Monday, November 24, 2014

One Hundred Days of Solitude

SANTIAGO – When violence flared up in Ukraine and protesters began dying at the hands of government agents, the European Union threatened sanctions against Ukrainian officials responsible for “violence and excessive force.” President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv, leaving behind a private zoo with exotic pigs and goats – and also the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Poland, who were in town trying to broker a deal to end the violence.

But when violence flared up – virtually simultaneously – in Venezuela and protesters began dying at the hands of government agents, the Organization of American States raised its voice to announce would not raise its voice. The situation was up to Venezuela to sort out, the OAS stated. Foreign ministers from other Latin American countries are nowhere to be seen in Caracas – certainly not denouncing repression and demanding an end to the violence. Meanwhile, the body count keeps rising.

The contrast highlights what everyone already knows: Latin America’s regional institutions are weak – even weaker than Europe’s. But it also reveals something else: a morally crooked logic that condemns governments and leaders to remain silent in the face of aggression, repression, and even death, because to say anything would be tantamount to “intervention” in another country’s internal affairs.

It was not always like this. Not long ago in Latin America, life and liberty were deemed to be universal rights, to be defended across national borders.

My father was a Chilean lawyer and human-rights activist. General Augusto Pinochet kicked him and our family out of the country, and I spent my adolescence and early adulthood in exile, sharing hopes and fears with other expatriates from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. None of us – and no one on the Latin American left – would have doubted for a moment that defending human rights was everyone’s responsibility, and that the international community should come down hard on governments that tortured and killed their own people.

In Pinochet’s Chile or General Jorge Rafael Videla’s Argentina, anyone who complained about government-sponsored violence was painted as a member of an international communist conspiracy. Today, anyone who complains about violence in Venezuela is, according to President Nicolás Maduro, a fascist and a lackey of the American empire. Everything has changed, yet everything remains the same.

Yes, the situation in Venezuela must be sorted out by Venezuelans. The problem is that some Venezuelans today cannot march peacefully on the streets without being shot at. Some Venezuelans cannot speak freely to their fellow citizens, because each and every television station that would carry their words has been muzzled or driven off the air.

And some Venezuelans cannot be sure their rights will be respected. Terms in office have expired for the prosecutor-general, members of the national election commission, and supreme court justices, but no successors have been named, because Maduro is unwilling to negotiate with the opposition and lacks the two-thirds majority in the National Assembly needed to appoint officials of his choosing.

Venezuelans would like nothing better than to be the ones who decide their own destiny, but the democratic means to do so are being denied to them. Indeed, one of the key opposition leaders, Leopoldo López, has been arrested on ludicrous charges of “inciting crime.”

It would have been preposterous to tell Ukrainian demonstrators facing government storm troopers to just grin and bear it without any external solidarity or support. It is just as preposterous to tell Venezuelan demonstrators the same thing. In these circumstances, the principle of self-determination, so beloved of foreign ministries everywhere, becomes an empty slogan.

Perhaps the saddest of all foreign reactions came from the University of Chile’s student federation. Using language reminiscent of the Stalinist 1950’s, the federation – which has led student protests demanding better education in Chile – condemned their Venezuelan counterparts for “defending the old order” and “deviating from the path the people have chosen.”

The problem with this argument (if one can call it that) is that “the people” do not speak with one voice, nor do their pronouncements fall fully formed from the sky. To figure out what real people actually want and respond accordingly, democracies have procedures, constitutional guarantees, and individual rights. When these are trampled upon, as they have been in Venezuela, people can neither speak freely nor choose their path.

It is equally silly to argue that Maduro’s actions must be legitimate because he came to power through an election. A democratically elected leader retains legitimacy only to the extent that he or she behaves democratically once in office.

As Georgetown professor Hector Schamis recently recalled, António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, and Suharto in Indonesia attained power through elections, yet no history book calls them democratic. Yanukovych, too, won an election, but he will be remembered mostly for the bloodshed he unleashed, the bankruptcy that now faces Ukraine’s economy, and, of course, his private zoo and stable of Ferraris.

Venezuelans, like Ukrainians, should know that they are not alone. Their struggle for democratic rights is everyone’s struggle. People in Latin America know this, even if their leaders are not always willing to say it out loud.

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    1. Commentedsilvio starosta

      worry about human rights on Venezuela ?
      shame on you Mr Velasco.
      human rights is a valid concept, but in the whole world.
      You forgot Africa,Guatemala, El Salvador, Guantanamo,Saudi Arabia and a long ETc. ??
      You cannot compare Europe ethic with ours latinamericans officials. there is no comparation . we are free of slavery and colonialism and many other cruelty

    2. Portrait of Michael Heller

      CommentedMichael Heller

      Temesgen Abate, oh my gawd. That's it for me. Bye bye comments section at Project Syndicate. There's nothing here.

    3. Portrait of Michael Heller

      CommentedMichael Heller

      Zsolt, I see you are still reading the same book as always. Inherently self-centred, dull, and selfish. Let me guess, Jiddu Krishnamurti?

    4. Commentedtemesgen abate

      ``democracies have procedures...A democratically elected leader retains legitimacy only to the extent....``so says an apologist of ``what ideological hue`` i do guess.i followed the itinerary of the Bolivarian revolution since its inception.the Chavismo movement brought the scales down from our eyes. in the Bush- era , the``Commandante ``wrestled with the then reigning ideological edifice of Washington consensus. he stymied the scourge of this mammoth in his country.i too was dumbfounded at the stealth color line barrier of wealth distribution.what has ``Maidan revolution`` to do with an insurgency of ancien regime in Venezuela? a collage of obfuscations.

    5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      On the surface the picture looks as the article describes.
      But when we scratch the surface today everybody can easily see that the praised "external support" the Ukraine has received, came from very precise and obvious self-calculated reasons, intentions.
      Every act of "support" is not other but interference, the Ukrainians are used as pawns in the chess game against the growing influence of Russia.
      In truth there is nobody to blame neither in Europe, Russia, the US or South America, at this stage we, human beings are still instinctively following our inherently self-centered, egoistic human nature, without any free choice or independent, objective scrutiny.
      This is why we keep repeating the same mistakes again and again, going in circles, but with greater threat and responsibility each time.
      Without a fundamental change, shift in this paradigm we can all sleepwalk into a global nuclear conflict, or other mass catastrophe, believing until the last moment that we are just playing a poker game.
      We are at the edge of the cliff and we truly need to wake up from this dream, where we believe in our own enlightened humanity when in truth we haven't even started the process of human evolution.
      The truly human beings starts from the moment we learn how to rise above selfish, subjective calculations and perception, where we start to consider ourselves a single, united and equal species that is obliged to work together in mutually complementing cooperation above all our real and perceived differences and hatred.
      No species can survive evolution without change and adaptation, and our uniqueness is that we need to achieve this self-change and adaptation in full awareness, driven by our own critical self-assessment.

    6. CommentedJoan Miro

      So, Heller, there was NOT an attempted CIA-backed coup against Chavez? There was not a successful CIA-backed coup against Allende? And there was no Bay of Pigs invasion? The zealots on any Latin American issue are about as blind to anything that lies outside their own narrative as the Zionists or Hamas are on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This site runs Hausman and Velasco because they toe the high-brow capitalist party line. But let's allow ourselves, as commenters, a little more perspective.
      As for the "inevitable self-destruction of every socialist experiment" I guess you would have to disregard those of Europe. For that matter, it is every instance of capitalism that would self-destruct if it weren't for the intervention of the state to stave it off.

    7. Portrait of Michael Heller

      CommentedMichael Heller

      We can’t expect better from the young stalinists in the student union of Universidad de Chile. Those crazy deluded kids exist in every generation and every country, and remind us of our own youth (especially if we studied alongside the Chilean diaspora!). What does disappoint, however, is that the middle-aged well-educated and articulate ‘centre left’ Latin American leaders do not publicly stand up against the Chavez, the Castro, or the Allende *before* the subsidies are extinguished, before the economy collapses, before the contradictions become manifestly dangerous, before the country implodes, in other words before the repression associated with the inevitable self-destruction of every socialist experiment. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Nico Maduro who was left holding the baby, but obviously lacking the charisma and intelligence of his mentor, and without the regional respect that is automatically bestowed on any genuine poncho-swinging socialist caudillo. Remember how indecently the members of Mercosur del sur fell over themselves in their haste to admit Venezuela del norte under Chavez? When I want to remind myself why Latin American leaders of all political stripes (Chileans being the notable exception, of course) typically gush and fawn over the socialist autocrats I pick up my copy of Mark Falcoff’s ‘A Culture of Its Own’, alighting perhaps on chapter 16 ‘Why the Latins Still Love Fidel’. The sad thing is that Falcoff’s arguments and anecdotes are *still* not dated. I notice your colleague Ricardo Hausmann, who is a little more open than you about the roots of the problem, yesterday slipped in a coded reference to Vargas Llosa’s ‘A Fish Out of Water’. I have these two mini masterpieces sitting close to each other on the shelf.