<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español August 15, 2018 | Issue #35

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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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The trademarks "Narco News," "The Narco News Bulletin," "School of Authentic Journalism," "Narco News TV" and NNTV © 2000-2011 Al Giordano


Democracy Doesn’t Exist – It Is Made

Depressed About the Inauguration? There Are Better Models of Democracy Building from Below

By Jennifer Whitney
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

January 20, 2005

“…[For us] democracy is much more than an electoral contest or putting the alternative party in power. But it is also an electoral contest if it is clean, fair, honest and plural…That’s why we say that electoral democracy doesn’t make a democracy, but is an important part of it… We think that the elections represent, for millions of people, a space for a dignified and respectable struggle… In the Zapatista idea, democracy is something that is constructed from below and with everyone, including those that think differently than us. Democracy is the exercise of power by the people all the time and in all places.”

Subcomandante Marcos, Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Mexico, June 2000

If the official results are correct, 56 million Americans mourn and 59 million celebrate today as George W. Bush is sworn in after another election marred by shocking and well-documented irregularities. Protests are taking place around the country, with people turning their backs on the motorcade in Washington, going on a shopping strike, and holding mock funerals for the death of democracy. Meanwhile, people in the rest of the world have long ceased scratching their collective heads over the (il)logic of our electoral college and our collective complacency regarding our criminal administration and are looking at other elections – future and recent past.

While the 2004 US elections provided all the drama of the OJ Simpson and Monica Lewinsky affairs combined, the end result is likely to be much the same: millions of television viewers professing outrage and talking of nothing else until the Next Big Thing comes along and sweeps away memories of the details and irregularities, particularly of global events which happened concurrently with the big overarching dramas. While Americans were busy retallying votes in Ohio and New Mexico (a process I certainly am not arguing against), the US military was wreaking havoc on the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

2004 was notable for the diversity of elections held around the world, and a closer examination of them is warranted in order to make sense of how to move forward in a Bush-led Empire.

  • In Bolivia, a confusing referendum was held on the nation’s large natural gas reserves, the results of which are being contested – not just by turning their backs or refusing to spend money (a rare and privileged resource most Bolivians don’t possess) but by taking to the streets, plazas, and neighborhoods nationwide.

  • In Venezuela, one of two countries in the world to provide for such a thing (the other is Iceland, which has never exercised the right), a referendum was held on whether or not to recall President Hugo Chávez.

  • And in Iraq, a small and little-reported election was held to lay the groundwork for what is likely to be the Next Big Thing to flood American airwaves – the upcoming elections for the Iraqi National Assembly, scheduled for January 30th.

So while Republicans are gorging themselves at the most costly inauguration ever, let’s go on a quick tour of recent vote-casting to see what remnants of “democracy” are evident in national electoral politics around the world. Along the way, we’ll get some glimpses of what a real democracy might entail – not one that sits on the shelf and is occasionally dusted off and wielded at the enemy like a trophy.

Democracy is not a possession, not a thing to flaunt with pride or to regard with envy. It is a utopia, if one discards the notions of hippie communes and takes the true meaning of the word “utopia,” which is “no place.” It is something we can dream of, strive towards, and be inspired by, but it doesn’t really exist. It is more accurately a verb than a noun, an ongoing process rather than a final result. It is fluid and demanding, because it can never be attained and sustained. If you turn your back on it, it ossifies and crumbles; it cannot be forgotten, nor left to professionals to manage on our behalf. It is at its best when fought for, argued over, and challenged by the participation of those of us implicated in the very word, democracy, that is to say, the people who are meant to rule.

Land of Gas and Water Wars

“[Bolivia’s] history, ignored, abounds in defeat and betrayal but also in those miracles that scorned people are capable of when they stop scorning themselves and fighting each other.”

– Eduardo Galeano, on the driving out of former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada

In Bolivia last summer, the word on everyone’s lips was “nationalization.” That is what people across the country demanded in September and October 2003, as the country was rocked by nation-wide roadblocks, a siege on the capitol city of La Paz, running street battles, and ultimately, the military occupation of and massacres in El Alto, a largely indigenous city of close to a million people which overlooks the capitol of La Paz in the valley below. As many as 400 people were arrested, injured, and tortured, and over 70 were killed in what people call the gas war.

The insurrection led to the flight of then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who took off from the presidential palace in a helicopter one night while tanks rolled through the streets below. Former Vice President Carlos Mesa inherited a smoldering country, and shrewdly made promises as he took power after his predecessor’s flight – there would be a referendum on the future of the nation’s hydrocarbons (natural gas and oil), and a Constituents’ Assembly would be convened to draft a new constitution.

The demands from the streets were farther-reaching – people wanted the release of political prisoners, improved wages and social programs, the end the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations, the total cessation of coca eradication, and nothing short of nationalization, or state control, of hydrocarbons. But with assurances from Mesa that the referendum would be the best way to achieve this goal, the exhausted and grieving population returned to their homes, vowing that the struggle was only beginning.

Seven months later, in the lead-up to the referendum, the government released the five questions on which people would soon vote, which were written in such convoluted legal-ese that even Bolivia’s Minister of Hydrocarbons professed not to understand exactly what they would mean, if passed. Soon after, thousands of little booklets appeared on the streets, professing to explain the questions with pictorial guides and definitions of the polysyllabic technical terms. Debates over the questions’ meaning proliferated, as did the guidebooks, and the people grew suspicious that the election would have nothing to do with their demands. Though President Mesa and the media referred to it constantly as a referendum on nationalization, that word, notably, did not appear on the ballot. He also assured the transnational corporations with existing contracts to extract gas that they would see their contracts fulfilled, and that any new measures passed would only apply to future contracts. It became abundantly clear that no matter the outcome of the vote, the transnationals would be the winners.

In the weeks before the election, the media was full of stories predicting waves of violence, stolen ballot boxes, and roadblocks. Several social movements had called for a boycott of the elections, which they saw as being a farce, designed to give the illusion of participation without actually offering any real change.

The day before the referendum, four Narco News correspondents visited El Alto to get a taste of the mood on the street. We arrived at a roadblock in Senkata, the site of one of the massacres the previous fall. People were standing around a small bonfire in the street, and piles of rock and rubble were strewn across the road. When we got out of the car, sharp whistles erupted from the group of men at the fire, and they came over and encircled us, as we somewhat awkwardly introduced ourselves as independent sympathetic journalists. One man in his late thirties who was wearing aviator glasses and holding one of the ubiquitous explanatory guides to the referendum came forward as the spokesperson. As we talked, the crowd around us steadily grew, and people in the back murmured to each other in Aymara, the primary indigenous language of El Alto. The tension mounted until Luis Gomez mentioned that he had not only covered the uprising last fall, but also had written a book on the subject, called El Alto de pie (“El Alto on Its Feet”). Fortunately, one of us had a copy, and the alteños quickly thumbed through it, and the outer ring began drifting back to the fire.

“Journalists come up here and write lies about us in the paper. Mesa used to be a journalist. We don’t want them up here,” one woman told us angrily. While she and the spokesman explained their position on the referendum, that it was a complicated bit of trickery and fraud, their comrades continued work on a barricade. Suddenly a series of shrill whistling erupted from the tight knot of people around the fire and we looked up to see a truck full of riot police approaching the barricade. Everyone picked up rocks and moved closer together; the truck turned down a side street one block away and disappeared. By this time people building the barricade were working right at our feet, and so we decided to head off.

The next day, July 18, 2004, Bolivians went to the polls under great pressure to vote. Voting in Bolivia is mandatory, and those who abstained were forced to pay a fine – the equivalent of 2-4 weeks’ salary. Additionally, polling stations were all under armed guard, causing voters I spoke with in El Alto to talk of feeling intimidated. Marco, a member of the Federation of Neighborhood Associations (shortened to “Fejuve” in Spanish), characterized the election as “the dictatorship version of democracy. We shouldn’t have to vote when there is nothing on the ballot we believe in. For us to be required to vote, under the vigilance of federal police and with the threat of expensive fines – this is not democracy.”

Oscar Olivera, Spokesman for Bolivia’s Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Gas, casts his vote in the referendum, nullified with the word “nationalization.”
Photo: Coordinadora por la Defensa del Gas
Despite these pressures, there was a hugely successful campaign for boycotting the elections: abstention was 40 percent, and another 15 percent handed in ruined ballots, either blank, crossed out, or scribbled with the word “nationalization.”

A week after the referendum, President Mesa hired a US consultant, J. Sallivan, to interpret the results of the vote and translate them into legislation.

So this is what the 2004 election in Bolivia looked like: obtuse questions interpreted in Washington for Bolivians going through the motions at the barrel of a gun.

However, that election was not the beginning, nor the end of participation by the Bolivian people. Since the spring of 2000, social movements have reversed the privatization of Cochabamba’s water by transnational Bechtel, sustained a month-long battle against police, army, and paramilitary forces in the war on coca farmers in the Chapare, forced the government to roll-back International Monetary Fund-imposed tax increases and deep slashing of social services, and driven much-despised president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada out of office while demanding that his successor nationalize the nation’s vast gas reserves and begin a participatory process to reform the constitution.

And since the referendum, the movements have not sat back and sniped at each other as to what went wrong in their campaign to expose the gas referendum as a fraud, nor have they become weary and complacent. As Aymara leader Felipe Quispe said last fall in an interview with journalist Reed Lindsay, “What imbecile said people here are tired of protesting? In this country… we have always been rebelling… The people are going to rise up and it’s possible that this president goes down just like Sánchez de Lozada. We’re betting on it.”

And beyond just betting on it, they are taking action. The grassroots Association of Families of Fallen Heroes in Defense of Gas has tirelessly and successfully campaigned to bring former president Sánchez de Lozada to trial. Suffering through the re-opening of graves of murdered family members, the survivors of the massacres in El Alto have shown great courage and perseverance in their struggle.

Members of the Fejuve neighborhood federation march triumphantly into La Paz after evicting French water company Aguas de Illimani
Foto: Indymedia Bolivia
In the last few weeks, people nationwide have protested price hikes in diesel and gasoline, their outrage fueled by Mesa’s remarks that export sales forced him to raise prices in order to prevent shortages, “…for the simple and straightforward reason that the price of our diesel has been so low that for Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile, it’s been quite advisable for them to buy Bolivian diesel, which is dirt cheap in comparison with its price in other countries….”

Also in El Alto, the members of Fejuve in El Alto have just joined the people of Cochabamba in making history by evicting a transnational water giant – in this case, the French Aguas de Illimani – from the country.

These actions have not been taken by specialists, activists, or NGOs, but rather, by ordinary people. As Narco News correspondent Gissel Gonzalez put it, “It is as one comrade said to a government minister during the Water War, when asked, ‘and, who are you people?’ His response: ‘We are the ones who install cable TV in your house, who transport your kids, who connect your electricity, who bring you water, who clean your house, who collect your garbage, who cook your food, who bring you to work, who educate your children… that is who we are.’”

Exporting Oil and Inspiration

“[The referendum] is a demonstration of a democratic culture that we haven’t seen elsewhere in Latin America; it’s an example to the whole world.”

– Eleazar Diaz Rangel (no relation to the vice president), director of Ultimas Noticias

Explosions rattled the windows at four a.m. last August 16 and the streets surrounding the hotel erupted in noise – people celebrating, letting loose with singing, chanting, and an arsenal of pyrotechnics. The world’s first presidential recall vote was finally yielding official preliminary results, and the streets of Caracas were erupting in celebration, ecstasy, triumph. After a seemingly interminable day, with people lining up to vote since three a.m. the previous morning, the pressure that had been building for over 24 hours finally had an outlet. And history was written anew. The only trouble was, whose history? The sounds that drifted up to the window were inconclusive, with the chants and slogans of both sides getting equal time. The television was equally unhelpful, with shots of supporters of President Chávez dancing side by side with similar footage of the opposition. Even then, at that turning point, Venezuela was dominated by a deep schizophrenia, an irreconcilable, unfathomable division that ignites fiery passions while befuddling outsiders.

Chavistas celebrate their referendum victory early in the morning of August 16, 2004
Photo: Noah Friedsky
A half hour later, things became clearer. The non-partisan, independent National Electoral Council, charged with implementing and monitoring the electoral process, had announced its preliminary results. With 94 percent of the votes counted, President Chávez’s supporters had won a sweeping 59 percent of the vote, in an election with one of the continent’s lowest abstention rates in recent history – just 35 percent.

A throng of chavistas gathered at Miraflores, the presidential residence, waving red flags and jumping for joy. Chávez appeared on the balcony shortly thereafter and the crowd collectively swooned. Slamming his fist into his palm as though he were pummeling the enemy, the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution looked tired, but proud. He wrapped his arms tightly around his body and then flung them open wide, sending a hug out to his tired yet exhilarated supporters. Someone handed him a microphone, and he began to sing.

Yes, that’s right, he began to sing. The much-vilified president of the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, who is commonly described by his opponents as “firebrand,” “ruinous demagogue,” “autocrat,” and “democratic dictator,” (whatever that might mean); the man who has survived numerous attempts to depose him by the joint efforts of the US government and various corporate interests, including a coup, a lock-out by the state oil company management which led to a near total halt in petroleum exports, and now this referendum; Hugo Chávez’s first victorious words to his supporters were in song.

The song was a call-and-response. Chávez sang a line and then the crowd replied, thousands of people, brought together in voice and in hope. Nothing unites people quite like singing together; it diffuses tension; it builds affinity; when people participate in creating a situation or a dynamic, they are more likely to defend it, to own it, to remember it forever.

Chávez looks toward the future as he addresses supporters after his victory in the referendum has been announced.
Photo: Noah Friedsky
Chávez then regaled his people with a speech of an hour and a half – quite short by his standards, but it was nearly dawn on a Monday morning and many people, himself included, had to go to work soon.

A big baseball fan, he began wrapping up his speech by congratulating his constituents on hitting a home run for the Bolivarian Revolution and for democracy. And with a sly smile, he added that the ball had landed in the middle of the White House lawn.

Many people predicted total chaos in the Venezuela referendum due to the use of new voting machines, and geared up to blame them for fraud, no matter what the result. The right said it was dangerous to test out new technology on such an important issue. Leftist journalists in the US drew comparisons to the electronic voting machine concerns in their forthcoming elections, preparing themselves for the worst at home.

If only there had been reason to compare the US’ and Venezuela’s voting processes….

However, Venezuela continues to be the beacon of direct democracy in this hemisphere. Jimmy Carter was there leading a team of international observers, and the day before the voting, he said that the careful preparations and organizing ensured that the results “would be more satisfactory than those in Florida in 2000.” Yet the opposition claimed that Chávez was threatening democracy with his successful voter registration drive, which quickly signed up over a million new voters.

What Chávez has done, apart from getting out the vote, is to open a political space in which people can organize themselves. His social programs are making real differences in people’s access to food, health care, clean water, literacy programs, attainable loans, and arable land, so they are no longer forced to struggle against all odds simply to meet their daily needs. Their time is freed up and many are choosing to spend it by further opening political spaces: making media, joining neighborhood associations, and otherwise participating in making democracy work.

That is exactly what is happening in La Sabana, a shantytown in Catia – a suburb in the hills on the outskirts of Caracas. Up there, you would never know that you were in the capital of the fifth largest petroleum exporter in the world. The roads are unpaved, the houses are made entirely of corrugated tin, and raw sewage flows alongside the dusty walkways slicing through the village. Dogs pace in their fenced-off yards, flowers twine up improvised trellises in meticulous gardens, and children chase the lone goat in town up and down the dirt road. According to Narco News correspondent Charlie Hardy, who lived here for more than a decade when he served as the local priest, the houses have been upgraded since his day. He mutters to one of the children, who pokes around in the grass a bit and then produces a scrap of thin cardboard. “This is what our homes were made of when I lived here. But it wasn’t this thick. This has been soaking in water or something, our cardboard was more flimsy,” he informs us.

In the days before the referendum, people welcomed our group of independent journalists into their homes, offering snacks of tasty hot corncakes dripping with butter, eager to tell their stories. One woman proudly stated that her entire family of seven had just registered to vote for the first time in their lives. They hadn’t been compelled to do so in order to vote for Chávez in the previous two presidential elections, but their lives had improved so much under his government that they felt it their duty to vote. “With Chávez we have the missions and their literacy programs, we have a doctor in our neighborhood for the first time so people are not dying for being poor, and I’m finishing my high school degree. Who says things are worse under Chávez? They should come up here.”

But that is precisely it – they don’t go up there. No one in La Sabana has ever seen a pollster or a journalist in the neighborhood. If they had bothered to make the trek, they might have been surprised. They would have seen a gaggle of kids painting murals on the communal water tank, images of houses, schools, gardens, clinics, with the figures of Simón Bolivar, Che Guevara, and Chávez looming over. They would have seen the overworked yet energetic Cuban doctor (who requested that his name be withheld) who works every day and sees at least 200 patients per month. While he expresses frustration and despair that he has to start from scratch to educate his patients about basic hygiene and preventive care, he is enthusiastic about his work, and his eyes light up when he talks about the medicinal herbs he incorporates into his practice.

Such unlikely visitors also would have had to come to terms with a community of about 200 people which is almost 100 percent chavista, and the fact that hundreds of similar communities ring the city’s peripheries – all poor, all uncounted, all chavista.

Due to very high turnout in Venezuela, voting hours were extended twice, giving the record number of voters eight hours more to ensure that everyone who wished to was able to vote. The elections took place with surprisingly little comment from President Bush, whose administration has historically been all too eager to interfere. Sure, the opposition received money from the National Endowment for Democracy, but apart from that, there was little US involvement. Except that the electronic voting machines, which produced a paper trail and recorded a margin of error of 0.02 percent, were purchased from a Florida company. Pity those weren’t for sale domestically.

Six weeks after all the hype and drama had settled down and some of the referendum graffiti was sandblasted from the walls, another victory rained down upon the heads of the chavistas of Venezuela. In the municipal elections, Chávez’s party won a sweeping victory, taking governorships in 20 of 22 states holding elections that day, and 270 of 334 mayoralties.

By way of contrast, in the same month, Brazil’s President Ignacio “Lula” da Silva’s party suffered great blows, losing the mayor’s seat in two of its most long-loyal cities, Porto Alegre, and the nation’s largest urban center, São Paolo. The differences between the two leaders are stark. One has been following the will of the people, unafraid to stand up to massive US and corporate interests. The other has tried to play all sides, placate business interests, and has become bogged down in the process, as even staunch party members are drifting, disillusioned.

What must come next in the Bolivarian Republic is the expansion of the already-strong democratic system, and the continued development of grassroots-based infrastructures to ensure that all that Chávez has built will not dissipate when he leaves office. In Venezuela, democracy is exercised frequently, and so rather than atrophying, much like a muscle, the use of it only makes it stronger.

From the Cradle of Civilization to its Grave

“In the U.S., Mr. Bush’s claim that “freedom is on the march” served its purpose, but, in Iraq, the plan led directly to today’s carnage. Mr. Bush likes to paint the forces opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq as enemies of democracy. In fact, much of the uprising can be traced directly to decisions made in Washington to stifle, delay, manipulate, and otherwise thwart the Iraqi people’s democratic aspirations…. Is it any wonder that Iraqis are skeptical of the version of democracy being delivered to them by U.S. troops, or that elections have come to be seen not as tools of liberation but as weapons of war?”

– Naomi Klein, from “Rocket the Vote”

The political space so vibrantly present in Venezuela is seriously lacking in Iraq, where people are living under siege, both militarily and economically. Where women who never wore the veil are now covering themselves, Iranian-style, if they go onto the streets at all. Where young girls are suffering developmental disorders and learning disabilities because they are unable to get proper exercise, unable to leave their houses in safety. Where people are knowingly drinking water contaminated with cholera, giardia, and raw sewage, because there is no other option. Where the media is far from free, and crime is on the rise. Bombs go off daily, kidnappings are widespread, and anyone viewed to be working with the US is considered a viable target. Where electricity is intermittent, currently reported in Baghdad to be two hours on for every ten hours off. Where formerly secular bookshops are now laden down with religious texts, at least, those that haven’t left the book business altogether in favor of selling generators, bringing to mind Ray Bradbury’s assertion that “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

The United States is trying to destroy Iraq and, barring the total collapse of global economic institutions such as the IMF and World Bank which have already hamstrung the Iraqi economy before the people have had a chance to elect their own leaders, it will succeed, at least on an economic front.

There isn’t likely to be any respite from that destruction after January 30, when Iraq will hold its “first free elections.” President Bush said in April of last year about the Iraqi people, “It is going to take a while for them to understand what freedom is all about.” Well, let’s see if we can unravel the complicated concept of “freedom” as it applies to Iraqi elections. To do so, we’ll have to go back a bit in time to the election in late August 2004 of the current governing body of Iraq – the Interim National Council.

A National Conference was called and given the mandate of electing 81 of the 100 members of the Interim National Council. The Council is meant, until this month’s elections, to oversee the transitional government of former Ba’athist and CIA recruit Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Unfortunately for the cause of “freedom,” the elections to the Council were pure political theatre, much like the “transfer of power” last June.

Delegates from across the country representing nearly all religious, tribal, and ethnic groups arrived to the conference, where they were informed for the first time of the rules of running candidates. They had just four days to compile a team of candidates that met strict and careful demographic requirements. The delegates would then vote for a ticket rather than for individuals. Yet one group of delegates, headed by Allawi, seemed to have more “freedom” than the rest, since they had prior knowledge of the rules of the game, and had spent four months compiling their team of candidates. Uncoincidentally, their ticket was comprised of parties that are friendly to the US government and corporations, and that already held prominent positions in the Iraqi Governing Council. And – guess what? They won.

But to call what happened “winning” is a misnomer, just like Bolivia’s vote had nothing to do with nationalization of natural gas. No vote was held at all, and after the various opposition groups had either stormed out or resigned in protest, a panel of four judges waved their hands and declared as “winner” the team which had written the rules, rigged the election, and cheated.

Is this what we have to look forward to on January 30, when Iraqis go to the polls to vote in a 275 member national assembly, more “free” elections? Of course, “free” in this context means that a US-appointed electoral council has approved or denied the participation of all candidates and parties. And “free” also means free from the direct oversight and observation of the UN or any neighboring countries.

In fact, according to Robert Fisk’s recent article for the UK’s Independent, the election will be “so physically dangerous that the international observers will be ‘observing’ the poll from Amman [Jordan].”

But forget about observing, what about running for office? As Fisk and others have recently reported, the political climate is so dangerous that candidates are literally forced underground, campaigning in neighboring countries, and refusing to admit publicly whether or not they are running for office!

As far as covering the elections goes, reporters are being denied entrance to Fallujah, as well as other places, “for their own safety.” Fisk makes the chilling assertion in his most recent dispatch that reporters are forced to choose between filing a good and well-reported stories and staying alive. Called “Hotel Journalism,” he calls into question the value of almost all reporting coming out of Iraq.

The violence extends well beyond that faced by political candidates and journalists; there is a real physical danger involved simply in voting. Attacks on polling stations are on the rise, with many threats of massive attacks on election day. And earlier this month, Iraqi intelligence declared that four provinces containing 40 percent of the Iraqi population are considered unsafe.

Back in Fallujah, a UN dispatch declared that only one-third of neighborhoods there were secure enough for medical teams to enter. Remember Fallujah? The city which has suffered collective punishment twice now at the hands of the US Marines, most recently while we in the US were busy wringing our hands over election irregularities in Ohio. Now one-third of it has been leveled to the ground through air strikes and door-to-door raids in an onslaught that has been compared to that against Dresden after the Second World War. An estimated 1,000-5,000 of its former population of 250,000 have returned, after being delayed at US military checkpoints for six hours or more, to live with no electricity, an average of two hours a day of water, nightly curfews, and bombing raids. The remaining 245,000 or more are refugees. Where are the polling stations for them? And for what reasons should they risk their lives to get to them? What example of “democracy” under occupation is there to inspire them to participate in such a farce?

Outside of Fallujah and its diaspora, the situation is not so different. Voter registration is low, for a variety of reasons, many of which are summed up quite clearly in the January 2 blog entry by the pseudonymous young Iraqi woman Riverbend in Baghdad:

“Sunni Arabs are going to boycott elections. It’s not about religion or fatwas or any of that so much as the principle of holding elections while you are under occupation. People don’t really sense that this is the first stepping-stone to democracy, as western media is implying. Many people sense that this is just the final act of a really bad play. It’s the tying of the ribbon on the ‘democracy parcel’ we’ve been handed. It’s being stuck with an occupation government that has been labeled ‘legitimate’ through elections.”

Beyond the pervasive sense that the elections are the hollow denouement on bad political theater, exactly what is the National Assembly anyway?

It’s yet another transitional government, in this rationing of democracy that the US has imposed, as if self-government were akin to driving, and required classes, permits, tests, and accompaniment before being set free to experiment on one’s own. Naomi Klein spelled it out in a devastating manner, saying

“[Former occupation head Paul] Bremer wants his Coalition Provisional Authority to appoint the members of 18 regional Organizing Committees. The Organizing Committees will then select delegates to form 18 Selection Caucuses. These selected delegates will then further select representatives to a Transitional National Assembly. The Assembly will have an internal vote to select an executive and ministers who will form the new government of Iraq….

“Got that? Iraqi sovereignty will be established by appointees appointing appointees to select appointees to select appointees. Add to that the fact that Bremer was appointed to his post by President Bush and that Bush was appointed to his by the U.S. Supreme Court, and you have the glorious new democratic tradition of the Appointocracy: rule by appointee’s appointee’s appointees’ appointees’ appointees’ selectees.”

Convoluted? You betcha. In Iraq, “democracy” is something alleged to be so foreign to the locals that only outsiders and professional experts should have access to its inner workings.

One of the reasons the US is so eager to move forward with this election, despite the complete lack of evidence that such a thing is feasible, is because it hopes to have influence over this Assembly, which will be the first body with the power to change the Occupation Authority-written Iraqi constitution. This bit of parchment includes such “democratic” charms as a provision allowing foreign companies to own all Iraqi assets (excluding natural resources), and to export all profit. This will open the floodgates to a torrent of privatization… once investors feel the nation is safe enough for operations.

And although Bush was once invoking the upcoming Iraqi elections at every given opportunity, with misty-eyed, catch-in-the-throat emoting at the camera when his own election was at stake, he is now backpedaling furiously, with White House press secretary saying, “The election is not going to be perfect,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said earlier this month. “This is the first time Iraqis will be able to freely choose their leaders. It’s for a transitional government, and it’s only one of three elections that will take place over the course of this year.”

Along the same theme, and in an attempt to prove that low voter turnout does not automatically mean elections without legitimacy, an anonymous senior White House official (why are they always anonymous?) said on January 12, “I would . . . really encourage people not to focus on numbers, which in themselves don’t have any meaning, but to look on the outcome and to look at the government that will be the product of these elections.” It’s difficult to discern if he is referring to elections in Iraq or those we recently enjoyed in the US.

Last summer rumors flew that outgoing Department of Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge would request the right to postpone the US presidential elections in the event of a major catastrophic terrorist strike. Meanwhile in Iraq, with daily strikes by the resistance, assassination of candidates, underground campaigning, nearly the entire city of Fallujah living (and frequently starving) in exile, Sunnis boycotting the election, criminally low levels of voter registration, ballots being sold on the black market for up to $400 – despite all of this, the election is slated to go on. The Bush “Stay the Course” Administration seems unable to think flexibly, and is driving the Iraqi people even closer to the civil war it once claimed to wish to prevent. And through it all, it continues to impose its twisted logic onto the Iraqi people, announcing officially that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. On this subject, Riverbend expresses the real and long-lasting result of the war waged on her country, and it is not the “democracy” as defined by American dictionaries, of a nation on marionette strings:

“The weapons never existed. It’s like having a loved one sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit- having your country burned and bombed beyond recognition, almost. Then, after two years of grieving for the lost people, and mourning the lost sovereignty, we’re told we were innocent of harboring those weapons. We were never a threat to America…

“Congratulations Bush – we are a threat now.”

The World’s Only Superpower

“The history of the rise and fall of empires teaches us that it is when their own citizens finally lose faith in the virtue of infinite war and permanent occupations that the system enters into retreat.”

– Tariq Ali, Bush in Babylon

There is little to say about the recent US elections that hasn’t already been said in innumerable articles on countless websites and in exhaustive lists. Today’s inauguration will also be heavily attended, protested, and covered by journalists and activists of all stripes. Tens of thousands of people are protesting in forms as varied as wearing black arm-bands, refusing to spend “one damn dime,” turning their back on the inaugural parade in Washington, holding a gasoline boycott in Orlando, Florida, staging a jazz funeral for democracy in New Orleans, Louisiana, and various other activities across the nation. Their activities, unfortunately, will likely be cordoned off into the invisible or irrelevant – permitted rallies and marches, a quick flash appearance as the motorcade whizzes past. “The Bush Administration, in conjunction with the National Parks’ Service, is trying to stage-manage democracy,” says Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer for one of the anti-war groups protesting in Washington.

Flyers announcing inaugural protests began to appear on lampposts around the country just two days after the election. People’s focus was quickly shifted to the Next Big Thing of our own making. Defeat was conceded before it was even officially certified. When the elections in Ukraine, internationally recognized to be fraudulent, took place in late November, people flooded the streets day and night, enduring the freezing temperatures, and demanding a new election, which they eventually got. What makes Ukrainians so different from us? It wasn’t that they had an exciting charismatic revolutionary leader to back; in fact, insiders pooh-poohed the event, saying that voters were given the choice of voting for either the KGB or the CIA. On that front they were not so different from us, given our choices between two pro-war candidates from the same lineage of wealthy secret-society Yalies. So why did they refuse to go home, discouraged and defeated, and making plans to emigrate north to Belarus? And why have Bolivians refused to accept the presidential interpretation of the referendum, and continued to fight for national control over natural resources? And why have Chávez supporters refused to capitulate under immense pressure from the national media and international pressures? And why are Iraqis giving their lives in the effort to drive the Americans out? Could it be that they know something about democracy that we in the US don’t?

Meanwhile, as the television screen flickers today with the glitz and glitter of the spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) inaugural balls, banquets, and speechifying, take a minute to think about what has been murmured on the outskirts of such decadence. For months, Nobel prize winning economists have been saying that the US economy is going to tank in the next decade or so. Do we want to wait until such a crisis occurs to reach out to our neighbors and try to find democratic solutions to systemic problems, or do we want to get our act together now? In Argentina it took the complete collapse of the economy to get people to talk to their neighbors, the unemployed, the immigrants, the homeless. Is that what we’re waiting for, as we glumly let the weight of the prospect of four more years of Bush weigh heavy on our hearts?

What did we really expect? That Kerry would have been the answer to the nation’s (and the world’s) economic woes, democracy deficits, war proliferations? How quickly we forget that deep, substantive change has only ever come from below, from the grassroots. If Kerry had been elected, we likely would have had eight years of complacency from the left, while the right organized. Remember the Clinton years?

Can you imagine any of your neighbors or coworkers expressing the same kind of faith, the same connection to the political process, as did Nicaela Hernandez from La Sabana in Caracas? “Here it’s the people who rule. And we’ll go out into the streets again and again to protect the democracy that we helped build.”

Of course not, because so few of us have had anything to do with building democracy. We listened to our leaders during the Cold War tell us that the poor Russians only had one kind of cereal, one kind of soap, one kind of toothpaste, those impoverished and pathetic people. Democracy was, and is still, presented to us as consumer choice. And that is the kind of democracy that the US is striving to impose in Iraq and elsewhere. Hachim Hassani, a representative of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, who served on the former Governing Council was talking about this kind of democracy when he told the Los Angeles Times, “The Iraqi people now equate democracy with bloodshed.” If only Americans would practice a little first aid….

Right now it’s too late to mourn about the dearth of democracy in the US, too late to complain about electronic voting machines affecting the count, too late to marvel at the inexplicable continuation of the tradition of the electoral college. We knew those things long before November 2, and so few of us did anything about it that those voices were drowned out by the clamoring of the war machine and the mudslinging on the campaign trail. What matters is what we do next.

“Our dreams don’t fit on your ballots” *

“Latin America is giving birth to many things which were lost in the past. Now more than ever it is time to take sides.”

– Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, video communiqué delivered to students at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, July 2004, Cochabamba, Bolivia

In all of these seemingly disparate nations of Bolivia, Venezuela, Iraq, and the United States, fundamental elements of democracy are lacking: people are impoverished, desperate, illiterate, unsafe, threatened, and are lacking information, basic human rights, responsible and honest media, and are often too busy struggling to survive to engage in political struggle.

What sets the United States apart from the rest is that they all have strong grassroots movements struggling, fighting, and sometimes dying for a true, authentic democracy, for radical substantive change. In Bolivia there is Fejuve and the Coordinadora, among many others; the Bolivarian circles and the pioneering community television and radio movements in Venezuela; and the different faces of resistance in Iraq, armed and unarmed, secular and religious. And it’s important to remember that those faces are many and varied. It isn’t only the Mahdi Army and other Islamist groups, which incidentally, not only engage in armed resistance but also direct traffic, reconnect electricity, organize blood drives and food banks, and collect medical supplies for various clinics. The resistance is varied and diverse. To call them all terrorists would be like calling everyone opposed to Bush’s presidency anarchists. Or Democrats.

And while many people shy away from considering them on the same level as, say, coca farmers defending their land from military incursions, it’s important to remember that the Iraqi resistance is facing extraordinary circumstances, which has led them to extraordinary measures. And, as Arundathi Roy puts it, who are we to judge? “Like most resistance movements, it combines a motley range of assorted factions. Former Ba’athists, liberals, Islamists, fed-up collaborationists, communists, etc. Of course, it is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery, and criminality. But if we are only going to support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity. Before we prescribe how a pristine Iraqi resistance must conduct their secular, feminist, democratic, nonviolent battle, we should shore up our end of the resistance by forcing the U.S. and its allied governments to withdraw from Iraq.” Now that would be a lesson in democracy.

These social movements, and their counterparts around the world, are largely ignored, or demonized in the US. Last June, John Kerry gave a good indication of his opinion of social movements in Latin America, saying “we can’t sit by and watch as mob violence drives a president from office, like what happened in Bolivia or Argentina.” Strange, since we all sat by and watched as what could just as easily be called “mob violence” drove our current president into office four years ago.

On this inauguration day we are facing the swearing in of the vacant foundationless cynical facade of democracy that unfortunately is our birthright, and to add insult to injury, the US government is exporting that “democracy” to Iraq and calling it liberation. In both countries we are confronted with a situation where there is no political space, there is no room for debate; there is no real choice. As in Bolivia, what is desired by the majority of people in the US and Iraq did not and will not appear on the ballot.

But we are in a time of great transformation, and it is precisely during such times that small actions can have enormous effects. The spokesperson for Bolivia’s Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Gas, Oscar Olivera, says “Right now, history has placed social movements in a decisive moment and we have no choice but to work for the power from below, the power of the people.” We have to choose what side we’re on.

We must walk towards that utopia of democracy, which doesn’t exist, but which beckons us to fight for it. Walking, we learn what we can along the way, driven not only by desperation, but by curiosity as well. Is there another way to live, to relate, to govern? Can we imagine what it might look like? What steps might we take towards creating conditions in which we could build it? Are there others like us, around the world and in our own neighborhoods, who might want to walk with us? With every answer, with every step, we are closer to understanding the action, the verb, the constant motion of democracy. And this is cause for hope – hope because people around the world, and particularly in Latin America, which is not utopia but which walks forever towards it, people everywhere are also asking these questions, and many others, defining and developing an authentic democracy, a democracy which doesn’t collect dust on the shelf between elections but which has room – in fact – demands that there be room in it for everyone.

* pre-election graffiti in Argentina

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America