By Jean H Charles
I have in this column often reviewed the politics of the popular leaders of Latin America, leaders such as Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicholas Madura in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Peru, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. This review was based on the observation that their policies were based on maintaining the scale of poverty to a level comfortable enough so not as to enter into the spiral of extreme misery.
This observation is replicated in Roger Cohen’s recent column of the New York Times: “Cry for me Latin America”, who stamps the South American canvas with this painting: “Brazil is in the process of becoming Argentina, and Argentina is in the process of becoming Venezuela and Venezuela is in the process of becoming Zimbabwe.”
Going into the roots of such descent into hell, Cohen zoomed on:
“Argentina, which is a perverse case of its own; it is a nation still drugged by that quixotic political concoction called Peronism; engaged in all-out war on reliable economic data; tinkering with its multilevel exchange rate; shut out from global capital markets; trampling on property rights when it wishes; obsessed with a lost little war in the Falklands (Malvinas) more than three decades ago; and persuaded that the cause of all this failure lies with speculative powers seeking to force a proud nation -- in the words of its leader – ‘to eat soup again, but this time with a fork’. They did not know that a colonel called Juan Domingo Peron and his wife Eva (“Evita”) would shape an ethos of singular delusional power.
“Argentina is the child among nations that never grew up. Responsibility was not its thing. Why should it be? There was so much to be plundered, such riches in grain and livestock, that solid institutions and the rule of law -- let alone a functioning tax system -- seemed a waste of time.”
By contrast, leaders in Singapore, in Malaysia, in Korea, in China have based their economic policies on wealth creation for each citizen. These leaders have shamelessly promoted the concept that it is all right for the rich to become richer and for the poor to start becoming rich. As such, the menace to rock the boat in most of these countries in South East Asia is almost nil, while that menace is taking root in several countries of Latin America.
The root causes of this difference is that the polarization of society is stamped in history as well as in the policy adopted by the present governments in Latin America.
Haiti, the motherland of liberation, failed its former slaves after the assassination of its founding father, Jean Jacques Dessalines. They live in the midst of squalor, wretched and uneducated in the rural counties and in the slums of the cities.
Latin America after Simon Bolivar has not done better. The indigenous population that goes from 62% of the population in Bolivia, to 25 % indigenous and 65% of mixed ancestry in Ecuador to 4.6% in Chile represents all second class citizens that have not been integrated into the general population with the adequate institutions and the decent infrastructure necessary to promote full emancipation of each one of them.
In addition, throughout history, they have been re-slaved either by the robber barons or the banana barons using the Muchachos (African men used as commanders) to keep them in check.
The situation has not been better in the Caribbean, where the Indigenous population, mainly the Arawaks and the Caribes were killing each other. The Caribes, more docile and peaceful, kept being invaded and savagely killed (even eaten) by the Arawaks. The remaining population was extinguished by the Spanish conquerors after Christopher Columbus discovered the area. Dominica, the home of the Arawaks, and Puerto Rico, the land of the Caribes, might be the only islands where a strong Indian heritage still remains today.
The independence of the nations of Latin America and of the Caribbean has brought a legion of leaders promising high hopes but delivering little in result. None other than my esteemed colleague in this publication Caribbean News Now, Anthony Livingston Hall described the situation as such: “Just as poor Cubans have little to show for having lived through Castro’s reign, poor Venezuelans will have no more to show for having lived through Chavez’s. The Haitian people who lived under the regime of the Duvaliers and under Aristide fell in the same category of frustrated individuals ready to fuel the political explosion.”
The starkness of this political explosion can be traced lately either to Honduras in 2009 or to Haiti in 1950 and in 2004. A populist president, Manuel Zelaya was forced to exile in Costa Rica, wearing nothing more than his pajamas. In spite of the crocodile tears of the UN, the OAS, and CARICOM, Zelaya, unlike Jean Bertrand Aristide, has not been re-installed to power.
Going back to the canvas in Haiti during the 1950s, a populist president, Dumarsais Estime, had been uprooted by the military. His call for retiring Haiti’s international debt has resonance up to today among all sectors of the Haitian nation. His project of beautification of the capital inspired pride and patriotism amongst the people.
Yet his populist stand was the root seedling of the dictatorial Duvalier and the demagogic Aristide regimes that followed. Under Estime, the Haitian peasant was incrementally getting richer through the sale of his bananas to Standard Fruit. Around 1948, Haiti, with no great estates, was exporting more and better bananas than the whole of Latin America through the small plots of Haitian farmers. All came to a halt when Estime decided to nationalize the sales outlets to give them to his preferred politicians. Haiti and its rural land have sunk since into misery and despair.
Duvalier later unloaded a large part of rural Haiti into the cities, compromising the development of both rural and urban Haiti.
Jean Bertrand Aristide, a populist president and victim of a military coup in 1991, was returned to power under the auspices of the United States, but he was booted out again into exile in 2004 with the support of the same United States when his program of dissension and pointing fingers at the well off as the mother of all evil threatened to disintegrate the entire Haitian society.
In Venezuela today, Nicholas Madura, the heir of Hugo Chavez, is facing a popular explosion, which I suspect will not succeed in overthrowing the regime. Yet it will produce enough tremors to keep the country in a constant state of insecurity and slow growth.
The situation is similar in Haiti, where a popular, not populist president, Michel Joseph Martelly, is being challenged by a vociferous opposition demanding that he resign for an early general election. This opposition does not have much more chance of succeeding than the opposition in Venezuela. It does not have a vision or a program that would do better for the mass of Haitians whose entire life is spent selling water or looking for water.
Where do we go from there? How can a populist and a popular president remain in peace in power? The solution lies in the practice often mentioned in this column, the strict application of the Renan doctrine.
Growth is personal or it is not. A national growth without personal wealth is as hollow as a shell.
The governments of Latin America, as well as those of the Caribbean, must develop a public policy of incubating each and every one of their citizens in their situation. Taking the case of Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti, for example, it is not conceivable that the Cuban doctor must earn only $300 per month because it is a dictum of the government.
Well-endowed Venezuela must find a way to use its petrodollars to incubate those in love with the Chavista doctrine to become richer while developing a consensus with the well to do that the house built by Simon Bolivar must be shared and enriched by all Venezuelans.
Haiti with its vast, diligent but uneducated population will not succeed in wealth creation if its policy is focused only on bringing in international business to create jobs. It must concentrate itself instead in what its population excels in: organic agriculture, organic husbandry and creative art-craft for export. Its policy of Haiti is open for business can now concentrate on the fate of the thousands of young ladies and young men graduated in finance, accounting and engineering.
I remember vividly the comment of Dr Chris Osakway, formerly of Tulane University who spent year studying law in Russia. “Communist Soviet Union is making believe that it cares for its citizens; the citizens make believe that they care for the state.” The situation exploded some years later under Gobarchev.
A recent book by Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane: “The economics of great powers from Ancient Rome to modern America”, reviewing the Roman, Chinese, Spanish, Ottoman, Japanese and British empires have found a common thread in the decline of these empires. They are fiscal incontinence and the rise of loss-averse special groups. The solution lies only in changing the perverse incentives built for the local politicians.
Correspondingly for capitalist Latin America and capitalist Caribbean that are faking or failing to care for their citizens, caveat emptor -- you might take the path of the disintegration of communist Soviet Union!
And if Latin America and the Caribbean do have a cloud in their horizon, wait until we land in Africa where the opacity is so dark, the light in the horizon cannot be seen!