En hommage

By Rob Packer

As ballsy and shameless justifications go, José Sarney is a past master.

He was president of Brazil between 1985 and 1990, is currently the president of the Senate and has been implicated in corruption cases for “misappropriation of funds, tax evasion, and nepotism” (see this article from the UNHCR on a gagging order put on a Brazilian newspaper to curb reporting on a 2009 scandal). More recently, it was exposed in August that he’s been going to business meetings on his private island in Maranhão state by a helicopter bought for the Polícia Militar to fight crime and to help in medical emergencies. This kind of thing really does happen everywhere and it barely came as a surprise that the helicopter was needed in a medical emergency at the same time; it was his explanation that left me incredulous. In short, he was exercising his constitutional right to transport and security within Brazil.

This week, the ex-president has been at it again, telling the newspaper Zero Hora that privileges for Brazil’s elected representatives were created so that deputies are free and don’t have to live in misery. He then went on to say that he has a constitutional right to be transported by a state-owned, rather than private, helicopter—and that this “pays homage to democracy”. Clearly, Mr Sarney and I have different definitions of democracy.

Watching Brazil at close range, it’s difficult to keep track of the intricate details of corruption scandals (this helicopter scandal is both easy-to-understand and relatively minor, here is an example) and it’s very easy for scandal fatigue to set in. On the other hand, Dilma’s lack of tolerance for corruption does feel like a breath of fresh air and it does feel like things could, maybe, come to a head in the near future. It’ll be interesting to see how many people attend the Marches against Corruption across Brazil today (video and site here), although past experience has shown that it’s quite common for people not to show up.

Hopefully, Arnaldo Jabor was wrong when he said, “a Brazilian’s social consciousness is fear of the police”.

Navigating in Argentina

By Rob Packer

There are just twelve days to go until Argentina’s 2011 presidential elections and there is little doubt that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will be re-elected. She won Argentina’s primary in August with more than 50% of the vote—unlike in the US or France, Argentina’s first-ever primary was more like a dry run for the real election. The press has read the writing on the wall: today’s edition of Clarín, Argentina’s most-widely read daily and no friend of the Kirchners, seemed more concerned with who will be the Finance Minister when Cristina wins and Amado Boudou, the current minister becomes vice-president.

On the other hand, I have yet to find an Argentine with a nice word to say about their president and have been variously told about the lack of a credible opposition, a government more interested in settling old scores than keeping the country self-sufficient in meat, or authoritarian inclinations that many thought had died with her late husband and presidential predecessor.

If the press and the Argentines themselves (I haven’t watched much television) are ambivalent or indifferent to their president—elections are compulsory in Argentina—a look at any street or highway in the country might have you believe that the country is in election fever because there are posters everywhere. The vast majority of these are for Cristina, showing the president with her candidate for governor and for mayor if there’s space on the wall. All this has a surprise advantage: navigation.

For example, I was recently in Mendoza and wanted to go to Maipú, where some of that region’s vineyards are. I knew that the bus routes either went through the municipalities of Guaymallén or Godoy Cruz, so all I needed to do was to count the mayors: this really isn’t that hard as there are posters at least every block. When I arrived at the third one, I knew it was time to get off the bus.

Turn left at the third mayor.

No nostalgia

By Rob Packer

You know something is badly wrong when a country that most people I speak to have never heard of spends most of the day at the top of the BBC news website. Today the country with this dubious honour was Kyrgyzstan, a country I spent nearly three months living in at the end of 2009.

The front page of the BBC News website today.

As news slowly trickled out of Kyrgyzstan over the day here in Colombia, which I’m guessing has a lot to do with the restricted access to the internet that most news organizations have mentioned, I found myself recognising parts of central Bishkek in a completely different context: I’d last seen Ala-Too Square (Bishkek’s main square) decked out with a New Year’s tree and families taking photos and it came as a shock to recognise the buildings around it as a backdrop to protesters with machine guns or seeing photos of bloodstained police and protesters on Chuy, one of Bishkek’s main roads.

The events are scarily similar to a fast-forwarded version of the Tulip Revolution five years ago where protests began in a provincial city where demonstrators occupied government buildings and spread to the capital, except that it has taken a day rather than four for protests to spread to the capital, and that the violence has been far, far worse with at least 40 dead and at least 400 wounded: statistics that a blogger at NewEurasia.net calls “remarkably low” in view of the “explosive violence”.

When I left Kyrgyzstan in December, the rises in utility prices had recently been announced that would increase the price of heating, water and electricity by up to five times. Utility prices in Kyrgyzstan were already expensive at what colleagues said was around US$50 a month: given the poverty that I saw while I was working there with Kiva, I couldn’t see how a lot of people would be able to make ends meet, and there was a lot of resentment of this. Meanwhile, the president—who had campaigned to fight corruption—was busy installing members of his family in positions of power, most notoriously his son Maksim who became the head of the development agency in late 2009 and was widely considered as being groomed as the president’s crown prince, following in the footsteps of Azerbaijan—and similar to what some are saying about post-Karimov Uzbekistan. At the same time, he was widely considered to have rigged the presidential elections of 2009 running against a seemingly invisible opposition, and journalists were turning up dead with an unsettling frequency.

In a country with a people who seem to regard it as free—very much a relative term in Central Asia—the scenes in Bishkek today seemed anything but that. It reminded me most of Karimov’s signature massacre at Andijon in Uzbekistan where the death toll estimates lie over an absurdly wide range between 200 and 1,500 people. It remains to see what will happen in Kyrgyzstan, now that the president appears to have fled to the mostly quiet south or to have let the country. I hope for the sake of Kyrgyzstan, that this means a freer and more democratic country; unfortunately it remains to be seen how a poor, mountainous republic surrounded by larger, more totalitarian states can hold on to that democracy.

Election time

By Rob Packer

At the end of February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court made what some said was the most important decision in its 20-year history: it said that the way that the circumstances surrounding a proposed referendum to allow re-election for President Álvaro Uribe Vélez were “substantial violations of democratic principles” of the constitution. For a country where the president wields an enormous amount of power—enough to issue decrees about the national healthcare system, for example—this was quite a spectacular result: at the start of my time in Colombia I doubt that most of the people I know in Colombia would have expected this turn of events and when I asked at work, the general consensus was that before the president and the court would have made a backroom deal. Suddenly it seemed Colombia had institutions and a system of checks and balances.

Unfortunately, one decision in the constitutional court does not change the system entirely as last Sunday’s Congressional elections showed. This is by no means a full rundown of the elections or of Colombian politics at the moment, but rather some observations from the weekend’s elections.

Sunday’s elections were the first real change since the parapolítica scandal (see an excellent four-part YouTube video from 2008 with political analyst, Claudia López and Wikipedia in English and Spanish) which began to make waves in 2006 when agreements between politicians of all parties and paramilitary groups first came to light. At times since then, around a third of senators have been in prison, either convicted or awaiting trial, leaving their seats empty and meaning that some departments of Colombia were left almost without lawmakers in the House of Deputies—the Senate does not have constituencies and is a single national list. Rather than the modernized face of New Colombia that Uribe’s government likes to show to the outside world, the parapolítica scandal revealed the deep roots of Old Colombia where links with paramilitary groups infiltrate the political system on all sides, including several people close to the president. One of the curiosities of the election is that two thirds of senators are new to the Senate, partly due to a lack of politicians available for re-election but also due to a large number of politicians who have moved from the Chamber of Deputies to the Senate. Unlike what you might expect, according to Semana, a news magazine, this doesn’t mean a change in direction. In fact, in a number of cases there will be very little change in direction where a relative of an incarcerated senator has taken their place, as often in Colombia, politicians are members of political dynasties with networks of interests and patronage. Evidence of this can be seen in the “handing over” of a Senate seat to Arleth Casado, wife of Juan Manuel López Cabrales, a former Liberal senator from Córdoba department on Colombia’s Caribbean coast who was sentenced to six years in prison for signing the Ralito Pact between politicians of various parties and paramilitary groups (see terra.com.co for more details). One of the most memorable parts of my short political education in Colombia happened in a puerta a puerta (a door-to-door minivan somewhere between a bus and a taxi) running between Montería, the capital of Córdoba and Barranquilla, which I picked up in San Juan, Bolívar: the consensus among the monterianas was that “Juancho” was the innocent victim of a corrupt judicial system. The wide-reach of parapolítica did not convince me that they were right.

The level of vested interest can also be seen in the apparently widespread vote-buying, which was denounced by OAS observers, that seems to happen in Colombia: it seems to be taken as read that a vote is worth $50,000 (around US$ 25) or is payable in merchandise of some kind (cement is one of the more common things that I heard). In addition, friends told me about companies where employees are forced to vote for a politician with links to the family who owns the company. This tendency appears to be most developed on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, considered to be one of the more corrupt areas of the country, where there was a concurrent straw poll on whether to create an autonomous region in the Caribbean. On the one hand, this would mean that an often neglected region would have more power and money to make its own decisions, an opinion that most people I speak to in Barranquilla share; however, according to one commentator—and some friends—would also increase the amount of power that the same corrupt politicians and/or paramilitary groups already have. In the context of political caciques (chiefs), it’s easy to say that both sides are right.

In an article on the BBC News website, before the elections, Colombia was described as having “one of the most solid democracies in Latin America”. I am in a no position to judge Colombia against other Latin American countries where I haven’t lived: however, if true, there is a long way to go for democracy throughout Latin America, as there is more to democracy than holding elections and maintaining the independence of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Along with the obvious need to resolve the armed conflict in the country and demobilize all parties (guerrilla, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and the army), an important part of developing democracy in Colombia is to build faith in the political system. Compared to accusations of parapolítica it can seem trivial, but as I write this, there are recriminations in large parts of the Colombian press that the results of the Conservative primary are still not known, that the elections for the Andean Parliament may be annulled due to a large number of blank ballot papers (shades of Saramago’s Seeing) or that the National Registrar may have been drunk on a (supposedly) dry weekend. But the roots of trust and the cure to the cynicism widespread among people here and parts of the press go a lot deeper than the electoral process: fixing the electoral process is only the start and faith in the politicians is most important. The fact that there has been little change to the legislature since the parapolítica scandal—and with the parties most linked to the scandal now the largest in Congress—makes me agree with these opinion columns (El Tiempo, El Espectador and Semana): that the Colombian electorate hasn’t learnt from the past.

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