Misery in the Name of Democracy:
The US Works Elections in Iraq, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Haiti
by Yifat Susskind
The Bush Administration is touting Iraq's
December 15 election as a giant leap forward for freedom guaranteed
to ignite fervor for democracy across the entire Middle East.
But closer to home, the Administration has discovered that democracy
has created a monster and that the monster is democracy. In Latin
America and the Caribbean, popular movements are demanding that
the United States' "gift to the world" make good on
its promise of majority rule. That would likely disrupt a system-otherwise
known as "free-market democracy"-that has benefited
a small elite and worsened poverty for most people. The possibility
has so alarmed CIA Director Porter Goss that he recently labeled
the spate of upcoming elections in Latin America as a "potential
area of instability."
The Bush Administration is fighting back,
stepping up USAID's "democracy promotion" program to
ensure that those who have long had a monopoly on wealth continue
to exercise a monopoly on government. The program's main targets
in this hemisphere are Venezuela, Bolivia, and Haiti. National
elections in these countries-all occurring within just one month
of the Iraqi ballot-provide a flashpoint for how hard the Bush
Administration is working to keep democracy out of the wrong hands,
both in this hemisphere and in Iraq.
On December 4, Venezuela's main opposition
parties chose to boycott congressional elections rather than face
certain defeat at the polls. In 2002, these same pro-business
parties-financed directly by the US National Endowment for Democracy
to the tune of about six million dollars a year-resorted to a
military coup to oust Hugo Chavez from the presidency. The coup
failed in less than two days because millions of Venezuelans (including
the lower ranks of the army) rallied to Chavez's defense. Most
Venezuelans continue to defend-and vote for-Chavez and his brand
of participatory, bottom-up democracy, which has mobilized millions
of citizens in national dialogues on governance, produced the
region's most democratic constitution (written in gender-inclusive
language recognizing women's unpaid work and guaranteeing a pension
to housewives), launched an ambitious land-reform program, and
improved rates of illiteracy, hunger, and infant mortality.
At last month's Summit of the Americas
in Argentina, Chavez was a lightning rod for widespread opposition
to US-driven economic policies that have further impoverished
most Latin Americans. Afterwards, Bush accused him of trying to
"roll back democratic progress." Yet, most of the world
seems quite impressed with Venezuela's democratic progress, even
by the rather narrow standard of elections. Indeed, all eight
elections held in Venezuela under Chavez have been declared free
and fair by independent observers, including Jimmy Carter.
This is precisely the problem: despite
the opposition's extensive US backing, it can't beat Chavez at
the polls. Democracy just isn't working (says the only US president
to be appointed by the Supreme Court after losing the popular
vote). For decades, Venezuela was controlled by two alternating
elite parties, both allied with US business interests (sound familiar?).
Most of the population was effectively disenfranchised and elections
could be counted on to confer legitimacy on a compliant leadership.
Now, Venezuela's poor majority has seized on the rhetoric and
procedures of democracy to win control of the state. This is what
the Bush Administration calls a crisis of democracy.
Bolivia is suffering from a similar crisis.
When Bolivians go to the polls on December 18, they are likely
to elect Evo Morales to be their first Indigenous President. Morales
is a social democrat whom the Bush Administration vilifies as
a radical leftist and the US Ambassador compared to Osama bin
Laden. But Morales' platform is extreme only if you consider policies
that guarantee mass poverty and vast inequality to be moderate.
His platform reflects the Bolivian social movements' demand for
increased government regulation of natural resources and the formation
of a popular Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution
that would make government more inclusive.
Apparently incredulous that Indigenous
peasants could be strategic and organized enough to overthrow
two presidents in two years (Gonzalo Sanchez in 2003 and Carlos
Mesa in 2005), Donald Rumsfeld says that Hugo Chavez must be pulling
the strings in Bolivia. Yet, it is the Bush Administration that
has meddled openly in Bolivian politics since the Indigenous movement
rose to prominence in 2002. That year, the Administration publicly
threatened to cut off economic aid if Bolivians elected Morales.
Since then, the US has steadily expanded its "democracy promotion"
efforts in Bolivia, pouring millions of tax dollars into building
a parallel, pro-US Indigenous movement and turning out public
relations campaigns for a series of doomed, US-friendly governments.
As in Venezuela, US "democracy promotion"
in Bolivia supports a limited notion of representative government
enacted by pro-business elites over more direct participation
in government by the poor majority. The big headache for the Administration
is that Bolivia's Indigenous-based social movement is playing
by the rules, working within the system to gain more legitimate
representation within government.
Two weeks ago, Haiti postponed its presidential
election for the fourth time in five months. With the vote now
set for January 8, the Interim Government (installed by the US
after it helped overthrow Haiti's democratically-elected President,
Jean Bertrand Aristide, in February 2004) will hold on to power
past its February 2006 deadline (just imagine if Hugo Chavez tried
that). Regardless of when elections are held, conditions in Haiti
make a mockery of democratic process. Yet the Bush Administration
has demanded that elections go forth.
Secretary of State Rice has hailed Haiti's
election as "a precious step on the road to democracy."
But look closely. Haitians are being denied the right to vote:
only a few hundred registration and polling sites have been created
to serve eight million people (compared with 10,000 provided by
the deposed Aristide government) and some large, poor neighborhoods-with
few government supporters-have no registration sites at all. Haitians
are being denied the right to campaign: the government's potential
challengers have been jailed on false charges or no charges. And
Haitians are being denied the right to organize: in September,
the government outlawed political demonstrations in violation
of Haiti's constitution; and anti-government protesters have been
repeatedly attacked by the Haitian National Police. The Bush Administration
fueled this repression by sending $1.9 million worth of guns and
police equipment to Haiti just in time for election season.
In fact, repression is the Haitian government's
primary campaign strategy. Since 1990, every internationally-validated
election in Haiti has produced a landslide victory for the Lavalas
Party. Once the standard-bearer of Haiti's pro-democracy movement,
Lavalas-like its exiled leader, Aristide-is a casualty of US "democracy
promotion." After US-backed forces ousted Aristide, the party
splintered into factions, including unaccountable and violent
groups. Despite its flawed human rights record, Lavalas would
no doubt win again in January if its candidates were allowed to
run. The reason is simple: Lavalas is the party of the poor and
most Haitians are poor.
Far from supporting constitutional democracy
in Haiti, the US has twice helped to overthrow Aristide, who resisted
Washington's prescriptions for Haiti's economy by insisting on
social spending for the poor. The first time, back in 1991, "regime
change" was still a covert business. The US had to deny that
it was sponsoring the military thugs that took over Haiti and
killed thousands of Aristide supporters (and poor people in general,
just for good measure). By last year, when Aristide was ousted
for the second time, things had changed. A Pentagon plane flew
him into exile. The US warmly welcomed the "new" government,
including remnants of the 1991 coup who are poised to win next
month's sham election.
Democracy in Iraq: The Freedom to Do What
We Tell You
The first fact of Iraq's election is that
it will take place under the distorting influence of military
occupation, precluding a free and fair vote from the start. Iraq's
"march toward liberty" has been marred by US intervention
at every step, starting with Paul Bremmer's 2003 decision to appoint
reactionary clerics to the Iraqi Governing Council. That move
has helped Islamists dominate Iraq's interim government and roll
back the democratic rights of Iraqi women-a majority of the population.
In fact, the Bush Administration has no
intention of allowing a majority of Iraqis to determine key policies.
The Administration has tried to avoid holding direct (one person,
one vote) elections in Iraq, giving in only because of pressure
from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a Shiite cleric who wants Iraq to
be an Islamic state. And Bush's two most important objectives
in Iraq-creating an extreme free-market state and maintaining
a long-term military presence-have been placed well beyond the
reach of Iraqi voters.
As in Haiti, democracy in Iraq is to be
mainly a procedural matter, demonstrated by periodic elections
regardless of political chaos and widespread violence against
candidates and voters alike. And as in Venezuela and Bolivia,
the government that is produced by the elections will be entitled
to the label "democracy" only as long as it follows
a US policy script.
In 1819 Simon Bolivar observed that, "The
USA appears destined by fate to plague America with misery in
the name of democracy." The Bush Administration is intent
on extending this destiny to Iraq and the whole Middle East. Iraqis
may be having an election this week, but the Bush Administration
is no more interested in genuine democracy in Iraq than it is
in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Yifat Susskind is the Communications
Director of MADRE, an international
women's human rights organization based in New York. She can be
reached at email@example.com.
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