To read the article about Venezuela election 2012 and problems at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, click here.
As the presidential election nears, Republicans are relying on their usual fear-mongering tactics by playing on supposed external threats such as Iran. Already it seems such a strategy seems to have moved Obama to the right with the president going out of his way to issue stern warnings toward the Islamic Republic during his State of the Union address. What is more, in a worrying development the Republicans are doing their utmost to link Iran with the Latin American populist left and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, which could have undesirable and unforeseen consequences on U.S. foreign policy.
According to secret U.S. State Department cables recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, American diplomats from Hillary Clinton on down have little evidence of a significant military alliance between Iran and Venezuela, yet that didn't stop surging Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum from exaggerating the threat from this quarter in a recent debate. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has meanwhile been holding hearings on the supposed Iranian-Latin American threat to the U.S.
Hopefully the Democrats will not seek to echo the Chávez-Ahmadinejad military angle which will only serve to further inflame the tattered state of U.S.-Venezuelan relations, yet it's no secret that the Obama administration, like its predecessor, would like to rid itself of the populist left current in Latin America. Such combative posturing is not only regrettable but counter-productive. Indeed, further cables released by WikiLeaks suggest that, with a little bit of effort, Washington might be able to mend fences with Chávez. Whatever the Venezuelan leader may say in public about the U.S. and its wider objectives throughout the region, in private Chávez has been more than happy to search for common ground and extend an olive branch.
Chávez's Charm Offensive
Judging from the cables Chávez was particularly amenable to friendly diplomacy prior to the April, 2002 coup which briefly toppled him from power. Indeed, U.S. diplomats had numerous opportunities to build a constructive relationship with Chávez but squandered their chances. In 1998, for example, political neophyte Chávez approached the U.S. Embassy in advance of Venezuela's upcoming election.
Then a presidential candidate, Chávez had criticized U.S. free trade and neo-liberalism, yet in private discussions with the American ambassador in Caracas the firebrand politician was on his "best behavior" and stressed that his own political success depended "in good measure on his relationship with the U.S." Buttering up the Americans, Chávez said he admired the U.S., "which he traced to his early love of baseball and his contact with U.S. military officers during his service in the armed forces."
Six years earlier, while still a military officer, Chávez had launched an aborted coup against the pro-U.S. government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, and during his discussion with the ambassador Chávez regretted that his relationship with the U.S. had suffered as a result. In hindsight, Chávez said, the 1992 coup attempt was "incorrect," and the aspiring candidate was careful to stress his commitment to democratic principles.
U.S. Ambassador to Chávez: Don't Push Us
Unconvinced by Chávez's charm offensive, U.S. ambassador John Maisto bluntly informed the presidential aspirant that there was "palpable concern" in Washington about Venezuela's political and economic situation. Foreign investment required clear and reliable rules, the ambassador added, and uncertainty about Chávez's fiery rhetoric had given severe pause to investors.
The Americans were particularly concerned about Chávez's plans to convene a constitutional assembly if elected, which "would stop foreign investment cold" and leave Venezuela "without the foreign capital it needs for economic growth." To be sure, the U.S. ambassador conceded, Venezuela's institutions were "tattered" but nevertheless ought to be preserved. Chávez's rhetoric, on the other hand, was "provocative and confusing." At times, the ambassador remarked, Chávez sounded as if he was "promoting not a constitutional assembly but a revolutionary junta."
Speaking with the Americans, Chávez voiced his support for a reform of the state, which in his view needed to be "re-legitimized" in the eyes of the people. On the other hand, Chávez was quick to add, the new assembly would not be a revolutionary junta but rather an elected body with sharply defined responsibilities. Hardly a strident economic nationalist in private, Chávez also told the ambassador that he was in favor of privatizing all state assets save Venezuelan oil company PdVSA.
In an effort to further mollify the U.S. the aspiring candidate added that he would respect all business commitments and international agreements while working to improve counternarcotics cooperation. "My God," Chávez reportedly declared, "my government's success will depend on attracting investment." In a further over the top remark, Chávez said "I hope God grants me the opportunity" to prove a commitment to democracy, economic reform and privatization.
Going even further, the presidential candidate added that he was keenly aware that whoever he selected for his future cabinet would "send a strong signal to investors" about the tenor of his future government. Hinting to the Americans that they had nothing to fear, Chávez said "you will be surprised. I will pick a very good group."
Skeptical Clinton White House
The evidence suggests that, on balance, Chávez continued to seek good relations with the U.S. Shortly after he was elected president in early 1999, Chávez wrote U.S. president Bill Clinton personally, expressing Venezuela's interest in "renewing and reforging" relations with Washington. "We certainly share the desire for a solid and vibrant democracy," Chávez wrote, "the kind envisioned and practiced by men such as Abraham Lincoln and Simón Bolívar."
Still eager to please, Chávez defended his constitutional assembly and was careful to point out that former U.S. president Jimmy Carter no less had praised Venezuela's "democratic revolution." In the economic sphere meanwhile, Venezuela was "open to all types of U.S. private and public sector initiatives to advance our countries' mutual development." On counter-narcotics, Chávez likewise reiterated his intention to fight drug trafficking and "all crimes related to that disease."
In Caracas, Maisto was apparently still unconvinced by Chávez's charm offensive. Speaking to top Venezuelan officials, the U.S. ambassador declared tersely that Chávez must develop a "concrete agenda of agreements in areas of mutual interest," such as a bilateral investment treaty and expanded narcotics cooperation. Moreover, Washington sought a "clear understanding" permitting U.S. aircraft to overfly Venezuela as part of a forward operating location agreement in Curacao and Aruba. Ultimately, remarked the ever skeptical Maisto, "nice words are fine, but…the substance of the bilateral relationship will be determined by concrete cooperation."
Relations Take a Nosedive
If U.S.-Venezuelan relations were frosty during the Clinton era, they became downright combative in the Bush years. WikiLeaks cables show that, far from seeking to repair tattered diplomatic ties, the Bush White House ratcheted up tensions. In an effort to turn up the pressure on Chávez, Washington sent financial aid to the rightist opposition in Venezuela even as Chávez derided the U.S. drug war in Latin America and sought to exert greater control over his country's oil industry. In April, 2002 a coup launched by rightists who had received U.S. financial assistance briefly unseated Chávez from power.
In the wake of the coup, U.S. diplomats were hardly apologetic for their meddling in Venezuelan affairs. In Caracas, the American Chargé d'Affaires asked Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel how it would be possible for relations to improve in light of Chávez's anti-imperialist declarations. Sarcastically turning the tables, the Chargé asked "how the government of Venezuela could characterize any of us as imperialist, when it was Venezuela, not the U.S. government, that owned refineries and gas stations in the U.S., when it was Venezuela that could say whether we could or couldn't use their air space for the…Forward Operation Location flights?"
From there, the conversation degenerated with Rangel accusing the U.S. of plotting the 2002 coup. When the Vice President added that Venezuela had hard proof of Bush administration complicity, the Chargé shot back that if Chávez had such proof it should publish it. Furthermore, the American diplomat added, the U.S. government had itself already investigated Venezuela's allegations and come up with nothing. Preposterously, the diplomat declared that "our recent investigations…into the WMD issue showed we could do an honest investigation."
Failure to "Reset"
With the election of Obama, Chávez seems to have hoped that relations might be set right. In March, 2009 Chávez told U.S. legislators that he was hoping for a "reset" with Washington and reportedly even expressed interest in renewing counternarcotics cooperation. The following month, Chávez met Obama during a Summit of the Americas summit in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Reportedly, Obama told the Venezuelan president that "we will have our differences but I will never get involved in things internal to Venezuela." Chávez claims to have responded, "Believe me that we want to talk but it has not been possible." Chávez then added, in Spanish and English, "Look, I am going to repeat the same thing I said eight years ago to your predecessor, 'I want to be your friend. We want to talk.'"
It seemed like a propitious start, yet Obama, like his predecessors, would squander opportunity by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in the region. Chávez was particularly irked by U.S. handling of the coup in Honduras and Washington's installation of seven military bases in Colombia. During a TV interview, the Venezuelan remarked "Obama may end up being . . . a great frustration . . . he may end up being only a token used by the empire that continues acting against and attacking the world in a manner even more ferocious and aggressive than in the times of Bush, which is a lot to say."
From Clinton to Bush to Obama, the U.S. had numerous attempts to smooth over relations with Chávez but failed to do so. The WikiLeaks cache ends in early 2010, but it's no secret that Chávez continues to feel frustrated by the course of U.S. foreign policy. Will the Obama White House further ratchet up pressure in response to calls from the major Republican presidential candidates? Adopting such a policy would be importunate at any time but particularly self defeating now as Chávez faces a tough reelection battle in October. If he feels that Obama is determined to stamp out Venezuela's so-called "Bolivarian Revolution," Chávez will surely lash out and relations might be tarnished to an irreparable degree.
As the Venezuelan presidential election approaches in October, Washington is undoubtedly hoping that Hugo Chávez will go down to stinging electoral defeat and that the populist leader's geopolitical alliance will crumble and come to an ignominious end. Of particular concern to both the Bush and Obama administrations has been Nicaragua, a country which moved into Chávez's orbit when Daniel Ortega, a leader of the Sandinista Revolution, captured the presidency in 2006. According to secret cables recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the State Department has been furious with Ortega for conducting an independent foreign policy, and U.S. diplomats have resorted to threats and intimidation in order to head off the Venezuelan-Nicaraguan alliance.
American diplomats in Managua would have surely preferred to see a continuation of the Enrique Bolaños administration, which predated the Ortega regime and proved much more amenable to Washington's conservative agenda. In early 2006, prior to Ortega's election, the Nicaraguans told the U.S. ambassador that they would not back Venezuela for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and would support Guatemala for the spot instead. In fact, Nicaragua went so far as to act as a kind of ringleader against Venezuela, rounding up Central American support for Guatemala in an effort to "forestall" Chávez's rising influence.
As the election neared, the Bush administration became increasingly concerned about what an Ortega win might mean at the regional level. In Managua, the American ambassador complained to the Nicaraguans about "the pattern of harassment directed by the Venezuelan government" against U.S. diplomats. The Nicaraguan Foreign Minister sympathized, adding that he was worried about "Chávez's interest in Sandinista (FSLN) leader Daniel Ortega's winning the November election." In a follow up meeting, the Americans told the Bolaños government that Washington was closely monitoring Chávez, who had proposed an oil deal with the Sandinistas.
Washington Loses a Key Ally
With the re-election of Ortega in late 2006, who had previously served as president of Nicaragua at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra War of the 1980s, the Bush administration's foremost fear had come to pass. Flying down to Managua, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon met with President elect Ortega in the conference room of the FSLN Secretariat. After Ortega announced that he would seek a trade agreement with Venezuela, Shannon remarked sternly that "President Chávez knows what he has to do to improve relations. He is the author of the present confrontation."
If that was not clear enough, U.S. diplomats later warned the incoming Ortega administration that Washington would respect Nicaraguan sovereignty, but "if the FSLN government were, for example, to recruit hundreds of Venezuelans to man its ministries, we would be concerned." The main purpose of such advisers, noted the U.S. ambassador to his superiors, would be "to indoctrinate Nicaraguans against the United States and democracy." It would be absolutely "essential," the ambassador noted, to convey a sense of U.S "red lines" toward the Ortega regime such as the need to follow the directives of large, international financial institutions.
If the Americans hoped that Nicaragua would distance itself from Chávez, however, they got a shot in the arm during the Ortega inaugural in early 2007. Singing the praises of his Bolivarian "twin" Hugo Chávez, the new Nicaraguan president proclaimed the failure of so-called "neo-liberal" economics. During the ceremony, Ortega pledged to bring Nicaragua into Venezuela's ALBA alliance and end privatizations of public companies. In another jab at the Bush administration, Ortega said he would like to "revisit" certain elements of the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. Both Chávez and Bolivian leader Evo Morales were at the inaugural to proclaim the "death of imperialism."
Divide and Conquer in Latin America
With the alarm bells going off, U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli invited fellow Central American ambassadors over for breakfast and a discussion. During the get together, the conservative dignitaries said they were "startled by the populist rhetoric and procession of infamous guests surrounding the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega," and were "dismayed" by Ortega's accession to agreements with Venezuela. Perhaps, they opined, Nicaragua's neighbors could help to "offset the negative influence" of Chávez.
Not content to stop there, Trivelli then organized yet another breakfast, this time inviting the Spanish, Mexican, Chilean, Brazilian and Colombian ambassadors to Nicaragua, respectively. All the diplomats echoed the previous chorus of concern, declaring preoccupation over Chávez's "destabilizing" influence. The over the top pro-U.S. Colombian ambassador was particularly worried, declaring hyperbolically that Chávez could cause mischief in Central America and thus "open the door to drug trafficking and the movement of terrorists."
Ratcheting up International Pressure
The atmosphere became increasingly poisonous by March, 2007 with Trivelli going into overdrive in an effort to recruit international allies against the incipient Ortega-Chávez alliance. The campaign bore fruit as both Spain and Germany joined the fray and warned Ortega not to issue "contradictory statements and actions regarding foreign affairs, press freedom, and investment." Hosting yet another breakfast, Trivelli invited the Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, Economics Minister and Presidential Advisor as well as the Spanish and German ambassadors.
Trivelli quickly let the Nicaraguans know who was boss, opening the breakfast "by remarking that the administration's moves to centralize government, criticize the press, scapegoat international investors, and engage pariah regimes...raise questions about the new government's commitment to maintain an open democracy and friendly relations with all."
The breakfast, Trivelli wrote, served to put the Nicaraguans on notice. The U.S. ambassador intended to issue a warning to the government's more moderate faction that "we and other embassies are monitoring investor relations closely, a message they can use to push back against party radicals urging Ortega to strengthen alliances with Venezuela." Nervously, the Nicaraguans blamed the "sensationalist press" for distorting Ortega's record, adding that all new governments go through a "period of adjustment."
Push and Shove over Economic Policy
In an effort no doubt to mark a line in the sand or "red lines," Trivelli also met with the new Minister of Finance. In light of Ortega's recent actions, including the signing of important economic deals with the likes of Chávez, what kind of economic model was Nicaragua planning to pursue, Trivelli asked? The Finance Minister responded that his country's foremost concern was maintaining macroeconomic stability and holding talks with the likes of the IMF. Trivelli seemed skeptical of such claims, noting that "U.S. investors had begun questioning what sort of economic model the new government plans to pursue."
From there, the discussion got somewhat frosty with the ambassador pressing the Finance Minister about the need to resolve property claims stemming from expropriations that took place in the 1980s during the height of the Sandinista Revolution. Trivelli personally handed over a list of "high profile" expropriation cases. The Minister responded defensively that Ortega had no plans to expropriate property as in the 1980s, "nor do anything that will damage the favorable investment climate that currently exists."
Despite such assurances, Trivelli pressed on. Would Ortega limit foreign investment in sensitive sectors such as energy and coastal property, Trivelli asked? Seeking to placate the ambassador, the Finance Minister replied that "Nicaragua is not going to shut the door on anyone (nor) obstruct investment in any sector." Unconvinced, Trivelli prodded Nicaragua's Central Bank President about Nicaraguan economic policy in a follow up meeting. Testily, Trivelli asked the Nicaraguan how a closer relationship with Venezuela would facilitate a sensible business climate. In a game of cat and mouse, the official responded that recent economic agreements with Chávez did not represent "a reflection of a political vision for Nicaragua, but rather an acknowledgment that Nicaragua depends upon [Venezuela's] largesse...for oil." Still skeptical, Trivelli brought up Ortega's recent statements attacking "neo-liberalism" and calls to end "dependency" on the International Monetary Fund. Ortega's desire to review privatization of the telephone and power sectors was likewise a concern, and the ambassador prodded the Central Bank President as to the particulars of ALBA economic aid for Nicaragua.
Game of Cat and Mouse
U.S. Embassy staff continued to press the Nicaraguans, hoping to identify moderate factions within the government which could help to reel in Ortega's pro-Chávez leanings. By speaking with Magda Enríquez, a high level official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Americans hoped to make their case. Within the Sandinista hierarchy, Enríquez appeared to be "aligned with the FSLN moderates, recognizes the value of positive engagement with the United States, and probably lends a voice of reason to balance the more extreme views of the Sandinista hardliners."
When the Americans complained that Ortega's discourse regarding the U.S. had become "increasingly belligerent and unconstructive," Enríquez nodded in agreement and promised to urge the president to dial back his rhetoric. Hoping to calm tempers at the U.S. Embassy, Enríquez added that while Ortega saw Chávez as his "friend and ally," Nicaragua did not see eye to eye with Venezuela on all issues.
Nicaragua's Business Community vs. Ortega and Chávez
Having made overtures towards other foreign powers as well as moderates within the Sandinista government, the Americans proceeded to court the Nicaraguan business sector. At an economic roundtable, Trivelli hosted heavy hitters linked to international investment such as Alberto Chamorro of the Bank of Central America, which was almost 50% owned by GE Financial and Joaquim de Magalhaes of Esso Nicaragua. Speaking with the Americans, the businessmen complained about Ortega, who in their view was intent on regaining his standing as a Latin American revolutionary by praising Chávez.
Venezuelan oil diplomacy surely did not go over well amongst the ambassador's guests. According to them, Venezuelan petroleum shipments to the Ortega government were arriving faster than Nicaraguan state oil company Petronic could handle them, and this in turn was creating difficulties for local fuel distributors. Even worse, Ortega had undertaken a nationalistic energy policy by seizing fuel storage tanks owned by Exxon. Overall, the guests believed that the Ortega regime saw Petronic and Venezuelan oil as a "giant ATM" from which it could withdraw cash at any time.
Investors grew even more jittery when the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation cancelled more than $60 million in U.S. economic assistance to Nicaragua as a result of alleged election fraud marring the November, 2008 municipal contests. As Ortega railed against the U.S., arguing that Washington was unduly interfering with Nicaragua's own sovereignty, local businessmen lamented the cutoff in aid.
Obama Era: Tensions Continue
If the Americans, however, hoped that such punitive measures would dissuade Ortega from cozying up to Venezuela, they would be sorely mistaken. Indeed, if anything the cutoff encouraged Nicaragua to look for alternative funding, and by 2008 Ortega had already received more than $1 billion from Venezuela in the form of loans, grants, and foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. Embassy, the FSLN used part of the assistance to invest in party building and propaganda. To add insult to injury, Ortega also lambasted the Bush administration, claiming that the Americans had conspired to assassinate Chávez.
WikiLeaks cables hint at the further deterioration of U.S.-Nicaraguan relations during the Obama era, and underscore Ortega's growing ties with Venezuela and ALBA members such as Cuba. Joining with his left allies in Latin America, Ortega called for the development of a new regional organization which would exclude the U.S. and resist the political influence of "the Empire." Speaking on Cuban television, Ortega criticized Obama for maintaining Bush era policies such as freezing of the Millennium Challenge Account for Nicaragua.
In private meanwhile, Sandinista officials told the Americans they were becoming frustrated with the Obama administration and would deepen joint projects within the ALBA alliance, thus leading the U.S. Embassy to further lose patience with Ortega and his clique, which displayed a "skewed" world view "claiming a moral right to demand more resources, without conditions, while at the same time denouncing the very countries that provide such aid."
The WikiLeaks cache ends in early 2010, so we don't know the inside story of U.S. diplomacy in the region during the recent past. Yet, it's no secret that the Obama administration, like the Bush White House before it, views the Latin populist left as an irritant and would like to be rid of Chávez and his allies. If the cables are any indication, American diplomats in Managua most likely continued to pursue their earlier approach of cultivating support within the Nicaraguan business elite, peeling off Sandinista moderates and drumming up conservative support in the wider region against Ortega.
Unfortunately for the State Department, such tactics have not yielded concrete results. Indeed, it would appear that Ortega has now consolidated his political grip on Nicaragua following the Sandinista's recent reelection to a third presidential term. Yet, 2012 will be a momentous year in the region, as Chávez too risks everything on his own reelection bid. If Chávez should go down in defeat, Nicaragua would be deprived of a key political and economic benefactor and suggest further problems for the populist left in Latin America.
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 here.
For the past year or so, I've been writing steadily about WikiLeaks and U.S. diplomatic correspondence between various American embassies in Latin America and the State Department in Washington, D.C. It's a bit difficult for one person to stay on top of all the communication back and forth, and WikiLeaks' recent decision to place all of the remaining cables online has made the researchers' work even more of an uphill climb. In an effort to stay afloat, I decided to sift through many of these cables, taking note of intriguing, incendiary or just plain odd documents which may be worthy of further investigation.
Chávez's Former Wife Herma Marksman
At the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, diplomatic staff routinely spoke to the rightist Chávez opposition during the Bush years. But in 2004, an odd encounter occurred between the Americans and Chávez's former wife, Herma Marksman, who held a rather disparaging view of the Venezuelan president. Marksman, a history professor who was married to Chávez between 1984 and 1993, told U.S. diplomats that the firebrand populist was ambitious from an early age and "even thought of running the country as a 20 year-old."
Later, as a junior officer, Chávez fell under the influence of Douglas Bravo, a former Communist and guerrilla leader from the 1960s. According to Marksman it was Bravo, and not Chávez, who developed the political philosophy of the Bolivarian Revolution. Though Marksman cast Chávez as an intellectual lightweight, she added that he "should not be underestimated." The Venezuelan was "an excellent storyteller, who often characterizes his opponents as devils, which is a powerful religious symbol to the poor."
According to Marksman, Chávez was unscrupulous, "trusted few people" and "does not have true friends." If he had a problem, Marksman added, Chávez would only confide in his brother Adan or Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Marksman remarked cryptically that several individuals within the Chávez government were "dangerous," including some figures in the inner circle such as Diosdado Cabello (for more on him, stay tuned for future posts).
Could the disgruntled Marksman have had some kind of personal or political axe to grind, and why did she agree to speak to the U.S. Embassy in the first place? It's unclear why the couple split in the 1990s, but diplomats wrote that Marksman may have been unhappy with Chávez's failed coup in 1992 against then president Carlos Andrés Pérez. "While Marksman's statements may be biased," the Americans wrote, "she does offer a unique perspective into the current president."
Chávez's "Half Brother"?
Another intriguing cable relates to Jesus Arnaldo Pérez, who was promoted to head the Ministry of Foreign Relations in 2004. According to U.S. diplomats, Pérez was Hugo's childhood friend, and "rumors abound that he is in fact the President's illegitimate half brother" and had the same father [I can't comment on the veracity of such claims, but for a photo of Pérez, who like Chávez has a wide face, click here]. The Americans wrote that Pérez was born in the town of Veguita in the provincial state of Barinas, close to Hugo's birthplace, and during Pérez's swearing in ceremony the president mentioned that the two had attended school together in Barinas.
Typically, U.S. diplomats refer to figures in the Chávez government in a rather smug and condescending fashion, and their report on Pérez was no exception. Commenting on Pérez, they remarked that the new Foreign Minister "is neither a convincing orator nor seems to possess a great intellect." "We see the appointment of Perez as Chávez's desire to surround himself with people who are loyal above all," the embassy concluded.
Perhaps, diplomats such as U.S. ambassador Charles Shapiro simply did not care for officials who would talk back to them. In March, 2004 Shapiro met with Pérez, who said the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship "could not get worse." Shapiro tried to reassure Pérez that there was no Bush plan to overthrow the Chávez regime, but "relations could indeed get much worse unless Chávez tempers his anti-U.S. remarks, personal insults and invective." Predictably, the meeting did not progress much from there amidst recrimination and a cloud of mutual suspicion.
Controversial Environmental Record
On another, unrelated note certain cables reveal the environmental dimension in Venezuelan politics. In 2009, the non-governmental organization Conservation International (or CI) decided to close its doors in Venezuela, "saying it wanted to focus on countries where it can have an impact on host government environmental policies." Speaking to U.S. officials, CI staff said that Venezuela was the only office Conservation International decided to shutter in Latin America. CI's partners, meanwhile, declared that the outfit's decision to leave represented "an enormous loss" for Venezuela, and left "more than 100 environmental experts with nowhere to go for funding."
According to CI, it would be impossible to re-enter Venezuela as long as Chávez remained in office and, in fact, another group called the World Conservation Society had been trying to obtain permission to operate in Venezuela for over a year without success. Moreover, CI claimed that a proposed "Law on International Cooperation" which would allow the central government to "manage and distribute" all international funding for NGOs, would be "devastating" to environmentalists operating in Venezuela.
Furthermore, CI was obliged to take a "low profile" in Venezuela, otherwise "the government would not have allowed CI to continue its work." At CI headquarters meanwhile, the top brass was "disgruntled with its inability to work with the Venezuelan government on programs or policy." Going off on a rant, CI officials stated that the "Ministry of Environment is staffed by radical, anti-US politicians focused on ideology with no funding for, or understanding of, environmental programs." To add insult to injury, the Venezuelan Park Service had changed directors six times in 12 months and there were "rumors it will be eliminated and not replaced."
Even worse, the Venezuelan head of U.S.-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC) said the Chávez regime "would gladly sacrifice US NGO's expertise if they dare to adopt higher profiles in Venezuela as 'the anti-yankee discourse is more important to the government than its work on the environment.'" TNC was reportedly the only major environmental organization left in Venezuela, and foundations simply did "not trust the Venezuelan government and would not fund projects without an internationally recognized NGO to manage the money." As a U.S.-based NGO, TNC could not lobby the Venezuelan government, and staffers declined to comment for a New York Times article focusing on the group's work due to "fear of government retaliation."
Perhaps, Venezuela should have encouraged more NGO's to come to the country. According to a local environmental professor who spoke to the U.S. Embassy, Venezuela had experienced a "dramatic increase in deforestation" as "a direct result of government policies." Nevertheless, the expert conceded that it was difficult to come by official figures on deforestation because the government did not publish statistics on the matter. Environmentalists also believed that oil spills were on the increase, but similarly such claims were impossible to verify due to lack of official data.
Sarcastically, the U.S. Embassy wrote Washington that "claims that Chávez would be
Venezuela's 'first green president' now ring hollow." Perhaps, but the U.S. has failed to transfer clean technology to Latin America so as to head off dramatic climate change, and in fact has inveighed against those countries, including Venezuela, which press for tougher legislation to rein in global warming. Maybe, if Washington is so concerned about protecting the environment, it should help to move Venezuela and others beyond their petroleum-based economies and stop its addiction to Venezuelan oil.
On the U.S. left, there are certain sacred cows that one should never take on directly. For years, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has been, for the most part, sacrosanct and immune from criticism. The underlying reasons for this kid glove treatment are hardly mysterious or difficult to surmise, particularly in light of Chávez's hostility to George Bush, the great bane of progressive folk. Such sympathy would only increase over time, heading into high gear after the U.S.-supported coup of 2002 which was directed against Chávez.
When the coup rapidly unraveled and ended in fiasco, with right wing forces crumbling in disarray, the Venezuelan leader was returned to power in triumph. Later, in 2006, Chávez was greeted warmly by the New York left after he lambasted Bush in a confrontational speech delivered on the floor of the United Nations. Speaking from the same lectern that Bush had occupied just a day before, Chávez quipped "The devil came here yesterday, right here. It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of."
When leftists want to know what to think about foreign affairs, many of them consult the views of celebrated academic Noam Chomsky. For some time, the leftist MIT professor has provided sympathetic commentary on Venezuela, and in 2009 Chomsky even met personally with Chávez in Caracas. It came as a slight surprise, therefore, when the professor of linguistics recently criticized Chávez for the latter's handling of a case related to María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who was arrested in December 2009 by the president's secret intelligence police. The Venezuelan president had ordered Afiuni's arrest after the latter freed a businessman incarcerated on charges of circumventing the country's currency controls.
In her defense, Afiuni claimed that the businessman's pretrial detention had exceeded Venezuela's legal limits, and that she was merely following United Nations protocol on such matters. Chávez, however, was hardly convinced and proclaimed on national TV no less that the judge would have been subjected to a firing squad in a previous era. Following her arrest, Afiuni was locked up in a women's prison where she was subjected to cruel and demeaning treatment. Indeed, other inmates threatened to kill her and even sought to force her into sex. Earlier this year, Afiuni was moved to house arrest after she underwent an abdominal hysterectomy at a local cancer hospital.
With much fanfare, the New York Times reported on the falling out between Chávez and his former supporter, noting that "Mr. Chomsky's willingness to press for Judge Afiuni's release shows how the president's aggressive policies toward the judiciary have stirred unease among some who are generally sympathetic to Mr. Chávez's socialist-inspired political movement." In a telephone interview, Chomsky told the Times that he was requesting clemency for Afiuni on humanitarian grounds, and claimed that the judge had been treated very badly. Though Afiuni's living conditions had improved somewhat, Chomsky noted, the charges against the judge were thin. Therefore, Chomsky argued, the government should release Afiuni.
Chávez and Chomsky: A Warm History of Rapport
The recent spat between Chávez and Chomsky may put an end to a historically warm rapport. Indeed, the Guardian of London recently wrote that "Hugo Chávez has long considered Noam Chomsky one of his best friends in the west. He has basked in the renowned scholar's praise for Venezuela's socialist revolution and echoed his denunciations of US imperialism." In his speeches, Chávez frequently quotes Chomsky and the MIT professor has provided the Venezuelan leader with a degree of intellectual and political legitimacy. Chávez has said that he is careful to "always" have not just one copy of Chomsky's books on hand but many.
The relationship dates back to 2006, when, during his celebrated speech at the United Nations, Chávez held up Chomsky's book entitled Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, and suggested that Americans read the work instead of "watching Superman and Batman" movies. Speaking to the crowd, Chávez urged the audience "very respectfully, to those who have not read this book, to read it." Going even further, Chávez said the MIT professor's work was an "excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century." Chávez added, "I think that the first people who should read this book are our brothers and sisters in the United States, because their threat is right in their own house."
Chomsky's book immediately rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon's best-seller list. Speaking to the New York Times, a Borders Bookstore manager remarked "it doesn't normally happen that you get someone of the stature of Mr. Chávez holding up a book at a speech at the U.N." Book sales notwithstanding, Chomsky told the New York Times that he wouldn't describe himself as flattered. For good measure, the academic added that he wouldn't choose to employ Chávez's harsh UN rhetoric.
On the other hand, Chomsky added, Chávez's anger with Bush was understandable. "The Bush administration backed a coup to overthrow his government," the professor declared. "Suppose Venezuela supported a military coup that overthrew the government of the United States? Would we think it was a joke?" The linguist added, "I have been quite interested in his [Chávez's] policies. Personally, I think many of them are quite constructive."
The Circumspect Professor
In the meantime, the MIT professor conducted a somewhat cautious interview with pro-Chávez supporter Eva Golinger. During the discussion, which took place against the heated political backdrop of constitutional reform in Venezuela, Chomsky weighed his words diplomatically. When asked, for example, whether Chávez's reform could promote genuine popular power, Chomsky said "Yes it 'could,' but it depends how it is implemented. In principle it seems to be a very powerful and persuasive conception, but everything always depends on implementation."
An academic who has historically espoused anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist views, Chomsky framed the debate over constitutional reform in anarchist terms. "If there is really authentic popular participation in the decision-making and the free association of communities, yeah, that could be tremendously important," Chomsky remarked. "In fact," the academic added, "that's essentially the traditional anarchist ideal. That's what was realized the only time for about a year in Spain in 1936 before it was crushed by outside forces…[so] if it can function and survive and really disperse power down to participants and their communities, it could be extremely important." Chomsky however wondered whether the constitutional reform would be directed by the people or "fall into some sort of top-down directed pattern."
The Media Minefield
From there, Chomsky weighed into the dicey subject of media in Venezuela and the case of RCTV, a station which supported the brief coup d'etat against the Chávez regime in 2002. When asked what he thought about the government's decision not to renew RCTV's license, Chomsky remarked frankly that he thought "it was a tactical mistake." Moreover, the linguist added, "you need a heavy burden of proof to close down any form of media so in that sense my attitude is critical." Further pressed by Golinger on the question of corporate ownership of the media, Chomsky declared "I think you just have to ask what's replacing it…And the population should have a voice in this, big voice, major voice…Are you really going to get popular media, for example?"
At this point, Chomsky sought to make a rhetorical point by comparing the Venezuelan experience with that of other countries. "If there had been anything like RCTV in the United States or England or Western Europe," Chomsky remarked, "the owners and the managers would have been brought to trial and executed – In the United States executed, in Europe sent to prison permanently, right away, in 2002. You can't imagine the New York Times or CBS News supporting a military coup that overthrew the government even for a day. The reaction would be 'send them to a firing squad.'"
At the time, Chomsky probably would not have imagined that his ideas would later be used for political ends. In a 2009 interview with Reuters, Chávez defended his democratic credentials, remarking that "no television channel has been closed despite the fact that in many cases the television channels supported a coup d'etat. Noam Chomsky ... was asked in an interview what would happen if Fox News or CNN had supported a coup against a president. Chomsky replied that not only would those channels have been closed, but their owners would have been sent to the electric chair."
The Political Role of the Intellectual
In Latin America, there has been a long time history of well known writers developing rapport with leftist leaders. Take, for example, the case of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who established a friendship with Fidel Castro. On the occasion of Fidel's eightieth birthday, Márquez wrote this rather fawning [and that is putting it mildly] piece about the Cuban leader. Then there's the case of English writer Graham Greene, who was invited to Panama by leftist dictator Omar Torrijos during the 1970s. When the Panamanian later died in a plane crash, Greene penned a friendly homage to his idol entitled Getting to Know the General. "I have never lost as good a friend as Omar Torrijos," Greene later noted, referring to the man who he had unabashedly "grown to love."
The Chávez-Chomsky relationship, such as it is, doesn't go nearly as far as these earlier questionable dealings. Yet, writes an unnamed editorial board member of El Libertario, an anarchist paper based in Caracas, "it would appear that Chávez has taken advantage of Chomsky…to gain intellectual respectability." As for Chomsky, the El Libertario member adds that the MIT professor and many leftists from the U.S. "concentrate so much on American imperialism that they wind up glossing over and even excusing other forms of oppression and injustice that can be equally terrible" [in an e-mail the individual --- let's just call the person X --- explained candidly "I'm not going to give my name because the aggressive and intimidating policies of the Venezuelan government toward those who express dissident opinions are well known"].
Hedging and Hawing
While it might be a stretch to say that Chomsky has ever "stepped over the line," another interview granted by the MIT professor raises eyebrows. Commenting on Chávez's enabling law and term extensions, Chomsky remarked "well, those laws were passed by the parliament…I don't like those laws myself. How they turn out depends on popular pressures. They could be steps towards authoritarianism. They could be steps towards implementing constructive programs. It's not for us to say, it's for the Venezuelan people to say, and we know their opinion very well [my italics]."
Here Chomsky is confoundingly frustrating. At first, the academic expresses displeasure at Chávez's measures, but then seems to backtrack and seemingly implies that gringoes don't have the right to express an opinion. While such a political tactic is somewhat common amongst the Stalinist left, it's not as frequent within anarchist circles which Chomsky claims to be a part of.
Not surprisingly, Chomsky has wrankled some anarchists in Venezuela who had hoped that the MIT professor would exhibit more of an independent streak. However, El Libertario claims that Chomsky was always "rather discreet with regards to the growing authoritarianism of the Sandinistas during their turn in power in the 80's in Nicaragua and the Castro dictatorship during several decades. And this is so in spite of the fact that among the victims of the latter are many who shared a lot with the militant pro-Cuban anti-imperialists of Latin America."
Chomsky's Trip to Caracas
Though careful to come off as somewhat circumspect when discussing the Bolivarian Revolution, Chomsky let it be known that he was interested in going to Venezuela and would be "happy to meet" with Chávez. The Venezuelan leader for his part announced on state television that "Chomsky is soon coming here. We are communicating through common friends." In the meantime, Chomsky participated in an MIT forum sponsored by the Venezuelan Consulates of Boston and New York which focused on the need for greater grassroots democracy. Perhaps somewhat iconoclastically in light of his anarchist penchant, Chomsky stressed the need for the state to play a greater role in fostering new economic and social models. At the end of the talk, Chomsky was presented with the "Order of Popular Power" from a former Venezuelan mayor.
At long last, the meeting between Chomsky and Chávez took place in 2009 when Chomsky traveled to Caracas. During their visit, the two discussed hemispheric politics during a nationally televised forum. Hoping to flatter his guest, Chávez remarked [in a reference to Chomsky's book] "hegemony or survival; we opt for survival." Lauding the MIT professor, the Venezuelan compared Chomsky's arguments to those advanced by German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, author of Socialism or Barbarism.
Laying it on a bit thick, Chávez heralded Chomsky as "one of the greatest defenders of peace, one of the greatest pioneers of a better world." Addressing Chomsky at the gates of the Miraflores presidential palace, Chávez continued with the love-fest and remarked that his guest was "one of the most assertive intellectuals in the struggle against the elite which governs the United States." Finally, the Venezuelan leader wished Chomsky a long life so that he might "continue to produce those marvelous ideas which nourish those who struggle against imperial hegemony and the capitalist model."
In a video posted to you tube, Chomsky looks a little awkward and uncomfortable as he stands next to Chávez. After the Venezuelan finishes his remarks, the professor declares "What's so exciting about coming to Venezuela is that I can see how a better word is being created and speak to the person who's inspired it." Chomsky then seems to force a smile and shakes Chávez's hand.
Looking back on the Chomsky/Chávez meeting, X of El Libertario is somewhat critical. "Chomsky's comments are so favorable to Chávez and his government that they have been widely circulated by official propaganda," X remarks. "On repeated occasions in the past, we have sought to communicate with Chomsky to inform him of our points of view, but we were met with silence."
X adds, "as far as Chomsky's trip to Venezuela…he did not express any interest in meeting with us. We know he has gone to other places in Latin America (like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico), and that once there he has taken part in activities that were either organized by anarchists or where anarchists were present. But even in those cases, Chomsky concentrated on advancing his critique of U.S. imperialism while avoiding complicated issues like his support for Chávez."
The Guardian Controversy
In the wake of Chomsky's visit, Chávez continued to court the MIT linguist. Just earlier this year, in fact, the Venezuelan leader said he'd like Washington to name Chomsky as U.S. ambassador to Caracas no less. Whatever good will might have existed, however, was put into some doubt over the Afiuni affair. Speaking to the Guardian, Chomsky said "concentration of executive power, unless it's very temporary and for specific circumstances such as fighting world war two, is an assault on democracy. You can debate whether [Venezuela's] circumstances require it: internal circumstances and the external threat of attack, that's a legitimate debate. But my own judgment in that debate is that it does not."
In a letter, Chomsky stated that judge Afiuni had suffered enough and that Chávez had intimidated the judicial system. In another rebuke to the Venezuelan leader, Chomsky criticized Chávez for adopting enabling powers to go around the National Assembly. "Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo [authoritarianism] and it has to be guarded against," Chomsky wrote. "Whether it's over too far in that direction in Venezuela I'm not sure, but I think perhaps it is. A trend has developed towards the centralisation of power in the executive which I don't think is a healthy development."
At this point, the whole controversy might have died down but subsequent coverage of the affair has led to even more questions. In an article posted to the pro-Chávez web site aporrea, Golinger claims to have conversed with Chomsky over the Afiuni imbroglio. Muddying the waters, aporrea quotes Golinger as saying that Chomsky was "victimized" by the Carr Center for human rights policy at Harvard University, an entity linked to the United States Agency for International Development. According to aporrea, it was the Carr Center, and its director Leonardo Vivas, that persuaded Chomsky to take up the Afiuni case in the first place.
The Old "Bait and Switch"
Complicating matters yet further, Chomsky is quoted as saying that the piece in the Guardian was "deceptive." In an e-mail, Chomsky noted to aporrea that the Guardian, a rather left paper from England to begin with, had omitted crucial points mentioned during his interview which served as the later basis for the article. Chiming in, Golinger says that Chomsky was victimized by the media establishment. "Nothing escapes media manipulation!" she exclaims.
What seems to have raised the professor's ire? In the original article, the professor makes a rather tangential comparison between the U.S. and Venezuelan judicial systems. After mentioning Chomsky's support for Afiuni, the Guardian notes that the professor "remains fiercely critical of the U.S., which he said had tortured Bradley Manning, alleged source of the diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks, and continued to wage a 'vicious, unremitting' campaign against Venezuela."
After Chomsky protested the Guardian's coverage, the paper opted to print the entire interview online. In the original version, the professor goes into the U.S.-Venezuela comparison in more depth. "It's obviously improper for the executive to intervene and impose a jail sentence without a trial," Chomsky says. "And I should say that the United States is in no position to complain about this. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned without charge, under torture, which is what solitary confinement is. The president in fact intervened."
Continuing, the professor noted, "Obama was asked about his conditions and said that he was assured by the Pentagon that they were fine. That's executive intervention in a case of severe violation of civil liberties and it's hardly the only one. That doesn't change the judgment about Venezuela, it just says that what one hears in the United States one can dismiss."
Going yet further in the aporrea article, Chomsky claims that Manning has been subjected to worse conditions than Afiuni. Perhaps, but after reviewing both pieces in the Guardian as well as the aporrea article, one wonders what Chomsky is so upset about. What is so relevant about Bradley Manning, and why can't Chomsky bear to mention Venezuela on its own terms without bringing the United States into the picture? Apparently, there is something in Chomsky's DNA which prevents him from discussing Latin America outside of the context of U.S. imperialism. Thus, everything which transpires politically in the region must be compared with Washington's actions. It's a familiar game of "bait and switch" which is common to the Stalinist left, a constituency which Chomsky ironically claims to abhor.
For a Venezuelan anarchist perspective on this controversy, I caught up with X. "Without a doubt," comments the member of El Libertario, "prison is hell wherever you go, but with all certainty and through direct evidence one can say that Venezuelan prisons are worse than what one can ever imagine." It is ironic, X adds, that Chomsky is muddying the waters at the precise moment when prison conditions in his country are being exposed, for example at the infamous "El Rodeo" facility.
Venezuela in the Post-Chávez Future
Though Chomsky is something of a Johnny-come-lately, waiting until fairly recently to issue critical statements of Venezuela, the linguist has no doubt shaken up the debate in the U.S. about the course of the leftist "Pink Tide" in Latin America. Still, there are confounding signs that Chomsky still views events outside of the U.S. through an outmoded leftist framework.
For clues as to the professor's thinking, consult the original Guardian interview. At one point, Chomsky says that the left may be reluctant to criticize Venezuela because the country has come under attack by the United States and the mainstream media. "I think it's natural," the academic adds, "that the leftwing commentators won't want to join in it."
Yet here, Chomsky seems to be abdicating any kind of critical self-reflection or rigorous analysis, characteristics which the linguist presumably regards highly and has attempted to encourage as an educator. Put simply, one need not agree with Fox News and its right wing spin machine on Venezuela to bring independent judgment to bear on world events.
Moving to the future, and particularly in light of Chávez's recent debilitating illness, one wonders how Chomsky may view his role far afield. Even if the Venezuelan leader manages to overcome cancer, there is no guarantee he will win reelection in 2012. Indeed, if Chávez's condition worsens much of the Venezuelan electorate may believe that a vote for his populist style of leadership is too risky. Yet, because Chávez has never demonstrated much of an interest in grooming a successor, a big question mark now hangs over the fate of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution.
In the event that Chávez vanishes from the scene, either for health reasons or a drubbing at the polls, Venezuela will have to deepen the process of social transformation which has been under way for some time. It is here where Chomsky might be able to map out his vision for grassroots democracy more succinctly. What anti-authoritarian measures would Chomsky like to see and how should they be advanced? How should Venezuela seek to distinguish itself from rising star Brazil, which may rival the U.S. for regional hegemony in the not too distant future? What are Chomsky's specific recommendations for South American integration and what types of international anti-imperialist initiatives would be most advisable? How can South American leftist nations break out of the extractivist trap and move toward more equitable economic arrangements? If Chomsky, a North American, believes he has a right to express views on such weighty matters, then now would be a good time to speak up.
An academic book review of Miguel Tinker Salas and Steve Ellner's book, Venezuela: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an "Exceptional Democracy," Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 22 No. 1 (March, 2008). Click here for the article.
To read the article on Le Monde Diplomatique, click here.