When it comes to journalistic coverage of Latin America, there is no more honorable recognition of one’s work than being labelled an “enemy of the regime” by the cantankerous Castros, Fidel and Raúl.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Cuban regime:
continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism. It now relies less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists and others have increased dramatically in recent years. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.
So it was a considerable privilege for Mary Anastasia O’Grady, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and author of the weekly Americas Column, to be included in the Castros’ official list of “counterrevolutionaries” in the late 1990s.
Undoubtedly, Cuba’s communist leadership found little to celebrate in her reports of their revolution. Take, for example, O’Grady’s portrayal (to a large and very influential global audience) of “Castro’s indifference to Cuban poverty:”
The comandante gave interminable speeches calling for revolutionary sacrifice. But he lived large, with a private island, a yacht, some 20 homes across the island, a personal chef, a full-time doctor, and a carefully selected and prepared diet.
The truth isn’t something the Cuban communists are usually willing to tolerate, especially when it exposes their own monumental hypocrisies.
A Contrarian in New York
O’Grady is rare for a US journalist writing about Latin America insofar as she knows many of the region’s top politicians personally, but is skeptical of their usual rhetoric as they sing their own praises, not infrequently with the type of left-wing claptrap for which outlets such as the New York Times tend to fall wholeheartedly; “Thanks to Mr. Chávez” read the headline of a 2007 NYT editorial about the Chavista regime’s supposed fight for “social justice.” Only recently, as Venezuelans undergo hunger due to shortages of basic food products, did the Grey Lady publish an apology of sorts by stating that the current crisis “has exposed the hollow promise of the socialist policies Mr. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have peddled since the late 1990’s.”
- Read More: Dismantling Cuba’s Socialist Success Myth
- Read More: Cuba Struggles with Energy Cutbacks as Venezuela Fails to Export Oil
Last month, O’Grady published a piece titled “How Brazil’s Lula Conned the World” in which she notes how practically all of the Western press— including The Economist— naively broadcasted former president Lula Da Silva’s (2003-2010) “hip rhetoric,” which “denigrated the economic liberalism of the 1990’s while hyping a new and improved brand of socialism with a samba twist.”
The result of scrapping Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s (1995-2003) successful measures of macroeconomic stability were “a budget deficit equal to some 8% of gross domestic product, inflation near 10%, two years of economic contraction and a cesspool of corruption scandals.” These include the scheme which led to Dilma Rousseff’s recent impeachment and the ongoing investigation into Lula’s alleged leadership of a racket to divert funds from Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, into the Workers’ Party’s coffers.
Learning of such socialist shenanigans may have surprised readers and pundits alike in many countries, but O’Grady was writing of Lula’s creation of a left-wing, statist “system that breeds corruption by its very nature” as far back as 2006.
More recently, O’Grady’s WSJ column has been a constant nuisance to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his efforts to sell to the world his deal with the Marxist FARC guerrillas, a Latin American version of “peace for our time.” Thus, while a typical Guardianista headline on the Santos-Farc agreement reads “The horrible night has ceased: Colombia peace deal resounds in Farc heartland,” O’Grady’s latest piece, which is far more realistic, is titled “Santos Sets a Trap for Colombians.”
Last week, when I spoke to O’Grady, she stated that her impression was that the agreement “was worked out only between President Santos and the Farc” while the brunt of Colombian society was excluded. This agreement, she added,
leaves a great number of law-abiding Colombians out of the equation, and I’m afraid that it will not lead to peace.
First of all, the agreement doesn’t deal with the criminal gangs, it doesn´t deal with the ELN (guerrillas), it doesn’t deal with dissenters from the Farc, and the Farc’s number one activity has been drug trafficking. Just because the Farc leave that business doesn’t mean the business disappears. There will be a vacuum and someone else will move into it.”
O’Grady thinks that Santos wrongly interpreted his last election, which only gave him legitimacy to govern Colombia, as a “carte blanche” to give amnesty to Farc leaders convicted of war crimes. “That’s quite different from delivering peace to the country,” she adds.
— MaryAnastasiaO'Grady (@MaryAnastasiaOG) May 22, 2016
In a number of interviews carried out since 2011, the year when the negotiations with the Farc began, Santos told O’Grady
that he wasn’t going to accept amnesty for the Farc, that he wasn’t going to accept them not paying and making reparations to their victims.
He made a lot of pledges, including that there would be a referendum (instead of a plebiscite in which voters can only decide to accept or reject the entire final agreement, the choice Colombian voters face on Sunday, October 2). This implied that there would be a series of questions on different aspects of the agreement.
And when he found out that the Farc weren’t going to do any of those things, he already had too much invested. So he allowed them to wear him down and then the choice was to walk away from the table or accept what they were asking for.
The Santos-Farc Deal Won’t Bring Peace to Colombia
While the Santos-Farc agreement fails to bring peace to Colombia since it doesn’t solve the issue of drug trafficking, it will nevertheless end constitutional democracy by slashing any semblance of equality before the law. The deal, in fact, hands direct seats in Congress to the FARC— five in the lower house and five in the senate— despite the number of votes they might obtain as a political party. This violates all established electoral rules that apply to all other candidates.
- Read More: The Libertarian Case against the Santos-Farc Agreement in Colombia
- Read More: The Armed Rebels Who Will Keep up Violence in Colombia after FARC
O’Grady is “at a loss” as to why the Obama administration has offered full support for a deal that grants a Marxist guerrilla group all the privileges of an unelected oligarchy. Even if President Obama “legitimately believes that this is the end of a long conflict,” she suspects “that the president himself hasn’t read the agreement, and doesn’t understand the problem.”
In general terms, O’Grady believes that Obama’s stance toward Colombia’s Farc deal stems from his “naïveté about why there are conflicts” in the first place:
He seems to think that if you just go to the other party and say ‘let’s try to find a compromise,’ then that will end violence. Of course, there’s a long human history that shows that that is not true.
Obama’s naïve worldview, O’Grady argues, also shaped the deal he offered dictator Raúl Castro: the restoration of economic and diplomatic ties with Cuba without any compromise from the regime in terms of political and civil liberties on the island. The US president, she says, believes that
the US has a lot of enemies in the world because it has not accepted other ways for governments to operate. So we have always taken the side of those who would talk about the rule of law, markets, and property rights, and President Obama seems to have the idea that there are many ways that you can run a government.
You can run a government with only one guy in charge like you have in Cuba and, well, that’s up to the Cubans.
The problem, of course, is that the Cuban people have never had the chance to decide whether or not they want only the Castros in charge of their country.
Obama displayed his attitude toward Latin America when he warmly greeted Hugo Chávez in Trinidad in a 2009 summit before receiving a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America from the Venezuelan strongman. Less than a year later, Chávez blamed the US for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. According to O´Grady.
Obama thought that if he were nicer to Hugo Chávez or Fidel Castro, they’d be nicer to the United States and we could learn to communicate and accept each other. This is a very naïve view because in human history there has always been something called tyranny.
You can debate whether you should have an interventionist role in trying to change tyrannies, but what has been unfortunate about the Obama administration is not that it has been non-interventionist but too often it has interfered on the side of governments that have been tyrannical.
— Serge (@Zinvor) March 6, 2013
Positive Changes in the US Might Point to the End of the Drug War
Despite the strategic errors of the current administration’s Latin America policy, O’Grady does consider that the US is making changes that will have a positive impact on Latin America. Namely, this is the move away from prohibition and the outright war on drugs, a shift that is taking place not in Washington, but in individual states:
I never thought that change can come from Washington because there are too many bureaucracies that are living off the war on drugs. So I’m very encouraged by the fact that, at the local level, governments are experimenting with different solutions.
The whole idea of federalism in the United States is supposed to be about having 50 different experiments of how to deal with different problems. I don’t agree with everything that Colorado is doing, but I think that is one experiment of how to make this drug (marijuana) legal and at the same time make people responsible for their actions.
While recognizing that legalizing and regulating drugs “will bring its own set of problems and challenges for society,” O’Grady says that
there is hope in the United States because people are starting to understand that, by making drugs illegal, you don’t diminish the demand for them necessarily and you add to the criminality. And there are other problems as well. For example, someone with an addiction problem tries to hide the problem rather than getting help because the drug they take is illegal.
Since top-down bureaucracy, central government intervention, and military repression have clearly failed to solve the problem of drug consumption in the United States, O’Grady believes that “society at the local level”— individuals, families, and communities— “will have to work at educating themselves. Civil society will start creating its own mechanisms to regulate the use of drugs.” On the other hand,
to say that ‘we can’t control our own appetites so those people in South or Central America or Mexico have to stop the supply’ has always been a very immoral way of dealing with the drug problem. It’s immoral to make it about supply when it’s really about demand.
— David Vega – Chicago & Jacksonville (@tridence) September 18, 2016
O’Grady further believes that, at some point, “the federal government is going to decide that drugs are a state issue.” The consequence will be that “the states will be able to choose different ways to regulate drugs much like they now regulate alcohol,” and this will change the dynamics of the drug war as being waged presently across Latin America.
Will countries in the region continue to fall to left-wing, populist regimes despite recent events such as Mauricio Macri’s victory over the Kirchner apparatus in Argentina and the Venezuelan opposition’s triumph in last year’s parliamentary elections?
O’Grady believes that it depends on the particular case since, in certain countries, “the institutions held up some semblance of a democratic republic or a civilized country” in spite of enduring populist governments for many years.
The best example of this, she says, is Brazil, where citizens were able to maintain a free press and internet access became widespread.
Brazil also has a fairly sizeable middle class with access to the free press. They have a well-educated and proficient business community, and the courts remain independent of Lula.
When the Workers’ Party came to power, it wanted to do the same things that were done in Venezuela. But what is interesting in Brazil is that economic power was much more dispersed than in Venezuela, where it was all in the hands of the (state-owned) oil company. In Brazil, those components helped to create checks and balances on any single person coming to power and keeping that power.
For O’Grady, Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and Lula’s indictment “are signs that Brazilians want a democracy, but they also want a system with strong checks and balances.” Even though Brazil still faces the challenge of curbing the power of special interest groups that will resist progress, O’Grady maintains that Brazilians should be proud
because they did not fall for that one demagogue who came along and tried to consolidate power. The institutions are holding up, there’s competition, the military is contained. They have a problem in their cities because of the war on drugs, but I feel relatively confident about Brazil.
Argentina, she says, barely hung on to liberal democracy since the opposition to the Kirchners remained strong due to a solid middle class. Nevertheless, O’Grady admits that she worries about Latin America
because the rule of law can only arise out of the norms and values of the population. Without a stronger academic environment whereby people understand the meaning of liberty, individual rights, private property, and the link between these factors and development, I’m afraid the region doesn’t go anywhere. That has to be built up in academia and in the intellectual sphere.
- Read More: Despite Setbacks, Macri is Leading Argentina on Upward Path
- Read More: Who Is to Blame for Argentina’s Chronic Poverty?
She mentions Venezuela as “a perfect example” of the consequences of allowing the left to take complete control of academic institutions. During the 1970’s and 80’s, she explains, the Venezuelan left
produced the journalists, the lawyers, the politicians, the opinion makers. Their ideas inevitably dripped into the psyche of the Venezuelan citizen. That’s why I’m not optimistic about Venezuela.
We’re not going to have the recall referendum against Nicolás Maduro this year. Next year there will be probably be a change of president but not a change of regime. And there is a more popular problem since the ideals of a free and just society are not well understood and ingrained in the norms and values of the population.
In the realm of ideas, the battle never ends. Chile, for instance, saw spectacular development due to a general support for free markets and the rule of law, but O’Grady thinks that the current political debates in the country— opposition to an extremely successful system of private pensions, for instance— prove that “they took their development for granted.” The struggle to convince a new generation to embrace the advantages of the free society is only beginning, and the advocates of freedom “have to keep working on it.”
In Colombia, meanwhile, Mary O’Grady perceives that “academic rigor is something that is really lacking in the country.” She adds:
I don’t find people in Colombia who are willing to challenge the status quo. There is this group think, especially among the elites.
They might not be intellectually prepared to understand the importance of political and economic liberty. Or they might just be too repressed, because there’s a lot of intellectual repression in Colombia. If you say something that’s not politically correct, you are immediately pushed out of the tribe.
This makes it very hard to achieve progress and defend those virtues and ideals that are necessary for a country to move from being an underdeveloped, poor country and become a developed and stable country.
The relatively few Colombians who defend open markets and an open society will instantly give credence to O’Grady’s diagnosis of the country’s progressive consensus; even former president Álvaro Uribe, usually attacked as a “neoliberal” by his enemies, expanded welfare programs for political gain and failed to implement the Ireland-style tax reforms the country needs to spur non-extractive economic innovation.
With the Farc entering politics not only with billions of dollars worth of drug money in their pockets, but also with direct seats in Congress, mandatory state financing of their new political party, and control over radio stations and a television channel, we can only hope that Colombian civil society can be strong enough to resist the oncoming socialist onslaught in the realm of public debate.