Turmoil in North Africa—Contagion in the Americas?
February 9, 2011
As the so-called January 14 Jasmine Revolution inspires protests in Egypt and other nearby states, it may be worth recalling that North Africa is not the only part of the world clamoring for more representative, accountable government. Despite the current trend toward liberal democracy and open markets, the Americas still have a few regimes that frustrate the political and economic desires of their constituents and do little to attack corruption or reduce income inequality between the rich and poor. While major discontent seems to be in abeyance in the Western Hemisphere, the conditions that feed it are still active in some quarters.
Q1: What are some factors that led to upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt?
A1: Although causes are hard to pinpoint in the heat of the moment, several factors seemed to come together—high unemployment rates among the young and educated, corruption among those close to the regime, and closed political systems headed by leaders who overstayed their terms in office. For many youths, economic advancement seemed unrelated to talent or hard work.
Q2: Are similar conditions present in the Americas?
A2: Like Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro have governed Cuba for a long time—more than five decades, in fact. Coming to power by revolution, they imprisoned thousands of dissidents, confiscated private property, confined citizens to the island as captive workers, and reeducated them in an ideology part communism, part personality cult. Never economically viable, the regime depended on outside aid, first from the Soviet Union and now from Venezuela, which has supplied petroleum on credit and below cost. By providing food rations and government housing, the state was able to pay salaries as low as $20 to $30 per month. After an illness incapacitated Fidel Castro in 2006, brother Raúl took charge, permitting limited free expression and some prisoners of conscience to exchange jail for exile. Today, outside aid, tourism, and meager sugar harvests no longer sustain Cuba’s closed economic system. Last August, Raúl hinted that up to 20 percent of the state workforce would be cut loose to pursue self-employment such as gardening and shoe repair. Meanwhile, freedom to choose political leaders and express dissent remain constrained. If today’s personal communications networks were to penetrate Cuba’s blockade on information sharing, it is uncertain that Raúl Castro’s evolving totalitarian-lite model would be able to suppress dissent or rebellion.
Q3: Anywhere else?
A3: The Castros served as models to elected authoritarians in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has been in office 12 years, elected by popular vote in 1998 after the country’s traditional political parties lost popularity. Chávez promptly rewrote the constitution to permit reelection and later won changes to eliminate term limits and allow rule by decree. He took control of the state’s lucrative petroleum industry, channeling revenues to the poor through subsidies and handouts and creating a new class of crony capitalists. His government has seized hundreds of businesses and shut down or censored private media outlets. Inflation, food rationing, power shortages, and high crime rates have become features of daily life. Yet, even while general discontent grows, Chávez still enjoys support among Venezuelans who have benefitted from his social programs and particular favors.
Bolivians elected Evo Morales president in 2005 and reelected him in 2009. A self-described “Marxist-Leninist,” he led a campaign to strengthen state control over gas and oil production and distribute benefits to the poor. Although Bolivia’s poverty rate has declined, some 80 percent of workers reportedly have no formal jobs. Protests against recently attempted reductions in fuel and food subsidies reflect growing disenchantment.
In Nicaragua in 2009, Daniel Ortega had partisan supreme court judges exempt him from a constitutional ban on serving more than two terms as president, and he is now running for a third term in 2011. While his government claims it has been able to reduce poverty through social programs financed by Venezuelan oil, opponents say Ortega bought a hotel and TV station using funds from the same source.
Q4: What about Haiti?
A4: Even though a dictator may not govern Haiti at the moment, despots have ruled for much of its history. Understandably, its experience with democratic government—beginning only within the last 25 years—has been tumultuous. Today, its fledgling democracy barely functions, two-thirds of adults have no formal employment, half are illiterate, and some 80 percent of its 9 million people live in poverty. Following a devastating earthquake last year, expectations that things would get better have tempered most violent outbreaks. That could change. Unhappy with the slow pace of post-quake reconstruction, voters did not favor the handpicked candidate of President René Préval during national elections on November 28, 2010. A runoff between the two most successful candidates is scheduled for March 20. Meanwhile, Préval has allowed a former dictator to return and issued a passport to ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Préval’s Lavalas Party. Aristide was a polarizing figure who resigned and fled in 2004 when some of his own supporters joined mobs agitating against him. His return could reignite unrest, potentially disrupting the second round of the presidential elections.
Q5: Is trouble imminent?
A5: Despite pockets of lagging social and economic indicators, free elections, liberal economies, and respect for human rights now predominate in most of the 35 independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. Among the region’s democracies, security concerns and social mobility issues may be testing current governments but are unlikely to turn any out of office. However, potential tipping points in Cuba and Haiti bear watching. Meltdowns in the Caribbean could undo hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid in Haiti and unleash migrations that could impact neighboring countries like the Dominican Republic and the United States. Looking over their shoulders, the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia have purged military ranks of officers who might challenge them. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has consolidated his party’s control over most government institutions. Still, economic mismanagement could erode support bases in each of these cases. Then perhaps, examples in North Africa might come into play, if protests there were actually to result in more open, accountable government.
Stephen Johnson is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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