Reporting — 09 April 2014

Walker Rowe

I am an American living in Chile. Like other Americans, I was brought up believing that socialism and communism are threats to freedom and democracy. As students, we all read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984” in high school, which the Americans saw as anti-Soviet propaganda. It was, except Orwell was a communist, albeit of the Trotsky-Marxist kind, who wanted a republic and not a dictatorship. Orwell went to Spain to fight for that idea.  For that, he was shot through the neck by a bullet.

American Cold War fear of communism led President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger to help Chile overthrow the democratically-elected Marxist President Allende and install a dictator here in 1973, an act for which President Obama apologized when he visited Chile in 2011.

Now the whole socialism-versus-capitalism theme is being played out again, except this time it is in Venezuela. There it is a proxy fight with those in the opposition flying the banner of human rights when what they really want is a rollback of what the late president Hugo Chavez used to call the Bolivarian revolution.

It was surprising to me when communist party and student union members in Chile voiced their support for the Maduro government. But now I understand that what the Chilean Communist Party wants is to prevent a right-wing coup from toppling the democratically-elected, left-wing President Maduro, whose economic policies they agree with. Chile´s new foreign minister also said that Maduro was elected and Chile would not want to see him or any other democratically elected president ousted by a coup.

The right wing tried to weigh in on and influence the situation there.  President Maduro bluntly told the exiting Chilean President Sebastien Piñera to butt out.  Panama asked the Organization of America States to get involved.  The OAS said no, also referring Maduro’s status as an elected president.

The new government of Michelle Bachelet has returned to power here in Chile for a second turn as president. She is from the Socialist Party. Her coalition includes the Communist Party, who won 6 seats in the lower house of congress and held onto one senate seat as well. To allay the fear of Americans reading this, there is no risk of a Soviet-style government coming to power here now or perhaps ever, but the new government wants to see changes in economic policy to assist the poor and middle classes yet maintain growth and a good investment climate.  Chile is perhaps the most capitalistic country in the world (even public highways are privately owned), albeit with good support for the poor and European-style health insurance.

Assisting the poor and middle classes was for many years the mantra of the Chavez government in Venezuela. His protégé, Nicolas Maduro, has censored the press and jailed protestors and not prevented pro-government gangs from killing opposition protestors.   Maduro’s actions have gone far beyond what Chavez ever did regarding human rights and freedom. But what Venezuela presents to Chile´s communists is not dictatorship; it is the idea of using progressive politics to tax the rich to assist the poor and further help the burgeoning middle class here. That idea is what returned Bachelet to power. She won by a large majority, so the people want that too.

In the case of Chile, progressive politics means raising taxes on the rich, giving further subsidies and housing to the poor, and making education free. In Venezuela, Chavez did all of that but went further. He seized the assets of the monied classes and laughed as he built housing on their golf courses. Chile already took from the rich.  In the 1960s, people who owned more than 80 hectares (166 acres) were required to sell off everything but that.  Also the Chilean government seized American-owned copper mines.  Royalties on copper mining now pay a very large part of the national budget; so that national resource has helped everyone. Chile is now the strongest and wealthiest democracy in Latin America with a large middle class and some of the world´s safest banks.  But the gap between the rich and poor is the worst among all OECD nations. (The USA is not far behind and catching up.)  That gap is what Bachelet and the communists want to narrow.

If you went onto Twitter on the night of the Oscars, you would have seen that the #Oscars hashtag was dominated by people in the Venezuelan opposition trying to draw attention to the situation there. Many actors picked up the theme and have spoken out against President Maduro and his government there.  They were easily pulled in by the opposition, because people in the USA do not understand the long history of politics in Latin America.

In Venezuela, protests that have rocked the nation there were inspired by opposition activists. The most vocal opposition politician in their camp is Leopoldo Lopez.  He now sits in jail. Henrique Capriles, who was narrowly defeated for President last year, said it would have been better to solve issues through political means and not direct confrontation. If the people had listened to Mr. Capriles, we could have had a very different situation in Venezuela today.

Latin America of course has a rotten record on human rights and its people have lived under the thumb of many dictators. But that has changed, for the most part.

Most of the governments here today are moderate or centrist. The history of dictatorship here is one reason so many governments in Latin America do not allow their presidents to run more than one term. That annoys those who aspire to stay in office indefinitely. Daniel Ortego in Nicaragua is working to change the constitution to allow him to run again. Rafael Correa in Ecuador said he will run again too. Both are quasi-dictators. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina—she is more like a mafia chief than a dictator—spent most of her second term looking for a third term. But she lost her majority in the congress, so that idea is dead. As for Venezuela, you can now officially say that Maduro is a dictator, at least for the next year, as the congress there gave him absolute power for one year to deal with the economic crisis, even before the current political one.

People here in Chile, if they are more than 60 years old, remember that when the Marxist president Salvador Allende came to power here in the 1970s, there were long lines at the supermarket to buy products from empty shelves. This is exactly what is going on in Venezuela today. But the crisis in Chile was artificial: conservative businessmen told their truck drivers not to deliver goods to market. There are different reasons why there are shortages in Venezuela, including the inefficiency of the socialist market. One aggravating factor is the currency controls that do not let businesses sell bolivars and buy dollars so they can pay for imports. Venezuela is changing that now, having finally realized that to be a problem for everyone.

So people here in Latin America know about dictatorship and loss of human rights, far more than any American could ever understand. But they also know that the progressive politics of Chilean governments have lifted this country out of poverty and grown the middle class. While most of the money here is still in the hands of a very few, there is no more oligarchy controlling all the money as was the case in, for example, Chile 80 years ago, Paraguay today, Cuba in the 1950s, and Venezuela before Chavez.

UNASUR (The Association of South American Nations) has dispatched a delegation to Venezuela to try to tone down the violence by bringing the opposition and government together around the conference table.  This delegation includes ministers from Chile, Ecuador, and other nations.   The president of the communist party in Chile, Senator Guillermo Teillier, has said that the UNASUR delegation should not be turned into a vehicle to legitimize a coup d’etat in Venezuela.  Let’s hope that Maduro does not find himself backed into a corner.  The Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer said if that were to happen, the pro-Maduro military would be in a position to step up as they already run many government functions.


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