In Conversation

A View from Latin America: Jorge Ramos with Hirsh Sawhney

More incisive than Dan Rather, more charming than Peter Jennings, Mexican-born Jorge Ramos is Spanish-language television’s celebrity talking head. An anchor at Univision, the fifth most-watched television network in the United States, Ramos is also a columnist and the author of several books, including The Latino Wave: How Hispanics Will Choose the Next President (HarperCollins 2004). As a writer, he has criticized the U.S. media’s coddling of George W. Bush after 9/11, scrutinized the Bush Administration’s dubious reasons for invading Iraq and supported an amnesty for the nine or ten million undocumented immigrants living in the Untied States.

While defending progressive viewpoints on certain issues, as the Venezuelan recall election scheduled for August 15 approaches, Ramos has been outspoken in condemning President Hugo Chavez and his populist government as a potential dictatorship. Ramos’s critics blame his staunch opposition to Chavez on the fact that removing the Venezuelan President from power would be in the best interests of Venezuela’s elite, specifically Gustavo Cisneros, the Venezuelan media mogul who owns Univision.

The Rail’s Hirsh Sawhney spoke with the Miami-based Ramos in late June.

Hirsh Sawhney (Rail): In your most recent book, The Latino Wave, you very effectively illustrate Al Gore’s inability to grasp the importance of the Latino vote—in contrast with the Bush campaign—which might have cost him the 2000 election. How is Kerry doing right now in comparison with Gore in his efforts to garner the Latino vote?

Jorge Ramos: At this point, I would say that neither President Bush nor John Kerry deserves the Hispanic vote. However, both parties are fighting aggressively to woo Hispanic voters because they know that the 8,000,000 Hispanic voters in this 2004 election will decide what happens on November 2. We are seeing the Democratic Party try very aggressively to reach the Spanish-language media nowadays. I think John Kerry and the Democrats realize the huge mistakes made by Al Gore in the year 2000, and they’re trying not to make the same mistakes again.

Rail: You’ve stated that Latin America is currently being ignored by the U.S. government. Are World Bank and IMF policies that focus on Latin America contrary to the interests of the Latin American people?

Ramos: What we have seen in the last two decades in Latin America is that democracy has not been successful in erasing poverty and discrimination. Latin America is producing so many poor people that millions of them have no other option but to go North. Unless new democratic governments in Latin America can produce more jobs, increase salaries and better distribute income, we will see plenty of social crises in the region in the years to come. So to answer your question, no, I don’t think that U.S., IMF and World Bank policies have been so far successful in changing the disparities and injustices that we see in Latin America.

Rail: But I got the feeling from your book that you consider neo-populist movements as a threat to democracy. Can’t they be considered as a natural evolution in the democratic process?

Ramos: What I think is that the neo-populist movements in Latin America are a natural reaction to the failures of neo-liberalism’s policies. Unfortunately, as we can see in any economics textbook, populist regimes and populist governments will eventually fail. The best example that we have right now is in Venezuela. There is no doubt that President Chavez is a populist and that his counter measures to neo-liberalism will fail. We know that neo-liberalism didn’t work, and we know, even in past decades, that populism doesn’t work either, so we have to find a third way to find progress in Latin America.

Rail: According to a column by Alexander Cockburn in the July 19 issue of The Nation, however, Chavez has improved literacy rates, the Venezuelan economy is growing at 12 percent this year, and with world oil prices near $40 per barrel, the government has extra billions that it’s using for social programs. Could such assertions lead one to believe Chavez is in fact delivering on some of his promises to the Venezuelan people, especially the poor?

Ramos: Those are not the numbers that I’ve been reading lately. I think we will have to be really careful with the numbers that we get from Venezuela—from both sides—the government and the opposition. Definitely, the rising oil prices are helping Hugo Chavez. That he has created more jobs, I pretty much doubt. Because contrary to what you’re telling me, what I’ve been getting from Venezuela is that more people have lost their jobs and more people live in poverty than ever before in Venezuela.

Rail: Right after Chavez was reinstated after the coup, he raised the minimum wage by a significant amount in Venezuela.

Ramos: Again, we would have to see if it’s a real increase after inflation. But what I can tell you—and what we all know for a fact going beyond the numbers—is that there is no doubt that Chavez is controlling the most important institutions in the country including the Supreme Court. There is no doubt that he changed the constitution to his advantage, and that he would do anything in his power to stay as president.

Rail: You say that Chavez is controlling Venezuela’s most important institutions. But after Pedro Carmona took power in Venezuela as a result of the April 2002 coup, albeit for a period of just two days, he immediately suspended the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. Don’t these actions indicate that the opposition also has authoritarian tendencies?

Ramos: There’s no question there was a coup against Chavez. And I’ve always stated that there should be a democratic way to get rid of Hugo Chavez. <

Rail: Why are the majority of people who oppose Chavez wealthy white Venezuelans, while those who support him are poor Venezuelans of color

Ramos: That can be explained by the terrible income distribution in Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America. And that’s exactly why Chavez won the election. Because poor Venezuelans were tired of four years of bi-partisan power-sharing in that country. And there’s no excuse for that.

Rail: But will the Chavez opposition actually deliver anything to those in poverty?

Ramos: The hope is that democracy will return to Venezuela. That’s the most important point right now. And once we have a democracy in Venezuela, then we will be able to figure out how to get millions of Venezuelans out of poverty.

Rail: You stated that neo-liberal policies haven’t worked out, that populism hasn’t and won’t work out, and that we need to look for a "third way" to uplift Latin American society. What suggestions or models can you offer for this third way?

Ramos: In the last two or three decades, many people have been talking about this third way of government. And there has to be a way in which we can maintain globalization, open markets, the free flow of workers and products, and at the same time, decrease the number of people living in poverty. And we haven’t been able to manage that. A third way has to address this issue: how to maintain the liberalization of the economy, and at the same time, lift from poverty millions of Latin Americans… Globalization is now completely beyond our control. The challenge is to deal with that in a way in which people get more economic opportunities and not less. It will be a huge mistake to stop free trade agreements at this point. Look at what’s going on in Europe with the European Union. That’s a model that we can follow. Why not create a North American Community or a North American Union?

Rail: NAFTA hasn’t been a resounding success. And while a better version of it sounds like a good idea, isn’t it light years away?

Ramos: No free trade agreement is perfect, and we can see that with the protections that the United States farming industry has… But every single year 350,000 immigrants cross the border illegally from Mexico into the United States. Without NAFTA, I’m sure it would be double or triple that number. So yes, many farmers in Latin America are losing their jobs. Something has to be done about it. But closing borders and erasing free trade agreements—putting a stop to globalization—is not the answer.

Rail: Where do Latinos fit into these larger patterns of globalization?

Ramos: There are two main forces changing our world. One, internationally, is globalization. And the other, internally, is the Latinization of the United States. This country is being transformed by Latinos. There are 40 million Latinos here right now. There would be 100 million Latinos 50 years from now, and in the year 2125 there would be more Hispanics than non-Hispanic whites. So in that sense, what I call the "Latino Wave," or Latinization, is the most important force that is transforming this country right now.

Rail: Perhaps the Latinization of this country could be the one thing, in the long term, that will force this country to think outside of its own borders. If the majority of U.S. voters and citizens have familial or cultural interests in Latin America, we’ll have to think in terms of a Western hemisphere.

Ramos: I agree with that completely. The fact that there will be a Hispanic majority in the United States, the fact that Los Angeles already has a Hispanic majority, that thirty years from now California will have a Hispanic majority—all no doubt will create a closer relationship between the United States and Latin America. This is an incredibly positive trend. The United States has to realize that their best allies are in Latin America.

Contributor

Hirsh Sawhney

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