The Processes of Change, and Does Obama Matter?

Where does the US process fit in the political processes taking place in America (which just like Africa, it is a continent, not a country)?  Looking at processes of change across the continent we see that the people, more than the leaders, are what really matter in bringing about change

With the recent election of Obama there is a lot of worldwide hope that the US will start a new process of change.  As a president of the US, Obama will be an important player on the world stage but the world has begun to change already.  Where does the US process fit in the political processes taking place in America (which just like Africa, it is a continent, not a country)?  Looking at processes of change across the continent we see that the people, more than the leaders, are what really matter in bringing about change. Furthermore, we see that there is not one recipe, or unique path for change.  Rather, change may occur in unexpected ways when the conditions are right.  

No Change Is Not An Option

In the aftermath of the US elections, there are two equally unfounded positions among liberals.  Some are inexplicably giddy about the new administration and they seem to feel that all our troubles are over because Obama got elected. We also see a number of pundits from the left expressing brutal attacks on Obama, before he even takes office, giving new meaning to phrase preemptive attacks.  

It is understandable the unrest among some leftish thinkers about how much change Obama can bring about; with all the Clintonites in critical positions of power.  The fact of the matter is that change it is not up to the political appointees, or even up to Obama himself.  Change is happening, with Obama or in spite of Obama. The world changes are obvious from global warming, depletion of resources, omnipresent pollution, and world-wide economic collapse.  Change is obvious also in the form of constant humanitarian crises all over the world and in the fact that we no longer live in a uni-polar world but in a multi-polar one.  Last but not least we see real change in an epidemic of XXI century socialism igniting Latin American and changing the geopolitical landscape of the continent. The triumph of Obama is the beginning of change not so much because he will bring about change, but because it signals that the people of the US have decided to join the world changes.  

Countries fare best under the ruling of astute politicians that can read the signs and follow the will of the people.  President Lyndon Johnson was not necessarily a civil rights enthusiast, but he knew better than to oppose a rising tide, and the civil rights act was signed into law.  Something similar can be said about many of the great changes that FDR did in the country.  They might have not been front and center of his original agenda but he could read the needs of the people (or at least he could listen to his wife who did) and that led to the many social programs, and great contributions FDR did to rescue the country from the great depression.  Obama can ride the tidal wave of change that has begun and make a truly transformative presidency, but if he tries to oppose it he will be plowed by it.  Simply put, Obama is at the bat but he does not own the team.  There are other heavy hitters in the line-up and many innings to come.  If Obama strikes out it will have only so much relevance in the outcome of the game.

Dangerous Changes

Instead of trying to second-guess what Obama will do we can talk about things we know for sure.  We know for a fact that corporations will not take a day off in trying to convince Obama to do their bidding.  They will make him an offer that he can't refuse, in the best Corleone style.  If he plays along with the needs of the corporations he will have a peaceful presidency. He will have political cooperation from all the minions the corporations have in Washington, as well as plenty of funds for the next campaigns.  We also know that if he chooses not to play ball, the corporations can be a lot less friendly.  John Perkins (Perkins 2004) explains all the resources that the corporatocracy has to "deal" with presidents that do not side with their interests.  Their ways include bribing, coercing, threatening, toppling, and even killing.

There are not many politicians in the US who have dared to resist coercion from corporations.  Carter, for one, did not budge under pressure from the military industrial complex in going to war with Iran, and we saw how it cost him his reelection. Other politicians that have presented decisively progressive policies have met with untimely deaths. The names of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, New Orleans governor Huey Long, and the Kennedys come to mind. They were all assassinated because they had the potential to move big masses and they were moving in progressive directions that threatened the interest of ruling corporations.  If we look beyond the US borders we also find an unfortunately large number of dead people.  Opposing the interests of the big corporations was what brought about the demise of Allende (Chile), Torrijos (Panama), and Roldos (Ecuador) just to mention a few.  Can we really blame Obama for being wishy-washy about taking a truly progressive stand?

The Only Vaccine

However, not all progressive politicians necessarily get killed.  There are a few exceptions.  Fidel Castro managed to resist the interests of corporations in Cuba for decades.  In the process he endured more than 600 assassination attempts and an armed invasion.  It is only thanks to the fierce support of the Cuban people that the Cuban revolution has survived this long.  We also have Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and Bolivian president Evo Morales.  Hugo Chavez was actually toppled temporarily by the economic elites in 2002, and it was only because of the unambiguous support of the people that came out to the streets yelling in unison to the old elites "No volverán" ("you -or they- won't come back") and demanded Chavez to be brought back.   Morales has also faced very serious challenges since he was elected with international energy giants trying to split the country by separating the gas-rich region into an independent nation.  The only reason that Morales has managed to keep the country together is, again, because of the decisive support of the Bolivian people that have come out to the streets in masses supporting him.

The lessons we learn from these few presidents is that it is possible to defeat the corporatocracy.  The only vaccine that seems to work is the power of the people in the streets.  With all the resources the corporations have, and years of forcing elected officials to do their bidding, they have not been able to defeat the raw power of the crowds.  When the masses team up with the president they can undo whatever attacks corporations attempt.   

If Obama were to take a very strong stand for health care, ending the war, helping the working classes, ending free trade and all the other actions that the progressive community demand, we can be sure corporations will do whatever it takes to get rid of him.  Can Obama count on the unhesitant support of his people if the extreme right tried to oust him in a media driven coup, fabricating news and lies as they did against Chavez?  Can Obama count on his people out in the streets supporting him, wholeheartedly, ready strike, to boycott, to demonstrate and to do whatever it takes to protect their president?  Will the progressive community come out to the streets to face repression, bullets, and the armed assault of the repressive forces as the Venezuelan and Bolivian people have done?

True change can only happen if the president teams up with his people in a mutual pact of solidarity and support.  It did not happen overnight in Venezuela and it will not happen overnight in the US.  It has to be built up and the first steps have to be small ones.  The constant preemptive attacks of the left on Obama do not help create that solidarity, and actually plays into the interests of the right.

Similarities Between Venezuela And The US

US pundits and analysts seldom look beyond the US borders for insight on what may happen in the US.  However, there are a number of similarities between the US in 2008 and Venezuela in the late 1980s. Both countries had for decades alternated between two parties that offer no difference between one another in terms of real policy. Both countries were in the midst of a tremendous economic depression, with unemployment and underemployment at record levels, increasing inflation, and a catastrophic mortgage crisis.  Both of these countries were/are ruled by political elites that catered shamelessly to the interests of big corporations while at the same time showing callous disregard for the needs of the people.

We know what happened in Venezuela.  In 1989, the people of Venezuela came out to the streets in anger protesting violently; burning and looting anything that was perceived as a sign of the establishment in something that was called "El Caracazo".  This popular explosion was just anger and a realization of injustice with no direction or leadership, so nothing happened immediately. But the message was sent that there was a need for change.  This facilitated two military coup attempts that occurred in 1992.  In 1993 the people for the first time elected someone who was not running for the traditional political parties (although he came from one of them originally).  This for Venezuela was just as unprecedented as the election of a black person (or biracial) is in the US.  Just like in the US, the new president, Rafael Caldera, had given no real evidence that he was going to take the country in a different direction. However, the simple superficial rhetoric of change was enough to energize the disenfranchised majority and bring him to office.  Of course, those who know Venezuelan recent history know how little change Caldera brought to the country.  He continued the same pro-corporations policies.  Turning a deaf ear to the clamor of the people is what set the scenario for Hurricane Chavez, in 1998, to take over and change the social, political, and economic landscape as much as he has.
The Best Is Enemy Of The Good

Obama is no Chavez, as we know. But does it mean he is necessarily a Caldera?  Obama was not my first (or second or third) choice for president of the US but he is the one that got elected president.  I would rather have Kucinich for president, and it would be best if we had comprehensive campaign reform leveling the playing field for all candidates, but that is not the reality in the US.

Up to the present, political selection has favored those politicians who abide by the interests of corporations because it grants them campaign funds and friends in Washington.  Now there is an alternative force.  A politician that gets enough grassroots support can also get plenty of funds and win elections without having to bow to corporations.  Notice that this is not the best possible scenario but it is one that may work well enough.  

Our interest in rescuing the country from the corporations would be best served by playing on the current situation and by pushing it in progressive directions in order to make change.  This approach would be far more productive than opposing what is happening just because it is not the best case scenario or because it is not the way we would like the system to change.  

We need to let Obama know on one hand that he cannot forget the people who elected him, but we also need to let him know that if he takes his gloves off and takes a stand for the people, we will not be shy supporting him in the real world and in the streets, making a team for the president to fight off the corporatocracy in any way necessary.  We need to make sure that he understands that if the corporations attempt to oust him or to sabotage his presidency we will "follow the example that Caracas gave" and will answer to the corporation at unison "No volverán" – or "Yes we can" as the case may be.

What If Obama Defaults On His People?

Of course, it is entirely possible that Obama does not have what it takes and chooses the easy route of complying with the "status quo".  The truth is that Bush has high jacked the country so far to the right that only reenacting the constitution would be tremendous improvement and Obama might not feel the need to make the real change that the progressive community, and the changing world, demands.  He might not feel the need to hit it out of the park, when bunting will suffice.  In fact, anything better than batting for a double play might work well enough.  It only would mean that change may take a bit longer.  In fact, reenacting the constitution may very well be a necessary step before true change can occur.  

We can look at the time frame in Venezuela as a blueprint for what to expect.  Venezuela had an economic collapse in 1982, a first outburst of the people in 1989, two coup attempts on 1992, and the election of a third party candidate in 1993.  It was not until 1998, 16 years later that the country finally took a definite turn in a different direction with the election of Hugo Chávez.

The Power Of The Middle Class

Middle classes are normally buffers that keep society from changing.  People that have good status of living, and that hope to get to the top, will oppose changes and stabilize the system.  Countries with large middle classes are more hesitant to change.  So long as the problems of the country seem to be temporary, people might be willing to weather them a little longer.   However, the problems the US has are here to stay, and nobody is addressing their real causes.

The US uses the motto of plastic and cable as a new version of the Roman Bread and Circus.  USites (US citizens, to differentiate from Americans born North or South of the US border) obtain what they need on credit and there are enough soap operas and reality shows to keep people distracted.  However, it will not work forever.  The credit crunch is pulling the rug from under lots of people that now will feel the full pain of their economic condition.  It is also hard to keep millions and millions of people distracted that have recently lost their jobs and are losing their houses.  Simply put: reality shows will not cut it anymore when reality itself bites you on the behind.  

Sooner rather than later reality will set in and people will snap out of their apathy, and possibly in a very unambiguous manner.  True change might not happen within the first, say, ten years, but it might not take much more than a decade, considering the speed in which the middle class is shrinking.  

What Triggers The Uprising

You may think that uprisings and revolutions will not happen in the US regardless the conditions. However, people are people and they will react in similar ways when placed under similar pressures.  In Venezuela of 1988, nobody but nobody would have predicted that a short ten years down the road a revolution would take over the country.  It seemed as remote then for Venezuela, as it seems now that the US would make a left turn.  I believe that it only has to do with the speed in which the status of living of the people deteriorated.

Another important similarity between the US and Venezuela is that both countries come from an extremely prosperous background and they both saw their economy plummeting a long distance in very short time.  When the Venezuelans took to the street in 1989, Venezuela was no worse off than, say, Brazil, Peru, or many other Latin American countries.  Why were Venezuelans less willing to accept poverty and economic submission than other Latin American countries?  The answer may be in the fact that the economic oppression in other countries came on slowly.  

Most Latin American countries have been suffering increasing poverty for many decades, without experiencing any strong deterioration of their life style in any single generation.  Most people were born poor and they became only a little poorer over their lifetime.  That was not the case in Venezuela.  Venezuela was tremendously wealthy and prosperous up until 1982.  Venezuelans saw their status of living drop to the level of other Latin American countries (more than 70-years worth of economic oppression) over a 7-year period.  People that knew that they were entitled to some standard of living saw it removed from them unfairly.  That realization is what prompted the Venezuelans to revolt and to seek change.  

If this scenario is correct, we could expect that the USites will react, at least as quickly as the Venezuelans did since the US society has been so prosperous for so many years.  USites engage in an implicit contract:  you worked hard at your job and you will get a nice house, at least two cars, have a vacation home in a warm place, and retire young to enjoy their accumulated wealth.  People that have done their part of the deal will not see kindly that society defaults on them with the latter part.  These people are more likely to react than if they had lived in poverty all their lives.

The Evolution Of Political Systems: Mystery And Diversity

The path that the system will take for change is unpredictable. As much as the evolution of biological systems, it depends on its conditions and who is there to hail the call of the people (Rivas 2007).  After two decades facing the police and the military in demonstrations in Venezuela, I never expected that true change could be lead by a person of military background.  Marxist thinkers and revolutionary ideologues would have never predicted it either, yet that is exactly what is happening in Venezuela.  Just like in biological processes the selection takes place through whoever (or whatever) works to make the changes.  

Coming back to my main theme, change is not made by any individual person.  A lot of Venezuelans credit Chávez for the Bolivarian revolution.  I do not want to take away from the extraordinary charisma and accomplishment of Chávez, but the change that is happening in Venezuela was gestating for years before he got into the political landscape, as he himself has stated repeatedly.  Chavez did not make the Bolivarian revolution any more than the Bolivarian revolution made Chavez.  The leader changes the masses as much as the masses change the leader.

There is no good formula or pre-established path for change.  If we look at other countries (i.e, Ecuador, Argentina, and Bolivia) we can see that when the people clamor for change there will be a leader that will step up to the plate and lead the movement.  The first attempts do not always work; neither do all the new species created in biological evolution survive.  Venezuelans tried change without success in several ways (social explosion, military coups, Caldera) until eventually a leader stepped up to the plate.  Ecuadorian people had been toppling presidents for two decades until finally, Rafael Correa got in office and is implementing real changes.  Phony leaders are selected out and popular selection brings along the right people to lead the right transformation on time.  Some mistakes can certainly be painful, such as Menem in Argentina, but the system finds the right path eventually when the people seek it.

The diversity of origins from the leaders that have taken office in Latin America also supports the idea that there is no formula for a revolution or a unique path for change.  We have a former paratrooper (Chavez), an Ivy League economist (Correa), an Indigenous coca farmer (Morales), a guerrilla fighter (Ortega) and life-long politicians (the Kirchners). They are all leaders that have simply listened to the people in defiance of their corporations and are leading transformative changes in their countries.  

So we do not have to be contemptuous of Obama if he looks like he will default on the people.  It is not up to him to make change.  Obama said so himself: "I am asking you to believe. Not only in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I am asking you to believe in yours".  We need to remind him that change is happening whether he is with it or not.  We also need to remind him that he has more choices than those corporations give him.  Both by pressuring him not to cave and by offering him real help if he takes a stand for the people.

Perkins, J. 2004. Confessions of an economic hit man. Berret-Koehler Publisher Inc., San Francisco.

Rivas, J. A. 2007. What is the path to Socialism Revolution or Evolution? The Axis of Logic July http://axisoflogic.com/cgi-bin/exec/view.pl?archive=157&num=24876.

Jesus A. Rivas
Assistant Professor
Depth of Math and Natural Sciences