Identity Politics Building Ethnic Conflicts In Latin America

Randall Parker, Parapundit.com, Aug. 4

Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute surveys the current state and trends in Latin America and finds the Andes is politically in the greatest trouble.

The most troubled region politically is the Andes—Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia. Recent issues of this Outlook have discussed four of the five of these countries in some detail. Colombia has an unusually close relationship with the United States, thanks to a plan inaugurated by the Clinton administration to provide it with economic and military aid to confront the combined menace of a guerrilla insurgency and a movement of narco-gangsters both left and right. So far the U.S. role in that country has enjoyed considerable popular support, despite continual complaints from various human rights organizations. And under President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia has become one of the sturdier allies of the United States within inter-American councils, partly because both countries share an adversary in Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez.

Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador are societies slowly being strangled in the roots of their own history—the exploitation and neglect of indigenous populations is coming home to roost. Identity politics, driven by urbanization of rural folk and often funded by European NGOs, bids fair to replace the traditional class-based electoral left. The U.S. drug eradication program is unwelcome to the Indian peasantry, particularly in Bolivia, all the more so because ordinary folk have not benefited significantly from the larger export industries—minerals, oil, and natural gas. In the case of Bolivia, the political class has cleverly turned popular resentment against the foreign companies who make possible extractive activities, as opposed to the politicians who squander (and steal) the royalties they generate. The fact that many are based in the United States adds a soupçon of “anti-imperialist” flavoring to the ideological stew.

The term “indigenous populations” refers to the Amerinds who have been ruled over for centuries by the Spanish white upper class ever since the Spanish Conquest.

The Spanish white upper class in Venezuela has lost power to President Hugo Chavez becaue the poor people have voted so overwhelmingly for Chavez and his party. Chavez used the strong position of his party in the elected national assembly to rewrite the constitution to give himself more power. The poor Amerinds support Chavez against the upper class Spanish whites.

Immediately after taking office in 1999, Chavez called for the election of a Constitutional Assembly in order to reform the 1961 Constitution of the Republic of Venezuela. His party won more than 90 percent of the assembly’s seats; this allowed Chavez to obtain a new, tailor-made constitution. The assembly modified the structure of the three branches of government: dissolving the existing bicameral congress, which had been controlled by the opposition, to create a unicameral congress; reshuffling the judiciary to appoint loyalists in key positions; and extending the presidential term from five to six years while allowing for immediate reelection, which had previously been prohibited. As a result of these constitutional changes, a general election took place in 2000. Chavez again won with 60 percent of the vote. To counterbalance the six-year presidential term, the 1999 constitution included a provision for one recall election following the president’s first three years in office and in accordance with the wishes of 20 percent of voters.

Chavez’s populist style and his unwillingness to negotiate alienated the middle class, the mainstream media, the trade unions and the business sector. Unable to request a recall election for three years, however, the opposition attempted to illegally remove Chavez from power.

In late 2003, the opposition groups collected nearly 2.5 million signatures requesting the recall of the president and 33 pro-government legislators. After several debates on the verification of signatures presumed to be forged, the National Electoral Council set the date of the referendum for Aug. 15. The question on the ballot reads: “Do you agree with terminating the popular mandate given through legitimate democratic elections to citizen Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for the current presidential term?”

“The [Chavez] administration now confronts three challenges: the mainstream media is adamantly anti-Chavez; the international public opinion distrusts the current administration; and the Venezuelan middle class, who supported the president in the 1998 election, has abandoned the boat,” Perez-Linan explained. “On the other hand, Chavez still has much personal charisma and controls the Venezuelan oil revenues that sustain his education, health, and labor programs for the poor. As a result, the president remains popular among the poorest sectors in the country, which may represent as much as 70 percent of the Venezuelan population.”

It says a lot about Venezuela (none of it good) that a Venezuelan President can alienate the middle class, the mainstream press, the trade unions and the business sector and yet still have favorable odds of beating a recall referendum. When the lower class is very large, of a different ethnic group than the upper class, and politically enfranchised with the vote then democracy inevitably becomes a way for the less successful to seize assets from the more successful.

On the one hand the white upper class in Latin America have been too corrupt. This process of corruption inevitably seems to happen when nations have smaller ethnically-based upper classes that are far more successful than than larger lower classes of different ethnicities (in case you were wondering what is in store for the United States in the future). On the other hand the Latin American Spaniards are on average relatively more talented than the Amerinds and so they were more competent to rule. So the loss of power by the Spanish whites and other Latin Americans of European ancestry places into power people who are less able to rule effectively.

This brings to mind Amy Chua’s World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. The market dominant Spanish white minority of Latin America are going to fare poorly under a trend toward democratization as the Spanish whites in Venezeula are learning. Even without the ethnic divisions it is unlikely that a country like Bolivia with $2400 per capita GDP or Ecuador with $3300 per capita GDP would have slim chances of maintaining their democracies for long periods of time because poor countries rarely remain democratic. Peru with $5200 per capita GDP has better odds but the continuation of its democracy is by no means assured. Of course, maintaining a democracy is no guarantee of good government, non-confiscatory taxes, prosperity, or freedom of speech. The winds from Washington DC may continue to blow in support of democracy for some time to come. So my expectation is that we will see the maintenance of the outward appearances of democratic forms of government in Latin America while some countries such as Venezuela become more authoritarian. Though popular dissatisfaction with democracy in many Latin American nations is so high that even the continuation of the outward forms of democracy is by no means certain.

What is happening in Latin America also holds obvious lessons for Iraq and for the demographic future of the United States.

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