Daily Archives: 26 January 2006

Chile’s Remarkably Unremarkable Election

Cuban-born columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner remarks in the Miami Herald on the remarkably unremarkable election of Michelle Bachelet (interviewed last night on the NewsHour) as Chile’s next president.

Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera carried out good election campaigns, both colorful and modern. Shortly before Election Day, the pollsters made their predictions: Bachelet, a 54-year-old socialist physician, multilingual, former minister of health and defense, should win by about five percentage points….

By now, of course, the news is not who won the presidency but that, in the electoral field, Chile behaves as a developed and predictable nation. This allows us to make the following observation: Chilean society happily has crossed the threshold of common sense….

The Left that rules Chile is the Left of Tony Blair and Felipe González. It is a Left that, instead of nationalizing the sources of production, stimulates private enterprise and adopts measures to facilitate the functioning of the market. A Left that signs treaties for trade openings with the United States, the Mercosur, the European Union and South Korea because it has learned that Chile’s growing prosperity depends, in large measure, on those intense exchanges. A Left, in sum, that governs honestly with the ideas of the Right — which explains why it is so difficult to defeat it.

What is that desirable “threshold of common sense” and how can it be reached? In essence, the threshold of common sense is that point in history when a decisive percentage of the ruling class agrees on the diagnosis of the ills that plague society and the measures that must be taken to excise them.

In Spain, for example, that point was reached in the late 1970s, after the death of Francisco Franco, when the Right and the Left agreed to respect the basic, successful economic rules of the capitalist model tried out by the dictator, beginning with the reforms of 1959. To those rules they added democracy as a way to form a government and make collective decisions.

Something similar happened in Chile in the early 1990s, during the administration of Patricio Aylwin, the first democratic government post-dictatorship, when the Christian Democrats had the good sense to not renounce the good aspects of Pinochet’s economic policy and to add to them the component of a liberal democracy.

That is why the Coalition for Democracy repeated its election victory for the fourth time: Chileans view Bachelet as a moderate and trustworthy person who will [not?] imperil with extravagant experiments the relative prosperity that Chileans have managed to achieve.

This is not to say that the Chile Bachelet will govern doesn’t face serious problems. Yes, Chile in its 16 years of democratic rule, and continuing a previous trend, reduced poverty from 42 percent to 18 percent. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to further reduce those levels of misery and to bridge the enormous gap that separates the poor from the rich.

In contrast, Montaner has nothing good to say about Cuba after 47 years of Castro.

At this point in history, only two interesting questions remain about the failed experiment staged by Castro on that poor island:

• First, why has a man as eccentric and absurd as he — capable of carrying out feats as improbable as the destruction of the centenary sugar industry, multiplying by 10 the number of prostitutes, executing or eliminating 16,000 people, and pushing into exile 15 percent of the Cuban population — lasted so long in power?

Nobody doubts that his administration is the worst the country has ever endured, incapable for the past half century of allowing Cubans to have drinking water, electricity, food and shelter in minimally reasonable amounts. [But what about the health care?]

• The second question also is obvious: What will happen when he disappears? After all, we’re talking about an ailing 79-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease who exhibits very clear symptoms of senile dementia and has been struck by several cerebral ischemias that have affected his ability to communicate. He mumbles, repeats himself, becomes incoherent and confused, and displays aggressively bad temper at the slightest contrariety.

He can still talk for eight consecutive hours without the slightest concern for his listeners’ bladders. What’s important is not his staying power but the content of his speeches. He is a pitiful man who never stops uttering nonsense, to the embarrassment of a ruling class that has been trained to obey a charismatic and presumably infallible leader and now doesn’t know what to do with this addlebrained and neurotic old geezer who just as blithely designs pygmy cows as he expounds on the unfathomable scientific secret of pressure cookers.

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Gaps in China’s Great Firewall

Mark Leonard, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, offers an optimistic perspective in today’s Telegraph on China’s attempt to censor its web content.

China is 60 times the size of Saudi Arabia, and most experts agree that the sheer volume of traffic would be impossible to police. But Beijing has risen to the challenge, throwing people, money and technology at the problem. The more lurid accounts talk of an e-police force of 100,000 people employed to scour the net, blocking sites and checking e-mails. The numbers are exaggerated, but analysts agree that teams of computer scientists run a firewall with at least four different kinds of filter.

Second, look at what the Chinese are censoring. Much of the commentary suggests that China is an iron-clad Stalinist state, shielded from global events by the “great firewall of China”.

But analogies with Russia and eastern Europe in the 1980s are misleading. The governments of the Soviet bloc looked on powerlessly as their grey world of propaganda was eclipsed by Technicolor images of a better life in the West.

But China is already part of the capitalist world. It is awash with information, products and all the baubles of the consumer society. With every year that passes, the number of people with access to these goodies grows.

What Google has been asked to censor are perennial political taboos: articles on Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and Falun Gong – as well as pieces criticising the Communist Party’s rule. But this kind of censorship is relatively subtle, aimed not at shutting China off from the world, but zeroing in on political controversy. Google estimates that less than two per cent of internet searches will be affected.

The third lesson is the most profound. What worries China the most is not information coming in from outside. It is Chinese people talking to one another. China’s laws on the freedom of assembly are Draconian. Charities, trade unions and religious groups are kept under close surveillance and regularly banned. The ferocity with which the Communist Party suppresses the herbivorous and mild-mannered Falun Gong has puzzled many outside observers. But Beijing is not afraid of the content of their meetings; it is afraid of them meeting at all….

But however impressive the Chinese mastery of the internet has become, it is hard to see how the profusion of information circulating around China can fail to leave its mark on the country’s politics. The great firewall is already springing leaks….

Many Chinese are also taking refuge in the world of digital images, which can be sent between mobiles or e-mailed as attachments, escaping the filters of the censor. Finally, there is the ingenuity of the Chinese people, who often write to each other in coded language (using stories as allegories). This has led many cyber-pundits to predict that, although Google’s avant-garde credentials have been tarnished, the dream of a democratic China has not been deferred.

via Google News

Rebecca MacKinnon’s RConversation blog is among the best English-language sources about censorship and the Chinese blogosphere.

I wonder how many people incensed at Google’s compromises with the Chinese government are equally incensed about the myriad of much nastier compromises routinely tolerated by the multitude of NGOs, news reporters, and “peacekeepers” trying to make a small difference under conditions of far deadlier tyranny and chaos around the world.

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