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Web Letter

As a child I left Latin America to grow up and become a "citizen of the world" in New Jersy, with NYC as the point of reference. I have not read The Nation in a while. I used to, a lot! With The Nation, I grew and expanded my political horizons. I consider myself a liberal American and proud of it. I could never hide it, even if I tried. Nevertheless, my Latino identity allows me to see your work in a different light.

It is amazing how the left in America Has not really change in twenty years.

Mr. Wilkinson does a great scholarly job here, but he still presents Latin countries as backward. Reading this well-researched article I could not help but see similarities with the United States. Take away immigration waves, participation in European wars, the industrialization phases, Catholic culture, the Spanish language subjunctive, and in terms of democracy, Latin America is not that different from the United States. Many of these countries have a commander-in-chief, presidential powers, a growing difference among the rich and poor and a growing acceptance among the masses of its mixed heritage.

I said it back in the 1980s as a Rutgers student: Latinos will grow, and without wanting to do so will represent a cultural challenge to a US-America identified as an extension of Northwestern Europe.

I know you did not want this to be the impact of your article; but the tone of it leads me to believe that neither you nor other staff in your magazine are bicultural in Spanish or Latin culture. I considered myself to have integrated into NYC metropolitan culture and now in modern-day Germany. I can only say that even scholarly work needs to show empathy for the subject studied. Please take it as a suggestion.

You should cite more Latin American authors and re-examine the ample history of Latin America you already know, with an in situ perspective. Maybe you should consult that Chávez-opposition and definitely Chávez assistants, specially those in the culture ministry.

How about having among your staff people of mixed background, bicultural or the like? I meet Anglo-Saxon Americans in Europe, all the time and it is amazing to see how little some pursuit integration or identification with European values. These definitely should not be in your staff for European issues!

Latin America deserves respect for having tried to set up democracies at the beginning of the 19th century ( in paper, most are, as is the US, no?), its mixed population, and should also be seen as part of the western-world. Democracy doesn´t mean wealth and wealth doesn´t mean democracy.

Javier Ortiz

Düsseldorf, Germany

Mar 12 2008 - 11:23am

Web Letter

Having spent the last ten years living in Brazil, I have grown to understand the very large but subtle differences in how government, institutions and democracy work in strong democratic traditions like ours in the States (current decadence excluded) and in South American commodities-oriented nations. We have a tendency to be very idealistic and naïve when we analyze always with our own self-absorbed culture as a reference. The most glaring difference I have noticed is our lack of comprehending conspiracy theories. Only a nation like ours would have swallowed the Warren Commission, precisely because Chief Justice Warren and the institution that he represented are trusted by us.

Our belief in the American dream and equality blind us to the raw and cutthroat workings of the power game. In Latin America, everything is a conspiracy. We have countries that had a state before a nation, a continual perpetuation of a small elite ruling class inherited from colonial periods. In Brazil there wasn't even a war of revolution, the King of Portugal granted independence to his own son! When Brazil became independent it inherited Portugal's debt with England! There is no independent media, they are in cohorts with the bureaucrats, the judiciary system, the politicians and the business people. A "true" democracy is difficult to grasp because there are no democratic institutions, and there have never been any, as that would threaten the status quo.

This is why revolutions, especially socialist, so often occur here: there is such resistance to change that many see democratic change as impossible. Whenever somebody comes along preaching to make things right and replace an ancient regime of institutionalized injustice with one that represents the interests of the majority--i.e., poor, uneducated, darker-skinned--the masses jump at the opportunity. When Castro purged Cuba, it was not unlike the French Revolution. Would you leave the aristocrats around to undermine the new society? Should they be forgiven for centuries of abuse and inequality? Marie Antoinette was not really a bad person, was she?

Now that those great progressive groups have turned from revolutionary bourgeois to reactionary modern aristocrats based not on blood but on capital, where will the changes come from? There is no popular democratic tradition here, everything is from the top down. The question is really who will have the historic vision to create the foundations for the majority to rule. History will judge Chávez, and all we can hope is that he has a vision beyond his inherited authoritarian culture.

Bernard Haffeman Ribeiro

New York, NY

Mar 11 2008 - 12:16pm

Web Letter

In writing his apparent criticism of Hugo Chávez, it seems that Wilkinson forgot the premise of his own article, "Is Chávez undoing his country's experiment in democracy?"

Let us put aside for a moment whatever ideological preconceptions we have about the way democratic institutions should run. The principles that make up a democratic government (by definition one that represents the majority of the people) do not exist independent of context. We must realize that Venezuela is not a Western First World nation with advanced governmental institutions; it is an exploited country, first by colonialism, now by neoliberalism, the remnants of which maintain its government as one of the most corrupt in the world and its institutions as woefully incapable of delivering meaningful reform to constituents. These are not problems of Chávez, these are problems inherited by Chávez. Might we consider that concentrating executive power and setting up a parallel and largely autonomous community power structure (two major provisions in the recent constitutional reforms) could actually allow for more direct state action on behalf of citizens and marginalize many of the corrupt middle-men (many of whom are self-identifying Chávez supporters) who now impede the delivery of these reforms? We're not talking about whether this fits what we learned in school about how a democracy functions. We are talking about the reality of the Venezuelan situation and what it takes in the Venezuelan context to ensure that public opinion lines up with government policy, the essential tenet of democracy that we sorely lack here in the United States.

Frankly, Wilkinson, seemingly judging Venezuela against the standard of Western social democracies, didn't do his proper homework and is informing his analysis of democracy from his own perspectives. Apparently, he doesn't like some of the actions of Chávez and is using his distaste to somehow discredit Chávez as a democrat. He is rehashing the same tired and contextually inaccurate criticisms that until recently have come entirely from the right wing. I will not waste my time engaging on why failing to renew RCTV's public televion lease was not a blow to Venezuelan democracy (keep in mind that they now broadcast on cable, which the majority of Venezuelans have). There was nothing illegal or subversive about this action, so it need not be considered in the context of this article. Neither can we criticize Chávez for being able to institute legislative reform without Congressional opposition. The right wing boycotted legislative elections in favor of discrediting the government from the undemocratic sector of society which they still control: the media. (And do not be fooled, private right-wing media still has by far more money and exposure than government-controlled media.) Would you criticize the Republicans for passing entirely conservative laws if the Deomcrats voluntarily gave up all of their seats in government?! As for the food shortages, take a look at this article from Venezuelanalysis.com (a site Wilkinson quotes in his article), and it becomes clear that the shortages, even at Mercal, are largely created artificially by illegal hoarding of goods at the supply level and an unprecedented decrease in the poverty level under Chávez's watch. But again, this does not address the central question of democracy that we have been asked to consider by Wilkinson.

If we are to examine what Chávez is doing for Venezuelan democracy, we need to consider how he has achieved his political victories. Chávez has never taken unconsitutional action in enacting his reforms and popular engagement in Venezuelan government is at never-before-seen levels. Neither has Chávez ever attempted to delegitimize legal actions of his opponents. We have never seen Chávez attempt to increase his own power by extra-democratic means. Further, it is no small feat that Chávez is the most popular president in Venezuelan history. And contrary to Charles Thornton's letter, "doubting [Chávez's] dictatorship (Socialist or otherwise) because he has achieved popularity ignores such historical precedents as Hitler's rise to power in the '30s," Hitler never in any election got a majority of votes. The German political system more than the German people allowed the Nazis to govern.

Wilkinson may not like how Chávez goes about his business, but to imply that he is undoing Venezuelan democracy without ever doing anything undemocratic is totally illogical, to say the least. There is no indication that Chávez will all of a sudden become antidemocratic. Any if he does, as we saw in the defeat of the constitutional reforms, the people's support of his government is not unconditional. At least, now that they finally believe in their democratic rights, they are able to elect the leaders they choose!

Alexi Pappas

Baltimore, MD

Feb 27 2008 - 3:15pm

Web Letter

US policy has favored right-wing dictators, and among them are the people who tried to depose the democratically-elected Chávez in 2002. Their very first act during their short-lived coup was to "temporarily" suspend the consitution. Compare that to Chávez, who has worked within the constitution and tried to change it by referendum, not by force, during his time in office.

Chávez's main problem seems to be his overweening--and not unjustified--fear that if he doesn't hold onto control with a death grip, the Bush-backed oligarchs will try another coup. Then again, the reformer always fears what will happen to his/her reforms if others try to implement them (see FDR: four terms, stacking the Supreme Court). There are signs that he's starting to realize that he has to loosen his grip on the reins; he sounded quite contrite after the constitutional referendum failed. In any event, he is the savior of Latin America, the man who paid off Argentina's ruinous and enslaving IMF debts and the single greatest force in undoing the holocaust left behind by the "Chicago Boys" and their carpetbagging form of Disaster Capitalism.

Tamara Baker

St. Paul, Minnesota

Feb 26 2008 - 4:02pm

Web Letter

Mr. Wilkerson is proceeding from a couple false assumptions in even suggesting Chavez might embrace democracy:

1. Empowering the poor and hating Wall Street does not guarantee a democratic state.

2. Doubting his dictatorship (Ssocialist or otherwise) because he has achieved popularity ignores such historical precedents as Hitlers rise to power in the '30s.

When his power is finally consolidated, the sham of allowing opposition and accepting defeat will no longer be necessary, and people here who have allowed themselves, like the people in Venezuela, to be taken in by his anti US rhetoric, are going to feel pretty stupid.

Perhaps we should check back in five years: I'm thinking by then what we'll be seeing is just another petty tinhorn dictator who would wire your backside up to a battery if you so much as looked at him wrong. And before he threw the switch, he'd tell you and himself that he does this "For the People"!

Charles H. Thornton

Reisterstown, MD

Feb 22 2008 - 11:48am

Web Letter

Self determination means each country, group or individual must determine their own fate. It is therefore up to Venezuelans to define the direction of their country. This also means that no other country can impose their solutions on them. I am no fan of imperialism, neoliberalism, or any coups from the outside. Venezuela belongs to Venezuelans.

Pervis J. Casey

Riverside, CA

Feb 21 2008 - 5:03pm

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