Is Democracy Always Good?

February 10, 2010

Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
~Sir Winston Churchill

When George Bush was trying to export democracy to the Middle East before the attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon, I thought it had to be a mistake, since trying to export a form of government has usually the same results that trying to impose your language to a foreign nation. Karl Marx hypothesed in Das Kapital, that Democracy is archived in an evolutionary fashion, and it is only when a nation is ripe for self government, when Democracy can plants its roots.

Analysing the problem with Democracy in places that it was imposed by foreign policy, we discover that it has not always yield to any results. A lot of countries in Africa are now democratic, but they are dirty poor. In Latin America, the new democracies, with exception of Chile and Brazil, have not achieved the desired economic welfare that it was expected.

Returning to the Dutch Disease problem that I mentioned in a previous post, some countries in the bottom billion are resource rich, democratic nations, and they remain trapped in poverty. These phenomena need to be explained by dissecting Democracy in its two main components: Free elections and internal restrains.

What the USA has being trying to export is a system of free elections. In such model, political parties compete for the electoral favour of the citizens. Every number of years, a political campaign would start, the political parties will compete against each other, and the people will go and vote.

This is a deadly system for some countries. In many of the resource rich countries, the party in power will deplete the national treasury to get re elected. They will have more resources (money, control of radio and TV, utilization of public works as a mean to gain voters) than competition. Politicians are not worry about governing but about getting re-elected. Even in a mature democracy like the United States, the first term is used as a mean to get a second term.

The second element in Democracy is the system of check and balances. This means a real opposition, a working government model, and an active civil society. These elements cannot just be exported, they need to be conceived and develop within the host society. That is the failure of the model of exporting democracy; you can export an effective electoral system, but without the check and balances that Democracy needs, the system will quickly move down to a bunch of corrupt officials buying the population vote.

There is something that the developed world can do to help democracies thrive, we will see this in coming posts.


Two Decades

November 11, 2009

Who is the strongest
Who is the best
Who holds the aces
The East
Or the West
This is the crap our children are learning
But oh, oh, oh, the tide is turning
~Roger Waters

Twenty years ago I was in Monterrey watching the evening news, they were talking about some nonsense, when a cable came from Berlin.

People were gathering around Brandenburger Tor.

The soldier were pointing their weapons at them.

The people were yelling Wir wollen raus! Wir bleiben hier! (We want out, we are staying here).

At 22:30, Berlin Time, The Wall was open.

People not longer have right to a free ride, to free food, to employment security.

But they have the right to pursue happiness.

And that is worth dying for.

A Brave New Iran

June 22, 2009

Fight till the last gasp
~William Shakespeare

Courage, my friends from Iran; The world prayers are with you.

Fight for your liberty, fight for your people, fight for your sons, and the great Persian Culture we all respect and admire.

آزادی آزادی خدا بزرگ است

آزادی آزادی خدا بزرگ است!

آزادی آزادی خدا بزرگ است!

A Brave New World

November 9, 2008

From Stettin in the Baltic to to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent
~Winston Churchill, Westminster College, March 5, 1946

On Saturday, October 25, I saw a bunch of kids protesting in front of the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto; they were against dinosaurs bones being exhibited, they wanted to bury back the bones. “Dinos are people too”, they were yelling. I wanted to kick their asses.

Such waste of organization, such abuse of the right of expression, such misuse of the privilege of being free. Only a few years ago, people would die for such a privilege.

Today is the 19th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. We may not remember, or may not know, the series of events that lead to this fall. Some people would remember Reagan’s words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” and think that his speech was a definitive hit to the Iron Curtain. These people piss me off.

The heroes here, the people with the real balls of steel, were not the manifestants in safe Western Europe and USA. There were not the neo hippies of late 90s; they were the East Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, all the people from the Warsaw’s Pact who actually risked their lives for Freedom.

The Berlin Wall did not “fell” 19 years today; it was chipped away for the brave men and women behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1989, the Stasi was still eliminating anti-communist and jailing people, when in May 2nd, the Hungarians made the first hole in the Iron Curtain. They cut the barrier between Magyar and Austria. Thousands of East Germans flocked down to Hungary, one of the few places they could travel. The West German embassies in Budapest and Prague were invaded by thousands of refugees.

The GDR’s government stopped the visas to travel to Hungary in August, which led the East German population to flood the streets of Dresden and Leipzig, manifesting against the measure. They were risking their lives: The GDR’s General Secretariat, Erich Honecker, was one of the last hard liners and wanted to eradicate the manifestations. People like Günter Schabowski, Berlin’s communist party leader, were trying desperately to hold him.

September 25, 1989: The Stasi arrested hundreds of manifestants in Leipzig. At the same time, the embassy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in Prague gave authorization to the East Germans camping in the Embassy to go to the FRG by train, but they should go through East Germany. When those trains arrived to Dresden, thousand of Germans tried to board them, while the police tried to stop them; the trains could not stop in Dresden, but they arrived in the FRG. That was a major hit to the GDR.

A few days later, in Oct 6th, Gorbachev arrived in Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GDR. Unlike Honeken, the Soviet leader knew that the repression could not go on. He stated that History will testify against those who act too late.

Alexanderplatz, East Berlin: Gorbachev is back in Moscow and the 40th anniversary is over. The people of Berlin flooded the plaza, and the Stasi started acting fast, arresting everybody. People like Andreas Gutzeit, journalist, are taken to jail and interrogated. Meanwhile, the army is bieng trained to fight a war against the German People. In October 23rd, more cities joined the manifestations against the dictatorial regime, and Honeken is planning a bloody repression, then, Guenther Schabowski and other moderates realise that a confrontation against their own people will have disastrous consequences and they demand Honeken’s resignation. Surprisly, he accepts, but some hard-line leaders in the Stasi and the Army refuse to soft down.

In November 6th, Leipzig is witness of a huge manifestation, where half million people go to the street. The army receives instructions to stand on guard and is provided with two and a half times the ammunitions they would receive in case of Armed Conflict. They could level Berlin.

In November the 9th, only nineteen years ago, Schabowski and his allies are trying to negotiate a moderated solution to the conflict, while the East German Army marchs towards Berlin; then, in the Parliament, an agreement is reached: They will allow the travel abroad, in organised manner. A reported asked “when this measure will be in effect?” to what Schabowski answered “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay”.

Schabowski made the announcement too soon, the army does not know anything about the agreement; what the East German Politburo thought was a measure to buy time, opened the Wall doors. At 19:45 the world heard Schabowski: Everybody but the East German Army. One hour later, the East Germans started to line in Checkpoint Charlie, while the army was still in red alert. The orders are to protect the German Democratic Republic and its borders. The army is deployed in the checkpoints only to find thousands of East Germans demanding entry into West Berlin. Two hours after Schabowski announcement, the army has orders to shoot to kill anybody trying to cross the border. The world is nevertheless alert of the new agreement, and from West Berlin thousands of people started heading to the Wall. The soldiers tried to confirm orders to their superiors but all the lines are jammed, overwhelmed by all the officers trying to clarify the situation. The West Germans are climbing the Wall. The East German Army is crunched between East and West Germans, then, some newspapers started to circulate. DDR: Ab sofort alle grenzan offen: GDR: From now on, all the borders are open. The army officials decided not to resist the people’s power; 22:30, East German officers opened the checkpoint controls.

The Berlin Wall has ceased to exist.

The paradox of democracy

May 28, 2007

Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame. 

~Laurence J. Peter

Countries with a democracy system are somehow similar to companies in the stock exchange; The latest think on a quarterly basis, and try to give quarterly reports that raise the stock price. The former think on a election basis, and try to give results that will gain votes for the next election. A lot of the decisions taken have more to do with the short term implications that with the long term welfare.

This is why undeveloped countries with a democrat government have it so hard. The necessary measures to improve the over all economy usually hurt the poor, who in turn will vote against those measures, and, being majority, will reverse those measures.

The system works somehow like this:

1) A democratic, undeveloped country sets new reforms to improve their economy: reduce fiscal imbalance, increase expenditures in education, and raises new taxes.

2) The country, being undeveloped, has got the majority of population living in harsh conditions, and the new measures hurt them. Market-based policies meant to increase the efficiency of the aggregate economy frequently generate short-term dislocations and resentment.

3) The majority may understand the long-term benefits of the measures, but feel the short-term pain, so they vote against the government on the next elections, and elect a populist government which is going to cut taxes and increase spending.

4) All the populist measures increase deficit and inflation. The people understand how bad is the populist government and in the new election vote against it for a conservative government, which sets new reforms to improve their economy: reduce fiscal imbalance, increase expenditures in education, and raises new taxes. GO TO STEP 2

This is deadlock. Liberalizing the economy within an established democratic order are not inherently contradictory terms, but there are tensions between them that the country’s leaders will have to manage carefully. Ashutosh Varshney found that, in western society, three factors helped to avoid this situation:

1) Universal suffrage came to most Western democracies only after the Industrial Revolution, which meant that the poor got the right to vote only after those societies had become relatively rich

2) A welfare state has attended to the needs of low-income segments of the population

3) The educated and the wealthy have tended to vote more than the poor

While we can consider the democratic value a long-term asset, the need of be voted each four or six years places important constraints in the maneuver margin of present developing and under developing democracies. These factors will be very important when studying development and policy in the third world.