Hugo Chávez is rubbing his hands. He has a plan, and Colombian intelligence is aware of it. It seems he convinced the drug-trafficking, communist-leaning guerrillas to collaborate in a strategy that will lead the so-called Democratic Pole to victory in the next elections.

The Venezuelan colonel is willing to spend whatever is needed: $10 million, $50 million, $100 million. The gush of petrodollars is enough to bankroll those imperial spasms. After the triumph in Colombia, Peru will fall of its own weight in the next elections, maybe by the hand of Ollanta Humala — and the conquest of the Andean arch will be complete: 100 million people. ~Carlos Alberto Montaner

There is something a bit odd about describing a string of left-populist victories in democratic elections as the “conquest of the Andean arch,” as if Pisarro were back in the saddle overthrowing the Incas.  From the perspective of the backers of the populists, they are finally reclaiming their countries from the people that have (mis)ruled them.  That their policies will bring on disaster and economic ruin is all but certain, but that is actually their affair.  If more of Latin America is on the verge of sliding into democratic despotism, this is the result of the flaws of mass democracy, which might make us reconsider the importance of such “democratic values” in the first place and think on whether their disappearance from the continent–if indeed they are going to disappear in some places–would be a cause for lament. 

It seems to me that when Venezuelophobes cast their eyes across the Atlantic, the toppling of dominoes in supposedly “people-powered” revolutions is viewed as being all to the good.  Why?  The obvious reason is that the new oligarchs who take power in Georgia or Ukraine or Lebanon are believed to be U.S. puppets to one degree or another, as indeed they are.  When a democratic wave crashes, even if promoted and funded by foreign agents and pushed by foreign NGOs, these enthusiasts for democracy are supposed to be very pleased about it.  Not so when the people involved live in this hemisphere and vote for the ‘wrong’ sorts.  When foreigners aid ostensibly pro-Western forces to seize power, er, win elections, this is supporting the liberation of a longsuffering, heroic people from the domination of exploitative elites; when people who are not on “our” side aid forces in another country to win elections, this is nefarious imperialism.  I would be perfectly willing to acknowledge right now–and I do acknowledge–that Venezuela is engaged in power projection and a kind of soft imperialism, just as Washington has been doing for some time.  In fact, I consider both policies dreadful and misguided, but it would be refreshing if those warning against the growing menace of Venezuela could acknowledge that Chavez is implementing the same kinds of tactics and pursuing the same goals of power projection that our government pursues.  If we could just drop all the pious chatter about the glory of democracy or the impending collapse of democracy, we might start to understand and manage foreign affairs a bit better.   

Of course, I would argue that the prevalence of Chavista and left-populist types in Latin American politics today is good evidence that democracy is not necessarily the best form of government for every country, and it isn’t necessarily that good of a form of government in any country.  Even so, if the spread of mass democracy in Latin America ultimately means a turn towards demagogic despotism and the collapse of representative government in favour of authoritarian populism, it is unclear what shoring up the Uribe government with some military aid will matter one way or the other.  Montaner speaks of a coming hurricane, and then recommends that we help Uribe set up a nice tent on the beach.  If Montaner is right about the almost certain unsustainability of democracy in Latin America, backing Uribe’s government will be of little use in preventing the collapse of this kind of government there. 

We are supposed to be deeply shocked that Chavez is meddling in the elections of a neighbouring country (because the overthrow of Milosevic, Shevardnadze, Yanukovych et al. were all purely local operations, you see, in which no outsiders were involved).  Certainly, it would be better if Chavez didn’t do this, but he has already been backing and funding FARC rebels for years, so pushing an electoral option is a less bloody means to the same goal.  This is possibly better for the Colombian peasants who have been caught in the middle of the civil war for all these years (not that many people in favour of perpetuating the military alliance with Colombia care much for their welfare).