May 15, 2013
To read my latest article, click here.
May 2, 2013
My interview yesterday with Katty Kay of BBC News, following a brawl in the Venezuelan National Assembly.
April 16, 2013
To see my interview yesterday on Charlie Rose show about Venezuela, click here. By and large, this was a lively discussion with different shades of opinion. Other panelists included Jorge Castaneda, a Mexican political figure who has undergone an intriguing evolution over the years from Communist to Foreign Minister under Vicente Fox, and
Greg Grandin, an astute scholar from NYU.
As the conversation turned to Maduro's razor-sharp victory in Venezuela's presidential election, I voiced concerns that Chavez's successor might lack enough legitimacy to push through truly revolutionary programs. In a sense, Maduro's narrow victory demonstrates the "perils of populism," because only a charismatic leader can push through political change. Take the charismatic leader out the equation, however, and your movement can get in trouble or become derailed.
In putting together a new "Latin American left 3.0," Venezuela should carry out more communal councils, economic cooperatives, and barter exchanges. Unfortunately, Maduro seems to represent the old, ideological left and has failed to demonstrate much creativity in foreign policy. Perhaps, if the left can adopt some of the more innovative measures of Chavismo while integrating environmental concerns, which was always Venezuela's Achilles heel, the left can move ahead.
So, who's the next Hugo Chavez, Charlie asked? Perhaps, I said, it could be Rafael Correa of Ecuador who has some innovative environmental ideas. Just like Chavez, however, this populist is a decidedly mixed bag and his country is much smaller than Venezuela and doesn't have nearly as much oil.
April 14, 2013
To read my latest about the war on Cuba, Venezuela, the Kissinger files and today's vote in Caracas, click here.
March 10, 2013
As Latin America and the wider world seek to come to terms with the death of Hugo Chavez, many may wonder about the Venezuelan populist's political legacy.
In the immediate term, the deceased comandante's shadow will loom large over Venezuela's next snap presidential election which will be held on April 14. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's former Foreign Minister, will face off against Henrique Capriles Radonski, who previously challenged Chavez for the presidency and lost.
As I discussed on al-Jazeera English this evening [apparently no link available], the election may hinge on who can best come off as "Chavez-lite." Capriles is unlikely to question Chavez's adherence to social programs which redistributed wealth to the neediest. Indeed, while he served as Governor of the state of Miranda, Capriles actually emulated Chavez by adopting similar populist social programs himself. In this sense, Capriles is probably the most electable candidate to spring from the opposition, which was historically fractured and extremely fanatical. On the other hand, there is a great deal of sympathy for Chavez, and Maduro will benefit from his association with the Bolivarian Revolution. Even though Maduro lacks Chavez's charisma, he can bank on favorable blanket coverage from state-run media and support from Chavez's own PSUV political machine.
As I stated on al-Jazeera, my concern is that there will be very little space for a more radical discussion during this short-lived campaign. Though the candidates may disagree about foreign policy, they essentially agree on the overall contours of domestic social policy. Indeed, the fundamental psychological mindset of the Venezuelan poor has shifted so dramatically under Chavez that it is unlikely that any president, let alone a conservative one, would dare to turn back the clock and reintroduce the kinds of market reforms which characterized political life during the 1990s.
With no substantial disagreements on the social front, the campaign may center upon other issues such as urban crime. But while frightening homicides in Caracas and other cities are certainly important, such concerns pale beside the larger question of the Bolivarian Revolution and radical transformation of political life. What of the economic cooperatives, communal councils, ALBA and alternative currencies? These are all measures which serve to reconfigure fundamental power relations, and though some programs have been linked to cronyism and corruption, they represent an idealistic challenge to the underpinnings of the capitalist state.
A couple of days ago, while speaking on Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, I touched on such vital questions during a roundtable panel discussion [apparently the entire segment is unavailable, though you can watch this snippet which unfortunately does not include me]. The other guests included Moises Naim, a Venezuelan writer and columnist who was previously associated with IESA, a conservative business school in Caracas which pushed economic reforms eschewed by Chavez. We were also joined by Rory Carroll of the Guardian newspaper.
With Naim staking out the predictable anti-Chavez right, maybe Zakaria thought I would take up the full role of Chavez partisan. At the beginning of the interview, the CNN host turned to me and asked, "you like Chavez, right?" It's a perfectly reasonable question, though I wasn't entirely sure how to respond. Discussions about Chavez tend to split between ideological partisans on both sides, and there's often very little space for additional views. As readers are aware, I have some mixed feelings about populism, a very polemical subject in Latin America. In the end, I think I answered something to the effect of "it's a mixed bag," though I might have easily added "it's complicated!"
It's difficult to convey a minority within a minority viewpoint sometimes, though hopefully the viewers will have understood that I am critical of Chavez --- not from the right but from the left. I said that Chavez was wrong to have embraced Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, which in the long run discredited Venezuela amongst the international left and revolutionaries associated with the Arab Spring.
In an effort to move the conversation into provocative territory, I also argued that Chavez had actually not gone too far but not far enough. Whatever the problems with the cooperatives, I declared, they should be improved upon in an effort to promote worker democracy. Predictably, Naim trashed the cooperatives and went on a rant about how Chavez had wrecked the economy. Rather disappointingly for a leftist Guardian columnist, Carroll kind of chimed in by pointing to flaws in the cooperative system.
I hope that the media will continue to touch upon Chavez's political legacy, and particularly the more radical and anti-capitalist measures which deserve more systematic attention and scrutiny. Perhaps, socialist constituencies within the Bolivarian camp or even anarchists can force likely presidential winner Maduro to deepen the ongoing process of social transformation. It's not an easy task, however, because Maduro --- like Chavez before him --- also answers to rival constituencies such as the managerial capitalist class.
As Latin America and the wider world ponders the post-Chavez landscape, it's hardly clear where the left goes from here. While Chavez radicalized the Venezuelan people through innovative programs, his haphazard government failed to follow through on lasting bottom up revolutionary change. Though populists like Chavez mobilize the people, they typically only go so far and never overturn the social order. If anything, Maduro seems more cautious and diplomatic than Chavez and seems to eschew the inflammatory rhetoric of his mentor.
Perhaps, Rafael Correa of Ecuador may inherit the Chavez mantle. Like his Venezuelan mentor, Correa is a populist who also employs fiery rhetoric to mobilize the masses. He is pretty popular, too, having just won reelection in a landslide. Whether he has the vision or even the desire to transform Ecuador into a radical social laboratory, however, is open to doubt. To be sure, the Ecuadoran has some interesting ideas about climate change and challenging the Global North on global warming, but overall Correa seems pretty intent on pursuing the extractive economy and this hardly bodes well for his relations with social forces on the ground. Over in Bolivia, meanwhile, Evo Morales also made noises about climate change at one time but even he has run afoul of the Indians who dislike the government's boondoggle projects.
From about 2002 to 2006, before he started to pursue more questionable and retrograde policies, Hugo Chavez injected a welcome note of idealism into Latin politics. If it wants to be successful, the next generation of regional leaders should think about taking up some of Chavez's empowering ideas such as economic cooperatives, ALBA barter, alternative currencies and communal councils, while avoiding all of the potential downsides like patronage networks and cronyism. If future leaders can build upon such an agenda, while incorporating concerns over climate change and the extractive economy, they just might succeed in bringing about long-term revolutionary change and not just charismatic populism which can often prove transitory or even ephemeral.
March 5, 2013
Tectonic political developments today as the world seeks to come to terms with Hugo Chavez's death and the late populist leader's true legacy. As readers of my writing will know I have been somewhat critical of the Bolivarian Revolution over the years, though truly it has been a sad day. Whatever one thinks of Chavez, he certainly managed to bring about fundamental change for millions of people through his movement.
At any rate, I just went in for an interview with John Fugelsang on Current TV's Viewpoint. Also speaking on the panel was former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Jeffrey Davidow. To see the interview click here. Unfortunately, Current has only offered a snippet here though I am told that the full interview will be available online today.
What is more, I just concluded an interview with the CBC of Canada [can't find online, but some comments incorporated here.
And, just now concluded roundtable on HuffPost Live with yet another U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro. To see the segment, click here.
For a more extensive interview, check out my exchange with Sam Seder of Majority Report which is available here.
For a wider discussion of Chavez's relationship with Hollywood, see my quotes in The Grio today as well. And don't forget to see my earlier articles about Oliver Stone and Danny Glover too.
January 10, 2013
Just who, exactly, is in charge of Venezuela right now? That was the question posed to me late last night by al-Jazeera [the video, apparently, is unavailable online]. It's a perfectly reasonable question, though few seem to have much of a sense of what is happening behind the scenes. The issue has recently come to a head due to President Chavez's longstanding illness and inability to attend his own inauguration. The Venezuelan Supreme Court, meanwhile, has stated that Chavez may postpone the inauguration to a future date, though the opposition has cried foul.
The confusion has led some Venezuelans to wonder who might actually be in control. Officially speaking, Vice President Nicolas Maduro is now the de facto leader of the country, and would probably run as Chavez's official candidate in the event of new elections. Believe it or not, however, the Venezuelan constitution is subject to some interpretation in the event of problematic presidential successions. Some experts say the inauguration can be postponed, while others claim that Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello must declare a caretaker government and then call for new elections.
Whatever the case, uncertainty over the succession could cause major disruptions to the Venezuelan political system. As I remarked to al-Jazeera, the longer this crisis plays out the greater the chances for instability and unrest, similar to the 2002-2004 period when the opposition launched strikes and other destabilization in an effort to topple Chavez from power. Also unknown is the future political role of the military: presumably Chavez still commands a lot of influence over the armed forces though the succession crisis could give rise to division within the ranks.
What might be the role of the U.S. in this unfolding drama? During my interview, I suggested that Obama might pursue a cautious course for the time being, careful to avoid the impression of choosing sides. When the Bush administration blatantly allied itself with the right wing opposition in 2002, and Chavez defeated a short-lived coup, Washington was completely humiliated. To be sure, Obama may see opportunity in this crisis, but don't expect him to take sides any time soon.
January 4, 2013
January 2, 2013
As Chavez fights for his life, eyes are turning to Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's Foreign Minister, who is viewed as a likely political successor. When asked to comment by USA Today reporter Peter Wilson, I expressed doubts about Maduro's ability to unite diverse constituencies within Chavez's PSUV party. Furthermore, as readers of this website are aware, I am skeptical about all the possible Chavez successors including Maduro, Diosdado Cabello and Hugo's brother Adan.
For earlier articles, click here.
November 9, 2012
October 27, 2012
October 7, 2012
On balance, Venezuelan elections under Chávez have been handled pretty fairly and many observers agree that the system has been free of glaring irregularities. Yet, if WikiLeaks cables are any indication, some potential underlying problems still remain. At issue is the so-called “Misión Identidad” or “Identity Mission,” a government program which has registered new voters.
The Chávez government started the initiative in 2003 in an effort to provide identification cards to the disenfranchised poor which up until that time had not possessed any official government identification. Misión Identidad, which was administered by the National Office of Identification and Naturalization or ONIDEX, formed part of a number of other social-based programs known as missions. Without any official Venezuelan identification, the poor would not able to vote or acquire benefits from social services.
In theory it all sounds good but according to U.S. diplomatic cables “the Chávez government has politicized this social service and used it to improve its electoral standing.” Perhaps, the system could even give Chávez a leg up in today’s presidential election. The U.S. Embassy in Caracas noted that Cuba, a key strategic ally of Venezuela in the wider region, has provided key expertise to Chávez on how to expand the country's national electoral registry, and through Misión Identidad the authorities were able to register a whopping two million new voters.
As far back as 2006, the Chávez government used the “tried and true method of stuffing the voter registry” by naturalizing migrants and handing out identification cards through Mision Identidad. According to the Americans, Chávez “unabashedly used the Misión Identidad program as a tool for garnering more votes.” Since most of the Misión Identidad employees were “avowed Chavistas,” the implication was “clear” that applicants were expected to vote for Chávez. Moreover, those who received new ID cards would probably be grateful to Chávez and more inclined to vote for him.
Many of the registrations were carried out in “mass naturalizations” in frontier states like Zulia and Táchira along the Colombian border. The U.S. Embassy reported that “little if any documentation is needed for this process.” In a scathing indictment, the Americans wrote that ONIDEX and Misión Identidad were “rife with corruption.”
If today’s presidential contest is close, perhaps we will hear more questions about the use of these types of programs. Stay tuned.
October 6, 2012
To hear Hugo Chávez speak of it, crime is a kind of red herring issue in the Venezuelan presidential election. Recently, when asked if he would beef up security and hire more policemen, the populist leader pooh-poohed the entire notion, remarking that such a strategy responded to a mere right wing ethos. To be sure, conservatives tend to favor such draconian crackdowns which are no substitute for true and lasting social reform. Yet, Chávez may pay a stiff political price for flippantly disregarding the need for greater control over urban crime.
Indeed, some observers believe that violence could be the single most pressing issue in the election. Venezuela’s homicide rate now makes the nation one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and the murder rate is now four times higher than it was when Chávez first took office 13 years ago. Of particular concern is Caracas, which displays an alarming homicide rate of 92 per 100,000 residents. That is the third highest homicide rate of any large city in the world, and according to Time magazine there are 50 murders in the city every week. The dead have been piling up and filling morgues, making Caracas even deadlier than Baghdad.
For Chávez, escalating urban crime represents a keen vulnerability heading into tomorrow’s presidential election. Kidnappers, who reportedly operate in tandem with the police, pick up victims from cars, shopping centers, university campuses or even bus stops. Exasperated by the constant state of fear, many young Venezuelans choose to emigrate out of the country. Meanwhile, Chávez recently announced a security plan though it was the president’s 20th such initiative and failed to reassure. The President’s conservative challenger, Henrique Capriles Randonski, has pledged to get tough on violent crime though making a serious dent in the problem could take years.
Some sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables relating to Venezuelan crime make for sobering reading. In one communication disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas suggests that the Chávez government is deliberating falsifying crime reports. When the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal suggested that the murder rate had risen 14% in the first trimester of 2008 despite a security crackdown, the authorities accused the paper of “media terrorism” and claimed that murders had actually declined 8% over the same period.
Such claims, however, were revealed as bogus when U.S. diplomats spoke with the former chief coroner of the Caracas morgue, who confirmed that the murder rate had indeed risen. Meanwhile, civil society non-governmental organizations complained that Chávez officials concealed the true homicide figures. They told the Americans that officials failed to list deaths due to police encounters, custodial deaths in prison or so-called “unexplained deaths” as genuine homicides. In its report, the American Embassy explained that the term “unexplained death” concealed a large percentage of homicides. In one case, for example, tenant farmers cleared land and discovered two bodies in a grisly and shallow grave. The incident was later reported as “unexplained deaths.”
Another slippery tactic employed by the authorities was to manipulate time to hide murder statistics. When they compared weekly figures, officials only used Monday to Thursday or Friday of the current week in relation to the seven days of the previous week. In such a way, the Chávez government passed over homicides during the weekend, when murder rates tended to spike. The U.S. Embassy noted that the authorities had carried out high profile anti-crime operations and lofty propaganda, but “crime is undermining public support for the Revolutionary Bolivarian government.” Indeed, the coroner who agreed to speak with the Americans confessed that he had resigned his position as head of the metropolitan forensics unit because of “increased political interference” from high up officials.
At the time of the report, U.S. diplomats noted that “crime is a pressing societal problem that the Revolutionary Bolivarian government cannot solve just by throwing money at it.” However, the Americans continued, neither the government nor opposition parties had come up with “credible, comprehensive plans to combat urban crime.”
Then, as now, crime is a hot button topic in Venezuela and could represent Chávez’s Achilles Heel. Whether Capriles, however, can effectively exploit the issue tomorrow remains to be seen.
October 3, 2012
Check out my most recent interview on al-Jazeera English, a panel discussion which centered on the Venezuelan election and the wider issues in Latin America. To see the interview, click here.
October 2, 2012
August 18, 2012
August 16, 2012
Just got off the phone after concluding an interview with Pacifica Radio KPFA about the escalating Julian Assange case. An interesting panel discussion, which begins at about 8:00. Click here to go to the link.
August 15, 2012
August 9, 2012
June 13, 2012
Check it out here.
May 22, 2012
To read my article about the status of Venezuela's Cuban health program, click here.
April 18, 2012
Just made an appearance on al-Jazeera English on Sunday, though unfortunately it does not seem to be available on the internet. The discussion centered around the upcoming Venezuelan election and the ramifications of Hugo Chavez's illness upon domestic politics as well as the international left. I said that Chavez made a big mistake by not grooming a successor about six years ago, which jeopardizes the whole "Bolivarian" project. From there, we got into the issue of the pitfalls of populism and the idea of the charismatic leader. If Chavez should falter, the most immediate beneficiary will probably be Brazil, and I have decidedly mixed feelings about this. In my next and upcoming article, I highlight these concerns in light of secret correspondence involving the U.S., Brazil and Argentina.
March 21, 2012
March 20, 2012
De Staandard, a daily Belgian paper with circulation 100,000, just published this article about Venezuela and the presidential election. The article quotes me but unfortunately it is written in Flemish. Click here to see the piece and be sure to let me know what it says.
March 19, 2012
To read the article about Venezuela election 2012 and problems at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, click here.
For earlier articles, click here.
February 16, 2012
February 1, 2012
October 4, 2011
I'm back writing for al-Jazeera, which is probably wondering why its activities are being monitored by the U.S. State Department in Venezuela. To read the article, click
For earlier articles, click here.
September 6, 2011
WikiLeaks has released all of its documents, and I'm staying on top of the Caracas cables. To read Part I, click here. For Part II, click here. For Part III, click here. For part IV, click here. For part V, click here.
For earlier articles, click here.
February 22, 2011
October 22, 2010
Check out this article on al-Jazeera which features a couple of analysts on Venezuela including myself.
October 13, 2010
September 28, 2010
Between the Venezuela legislative elections and the upcoming Brazilian presidential election, it's been a busy week or two. Recently, I went on NPR's Latino USA to talk about politics in Venezuela. To listen to the program, click here here.
I just spoke to host Maria Hinojosa again today, so for those who seek to interpret the result of the Venezuelan election be sure to check back to Latino USA's website for Friday's program.
Essentially, I told Hinojosa that while the legislative election was a setback for Chavez that it would be a mistake to interpret this as a complete reversal for the Bolivarian Revolution.
1) The Chavistas lost their supermajority in the National Assembly, which is not too different from the special election in Massachusetts a few months ago. The Chavistas maintain their majority, so they're simply going to have to negotiate more now.
2) The opposition did not participate in the last 2005 election, so it was bound to make some gains.
3) One must also factor in the recession: when the economy is doing poorly Chavez's popularity goes down.
4) The president is still relatively popular but he was not on the ballot as it was a midterm election.
In this sense, this election was similar to the midterms in the U.S.: people may take out their economic frustrations on the party in power.
The real test now will be how the opposition behaves in government. Will it just say no to every single proposal from the Chavez government, as per the Republicans in Congress? That would certainly be a narrow minded strategy, and not necessarily a winning one, for the 2012 election in which Chavez will participate.
Meanwhile, I'm leaving tomorrow for Brazil where I'll be interviewing members of both the political campaigns and sitting in on the presidential debate. In advance of my trip, I took part in a panel discussion on the Brazilian election on the Chinese radio program Beyond Beijing. To be sure, there is significant interest in the election in China, and this panel proved illuminating at times. Click here to listen. Meanwhile, tune in here for more coverage over the coming days.
May 1, 2010
March 22, 2010
November 24, 2009
Having survived a U.S.-supported coup d'état in 2002 which briefly removed him from power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has sought to encourage solidarity amongst impoverished nations in an effort to counter Washington's hegemonic and imperial designs throughout Latin America and around the world. That impulse is certainly understandable, but Chávez has now gone so far overboard that he has lost all moral standing and any shred of credibility. Just in case you missed it here is Chávez's latest gem for the ages: "I don't know, maybe he [the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin] was a great nationalist, a patriot."
While Chávez has certainly made some obtuse statements over the years, this remark was so offensive, so insensitive, so utterly devoid of any moral compass that it ought to give severe pause to Chávez's international supporters. If Chávez were so inclined, he might have taken a moment to conduct a cursory google search before holding forth on the subject of well known African dignitaries. Perhaps the Venezuelan might have come up with the following obituary from London's Guardian newspaper, dated 2003: "Idi Amin," ran the piece, "was one of the most brutal military dictators to wield power in post-independence Africa."
After militarily seizing power in 1971, the Ugandan made himself president, dissolved parliament and suspended elections. Under Amin, the secret police exercised absolute power over life and death while the courts and press were subjected to the president's whims. Even more disturbingly, Chávez's "patriot" killed hundreds of thousands of his real and perceived political opponents. To this day the true death toll is not known with estimates ranging widely between 80,000 and 300,000. Amnesty International, compiling figures with the help of Ugandan exiles, put the number even higher at 500,000.
It's odd that Chávez would cast Amin as a nationalist since other contemporary leaders held the exact opposite view. Indeed, Tanzania's former president Julius Nyerere once remarked that Amin actually damaged the cause of African nationalism. Perhaps, what Chávez meant was that Amin was a black nationalist to the detriment of other ethnic groups: in 1972 the Ugandan expelled 35,000 Asians from his country in the course of three months.
It's difficult to see what was going through Chávez's head when he made his recent speech: not only were his comments morally repugnant but also politically self defeating. In Uganda, officials said they were offended by the Venezuelan. President Yoweri Museveni's secretary Tamale Mirundi declared that Amin's soldiers had murdered both his parents right in front of him. "The way he [Amin] killed Ugandans in big numbers cannot qualify him to be a nationalist," Murundi added.
The withering criticism hasn't deterred Chávez from pursuing diplomatic alliances with tin pot African dictators such as Muamar Gaddafi. But the Venezuelan has embraced more loathsome despots. Take for example the case of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who Chávez calls a "brother." The African leader, Chávez says, has been wrongly branded a "bad guy" in the eyes of the world. Chávez once presented Mugabe with a replica of a sword wielded by Latin American independence leader Simon Bolívar. In another vintage Chávez gem, the Venezuelan leader told Mugabe that he was "a true freedom fighter [who] continues, alongside his people, to confront the pretensions of new imperialists."
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 and refused to leave office after disputed elections. He has presided over a humanitarian crisis which has pushed thousands to the point of starvation and left many dead of cholera. Zimbabwe once had one of the best health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa, but under Mugabe hospitals had to be shuttered because staff could not afford to buy necessary medicine or equipment. Instead of castigating Mugabe, Chávez came to the African leader's defense: the health emergency in Zimbabwe, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry stated, should not be used by other nations to "politically destabilize" the government in Harare.
In 2000, Mugabe began an oftentimes violent campaign to take over white-owned farms in Zimbabwe and hand them to blacks. Ultimately most of the land wound up in the hands of Mugabe's cronies and agricultural production plummeted, thereby wrecking the economy. Predictably, Chávez came to Mugabe's defense. "I pay tribute to Mugabe," the Venezuelan said, adding "the president of Zimbabwe is made out to be a villain - because he takes land from those who don't need it to give it to those who need it to live."
As if it could get no worse, Chávez has also embraced Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, a leader who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in Darfur. The ICC has charged Bashir with five counts: murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape. The court has declared that Bashir is criminally responsible for atrocities in Darfur as he was the head of state and commander of the Sudanese armed forces during a five-year counter-insurgency campaign waged against armed groups.
According to the Guardian, few independent observers doubt Bashir's culpability for the humanitarian disaster in Darfur which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since 2003. After a mainly non-Arab uprising broke out in Darfur, Bashir's government armed, trained and financed bands of Arab nomads to ransack villages in the region, murdering, raping and pillaging as they went along. The Sudanese army provided air and ground support. Human rights groups have hailed the ICC's decision to pursue Bashir. The Sudanese leader meanwhile counters that the ICC arrest warrant is a western plot to arrest his country's economic development. The ICC, he says, should "eat" its warrant.
Coming to the aid of an ally, Chávez has done his utmost to rehabilitate Bashir. "The recent indictment against the Sudanese president Bashir is one of these ridiculous cases. It's a farce," he said during an Arab summit in Doha. Going even further, Chávez spoke personally with Bashir and invited the Sudanese leader to visit Venezuela. "I spoke with al-Bashir and asked him about the risks he is facing when he visits a foreign country," Chávez said. "I invited him to visit Caracas, and I told him, 'I hope you do not have any problem there.'"
Chávez added that the ICC decision was based on racism and was "a legal eyesore and a political abuse, not only for Sudan but for the people of the third world." Unlike Chávez, other Latin American leaders have refused to demonstrate any solidarity with Bashir. During an official session at Doha, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kircher walked out so as to avoid being photographed with the Sudanese leader.
Chávez's African exploits are but the latest chapter in the Venezuelan's long embrace of autocratic despots. It's a long and tangled history, and I've written extensively about it before. Chávez has thrown his political and diplomatic support behind the likes of Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example. The Venezuelan leader has even warmed up to the likes of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. In Belarus, opposition activists are closely monitored by the secret police--still called the KGB. Anyone joining an opposition protest, Lukashenko has said, should be treated as a "terrorist," adding: "We will wring their necks, as one might a duck." During a visit to Minsk, Chávez remarked bizarrely that Belarus was "a model social state."
But by far the lowest moment came during the Chinese crack down in Tibet. Once again Chávez was on the wrong side. Defending China's repression, he argued that Tibet was part of China. Chávez moreover ridiculed attempts to protest China during the Olympics and in another flight of fantasy claimed that "The United States is behind all that is happening as it wants to derail the Beijing Olympics."
Everything that I've reported on here is on the public record, yet troll through the left blogosphere and you'd be hard pressed to find any mention of Chávez's moral lapses. Indeed, it would appear as if Chávez can do no wrong in the eyes of his international supporters.
Speak to leftist Latin American experts and they'll privately concede that Chávez is out of line. However, these same experts are very selective about what they will or will not sign or publish. Left academics will be the first to rush to Venezuela's defense when Caracas is attacked by the likes of Human Rights Watch for example. I haven't seen any mention however of Idi Amin or Omar Al-Bashir. Where are the heavy hitters on the left? The silence is becoming more and more apparent.
August 13, 2009
NOTE: FOR EARLIER POSTS CLICK HERE.
As a result of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s decision to allow six U.S. military bases on his country’s soil the propaganda war has heated up in the Andean region. In neighboring Venezuela, Hugo Chávez says Colombia is seeking to destabilize the border and has hinted that war could be imminent.
When Uribe and Chávez slug it out rhetorically the two constantly employ historical references, in particular to the Great Liberator Simón Bolívar. A leader of the independence struggle against Spain, Bolívar was a member of the Caracas aristocracy and liberated Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador from imperial rule in the early nineteenth century.
Why is this Bolivarian rhetoric still so common and integral to politics in the Andean region? To answer that question I wrote a piece for the Washington, D.C-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs in March, 2008.
I was prompted to write the piece in response to the political crisis stemming from a Colombian military raid on a FARC guerrilla encampment within Ecuadoran territory. For years the Colombian government has been at war with the leftist FARC and is wont to pursue its political enemy across its borders in Venezuela to the east and Ecuador to the south.
Then as now, Uribe’s U.S.-assisted military brinksmanship resulted in a rhetorical outburst from Chávez. In light of the current crisis and threat of war perhaps it’s instructive to revisit my original piece for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Looking back on my article written a little more than a year ago it is striking how little politics has changed in the Andean region. Indeed, Chávez continues to employ Bolivarian symbols and his government has sought to pass an education bill based on “the Bolivarian doctrine”: a term used by the Venezuelan President to describe his socialist political movement. The measure has generated considerable controversy with some protesters claiming that the bill will open the door to socialist indoctrination in schools. In the international arena meanwhile, Chávez has said that the U.S. seeks to fracture Bolivarian unity by installing its bases in Colombia and Soto Cano in Honduras [for more on the U.S. airbase at Soto Cano, see my previous columns].
Chávez never misses a chance to use Bolívar for political ends. In a column for the state-run Bolivarian News Agency the Venezuelan President recently made allusion to an early diplomatic encounter between Bolívar and the United States. In 1817, American ships sought to supply arms to Spanish forces opposed to Bolívar in Venezuela. When Bolívar captured the two ships Secretary of State John Quincy Adams sent a Baltimore journalist with political ambitions named John Baptiste Irving to negotiate with Bolívar.
In her book Venezuela and the United States: From Monroe’s Doctrine to Petroleum’s Empire, historian Judith Ewell writes that Irving was instructed to secure the release of the ships and the handover of the vessels to their rightful owners. Irving was also told to secure an indemnity for the lost cargo. Bolívar received Irving graciously as he hoped that the diplomatic envoy would extend U.S. political recognition to his movement.
However, diplomatic negotiations quickly deteriorated: Bolívar would not back down on his position vis-a-vis the ships while Irving failed to provide the coveted recognition. Bolívar grew disenchanted with the U.S., a power which in his view had failed to provide adequate support for South American independence movements. According to Ewell, Irving did not take Bolívar’s dismissal of the shipping issue lightly. For several months, the American fired angry notes back to Adams which characterized Bolívar as a tyrant and a “Don Quixote with ambition.” “The wheels of his [Bolívar’s] government,” Irving wrote, “are clogged already with imbecility.” In 1819 Irving finally gave up his mission and returned to the U.S.
In his column Chávez made reference to the Irving-Bolívar diplomatic spat, writing that the U.S. has historically sought to head off Latin American unity. To this day, Chávez says, Washington continues its geopolitical strategy in such nations as Honduras and Colombia. A few days ago, during a summit of South American nations held in Quito, Ecuador Chávez continued to hark on this theme.
Ecuador has pursued a political alliance with Venezuela and recently the Rafael Correa government refused to renew a lease for a U.S. military base located at the port city of Manta. In Quito, Chávez was joined by Correa as well as the deposed President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. During the summit Chávez compared Uribe to General Francisco de Paula Santander and remarked that in Ecuador “Bolívar’s sword is more alive than ever.”
“Now I understand why Bolívar got tied up with Manuela Sáenz,” Chávez added. The Venezuelan was making reference to Simón Bolívar’s lover, a native of Quito. As I note in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left which came out just after I wrote my piece for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Sáenz is a potent political symbol linking Venezuela to Ecuador.
“To this day,” I wrote in my book, “Ecuador and Venezuela still have the same flag colors. Saenz belonged to the aristocracy and met the Liberator after the famed Battle of Pichincha. She accompanied Bolivar on his military campaigns, carrying out intelligence work, raising funds for independence forces, and cheering on the troops. Saenz also demonstrated great valor on the battlefield, seeing action during the Battle of Ayacucho…Saenz’s love letters to Bolivar are preserved in a Quito museum, along with some of her garments and an oil painting showing her in her childhood.”
In her day, Sáenz remarkably rose to the rank of coronela or colonel. Like Chávez, Correa is a politician who makes skilful use of historical symbols. Indeed, Correa recently raised Sáenz’s rank to generala or general in recognition of the woman’s efforts in the South American independence struggle.
April 15, 2009
The Summit of the Americas, to be held this week in Port of Spain, Trinidad, should in theory offer Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez a great opportunity to enhance his political profile. The war in Iraq, never popular in Latin America, lingers on and Washington is gearing up for a long fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile the financial meltdown on Wall Street threatens to wipe out many of the positive social and economic gains achieved throughout Latin America in recent years as the region is hard hit by recession.
It sounds like fertile ground for the colorful Chávez, who has long criticized U.S. economic and military interests. The Venezuelan leader travels to Trinidad in the context of long-simmering grievances, including:
---Ongoing U.S support for the futile drug war which has resulted in nothing but violence and mayhem in Colombia and Mexico.
----No progress on U.S. immigration reform which angers many Latino residents in the United States as well as their relatives abroad.
---U.S. stalling on climate change which has exacted a heavy toll on Latin America in recent years.
----No substantial change in official U.S. policy towards Cuba with the trade embargo still firmly in place.
Given that the U.S. will not change any of its fundamental policies at Trinidad, could Chávez ignite the conference in opposition to the United States? The Venezuelan leader certainly has a colorful history of such activities. In 2001, when he was not nearly as known on the world stage, the Venezuelan leader attended the Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Surrounded by anti-globalization protesters, George Bush stayed holed up in his hotel. Chávez, who attacked U.S.-style free trade as inadequate, later remarked that the event was an epiphany for him and that protesters were unjustly subjected to “gas warfare” at a police “wall of shame” surrounding the city center. At the summit, the Venezuelan leader was repulsed by the bullying attitude of Bush and his entourage, intent upon ramming through the corporate-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA.
Four years later, Chávez again roiled the waters in Mar del Plata, Argentina during another summit of the Americas. Having by now deflected a U.S.-sponsored coup d’etat, Chávez was now much more confident and well known on the international circuit. Speaking before a crowd of 25,000 at a local stadium, Chávez famously baptized the site as the “graveyard of the FTAA.” The summit ended in fiasco: Bush returned to Washington empty handed without any trade deal.
Today the U.S. free trade agenda is in tatters and Chávez has significantly pushed his own more socially progressive trading arrangements. Indeed, just this week in advance of the Trinidad summit Chávez hosts his own meeting of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA) in the Venezuelan city of Cumaná. Since its inception in 2004, ALBA has enhanced solidarity and reciprocity amongst governments in the region including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Caribbean island nation of Dominica.
The Cumaná summit should be Chávez’s coup de grace: after years of battling the U.S. free trade agenda, the Venezuelan leader seems to be building up something of a regional constituency. Indeed, one might argue that the meltdown on Wall Street vindicates Chávez’s more progressive economic philosophy since the Venezuelan leader has long railed against the excesses of market capitalism and deregulation.
Yet, ALBA is ironically foundering at precisely the moment when it should be ascendant.
With the exception of Venezuela ALBA nations don’t have much economic clout and it’s unclear whether the regional alliance will be embraced by major countries. While a host of small nations such as Antigua, Barbuda, El Salvador and possibly Ecuador and Paraguay may join ALBA in future this probably won’t alter fundamental power dynamics within the region.
At this point, Chávez may be running up against the political limits of his own populist model. Like other Latin American populists, the Venezuelan leader has developed a highly emotional and paternalistic relationship towards his followers. In his rhetoric, the Venezuelan leader stresses his own personal crusade against vaguely defined internal and external threats. Through such rhetoric and his skillful mastery over the media, Chávez has been effective in politically mobilizing Venezuelan society and attracting attention from afar.
In the absence of perceived threats however populists run into trouble. While Venezuela still has a vibrant political opposition Chávez handily defeated his enemies in a recent constitutional referendum which will allow him to stand for indefinite reelection. Internationally, Chávez no longer faces the Bush White House and many Latin leaders want nothing more than to be granted a photo-op with President Obama in Trinidad.
Thrown off his game, Chávez has dealt with Obama schizophrenically. A recent article for The Hill about the upcoming Trinidad summit, amusingly titled “Chávez loves Obama, loves him not, loves him,” catalogues the Venezuelan leader’s contradictory statements. Prior to the November presidential election in the U.S., Chávez was upbeat about the prospect of a Democratic victory and remarked that he was looking forward to meeting “on equal and respectful terms” with Obama.
Reaching out to the “black man,” Chávez declared “Tomorrow the U.S. will have an election. The world awaits the arrival of a black president to the United States, we can say this is no small feat. ... We don't ask him to be a revolutionary, nor a socialist, but that he rise to the moment in the world.”
Days before Obama’s inauguration however, Chávez attacked Obama for linking Venezuela to Marxist guerrillas in Colombia. “We need to be firm when we see this news, that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC,” Chávez remarked. “He goes and accuses me of exporting terrorism: The least I can say is that he's a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality,” Chávez added. Later on, the Venezuelan didn’t sound much more optimistic. “I don't have much hope, because behind him [Obama] is an empire. He's the president of an empire.” Laying it on pretty thick, he added that Obama had “the same stench” — the smell of sulfur that Chávez said he smelled on the floor of the United Nations in 2006 after “devil” President Bush addressed diplomats — as his predecessor.
Bizarrely pivoting back however, Chávez later said “There is still time for [Obama] to correct these views, though. We will wait and see, we will know him by his actions. He is really an unknown. No one should say that I threw the first stone at Obama; he threw it at me!” As Obama turned his attention to the economic recession, Chávez said “It’s regrettable, the crisis that the U.S. is living through. I recommend to Obama — they’re criticizing him because they say he’s moving toward socialism — come, Obama, ally with us on the path to socialism, it’s the only road. Imagine a socialist revolution in the U.S. Nothing is impossible.”
In advance of the Trinidad summit, Chávez has confounded the public once more with his contradictory views. At one point he said he would like to “reset” relations with the United States and that Obama had “good intentions.” Then however, Chávez explained that he was preparing his verbal “artillery” in advance of the Trinidad summit. “What will Mr. Obama come with? I don't know. We're going to see. We'll see what the pitcher throws,” Chávez declared.
Calling the U.S. embargo against Cuba “absurd and stupid,” Chávez then switched into English and remarked cryptically that the upcoming summit would be “very interesting.”
What’s with all of the indecisive back and forth? As long as Bush was in power Chávez’s populist style politics served the Venezuelan politician well. Thriving on political conflict, Chávez was effective at mobilizing public opinion both domestically and abroad in support of such initiatives as ALBA. But now that the U.S. has “re-branded” itself, Chávez is in a quandary. Because the wider Latin American public may not view the United States as much of a threat anymore, Chávez will have to come up with a second act. Can Chavismo survive in the absence of obvious political threats? Over the past couple of months Chávez has seemed unsure about how to navigate the new political milieu.
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March 6, 2009
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April 30, 2005
Chávez Launches Hemispheric, ‘Anti-Hegemonic’ Media Campaign in Response to Local TV Networks Anti-Government Bias
April 28, 2005
April 9, 2005