BACK TO WHERE IT BEGAN FOR ARNOLD AUGUST: McGILL UNIVERSITY, MONTREAL
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Courtney Kirby: Coming up next, Arnold August is the author of Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion. He is here in our studio today to discuss his talk, titled “Democracy in Venezuela and Democracy in the U.S.,” which will be given with Professor Claude Morin at 394 Maisonneuve West tonight at 6 p.m. In addition, Arnold will evaluate the state of democracy in the United States at this time.
CK: So, we are here on The Wednesday Morning After. Arnold, welcome to the studio.
Arnold August: Thank you very much for having me, Courtney.
CK: So, McGill University is a familiar place to you. You were here in the 60s where you finished your M.A. thesis looking at India and you, also, when you were here, helped galvanize students to change approaches in education at McGill to the South – around studying the South. So, can you talk about that time?
AA: Yes, of course. As was mentioned in the introduction, the name of my current book is Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion. I started to investigate for this book in 2007. However, in fact, the background to this book and my work goes back, as you mentioned, to the end of the 1960s, here at McGill. Right from the beginning, as a very young student at that time, during the late 1960s, I was one of millions of people throughout Canada, United States, Europe, Mexico, other places who were concerned about the role of the university in society. Secondly, many people were concerned about – regarding the academic milieu – the outlook that was being fostered by the official university circles with regard to change in the South. I remember quite vividly, in the late 1960s, at that period in McGill, like elsewhere, that the curriculum in political science, which is my field – and other related social sciences – the basic outlook was geared to U.S. interests in the South. In other words, the basic definition of “democracy” – the principal topic of our discussion today – is based mainly on the U.S. model of democracy. That is, the so-called “multi-party system” – so-called competition between two or three different parties, etc. Therefore, I and other people at that time, we decided to organize the Political Science Student Association (PSSA). I was actually the founding president of that association in the late 1960s. Our first goal was to organize a strike against the faculty, at that time, in order to demand the following: we wanted to have a voice on who is being hired by the faculty to give these courses in political science, and the content of these courses. Of course, previously we tried to have discussions with the faculty, but we didn’t get anywhere at that time. It was never even considered seriously that students could actually have a say on curriculum and courses. Therefore, we went on strike. In fact, I am proud to say, this was the first strike by a political science student association in Canada with regard to curriculum – with regard to the hiring of faculty. It was a very difficult strike; we don’t have the time to go through the whole history now, but the main content – our main goal, we actually won this at the end. We attained the actual representation of students on the faculty hiring and firing committee – the faculty committee that was responsible for hiring people, for establishing curriculum. And in that sense, it was an important victory on our part. And of course, yourselves, the new generations, you have this now. I know that in the social science courses, it is quite normal now to see points of view in terms of course books, in terms of professors, of those who present a view of the South that is not necessarily based on the U.S. view with regard to democracy and change. So, things have changed a lot since the late 1960s.
CK: And now, fast forwarding to the talk that’s happening tonight about contrasting democracy, specifically in the U.S. and Venezuela. This talk is at an interesting time, shortly after the loss of Chávez in Venezuela. So, can you talk a little bit about the main comparison/contrast that you and Claude Morin will be drawing out tonight?
AA: Okay, I would say that the conference tonight is based on my book. And we will be dealing with one of the main threads to be found throughout the publication from beginning to end: not only democracy as such, but specifically, as I define it, “participatory democracy”. This is so because in my view, in order for democracy to be seriously considered democratic, it necessarily implies the active involvement of the vast majority of people in their own political process.
So, of course, we have Venezuela, especially since 1998 and the victory of Hugo Chávez in the elections, followed immediately after that by a new constitution in 1999 coming out of a constituent assembly elected by the people. Then, the draft constitution was presented to the people to have their input, and finally coming up with the final constitution in which the people were actively involved again by voting on it. Therefore, it became their constitution. This was in 1999. This was entirely new. Moreover, since then, of course, as many people know, through Chávez and since then by Nicolás Maduro, the main feature of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is involving the people in the daily activity of their own life, whether it is economically or politically, the people are being empowered since 1999 to date, to 2013. I’m not saying that it is perfect – they themselves say there are many drawbacks, problems with bureaucracy, etc.
Now, if we compare this to the U.S. situation – Chapter 2 of my book is called “Democracy in the U.S.” Some people scoff at it and say, “How can you talk about democracy in the U.S.?” Well, of course, most people agree that the United States is not a model to be exported all over the world, despite what the U.S. says. At the same time, I believe it is not a good thing to simply say, for example, that the U.S. democracy is a “bourgeois democracy” and we let it go at that. It is important to see how democracy, the type of democracy that exists in the U.S., how it really operates. So in this way, people are armed and not fooled by the propaganda that comes out of U.S. democracy. One of the things that I deal with is, for example, based on documents – not my own opinion, but rather based on records, official archives, writings of Obama – which is my test case – from his first book in 2004, then his second book, all of his speeches to the end of 2012, show clearly that Obama himself along with those who are experts in creating myths, present the illusion that he represents “change” for the United States. However, in fact, by reading all of his documents very closely, it is evident that, right from the beginning in 2004, he had the right buzzwords, the right words almost in code, sent to the U.S. ruling circles; he was saying basically that “I am your man; I am the person who is able to regain all the lost credibility by the United States whether it’s domestically or internationally.”
And so, by looking into this in detail, we can see that in the United States – this is what I deal with in its nitty-gritty, I think it is important for people to reflect on the following, even though not everyone may agree: this whole notion that in the United States, you have the so-called “democrats” versus the “republicans,” the so-called “left” against the so-called “right” –the “liberals” versus the “conservatives” – that this is just sort of a false framework in which people are trapped. This is why I came up with the notion – not by myself on my own – I was leaning towards the notion that Obama is not the lesser of two evils, but rather the more effective of the two evils in carrying out the wishes of the U.S. oligarchies. I was looking towards the notion that he is able to – he was and is now, 2013, as we talk in June 2013 – he is the person who can get things done more effectively for the U.S. ruling circles than, for example, McCain and Palin before in 2008 or Romney in the most recent elections. Moreover, as I was doing my investigation, I came across some very interesting articles by the Black Agenda Report, and I am not sure if CKUT is aware of it, but I definitely would suggest looking into that: Black Agenda Report. These writers and intellectuals from among the African-Americans in the United States, they have the guts to say that Obama is the most effective of the two evils. This is why I adopted their view which coincides with mine. Obama is able to get things done that others were not able to accomplish for the ruling circles. This is one of the main themes that I present in my book.
I understand that it may be very controversial because people, liberals, many people on the left say, “Well, you know, it is better to vote for Obama rather than Romney, or Obama rather than McCain or Palin.” However, I think this is a very dangerous path because one has to ask oneself, regarding American citizens, the following: how long are Americans going to delay putting into question the so-called “two-party system” that exists in the United States, to challenge the notion that there is supposedly some kind of difference between the two and that the people really have a choice? Rather than delaying this defiance, when will the majority of Americans defy head-on the notion that this two-party system – supposedly the symbol of democracy for the United States and the world – is really a fraud? They just change from one party to another in order to maintain the status quo.
We were talking about Venezuela, this is what existed in Venezuela before 1998, when you had the Punto Fijo Pact in Venezuela, organized by the U.S. and the Venezuelan oligarchies. They had a pact between two parties. When one party was discredited, they say “OK, we put these guys aside, and let’s have the other party.” However, basically, both work out and promote the exact same policy. This is what Chávez’s revolt was about – he rebelled against the dictatorship of the two-party system in Venezuela. Examples are similar in Bolivia and Ecuador, so the question is raised “What about the United States?” How long do the American people have to wait before taking up the notion of the need to do away with this two-party system by having some kind of alternative mass movement? I write about it in Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion, when I deal with the United States. I’m also talking about democracy in motion in the U.S., but not democracy in motion from the top – impossible, whether it is the Republicans or Democrats – but rather democracy in motion at the bottom, for example, the Occupy Movement, and other similar movements. This is the democracy in motion in the United States. There were over 7,000 arrests of people carrying out the Occupy Movement. These arrests were carried out directly by the Obama administration; the documents actually show that. While the arrests were carried out by the Obama administration, thus very much weakening the Occupy Movement, at the same time, the Obama administration, under the mirage of change, actually used some of the main notions of the Occupy Movement. For example, posing against Wall Street, against the one per cent, against the bankers, in order to give itself more credibility. So this is the danger of the so-called “two-party system”: they use something, for example, the Obama case, as an image of change while, on the one hand, suppressing the people who oppose the system, and at the same time, trying to co-opt some of the notions that come from the grass roots. That’s why my feeling and my hope for the future of United States relies on the democracy in motion at the grass-roots level.
CK: And do you think that the grass roots, part of that is creating a culture of participatory democracy as well in that country?
AA: Yes, I think the world has changed a lot since Egypt – since the Egyptian rebellion in 2011 where people started to occupy public spaces, saying basically that “we are the future of the country; this is what democracy looks like” in Tahrir Square. In addition, in Wall Street, the Wall Street youth and others who participated, this is what they said as well, “This is what democracy looks like.” People are creating their own methods, their own way of developing democracy at the grass-roots level. Even though I know that this is a difficult situation: we are up against massive corporate media which tries to give a wrong impression or ignore such movements as the Occupy Movement. Irrespective of the difficulties, I think that this is the only way forward for the people of the United States: those people who think and act like the Black Agenda Report. This is the way, this is the only way; I don’t think there is any other alternative.
CK: The last question I have is: what changes, if any, are happening in Venezuela with the loss of Chávez?
AA: Well, I think that one of the main changes taking place is that the United States, right after the April 14th 2013 elections, the Obama administration said specifically on April 15, 2013 that they do not recognize the elections under the pretext that it was very close. Moreover, right to this day as we talk – June 19, 2013 – the Obama administration still does not recognize the elections. What happened on April 15, 2013? Henrique Capriles, the opponent, the pro-U.S. opponent, his forces directly organized the assassination of 11 people in Venezuela. The attempt was to provoke a destabilizing situation and look for a pretext where the U.S. could intervene, either directly or indirectly, in order to organize a coup d’état in Venezuela to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution. At the same time, there is no reason to be pessimistic because the new Maduro government declares that they have to improve the Revolution. You know, based on the elections where a large number of people did not vote with the Revolution, they have to improve the Revolution. They have to decrease the bureaucracy. They have to develop further the relationship between the government and the people. And since then, Maduro, for example, has come up with a notion, in theory and in practice, of “street government.” Thus the ministers, the leadership are daily meeting with people on the street, exchanging with them, interacting with the people on the street and getting their feedback: “What are the issues, what are the problems, what do we have to deal with?” Therefore, I would even venture to say that participatory democracy inaugurated by Chávez in 1998–1999, by overthrowing the two-party system, that participatory democracy is actually increasing, developing further in Venezuela.
This is really what is at stake in Venezuela: the people’s own movement for a better and improved participatory democracy versus the democracy of the United States. U.S. democracy promotion is nothing more than a cover-up for the United States to promote their notion of democracy in other countries of the world, even to the extent of military intervention, to have it imposed on other peoples of the world
CK: So we’ve run out of time, can you just give the website where people can find your book?
AA: Yes, of course. In order to get further information on my latest book, all the information is on my website, which is www.democracycuba.com In this web site you have the full Table of Contents, Reviews and how to purchase the book.
CK: Great, so I’ve been speaking with Arnold August and he is a writer and journalist. He’ll be speaking tonight at an event happening in French with English translation “La démocratie au Venezuela et la démocratie aux États-Unis” “Democracy in Venezuela and Democracy in the United States”. He’ll be speaking with Professor Claude Morin. It’s happening tonight at 6pm. 394 Maisonneuve West – that’s metro Place des Arts – sortie Bleury. Arnold August is the author of Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion and the book is published by Fernwood Publishing and ZED Books. My name is Courtney Kirkby and we’re here on The Wednesday Morning After on CKUT 90.3 FM.
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