Friday, February 21, 2014

The Downfall of Democracies

University students from Venezuela protest crime, shortages and restrictions on free speech in their country this afternoon in front of Los Andes University in Bogotá.
Across the territory of the old Soviet Union, parts of Africa and right next door in Venezuela, democracy is being dismantled.

I know only the general outlines of what's going on in Asia and Africa, where numerous leaders, once elected, manipulate the rules to guarantee themselves perpetual reelection. And they use temporary majorities to issue laws giving themselves control of the legal system and repressing critical media.

But it's particularly sad for me to watch this happening next door in Venezuela, where I lived there for several years, and particularly because it's a nation with such tremendous potential, in ever way.

When Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, many of us saw in him a hope for a change from the often corrupt and incompetent leaders who had preceded him, who had largely ruled for the benefit of the small wealthy classes.

But Chavez replaced one style of disfunctional government for another, even worse one. He eliminated checks and balances, used insult as political discourse and converted Venezuela's tremendous wealth into a huge machine for buying supporters and elections. Meanwhile, the government of Chavez and his hand-picked successor Maduro threatened private media and made it more and more difficult for independent newspapers and television to operate.
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez
being arrested.

At the same time, the government's increasing attempts to control the economy only distorted it, shutting down businesses and causing shortages of basics such as milk and toilet paper. And - perhaps because of the leaders' aggressive, profane rhetoric, their creation of civilian militias, the corruption and lack of rule of law - or all of these things - violent crime skyrocketed.

A Ukranian protester throws a bomb.
Still, some elements of an open society survived, including some independent media and competitive elections - at least in some areas.

Meanwhile, naturally, students, the middle class and others felt increasingly frustrated by the government's steady strangulation of basic liberties. The Cuba-style shortages of basic goods in what should be one of the world's wealthiest nations seem to have been the needle which broke the camel's back. Three weeks ago, Venezuela erupted in protests.

A Venezuelan protester demands freedom of speech.
Such difficulties make no sense in what, by all rights, should be the region's wealthiest, most prosperous nation. It's not for nothing that Venezuela, an OPEC member, has been compared to Saudi Arabia.

But, rather than recognizing that his nation's heading down the wrong path, Pres. Maduro is using the protests as an excuse to increase authoritarianism. An opposition leader was arrested on evidently invented charges and sent to 'court' on a military base. Maduro yanked a Colombian news channel off of the cable TV systems without benefit of any sort of hearing or appeal process. And reporters in western Venezuela report that their cell phone service has been cut. Newspapers were already struggling with a lack of paper to print on.

Maduro is now threatening to expel CNN from the country "for making it appear that Venezuela is having a civil war." Watchers and readers can draw their own conclusions.

Venezuelan authorities are trying to divert the blame for their nation's multiple crisis by accusing Colombia and the United States - the perpetual whipping boys - of being behind the troubles. It's patently untrue. The sources of Venezuela's troubles are right at home: a wrecked economy, shortages of basic goods, galloping inflation, soaring crime and an increasingly authoritarian government. (In fact, Venezuela lives off of the U.S., which buys much of Venezuela's petroleum and sells it much of what Venezuela imports.)

In the recent protests six people have been killed, including a beauty queen and university student shot in the head after participating in an anti-government protest march.

But I'm not optimistic that these budding dictators will be forced out soon. It's tragic but true that both strongmen and full-fledged dictators have shown real staying power. Look at Chavez himself - and his succesor Maduro - as well as Russia's Putin and the leaders of Syria, Belarus and many of those ex-Soviet states.

I can't help observing the embarrasing behavior of some lefties, such as the folks at Democracy Now! You'd think that a program with a name like that would oppose autocratic strongmen, especially those which are strangling press freedoms. But the message I get from DN's coverage of the violence in Ukraine and Venezuela is that the bad guys here are the protesters, who are quasi-fascists pretending to be democrats, and that the real demon behind them is - as always - the United States, which is pulling the strings. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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