46 thoughts on “How do you explain clientelism to a gringo?

  1. Come on! The country that gave us Jacksonian democracy and the spoils system, political machines such as the Byrd Organization and Tammany Hall, surely can understand clientelism.

    George Washington Plunkitt’s table talks on the matter, which are candidly vivid, should be an entertaining read. Look up “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: a series of very plain talks on very practical politics”.

    Having said that, your article is spot-on.

  2. One of the readers’ comments: “I prefer a politician who builds houses than one who makes empty promises.” What’s the polite Spanish way of saying “you missed the point completely?”

    • Gringos miss the point on a lot of things because, amazingly enough, quite a few of them still believe in their political system. Absurd as it may be, they still believe the headlines and seldom read between the lines. It explains why all my 20-something American friends get all excited during election season as opposed to my Latin American friends who roll their eyes and go, “Here we go again.” For example, if Hugo Chavez announces that he’s built 400 jillion new housing units, Americans go, “Well that’s a lot better than the traditional corrupt elite. He said he’s doing it, so maybe some of his more obnoxious traits are well worth it.” Of course, this is because American politicians obfuscate, dissemble and bend the truth but don’t usually make up outrageous figures on national TV lest they be ridiculed by every blog and late night TV show from LA to NY. The same can’t be said in Venezuela despite the best efforts of El Chiguire Bipolar. I also think a lot of the gringos that comment on articles like those don’t speak Spanish and haven’t actually seen the humilliating, mocking tone that Chavez takes on cadenas. The quickest way for many of these gringo idealists to turn on their socialist heroes is to spend one day in these so-called paradises. I remember a Marxist American girl I knew spent one week in Cuba and came back horrified at the state of the island. It was nothing like the workers’ paradise she’d read about. It’s tough kid, but it’s life.

  3. From the tone of the comments on your Latutude piece, Quico, clearly many of the NY Times readers seem quite OK with clientelismo. Although it is true that to those who have had nothing, Chavez is a savior, they missed the point of how pervasive and perverse government becomes in their life.

  4. Don’t be so sure it’s that difficult when they have a government that routinely pays multiples of the original budget (of billions and ten of billions) for, say weapons for the military…

    However, the difference it’s that it’s actually built and delivered, there’s however some accounting for cost overruns and delays, and any bugs are incidental.

    Enter anything in Venezuela…

    In fact, Venezuelan style clientelism would be hard to explain to a Sicilian. The mafia-backed contractors have to build something for show…

  5. Fine article. Re the gringo reaction. A lot of well meaning people up here.honestly believe that Chavez is doing a good job because of his reputation for helping the poor and sticking the finger to imperialism and capitalism. So people are prepared to give Chavez and the Castros the benefit of the doubt. I chaulk it up to the other side of the paternalistic, colonialist/imperialist mentality (the left leaning side): we shouldn’t judge them by our standards, they are a third world country and don’t have the capacity for bourgeois luxuries like the rule of law, the ends justify the means (in latin america), don’t bother me with the details, the USA is so influential and powerful that exceptional measures are justified, etc etc. And things are so FUBB in our own jurisdictions with scant good news for the progressive left, or even the reasonably sane centre for that matter, that we look to latin america for heroes, great victories and fairy stories of revolution. Shame on us, once gain, sitting up here in the north, for presuming we know better without getting all the facts.

    • “they are a third world country and don’t have the capacity for bourgeois luxuries like the rule of law” You speak deeply,Can man! I am pondering the “don’t have the capacity”-part..
      Actually, I am so saddened by Venezuela- the past twelve plus years could have placed
      Venezuela firmly in the “first world” camp if proper economic development had been invested in
      and built with the billions wasted on useless weapons and dealings with corrupt, rotten smaller
      states esp. like Cuba for example.
      Instead Chavez has pushed Venezuela firmly back into “third world” conditions.
      Unemployment is rapidly increasing. Investment in new business, growth has been dropping like a stone year after year. What gets me is -how can even the illiterate of the el pueblo not know this?

  6. The commenters are simply accepting for Venezuela a lower standard of public administration than they would accept themselves. There are no merit or need-based criteria for who gets homes or other benefits in Venezuela, so goodies are allotted at the whim of President Chavez. But if Americans’ homes could be taken away because of what they say about Obama or Bush, they’d understand it quickly enough.

  7. How do you explain it? You don’t. The grass is always greener. Once you mention that housing DID get built, however far under the promised amount, and no matter the quality, all else is forgiven.

    In two years living in the US, the phrase I most commonly hear when foreign politics are discussed is “at least X does Y, unlike our politicians!”

  8. Simple, look up Feudalism and simply replace the following words with their equivalents in the text.

    King = President
    Vassals = Citizens
    Lords = Ministers
    Minor Aristocracy = Government Officials

    Now, what is so hard about that?

    You can even find other parallels such as:

    King’s Court = Alo Presidente
    (in which the king rewards loyalty, punishes disloyalty, settles disputes, and makes pronouncements)

    We often compare Chavismo to Fascism, and politically this is probably the most apt comparison. However, in the farcical case of government enterprises and public housing projects, the feudal model is more apt.

  9. Dear Quico:

    How do you explain it to us Gringos…?
    Hey, same way you’d explain it to a Frenchman:
    – just use today’s “Lingua Franca” instead of yesterday’s.
    …Hey, why the populist Chauvinism?
    Is this what you learned in Vermont?
    – That Gringos are dumber than Krauts, Waps, Japs, Frogs or Latinos?



  10. Personally I think what is going on in Venezuelan, is quite hard for Venezuelans to understand which is really the point…because if people had been more astute, the country would be in much better shape :)

  11. Thanks, Fire. Stupidity (and xenophobia) is no confined to the USA. I’m a bit put out that Quico, of all people, tries to ingratiate himself with Latin America’s lowest common denominator by so bravely talking down Gringos – indeed using the term “Gringo” like any other xenophobe – without specific reason, like a beer hall bigot -although he’s unusually astute for a goddam Spic!


    ps Quico – if you’re listening to this old post commentary, I trust, as an intelligent Spic of good will, you can discern my mimicking your use of ethnic pejorative as mere sarcasm – and will notice how rarely I use it; only to make a point.

    As for Clientelism, the American word for it, widely understood here, is Peronism. Relabeling it to make it seem a unique new flavor of dictatorship, is quite literally an exercise in pseudo-academics.

    Warmly, and with Good Luck to Radonski,


      • grin·go

        Usually Disparaging .
        (in Latin America or Spain) a foreigner, especially one of U.S. or British descent.


        a person from an English-speaking country: used as a derogatory term by Latin Americans


        1849, from Mex.Sp. gringo, contemptuous word for “foreigner,” from Sp. gringo “foreign, unintelligible talk, gibberish,” perhaps ult. from griego “Greek.” The “Diccionario Castellano” (1787) says gringo was used in Malaga for “anyone who spoke Spanish badly,” and in Madrid for “the Irish.”

          • That explanation is pure urban legend. The term appears in Spanish literature a hundred years prior to the Mexican-American War. It originated as a corruption of the Spanish word “griego”, used to mean “incomprehensible”, just as it is used in English, “It is Greek to me.”

            It is a good story, but that is all it is… a story.

            • The “Diccionario Castellano” (1787) says gringo was used … in Madrid for “the Irish.”

              The root of “green go” may have been true then…

        • Yeah, can’t say I’ve ever seen ‘gringo’ used particularly disparagingly. I mean, it’s obviously not what you would call someone in official media but I see it more like calling people from Oklahoma ‘Sooners’ or someone from Texas ‘Tex’ as opposed to actual racist language. A lot of it depends on the society in which it is used and the inflection they want to give it. Some people would argue that ANY ethnic-based nickname other than the official term (norteamericano, not gringo, yanqui, chele, guero or anything of the sort) is acceptable. However, gringo does border on the affectionate most of the time it’s used, wheras there’s no positive way to use spic or wop.

          • Well: the term is not norteamericano: Canadians are North Americans and most Mexicans are North Americans as well (but those from Yucatán). It’s US-American or “estadounidense”, but it sounds funny…so: gringo is good…and Gringoland is not bad.

    • Deedle,

      As an American who has lived and traveled in Latin America for many years, I can tell you that this term’s connotations vary widely depending on the country. In Mexico, the term is, or can be used as, a pejorative, but in other parts of LatAm, it can range from mildly pejorative to neutral to playfully affectionate.

      In Venezuela, “Gringo” is largely neutral with a slight lean towards affectionate. As evidence, note that Chavez, who has a strong command of invective, rarely, if ever, uses this term. His preferred pejorative for Americans is “Yanquis”, which does have strongly negative connotations here.

      And, you are probably not going to get under anyone’s skin here by calling them a “Spic”. They won’t know what you are talking about.

    • Deedle,,

      My main point is that it is an attempt to ingratiate others and to deflect from the real problems to talk about the short comings pf gringos ( even if there is some truth in the matter), when it is Venezuela who is responsible for itself and has not been very astute in handling affairs.

    • I’m not really offended if you call me a spic, but I do get offended by

      “Warmly, and with Good Luck to Radonski,”

      This late in the game, you still haven’t figured out that when you deal with a double-barrelled Spanish last name, you can shorten it by using the first one but never by using just the second one!? “Radonski” is the guy’s mom!!

      • “I’m not really offended if you call me a spic,”

        Really, Quico? Or is this a disingenuous attempt at counter-argument? For someone who has spent considerable time in the US, you are well aware that if you were the object of this highly derogatory term used by Americans (aka US citizens for those who feign ignorance), you would certainly be offended.

        You could say that it’s all in the nuance used with terms, such as “spic” or “gringo”, or even “musiú”. And yet, if there were no derogatory subtext involved in any of these terms, the caller would simply choose to address the objects by their proper name or nationality.


        I grew up exposed to both colonial remnants in Caracas and its emerging nouveau-riche. From a bicultural home, I was able to suss out from an early age cultural nuances. And lest there are still ingenues, or so it would seem from some of the comments on this thread, I can tell you that even the “playfully affectionate” terms always had their veiled little claws, when they were not countering xenophobic insecurities.

        But hey, say toss these terms often enough in a joking manner (har-de-har-har), and you can fool anyone. Even yourself.

        • Syd, you really really think you have a deeper insight due to your presumably “more diverse origins”? (as if we were not all pretty much mixed and descendants of migrants)
          Spyc is indeed insulting, but each one of us decides how to react…and Quico and Peter and John may react as they please. It’s not for you to decide. You decide how you feel about things, you can’t impose your feelings and reactions towards some ethnic or pseudo ethnic reference to anyone else.

          By the way: the thing about “American” doesn’t have to do with feigning ignorance. It is a political position, which you may or may not agree with. A lot of people have said a thousand times: our position is that American is referring to a continent (actually, double continent), not to a country…only that US Americans never came up with their own name for themselves. It is like Germans stating they are the only Europeans and all the rest are “South Europeans”, “Latino Europeans”, etc.
          Of course, others think otherwise. That’s their right. I hope never to live in a country where I have to mind every word I say for the fear of being political correct. Such country is not one bit less affected by racism.

          • Well I must have some insight, Kep, over those who claim that terms like “my little gringo” or “our dear gringo” have no subtle subtext that is not at all “dear”. Or Quico who claims that he would not really be offended by anyone calling him “spic”. I grew sussing the veiled little claws behind the so-called “affectionate” musiuá.

            Quico surely knew that using “gringo” in his title would call much more attention to his article (and isn’t that the primary objective?), than had he used a term with less political charge.

            But the bottom line has nothing to do with origins, cultures, or nationalities — ALL without question engage in forms of xeno or racial phobia. (It may just be wired into the human DNA.) What I’m pointing out is the NIMBY effect, which goes hand in hand with the capacity for delusion or (self) deception. “Ooooh, not us. we love everyone. Honest.”

            As for Americanism, you perhaps did not catch my drift. It is unfortunate that the term has become associated predominantly with US citizens, not only by these citizens, themselves, but by much of the rest of the world. Part of that nomenclature stands to reason. For much like Deedle assumed when he referred to Capriles as “Radonski”, U.S. citizens and many others, the world over, have appropriated the last word in the United States of America.

            But you knew that, surely.

          • I actually agree with you here Kepler….I think it can be quite nuanced and usually we intuit when ‘gringo’ is used affectionately or not and in the end as long as we preserve our right to call people ‘spics’, there is no earthly reason we should not be called gringos.

            • spic

              noun Slang: Disparaging and Offensive .
              a Spanish-American person.

              spic , spick or spik (spɪk)

              slang ( US ) a derogatory word for a person from a Spanish-speaking country in South or Central America or a Spanish-speaking community in the US


              derogatory for “Latino person,” 1913, from cliche protestation, No spick English. Earlier spiggoty (1910); the term is said to have originated in Panama during the canal construction. But it also was applied from an early date to Italians, and some have suggested an alteration of spaghetti.

            • yes ex Torres, it would seem that when gringos dislike being called gringos they are thin- skinned…

              Yet when Hispanics dislike being called spics it is quite justified and so much so that it is even documented into a formality :)

              Personally i have no need to use informal terminologies but at the same time I try not to take offense at a mere name.

            • “Yet when Hispanics dislike being called spics it is quite justified and so much so that it is even documented into a formality :)”
              Documented? By whom? Torres is quoting all the time English dictionaries, firstly about gringo (gringo, don’t you read?) and then about spics. Those dictionaries were written by English speakers.
              Who’s taking offence here? We are saying all the time we use the term gringo in a non pejorative way. We use the term US American or gringo because the citizens of the US couldn’t come up with a name for their nationality, so they chose to use an adjective that since the early XVI century refers to people of a whole hemisphere.

            • Firepigette, are you suggesting that it’s OK to be defensive about the use of the terms? My take from reading those definitions and reading the reactions in the comments section, here, is that to be considerate of others one should avoid the use of both terms, however endearing the intent of the user may be.

  12. I realy didn’t mean to offend you or anyone, just to protest your singling out gringos for igorance of what amounts to Peronism. u I’mreally gald I got evroe riled up. It’s lice to talk to you now and them. OK Capriles. and I love his mother, too.




  13. Kepler, Latin Americans uses the word gringo to differentiate people who would prefer you to use their proper name, but most people don’t respect that….so I am saying that those who do not respect that should not be angered if others don’t care what they call them…strictly speaking tit for tat.

    ……Americans are what people from the US call themselves.If you don’t call yourself an American that’s your prerogative, but you are quite welcome to the name.

  14. Dear Firep. :
    I admire your ability to so concisely express what I’ve been trying to say. I know Quico is not hurt by name calling, especially by a Clazy ‘Melican whom he knows tolerably well. I don’t know any specific derogatory term for a Venezeulan; not even sure they count as “Latinos” around here; so I used what was once long ago used for a “Spanish-speaker”, and dumped in a few other ethic slurs for emphasis. I hope the rest of you don’t get too swallowed up by the terms I used; I use them only in jests like this, for their shock value. I don’t actually mind being called a Gringo. I only wanted to object to Quico’s baseless implication that us gringos are particularly unteachable about what he calls “clientelism”. I used the device of expressing a similar view the other way around to see how it plays out. It seems to have worked.

    That’s really all; nothing fancy. I know Quico as a man of immense integrity, and I’m sure he gets the point without damage.

    – And he taught me something about Venezeulan last names being in the middle.
    A bit like the illustrious Penn Atticus Stich Harvey,
    Ms. Toro must be the MOTHER of “Francisco Quico Toro”!
    I love her, too.


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