Lessons from Liberia and Venezuela: Lead­er­ship mat­ters

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Greg Dobbs

I’ve cov­ered elec­tions in many coun­tries — from Bri­tain to Bo­livia, Egypt to Zim­babwe. But never have I seen longer lines of cit­i­zens ea­ger, even des­per­ate to vote than in two na­tions that are roughly at the same lat­i­tude but an ocean apart, in more ways than one: Liberia and Venezuela. You’d ex­pect a back­ward na­tion like Liberia to be on the skids. But it’s not. Re­source-rich Venezuela is. There’s a les­son here.

Liberia was founded by freed Amer­i­can slaves on the western rim of Africa. It is a poor coun­try even in the best of times. But the af­ter­math of the elec­tion I cov­ered there al­most a dozen years ago has been a slow but steady build.

Venezuela, by con­trast, was rolling in oil. But as we see ev­ery day in news re­ports, the af­ter­math of what I cov­ered there — around the same time as Liberia — is a slow and sui­ci­dal bleed.

Liberia’s elec­tion fol­lowed a decade-and-a-half of civil war that wrecked the na­tion. De­praved despots went on killing sprees. Sur­vivors en­dured a liv­ing hell. Its only hy­dro­elec­tric dam de­stroyed, the war left Liberia with no elec­tric­ity, run­ning wa­ter or san­i­ta­tion. Most peo­ple in the cap­i­tal, Mon­rovia, squat­ted in the shells of build­ings that were burned out or bombed out. Pot­holes swal­lowed cars on war­rav­aged roads. Cit­i­zens swal­lowed food we wouldn’t feed our dogs.

Yet on elec­tion day in Liberia, thou­sands of peo­ple from all over the coun­try­side walked for hours, many bare­foot, through the bush.They lined up all night, then stood all day in the broil­ing sun, to vote. To be part of their own fu­ture. To rise from their own ashes.

What they got was a sta­ble gov­ern­ment. Not strong, not rich, and not with­out cor­rup­tion. But they chose a pres­i­dent, Ellen John­son Sir­leaf — the first fe­male leader on the con­ti­nent — who has at­tracted for­eign in­vestors and, although a dispir­it­ingly plod­ding process on a bedrock of wretched­ness and ruin, she is get­ting the coun­try re­built. She will not run for re-elec­tion this Novem­ber, but her suc­ces­sor will in­herit her achieve­ments.

Jux­ta­pose that with Venezuela, which had it all. The world’s big­gest re­serves of petroleum. The U.S. as its big­gest cus­tomer. It was South Amer­ica’s rich­est na­tion.

To­day? Food is short. So is medicine. Elec­tric­ity too. Sounds more like Liberia.

But Liberia’s war is over. Venezuela’s is not. Although more than a hun­dred dis­si­dents have died, it’s not re­ally a shoot­ing war. It’s ac­tu­ally a war about eco­nom­ics, pol­i­tics and democ­racy. On one side are the loy­al­ists of Ni­co­las Maduro, the so­cial­ist suc­ces­sor of pop­ulist pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez. On the other side are the cit­i­zens who forced the elec­tion I cov­ered, an ef­fort to re­call Chavez for squan­der­ing the na­tion’s riches.

Venezuela’s elec­tion day was like Liberia’s. Peo­ple stood in the blaz­ing sun for 14 hours. Some lines stretched for ten city blocks. It was a bell­wether of the peo­ple’s pas­sion. But Chavez bla­tantly bought votes, giv­ing away so many spoils to the es­ti­mated 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion who are poor, they voted to keep the free­bies flow­ing. The re­call nar­rowly lost. But he paid for this po­lit­i­cal pro­tec­tion out of rev­enues from the na­tion’s oil. Lit­tle was rein­vested in its in­dus­try. When Chavez re­signed be­fore dy­ing of can­cer, his vice pres­i­dent, Maduro, took his place and per­pet­u­ated his poli­cies.

The worst thing isn’t Maduro’s poli­cies; it’s his pol­i­tics. Last month, he staged a sham elec­tion for a con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion where the op­po­si­tion wasn’t al­lowed on the bal­lot. If you want to know the role democ­racy will play, heed the words of one of Maduro’s mil­i­tary com­rades: “There is no pos­si­bil­ity that the op­po­si­tion will gov­ern this coun­try. Mark my words — no pos­si­bil­ity.”

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is right to ratchet up sanc­tions against in­flu­en­tial sup­port­ers of the regime, although, when Maduro de­fi­antly de­clares, “Keep up your sanc­tions, Don­ald Trump,” it doesn’t bode well for a re­turn to democ­racy. What it bodes is higher gas prices here in the U.S.

Stag­ger­ing, isn’t it? A na­tion with noth­ing has promis­ing prospects. An­other en­dowed with af­flu­ence is on the road to ruin.

It’s not just about who gov­erns, but how.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.