San Francisco

Far-right populist Jean-Marie Le Pen’s upset in the first round of French presidential voting was variously ascribed to rising xenophobia in Western Europe, a crisis of the French left, rising crime rates in France and other possibilities. Doug Ireland, in “Le Pen: The Center Folds” [May 13], subscribes to all three. Yet the evidence doesn’t necessarily corroborate these explanations. Instead, what we saw was a major breakdown of France’s two-round runoff method of electing the president.

A full 64 percent of voters supported candidates other than the two who advanced to the runoff. Many left voters, looking to send a message of dissatisfaction to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round, split their support among seven candidates. Together, left-leaning candidates, led by Jospin, garnered more than 40 percent of the vote–and divided, none polled enough votes to make the runoff. Le Pen, with 17 percent of the vote–a mere 250,000-vote increase, virtually the same popular vote he won in his other failed presidential runs–benefited from this vote-splitting.

Jospin learned what Al Gore knows all too well: In a plurality electoral system, spoiler candidates and split votes can plague the results. France’s use of instant runoff voting rather than a two-round runoff would have prevented its electoral meltdown. With IRV, left voters could have sent a message to Jospin by awarding their highest rankings to other candidates but would have had the option of ranking Jospin as one of their runoff choices. During the ballot counting their votes would have coalesced around Jospin as their front-runner, who would have made it to the instant runoff over the marginalized Le Pen, who has very little runoff support from any other parties or candidates.

Yes, electoral systems do matter–sometimes dramatically. Just ask Al Gore.

Center for Voting and Democracy


New York City

I’ve long favored instant runoff voting, but Hill’s suggestion that there has been no marked increase in French racism and its political expression is shockingly ostrichlike. Hill’s facts are wrong: The parties of Jospin’s governing coalition–Parti socialiste, Parti communiste, les Verts and Mouvement de radicaux de gauche–together polled only a little more than 26 percent. Hill’s claim that the 10.5 percent won by three anti-Jospin Trotskyists and the 5.5 percent won by the Pôle republicain (which asserted that there was no real difference between Jospin and Chirac) should be included in the score of the left “led” by Jospin could only be made by someone ignorant about French politics. Le Pen got nearly 1 million votes more than he did in ’95 (while the governing parties of left and right together lost some 5.5 million votes, as I pointed out).

Hill may not think that’s a significant increase, but the French obviously did–daily demos poured more than 500,000 of them into the streets after Le Pen’s victory to oppose his racist program, which includes setting up special “camps” for immigrants and special trains to deport them; and nearly all major parties, unions, media, sports stars, the patronat (MEDEF) and even the Catholic Episcopate called for an anti-Le Pen vote in the runoff.

Those who, in their obsession with process, exclude the content of politics from their considerations do so at our peril. The increasing demand in France for replacing the Gaullist constitution of the Fifth Republic does nothing to address the root causes of mounting racism while allowing politicians to pretend to have responded to the electoral evidence of France’s racial fracture. And the most visible expression of this demand–the Committee for a Sixth Republic (C6R) led by Socialist deputy Arnaud de Montebourg–sadly does not include IRV in its proposals.




In “The Coup That Wasn’t” [May 6] Marc Cooper contrasts Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez with former Chilean President Salvador Allende, saying, “Chávez has failed to produce much of the radical change he promised.” Cooper needs a wake-up call. This is 2002, a time when the constraints on economic policy in Latin America are greater than ever. Never has capital been more mobile and more capable of disciplining governments that attempt to embark upon radical change. If Allende were governing Chile today, he’d recognize the constraints and think twice about nationalizing one industry after another, as he did in the early 1970s.

Considering the constraints the Chávez government has had to operate under, it has achieved some notable reforms. In a recent interview with Le Monde Diplomatique editor Ignacio Ramonet, Chávez lays out some of his government’s achievements: “We have lowered unemployment…created more than 450,000 new jobs…. Venezuela has moved up four places on the Human Development Index. The number of children in school has risen 25 percent. More than 1.5 million children who didn’t go to school are now in school, and they receive clothing, breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks. We have carried out massive immunization campaigns in the marginalized sectors of the population. Infant mortality has declined. We are building more than 135,000 housing units for poor families. We are distributing land to landless campesinos. We have created a Women’s Bank that provides micro-credit loans. In the year 2001, Venezuela was one of the countries with the highest growth rates on the continent, nearly 3 percent…. We are delivering the country from prostration and backwardness.”

Cooper makes no mention of this, nor does he say anything about the hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans who descended upon Caracas in defense of their temporarily ousted president. Most scandalous is Cooper’s repetition of the coup plotters’ version of events, as he claims that Chávez “turned police and armed supporters against peaceful protesters…provoking a shootout that injured scores and killed more than a dozen.” Cooper never points out that this version of events is highly contested. Several witnesses to the bloodshed, including former Fulbright scholar Greg Wilpert and Kim Bartley, an Irish filmmaker, contend that unidentified snipers initiated the carnage, shooting into crowds of pro-Chávez demonstrators that had surrounded the Presidential Palace.

Repeating the coup plotters’ version of events and invoking Salvador Allende’s good name are shameful.



It has been claimed that Latin American governments opposed the coup in Venezuela. This is not accurate. Some governments denounced the coup (Argentina, Brazil), but other countries welcomed it (Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, among others). The OAS did not call for a return of the Chávez government; instead it called for the holding of elections as soon as possible, a de facto recognition of the coup.

In fact, it was part of the coup plan to use the OAS as a way of legitimizing itself. In fact, the coup government invited the OAS head, Cesar Gaviria (from Colombia), to go to Venezuela to help with the “transition to institutionality.” The OAS, however, was overtaken by events. The coup lost power, and by the time Gaviria arrived in Caracas, Chávez was back in power.

So we should not be fooled. The OAS was going to be used by Washington and the coup plotters. The “defense” of constitutionality by the OAS took place after Chávez was returned to the presidency.



Woodland Hills, Calif.

The global economic constraints described by Justin Delacour are indeed real. And if, as he suggests, Allende would today have to think twice about nationalizing foreign firms, then how can he defend Chávez’s record? Instead of enacting authentic reform, Chávez chose the posture of a loud-mouth demagogue, only narrowing his parameters by rattling the cages of his very powerful adversaries. His playing pattycake with Saddam and Qaddafi and hide-and-seek with the ignoble Colombia guerrillas pissed off Uncle Sam and elicited laudatory editorials from Havana’s Granma–and it put food on the table for exactly nobody and created jobs and housing for just as few.

Chávez might as well have nationalized the entire Venezuelan economy, for nothing could have further alienated his domestic financial and investment elites than his hypercharged revolutionary, but hollow, bluster. Yet Chávez imposed the same budget-slashing austerity of any neoliberal IMF adjustment program. Indeed, the only statistics I need to rebut Chávez’s self-congratulatory list of accomplishments quoted by Delacour are the myriad pre-coup polls showing the Venezuelan president’s popularity plummeting to around 30 percent. It seems the Venezuelan poor don’t read Ignacio Ramonet and are ignorant of their impressively improving status.

As to who shot whom on the day of the botched coup: Wilpert, Delacour’s star witness, has written in online accounts that armed Chávez supporters were involved in the bloodshed that took more than a dozen lives. Chávez has as much as admitted the same. That other forces may have been involved in the firefights–unnamed rooftop (or were they grassy knoll?) snipers, uniformed police acting on behalf of the opposition, sectarian squads, etc.–is still unclear. What is certain is that armed bands of Chávez supporters were present at an otherwise peaceful rally and were directly involved in the lethal mayhem. In an authentic civilian democracy, the president of the republic does not tolerate armed gangs, even of his own supporters. And they certainly don’t show up, ready for action, at opposition rallies. In short, your enemy’s enemy should not always be considered your friend. It’s possible for both the US government and the Chávez administration to have similar if not equal disdain for democratic rule.

Professor Nelson Valdes is an always astute observer of Latin American affairs, but on this issue he’s a tad off the mark. I fully share his suspicion as to the depth of democratic commitment to be found among OAS members. That said, during the thirty-hour period that President Chávez was displaced by Pedro Carmona, virtually no Latin American government recognized the latter’s administration. This continental balk was hardly a dramatic rupture with Washington. But the gesture certainly contributed to the vacuum that eventually sucked the usurpers from power.



Valhalla, NY

Ralph Brave scores points off Francis Fukuyama by ridiculing the concept of human nature Fukuyama attempts to defend in his brief against genetic engineering and the “posthuman future” [“The Body Shop,” April 22]. It’s true that as part of an effort by some social conservatives to derail the uses of cloning and related biotechnologies to fabricate designer human embryos, Fukuyama falls into genetic determinism and other varieties of essentialism to characterize what he would like to preserve. But does the fact that human nature is changeable mean, therefore, that the production of humans should be handed over to commercial interests? Draw the line wherever you want and the technological-medical imperative will eventually roll over it. If you don’t mind someone making stem cells from twelve-day clonal embryos, how about better stem cells from two-month clonal fetuses, transplantable livers from six-month clones, or bone marrow from clonal newborns engineered never to develop brains? If you don’t mind parents genetically engineering their offspring so as to not develop hemophilia, how about to not be less than average height, to have perfect pitch, greater upper body strength?

Brave seems to think technology is, uncomplicatedly, something “we” produce to satisfy “our” needs. Thus the automobile industry has always just given us the vehicles we demanded, the fuel industry just wants to keep us mobile and comfortable indoors and the processed food companies just want to feed us. As we sit in traffic jams contemplating the climatological and health costs of such technological advances, we might also think about the consequences of adopting Brave’s laissez-faire prescription for biotechnology, which looks as strange in the pages of The Nation as Fukuyama’s technological skepticism does coming from the author of The End of History.



Davis, Calif.

I used to feel heartened when Stuart Newman stepped forward as a scientist expressing concerns about genetic technologies. But his blatant misreading of my review now worries me. Nowhere do I advocate a “laissez-faire prescription for biotechnology,” or that “production of humans should be handed over to commercial interests” or “clonal newborns engineered never to develop brains.” Although Newman says it is impossible to “draw the line” to prevent unethical biomedical practices, it is done every day. Otherwise even Newman’s own research into the cellular and molecular mechanisms of vertebrate limb development would be suspect.

On the serious issue of clonal embryos for stem cell research, the potential ability to create genetically matched tissues or organs to treat disease and injury is no small matter. The current need of transplant patients to use antirejection drugs for their entire lives, drugs that suppress the immune system, making them unable to defend against infection or cancer, is a treatment compromise that needs remedy. Criminalizing both the research to address this and the resulting therapies themselves, as Newman, Fukuyama and George W. Bush advocate, is what I would label “strange.”



Oakland, Calif.

Christopher Hitchens reminds us that of the three religions of Abraham–Islam, Christianity and Judaism–Islam is the only one that admits the legitimacy of the other two [“Minority Report,” April 15]. A further reminder: The reason Jews have been able to pray at the Wailing Wall for nearly 500 years is that Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Successor to the Prophet, Commander of the Faithful, Shadow of God upon Earth, ordered his chief architect to construct a porch for them to pay their duty to God at the most visible surviving portion of their ancient temple.


Wilmington, Dela.

Christopher Hitchens, admired for his analysis of modern-day events, should be a bit more careful in his examination of earlier ones. The enlightened paradise of Muslim Spain may have indeed been dealt its death blow by Ferdinand and Isabella, but its much-vaunted tolerance ended many years before, in the twelfth century, when power was seized by the Almohads, a fanatical Islamic sect from Morocco, which does bear comparison to the Taliban. They waged a campaign of terror on all Christians and Jews, especially those with political power. Many Jews fled to the more tolerant Christian Spanish kingdoms to the north, while others fled to more tolerant Islamic kingdoms. Among those who fled southward was the powerful family of Maimonides, which hailed from Córdoba but could suffer the brutal regime no longer. So it is a bit disingenuous of Hitchens to hold Maimonides up as a symbol of Muslim tolerance. Even in its best periods, Islamic history is no less checkered than our own.