Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, The Other America, Trillium (Monday March 26, 2007 at 11:45 am)

Warmed by recent polls which hint at a positive response to last week’s budget, Prime Minister Harper has taken the unusual step of broadcasting his next strategic move: a swing through Latin America and the Caribbean.

Canada has a longstanding and powerful connection with the Caribbean, largely as the dominant hemispheric member of the British Empire and Commonwealth. The Caribbean presence in Canada remains strong. Roughly 600,000 immigrants have come from the region since 1961, a significant portion of whom have settled in and around Toronto. The City of Toronto proper was home to nearly 170,000 new immigrants from the Caribbean as recently as 1996, and the city’s annual Caribana festival is the largest in North America.

Canada’s foreign relations record will certainly be bolstered by the trip, as has been duly noted:

“There are opportunities for people to engage,” said Mr. Dade, who has worked for the U.S. government and the World Bank in the region.

“People want to see alternatives, and we’ve got a strong alternative to the States. Now is a time more than ever where that’s popular and of interest to people.”

But the real force of the trip will be the local direction; and that’s why it’s so important.

Throughout the region, Harper will encounter governments who are eager for a good relationship with Canada and who share his vision of government. Caribbean society tends to be more socially conservative and religious than Canadian, but just as devoted to public programmes for health care and education. This combination means a warm response from political and ideological allies throughout the region, boosting the Prime Minister’s international reputation while contrasting him favorably with Bush’s protested tour of Latin America.

The importance of an improved diplomatic image for a government which dissappointed many with its previous international efforts should not be understated. But foreign trips aren’t enough to sway the public. At best, buffing the government’s diplomatic credentials is a defensive action — fortifying it against criticism on that front. Its positive purpose lies elsewhere.

That elsewhere is Toronto. The population of 170,000 Caribbean expatriates in Toronto in 1996 constituted 5% of the population, while most estimates put the proportionate population in Toronto at over 8%. Historically, Caribbeans have voted together with most other immigrant communities — for the Liberals; and the magnitude of immigrant populations in the Toronto area has as much to do with the Liberals’ successes there as it does with their selection of candidates who represent local ethnic communities. But the weakening of the diplomatic connection with the region is evident in the stalled state of trade negotiations, even as the Caribbean strengthens its integrated community and regional role with overtures to Haiti and Cuba.

A shower of attention on the region will be welcomed by Canadians of Caribbean descent. If that group can be swayed to their side, the Tories will have successfully attacked a significant bastion of Liberal support. A mere shift from, say, a 30%-50% split of such support with the Liberals (NDP etc. gets the rest) to a 40%-40% split could constitute movement of 1.5-2% of votes in the Toronto area — taking a big bite out of the Liberals’ lead for a minor investment of time and nearly no investment of budget spending. That’s an sound strategic move against a City which represents the last major Liberal fortress of support.

Which leaves only one question: why pre-announce?

For some, it might be the surest sign yet of the government’s willingness to go to an election. Consider: if an election is called before the trip, there’s no electoral payoff unless the public already knows about it. By announcing it well in advance (beginning of spring for a summer trip), the Tories secure at least some of the trip’s benefits even if it is pre-empted.

Of course, this advance notice also gives the Liberals plenty of opportunities to shore up their support in the community. With the exit of their only Caribbean-born politician in Ontario (Jean Augustine), they will have to depend on local workers and the unpredictable Hedy Fry, a Vancouverite. But given recent Liberal tactics, the Conservatives may be skeptical of Liberal strength. That would make this an excellent time for the Liberals to move to secure a strategic constituency. Failing to do so may only lead to openings on more fronts.

And absent that, Harper’s move to warmer climates will succeed, and the Tories will hot up their chances in Ontario’s seat-rich capital.

The Forgetful Senor Chavez0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, The Other America (Saturday January 20, 2007 at 5:13 pm)

The redoubtable Hugo Chavez has made much hay from higher taxes and renegotiating contracts while the price of oi has soared. But his threat of nationalization, coming as it does just as the price begins to drop again, may not be quite enough to keep his Bolivarian revolution turning heads and attacking priests.

Avid followers of Latin heartthrobs like Sr. Chavez (he does make at least some hearts beat faster) may well recall his introduction, back in 1999, of a new constitution for Venezuela. That document, consolidating a great deal of power in the office of the President, was then touted as the “world’s most advanced constitution”.

But even a document as advanced as that isn’t quite enough for today’s Presidente-on-the-go! No, a modern leader needs powers on more of a baroque scale. Clearly, he’s envious of the Thai government.

After all, if the revolution never ends, who needs law? Legislation is designed to set up long-term rules — the sort of thing that no work-in-progress can really bear to suffer.

So for a country still undertaking the crucial steps towards some future post-revolutionary state, the simplest solution is the obvious one: give the President full authority to rule by decree.

And there are precedents. In 1918, faced with the similar problem of a glorious, ongoing revolution, backward opposition, and the vision of some distant, unknown utopia, the Soviet Constitution was drafted. In section 38, identical ruling authority was granted to the Comissar Council (headed by Lenin). It wasn’t limited to eighteen months, true, but then, the passage of a new constitution in 1924 constituted a time limit of sorts.

From the world’s most advanced constitution to a model of government embraced nearly ninety years ago. And in only seven years. To think that the Venezuelan Congress had forgotten what came of the Soviet. To think that Hugo Chavez has forgotten how amply the lessons of history illuminate the grotesquery of Venezuela’s descent into tyranny.

Before the Fall0

Posted by JJ in The Other America, Golden Tacks (Sunday August 13, 2006 at 8:19 am)

An elegant tribute, released in today’s Star, draws the eye to a confounding problem: the leadership of great men.

Alexandre Trudeau points, quite rightly, to Fidel Castro’s genius, energy, and drive — those things, which, with his lengthy grip on power, mark him as a leader in the “great man” cast.

The leadership of great men is often admired. We think in awe on the giants of the past — our Alexanders, Napoleons, and our Kennedys. Trudeau prefers the term “patriarch”, which comes as no surprise to those whose memories of his father make the term more resonant. But there is a haunting danger behind that term, as there is behind the leadership of great men. It is a danger of confusion.

True, one can hardly act as a society without, at times, resorting to entrust the helm to a single man. Republican Rome had its dictators, the Iroquoi their war chiefs, and the Long Parlliament John Pym. But in the elevation of a single person to act for all the rest lies a terrible danger: that someone will confuse the one with the other.

When is the mission that of the great man and when is it that of society? When refugees flee Castro’s Cuba, do we turn them back and point to the genius of their leader? Is the educated cigar-roller Trudeau points to too bound up by Castro’s vision of society to use his knowledge to forge his own life? Whatever the moral outrage we feel at the United States for its treatment of Cuba, at what point is the pride of a nation worth its poverty and dissatisfaction? Isn’t “we can’t let them win” an equally foolish and prideful statement of self-destruction regardless of moral overtones? Is there something to be learned from Michael Jackson?

But before those questions can be answered, a more important one must lead: is it the pride of the nation that creates such stubbornness, or is it the pride of its leader? Was it the difference between Quebec and the Federal government which so strained relations between Rene Levesque and Pierre Trudeau, or was it the difference between the men? Is it Cuba and the United States that cannot bear to reconcile, or is it Castro and Congress?

Genius does not make it more difficult to work for another’s interest — not of itself. But focusing on that genius and the men and women who exemplify it to us blinds us to the fact that however alluring it is, genius is no more a gift than beauty of any other kind. Put to good use, it becomes worthy of our gratitude in addition to our praise; put to bad use, our praise can be drowned in howls of agony.

And the tragedy is that the good purposes of such genius are no different from those of any other human serving her society — the careful quest for the public good instead of the insistent imposition of personal bias. Basking in the glory of genius, we far too easily assume its agenda for ourselves. The charismatic leader, wittingly or not, makes his cause tempting by association; and it is hard to leave the side of a woman you admire. We are too often blinded by the sparkle of brilliance to properly question its use. And the genius is no less needful of such questioning than any other man. Neither, tragically, is he any less immune to the dangers of flattery.

It is hard to imagine how history could be rewritten — how our lives would change and whether we might be better off had things been otherwise. But there is good cause to wonder whether we should end by praising leaders who leave society so badly off for having the very qualities that might have made it better.

A cult of genius is the seed of tyranny; and we should remember how little help it was when, amid the thunderous applause of society’s strength, only a single voice was heard to whisper: “Remember you are nothing but a man.”

Who Will Rid Me Of This Turbulent Priest?0

Posted by JJ in The Other America (Monday January 16, 2006 at 12:55 am)

What does that pesky Catholic Church really want?

Souls? Gold? Tickets to Bon Jovi?

According to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the downfall of his government.

Apparently, fresh (in Vatican terms 15 years isn’t that long) from its victory over Communism in Eastern Europe, the Vatican is going to take on socialist regimes elsewhere. Cuba was out of course, having gotten a cautious thumbs up from former pontiff, John Paul II.

So where’s a German Shepherd to go? Well, Venezuela offers a hot-headed President with his own, hand-made “world’s most advanced” constitution (presumably, it can tell you when it’s being breached), a persecution complex, and a new approach to socialism. Why not try there?

Surely a senior Cardinal, having lived in Venezuela for years, has some ulterior motive for his statements:

  • Speaking out against the arrests of opponents of the regime
  • Voicing concerns about the concentration of power under the current constitution

Oh, and the Vatican has taken pains to point out that these positions are those of the Cardinal in his personal capacity, and not the position of the Vatican. On the other hand, the bishops of Venezuela, in a rare step, have stood behind the Cardinal’s remarks.

So if the bishops “on the ground” and the Cardinal are concerned, only one question remains: what’s their angle? Couldn’t the Vatican’s disclaimer be a mere Elizabethan ploy?

Stop this sarcastic nonsense. The Vatican doesn’t have any reason to go around badmouthing random regimes, or any reason to “conspire” with the United States to attack Latin America — a major bulwark of the faith. Neither do its priests, bishops, or cardinals.

A bully is a bully. There has been bullying of Priests before, and the weapons of a populist aren’t those of a medieval king. Henry II proved to regret the outcome of his rage; let’s hope no one has cause to regret President Chavez’s outburst.

Ruckus from Caracas0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, The Elephant, The Other America (Sunday November 20, 2005 at 2:45 pm)

And the Globe strikes again, giving us the latest:

Chavez Lashes Out at Bush

That’s not news, folks, it’s status quo, like “Elderly attain greater age than the young” or “Man expresses personal opinion”. Are they just trying to remind their occasional readers of the international political situation? Are people paying so little attention that they miss a story with some 40,000 Google hits (1.7 Million if you search for “attacks” rather than “lashes out”).

Is there nothing more to this story? Ah, but there is. The “lashing out” is taking a few forms:

  • The expulsion of a group of Christian missionaries
  • The claim that the US has already made full preparations for an attack against Venezuela
  • The order of 100,000 Kalishnikov rifles
  • A mass call for volunteers for the army reserve

But of course, it really boils down to a criticism of Bush, doesn’t it. I suppose that sells papers to Canadians unconcerned by a third-world populist, flush with oil revenue, whose preferred technique for governing involves terrorizing his own citizens with the prospect of a powerful and hated enemy.

The last round of expulsions involved accusations of colonialism and vague mentions of a plot to overthrow the much beloved, much criticized President, Hugo Chavez. By expelling that group, the government asserted, it was protecting indigenous groups both from cultural imperialism, and from the sight of the overly-luxurious accommodations which the missionaries built for themselves.

President Chavez has held himself out as a campaigner for indigenous rights, and has granted a number of Venezuelan indigenous groups portions of the lands which they believe their ancestors occupied. These grants do not include mineral or oil rights.

Making personal attacks against Bush is merely another political move on Chavez’s part. It’s well-designed to play both nationally and internationally. It may even win him a few points with opponents of Bush in the US. But is it really the meat of the issue?

It’s not clear that Chavez will be bad or good for Venezuela and the world, and less clear by far when we draw attention to the most irrelevant facts in that determination: a litany of personal attacks on the US President.

Is that really what Globe readers want? Hopefully not. Hopefully, they expect a bit more.