Friday, March 18, 2016

Marco Rubio and the Strong Man

In the waning days of his losing campaign in Florida, Marco Rubio began using the theme of the Latin American strong man to describe Trump.

You go to Latin America you go to the third world they are bedeviled by leaders that stand up and say, I am going to be a strong leader.  I am going to solve all your problems.  Give me power and I will make your life better," he said.  "And it always ends in disaster, always."

Having studied Latin American dictators, strong men, military juntas, civil wars, and revolutionaries for many years, let me reflect on this theme for a few lines.

The last classic strong man in Latin America was Hugo Chavez, from Venezuela.  He led a failed coup against President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, costing him two years in jail.  He was elected president in 1998 and ruled in semi-dictatorial fashion for 15 years.  He died of cancer, still president, in 2013.  He took obvious pleasure insulting the U.S. with his buddy Fidel Castro and other left-wingers in the Andes, such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, Ollanta Humala in Peru, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.  He insulted domestic enemies as well.  Megalomaniacal?  Yes!  He tried to build a cult around his personality.  He had a nightly television call-in program as President, and his mother frequently called in to "scold" him about bureaucratic glitches.  Popular with the masses?  Yes!  He loved creating international mischief.  The U.S. State Department loved to hate him, and Venezuela is still a mess (100% inflation in 2015) three years after his departure.

But how did this out-sized blowhard come to power in the first place?  Did people vote for him only because he promised to solve all their problems?  What was happening in Venezuela when, as a Lt. Colonel he led a failed military coup and won election easily five years later?

A couple of clues:  (1) The president Chavez tried to overthrow, Carlos Andres Perez (known as CAP), was indicted in 1993 for stealing 250 million bolivars of public funds.  He was forced to resign and jailed for 28 months in 1996, and then accused again in 1998 and 2001 of massive embezzlement of funds during his presidency.  (2) The establishment political party he belonged to, the AD, a Christian Democratic party, had alternated in power since 1958 with the COPEI, a slightly more conservative Social Christian party.  CAP had been president from 1974-1979, during the boom days of oil prices.  Corruption was rampant, accountability disappeared.  The two major parties, controlling Congress and alternating in the presidency, squandered revenues with lavish favoritism toward insiders, creating massive levels of debt.  After years of bipartisan mismanagement of the economy, with little to show for the oil boom, and high levels of public disgust at the corruption, CAP ran for president again in 1988, this time as a leftist reformer who argued Venezuela's economic problems were the result of foreign neoliberal policies known as the Washington Consensus (later backed strongly by President Clinton).  He promised to help out the neglected middle and lower sectors.  But after winning he quickly embraced the very neoliberal reforms he had repudiated openly in the campaign, largely at the expense of the lower and middle classes, raising the price of subsidized transportation services and the price of gasoline and allowing rampant inflation to impoverish many sectors of the lower and middle classes.  When riots broke out the national guard killed somewhere between 500 and 3000 protesters.  Corruption continued unabated.  The public was even more outraged than before/  And then a paratroop commander named Hugo Chavez tried to overthrow the president and put an end to the spoils system.

The point is this:  it took the failure of the two-party system in Venezuela  mired in corruption, mismanagement, and blatant favoritism, for the public to turn away from the establishment and elect a strong man, who, once in office, destroyed the despised two-party system. I could cite many other examples of similar failures of ruling coalitions, across many decades, that gave rise in Latin America to the arrival of a strong man:  Juan Peron in Argentina, Haya de la Torre in Peru, Rojas Pinilla in Colombia, Velasco Alvarado in Peru, Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador--the list goes on and on.  In each of these cases the chronic failure of establishment political parties to satisfy the public led to the rise of strong men to acted often with great initial public acclaim.

The important question, then, may not be why people would follow a strong man, but why they would reject establishment politics, in spite of the uncertainties inherent in turning to the unknown?  It usually takes a lot of system failure for this to happen.

Viewed from this perspective, Trump's rise (and in less dramatic fashion Sanders' popularity) to levels no one expected just six months ago, in the face of enormous establishment opposition, can be interpreted as an indicator of system failure, rather than as a result of the kind of promises he makes, or of characteristics of people who form his base.  Both Sanders and Trump are clear about this.  Sanders calls it a "corrupt campaign finance system" that rigs it for the rich.  Trump says simply, "we aren't winning anymore," and promises to bring the good-paying jobs back home from China.

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