Friday, October 19, 2007

Elections in Historical Context


La Alborada - October 19

With elections set to take place in Cuba, following a constitution where, although the elections are not partisan, the Communist Party is the only legal party, we wonder how things might be different had history been different in Cuba and Latin America. What if the US had not overthrown every progressive, nationalist, or leftist government in Latin America that was popularly elected?

Cuba's revolution was not a coup against an elected government, but a popular uprising against the dictatorship of Batista, successor to the dictatorship of Machado, both of them strongmen of the US on the island. A progressive government elected after Machado was cut short when the US worked to undermine it, opening the door for Batista, who convinced the US ambassador that he was the right man for the job. Previously, independence from Spain had been denied to the Cubans when the US intervened militarily in 1898 to prevent it.

Those circumstances, and a surfeit of lackluster or corrupt goverments on the island after the limited independence of 1902, did not augur well for electoral solutions in Cuba. Indeed, Fidel Castro had been planning to run for office, and had challenged Batista in court, before giving up on those options.

Neither did events elsewhere help. For example:

In 1954, the US overthrew the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Ten years later, President Johnson ordered all-out support for the coup in Brazil that ousted the constitutional government. In 1965, the US landed troops in the Dominican Republic in support of a coup against the elected president, Juan Bosch. (He had been elected to replace Trujillo, the long-time US strongman on that island.) In 1973, the CIA set up the coup against Allende, who had been elected and was gaining in popularity. In 1984, the US, aware that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were about to win overwhelmingly in open elections, preemptively declared the elections null and began an undeclared war to overthrow the elected government.

Throughout, the US worked closely with dictatorships of every kind south of the Rio Grande. By the late 1970s, democracy had practically disappeared in Latin America.

Towards the end of the century, however, the dictatorships had ceased to be useful for the new neoliberal program, which depended on elected governments to legitimize it, and elections, even if limited, as in Chile, were allowed. The result was a growing trend towards independence and a new style of government, now aimed at a Socialism for the 20th Century: Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and, almost, Mexico. Other leftist governments were elected, as in Brazil and Uruguay, that have turned out to be quite acceptable to the US despite its earlier opposition to them, as is the socialist presidency of Chile.

But the old ways are not a thing of the past. In 2002, the US backed the failed coup in Venezuela, and then the lockout, and the referendum. The new democracies, with record popular support as in Venezuela and Bolivia and Ecuador, are now called in the US undemocratic and worrisome and destabilizing.

They represent the wrong kind of electoral results, as far as the US is concerned. The latter continues to seek military bases in the region, from the Dominican Republic to Colombia to Paraguay. Before, the justification was the communist threat; now, it is the asserted threat from terrorism, contraband, and urban gangs.

Cuba does not hold elections as in the US. For example, It has one party, not two. The government, however, has survived almost 50 years of US attempts to overthrow it. For the new governments, circumstances are not like they were in Cuba in 1959. Governments of the kind that used to be overthrown in brief now prosper, at least so far, with popular support and despite NED and USAID funding for opposition groups and the steady drumbeat of propaganda in the US against the new governments. Masses of people who used to think that elections were useless are now energized and politically active. Isn't that what democracy should be?

What if this history had been different? Would Cuba's elections have a different look?
Next year the US will hold its own presidential elections. The new government will early on show what it has learned from

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