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In America, like Latin America, is gerontocracy a 'recipe for disaster'?

Still Behind The Wheel: Then Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera, age 82, addressing the U.N. in June of 1998 — months before voters angry at his country's collapse would elect leftist revolutionary and failed military coup leader Hugo Chavez (whom Caldera released from prison) as his successor.
Still Behind The Wheel: Then Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera, age 82, addressing the U.N. in June of 1998 — months before voters angry at his country's collapse would elect leftist revolutionary and failed military coup leader Hugo Chavez (whom Caldera released from prison) as his successor.

COMMENTARY A developed democracy like America should be passing the leadership torch to a younger generation — as the past messes of developing democracies like Venezuela should remind us.

Thirty years ago, Venezuela’s Congress removed then President Carlos Andrés Pérez from office for corruption. Afterward, I was walking through Caracas with one of his top aides — and she suddenly said something so aggravated it seemed to shake Mount Avila in the distance.

“Old men,” she said, “are suffocating this democracy.”

She was blasting not just Pérez, who was 71, but his whole political generation — including the two interim presidents who’d succeeded him, ages 70 and 77, and the man who would soon be elected the new president, Rafael Caldera, who was turning a doddering 78. Like Pérez, Caldera had been president once before, two decades earlier.

"They’re keeping my generation from its turn at the wheel,” said the aide, who was about half Pérez’s age. “And that’s a recipe for disaster.”

READ MORE: Are Rick Scott and other Jan. 6 toadies more harm than help on Venezuela?

She was right. As abuelos like Caldera turned the Miraflores presidential palace into a tropical Moose Lodge, the country sank into a political and economic morass.

The national frustration that resulted led to, well, disaster: the rise to power of a young, populist strongman, Hugo Chávez, whose leftist Bolivarian Revolution has, 25 years later, plunged Venezuela into the worst humanitarian crisis in modern South American history.

The Pérez aide’s prescience came back to me last week when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who himself is now 70, made a similar remark about all the elder-politicos who’ve overstayed their welcome in Washington.

“It’s time for my generation to get off the stage politically,” Bush said.

Many Americans feel Biden's generation is now a gerontocracy that’s not only not passing the torch but suffocating it — and Trump, ironically, is benefiting.

Bush is one of the few U.S. leaders who actually knows and understands Latin America. So I couldn’t help think that maybe he, too, had the region in mind when he said that. Maybe he, too, fears that a developed democracy like ours — which progresses by passing the torch to new generations, ideas and energy — is falling into the habit of so many developing countries where, as Pérez’s aide groused, the gerontocracy refused to give up the car keys.

For Democrats, of course, the biggest fear in that regard is 81-year-old President Biden’s own refusal to hand them over. More and more of them are wincing at his failure to see that voters’ uneasiness about his age keeps pushing his poll numbers down — and former President Trump’s up — even though Trump himself right now is a notoriously flabby, less-than-lucid 77.

1970 Lincoln Continental

And frankly, especially when you consider examples like turn-of-the-century Venezuela, it’s hard to fault U.S. voters for being wary of both men. Not just because of the physical bags under their eyes — but because of the political furrows behind those eyes, which no amount of Botox can erase.

Trump’s are laden with bigotry, sexism, lies, cruelty, narcissism, vulgarity and, oh yeah, treasonous authoritarianism — values as retro and boorish as one of those 1980’s Cadillac stretch limos he used to shill for.

President Joe Biden talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 31, 2023 before boarding Marine One. Biden is heading to Mississippi to survey damage from a recent tornado.
Susan Walsh
President Biden at the White House this year.

Biden’s certainly don’t fall into that nefarious class — unlike Trump, he endorses decency. But there are anachronisms that can feel more like a Lincoln Continental vintage 1970 (the year Biden first won political office) than one of the EV’s he’s handing out tax credits for today.

There’s his New Deal-era delusion that the U.S. government can keep spending in the 21st century the way it could in the 20th. Or that its well-warranted embrace of Israel’s right to exist can include the ill-advised embrace of thuggish Israeli leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu (Biden’s rebuke this week of Netanyahu’s brutal Gaza campaign notwithstanding). Or that Democrats can continue to take Latinos for granted — even as polls show Biden hemorrhaging Latino voters not just inside but outside Florida.

Whatever it is that’s alienating the electorate, it’s a safe bet it comes back to one word: octogenarian.

Despite a strong U.S. economy, a growing number of Americans seem to feel that the likes of Biden — and 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, or Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died refusing to resign in 2020 at 87 — represent a gerontocracy that’s not only not passing the torch, but suffocating it.

The irony, of course, is that Donald Trump — the gerontocrat who threatens to do most to choke U.S. democracy — is the guy benefiting from that malaise.

Chalk that up to the “recipe for disaster” the Venezuelan presidential aide warned us about.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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