Friday, January 22, 2010

Idealism, Politics, Uruguay

A small country in a region generally ignored by the anglo-saxon world is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Five years ago, for the first time in its history, the people of Uruguay elected a socialist government and a left-wing president, Tabaré Vásquez. They came to power with an idealistic mission not just to raise the general standard of living of the people but to institute a series of social and economic reforms that would both strengthen their democracy and fundamentally improve their quality of life.

At the heart of this mission - which to outsiders may well have seemed naively ambitious - was a plan to ensure that Uruguyan children had access to the same educational and informational resources as the most privileged children of the so-called First World. With this in mind, Vásquez announced at the end of 2006 his Plan Ceibal - to give a free laptop equipped for internet access to every child between the ages of 6 and 12 ..."so that each of them is not only equal in law but equal in opportunity".

Just under three years later, as Uruguayans were preparing to elect his successor, President Vásquez completed the task by personally handing a laptop to the 6-year-old who stood last in line. Every school child in Uruguay now owns a reader's ticket to the vast library of human knowledge and learning offered by the World Wide Web.

Don José Mujica - Uruguay's new president elect - belongs to the same left-wing coalition as Vásquez - the Frente Amplio - and he has made clear that he intends to make the same commitment as his predecessor to education, social welfare and justice.

Most of us have heard politicians voice similar intentions, and we are familiar, too, with their subsequent failure to carry them out. What makes Uruguay different, is that these apparently utopian dreams are being implemented - not in half-measures but fully, openly and with the participation of the people.

Uruguay's new president has a remarkable and colourful history. He is a former member of the Tupamaro movement - an armed revolutionary group formed in the 1960s. Apprehended several times, he spent nearly fifteen years in jail - where, in addition to being tortured, he was confined for two years at the bottom of a well. He was finally released after the restoration of democracy following the military dictatorship of 1973 - 1985.

In appearance Mujica could could scarcely look less like a guerrilla fighter or even a national leader. He never wears a tie and rarely a suit, and one could easily imagine him as a retired school teacher or bus driver spending his time chatting in a local café or dozing over a newspaper on a park bench. When he speaks, however, one becomes instantly aware of a quiet but deeply impressive charisma, and intelligence of a high order. His style is simple, his voice, tone, vocabulary those of the man and woman in the street. In every conceivable sense he appears as one of the people.

A speech he made to a gathering of intellectuals shortly after his triumph in the polls is as deeply inspiring in its own way as Obama's victory address to the US nation a year earlier. In it he lays out an Athenian vision - not of a country where citizens are offered a banal series of consumption choices, but of one where everyone is empowered by the quality of their education to lead fulfilling lives and to participate in the well-being of the nation and of their fellow citizens.

One senses that Uruguay is breaking new ground, and that if the country continues to travel the road on which it is now embarked, it will likely emerge in twenty years time as the Switzerland of the southern hemisphere: at once the most deeply democratic, technologically dynamic and culturally creative nation in Latin America.

In the anglo-saxon West, with our usual hubris and contempt for poorer nations in distant parts, we will probably refuse to see the lesson offered by this small country. Instead, as likely as not, we will watch in mild bewilderment as it scoots past us on the UN Human Development index. And then we will settle back to the petty squabbles of party politics, and the vacuous blather of political leaders who have long since traded in whatever idealism and principle they might once have possessed for the chintzy accoutrements of office.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Obama, the Crisis and the American Dream

Most of us were too thrilled by Obama's victory to worry about how he would perform. From the outset, as his choice of key cabinet members clearly demonstrated, he showed a lack of conviction about what he wanted to achieve: Clinton at State, Geithner at the Treasury, and Gates at Defense. Gates, of course, was CIA Director under Bush, Geithner comes straight out of Wall Street, while dear Hilary is nothing if not "old Washington". At a moment when Obama had a chance to blow some fresh air over the Potomac, he inhaled the stale DC air instead.

His dithering over Afghanistan and backtracking on key elements of health care reform once again show an absence of decisive leadership and maybe even of genuine political conviction. There is an old saying that it's better to die on your feet than live on your knees; but on health care in particular, Obama appears to have dropped to the floor as soon as the GOP shook a fist at him.

But where Obama - and indeed the US - are truly in a hole is with the economy. The flaw in the American version of capitalism lies buried in the heart of the American mythology about itself: that everyone can "make it", that individuals are responsible for their own success or failure, and that government should keeps its hands out of people's pockets and its nose out of their affairs. The US system is the best because - well - it's the best.

Unfortunately, international comparative statistics tell a different story. Social mobility in the US is among the lowest in the developed world (the UK's record is, if anything, even worse); and the US is at the bottom of the developed country list for life expectancy and infant mortality. Most people, in other words, don't "make it". Nor are they great at looking after themselves. Low educational standards is another US "achievement".

Meanwhile, and perhaps in the long term even more important, the neo-liberal, laissez-faire economic model has not only hollowed out industry in the US by fostering the flight of production facilities to low-cost areas of the world, but it is proving defenceless against the state-guided, protectionist capitalism of China and some smaller eastern countries. Much of the West's decline has, until recently, been masked by the availability of cheap imports (thereby disguising the relative reduction in quality of employment and in average remuneration) and the massive financial profits generated by Wall Street and the City. But the current recession, the gargantuan greed of western bankers, and the West's huge indebtedness have torn away the mask to reveal a sickly visage.

The US is very far from moribund, but she is unquestionably in trouble and her citizens are palpably angry about it - hence the voter volatility in the Massachussetts senate race. Ironically, voters want Obama to get the country back on its feet even though many of them don't believe government should be involved. They want health care fixed only if it comes tax free, and while they are wedded to laissez-faire, they want the bankers reined in and maybe even punished (unless punishment means more government in which case - maybe not). In a nutshell the problem isn't government involvement but the American weltanchauung.

What the country needs, one suspects, is a reevaluation of its sclerotic economic model, a searching re-examination of its collective myths, and a far more courageous administration in the White House.