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Promoting Polyarchy: The New U.S. Political Intervention in Latin America

—by William I. Robinson, first published in ALAI, Latin America in Movement, 2006-02-17

As the 2006 presidential electoral cycle gets underway in Latin America, the U.S. government has stepped up its political intervention in the region under the rubric of “promoting democracy.” For much of the 20th century, as is well known, Washington sponsored and promoted military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America and the Third World as its preferred method of maintaining international control in the face of mass struggles against the prevailing social and economic inequalities and highly restricted political systems. But Washington abruptly switched tracks in the mid-1980s and began to “promote democracy” in Latin America and around the world.

The shift from promoting dictatorships to promoting “democracy” coincides with the rise of the neoliberal economic project. Not only are these two linked, but what Washington refers to as “democracy” has become a functional imperative of capitalist globalization. A new transnational elite constructed and imposed a paradigm of “free markets and democracy” that became so hegemonic in the 1980s and 1990s. The promotion of “free markets and democracy” is intended to make the world both available and safe for global capitalism by creating the most propitious conditions around the world for the unfettered operation of the new global production and financial system. One part of global restructuring was the so-called “Washington consensus,” or neo-liberalism. But this transnational agenda has an explicitly political component. If the economic component is to make the world available to capital, the political component is to make it safe for capital by shifting the mode of political domination from dictatorship to polyarchy. This endeavor involves the development of new political institutions and forms of transnational social control intended to achieve a more stable and predictable world environment for transnational corporate investors.

When transnational elites talk about “democracy promotion,” what they really mean is the promotion of polyarchy. This refers to a system in which a small group actually rules, and mass participation in decision-making is confined to choosing leaders in elections that are carefully managed by competing elites. This, of course, is the system in place in the United States. The concept of polyarchy is an outgrowth of elitism theories that developed early in the twentieth century to counter the classic definition of democracy as power or rule (cratos) by the people (demos). Building on earlier elitism theory that argued for an “enlightened” elite to rule on behalf of ignorant and unpredictable masses, a new polyarchic redefinition of democracy developed within U.S. academic circles closely tied to the policymaking community. U.S. policymakers often cite the redefinition of democracy put forward by Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 classic study, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.” Schumpeter argued for “another theory” of democracy as “institutional arrangements” for elites to acquire power “by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” “Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them,” explained Schumpeter. It is this conception that has guided U.S. foreign policy.

This type of “low-intensity democracy” does not involve power (cratos) of the people (demos), much less an end to class domination or to substantive inequality that is growing exponentially under the global economy. Polyarchy is promoted in order to co-opt, neutralize and redirect mass popular democratic movements—to relieve pressure from subordinate classes for more fundamental political, social and economic change. The crisis of elite rule that developed throughout the underdeveloped world in the 1970s and 1980s was resolved – momentarily—through transitions to polyarchies—the so-called “democratic revolution.” At stake was what type of social order—nascent global capitalism or some popular alternative—would emerge. While masses pushed for a deeper popular democratization, emergent transnationalized fractions of local elites, backed by the political and ideological power of the global economy, often counted on the direct political and military intervention of the United States and other transnational forces.

In Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s, alliances of local and global elites were able to hijack and redirect mass democratization movements, to undercut popular demands for more fundamental change in the social order. In this way, the outcome of mass movements against the brutal regimes that ruled the continent involved a change in the political system, while leaving intact fundamentally unjust socioeconomic structures. The new polyarchic civilian elites emerging from controlled transitions set about to integrate (or reintegrate) their countries into the new global capitalism through a massive neo-liberal restructuring. Transnational elites and their local counterparts hope that polyarchy will provide a more efficient, viable, and durable form for the political management of socioeconomic dictatorship in the age of global capitalism. Nonetheless, neo-liberal states have been wracked by internal conflicts brought about by the contradictions of the global system.

Modus Operandi of the New Political Intervention

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Washington first developed novel mechanisms of political intervention as it launched “democracy promotion” programs around the world. Political intervention programs have increasingly brought together an array of governmental and non-governmental organizations, think tanks, financial institutions, multilateral agencies, and private corporations from the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. In 1980, the United States and the European Union each spent $20 million on “democracy”-related foreign aid. By 2001 this had risen to $571 million and $392 million, respectively. In 2003 the EU spent $3.5 billion while the United States was expected to spend a total of $2 billion for the 2006 fiscal year for polyarchy promotion.

U.S.-organized political intervention programs conducted under the rubric of “democracy promotion” involve several tiers of policy design, funding, operational activity, and influence. The first involves the highest levels of the U.S. state apparatus—the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and certain other state branches. It is at this level that the overall need to undertake political intervention through “democracy promotion” in particular countries and regions is identified as one component of overall policy towards the country or region in question, to be synchronized with military, economic, diplomatic and other dimensions.

In the second tier, the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) and several other branches of the State Department are allocated hundreds of millions of dollars, which they dole out, either directly or via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other agencies such as the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP), to a series of ostensibly “private” U.S. organizations that are in reality closely tied to the policymaking establishment and aligned with U.S. foreign policy. The NED was created in 1983 as a central organ, or clearinghouse, for new forms of “democratic” political intervention abroad. Prior to the creation of the NED, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had routinely provided funding and guidance for political parties, business councils, trade unions, student and civic groups in the countries in which the U.S. intervened. In the 1980s a significant portion of these programs were shifted from the CIA to the AID and the NED and made many times more sophisticated than the often-crude operations of the CIA.

The organizations that receive AID and NED funds include, among others (the list is extensive): the National Republican Institute for International Affairs (NRI, also known as the International Republican Institute, or IRI) and the National Democractic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), which are officially the “foreign policy arms” of the U.S. Republican and the Democratic parties, respectively; the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES); the Center for Democracy (CFD), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE); and the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI), and International Labor Solidarity. The boards of directors of these organizations include representatives from the highest levels of the U.S. foreign policy and political establishment and representatives from the transnational corporate world. U.S. universities, private contractors, organic intellectuals and other “democracy” experts may also be tapped. All these organizations and actors coalesce into a complex and multi-leveled U.S. political intervention network.

In the third tier, these U.S. organizations provide “grants” to a host of organizations in the intervened country itself. These grants include financing, guidance, “advice” and political sponsorship. These organizations may be previously existing and are penetrated through “democracy promotion” programs and incorporated in new ways into U.S. foreign policy designs. Or they may be created entirely from scratch. These organizations include local political parties and coalitions, trade unions, business councils, media outlets, professional and civic associations, student and women’s groups, peasant leagues, human rights groups, and so on. Local groups brought into U.S. “democracy promotion” programs are held up as “independent” and “non-partisan” but in reality they become internal agents of the transnational agenda.

The interventionist network seeks to penetrate and capture civil society in the intervened country through local groups that have been brought into the fold. A veritable army of U.S. and international NGO’s and “technical advisors,” “consultants,” and “experts” conduct programs to “strengthen political parties and civil society,” “civil education,” and “leadership development” and “media training” workshops, and so on. These “democracy promotion” activities seek to cultivate local political and civic leaders with a political and civic action capacity. Under U.S. sponsorship, these groups typically come together into a “civic front” with interlocking boards of directors. They support one another and synchronize their political activities and discourse. In the overall strategy, Washington hopes to create through its “democracy promotion” programs “agents of influence”—local political and civic leaders who are expected to generate ideological conformity with the elite social order under construction, to promote the neo-liberal outlook, and to advocate for policies that integrate the intervened country into global capitalism. These agents are further expected to compete with, and eclipse, more popular-oriented, independent, progressive or radical groups and individuals who may have a distinct agenda for their country. Promoting Polyarchy in Latin America Latin America has been a laboratory for polyarchy promotion. By the late 1970s, authoritarian regimes there faced an intractable crisis. Mass popular movements for democracy and human rights threatened to bring down the whole elite-based social order, along with the dictatorships—as happened in Nicaragua in 1979, and looked likely to occur in Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere. This threat from below, combined with the inability of the authoritarian regimes to manage the dislocations and adjustments of globalization, generated intra-elite conflicts that unravelled the ruling power blocs.

The United States launched “democracy promotion” along with other interventions during mass struggles against authoritarian regimes and for popular democratization. The challenge of this “preemptive reform” was to remove dictatorships so as to prevent deeper change. U.S. intervention synchronized political aid programs with covert and direct military operations, economic aid or sanctions, formal diplomacy, government-to-government programs, and so on. These programs helped place in power local sections of the transnational elite that swept to power in country after country, and who have integrated their respective nation-states into the new global order. The same elite groups that benefit from capitalist globalization also came in this way to control key political institutions. In the 1990s and the 21st century U.S. policy has aimed to “consolidate democracy” through broad “democratic aid” and other government-to-government and multilateral programs.

The cases of Chile, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, Venezuela, and Bolivia, among others, demonstrate these patterns. In Chile, the United States, after orchestrating the 1973 overthrow of the Allende government, backed the Pinochet dictatorship until 1985, when, in response to a growing protest movement, Washington abruptly shifted support to the elite opposition and began to promote a transition. It pressured the regime to open up and to transfer power to civilian elites and simultaneously implemented political intervention programs, through the AID and the NED, to organize and guide the coalition that ran against Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite and in the 1990 general elections. U.S. political intervention was key to achieving unity among a splintered elite opposition, in eclipsing popular opposition, and in assuring elite hegemony over the anti-dictatorial movement between 1985 and 1987 when this hegemony was in dispute. From 1987 to 1990, U.S. intervention also was important in consolidating a reconstituted elite and in securing the commitment of much of that elite to the process—begun under Pinochet—of far-reaching neoliberal restructuring and integration into the global economy.

In Nicaragua, the United States supported the Somoza family dictatorship for nearly five decades. The Sandinista government that came to power in the 1979 revolution became the target of a massive U.S. destabilization campaign. Then, in 1987, the objective of this campaign changed dramatically, from a military overthrow of the Sandinistas by an externally based counterrevolutionary movement to new forms of polyarchy promotion supporting an internal, moderate opposition. This opposition, organized and trained through large-scale U.S. political intervention programs, operated through peaceful, non-coercive means in civil society to undermine Sandinista hegemony. The shift from hard-line destabilization to polyarchy promotion culminated in the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinistas, a conservative restoration and installation of a polyarchic political system, reinsertion of Nicaragua into the global economy and far-reaching neoliberal restructuring.

In Panama, as in Nicaragua, military aggression was combined with political intervention to achieve a polyarchic outcome. The rise to power of Manuel Noriega, an unpopular CIA asset and close U.S. ally, following Torrijos’ death in 1981 opening a period of crisis and instability. Washington continued its support for the Noriega regime, despite its practice of electoral fraud and mass repression, until a combination of conjunctural geopolitical concerns and the broader shift to its new, worldwide strategy led to a decision to overthrow it. The destabilization campaign included economic sanctions, coercive diplomacy, psychological operations and finally, a direct, military invasion in 1989. The campaign also involved a multimillion dollar political intervention program to create a “democratic opposition” by bringing together “modernizing” groups from within the oligarchy tied to international banking and trade. Through the invasion this “modernized” sector was placed in power—literally. Despite ongoing social conflict and an internally divided elite, neoliberal reform proceeded apace in the 1990s.

In Haiti, the U.S. sustained the Duvalier dictatorship at the same time as it promoted a development model in the 1960s and 1970s which inserted the country into the emergent global economy as an export-assembly platform. But Haiti became submerged in a national power vacuum and a cauldron of turmoil between 1986 and 1990 as the poor majority mobilized against the dictatorship and against the tiny elite that scrambled to maintain control after Baby Doc’s departure. During this period, the U.S. introduced a massive “democracy promotion” program to cultivate a polyarchic elite and place it in power through U.S.-organized elections. The liberation theologist Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the 1990 elections but Aristide was overthrown in a 1991 military coup that had the tacit support of Washington. Aristide returned to office as a lame-duck president through a U.S. invasion in September 1994, having agreed as a condition that he implement a neo-liberal program and open space for the elite. From 1994 to 2004 the NED and the AID provided support for a slew of elite civic and political organizations who mounted opposition to Aristide’s Lavalas party. Aristide was again ousted in February 2004, this time directly by U.S. marines on the heels of an uprising led by former Duvalierists paramilitaries and conservative political groups. He was replaced by the exact same collection of elites that had been cultivated by U.S. political intervention programs since the 1980s.

Venezuela had a polyarchic political system in place since the 1958 pact of Punto Fijo. But the exhaustion of the political and economic model that emerged from that pact led to a crisis of the polyarchic system during the 1980s and 1990s. This crisis of oligarchic power could not be contained as the popular classes began to make their own political protagonism felt, from the 1989 Caracazo and on. This political protagonism eventually coalesced around the rise of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian government. The objective of the U.S.-transnational project in Venezuela, hence, was to salvage oligarchic power, modernize it, and try to identify and groom new groups among the elite who could reincorporate the popular classes into an elite hegemony and implement neo-liberalism. But this project could not be implemented. What took place instead was the rise of a popular project contrary to the interests of the transnational elite and their local counterparts. The Bolivarian project had broken with elitist hegemony in Venezuela and the primordial U.S. objective became to restore it. This is the context in which U.S. strategists turned to “democracy promotion” in Venezuela.

As is well known, the NED dramatically expanded its programs in Venezuela since Hugo Chavez was elected to power in 1998. NED and related AID programs for the anti-Chavista forces have been broadly documented, and include, among others: assistance for these forces to develop media strategies; regular trips to Washington for opposition politicians, business people, and trade unionists; new disbursements for the CTV; a series of workshops for opposition groups; and financing for numerous anti-Chavista groups. The NED doled out almost one million dollars in the period preceeding the 2002 coup d’etat to the groups that were involved in the abortive putsch, while the Bush administration gave tacit support to the coup. With the collapse of the coup and the subsequent failure of the anti-Chavista forces to win the August 2005 referendum, Washington has turned to a strategy of ongoing attrition, involving a strategic shift from a “war of maneuver” that has sought the quick removal of the Chavez government (coup d’etat, business strikes, referendum) to an extended “war of position.” The effort now is to regroup the opposition forces and to develop plans for the November 2006 elections and beyond, without passing up any opportunity to weaken and destabilize the government on an ongoing basis. For these purposes “democracy promotion” programs have been vastly expanded and now involve tens of millions of dollars.

In Bolivia, polyarchy promotion programs were relatively small-scale until the indigenous uprising that drove President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from power in October 2003. From that point on, millions of dollars poured in to fund and organize discredited traditional political parties, support compliant (“moderate”) indigenous leaders that could counter more radical ones, and to develop civic organizations under elite control to compete with militant social movements. One objective of these programs was to depoliticize the issue of natural gas and defuse popular demands for nationalization of natural resources. The AID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) spent no less than $11.8 million for these purposes during 2004 and 2005. One U.S. Embassy cable from La Paz explained that one of the objectives was to “help build moderate, pro-democratic political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors.” Now that the MAS and Evo Morales has come to power despite U.S. political intervention, Washington can be expected to develop a destabilization program that will be predicated on “democracy promotion.”

Recently, the State Department declared that the four priorities for “democracy promotion” in Latin America in 2006 are Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Latin America’s polyarchic regimes face growing crises of legitimacy and governability. As the winds of change push Latin America to the left, these novel modalities of U.S. intervention can be expected to play an ever more prominent role in U.S. strategy for the region.

William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies, and Latin American studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He was formerly an investigative journalist in Latin America and a consultant for the Nicaraguan government.

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