Jan 1 2010

Newsweek’s Name-Calling Neoliberal

Meet Mac Margolis, their man in Latin America

Mac Margolis--Photo Credit: Newsweek/The Daily Beast

Mac Margolis–Photo Credit: Newsweek/The Daily Beast

Outside of an anti-Obama “tea party” demonstration, it’d be unusual to see a president being compared to Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all at once. Crack open the November 2 issue of Newsweek magazine, though, and you’ll find these insults hurled at Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Who would say such a thing? The magazine’s frequent Latin American correspondent, Mac Margolis, whose work regularly maligns the region’s left-wing presidents.

Margolis views these leftist leaders (Newsweek International, 7/27/09) as a single, mostly detestable bloc—what he calls the

Axis of Hugo, the constellation of nine states in the Andes, Central America and the Caribbean that have followed Chávez in lockstep in the march toward what he calls 21st-century socialism…rewriting their constitutions, intimidating the media, and stoking class and ethnic conflicts that occasionally explode in hate and violence.

In another piece (Newsweek International, 5/12/08), they were “the assortment of caudillo firebrands, self-styled socialists and soi-disant revolutionaries now presiding over a large patch of Latin America.”

But the barbs can be more personalized as well. Chávez is “a tyrant who seizes private companies and farms, crushes labor unions and harasses political opponents” (Newsweek, 7/13/09). Ousted left-leaning Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was “a leader hellbent on seeking reelection” (Newsweek, 7/20/09). Bolivian president Evo Morales is a “mop-haired socialist coca farmer” and a “bosom amigo to both Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez” (Newsweek International, 1/16/06).

An anti-left filter

In Margolis’ world, almost any news event can seen through an anti-left filter. A leftist president is removed in a coup in Honduras? Well, the important lesson is that the governments in the region that condemned the coup are hypocrites who have shown “selective zeal for democracy, at best” (Newsweek, 7/20/09).

Weeks later, Margolis (Newsweek, 11/16/09) would write that the “clear loser” in the Honduran crisis was left-leaning Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. When Zelaya snuck back into his country and sought refuge at the Brazilian embassy, this turned the country into a “biased broker,” which led—in Margolis’ telling, at least—to Lula’s “humiliating concession” of leadership on the issue to the United States. The lesson was clear; namely, that “the prospects for peace look a lot better since Tio Sam came to Brazil’s rescue.”

A global recession? Well, that’s proof that in the battle between “free market capitalism or ‘20th century socialism’…may be over,” since “few nations have been hit as hard by the downturn as Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina, where broadsides against neoliberalism have been staple fare” (Newsweek International, 3/30/09). Note that those countries’ GDPs grew by 4.8 percent, 6.5 percent and 6.8 percent respectively in 2008, the first year of the global recession; the U.S., by comparison, grew 0.4 percent in 2008 (CIA World Factbook). But more remarkable might be Margolis’ suggestion that a global financial crisis caused by rampant housing speculation and exotic Wall Street shenanigans is evidence that Ecuador’s criticisms of capitalism are wrong-headed.

Given his ideological bent, it’s no surprise that Margolis is most perturbed by Venezuela’s Chávez—best demonstrated by the November 2 slam against Venezuela’s public film studio. The subhead told readers just about all they needed to know: “Like Mussolini and Stalin before him, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has erected his very own movie studio.” There’s not a lot of evidence that government-sponsored editing facilities and sound stages are the first steps towards fascism; if they were, Canada’s national film board would have long ago put that country on the slippery slope to the gulag.

But a movie studio is only part of the problem. As Margolis sees it, Chávez “courts Hezbollah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is stockpiling Russian-made fighter jets and tanks, and has given aid and comfort to Colombian narcoguerrillas.” Chávez’s supposed support for FARC rebels in Colombia has never been firmly established (CounterSpin, 5/23/08; Center for International Policy, 3/11/08) but never mind—remember, it’s Hugo Chávez’s clunky propaganda we should be concerned with. It’s hard to take seriously, though, when one reads this:

Like the 20th-century autocrats he emulates, Chávez is fascinated by the power of cinema. Ever since Hitler turned to Leni Riefenstahl, dictators have dreamed of harnessing the epic force of the big screen for their political script. With Cinemaville, Chávez has positioned himself, consciously or not, as heir to the leading men of 20th-century totalitarianism.

Good leftists—not Chávez

While many of his dispatches in the U.S. edition of Newsweek are brief, Margolis’ longer pieces render a more complete portrait of his worldview. He frequently cheers on market-based “reforms” that have been prescribed for much of the region for the past three decades. Democratically elected leaders who have criticized market-based privatization are guilty of being “populists” who reject sound economic principles.

Margolis’ view of Brazil is the most telling example. For a while Margolis wrote fondly of Lula, when his politics were thought to be safer for oil investors or global capitalism. Lula’s economic policies “held a steady middle course” (Newsweek International, 8/4/08), or put more directly months earlier (Newsweek International, 1/7/08): “Lula is not Hugo Chávez, of course.”

But Margolis noted that “troubling signs are emerging that he is backtracking” (Newsweek International, 1/7/08), which seemed to end up souring him on his un-Chávez. Brazil’s proposed energy policy was “about to take a hard turn to the left,” “an abrupt departure from a system that many in the global energy business have come to know and respect.” Margolis argued that “the new system calls for production sharing—a method favored by autocratic governments like Venezuela”—or, to put it more bluntly, a “renewed spasm of state control and retronationalism” (Newsweek International, 10/12/09).

And it wasn’t just energy policy. Under the headline “Lula’s Dangerous Largesse,” Margolis (Newsweek International, 7/27/09) warned that Lula “has been spraying public money around with gusto…even proposing a law to increase the minimum wage every year until 2023.” Too much spending—which the government argued was intended as a stimulative measure amidst a global recession—was derided as “just the sort of populist trap that Lula had avoided until now.”

He elaborated in another piece (Newsweek International, 11/2/09): “With one eye on posterity and the other on the ballot box, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been tacking sharply left.” It’s hard to know what is worse—trying to be a historically memorable leader or enacting popular policies—but Lula’s offenses included

spending public money with abandon, hiking pensions, public-sector wages and the minimum wage all at a rate way above inflation—exactly the brand of checkbook populism that Lula had previously avoided and that has kept so many Latin nations in the minor leagues.

These trends “are something of a turnaround for a nation that sailed through the worst of the world economic crisis with barely a bruise thanks to a legacy of sober economic policies, fiscal discipline, and hardheaded structural reforms forged by two governments over the past 15 years.

It’s hard to figure what Brazilian economy Margolis is thinking of; as the Center for Economic & Policy Research (Brazil’s Presidential Election: Background on Economic Issues, 9/06) pointed out, growth in Brazil in those years was anemic, compared to 1960-80. Indeed, Margolis seemed more worried about Brazil’s troubles as the country’s growth rate picked up (to over 5 percent GDP growth in 2007 and 2008—CIA World Factbook).

What’s worse, as Margolis explained (7/13/09), “Even though it followed the Washington Consensus to rescue its economy, Brazil tried to bury the ‘neoliberal’ agenda of free-market reforms that were pushed on developing nations during the 1990s.” Margolis’ message—that Brazil was saved by the “Washington Consensus,” i.e., neoliberalism—might not mesh with the country’s actual growth record, but Margolis’ point is that Lula, like Margolis, ought to be promoting “free-market reforms” as the fix for what ails other countries in the region.

Dangerous democracy

While Margolis believes (Newsweek International, 5/12/08) that these left-leaning governments “lack any discernible doctrine that would fuel a common agenda,” they are nonetheless embracing “something far more familiar and potentially troublesome: populism.” Margolis explained: “While most democratic-minded leaders are committed, or at least resigned, to abiding by legislatures, the courts and the creaky machinery of the public bureaucracy, populists rule with their feet on the soapbox and their fingers in the national purse.” Margolis complained: “Even democratic-minded leaders like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva can’t resist playing to the galleries, raising the minimum wage and giving handouts to the needy.”

Margolis had addressed the supposed dangers of populism once before, though he seemed to dismiss the idea that there was much of an appetite for left-wing politics. In a piece on October 31, 2005, he began with a swipe at a familiar enemy: “In the gospel of Hugo Chavez, Latin Americans are threatened by the West once again.” Chavez’s criticism of neoliberal, pro-corporate economic theory isn’t going anywhere, explained Margolis: “Tighter budgets, competitive currency and trade surpluses are the new norm from Mexico City to Montevideo. Even leathered leftists like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez have learned to stop worrying and to embrace the markets.”

He added, “The question isn’t whether to backslide on reform so much as whether to go forward with more painful changes. Once, Latin America set the pace, bringing in more than half of all revenues from sales of government assets worldwide in the 1990s. Now privatization has all but halted.” Margolis closed by suggesting that “it’s not Latin America that needs to be rescued from the ravages of market reforms. It’s the reforms that need rescue from Latin America.” The hubris is rather obvious, if not galling—why are these Latins discrediting the free market?

But when Margolis tried to explain how, in fact, the so-called “Washington Consensus” had actually worked, it wasn’t “market reforms” that needed rescuing (Newsweek, 6/20/05):

One of the most popular explanations for the current disarray in Latin America targets the gospel of free-market reforms preached by pundits in Washington and the rainmakers on Wall Street during the 1990s. Critics of the so-called Washington Consensus argue that the fruits of stability have failed to reach the masses. Scratch the surface, however, and the picture looks more complex. Across Latin America, infant mortality has plunged while literacy and life expectancy have soared—not least in destitute Bolivia. Primary-school enrollment and access to clean water and electricity are rising. More citizens are involved in politics than ever: indigenous people make up about 30 percent of the Bolivian Congress.

Margolis felt no need to explain the cause-and-effect relationship between the neoliberal economic policies he favors with improved living conditions in, say, Bolivia; to him, the connection is self-explanatory. Not everyone sees it that way, however; a subsequent letter to the editor (Newsweek, 8/22/05) from a sociologist who had worked in Bolivia pointed out that many of these achievements came about through state interventions—precisely the opposite of what the “Washington Consensus” would prescribe, with its emphasis on austerity budgets and privatization.

Rooting for the right

Margolis’ byline was featured again in the magazine’s August 31, 2009 issue, under the headline “Latin America Rights Itself.” The article told readers that “the region now looks on the brink of a rightward shift” where “pragmatism is trumping charisma,” and concluded: “Castigating the gringo devil may still make pulses race, but when it comes to casting ballots, Latin America looks likely to go for the middle ground.”

There’s not a whole lot of evidence for this. Margolis starts by citing one poll: “Despite traditionally opposing free-market economics, nearly 63 percent of Latin youths now say free trade ‘benefits all people,’ according to a Poder/Zogby poll commissioned by Newsweek earlier this year.” He neglects to mention that this poll was conducted via the Internet, in a region where only 31 percent of the population has online access (InternetWorldStats.com)—presumably a much richer group than the 69 percent who lack such access. Nonetheless, other results from this poll don’t particularly bolster Margolis’ thesis; asked whether governments should “do more to help poor people,” 90 percent of the Latin America respondents were supportive (versus 60 percent in the United States).

Margolis’ other evidence for the rightward shift is that three countries in South America—Chile, Uruguay and Brazil—“will hold elections in the next 17 months, and yet in none is the ruling left-wing party favored to win.” He seems to have overlooked Bolivia, where President Morales won re-election on December 6 by a sweeping 34-point margin. Margolis’ prediction was off in Uruguay as well, where a November 29 run-off gave the ruling left-wing a 10-point margin of victory.

The conservative candidate in Chile did win the first round of voting on December 13, but he still faces a run-off. Margolis’ predictive powers aren’t what’s important, though: With his picks, Newsweek’s man in Latin America was telling readers—once again—which side he’s on.