Thursday, March 06, 2008

Back to Venezuela 

Before events in Colombia overtook the news I intended to post on an excellent article regarding Venezuela that was published in The Nation.

Written by Daniel Wilkinsin, who works for Human Rights Watch covering South America, it is probably one of the more comprehensive and balanced articles on the political developments in Venezuela and their implications for that countries political and human rights.

There are uncomfortable truths pointed out by Wilkinsin that will probably make both sides wince but if given the attention and thought they deserve this can provoke healthy debate and reconsideration of some positions by all.

Finally, be sure to check out his reading list on Venezuela - it is a good one.

Chávez's Fix

Daniel Wilkinson

Last year, President Hugo Chávez staked much of his considerable political capital on a national referendum featuring sixty-nine proposed amendments to Venezuela's Constitution. Given that Chávez had won all five national votes he'd faced since he took office in 1999, including the 2006 presidential election, when he garnered 63 percent of the vote, the referendum's defeat in December was a dramatic turnaround. But the outcome was actually the best thing that could have happened, if not for Chávez himself then certainly for the "Bolivarian" movement he has led for more than a decade.

The referendum was the most recent flashpoint in the often high-stakes and always high-decibel struggle that has raged for years between Chávez's supporters and his critics, with each side fully convinced that it is protecting Venezuelan democracy from the other. Unfortunately, the substance of their competing claims has been largely drowned out by polemics that reduce the country's complex political dynamics to a single question: is Chávez a dictator or a democrat? Those who say "dictator" see a military strongman who has exploited high oil prices to buy political support--at home through clientelistic social programs, abroad through gratuitous jabs at an unpopular US President--while seizing control of the country's political institutions. Those who say "democrat" see a charismatic leader of a vibrant popular movement intent on deepening democracy--in Venezuela by empowering the poor, abroad by defying the political and economic dogmas of Washington and Wall Street on behalf of the entire region.

Given the deep disenchantment with democratic institutions that exists throughout much of Latin America today, the political transformation under way in Venezuela deserves to be the subject of a vigorous regional debate. Instead what we've gotten has been more like a shouting match, with the Washington-Caracas mudslinging topping the international headlines. Donald Rumsfeld compares Chávez to Hitler, George H.W. Bush calls him an ass, Pat Robertson calls for his assassination. Chávez, meanwhile, denounces George W. Bush as an assassin, a coward, a drunk, a donkey, a birdie and, most famously, the devil. Condoleezza Rice calls Chávez a tyrant who is "really, really destroying his own country"; Chávez quips that Rice is an illiterate in need of a husband.

Predictably, the diatribes avoid the many knotty questions about Chávez and his presidency. If he is such a dictator, why has he won so many internationally validated elections? Why have his opponents remained so vocal and active? And why was the opposition able to defeat him in the 2007 referendum? Conversely, if Chávez is such a democrat, why has he embraced Fidel Castro--a full-fledged authoritarian who, for decades, imprisoned his critics and quashed internal dissent--as his mentor and model? Why has he aggressively undermined the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary and concentrated power so heavily in the president's office? And why, most recently, did he use the referendum to seek sweeping powers to suspend due process rights in times of emergency?

Read the rest here.


Monday, March 03, 2008

Why they fight. 

Several weeks ago we had occasion to look at why there hasn't been a Colombian equivalent of Hugo Chavez. Simply put, because anyone who advocated for socialism (not just social democracy) and had the gumption to run for office would likely be killed exactly as happened with those who tried - the leftwing Patriotic Union. Later we saw documentary which put faces to the horrific numbers.

Now that Colombia, and the Colombian insurgency led by the FARC, are once again headlining the news it would be good to revisit how we got here. After all, the internet is good for many things but granting historical perspective to events is not one of them. To make up for that I will discuss a book that delves into the history of what happened when leftists tried to compete in the electoral arena via the Patriotic Union: Walking Ghosts by Steven Dudley.

In Colombia armed conflict has a long history with short periods of relative peace shattered by long periods of fratacidal conflict. Although there are numerous motives for people to fight in Colombia much of the violence has broken down along class lines with a landed elite and rural peasentry engaged in much of the fighting.

The FARC (Armed Forces of the Colombian Revolution) weren't formed until the mid 1960s. But before the term FARC was ever heard Colombian leftists had a long experience with government deceipt and brutality. In 1953 leftist rebels negotiated a peace with the government and no sooner had they disarmed then they were killed by the Colombian army under general Rojas Pinilla - the very same general who had offered them amnesty. In the early 1960s the Communist Party controlled several small municipalities in the province of Tolima. They too were attacked and militarily crushed.

In response to this the Colombian Communist Party established a military wing to carry out armed struggle against its violent adversary - the Colombian state. The armed wing was called the FARC and is the same guerilla group that fights on to this day.

Yet there have been attempts to end the fighting. The most notable was the 1984 Uribe peace agreement (named for a town, not the current president) in which the government of then president Bentancur was to allow the FARC to form a political party to contest for electoral power. In turn there would be a ceasefire between the government and the FARC with the FARC ceasing kidnappings and bombings. Although it was specified in the peace agreement that the FARC did not need to disarm if all went well with the new political party this would eventually lead to disarmement and an end to the war.

This new party, the Patriotic Union, was given the following guarantees by the government:

The Government, in accordance with the Constitution and the laws, will give the Union Patriotica the guarantees and security it needs so that it can campaign as well as participate in the elections in the same way other political parties do. The government will use all the force of the law against any citizen or authority that inhibits these rights or denies, ignores, or refuses to recognize the rights that they have.

With that the new party was up and running. The party organized rapidly after its 1985 founding and by 1986 its first presidential candidate, Jaime Pardo garnered 328,000 votes. A number of congress people were elected along with many municipal offices.

Unfortunately, no sooner did the party have these initial electoral victories than it started being massacred by right-wing paramilitaries with the assistance from the very same government that had offered them guarentees. Jaime Pardo himself was dead by 1987, killed in a hail of bullets as would come to happen to thousands of other leaders of the Patriotic Union. In less than a decade a sizable political party was wiped out at the barrel of a gun.

Dudley offers a thorough account of this horrific massacre even if he can't hide his own biases. In fact, his rather strange perspective on all this appears in the very first paragraph of the prologue:

In Colombia there are walking ghosts, people who have crossed death's frontier. They're still alive, but many of them wish they were dead. Living, as it stands, is a burden. They're not suicidal. They're just suffering because their enemies have them cornered. The time they have left is short, and they know it. They're surrounded by threats and bodyguards. Not only is death beckoning but guilt. These walking ghosts live in a world of wakes and funerals. They have survived when so many others have perished. What's left of them is often used to hasten the end, to take that final step into the other world. While some search for safety, most of them search for a perch where they can die with dignity. They would rather be considered martyrs than cowards.

In fact, this first paragraph gives what is the most common theme throughout the book - that the people who were in the Patriotic Union had a death wish, that the FARC wanted them obliterated so they could have an excuse to keep fighting, that they weren't practical enough to make alliances with new powers like the drug traffickers, etc. In short however tragic what happened to the Patriotic Union was they largely had themselves to blame, or everything was such a confused muddle no-one is to blame.

For example, Dudley makes much of the rebels having a strategy named "la combinacion de todas las formas de lucha" - the combination of all forms of struggle. This, Dudley makes it seem, somehow implies that any attempt to negotiate peace or engage in electoral politics by the FARC and communists was somehow insincere and fake.

Yet there is no reason it means any such thing. One doesn't unilaterally disarm and disband militarily as a precondition to negotiations or even immediately following them. That, especially in a place such as Colombia, is just plain suicide.

Further, the government certainly dind't disarm and disband its military. The Colombian defense minister went so far as to say "The government and a armed forces aren't going to give a cease-fire, the political vacuum, the power vacuum that there would be in the country side would be filled by the guerrillas".

Worse, even if its one thing for the state to have armed force, the Colombian right wing, with the assistance of the Colombian military, was already building up large and extremely violent para-military forces.

In fact, the paramilitaries, initially called "auto-defensas", were set up in 1981 in a joint effort between the military, land-owners, politicians and business leaders. Even the U.S. oil company Texaco got in on the act and helped participated in the start up of these groups. Yet as Dudley notes these groups were anything but "defensive". They soon began slaughtering hundreds of people - anyone suspected of being a FARC collaborator, a communist, a union supporter, or harboring leftist sympathies in general. School teachers were specifically targetted because it was assumed they were leftists and as a result school enrollment plummeted in some towns.

Of course, as no sooner than the Patriotic Union was formed than the para-militaries turned their guns on it. Before it was even a year old the new party started having its militants assaninated, its offices bombed, its newspaper raided and many of its supporters threatened and harrassed.

Despite this, the Patriotic Union pushed ahead and participated in elections. The 328,000 that Jaime Pardo garnered for president were the most ever for a leftist presidential candidate. The party had also elected three senators, four congressional representatives, 24 provincial deputies and 275 municipal council representatives.

Unfortunately, 300 hundred Patriotic Union leaders had also been killed. By the end of the next year it would be 500 - killed at the hands of the paramilitaries and drug traffickers with active assistance from the military.

The para-militaries met with the local military commanders regularly to cordinate actions. The military would supply the death squads with names of those to be killed and stay out of the way as they did their work. Israeli mercenaries were brought in to train both the para-militaries and the drug dealers private armies. The techniques learned were then used against the un-armed Patriotic Union. Sometimes (probably if the para-militaries were too busy) the military would carry out the assasinations itself.

In the rural middle Magdalena valley elected leftist mayors and council people were exterminated just as if there had never been any peace accord. Read one para-military leaflet distributed to the population:

We would like to remind everyone just as our colleagues cleaned the communist filth from Puerto Barrio, we will exterminate the pro-Castro ELN, and we will liquidate the subversive Union Patriotica, and we will end the cease-fire with the FARC... We have the support of the police, the Colombian army, and the prominent sons and daughters of the region that occupy high government posts.

We recognize and value the effort that our allies in the United States are making under the guidance of President Ronald Reagan to fight international communism. We cannot disgrace them given that they've put millions of dollars into our country

This was no idle threat. Shortly thereafter the town of Segovia, which had elected leftists and had a strong union tradition, was attacked and 43 civilians killed. The local army outposts helped planned the attack and stood by as it occurred.

After the presidential candiate Jaime Pardo was killed the pace of the killings quickened and included congress members and mayors. Jaime Pardo was replaced by Bernardo Jaramillo, who was elected to the Colombian Senate. He was gunned down in the Bogota airport in 1990 which led to an exodus from the party. Ultimately upwards of 4,000 leaders of the party were killed and the Patriotic Union effectively ceased to exist. Most of those who weren't killed fled the country, dropped out of politics or went into hiding.

The same fate befell other guerrilla groups who entered electoral politics. The presidential candidate of M-19, Carlos Pizarro, was assasinated on a commercial airliner in mid flight.

Although some of the survivors fought in Colombia's legal system for justice it was largely in vain. Very few of the murders ever resulted in prosecution. And as the widow of Bernardo Jaramillo noted, Colombia's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, "frequently insinuates, suggests, or explicitly says that because of the action of the guerillas, the representatives of the legal opposition can be Objects of Extermination".

While the author himself may not take that view he certainly does blame the victim. In his final chapter instead of focusing on the murderous collusion of the Colombian elite, government, military, and drug traffickers he instead focusses on the supposed death wish of those killed. Hence he approvingly quotes one relative of a slain Patriotic Union member as saying:

To be threatened was to get more prestige. That's why they took risks. Risk is what gave them importance. The one who was the most threatened would be the most important..I dont' know what it was - sympathy for death, sympathy for martyrdom.

Later he says of a meeting he had with some Communist Party and Patriotic Union widows:

These women felt betrayed by the FARC and the Communist Party. Their husbands had died for the UP, and they got nothing but a life of misery and longing in return. Some sought revenge for the way the UP, the Communist Party, and the FARC had used their husbands.

"I wish I could get the leaders of the FARC together," on of them told me.

"I would sit them down and have a political trial."

If guilty, what would be their punishment? I asked.

"I would let them die like dogs" she said.

Although the woman is quoted it is difficult to tell who is really speaking here - the women or Dudley. Instead of blaming the slaughter of people contesting their ideas at the ballot box on those who murdered them he attributes their deaths to their own supposed failings or shortcomings or their own death wish.

What a perfect excuse to dismiss with the back of your hand what has been called a "political genocide". A more sophisticated apology for murder could hardly have been written.

Still, for those interested the book does lay bare the facts and outlines of what happened. And if fact, it even inadvertantly gave the intellectual underpinnings of these events when it quoted U.S. war stategist Paul Linebarger who mentored the Colmbian military:

A people can be converted from one faith to another if given the choice between conversion and extermination.

Indeed, that was exactly the choice the Colombian elite and government gave Colombian leftists - convert or be exterminated.

Of course, not all of them converted or were exterminated. Some of them fight on for their ideals to this day in the Colombian jungles. For those not wanting to convert or be exterminated it was the only option left.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Colombia is behaving naughty 

Today diplomatic relations with Colombia have been ruptured, after they invaded Ecuador to assassinate the FARC's second in command. Troops have been mobilized to the border a hair trigger away from war. It is evident Colombia thinks it is Israel, but without the military might to violate international law. Colombia (if it dared to pull the stunt again) would not last 2 seconds vs Venezuela and Ecuador combined

Would the US intervene if Colombia were the aggressor again? doubtful, Uribe is banking way too much on an implicit defense pact. War would be over in a matter of days, at worse the US would try to buy time for it to get a task group near the area.

PS the opposition is taking Uribe's side again, sad and predictable that they take sides against us... I honestly doubt any other country would ever permit such a thing, including the US.


What really makes a democracy. 

Foreign Affairs magazine, (no not the one run by Venezuelan right-wingers - that is Foriegn Policy), had so much to say about Venezuela in its most recent issue that it could have almost been a special issue on the oil rich country.

First, we have a Venezuelan expat economist, Francisco Rodriguez, explain to us how Chavez's revolution is "empty" and his efforts to help the poor either non-existent or smashing failures. Sure, poverty is way down, incomes are way up, social indicators are improved - but they haven't improved as much as they should have according to the author.

Thing is, for an article ostensibly about economic performance there are remarkably few economic statistics. There is even less real analysis. For example, Rodriguez states that while the economy has grown 50% since 2003 poverty has "only" dropped by 25 percentage points. This, he claims, is less than the drop in poverty in other countries in relation to growth in their economies.

I suppose that could be. Thing is though, this one paragraph assertion provides almost no data to back it up. For example, what other countries have done better? What was their poverty rate to begin with and what has their growth been?

Even more importantly, how do they measure poverty? In Venezuela it is measured purely with respect to cash income - all the in-kind benefits of Chavez's social programs such as free medical care, free education, and heavily subsidized food don't factor into Venezuela's poverty calculations at all. Do other countries calculate poverty in the same way? And do they have the extensive non-cash transfer programs that Venezuela does? If the answer is "no" to either of those questions than Rodriguez's claim clearly is flawed and meaningless.

The handfull of other statistics offered by Rodriguez suffer similar flaws and some even more obvious ones. For example, in evaluating a president who has served from 1999 to the present why would you pick 2000 and 2005 as your years of comparison? Maybe using those years gives the result the author wanted?

Finally, the central claim of Rodriguez, that the Venezuelan poor have not been the primary beneficiaries of Chavez's economic boom, is patently false. Rodgriguez states:

...there is remarkably little data supporting the claim that the Chávez administration has acted any differently from previous Venezuelan governments -- or, for that matter, from those of other developing and Latin American nations -- in redistributing the gains from economic growth to the poor.

Yet a major data and polling firm, Datanalysis, showed the evolution of income for all social classes, "E" being the poorest and "A" being the wealthiest, from 1998 to 2006 - in other words essentially over Chavez's entire tenure.

And what do we see? That the poorest have far and away had their income grow the fastest and that the higher you go up the income scale the slower the growth.

And in fact, other data from other firms such as Datos and AC Neilsen have shown the same trends.

It is therefore evident that the Chavez administration has been able to manage Venezuela's economic growth in such as way that it has disproportionally benefited the poor.

This is crystal clear from the data. Yet Rodriguez chooses to ignore this. One has to wonder why.

Next we get an article from Larry Diamond that is about the tough time democracy is supposedly having around the world. According to Diamond democracy is threatened in, among other countries, Russia, Poland, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria, and, you guessed it, Venezuela.

In fact, while many of us agree with the Brazilian president when he said that if anything Venezuela has an excess of democracy, Diamond singles out Venezuela for special treatment.


In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez narrowly lost a December 2 referendum that would have given him virtually unlimited power, but he still does not allow the sort of free and fair political process that could turn him out of office.

Ok, so if he doesn't allow "free" elections that he could presumabely lose then how did he lose the vote this past December 2nd - one that means he won't even be able to stand in the next presidential election?

In point of fact, this has nothing to do about elections. Witness Diamond's next sentence:

Despite two decades of political scientists warning of "the fallacy of electoralism," the United States and many of its democratic allies have remained far too comfortable with this superficial form of democracy.

This is a curious statement, coming from a person who was one of the U.S. overlords in Iraq and assured the world that Iraq was a democracy precisely because it held elections.

But lets go along with his arguement and ask if elections don't a democracy make, what does?

Here is what Diamond says:

For a country to be a democracy, it must have more than regular, multiparty elections under a civilian constitutional order. Even significant opposition in presidential elections and opposition party members in the legislature are not enough to move beyond electoral authoritarianism. Elections are only democratic if they are truly free and fair. This requires the freedom to advocate, associate, contest, and campaign. It also requires a fair and neutral electoral administration, a widely credible system of dispute resolution, balanced access to mass media, and independent vote monitoring.

Good thing this was written for a periodical that virtually no-one reads, or at least that the general public doesn't read. After all, Diamond just pointed out that the United States suffers from "electoral authoritarianism". To see that, lets just look at a few of Diamonds requirements for a true democracy:

"It also requires a fair and neutral electoral administration"

The U.S. has no pretense of having that. In Florida in 2000 the state electoral authorites had been apointed by George Bush's brother and were led by the openly partisan Kathleen Harris - who later ran for congress as a member of Bush's party. In Ohio in 2004, the state electoral authority was run by the very same person who was the head of the Bush campaign in Ohio!!!! It would be hard to find a less nuetral system than that.

a widely credible system of dispute resolution

Considering that the dispute resolution is handled by the same partisan authorities who run the elections it is debatable as to whether this exists in any meaningful way in the U.S.

balanced access to mass media

This clearly doesn't exist in the U.S.. Essentially all media is privately owned and aligned with the dominant political parties. All other parties and candidates are completely shut out, unless you are a rich billionaire who can buy your own air time.

and independent vote monitoring

In the U.S. there is no independent vote monitoring at all nor any independent audits of the voting system. The partisan electoral authorities simply announce the results and you can either believe them or not. And there are certainly no foreign observers allowed to review the voting process as has been continiously done in Venezuela and many other countries.

Of course, Venezuela's democracy is imperfect, as are all democracies. But it certainly does a better job of adhering to Diamond's requirements for true democracy than does the U.S. After all, Venezuela's results are audited by all involved parties, the elections are closely monitored by outside observers, and all sides have access to the mass media (if not to the same mass media). Perfect? No. But certainly much better than the giant to the North.

So why does a country like Venezuela get singled out for attack while all huge problems facing democracy in the U.S. don't merrit mention? Later, we get clue as to why when Diamond gives a list of musts for building strong democracies:

Finally, reforms must generate a more open market economy in which it is possible to accumulate wealth through honest effort and initiative in the private sector -- with the state playing a limited role. The wider the scope of state control over economic life, the greater the possibility of graft by abusive and predatory elites. Reducing administrative barriers to doing business and implementing corporate-responsibility initiatives can address the supply side of the corruption problem. Strong guarantees of property rights, including the ability of owners of small farms and informal-sector workers to obtain titles to their land and business property, can provide the foundation for a broader institutional landscape that limits government corruption.

So we go from a discussion regarding political systems to an assertion that one type of economic system has to predominate - capitalism based on private property ownership.

If you think that way of course you will see Venezuela (and Bolivia, and Ecuador, and Thaksin's Thailand, etc) as not democratic no matter how many elections they have. Diamond has just in effect said you can only have true democracy with a market economic system. That is, you can have elections but people who advocate socialist policies need not compete - any victory by them will, a priori, be seen as illegitimate and not democratic.

And of course this helps explain why countries with very troubled voting systems , such as the U.S., are seen as flawless examples of democracy - if nothing else they respect property rights.

Now, if only he had said that up front, I could have saved myself reading the whole tortured article!


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