never worth a hill of beans to previous governments are now the complete focus of this government. In other words, Chavez didn’t just kick in the door of the old rancid and corrupt political and economic systems. He is actually building something better in its place. If I were a Mexican, Brazilian, Honduran, Ecuadorian, or Bolivian I think I’d be looking on with a bit of envy too. Heck, I might even make my way down and join the adoring crowd:

In case you are wondering, yes that is Diego Maradona. My apologies to any British football fans who may be reading!


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