The United States v. Democracy

by Stephen Gowans

May 6, 2002


"We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of few," remarked US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. "But we can't have both."

Or, as a Canadian entrepreneur once put it colorfully, "The world is run by the Golden Rule. He who has the gold, rules."

No one would deny the claim that the wealthy have enormous power -- to buy politicians, to buy experts and pundits, to buy the media, to shape public policy.

But they might deny that all that buying power works all the time -- and they're right. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of the wealthy to shape public opinion, or turn elections around, the public stubbornly refuses to be manipulated.

But for the most part, money comes through.

If you can get your view across by dominating the media, or limit the choices available by buying politicians who see things your way, if you can threaten to withhold investment or move jobs elsewhere, you can enormously influence public policy and tilt the outcome of elections in your favour. If you can get your people in the cabinet, as the oil industry has done in spades, you can write public policy to suit your own bottom line.

And then there's the matter of who politicians are. Often wealthy themselves, and if not, forced to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy to get elected.

Not surprisingly then, what applies at home applies on the international stage, as well. Wealthy countries, as wealthy individuals and wealthy industries, have enormous power to buy politicians, to buy lobby groups, to shape public opinion, to set public policy, and to influence the outcome of elections in poorer countries.

Hardly democratic, though it all operates on the infrastructure of democracy -- elections and elected politicians. But then you can operate on courts and tribunals, the infrastructure of justice, and produce miscarriages of justice. Elections, by themselves, mean nothing.

Still, you'd hardly know that subverting elections abroad was inimical to real democracy from the democracy-friendly names the world's wealthiest country, the United States, bestows upon the organizations it uses to carry the flag of democracy -- American style.

Names like The National Endowment for Democracy.

But the NED's idea of democracy is a special one. If you could find it in a dictionary, it would look like this:


1. a. government by the people; especially, rule of the majority b. a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

2. NED: a. funding opposition parties or groups and media, with the express aim of toppling foreign governments or leaders whose policies are at odds with Washington's, and installing new governments or leaders amenable to bringing the country's policies, especially economic and foreign policy, in line with those of the United States. b. Rule by the United States.

A fuller definition would cite instances in which this peculiar definition applied: Italy, immediately following WWII; Chile; Nicaragua; Yugoslavia; Zimbabwe; Belarus. There are others. Dozens of them.

An up-to-date version would mention Venezuela, site of the world's latest coup (however brief), and site, coincidently, of one of the NED's exercises in promoting democracy.

Washington wanted to see the country's populist president, Hugo Chavez, gone. He cozied up to Cuba, chided Washington for its war on terrorism, visited Saddam Hussein, and refused to cooperate with Washington in the war on Colombian guerillas. And he hiked royalties on oil exports. Hardly the obeisance Washington expects from third-world leaders.

While we don't know for sure whether Washington engineered the coup through the offices of Deputy Secretary for Hemispheric Affairs Otto Reich, a man who's no stranger to Byzantine intrigues, we do know that Washington welcomed the coup led by former oil executive and head of Venezuela's largest business organization, Pedro Carmona Estanga, afterwards mouthing such absurdities as, "Now there will be tranquility and democracy." And we also know that administration officials were in contact with the coup leaders in the days leading up to Chavez's ouster.

Moreover, we now know that "the United States channelled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to American and Venezuelan groups opposed to President Hugo Chavez, including the labor group whose protests led to the Venezuelan president's brief ouster," according to The New York Times.

Who provided the funds? The National Endowment for Democracy, "a non-profit agency created and financed by Congress...[w]ith an annual budget of $33 million..[with which it] disburses hundreds of grants each year to pro-democracy groups from Africa to Asia."

Problem is pro-democracy groups seems to mean groups opposed to a leader Washington doesn't like but the country's people support.

We can have great wealth or democracy, but not both, Brandeis said.

He might have added, We can have the NED and US meddling, or we can have democracy. As to both -- forget it.

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Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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Published May 6, 2002
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