Saturday, December 9, 2023


We celebrated in a recent event held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), sponsored by International Solidarity for Human Rights (ISHR) and hosted by Miami Dade College, the extraordinary impact of ISHR’s leaders, Devorah Sasha and Elizabeth Sánchez Vegas, creating educational programs throughout the world and seeking to integrate the very fabric of our paths through life and the arts with the idea of human rights. Countries, communities, organizations, and individuals were bestowed awards as friends and advocates of human rights. As I sat there, listening, I could not help but ask myself the question that leads this essay: why should we care?

Carlos Cruz Diez - The Route to Human Rights:
Article 27, the Right to Culture.
This is not a pointless question. The idea that human rights are important and that we should care about them is relatively new, not a given. Pragmatic politics and strategic geopolitical interests have been cited as reasons to overlook the abuse of human rights in certain regions of the world by powerful nations with capacity to make a difference in the protection of these, fairly novel, rights. Multiple political movements, leaders, even religions, have pursued and created systems in which human rights as we know them are systematically abused and violated in name of “the greater good” of the country and their own version of what society should be like. Are such greater goods and interests valid? Should we turn a blind eye to such abuses in the name of such greater goods and interests, even "sovereignty"? Why not?

The idea of the existence of rights that protect and guarantee the existence of individuals gained traction in the 18th century and seeded the American Declaration of Independence. The likes of Locke and Burke laid the modern foundation upon which liberalism is built, culminating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The adoption by the U.N. of the UDHR in 1948 was part of the apex of liberal thought and action that came in the aftermath of the allied victory in 1945 over the forces of illiberalism channeled through fascist ideology in World War II (more in my essay: Do Human Rights Matter?). The tide of liberalism that enveloped the world after WWII culminated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and what Fukuyama marked as “the end of history,” predicted by Marx, but with a different outcome than the one which that leading theorist of social communism thought would occur (more in my essay, in Spanish: "El final de la guerra fría").

What is liberalism if not the enshrining of the individual as the motor of society, the economy, and progress? If we believe that progress is beneficial for society (as the development of societies that have embraced liberal doctrine would seem to prove), then the potential of each individual must be protected and enhanced, their human capacity supported, their rights protected. To do so is to foster advancement, productivity, and progress. It is in “the greater good” of society and interests of humankind to do so: protect human rights.

For privileged elites, leaders and rulers it is natural to believe that the system they created, know, and have thrived in is the best possible system. After all, they have achieved success in such a system; no need for change, no need for progress, no need for renewal. In fact, if progress has been made to the detriment of their privilege, it must be stopped and reversed. This is a fundamental paradigm of authoritarian rule and tyrants. Human rights within such a paradigm are an unnecessary luxury. The churn of renewal and progress is anathema to tyranny and even hegemony, so human rights are deemed inconvenient.  Individuals are expendable, power and sway over the masses is what counts. This was true during medieval Europe and is just as true in today’s Russia, China, North Korea, and Venezuela.

That peak of liberalism towards the end of last century generated a backlash from those who believed their privileges were threatened by progress.  We now are living in a world in which authoritarian rule is condoned and even celebrated as much as it was towards the beginning of last century, a dangerous precedent. But the idea that human rights are expendable or inconvenient in order to achieve the greater good is a contradiction and unsustainable for any significant length of time. Leaders, tyrants, even countries are transitory, humanity is not. The improvement of health conditions, the reduction of poverty, the dignity of life, and the fairness of justice can only be achieved when human rights are protected equally. Yes, it is a liberal idea and, yes, it is an idea that leads to progress; but such liberalism and progress have created the greatest standards of living that humanity has known in all of its history and is the only proven system that has the potential to create even greater living conditions for more people around the world.

Why should we care about human rights? Why should we care about breathing? Because of life.

Carlos J. Rangel
December 2023

The author with Elizabeth Sanchez Vegas, President of ISHR

Monday, June 12, 2023


In a few months my forthcoming book "Myths of Our Humanity: Tales from Forever for Today" will be available to the general public. While as the title indicates, the book is intended to have a broader attention span than ephemeral current events, I hope insights into our daily grind can be gleamed from the following advance-copy passages from the Afterword, which seem particularly relevant at this political moment in the U.S.:  


Some time ago I was invited to participate in a political consultancy team working for a presidential candidate in a Latin American country. As is often the case in the region, a broad spectrum of liberal democracy leaning political organizations were pitted against a broad spectrum of populists labeling themselves (or accusing their opponents) of being "nationalists," socialists," or other such names to that effect, depending on the political base they were seeking to sway. It was clear to us, once again, that while populists base their standard story on an easily conveyed narrative of "facts" deeply rooted in emotion with a scant sprinkling of reason, liberal democratic forces typically struggle to convey complex ideas rooted in reason with a light sprinkling of emotion,

This is not only the case in Latin America. It is a normal human tendency to aspire simple order and control rather than complex messiness and uncertainty. Strongmen (not always men) can use the institutions of democracy to achieve and keep political power with a promise to end the uncertainty and restore order. Over the last twenty years we have seen a great illiberal wave sweeping across the globe, a likely reaction to that font of messiness and uncertainty which is democratic liberalism, and which had its peak in the early 90’s —Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” era.

In a previous book I have written about the power of populism, with its own seductive narrative: the promise to redress a heterogeneity of grievances, gathered under a mantle of general malaise, with simple ideas, catchy slogans, and strong, almost iconic symbols, colors and even garments. [1] As a counter narrative, I argued, the promises liberalism can make are attractive when articulated: individual dignity, equal and fair treatment under the law, equal opportunity, and protection of private property--promises which one way or another are often made by all candidates during democratic election campaigns while enjoying local foods, kissing babies, and loving mom and dad.

In that same book, I propose to define liberty as a condition under which a human being has the opportunity to fulfill his or her own potential as such. Liberty is at the essence of free will; it is the ideological core of liberal democracy. In the present book I juxtapose through its collection of "vignettes" liberty against its rival: authoritarianism -- a condition under which human beings survive and thrive dependent on the opportunistic whims of a regime whose ideological core is that power is rightfully and legitimately concentrated in its leader. 

Left and right ideology is purposefully clouded by their adherents as a means tu sustain their political survival and self-preservation. The ideological basis of these factions and their ultimate goals can be traced back to the French Revolution era, where the so-called left championed rights to opportunity, in all its possible manifestations, while the so-called right championed property rights, again, with all its possible implications. A true liberal democracy system seeks to balance the rights of opportunity and those of property to achieve the best possible outcomes for society. In other words, for democracy to exist and thrive, so must the political alternance and permanent creative churn of left and right. 

But the pursuit for ultimate political self-preservation, i.e., achieving and maintaining power at all costs, will lead to other outcomes. Right and left partisans may prefer to heat up antagonistic rhetoric, each faction accusing the other of being the anti-democratic one, the one that "will destroy our country and our values as we know and love them," with the corollary that to protect the essence of the nation the opponents (and eventual dissidents) must be silenced, canceled, eliminated... Polarization ensues, extremism gains ground, and positive social outcomes diminish. ...

It is important to point out that when a subset of these opposing factions engages in truly antidemocratic behavior using their power to subvert norms and institutions, [2] and even incurring in political violence, such behavior is sometimes resisted (heroically) by their own associates and peers instead of (treasonously) collaborated with. But the labels of treason, loyalty, cowardice and bravery are results dependent and, as such, and as they relate to societal transformation, are explored in the fifth vignette, "Petrified." In this manner ... the intention of the book is to explore what makes that messy institutional mechanism we call democracy tick and stick, and the roots it may have in our enduring ancient and familiar tales.          

            [1] "Populism, or the collective blindness which leads people to the abyss," in La Venezuela imposible: Cronicas y reflexiones sobre democracia y libertad (2017), Alexandria Publishing House, Miami, FL.

            [2] For example, by members of the Polish Law and Justice party in 2015, subverting constitutional and political norms to drive democratic institutions and society to the extreme right, or by the Morena coalition trying to do the same in Mexico towards the extreme left in 2022.


This book is a major project I have been working o for several years now hoping it will be of useful interest. It will be published simultaneously in English and Spanish.  


Thursday, November 19, 2020


The 2016 election shifted the electoral landscape ground of America, and 2020 brought forth that new perspective to U.S. politics. Assumptions were shaken and weaknesses revealed influencing the nation’s character. From the point of view of political parties, the new landscape is favorable to Republicans, and Democrats are weakened, in spite of having won the presidency this cycle. 

Let us start with the good news: political engagement is up. Whether because of the rising influence of social media, the polarizing figure of Donald Trump or the pandemic lockdown (idle hands), political conversation and engagement have risen substantially over the last few years and, consequentially, a record voter turnout occurred both in the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections. It is a good thing when Americans are concerned about their political process enough to be willing to participate in it with their voice and votes. It is civic energy on the rise.

The bad news for Democrats is that a key assumption held as an article of faith by many in the leadership, that turnout is good for party results, has been shattered. In a turnout record breaking election the president-elect, Joe Biden, won by slim margins in key states and lost soundly in what were believed to be swing states. In Florida, for example, where turnout is estimated to have been close to 72%, President Trump won the state by a 3% margin, two congressional districts flipped back to Republican hands, State House Republicans gained seven seats, and in the State Senate they gained one. Turnout did not seemingly increase chances for a Democratic win in the state.

There is also another blue illusion coming out of the election: Arizona. The margin of victory for the presidential election was very narrow and can be attributed easily to animosity against Trump, due to his disrespect towards Sen. John McCain and Sheriff Arpaio’s pardon. But, just like Wisconsin with 11K votes in 2016 flipped Blue this cycle, Arizona could easily do the same in 2024. Grassroots work by LUCHA (Latinos United for Change), begun as a backlash to SB1070 (“Papers, please”) may eventually do in Arizona what Prop. 187 did in California, a formerly reliable Red State (home to Nixon and Reagan), but this has not happened yet. Georgia, with the recent death of John Lewis driving votes, could easily fall under the same illusion of a bluish hue, but the Democratic victory in this state seems more structurally sound that the one in Arizona. January will be an indicator. But these victories have blurred many a vision with blue tinted glasses.

The biggest lesson from the election has to do with the Latino vote. Many postmortems are underway, but the big assumption that “demography is destiny” was another one crushed with this election. The key takeaway is that the Republican share of the Latino vote increased. While other variables such as young vote and women’s vote are comparable to the rest of the electorate, the Latino vote as a whole is less Democratic than 12 years ago, relatively steady hovering around 66% for the party, while for the Republicans it has increased from 27 to 32%. Significant increases in the Latino vote for the Republicans relative to 2016 are notable in potential swing states such as Nevada (+8% of the Latino vote), Arizona (+3%), Texas (+6%), Florida (+12%), Ohio (+11%), Iowa (+5%) and Colorado (+7%). Gains for the Republicans in the share of the Latino vote were also seen in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Only California, New York and Michigan saw an increase in the share of Latino vote for the Democratic Party relative to 2016 (Numbers are from AS/COA). While the final numbers may change, the trend is clear.

The Democratic Party has a Latino problem. A recent open question on a social media group of self-identified Latino democrats (out of approx. 1,000 with about 50 or so active respondents) trying to find out their thoughts on Democratic Party engagement with the Latino community resulted in a wide variety of answers. This is a short compilation of them:

1.     The most frequent complaint was the lumping of all Latino vote as a generic block: “Mexicans are not Venezuelans, are not Puerto Ricans” is typical of the comments. This indicates a pride of identity of origin and a disdain for being categorized in a single bloc. Heard it before, not new, still valid. The Latino community is widely diverse and racially mixed, with intra-group tensions and, as such, it is a complex group to reach.

2.     The second most common point was that there was no clear and aggressive counter message to generic attacks against Democrats. Using a straightforward punch such as “Death to Communism” was in the comments, but counter argued by a belief that there is a “far left” in the party that needs to be appeased. This illustrates such a deep penetration of the Republican message that even party sympathisers believe there are politically extreme and violent elements in, and supported by, the party.

3.     The roots of each bloc within first generation Latino voters are ignored, particularly the fear of urban and gang violence (“Law and Order” concerns) and the fear of repressive regimes that call themselves socialists, i.e. the reason they came to the U.S. in the first place.

4.     A better understanding of the immigration issue, particularly as a perceived character transformation once citizenship is attained, needs to be achieved. There is a marked difference between recent citizens and second / third generation Latinos and their views on immigration.

5.     A “taken for granted” perception of Democratic leadership regarding the Latino vote, manifested as tardy outreach efforts. A two to four year grassroots outreach with tailored messaging and registration drives in the community was suggested. Some people pointed out the “Stacy Abrams model” to apply it in Latino heavy regions. While efforts in this regard have been made in Texas, other factors (3 and 4 above in particular), counterbalanced efforts there. It is not enough to have as an excuse an initial lack of resources for the campaign. Resources and investments need to be long term, not just “final push” ones, that then get perceived as blatant pandering with mariachis, taco salads and cafecitos.

6.     More frequent shout outs about problems in their countries of origin. This is a call for empathy.

7.     The Cuba opening by Obama is seen as an albatross around Democrat’s necks.

8.     The encrypted conversations on social media – and the not so encrypted ones, hiding in plain sight on Spanish language media— included participants peddling outlandish conspiracy theories and allegations, even from foreign countries of origin, never adequately answered.

The Democratic Party believes itself to be the party of the minorities, which leads to a mistaken belief that “demographics is destiny” as the nation heads towards a minority majority country.  The 2016 election shifted this (arrogantly self-righteous) pathway to hegemony, because it changed the electorate. It made people, in particular alienated, disenfranchised, left-behind people, feel like they actually could have a say in the way government works. This segment of the electorate is broad based and multi-ethnic, often men (which increased participation), and is made of people that want to believe in America. They look at their cornfields, their blue mountains, their orange groves, their tractors and their factories and have a vision of what America can be – and want to be a part of it. They are not deplorables; and include minorities.

The Trump strategy of self-identifying with American symbols, from the flag to the anthem, is a typically simple populist ploy with appeal to an electorate yearning to identify with America. Anecdotes on how after his defeat many people felt they could be proud of the flag again, indicate that this tactic worked.  While America is part of a global community, the Republican strategy of separating love for America and “globalists” was successful, albeit deceitful, and first generation immigrants by definition love America.

Some of these voters may have ugly biases and shortsighted interests. Some may have a skewed sense of values, easy prey to snake oil salesmen selling their version of the Constitution, America or of the enemy. But the results of the 2016 election made them believe their vote could be counted and they were surprised by that—that’s why they came out in force in 2020. What these voters mostly have in common is that they felt alienated from the political process, but no longer. The establishment’s reaction to Trump made them believe they are being heard at long last; that it was a reaction to their action. The Democratic Party, if it wants to maintain its relevance and win elections, should listen to these voices, because their vote matters. The Latino electorate includes disaffected Americans that believe the system must change and that the establishment, personified in the media, the “deep state” and the traditional parties are the ones that have not given them a fighting chance. Many of these voted for Trump and what he represents in this worldview. Others have not voted, yet.

To believe that the Latino bloc does not share a common vision of America as a better place, under rule of law and equal opportunity for all is mistaken, and obvious when phrased that way. That is the message that has not been transmitted by the Democratic Party. That is the message it wants to transmit, but has been muddled by so many caveats that voters with no time for polls and less for policy discussions easily switch to emotional shortcuts: “MAGA”, “socialism,” “pedophiles” and other such paths to cerebral short circuits and base instincts. It is not a question of engaging in dialogue with these voters, it is a question of understanding they also want America to thrive and carry them along with her. It is a vision of success for America that needs to be shared.

The supposed failure of the Democratic Party’s outreach towards the Latino vote is a symptom of a blindness towards the electorate in general. In searching to segment its messaging to blocs, the Party has failed to see the bigger picture that 2016 clearly presaged: there is a new electorate. Blocs exist within it, of course, but an overarching messaging is not embraced, a message with a vision for all Americans, not only a segment of them. Biden’s “Fair Shot” message, that ultimate vision of the Democratic Party, was good enough to deliver the Presidency but did not trickle down to the precincts, where necessary local fights wallowing in misinformation obscured that ultimate goal. As the first five points of the informal survey taken suggest, the broader inclusion of Latinos as Americans with American problems, seemed to lack in the Democratic 2020 election Latino outreach strategy; and probably with other voters too.

In this new hypersensitive era of intolerance, divisions play out in a manner that undermines the messaging of a common vision for America and gives opportunists ammunition for smear tactics. To strengthen our democracy an effort needs to be made by all to understand the ‘Americanness” of the new electorate, find a common vision capturing the newly arisen civic energy across voting blocs, and achieve the art of the possible in America’s path towards a more Perfect Union.

Carlos J. Rangel

Monday, November 9, 2020


When I first started reading “Find the Helpers,” by Fred Guttenberg, I was unsure about what to expect. Because of an unthinkable tragedy, Fred has become a welcomed face and loud voice advocating common sense gun control. But before that happened, I knew his daughter Jaime and his wife Jennifer as regular customers in our dance store. Jaime loved to dance and she did something about it. She had dreams and dedication, a powerful combination.

We live in a small city next to Parkland, in Coral Springs, and the dance and entertainment community, despite its high profile, is always relatively small. Four fatal victims of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas murders were or had been regular customers at our store. The father of one of our customers died in the tragedy too. A murdered boy was a close friend to one of our employees. We were hit hard, it was emotional and gut wrenching, but not as hard as for any of the survivor families. My father died unexpectedly from gun violence over thirty years ago. That is a phone call I wish upon no one to receive; it marks you for life. You learn to live with it, you never move on. And you know how it hits when it happens to others.

My wife and I have become closer to Jennifer and Fred since the tragedy and, as I said, I did not know what to expect from the book. It is a personal story of transformation. Fred takes us through the emotional bonds in his life, his failures and successes as an everyday American within a supportive family network. He shares his pain vividly as he tells us about an event that affected us all, 9/11, and how that monstrous attack’s toxic aftermath eventually led to the death of his younger brother, an iconic hero loved by his community of first responders.

-- BANG!!--

A single shot felled Jaime six minutes into the attack, seconds away from bending around a corner into safety. An instant that ended her life after minutes of terror which transformed the lives of many. A devastating blow to any loving family, to sixteen other families who lost a loved one; to another sixteen, those of the seventeen wounded (one family grieved one dead son, while tending their other one at the hospital); and of two others afterwards, suicides brought upon by their PTSD.  A blow changing the life of the thousands of students at MSD and to our cities of Parkland and Coral Springs.

Fred writes about how he picked up most of the pieces to find a new mission in life. From living a normal American life, he realized that our lives are all intertwined and that while the tragedy of 9/11 had brought changes to the way we live a far more deadly force, gun violence, is pervasive and no major regulatory effort is being undertaken to curb it. In fact, quite the contrary, the root of this violence is fed by a supposedly nonprofit civic organization that in reality is a powerful lobbying machine for gun and ammunition manufacturers.

The National Rifle Association is singularly responsible for successfully expanding the massive uncontrolled sale and distribution of guns and ammunition in the United States and, increasingly, abroad. The NRA has transformed the Second Amendment into a marketing slogan and, on every occasion they have, they stoke fears and animosity to urge people to buy more, buy more, buy more guns and bullets. That is their purpose: to be a commercial, highly profitable enterprise cloaking itself in an extreme interpretation of the Constitution. That is why they oppose any possible restrictive measure related to responsible gun ownership. They want to sell more.

At first a pained cynic, Fred finds in the receptivity to his message from the public, politicians and media, solace and support for his mission: “I’m going to break that fucking gun lobby”. He has found helpers. He almost surprises himself when this world actually listens to him and that many have the same goals as he does, confronting an inertia which can only be qualified as irresponsibly divisive and toxic. Fred pushes against that inertia, he is an advocate now.

Fred has made a journey through life that has shaped his mission. After deeply personal tragedies he found helpers out there. From a stranger on the street that called his family to let them know his brother was okay on 9/11, to a helper personified in the now President Elect, Joe Biden, comforting him by giving him a sense of purpose shortly after Jaime was brutally and senselessly murdered.

Fred wants us to know that when we are at our most distraught and downtrodden, there are helpers out there. If we open our eyes and ears we will see them, find them. And that from the deepest tragedies and downfalls we can rebuild and be part of our community, never forgetting, but with a new drive and purpose, becoming helpers too.

This deeply personal book has a message for us all and it is a message of love. We are better when we are together. Our communities thrive through our bonds with it, common kindness and common sense. We carry on our shoulders the love and spirit of those that have left us, driving us to build better todays for everyone and to fight against the forces trying to break us. As the love of Fred for Jaime drives him to spread this message of love throughout the world, our community and my family wants to let him know we love him and his family back. Thanks for all you do.

Fred Guttenberg
Mango Publishing, Coral Gables, 2020

Available through Orange Ribbons for Jaime


Friday, October 30, 2020


Much ink has been spilt and bytes flashed arguing about the representative nature of the Electoral College. Because of its design and our political landscape, the once rare phenomenon of “electoral inversions,” the situation in which a candidate with a lesser amount of popular votes gets the majority of electoral votes, seems now like a permanent possibility, with two, maybe three occurring within the span of twenty years. The last time electoral inversions occurred was more than 130 years ago, in 1876 and 1888, in the turbulent wake of Reconstruction.

Donald Trump’s campaign is counting on an electoral inversion, and is on the road and in the courts attempting such an outcome. The campaign knows that it has the chance of a snowball in hell of obtaining a majority of the popular vote, and hits the road accordingly. Of course, Joe Biden’s campaign is well aware of that strategy so it hits the road back to thwart such possibility, targeting the “swing states,” as it obviously should do if it plans to win.

That is why, in practical electoral terms, the farm fields in Iowa are more important than the farm fields in Kentucky, the coal mines in Pennsylvania more important than the ones in West Virginia, the auto plants in Michigan more important than the ones in South Carolina, and anyone from a Red or Blue state is less important than anyone from a swing state, which either candidate wants to “turn” blue or red.

Herein lies that other, modern, problem with the Electoral College: those colors are very camera and sound bite friendly. The idea of swing state, swing district and swing voter has permeated the electoral discourse so profoundly that it distorts democracy, representation and policy; even the policies of foreign countries. When China retaliated to Trump’s tariffs by essentially boycotting soy beans from Iowa, it was attempting to weaken Trump’s Electoral College base. When the EU targeted bourbon from Kentucky and Harley Davidson motorcycles from Wisconsin it did so for the same reason in those states. These are responses from foreign countries attempting to influence our elections with blunt instruments, targeting local voters because of an administration or broad policy which affects them adversely.

Within our nation, the notion of red and blue states has caused even more damage. On projection maps, in polling predictions and on election night, coloring with paint by numbers is entertaining, visual and simple. In the hollows of the current White House, however, these colors have driven policies ranging from the response to the pandemic to environmental regulations, neglecting that in every single state, not just the swing ones, “the reds and the blues” coexist. Policy is enacted with no regard to this coexistence in every town and city, where problems and aspirations are shared but affected by the divisiveness inherent to images of a nation, states, counties, precincts and voters painted red and blue.

The media eats it up and regurgitates this notion, searching and forming discussion panels, convening town halls, even tracking through the years professional undecided voters in swing districts, such as the “red sweater guy.” Even an implausible movie, starring Kevin Costner, used the plot device of a single swing voter deciding an election. It is drama that sells.

For the close to 5 million people that voted for Trump in California it must be an unpleasant experience to have the president minimize their firestorms, because “it’s a blue state.” For many of the nearly 3 million New Yorkers that voted for Trump, learning about the Kushner Policy of disregarding the pandemic because it was a blue state problem —and those don’t matter— must have been painful. It must be disheartening for protesters in Louisville to be ignored, while those in Portland are showcased for political convenience in stump speeches by the President.

This Red State / Blue State mentality is so pervasive that it is believed to drive internal migration patterns beyond economic issues[1]. It definitely drives down voter participation with the blasé excuse of “one vote in my state/district doesn’t make a difference.” But that is not true; any vote always counts to make democracy stronger, whether it is cast in Arkansas, New Jersey or North Carolina. It is the enemies of democracy that want to convince citizens that a single vote does not matter and will not make a difference. I know: I hail from Venezuela where precisely that happened. Venezuela elected an authoritarian political outsider that changed the course of history for that nation because “in-the-know” people believed “one vote doesn’t matter and, anyway, all politicians are the same.”

The Electoral College representation problem originates from using an Eighteenth Century solution in a Twenty-first Century world; but the divisiveness originated by the fixation on the Red and the Blue is of modern origin, fed by a culture of quick bites and simple images upon which our media thrives in the pursuit of ratings and validation, perhaps even vindication. We live in the United States of America, a nation in which the difference between the popular vote of the winner and the loser of the 2016 election was 3% and in which it may be close to that in the 2020 contest. As the votes are cast, counted, and reported as a horse race on the screen of your choice, it is important to see your neighbors, friends and family as what they are or wish they could be: fellow Americans in pursuit of the American Dream and a more perfect Union.

Other essays on the Electoral College: "The Big Nullification"

Carlos J. Rangel
Small business owner, author of two books,
“La Venezuela imposible: Crónicas y reflexiones sobre democracia y libertad” and “Campaign Journal 2008: A Chronicle of Vision, Hope and Glory.” Co-author of “Bring Down the Hammer: From Silk Road Bandits to Deviant States, the Rise of Transnational Crime Organizations and What the World can do About It” forthcoming in "Infinite War II," Hugo Achá, ed., 2020. His blog is Carlos J. Rangel: Campaign Journal. Twitter: @CarlosJRangel1

Illustration: "Undecided" by Magda, 2020.

[1] “Migration isn’t turning Red States Blue,” Henten and Silver (FiveThirtyEight) who argue self-selection as well as collectivization for this phenomenon.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020


“You can fool some of the people all of the time; you can fool all of the people some of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Democracy Destroys Itself

Liberal democracy is a social condition under which the rule of law prevails over the rule of men and in which mechanisms to renew and convey the consent of the governed are in place, such as an accepted electoral system and free speech. Renewal is an intrinsic trait to this condition, naturally generating questioning and creativity of ideas and methods. This trait dovetails with the economic system of capitalism, which also thrives on renewal or, as Schumpeter coined it, creative destruction.

This serendipitous match between the political condition of liberal democracy and the economic system of capitalism has generated the greatest rise in general wellbeing in the history of civilization. It has allowed the knowledge accumulated in the previous 6,000 years to generate a world in which, over the span of 300 years, famine, disease and ignorance have diminished to a fraction of their previous prevalence. Advances in science and technology, widespread access to education and health care and increased standards of living worldwide have occurred as a direct result of liberal democracy and its economic cousin, capitalism. This combination has proven to have the greatest capacity to unleash throughout society the potential of its individuals to harvest the increased opportunities offered to them.

But democracy and capitalism represent a threat to continued privilege, because they are inherently renewal mechanisms –and no one wants to get “renewed.” Privilege can come in many forms: political, economic, social and racial, or any and all combinations of these. When privilege uses power to assert itself politically, it undermines the creative dynamics of democracy. Capitalism creates economically powerful entities and individuals by its process of market renewal and innovation. These entities and individuals will likewise use their power to protect their earned privilege by undermining the very same processes and free markets that allowed them to rise, manipulating markets to their advantage. These actions are triggered by the expected self-preservation instincts.

The nature of democracy and capitalism as mechanisms for renewal and innovation is what makes them inherently weak and subject to continuous attacks by those that have used democracy and capitalism to accumulate power and privilege. Just like the combination of democracy and capitalism fosters opportunity to create innovation and shared prosperity, the combination of power and privilege actively stifles such opportunity to create innovation and prosperity.

I begin one of my books, “La Venezuela imposible,” with the assertion that, historically, democracy is not a natural condition for society. It is fiction to believe that even today, in “advanced” western societies such as the U.S. or Western Europe, democracy is favored by everyone; even less so in other societies more distant from Western tradition and history. As illiberal regimes gain strength, the threat to a condition that has fostered opportunities for growth and prosperity throughout the world becomes an ominous, growing reality.


A Question of Goals – “Death to Intelligence!”

The United States faces a dilemma; a dilemma having to do with its goals as a society. In a recent essay by Gerald Russello, on the positions on conservative and postmodern politics, it is stated that politics is the way we speak to one another to identify and further the common good—our goals. For years, that was the case in the United States and many countries under its influence, all gazing at that “city upon a shining hill” which President Reagan spoke about, referencing Reverend Winthrop. It was a simple goal encapsulated in a universal “American Dream,” mostly understood as a proper home, education, health and security, all part of a growing middle class in which our children would lead better lives than the ones we had. That was the understood common good. Partisan discourse revolved around the ways and paths to achieve such a goal, not on the goal itself.

The condition has changed. “Grievance politics,” groups of all sorts fighting to preserve, assert or appropriate privilege have arisen to pursue disparate goals for society, rending a cleavage manifested in "political correctness," "cancel culture," or paramilitary groups and outlandish conspiracies. Those who  believe in democracy as a renewal mechanism to achieve the common good are being overtaken by those who use democracy to accumulate power and maintain their interests. In the United States this looks like the unimpeded accumulation of monopoly power by legacy corporations, “systemic racism” and misogyny in many government and private bureaucracies, and the use of electoral sleight of hand to impose minority rule. The goal does not seem anymore to create opportunities to achieve the American Dream for all; it seems to be to attain and retain power in order to defend the privilege of some by impeding the creative forces of renewal.

Polling would suggest that approximately 40 to 60% (adding “right” and “left”) of Americans are comfortable undermining the mechanisms of democracy as long as their own interests and privileges are protected – or believe they will be. This is one explanation for the current wide range of support for Donald Trump (it is not only “white men without college degrees”) from a steady core of the electorate.

Privilege seeks to eliminate opportunities for potential rivals, leading to policies weakening a basic compact of liberal democracy: prosperity rises by growing a strong middle class. Limiting education and health care, for example, perpetuates cycles of poverty for the underprivileged by hampering their opportunity to compete and prosper, become part of the middle class and fulfill the “American Dream.” Limits to opportunity ensure privilege is retained.

In previous iterations of the illiberal condition, we see more open and brazen attacks on education culure and culture, as in the notorious assertion by Francoist General José Millán Astray“¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la muerte!” (“Death to intelligence! Long live death!”) during his infamous exchange with Miguel de Unamuno at Salamanca University in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Or the notorious line in the play by Hanns Johst: "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun" (Schlageter, 1933). While in the swing toward a condition of liberal democracy it seems as if such positions are "left behind," the legacies of intolerance live on in any society as a seed ready to sprout anytime.


Finding "Some of the People"

A key contribution of capitalism is the embrace of win-win propositions in transactions. Adam Smith explained that when a customer buys a loaf of bread, both the baker and the customer obtain something they want. General wellbeing (GDP) increases and commercial laws and contracts are codified from that simple idea. This was contrary to previous practice, in which strongman rule commonly prevailed, albeit somtimes also codifed but not neutrally, with justice not so blind. Win-lose propositions are the basis of mercantile societies and, by extension, communism. The wealth of a nation was measured by its accumulated treasure relative to the treasure of others, not by the number of transactions creating shared wellbeing within it. Many of the privileged subscribe to the idea that if others gain privilege, they themselves will lose it, their treasure, so they do everything in their power to prevent it from happening.

When democracy is understood as an environmental condition (as opposed to an “evolved” form of government) which allows in its better iterations rising prosperity and wellbeing – win-win propositions –the swings of nations from authoritarian rule, to democracies, to oligarchies and other governance arrangements are better understood. It is misleading to categorize “mature” or “developed” politics or governmental institutions, implying linear progressive improvement.  Forms of governance swing back and forth among various types, some more conducive to allowing the common good and some more intent on protecting privileges for the few: the insiders, the partisans, the members, the race, etc. - a populist promise even if it means totalitarian crackdowns.

So, how many of the people are “fooled all of the time” into believing that a society based on renewal and win-win propositions is a lie, contrary to their interest? That a nation works best when ruled by a permanent minority of “smart” people, in a gerrymandered (or fraudulently) vote into office in some cases, and appointed (or self-appointed), for life in others? And how many of the people are “fooled all of the time” into believing that liberal democracy is aligned with their interests, in pursuit of an abstract, imperfect and unattainable common good for all (“The American Dream”) --and that their fellow citizens believe in democracy too?

Polling would suggest that numbers probably hover around 40% for each of those groups in the United Ststes, probably similar in other countries. The remaining 20% are the ones all sides try to “fool some of the time.” But because illiberal forces are opposed to, and deft at managing to their advantage, “free and fair elections” and free speech, they have a better chance of fooling “persuadables” and keeping the apathetic on their couches (or voting meaninglessly), than those promoting liberal democracy values; or they just have a better knack for stealing elections. That is why the condition of liberal democracy is permanently fragile.


"Venceréis, pero no convenceréis"

The 2020 election in the United States is significant as a shining, prime exemplar of these issues. This election is unusual because it brings forth a broad coalition of forces that believe in liberal democracy and supports the alternative to a president who has repeatedly demonstrated does not. The usual figures on the left that would be expected to oppose a Republican president, no matter who, do not make this coalition noteworthy. Some of these even have suspect liberal democracy credentials themselves and do not risk much by their opposition to the current president. 

What is unusual is the large number of long time Republicans and conservative leaders and figures that recognize the threat that the incumbent and those supporting him represent to norms, institutions and even laws supporting the condition of democracy in the United States; what is unusual is that former members of all administrations, even of this one, have voiced their concern about the distortion of institutions that protect government and the people, such as law enforcement, intelligence and security, justice and others; what is unusual is that pundits in administration friendly media such as FOX or the Washington Times -some with power and some since sidelined- or traditionally conservative writers in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, question the democratic integrity of the president; and what is unusual is that former members of the inner circle, of the administration at large and of the Republican party as a whole are willing to risk excoriation, careers and livelihood to raise the alarms in this matter.

The illiberal coalition in power knows it is in the minority and behaves accordingly. It rushes legislation and appointments that strengthen their long term privilege and slows down those which do not. The coalition in power is doing whatever it can to interfere with free and fair elections. The coalition in power behaves as if it knows it is in the losing side of an election, which polls and demographics strongly suggest. In my book, Campaign Journal 2008, I point out that a successful professional politician is one capable of building broad coalitions towards a goal which he or she strongly believes in and can "sell" to others, maximizing results. The illiberal coalition in power seems uninterested in the idea of goals or broad coalitions, or "selling" ideas to earn votes and supporters, only in the idea of protecting privilege.

I return to the exchange between General Millán and Unamuno in the University of Salamanca in search for clarity on the dangers faced by the United State in the democracy crucible in which this condition is always forged anew. I return to those words from a scholar that universally ring true as a warning against interest above nation, and were a warning about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War about to be unleashed upon that country:

"You will win, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken."

Perhaps, then, democracy shall not perish from this earth after all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

WILL THE U.S. BECOME VENEZUELA? (the writing on the wall)

On February 4th 1992, the president of Venezuela was nearly assassinated. For the previous two years the president had been struggling against his party, dinosaur politicians and entrenched economic interests, to bring Venezuela into a market economy; to transform the centralized command economy of the past 30 years that was driving the country into financial ruin.

To get rid of President Carlos Andrés Pérez (known popularly as CAP), a few generals and business leaders had put up a patsy to assassinate him in an attempted coup so they could then launch a counter coup to “rescue democracy” restore order and eliminate the patsy. This patsy was chosen because of his misguided ambition, open disdain for democracy, oratory skills and charm; not for his military prowess. It was by that lack of prowess that he failed miserably in the primary objective, assassination, throwing askew all the original plans. President Pérez ordered Lt. Colonel Hugo Chávez arrested and tried, as befits in a country ruled by laws, but the populist spark was lit and the “failure” of his government blamed for the conditions leading to the coup was used politically to lead the country down a path of increased populist fervor. CAP was finally dropped by his own party and impeached. Ensuing events led to the ascendancy of Hugo Chávez to the presidency, under the convenient banner of “socialism,” which would net him an estimated fortune of $1 Billion by the time of his death while he was, effectively, president for life (I document all of this in more detail in one of my books, “La Venezuela Imposible”).

Why should Americans care? What does this have to do with the electoral cycle of 2020? It is critical to understand that what led to the events described above was not a conflict between capitalism and communism or socialism. It was a conflict between leading a country as a market economy or leading it as a command economy. Transforming a country from the legacy systems of monarchies and autocracies to a country embracing a system from the Age of Enlightenment. The reaction against this attempted change led Venezuela to be among the world’s first elected populist autocracies, a new ruling model recognized now as a precursor to modern illiberalism.


In 1948 the victors of the most devastating war the world has ever known had to reconstruct it, and two models of economic development were at the table, so to speak. As the least scarred nation, the U.S. supplied many of the goods needed and offered its economic development model, racking up a trade surplus which was reinvested around the world as U.S. based multinational corporations boomed.

The opposing economic model offered, communism, attracted many thinkers indulging in its promise of a just society, quicker and more effectively than the contrasting model promoted by the U.S., capitalism. The first model relies on central planning by an elite group of leaders that believe they know and have more information than anyone else and are able to manipulate the production levers of society to make it better. Call it a “Type-A” model, seeking more and more control in order to achieve its goals. The second model is not as satisfying to those who want to control outcomes, because it believes that individual initiatives and behavior will lead to an aggregate of better, spontaneous outcomes for society; and you can’t really predict individual behavior. Call it a “Type-B” model.

As the world sifted the ashes of war, an economist partial to the Type-A model became influential in one of the main organizations focused on Latin America: The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, known in the region as CEPAL. Raúl Prebisch was a promoter of the idea of Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI): placing tariffs on imported goods to promote and protect local industry and create well-paying jobs. A need to choose industries (and companies) follows by the nature of this model, leading to an executive department, the “Promotion Ministry/Office,” most often a cabinet level position with control and influence over the economy; five year development plans with fantastic names ensue. The idea is that the executive knows better and can plan the economy from its vantage point as the leader of the country. Influence peddling, smuggling networks and rampant corruption sprout left and right– as well as a concentration of extremely rich oligarchies well connected to a government protecting the monopoly power of the chosen ones. The consequences are explosive growth of income inequality and economic stagnation, as opportunity is stifled and innovation withers.

The Type-B model, with its foundation on capitalism, has as its primary driver the force of renewal and innovation. Joseph Schumpeter called it “creative destruction” more popularly known as “out with the old, in with the new.” Friedrich Hayek compared a market capable of such creativity as a super computer more efficient than any single human mind, much less a collective of minds in a bubble. This penchant for renewal makes the Type-B model more conducive to democracy, which is also a mechanism of elite renewal at its ideal best. As I wrote in a new introduction to a Brazilian edition of “The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship with the United States” (written by my father, Carlos Rangel), capitalism is the economic manifestation of democracy, while mercantilism (command economies led by autocrats) is the economic manifestation of totalitarianism.

But renewal goes against most people’s self-preservation instincts. No one wants to get “renewed.” That is why capitalism as well as democracy are constantly distorted, fragile and in peril. Entrenched political leaders and entrenched economic interests want to stay entrenched. If they are powerful enough they will do so. Power sees democracy as a threat and the more powerful, the more it will do anything to self-preserve by stifling innovation and opportunity to potential future rivals. Markets dominated by oligarchs and tycoons, ever more powerful as they reach worldwide, want to ensure that domination continues. No renewal or innovation needed here, we know what is best for you.

In Venezuela, CAP was an old style, chicken in every pot, populist. President for two terms, but with ten years in between, in his first term he nationalized industries, such as iron and oil, and promoted many civil construction and infrastructure projects. His charismatic leadership concentrated even more power in the presidency. His profligate deficit spending increased the per capita GDP substantially, creating a sense of bonanza; but his most significant lasting investment was in education, the foundation of opportunity and innovation, including sponsoring bright youths to study abroad. By the time he was reelected (a period known as “CAP II”), the populist/command policies he had fueled in his first term had led the country to the brink of economic disaster. He realized the errors of his populist past and tried to rectify. With the help of the new generation of foreign trained professionals that his education programs had fostered, he started to dismantle command economy structures, such as subsidies, tariffs, price and wage controls, centralized/big government, etc. And with such dismantling, the protections to powerful figures in politics and the economy. This would lead to his attempted assassination and political demise.


Venezuela is not the only country to be destroyed by populism and command economy principles. In the U.S. this is a present threat, which comes from the most unexpected source: Donald J. Trump. Trump uses as a model for governance his experience as the tycoon of a privately held company focused on win-lose propositions – a command structure. Trump’s economic policies embrace Import Substitution Industrialization as a way to “bring jobs back to America;” apply industrial policy to protect and subsidize industries such as fossil fuels and steel, as well as agriculture—in blatant populists ploys; and seek to concentrate unaccountable power in the federal executive so as to deepen the command structure. Trump rules with the A-Type model and uses the populist authoritarian playbook to do so.

A common trait of a populist is self-identification with “his people” leading to phrases such as “El pueblo soy yo” (“I am the people”) affirmed in different variations by AMLO, Chávez, and Fidel, to infer that opposition to the leader is antipatriotic opposition to the country, a common assertion we see in Trump and his supporters. Of course this comes directly from the sense of entitlement of powerful monarchs of mercantile economies, such as Louis the XIV, the Sun King: “L’Etát c’est moi.” And if the leader is the people, what benefits the leader benefits the people – the rationale for self-centered corruption.

By revolving around a command economy to preserve and protect entrenched political and economic power (whether of existing or new elites in power through “revolution”), populism uses the tools of government to do just that. This includes bending rules, violating civil liberties and cronyism, as well as discrediting or censoring any information that may shed a negative light on the administration and its allies. Control and distortion of information is a key way to consolidate power. Attacks on the press and journalists, either physical or reputational, become a frequent tool of command economies seeking to concentrate power. As far back as 1859, John Stuart Mills argued liberty of the press as a fundamental check against tyrants. Any leader in power that continuously rails against the media as its enemy is suspect of aspiring tyranny. Of course, particular members of the press can be relentless in their attacks against a leader they dislike, but blanket and consistent attacks by a government against the right to have an informed citizenry are signs of tyranny.

In Venezuela during CAP II the press ran rampant with attacks against the president, sowing the eventual coup and rise of Chávez. The lack of an ample relationship of mutual respect and trust was part of the problem, but CAP’s intention to change the command economy into a market economy fueled the animosity driving such attacks. Even so, his government did not attack members of the press in the manner of oppressive tyrannies. Certainly not in the way Chávez would later, choking it economically, accusing it of lying, inciting persecution of journalists, crowding out information airwaves, and outright closing of media outlets. Not to mention sponsoring propaganda and partisan outlets to spread the government’s view on its enemies: an opposition by “scrawnies” intent on nullifying the regime.

Populism relies on grievances, offering a redress to those grievances by scapegoating a perceived weak group which is blamed for the people’s woes. It is based on a sectarian mindset that feeds animosity. In an interview I gave to the Brazilian magazine Crusoé, I exemplify this common trait between populists in Venezuela, Cuba, México and Bolivia where the president’s opponents are branded to cleave society as escuálidos (scrawnies), gusanos (worms), fifís (fussies) and colonialistas internos (internal colonialists). Such labeling to dehumanize the opposition and separate it from the mainstream has its lexicon cousin in ethnic and anti-Semitic epithets, and feeds on the same base emotions. The Chávez regime was eventually successful in making "adeco," the name given to those affiliated to President Pérez's party (Accion Democrática), into a common slur.


Two more alarming indicators of populist “democratic” tyrannies are attacks on civil liberties and on the right to vote. Democratic institutions strive on free speech, and free speech includes protest marches. It is inherently democratic to have marches protesting against policies or leaders. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly lead eventually to free opinions in a ballot box. Thus, because voting is in essence a form of free speech, the former is a consequence of the latter. It is the role of a democratic government to protect peaceful protests from opportunistic individuals who may take advantage of a difficult-to-control situation for personal gain. It is not the role of a democratic government to suppress peaceful protests; its role is to protect them. Protecting peaceful protests is as important as protecting the right to vote. Suppression is what the regime has been doing in Venezuela since 2002, and unfortunately seems to be occurring here now, in the U.S.

In addition to unlawfully suppressing protest, the threats, harassment and outright jailing of perceived enemies or “disloyals” is a chilling aspect of tyrannical power. The retaliatory jailing of Michael Cohen, because he is writing a “tell-all” book about his relationship with the president, is a clear example. By the same token, the treatment of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn by the president and the DOJ is a challenge from the rule of men to the rule of law.

Finally, the rise of private militia and mercenary groups is a telltale indicator of a burgeoning populist tyranny. To circumvent the established rule of law, populist governments will use the emotional force of sown grievance to raise and encourage armed and repressive groups to intimidate and attack the populist leader’s targets. In Venezuela these were called the “colectivos.” In the U.S. they are sometimes called “very fine people” exercising their gun rights inside State Houses, for example.

The reported use of mercenary forces in the escalating repression of protesters in cities around our country is disturbing if true. But just the blatant use of federal forces to suppress local problems is problematic in itself. Federalizing repression, taking away the local control by local police forces, was one of the first things Hugo Chávez did, with the assistance of mercenary forces from Cuba, after massive protests against him in 2002. Let us hope that “Operation Legend” is not such an attempt – and that it is not a dress rehearsal for potentially violent voter suppression or results dispute in November.


Apostle Matthew says “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (5:14, Sermon of the Mount). In 1630, the pilgrim John Winthrop used the image from that verse in a speech on a boat’s deck to his fellow settlers as a foundational ideal for the New World they were sailing towards: “wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.” With all eyes upon that city, the new colony should be humble before those of God or risk His wrath and be doomed to oblivion. In 1961, J.F. Kennedy used Winthrop’s words as a call for self-aware responsibility in government: “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us--and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill--constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities,” a view of a public servant in a democracy (listen here). But it was Reagan who used those words to usher in the idea of American Exceptionalism by adding the word “shining” and frequently during his presidency alluding to that image of the Shining City, all the way up to his farewell address:

“I've spoken of the shining city [upon the hill] all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace - a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

I have lived and observed the transformation of Venezuela into a nation ravaged by gaping inequality, crushed opportunity, misery and lawlessness. In 1992 I saw the signs of the creeping acceptance of totalitarianism which would lead to that condition and tried to warn anyone who would listen about the instincts of Chávez and his supporters –but a frog cannot feel the rising temperature of the water until it is too late. I do not like what I have been seeing for the last few years in the United States. The core values of this country are fighting against the challenges of illiberalism and totalitarian forces, especially after the populist spark lit during the 2016 campaign. It is possible that on November 3rd the electorate will deliver a temporary answer and reprieve, but the dark forces are relentless and capitalism and democracy are always under attack. After 1992 it took 10 years for Venezuela to realize it was late in the game in this fight. The following 18 years brought that country to its current condition. November 3rd will not be the end of the fight to restore the Shining City. It will mark the beginning.

Image credit: budastock


We celebrated in a recent event held to commemorate the 75 th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaratio...