Francisco Toro and Venezuela’s “Savage” Democracy

  Source: Red Pepper Venezuela Blog

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 endorsement.

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.

The 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.

The 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.

If 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 share.”

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”.

Fortunately 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.

Drawing 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”.

Toro 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.