The Politics of Democracy Promotion


The temperature on the night bus from Caracas to Mérida is uncomfortably low. Venezuelans relish the opportunity to escape the tropical heat by snuggling under their blankets during these long distance journeys. On this occasion however the atmosphere is warm with the enthusiasm exuded by some of our fellow passengers. Clad in red t-shirts bearing the symbols of Movimiento Quinta Republica (The Fifth Republic Movement)–Hugo Chavez’s political umbrella–they are still ebullient with the energy of the day’s events. The young boy on the adjacent seat seems keen to talk; his grandmother sitting next to him more focused on catching a wink of sleep. He tells me he is returning from the launch rally of Chavez’s presidential campaign which he had come along with his grandmother to attend. I had seen the rally earlier in the day. The scale was impressive and the enthusiasm infectious–the kind that is reserved only for celebrity events in Europe and America, or, more recently, for antiwar rallies (The only Euro-American politician to achieve anything close was Ralph Nader with his super-rallies in 2000–and he didn’t win). Here, the spirit is one of confidence and possibility. These people have come from all corners of the country, feeling that they are agents of their country’s destiny. They come because it matters. They come because they matter.

The May 2007 elections in Scotland were similarly charged with expectation, even if despair more than hope drove the desire for change. Disillusionment with the status quo was widespread. While the Scottish Left had collapsed under the combined weight of media hostility and its own myopia, the disillusionment only increased the likelihood of a Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) victory. For its opposition to the war, opposition to the Trident boondoggle, calls for subsidized education, and its pro-independence agenda, the party was well placed to rake in the votes from the remnants of the Scottish Left on top of its traditional, more conservative, nationalist constituency. The possibility of a party outside the Tory-Labour consensus winning power on the British mainland seemed real. In a democracy as old as Britain’s one would have expected such plurality to be welcomed. Except it wasn’t, and the electorate showed little of the verve of the Venezuelan voter.

Imagine this scenario: In the upcoming Venezuelan elections polls show the main opposition party with a clear lead; each one of the country’s large circulation newspapers is editorially hostile to the opposition, producing a barrage of propaganda which culminates in alarmist front page stories on election day; newspapers carry explicit instructions on voting for the ruling party; the president personally intervenes in various constituencies to dissuade citizens from voting against his party; the ballot design is confusing, and invariably favours the governing party and 7 percent of all votes cast are spoilt as a result; the governing party wins seats no one expected it to, and when in one instance the result is challenged, the recount brings victory for the opposition; the electronic counting machines, it transpires, are provided by a company with links to former leaders of the ruling party. International election monitors declare the electoral process a disgrace.

Were this to transpire in Venezuela–or for that matter any country with policies at odds with Washington and her allies–the international media (read Anglo-American media) would be up in arms. There would be widespread condemnation of the process; rivers of ink would spill forth on the deficiencies of the country’s democratic tradition; expert-commentators would expatiate on the flaws in its citizens’ character.

In the event, none of this came to pass because the country in question was not Venezuela, but Scotland and the protests of a feeble few soon dropped off the column inches and airwaves of Britain’s docile media.

Even by ‘Third World’ standards, the elections were a farce. Preceded by months of tabloid propaganda verging on the defamatory, the establishment resorted to its time-tested strategy of wholesale scaremongering. Support for the SNP was gradually eroded through months of hostile coverage exaggerating the costs of independence and the proposed replacement for the hated community charge. However, by election day support for SNP, though diminished, was still widespread enough to lead major tabloids to attempt one final act of sabotage: Sun, Daily Mail, and Daily Record–three rags with circulations exceeding those of all the rest combined–synchronized their attacks on their front pages; one depicting the SNP symbol as a noose, another calling party leader Alex Salmond ‘the man who wants to destroy Great Britain’, and the third sporting a sinister image of Salmond.

While it is nearly impossible to find a Scottish voter who publicly professes support for Labour, and while early forecasts had predicted a Labour rout, its curiously narrow defeat understandably surprised many. One could attribute this to New Labour’s successful use of scare tactics–and the ‘money and muscle poured into key seats to fend off the SNP’, as Michel White of the Guardian put it–but the deeply flawed electoral process suggests it may have taken more than scary headlines to diminish the scale of its defeat. Against expert advice the Labour-controlled Scottish executive chose to hold both local council and national elections on the same day. In the ensuing chaos, there were the technical problems of the electronic counting machines, organizational problems of the electoral ballots not delivered on time in sufficient quantities, and the design problems of a ballot with two different voting systems on a single sheet.

While it is acknowledged that nearly 140,000 votes–almost 7 percent of the total cast–were spoilt, it has yet to be confirmed if there are any discernible trends (other than the fact that the vote rejection invariably disadvantaged smaller parties). As the Guardian reported, in Edinburgh Central, “Labour’s deputy environment minister, Sarah Boyack, held her seat with a majority of 1,193 but there were 1,501 rejected papers. In Glasgow Baillieston, the rejected total of 1,850 was more than 10 per cent of the votes accepted, and most constituencies saw at least 1,000 papers rejected – 10 times the norm.” On the rare occasion where a result was challenged, it once again transpired that the ‘irregularity’ favored the ruling party, casting further doubts over the transparency of the process. If it weren’t for a timely intervention by an SNP candidate–David Thompson of Highlands and Islands–which led to a recount reversing the result handing the seat to a Labour candidate, Blairites would still be in power. The commission’s excuse for the blunder did little to alleviate concern. The computer file was ‘misread’ by ‘exhausted vote counters’, it claimed. Further questions are raised by the fact that Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, sits as a non-Executive Director on the board of DRS, the firm providing the electronic vote counting machines at the middle of this controversy.

Despite expressing dissatisfaction with the process earlier on, SNP seems to have been sufficiently mollified by its victory to show any discernable vigor in the pursuit of an independent inquiry. While an independent commission was instituted for a review into the electoral fiasco headed by former UN observer Ron Gould, its findings will only become public in August. Given the history of official whitewashes in Britain, it would be wise not to expect much from the process. The time assigned the inquiry itself suggests a lack of urgency. What is remarkable however is the complete absence of media interest in the matter. Taking its cue from the media, the public remains equally indifferent. A greater cause for concern is the absence of any international outcry. The NGOs–which have assumed today the role played by Christian missionaries during the period of European colonization–remain completely silent, even though the elections were slammed by international observers. According to the Observer,

Robert Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, who was in Scotland as a guest of the Electoral Reform Society said, ‘It’s totally unacceptable to have so many votes spoiled. There are parallels with the problems in the presidential election in Florida in 2000 We were also very concerned about the lack of uniform standards in judging what votes were rejected and which were deemed to be valid’.

Europe and US hold other nations to standards that they themselves do not feel obliged to abide by. Venezuela has long been the target of myriad ‘democracy promotion’ programs; its opposition funded through various shady NGOs, some with links to the US State Department. With ‘democracy’ in the West being synonymous with the ratification of a ruling elite every four years, Venezuela’s participatory model, however flawed, is deemed a ‘threat of a good example’ (to use an old State Department phrase first used in relation to the Sandanista government in Nicaragua) best kept at bay. So it is with some amusement that one watches representatives from countries where people still get excluded from the democratic process based on race and class (as they frequently are in the US) preach democratic empowerment to citizens of a country where every election has been ratified by respected international monitors, such as the Carter Centre.

In the wake of the Church Commission inquiry in the ’70s that exposed the CIA’s role in many overthrows and assassinations of democratically elected governments and leaders, the US government instituted a less obtrusive apparatus for destabilizing governments deemed unfriendly to US interests, primarily relying on NGOs funded by the State Department. National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID, the best known of these, have a long pedigree of subversion in Latin America and in Venezuela they have been funnelling funds to trade unions and other opposition groups in the guise of ’empowering’ democratic institutions. A Freedom of Information request last year revealed that USAID has siphoned millions of dollars to the Venezuelan opposition through its Office of Transition Initiatives. These included grants of ‘$47,459 for a “democratic leadership campaign”; $37,614 for citizen meetings to discuss a “shared vision” for society; and one of $56,124 to analyse Venezuela’s new constitution.’ What USAID claims is merely an innocuous part of Bush’s ‘Freedom Agenda’, is referred to by the US think tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs as ‘diplomatic warfare’, whereas the Venezuelan-American lawyer Eva Golinger calls it an attempt at ‘regime change’.

The recent ruckus over the closing down of Venezuela’s RCTV raises many similar questions; the notion of ‘free speech’ was bandied about by many critics. In the West, ‘free speech’, like ‘democracy’, carries a narrow definition which focuses on the particularity of its institutional practice, rather than its universal meaning. It did not matter that the coup that RCTV supported was undermining the free expression of the millions who had voted for Chavez; ‘free speech’ was only invoked when a media institution that had helped suppress the voice of the multitudes by drowning it out in its relentless misleading coverage of the coup had its license not renewed. The defense of free speech in other words is merely the defense of the privileges of a media corporation–including that to lie–even if it impinges on the free expression of the public at large. To be sure, institutions are entitled to free speech just as much as individuals. However, this freedom is not license for them to use their unique powers to subvert public interest. The media should be allowed full leeway to speak truth to power; but should it turn into an instrument of power (a foreign one, no less) undermining democracy, the public must retain the right to impeach. As an accessory to a foreign power in its attempt to overthrow their elected government, Venezuelans are well within their rights to demand RCTV to be discipline. The question then is not of ‘free speech’, but of the level of public support for the government’s action.

For International NGOs–several deriving funds from the most unsavoury of sources–‘free speech’ figured as the single most important issue in their condemnations with the issue being stripped of its political context. Perhaps understandably, as some of the more vocal ones–Inter American Press Association (IAPA), Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Article 19–either have a history of association with the CIA (IAPA), or are funded by the State Department and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office through NED and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (RWB, Article 19)–all entities invested in the earlier failed coup. If free speech were really the issue, their energies would be better spent fighting threats to it closer home, such as the muzzling of media on Iraq; the Hutton Inquiry; or the gagging of the press through the Official Secrets Act (as in the case of the Mirror, which was muzzled after publishing contents of a memo revealing Bush confiding his wish to bomb Al Jazeera’s offices in Qatar to Tony Blair.

The bus snakes languidly up the Andean foothills as the first rays of the sun fall on the sleeping valley. As we roll into Mérida the haze clears with the early morning sun highlighting features of the rugged terrain that forms the backdrop to the splendor of the city’s colonial architecture. The monotony of the pastel walls is only broken by the exuberant hues of a mural celebrating the people’s struggle, and another offering solidarity to the people of Lebanon and Palestine resisting the latest Israeli assault.

As we settle down for breakfast in the centre of this university town–in clear view of the ubiquitous statue of Simone Bolivar–I notice a frail old man standing in the corner with expectant eyes. Before I can get up, one student has placed money in his hand, and another bought him food. It is a welcome relief from the callousness I had witnessed in some of the more affluent quarters of Caracas, where a Thatcherite worldview still prevails. Individual acts of generosity aside, poverty is still rife and despite the government’s encouragement for the citizens to form their own cooperatives which are then be funded by the state, the bloated bureaucracy still impedes progress. Remnants of the ancien régime while accommodating themselves to the new political reality, are merely biding time, and have little interest in the country’s progress. ‘The problem with the Fifth Republic is that its administration is still reliant on the political apparatus from the fourth republic’, the co-founder of Clase Media Revolucionarios observes. ‘The idea has taken off, but the system has yet to catch up’. Back in Scotland one only hopes ideas would some day catch up with a runaway system.

MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD is a researcher at Spinwatch. His regular commentaries appear on The Fanonite.


MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD is the co-founder of