Reply by Forrest D. Colburn and Alberto Trejos

Reply by Forrest D. Colburn and Alberto Trejos

We are surprised by Mark Engler’s criticism of our essay, “Democracy Undermined,” in the Summer 2010 issue of Dissent, in which we lament the heavy-handed use of the law to dismantle democracy in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, purportedly to build more progressive regimes. We join Engler in condemning the recent coup d’état in Honduras. And we would like to believe we share Engler’s commitment to broad-based economic development and socially inclusive governance. However, yes, we are concerned that a new authoritarianism is emerging in Latin America under the protective shield of “constitutional reform,” which is, in fact, constitutional subterfuge. The most egregious cases are Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, where socialist rhetoric has been used to justify the centralization of political power. Our argument is essentially a political one; we don’t care if in the new regimes “the trains run on time.”

Engler suggests we are either not fair or adequately familiar with what is happening in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. We both are fluent in Spanish, and have spent time in the three countries, where we have conversed with a wide range of individuals, studied the political systems, and examined economic data. We are worried. And we are not alone. Is it not revealing that university students are in the forefront of opposition to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela? And isn’t it troubling that erstwhile champions of social change in the country, such as Teodoro Petkoff, have broken ranks with Chávez?

Perhaps Engler has been misled by the progressive rhetoric of Chávez. It sounds good (though sometimes unbelievable—as when he declared that the recent earthquake in Haiti was caused by the U.S. Navy). Where, though, is the inclusive, democratically run, political party that provides an orientation to the head-of-state, helps formulate public policy, and provides a check on malfeasance? What is the plan for reshaping the economy? How was it decided that Venezuela would offer generous aid to eighty-nine different countries amid blackouts and widespread shortage of industrial and consumer goods? Why the spending of billions of dollars in public funds on armaments? Just where is Venezuela going? These are necessary questions. Unfortunately, in Venezuela today, “It is all about Chávez.” He may well have noble intentions, but he is establishing a disturbing cult of personality, is capricious in his decision making, dismissive of personal liberties and of the independence of the media, presumptuous and rash in his management of the economy, and more interested in international grandstanding than in Venezuela’s prosaic problems.

Engler marshals economic data to assert that Ecuador and Bolivia are progressing (no such data can be found for Venezuela). Many South American countries, such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, export oil, gas, and other minerals. The recent commodity boom, fueled in large par...