Most third world countries are bimodal. That is, they are divided into two distinct groups of people: a small, wealthy elite and a very large number of poor people. During the early part of the 20th century, the relationship between these two poles was defined by the dictatorship by one over the other. All this changed during the Reagan years, when an unprecedented shift to democratic forms flowed over the world like a tsunami. Now the relationships between the opposing poles of third world societies would have to be defined by democratic institutions.
Many of the positions held by political rivals during the pre-democratic period simply carried over into the new electorally based systems. There was a revolution through the ballot box, but those revolutions still carried the baggage of the failed ideologies of the 20th century. In consequence, as the Hoover Institution observes, many third world democracies are now in crisis. "The list of struggling democracies is long ... Nigeria ... Malawi ... Senegal ... the Philippines ... South Africa" and of course -- Latin America.
In Latin America many of ideas discredited by the Cold War have ridden the democratic process into power. In many parts of the southern continent a leftist ideology is now officially ascendant.
In December, Venezuelans narrowly rejected a sweeping referendum that would have given socialist president Hugo Chávez unprecedented power and control, including sway over the nation’s petroleum resources. Bolivia and Nicaragua have also encountered challenges and setbacks in sustaining democratic governments. In Nicaragua, former president and Marxist rebel/Sandanista leader José Daniel Ortega Saavedra won the 2006 presidential election. He has since declared that he wanted an end to 'savage capitalism,' a statement that raises concerns among some Latin American scholars who believe that Ortega’s socialist policies could derail Nicaragua’s democratic efforts. In Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, the election of socialist president Evo Morales has failed to bring stability to a nation racked by economic disasters, increasing ethnic tensions between indigenous and nonindigenous populations, and the ongoing war on drugs.
If Zimbabwe used the vote to reverse the domination of the whites by the blacks, in Latin America switch involved the rich and the poor. But one of the unfortunate legacies of the Cold War has been to resurrect in third world countries many of the Marxist nostrums that have been laughed into the grave in Eastern Europe, Russia or China. Five year plans may be largely dead in those countries, but they still roam like zombies in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The archetype of this phenomenon is Zimbabwe. Majority rule brought Robert Mugabe, who in turn brought his vision of '30s socialism to power. Then the Night of the Living Dead began: those long buried policies roamed the earth again bringing starvation, misery and impoverishment in their wake.
The process of "Zimzombification" is now overtaking Venezuela. The Chavez government is now seizing food in order to stem shortages. "Venezuela's top food company has accused troops of illegally seizing more than 500 tonnes of food from its trucks as part of President Hugo Chavez's campaign to stem shortages. The leftist Chavez this week created a state food distributor and loosened some price controls, seeking to end months of shortages for staples like milk and eggs that have caused long lines and upset his supporters in the OPEC nation."
As anyone with the slightest knowledge of economics knows -- excepting Marxists, who by definition already know everything about economics -- Chavez's policies will guarantee even greater shortages, spur the growth of blackmarkets, recreate the breadlines, drive producers into idleness, and in general follow along the well-trodden path of Robert Mugabe.
The political consequence of this "Zimzombification" may be to create such desperation that the starving populations will turn once again to the old elitist juntas of the past, hoping that subsistence in subservience is better than starvation while in political power. The danger is that democracy will be discredited along with the Mugabes and Chavezes of this world. Thus the essential crisis confronting third world democracies is whether it can resolve the ideological debates of the Cold War, especially with respect to economic policy, within the framework of the electoral process. If for example, the Zimbabweans and Venezuelans could rid themselves of the Leftist strongmen who have led them into catastrophe, they might eventually find a leader who, while still representing their essential interests, can lead them to prosperity using market methods that really work. There is no reason in principle why Zimbabwe can't elect a competent, economically literate black man to lead it nor why a man of Indian descent can't do better than the buffoonish Chavez. No reason at all, that is, except for Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez themselves.
Democracies in the third world have yet to solve the challenges posed by allowing totalitarian parties to participate in the electoral process. Mugabe and Chavez represent the phenomenon of the "absorbing state", a situation akin to the Roach Motel, which it is possible to enter but never leave. It has sometimes been described as the problem of "one man, one vote, one time". Third world democracies, having chosen a Mugabe or Chavez, now face the problem of successfully deselecting them.
These disastrous leaders must be changed somehow for the survival of their nations. Yet how they are changed is equally important. Tyrants like Mugabe and Chavez must somehow be deselected according to the democratic process, not overthrown to make room for an old-fashioned junta of generals and industrialists. The debris and pus of the totalitarian infection must be purged from the body politic while leaving the structure of democracy intact. This will take some doing. Both Mugabe and Chavez have subtly subverted the structure of democracy itself and have, to varying degrees, re-established totalitarianism anew under the color of ostensibly democratic forms.
The opponents of Chavez and Mugabe will multiply apace. And eventually they will succeed in casting the dictators down. The trick is for them to remember, in their moment of triumph, that the vacant presidential palace must be filled not by force of arms, but in despite of what happened, through the risky business of elections.