New Internationalist

Sultans of spin

Issue 393

If there’s a political market in Latin America, then there are plenty of consultants willing to sell into it. But, as Bob Burton reveals, that doesn’t mean there’s always a willing buyer.

Selling politicians of dubious credentials to a sceptical electorate is no easy task. But there’s a new breed of globetrotting political fixers willing to try anything, for a price.

There is little hard data on the scale of the political campaigning industry. But observers and participants alike agree it follows in the footsteps of globalization. The greater the role of corporations in Latin American economies, the more funds are available for campaigns by political parties willing to beg them for cash. While the nationalities of those carving out a role as advisers in Latin American politics are diverse, US consultants are notable for introducing big-budget campaign techniques.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQRR) is one US consultancy that has a busy international campaign schedule. It is currently advising Julio Borges, the leader of the Justice First party in Venezuela, who dreams of ousting Hugo Chávez in the December presidential election. It is also advising Honduran President José Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya Rosales after helping him win office in December 2005. GQRR has worked in Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Panama, as well as numerous other campaigns in the Philippines, Britain, Ireland and much of mainland Europe.

While political consultants are well-honed in the art of testing opinion, crafting messages and overseeing campaigns, they are not infallible. GQRR, for example, was involved in Bill Clinton’s two successful campaigns, but also assisted both Al Gore and John Kerry in losing their presidential bids.

Most political campaign consultants go to great lengths to stay out of public view. After all, the tools of their trade – attack ads, techniques for packaging political policies as one would a new brand of toothpaste and overseeing arms-length smear campaigns – are not topics for polite dinner-table conversations.

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, commonly known as Goni, was a Bolivian political wannabe who had been President between 1993 and 1997. During this time he was best known for his wide-ranging part-privatization of state-owned oil, electric utilities, telecommunications, airlines and railways.

Ever optimistic, Goni decided to have another shot at high office. In October 2001 he called in Greenberg, Carville and Shrum (GCS), a consortium of market research and political campaign companies. (While GCS is now defunct, many of the key players continue practising their art in GQRR.) He also agreed to allow Rachel Boynton to film his presidential campaign in 2002.

‘We are in this because we not only believe in democracy, but in a particular brand of democracy, which is progressive, social democratic, market-based and modern but with broad benefits. That’s why we were working for Goni, that’s why we were in Bolivia,’ a GCS opinion pollster, Jeremy Rosner, tells Boynton in her recently released film, Our Brand Is Crisis.

Selling Goni to Bolivians was a tough ask. At one point Rosner bluntly told Goni that he was so unpopular that, for over half of the electorate, the key question about him was ‘how high the gallows should be’.

While his neoliberal policy cocktail (which extolled the benefits of foreign investment) might be considered too politically toxic in most of the global South, Goni had two advantages. The Bolivian electoral system only requires a President to win the most votes among the competing candidates, not a majority of the vote. And he had GCS to help undermine his rivals.

The campaign front-runner was Manfred Reyes Villa, a former military strongman. GCS consultant Tal Silberstein had a simple solution: ‘We have to start negative campaigns against him. We have to make him from clean to a dirty candidate, that’s our task… So I told him [another member of the campaign team], everything you do, it cannot be connected to us in any way.’

The GCS formula – ‘Simplicity! Relevance! Repetition!’ – worked well enough for Goni to scrape across the finish line with just over 22 per cent of the vote. But his presidency of Latin America’s poorest country soon fell apart.

As street protests mounted against his policies, he wistfully reflected on camera that ‘only in the United States can people’s minds be changed by communication’. Goni then gave up trying to communicate and called out the army. In September and October 2003 scores of protestors were killed before Goni’s governing coalition collapsed. He fled to the US. Here he is now trying to stave off moves by the Bolivian Supreme Court to extradite him to face charges over his order to the army to put down the street protests.

‘You come in as sort of an interloper, so you do feel somewhat responsible when things go awry,’ Rosner reflects at the conclusion of the film.

Mark Feierstein, a former Clinton Administration official who worked on Goni’s campaign and is now an Associate Vice-President with GQRR, says the ‘company is proud to have helped him’. Feierstein, who insists election campaigns are less negative when they are involved, is bemused by the reaction to the film. Negative campaigning ‘is not something that is a novelty’, he told NI.

Feierstein argues that if US consultants weren’t involved in Latin America, the campaigns wouldn’t change much. The same tactics, he said, would be used by consultants from countries such as Chile or Costa Rica.

Professor Gerry Sussman, from Portland State University and author of Global Electioneering: Campaign Consulting, Communications and Corporate Financing, agrees that the nationality of the consultants matters less than the big budgets for advertising campaigns that American-style electioneering requires. And that means candidates willing to tailor campaigns to fit the interests of wealthy funders.

According to Sussman: ‘If neoliberalism is rejected throughout Latin America and large corporations, foreign and domestic, are reined in, the main reason for commercially oriented electioneering – namely, making money the arbiter of electoral outcomes – would also likely be rejected.’

Bob Burton is a freelance journalist based in Canberra. He edits SourceWatch (http://www.sourcewatch.org), a project of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy.

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