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Rumsfeld and Rice on Chávez: But Where’s the Beef?

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  • U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Paraguay and Peru this week and reiterated claims that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had been “unhelpful[ly]” involved in the ouster of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa. If this is true, where is the evidence?
  • U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has made similar comments, also lacks conclusive evidence.
  • If the Bush administration is truly concerned about the health of democracy in Latin America, Rumsfeld, while visiting Peru yesterday, should have focused his and the U.S.’ attention on the country’s failing democracy, instead of Chávez’s exploits and the recent political turmoil in Bolivia.
  • Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo’s approval ratings dropped to eight percent last weekend over the fallout regarding the controversial appointment of Fernando Olivera as Foreign Minister.
  • In another example of touch and go diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spent just a few short days in both Paraguay and Peru this week, where he echoed claims made ealier by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a destabilizing force in the region and had been “unhelpful[ly]” involved in the recent political turmoil in Bolivia. Yet thus far, neither Rice nor Rumsfeld have presented the slightest shred of evidence to support their assertions that Chávez was involved in the ouster of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa. It is a near certainty that neither Rice nor Rumsfeld possess any such evidence; if they did, presumably they would race to publicly announce their bombshell revelation confirming the Bush administration’s long standing mutterings that Chávez has been a subversive influence in Latin America.

    Economies More Than Ideology on Their Minds
    Rice and Rumsfeld’s real fear is that oil-rich Venezuela will threaten the continued shipment of oil to the U.S., stoked by the shift in Chávez’s oil policy to favor the Caribbean, Uruguay, Brazil and China, at the expense of U.S. energy interests. They also worry that Chávez may successfully push for the economic unification of Latin America through the expansion of MERCOSUR, the fleshing out of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) along with the implementation of Petrocaribe in order to challenge U.S. influence and interests in the hemisphere. But stuck with no evidence as to how the political developments in Bolivia are contrary to U.S. interests or how Chávez is undermining U.S. objectives there, Rumsfeld and Rice are forced to make blanket accusations that the issues are somehow connected and are destabilizing the continent and are detrimental to the U.S.’ welfare.

    Paragauy has also been on the mind of Rice and Rumsfeld; the Secretary of Defense was in Paraguay August 17. Recently, the presence of U.S. troops has been lamented by regional leaders as destabilizing, especially in Brazil, whose high military command fears that the U.S. infiltration of the tri-border region is a subtle threat to the Amazon. The U.S. seems intent on geopolitical expasion in Latin America with the past estabalishment in Manta, Ecuador and regional fears regarding the possibility of another base in Paraguay to promote U.S. the anti-terror and anti-narcotic agenda. It appears tht the U.S. seems to have given up softball and now instead are playing hardball.

    Peru: Toledo’s Numbers Fall Again
    Rumsfeld traveled to Peru yesterday where the current issue, unlike in Bolivia, is not the destabilizing of the political system but the instability of the political system after four years of failed political leadership by the country’s hapless president, Alejandro Toledo. Peru’s first indigenous president’s approval ratings, which peaked at 15.7 percent in recent months, fell to a shockingly low eight percent over the weekend following the president’s controversial appointment of Fernando Olivera as Foreign Minister. Olivera’s astonishing appointment proved so controversial that Toledo’s cabinet chief and another minister resigned in protest citing Olivera’s lack of experience (he is not a career diplomat) and his abrasive and arrogant style. The resignation of the cabinet members forced Toledo, in accordance with Peru’s constitution, to disband the current cabinet and appoint a new one, which he did with the announcement that former World Bank official Pedro-Pablo Kuczynski would step in as the new Prime Minister.

    Despite his abysmal poll numbers, it is unlikely Toledo will be forced from office. The president has faced similarly perilous situations before and survived; he has proven to be far more adept at hanging on to the presidency than at using it wisely. For example, allegations in March of this year that Toledo conspired with his sister and senior officials of his Peru Possible (PP) political party to forge thousands of signatures to permit him to register for the 2000 election, reduced his low approval ratings to a dismal eight percent. By the end of last month, however, they had nearly doubled. Nevertheless, while Toledo has managed to survive and even thrive in conditions similar to those that forced out leaders in neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador in recent months, the President’s miserable poll numbers and the nature of the candidates in next year’s elections, which include the disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori, raise serious questions about the health of Peru’s democracy.

    Fujimori: An Affront to Democracy
    Fujimori ruled Peru in an authoritarian manner from 1990 to 2000, when he left office under charges of corruption and human rights violations. Fujimori did little to engender Peruvians’ affections, despite his significant achievements: impressive, if inconsistent economic growth and the defeat of the Maoist Shinning Path guerillas. He oversaw a hugely corrupt regime that stole an estimated $1.8 billion from state coffers (though he claims ignorance and denies his own involvement), and was accused of rigging the 2000 election, in which he won a blatantly unconstitutional third-term over Toledo.

    Fujimori ultimately resigned as president while visiting Japan. As a descendent of Japanese parents, Japan could not extradite him back to Lima, where he would have been tried, over the scandal that erupted after his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, was filmed bribing an opposition member of congress two months earlier. Elections were held the following April and Toledo was elected Peru’s new president. Meanwhile, the State Department has all but forgotten the plight of U.S. national Lori Berenson, who was jailed by Fujimori in the early 1990s and has yet to be released.

    After leaving Peru, congress banned Fujimori from holding elected office until 2011. He recently developed a new political party, Sí, Cumple (“Yes, he delivers”) and has vowed to return to Peru in time for the April 2006 presidential race. Despite constitutional obstacles to his candidacy and strong opposition from the majority of Peruvians, Fujimori tops some presidential polls with the support of upwards of 23 percent of the electorate. The majority of Peruvians who fear a possible Fujimori presidency can rest assured that his return to power would be a most unlikely event because his congressional allies are not numerous enough to lift his ten year ban from holding public office. However, given his history of corruption and clear disdain for constitutional law, Fujimori’s mere reemergence on the Peruvian political scene is an affront to democratic practice.

    Toledo’s Failed Presidency
    Toledo first became a major national figure as the de facto opposition leader after the first round of voting in the 2000 presidential election, during which he charged that Fujimori illegally engineered his defeat. Then Toledo campaigned in 2001 on a platform of breaking with Peru’s corrupt past by pledging to create jobs and to aggressively attack poverty. At his inauguration, he said, “I’ll dedicate all my efforts,” to eradicate poverty and fight corruption, and “from this objective, no one will move me.” But he never fulfilled either promise.

    While Peru’s economy has improved mildly since Toledo took office, the strains on the economically disadvantaged have not been relieved. Discontent with Toledo’s economic policies has significantly hurt his poll numbers throughout his tenure. Though Toledo promised a radical departure from Fujimori’s neoliberal economic policies, in fact he quietly continued his predecessor’s approach, bolstering the country’s macroeconomic statistics (averaging at 4.8 percent growth in GDP for each year of his presidency) without paying much heed to Peru’s disadvantaged majority. This is illustrated by the country’s minimal job growth: fifty percent of the population still live below the poverty line and 15 percent live in extreme poverty.

    Toledo Maintains Power
    Toledo broke his commitment to his people by falling prey to government corruption as well. In addition to allegations of forged registration signatures during his 2000 campaign, the Toledo administration has been rocked by claims that his intelligence chief, César Almeyda, accepted a $2 million bribe in 2002 from the Colombian beer company Bavaria so that the Peruvian government would approve its purchase of Peru’s lone brewery, Unión de Cervecerías Peruanas Backus. Accusations also surfaced that members of his Peru Possible won patronage jobs from the government. Toledo’s sorry record of broken economic promises and government corruption shook Peruvians’ fear that a political power vacuum would develop, proving disastrous to the country’s weak economy and worry, as columnist Mirko Lauer describes, that such a vacuum would allow either Fujimori or the Shining Path guerrillas to return to power. Peruvians’ fundamental lack of faith that a leader capable of securing Peru’s economic future can be found and that the just use of power can be assured absent a resurgence of violence illustrates just how tenuous the democratic process is in Toledo’s Peru.

    Toledo also has been able to maintain power by pursuing a narrowly acceptable agenda and seeking to offend as few interest groups as possible. For example, in 2002, after Toledo announced that he was going to privatize two electricity companies in southern Peru, five days of violent protests in Arequipa followed, leading him to backtrack and pledge that the government would continue to run the facilities.

    Although Toledo’s governing style may have proven successful in helping him retain power, it only further demonstrates the country’s domestic political paralysis. The Peruvian president’s reckless nature, his indifferent governing manner and lazy managerial style have prevented him from engaging in effective governance and has stripped the people of genuine representation.

    Prospects for Democracy
    The successive presidencies of Fujimori and Toledo raise serious questions about the future of democracy in Peru. The former employed authoritarianism and corruption; under the latter, Peru faces a political crisis that has undermined the basic democratic tenet that the governing body represents the voice of the people. Furthermore, given that current polls for next year’s presidential election indicate that no candidate is supported by more than 25 percent of the public, it is questionable whether any of the contenders will win a backing wide enough to effectively represent all stratum of the population and pursue a sufficiently ambitious agenda to break from the country’s troubled past and set Peru on a path to sustainable progress.

    If Rumsfeld, Rice and the rest of the Bush administration are truly concerned about the health and viability of democracy in Latin America, they might quit dreaming up baseless conspiracy theories to explain Bolivia’s political turmoil, drop their sorry obsession with Chávez and refocus their attention on Peru. When a Latin American government pursues policies that conflict with U.S. interests, democracy is not necessarily endangered as the administration claims, but when a people’s beliefs and values are no longer reflected in their governing institutions, that is a tangible threat to representative democracy.