Had Hugo Chavez been alive today, it may have been possible to detect a smirk on his face as he followed Barack Obama’s downpour of recent troubles. Not that Chavez would have taken much pleasure in the travails of the current president of the United States of America. After all, it was Latin America’s most charismatic leader in the last two decades who declared during his last and successful presidential election campaign in Venezuela that “if I was from the US, I would vote for Obama”.
The US president was then in the middle of his own, and what seemed to be a tough, fight for a second term. Chavez added: “Obama is a good guy. I think that if Obama was from Barlovento or some Caracas neighbourhood, he would vote for Chavez.” As Obama lurches from one crisis to another, many of them of his own making, perhaps inevitably so, this Chavez episode best sums up the dilemmas of many of those who waited for eight years of darkness over America to lift with a historic election, which brought the incumbent to the White House in 2009.
Obama did not meet the expectations he raised as a candidate after he was elected president: not Chavez’s or, for that matter, the expectations of millions of those who rallied around him. Because of realpolitik, we know that if he had met many of those expectations, he would have remained a one-term president like Jimmy Carter. America’s Jewish lobby, its military-industrial complex and those who truly own the US would have made sure that Obama bit the dust in the 2012 re-election. But like the proverbial time and tide, popular aspirations often do not wait forever for politicians or political systems to deliver, especially when those systems are slow to change and long-suffering, ordinary people are at the end of their tether. That was what happened in Russia under Boris Yeltsin, bringing forth a Vladimir Putin. That is what is happening to the Bharatiya Janata Party, creating a Narendra Modi phenomenon.
In the US, popular will has actually taken over the political discourse on both sides of the aisle and the president has largely lost control despite the spin that he is setting the country’s agenda. Not only the president, but also well-established political routines and practices that sustained America’s political system, howsoever rickety it had become, are losing their grip. That is what the present stalemate in Washington tells us, be it on the shutdown of the government or on Syria or on a host of other issues.
Obama’s military threats against Syria were a huge bluff, which the war-weary people of America promptly called. More credit has been given to Obama than he deserves in opting for diplomacy and working with the Russians to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons as a way out of war — at least for now, till the crafty Syrian Opposition with Wahabi money from the Gulf thinks up new conspiracies to push the West to go to war against the Damascus regime.
When the drums of war echoed in Washington in late August and early September, elsewhere across America, in several small towns there were meetings, most of them gatherings of only 100 or 200 men and women, some of them impromptu, where the people fretted at the prospect of another “shock and awe”, this time directed at Damascus, dotted with Biblical history and well beyond. Unlike in the run up to the 2003 attack on Iraq, even more unlike during Bill Clinton’s Balkan war, the message that went out from these meetings was to incessantly call their own Congressmen first and then other elected representatives urging them that war on Syria was not an option.
It was this subterranean popular movement that produced a letter signed by 192 members of the US Congress reminding the president that he cannot go to war against Syria unless they authorize him to do so through the route of a mandatory War Powers Resolution. That a Republican, Scott Rigell, from eastern-most Virginia and a Democrat, Barbara Lee, from western-most California started it together was no accident. The masses, whether they were Republican or Democrats, did not want another war. Obama gave in, not entirely because he was looking for a diplomatic way out but because, for the first time since the similarly wearying Vietnam war, the American people took matters into their hands. A president whom they elected on the promise of ending their wars was about to break yet another of his promises to the electorate — and they were not having any of it. Not any more.
Syria is unlikely to have made Chavez smirk. That trick would have been done if only he had been alive today to have followed a change of course by the White House on Iran. When the Americans were tightening the screws on Iran through sanctions against Tehran’s nuclear programme in early 2012, Chavez not only hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but also irritated the White House with another of his jokes: this time by telling Iran’s visiting president that he was hiding an atom bomb under a grassy knoll in his presidential palace in Caracas. When the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, thundered at this year’s general debate in the United Nations General Assembly that his country would act alone, if necessary, to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power, America did not erupt in defence of its Israeli ally for a change. It was not surprising, therefore, given his experience over Syria, that Obama decided to follow up on his Iranian overtures at the UN and speak on the phone to Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani.
It is clear that American public opinion believes Iran is headed in a new, positive direction. At the same time, the people are fed with tired old images of successive leaders in the US mollycoddling the kings and princes in Riyadh and Jeddah who show no change in direction unlike in Tehran. The only ones who can kill a historic re-engagement between Washington and Tehran after nearly four decades are the Iranians themselves — or their leadership in Qom to be more precise.
Watching Obama at his media appearance with the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in the White House Oval Office a fortnight ago, it did not come as a surprise that the president talked more like a member of Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council and unlike the leader of the biggest free market economy that mankind has known. No one in the White House would say for certain if Obama had read An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, a recent book by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, or had been briefed about it as part of the preparations for meeting Singh.
More likely, it was feedback from his fellow citizens about poverty in America, where use of food stamps to prevent people from going hungry to bed is at an all-time high. Since those surprisingly humanist remarks by Obama about development priorities in India, his own people have asserted themselves in millions by opting for his healthcare reform, which his opponents want to kill at any cost. They want to kill it because once ‘Obamacare’ — as the president’s healthcare reform is derisively called by its opponents — takes root, the majority of the American people will realize what is possible when they unite and assert to take action to improve their own lot, curb the power of vested interests — in this case, the insurance industry — and take control of their destinies. That is what Chavez taught his people to do during the years that he was in power in successive democratic elections. That was what Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil taught his people. So did Rafael Correa, the democratically re-elected president in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, José Mujica in Uruguay and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.
It is an argument that will not find traction easily. But the fact is that the American people are following these trend-setting leaders in Latin America and trying to write their own destiny at last. Obama is merely swimming with that popular tide.