Saturday, 27 September 2008

Reining him in

The 15 September meeting held in Santiago to address the ongoing Bolivian crisis revealed as much about the state of relations between Latin American countries as it did about the state of Bolivian politics.

First, was the role that Chile, and President Michelle Bachelet, as acting president of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), played. One would have thought that Santiago would be the last place that a Bolivian president would be willing to deal with an internal problem. But it is a sign of how much relations have improved under Evo Morales that such a meeting was even possible. It was also a sign of how concerned Santiago is. Only a few weeks ago a Chilean official scoffed when it was suggested that the country should prepare a contingency for a Bolivian civil war. Asked how Chile would deal with such an eventuality, and the prospect of thousands of refugees streaming over the border, the answer was, ‘It’s impossible’. It is unlikely that the Chileans still believe the idea is so far fetched. Chile has some interest, beyond President Bachelet’s current role as head of UNASUR, to encourage some sort of reduction in tensions.

Less inclined to reduce tensions was the president of Venezuela. As the meeting’s most mercurial, vociferous, and petro-dollar-propelled president, Hugo Chavez was hoping to use UNASUR was as a platform to bash the US for its supposed role in Bolivia. This was one of the main sticking points in the marathon, six-hour negotiation, but the most of the other delegates, and especially Chilean Foreign Minister Foxley, would have none of it. Well into the evening, President Bachelet announced the nine-point Moneda Declaration which offered “full and decided support to the constitutional government of President Evo Morales”, encouraged dialogue between the parties concerned, and created a commission to facilitate it, presided over by the acting president of UNASUR, President Bachelet. Only five years ago a Bolivian president was removed from office in part for suggesting that gas be exported through Chile.

Chavez was not done, though. Having returned to Caracas, he proceeded to expel the Chilean head of Human Rights Watch from the country. The Chilean reaction was angry but muted, trying to avoid taking further steps towards Chile-Venezuela war of attrition. In recent weeks, then, Chile and Bolivia, who have ongoing territorial issues, are cooperating to solve regional crises, while Chile and Venezuela, who have historically close ties, have an increasingly tense relationship. But what are the two countries actually arguing about?

In a word, leadership. Chile knows that with Brazil and Argentina in the neighbourhood it will never really be the region’s economic leader. But Chile does enjoy a kind of moral leadership and, especially under Socialist presidents Lagos and Bachelet, it has been able to present its model as one which is on the road towards a modern and successful social democracy, combining social justice with capitalism. It is the one example in the region that most undermines chavismo.

Finally, where was the United States? While the summit and the declaration were generally well received, critics, including the Chilean opposition, were not wrong in questioning the role – or lack thereof – of the Organization of the American States (OAS). Its secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, did attend, but clearly this was an UNASUR show. Apparently Bolivia and others did not wish to turn to the OAS as it counts the United States as a member. If that is the logic that Latin American countries will use from now on, the future of the OAS seems, at least, problematic. So does the United States’ future role in hemispheric relations.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The gaff that keeps on giving

Ever since John Marshall established the principle of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, bodies entrusted with these powers have locked horns with executives. It should come as no surprise, then, that Michelle Bachelet has had some difficult encounters with Chile’s Constitutional Tribunal, including a tussle over the government’s plans to make birth control pills available at public clinics. But the latest encounter is particularly damaging.

Since it implementation in February, 2006, the revamped public transportation system in Santiago has been the Bachelet government’s Achilles Heel, costing the government tens of millions of dollars a month, while public opinion claims not to notice a substantial improvement in service (indeed, the number of those with a negative opinion of the system has increased). Faced with bankrupting Transantiago, the government sought funding in Congress but was unable to garner enough votes. It then obtained a U$400 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank. But this week the Constitutional Tribunal declared the loan unconstitutional. As if that weren’t bad enough, the government is threatening to use its weapon of last resort – the 2% of the budget the constitution permits for spending on ‘catastrophic events’. Of course, declaring Transantiago a catastrophe is a public relations nightmare, but options are becoming scarce. Without Congress’ cooperation, funding runs out in two weeks. Opposition critics are demanding the abandonment of the plan altogether and a total redesign.

Transantiago has already become a symbol of technical incompetence, opening the door for opposition claims that government is incapable of offering solutions to problems of public policy. Chile remains a country where many public services, from roads to water to pensions are largely in private hands, and although Michelle Bachelet has had some success in areas such as health care and pensions, Transantiago gives a strong boost to the neoliberal argument. For President Bachelet’s progressive agenda, this is the legacy of Transantiago.

That is the public policy problem. But there is a political problem as well. This week former president Ricardo Lagos, who insists he does not want to run for president but who is making more and more public appearances, lashed out at Bachelet, saying that “One responsibility is the plan’s design, which all the international authorities applaud… but the way in which it was implemented, or implemented ahead of time, is not my responsibility.” In other words, he handed over an internationally-approved plan and Bachelet messed it up. Vote for Lagos, he’ll fix it.

What lies behind this extraordinarily ungraceful outburst? Probably the publication of a poll earlier in August in which 32 percent of those polled blamed the previous administration for Transantiago, whereas only 25 percent blamed Bachelet. What Lagos did not say is that although the government’s current subsidization of Santiago’s public transportation system was not written into the original plan, it is the rule rather than the exception. Although the government claims that one of the principal funding problems that Transantiago is that too many riders are not paying their fares, research shows that most public transportation systems around the world are not, in fact, financed entirely by what riders pay. In the US, fares cover anywhere from 13% of total operating costs (Detroit) to 67% (New York’s subway), with most in the 30 to 50 percent range. Whatever the implementation problems Ricardo Lagos wishes to concentrate on, it appears that in addition to routes and technology, not admitting that subsidization was going to be necessary was a design flaw as well.

Thursday, 4 September 2008


OK. So he's not senile. He knew exactly what he was doing -- or rather, the faceless powers behind the party knew exactly what they were doing. She's there for the base, and she's perfect for them: angry and condescending, just like them.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Is he senile?

What this shows is not that Sarah Palin is not suited to be Vice President, but that John McCain is not suited to be dog catcher.


Watching CNN these last few days is like watching fish flopping on a beach, gasping for air (or water?). They were all geared up for the Republican National Convention, but then it was quasi-cancelled becuase of Hurricaine Gustav. So they all donned their rain gear and headed down to New Orleans to film the next disaster to hit the city, but the storm took a left turn at the last minute and there wasn't much death and destruction to film. So no RNC, no Gustav, no story.

Classic moment of the day, when a reporter asked a mother why, having not evacuated for Katrina, they decided to evacuate now. Brilliant reporting.

Of course, the other non-story is that the Republicans got away with murder, not having to a) showcase the dismal speaker that is McCain and opening him up to comparisons with the silver tongued lawyer from Chicago, and b) not having to showcase McCain together with Bush. They can turn the convention into a Hurricaine relief telethon and go home. Lucky.