Flawed Democracies

Elections this summer have produced overwhelming victories for the charismatic populists who dominate the national governments in Venezuela and Haiti. But those victories have also evoked growing concern in the regional press that heated political confrontation, and eroding checks on executive power have further weakened democratic institutions and exacerbated economic problems in the Caribbean.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s decisive reelection by more than 20 percentage points over his nearest rival on July 30  “demonstrated beyond any doubt that Commander Chávez still enjoys undeniable popularity,” conceded José Angel Ciliberto in the independent Diario La Hora of Porlamar (Aug. 9). Chávez-backed parties’ conquest of around 60 percent of seats in the new unicameral National Assembly, he wrote, reflected the electorate’s “undisguised disgust” with the traditional parties that dominated the Venezuelan government for some four decades prior to Chávez’s landmark presidential victory in 1998. Now that Chávez has won a fresh six-year mandate—plus the right under the 1999 constitution to seek reelection again in 2006—“it is urgent to articulate a forceful and intelligent opposition, as the Chávista government will take advantage of the chief executive’s popularity to accelerate the ongoing process of establishing a populist autocracy,” Ciliberto asserted. Such “anti-democratic aspirations must be opposed.”

The centrist El Nacional of Caracas (Aug. 1) urged both the government and its opponents to set aside the bitter partisan rhetoric and conflicts that have characterized Chávez’s presidency, in order to clear the way for a national consensus on new policies to reduce the 14-percent unemployment rate, reactivate economic growth following a prolonged recession, and reinvigorate foreign and domestic investment. “The need to give new impetus to the national economy and create confidence abroad in Venezuela’s economic possibilities demands an end to the confrontations and the heated political passions,” observed El Nacional. “This is the best medicine for the economy.”

In the centrist El Universal of Caracas (Aug. 2), economist Pablo Balestrini Paredes lambasted critics of Chávez’s economic policies for sowing “confusion” damaging to Venezuela’s image abroad. The economic crisis that Chávez inherited demanded tough fiscal measures to achieve stabilization in 1999 and early 2000, “so that we can proceed now to a process of economic recovery and job creation under tolerable inflation and exchange-rate conditions,” he argued.

In contrast to Chávez’s uncontested electoral triumph in Venezuela, the two election rounds in May and July that yielded a nearly clean sweep of municipal and national legislative contests by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas Family party have drawn fierce criticism from international observers, who note that irregularities in the first-round vote count tilted the outcome heavily in favor of the ruling party. A united opposition call to boycott the second-round vote on July 9 produced a staggering abstention rate of more than 90 percent, widely interpreted as “an active protest against the obstinacy of the government of [President] René Préval and [ruling party leader] Jean-Bertrand Aristide in constituting a parliament without international support that will lead the nation into a new crisis with unforeseeable consequences,” reported Madrid’s Agencia EFE news service  (July 10).

“Aristide has turned a deaf ear to denunciations of fraud by the opposition, international organizations, and some members of the Electoral Council,” suggesting that his party “does not wish to share power with anyone and that it will smooth the way for [Aristide’s] return to the presidency in the elections scheduled for the end of the year,” EFE observed (July 9). Aristide’s scorn for critics abroad and blunt warnings against foreign interference “have defrauded the international community that undertook such an arduous effort to return him to power,” even as Haiti’s diplomatic isolation appears certain to prolong the freeze on international assistance and deepen the impoverished island nation’s economic misery, EFE noted.

Barbados journalist Rickey Singh, writing in the centrist Daily Gleaner of Kingston (July 2), urged Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) nations to take a more forceful stand to defend democratic institutions throughout the region. “When politically inspired violence and electoral malpractices take place in any of its member states to frustrate the expressed will of the people, the latest example...being Haiti, then CARICOM governments must feel free to denounce such practices as undermining harmonious relations, stability, and good governance,” Singh said.