In a recent online debate about the 10th anniversary of Hugo Chávez's presidency in Venezuela Francisco Toro described what he saw as the corrupting of Venezuela's
democracy and general descent into authoritarianism. While Toro's
conception of democracy appears at first glance to be an orthodox one,
on closer inspection it becomes highly idiosyncratic and sheds a great
deal of light both on the democratic revolution taking place in
Venezuela and the type of opposition it has had to confront.
The ‘anti-democratic' charge is one frequently levelled at Chavez by commentators and groups (and more controversially an international human rights organisation).
However, it has to be conceded, even by those making this charge, that
it is counterintuitive to say the least. Under Chavez, Venezuelans have
gone to the polls a record number of times. In the most recent
municipal elections Chavez's PSUV received an impressive 52.5% of votes cast and won 17 of 22 governorships in the process. Participation was 65%
(unheard of in western democracies for this type of election), a figure
which tallies with recent findings of the respected polling agency Latinobarómetro which reported that satisfaction with democracy in Venezuela
was the second highest in the region. So the anti-democratic charge has
nothing to do either with the degree of public consultation or public
However Toro remains defiant on this point; he writes "democracy means more than just elections" and while Venezuela
has had "more and more elections" this has coincided with "less and
less democracy". In terms of tangible evidence to support his
assertion, Toro makes the same two allegations Human Rights Watch (HRW)
made back in September; both of which are distinctly dubious.
first allegation concerns the independence of the judiciary. The Chavez
government, Toro claims, has undermined democracy by "purging all but
die hard loyalists" from the Supreme Court. Yet this was the same
Supreme Court that was complicit in the April 2002 coup that briefly removed Chavez from power. As pointed out by Gregory Wilpert,
it is difficult to imagine any "government in the world [that] could
tolerate a Supreme Court that claims there was no coup when everyone
else in the world recognizes that there was one". It is also worth
noting that since Chavez's Supreme Court alleged "purge" countless
decisions have gone against Chavez and his supporters.
second allegation refers to freedom of expression. Echoing HRW's
accusations (only more hysterically) he writes "the Venezuelan state
has morphed into an extension of a single man's will, where every
dissenting idea is presumed treasonous and where only unquestioning
submission to the president's ideology protects you from the
increasingly brazen abuse of state power." In Venezuela
there is an abundance of dissenting opinion as the vast majority of
newspapers and television channels are in the hands of the opposition.
This freedom is not confined to the educated "articulate" elites.
Public opposition regularly expresses their dissatisfaction with the
government, sometimes even violently.
this were the sum total of Toro's case against Chavez then it would be
a meagre one indeed. However the thrust of Toro's criticisms do not
concern the state of Venezuela's
democratic institutions so much as the discursive climate in which they
preside. He writes that the period under Chavez has seen a "gradual
debasement of our public discourse" to the extent that its
"relentlessly polarising" character threatens "our capacity to co-exist
peacefully, side-by-side, with people whose political ideas we do not
Toro, a Venezuelan journalist, political scientist and blogger who has reported for the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Financial Times,
is unquestionably a major contributor to the public discourse he
describes. It is then worth taking a look at whether Toro himself
promotes such a discourse of "co-existence".
we do not need to conduct a deep and thorough analysis of Toro's
writings in order to find out his views of "political ideas [he does]
not share" as he has provided his own detailed synopsis of it here.
from the work of the philosopher J.M. Briceño Guerrero, Toro describes
a number of "separate, mutually incompatible strains" to Latin American
culture. The strain that Toro himself belongs to is the "Western
rationalist" strain. This strain derives from the European conquest of
the hemisphere and is the "discourse of privilege" and "the
privileged". Western rationalists are committed to a "basic faith in
reason… as the key to understanding… social reality." Toro opposes this
strain with the non-western/anti-rational Savage sentiments of Venezuela's
poor majority, a strain that expresses itself in a "deep loathing for
the privileged [and] a guttural rejection of [rationalism]". For Toro,
the Savage strain has reached its apotheosis with chavismo, a
man that has finally given voice to the "verbalist political impulse of
the savage," and more to the point turned those impulses into
"something it has never been before: a discourse of power".
does not deny that Chavez and the PSUV represent the integration,
possibly for the first time, of a popular poor majority into the
political arena. What he rejects is the idea that this is a democratic
development. Toro is able to criticise Venezuela's anti-democratic tendencies only by inverting the meaning of ‘democracy.' For Toro democracy does not mean ‘government by the people',
it refers to a peculiar brand of rationality exclusive to the West.
This discourse of rationality, Toro explains is a discourse of
privilege and the privileged. It is they alone who can realise the
democratic possibilities of "deliberate
social change and universal human rights, expressed in the texts of
constitutions… and in the scientific conceptions of humanity."
Toro's intellectual sleight of hand is clever but not new. As Richard Seymour has pointed out
this has been an ideological feature of imperialism and domination for
as long as democracy has threatened to undermine them. "It is often
implied that democracy is a kind of technology, a cultural state,
rather than a political one. This is a common assumption on the part of
those who would wish to deny the right to independence and
self-government to non white peoples."
Of course the notion that "rationality" is peculiar to either the West (or Western culture) is a myth. Chavez's supporters can rightly claim that the development course Venezuela has pursued has been both rational in principle and in practice. Since Chavez has come to power Venezuela has experienced rapid economic growth (since 2003 alone GDP has grown by a remarkable 94%). Furthermore the proceeds have been shared out among the population. According to the National Institute of Statistics (INE), poverty in Venezuela
has dropped by nearly 50% from 50.5% in 1998 to 26% in 2008. These
economic successes have been coupled with rational social policies. In
health care the number of primary care physicians has increased 12 fold from 1999-2007. In particular the Mision Barrio Adentro
programme has provided free healthcare to millions of poor Venezuelans
in the slums, many of whom had limited or no access prior to its
introduction. Investment in education has increased
from 3.9% of GDP back in 1998 to 7% ten years later, bringing
approximately 1.3 million more children into the school system in the
process. In higher education enrolment has doubled
since Chavez came to power. All the while the national public debt has
been cut by more than half from 30.7% in 1999 to 14.3% today.
In George Orwell's 1984 language is manipulated
to ‘meet the ideological needs' of the powerful; the objective being to
make certain ‘modes of thought impossible'. This involved the invention
of new words, the elimination of undesirable words and stripping words
of their orthodox meanings. While Newspeak is a dystopic vision, the
device is common among political elites and their supporters. A brand
of Newspeak particularly favoured by elite opinion is the dressing up
of offensive half baked ideas into sophisticated technical jargon. The Guardian describes Toro's blog as a must read.
I strongly suggest that anyone who takes the Guardian's advice not be
intimidated by Toro's [attempted] elaborate prose and high minded
references to status figures like Derrida and Foucault. Instead they
should stick with their gut reaction. Toro's assertions are indeed both
"relentlessly polarising" and quite breathtakingly offensive. More
importantly they should remember what words mean. "Democracy", if it is
to mean anything at all, means the political inclusion of all-regardless of wealth or privilege. For those in favour of this principle, the last 10 years of the Chavez government is very much something to celebrate.