The American continent, if not the whole world, holds extreme opinions about Chavez: love or loath. Colombia is not different, as the hundreds of Colombians shouting “Chavez, asshole, respect the nation” in the recent marching against the Venezuelan president demonstrated. The animosity is understandable given Chavez war-rhetoric against Colombia. Nevertheless, the extreme perception that those mildly sympathetic to Chavez are communists, or paramilitaries in the case of Uribe’s supporters, and deserve nothing but utter contempt does not help the real debate about Colombia’s future, especially in an election year.
It is important to state the obvious: no president is as benevolent as their supporters claim or as malevolent as their critics argue. This is crucial for understanding the disservice that Colombians and even some foreigners are doing to the political debate. Human biases will always confuse our perception of reality. Politicians are masters of exploiting such shortcomings in order to increase their power. Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez are not different in this regard.
Both of them utilize and amplify people’s fears — in general terms the fear in Colombia is constituted by the guerrillas and in Venezuela is embodied by the oligarchy — while highlighting their indispensable leadership for protecting us from such fears. What is remarkable, however, is the success that both presidents have had in utilizing different fears (many at times manufactured) to convince a population that could not share a more similar history. After all, the two countries’ basic problems have evolved from the same root: the inequality left in place by the colonialists, which has only increased in modern times.
Yet, both presidents have failed to decrease this gap – although there have been shifts of wealth in recent years: Colombia’s wealth has changed hands, from the traditional landowners to drug-lords and paramilitaries, while in Venezuela it has passed from the traditional elite to the boligarchs. But, paradoxically, both presidents maintain a high level of popularity in their banana republics.
There may be many reasons, many of them cynical, for explaining the paradox. But an important reason is that a sizable number of the populations truly believe, and most importantly, experience, the changes that these two presidents have brought to their communities. Naturally, Uribe’s and Chavez’ policies have several shortcomings. But what is undeniable is that some do affect certain parts of the population positively. Therefore, opposing every single announcement that each president makes only because there is a disagreement with their fundamental believes is not only ignorant, but also counter-productive to the public debate.
Real debates start when fully supported arguments are respected and counter-arguments with evidence are put forward. On the other hand, insipid diatribes result when the opposing party’s arguments are dismissed as idiotic because they resemble what a fundamentally different ideology may support. Since governments are far from perfect such argumentative and critical discussions are crucial for improving governance. Such discussions are even more valuable in elections years.
Unfortunately, some valuable ideas that opposing political parties, such as the Polo Democratico Alternativo, could have proposed will be dismissed because of Chavez’ positive remarks towards the party. Moreover, the heuristic of labeling presidential candidates in terms of their pro-Uribe or anti-Uribed stand, which has been widely instigated by the Chavez factor, could also affect other presidential candidates. The presidential chances of promising alternative figures such as the former mayor of Medellin Sergio Fajardo, who has not publicly expressed his support or opposition for Uribe could be affected dramatically.
Calling Chavez or Uribe an asshole, regardless of its veracity, does not nurture an argumentative debate. It only leads people to remain in their comfort zone of political ideas while continuing to embrace only news information congruent with their beliefs. The war of ideas is what can truly change a country. Unfortunately, in Colombia the word war does not have a figurative meaning.