06 November 2011 ~ 0 Comentarios

Power and death

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Asesinato Lincoln

(FIRMAS PRESS) Eight American presidents died while occupying the White House. Four fell victim to illness: William H. Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Four were murdered by gunfire: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy. Six almost died at the hands of madmen or criminals but were saved: Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

These huge political commotions did not disturb the running of the institutions. The vice presidents peacefully moved into the house of government, the bodies were solemnly buried, a few monuments were erected, a beautiful set of postage stamps was printed, a commemorative coin was minted, society dried its tears and went on its way. As if nothing had happened.

That’s the United States’ extraordinary contribution to contemporary history: the model of a State based on the law and the operation of the institutions, legitimized by the consent of the governed, where the weight of the people selected to direct it temporarily has little significance, even if we’re dealing with giants, such as Jefferson or Lincoln. The societies that have closely adhered to the American influence, truly submitting themselves to the rule of law, have achieved stability and continued progress.” 

But there are other ways to govern. This has to do with the fragility of the strong-man systems. In Venezuela, within the ranks of Chavismo, panic is spreading as a result of the very real possibility that cancer will take the life of Hugo Chávez, leading to the collapse of a State that rests on the exceptionality of a singular character who uses the nation’s resources as he sees fit and whose supporters obey not for his intelligence or quality as administrator of the government but because he grants privileges and is the head of the pack, the Alpha monkey who leads the group through bites and grunts.

The Venezuelans have been through that already. Between 1908 and 1935, the country was ruled, at the point of a boot, by Gen. Juan Vicente Gómez, a ferocious and devious rural caudillo with no scruples who somehow laid the foundations of modern Venezuela thanks to the exploitation of petroleum and, in the process, became immensely wealthy through his corruption. However, one day, when he was78, his kidneys failed and he died. What happened? Almost immediately, his successors, who were his subalterns, began to dismantle the dictatorship.

Before six months had elapsed, the enormous fortune accumulated during 27 years of tyranny was confiscated by the State, and Venezuela gradually abandoned that primitive organization based on the personal authority of an intimidating chief and tried to build a State structured on laws and institutions. In reality, the Venezuelans didn’t achieve all that until 1959, when Rómulo Betancourt launched a democratic period that lasted 40 years, but that experience foundered in 1999when Hugo Chávez won the elections and restored the disastrous strong-man system.

What usually happens is that the caudillos take the regimes they created to the grave. The power and the strength they accumulate in life are achieved by weakening the State. To give you three long examples, that happened with the Dominican dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo beginning with his execution in 1961, with the dictatorship of Portuguese leader Oliveira Salazar after his death in 1970 (he inspired so much fear that he ruled addle brained for two years, after he fell from a chair) and the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. In all three cases, the decomposition of the regimes they created and ruled with an iron hand began with the decomposition of the founders’ egregious bodies.

In 1776, when the Americans took arms against England, and in 1787, when they drafted the Constitution, they faced two tremendous obstacles: the mistrustful coexistence between 13 sovereign former colonies in a common nation, and the organized transfer of authority in a State that lacked the indisputable structural force that emanates from a monarchy.

Nobody in Europe would bet a dollar on the survival of that bold experiment. Just read the documents exchanged by the foreign ministries of the Old World at that time. But the fact is that, against every prognostication, it worked. That’s why American presidents can die peacefully in the White House. Caudillos, in contrast, are the dead who generate chaos. After them, the deluge usually comes.

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