Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name

For those of you that aren't familiar with the word "caudillo", the closest explanation is a strong leader that rules for many years with excessive power.

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name
*By Tracy Dove, Ph.D
Editor, The Russia News Service August 26, 2007

The news coming out of Venezuela these days is entertaining to say the least, and any Woody Allen fan will recognize in Hugo Chavez an anti-hero image reminiscent of Allen's 1970's film parody in Central America, Bananas. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as it is now officially called, is run by a president who believes in re-distributive socialism and regular reinforcement of the cult of personality. This week, Chavez has announced the decision to move the nation's clocks 30 minutes forward to provide for more sunlight when the Bolivarian proletariat wakes from its dreams of floating island platforms, North Korean parades and lot and lots of oil. So who is this Chavez- wielding the peoples' sundial- and has there ever been anything like him in the past?

Most certainly; Chavez belongs to the genre of South American Caudillos that once ruled the 19th century republics of the continent and most often met with fiery and untimely ends. In Venezuela, we are reminded of the corrupt and ridiculously self-important president Cipriano Castro who ruled the country from 1899 to 1909. Castro was one of the strongmen who gathered the thugs and the disaffected peasantry and trained them into a formidable army which was then marched on Caracas in October of 1899 to overthrow the presidency- which was conveniently vacated for the purpose once Castro's forces defeated government troops.

Not unlike Chavez today, Castro proceeded to change the constitution to fit his personal vision of what government should be; he threatened the opposition and had its leaders assassinated before having himself re-elected the official head of state in 1904. Properly secure in power, Castro lived a life of luxury by way of executive order and was quick to slap the peasantry into obedience when they frequently rebelled. Besides plundering the state treasury, Castro nurtured bad relations with most states around him and thumbed his nose at the European banks that loaned his country money. Already in 1902 he had defaulted on debts owed to the colonial powers, and these responded by sending warships to blockade the country's ports and occasionally fired on shoreline fortifications to remind Castro what the cost of money was.

Remember, this was 1902 and the heyday of new European imperialism, and the American President didn't appreciate having British, Italian and German warships in the hemisphere that was clearly demarcated as colonial-free by the 1828 Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt didn't quite know what to do with Castro, just as our current Bush administration is baffled about what to do with Chavez. But the situation became dire when intelligence reports suggested that Germany was looking for new colonies in the region, and Roosevelt reluctantly sent American warships to Venezuela to scare off the vultures, thereby legitimizing Castro and inadvertently postponing the payment of his debts to Europe.

But Roosevelt was nobody's fool, and he didn't contract malaria in the jungles of Brazil to let himself be led around by the nose by some illegitimate cowboy sitting in Caracas. In 1904, Roosevelt addressed the US Congress and added a stipulation to the Monroe Doctrine that would allow the US- as part of its policing power of the Western hemisphere- to intervene in the internal affairs of the American states if bad government there led to the imperial takeover of them by any colonial power. This so-called "corollary" to the famous doctrine was one of the spurious arguments employed in arguing for Kennedy's doomed Bay of Pigs operation in 1962.

(Venezuelan) Castro didn't last much beyond the next round of creditors' disillusionment with the financial situation in the Caracas banks; in 1907 he was forced to accept arbitration in regard to the debt, and Venezuela was forced to sign on the dotted line of repayment. Ill with syphilis due to his obvious social recklessness, Castro left for Paris in 1908 to seek treatment for the disease, which opened the door for his best friend- the Vice President Juan Vicente Gomez- to overthrow Castro's rule. The deposed leader spent the rest of his miserable life in Puerto Rico trying to re-overthrow Gomez, who had learned to multiply the excesses of the Castro regime for his own term in office, which lasted until 1935.

The difference today is obvious in Chavez' Venezuela; firstly, el Supremo is widely popular in Venezuela, and he really is spending the oil revenues on the people. Secondly, Chavez looks healthy and might not need to leave for any western hospitals anytime soon. Cuban doctors are certainly caring for Chavez, whose designs on the clocks may seem absurd, but it is right to point out that Afghanistan, India, Iran and Myanmar also have half-hour increments off of Greenwich Mean Time- so the intention of the Ministry of the Popular Power of Science and Technology, as it is called, might be well-credited for allowing Venezuela's 27 million to wake up happier to the sunshine- as dictated by Caudillo Hugo Chavez.

*Tracy Dove, editor of The Russia News Service, is a Professor of History and the Department Chair of International Relations at the University of New York in Prague.

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 24, 2007

The real Simon Bolivar

For those of you that don't know much about Simon Bolivar.

The real Simon Bolivar
Issue: 112
Posted: 12 October 06
Andy Brown A review of John Lynch, Simon Bolivar: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006)

The Communication and Information Ministry of the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela has recently published a short pamphlet called Simon Bolivar: Liberator of Nations, Homeland Creator. It is in English and for free distribution. The foreword is two quotes, one from historian Guillermo Sherwel:

‘Those who studied Bolivar feel at the end of their task the same reverence one feels on leaving a sacred place, where the spirit has been under the influence of the supernatural and the sublime.’

The second quote is from the hero of Cuban nationalism, Jose Marti:

‘One cannot speak calmly of someone who never lived in peace; of Bolivar one can speak with a mountain as a rostrum, or in the midst of thunder and lightning, or with a bunch of free peoples in one’s grip and the tyranny beheaded at one’s feet!’

The legacy of Bolivar is key to the rhetoric of Chavez’s government in Venezuela, yet in reality little is known of his real life or his political ideas. These were fundamentally important in Spanish America, but translate into the 21st century only with considerable difficulty. John Lynch’s new biography, Simon Bolivar: A Life, is very significant, being the first major work about him in English in decades. It is an excellent and exhaustive account of his career, especially the military campaigns. It also reveals the political ideas of Bolivar’s generation and the eventual failure of his project in his own time.

Spanish America at the turn of the 19th century was a society under pressure and ripe for change. The Spanish Bourbon state had reasserted a heavy-handed control of its colonial possessions in South America. Its political character was absolutist. Its economic function was, in the words of Simon Bolivar, ‘to satisfy the insatiable greed of Spain’ through the export of primary products from agriculture and mining. This was done mainly through imported black and indigenous labour, which was inefficient in production and low in consumption. There was a Spanish elite in charge, from the mainland and sometimes from the Canaries, with its local royalist collaborators.

There was also dissent among the local elite. A creole (American born) faction had considerable wealth with some European and university learning and commercial links, especially with the British West Indies. There were the beginnings of manufacturing for export and trade and with it increasing autonomy from the centres of Spanish colonial rule. Deprived of political representation, these people found themselves with a growing identity but without power.

Dangerous ideas from abroad were knocking at the door of South America. In North America the colonists had revolted against the taxation without representation of the British and fought their war of independence in 1776. From Europe and North America came the ideas of the Age of Reason. Most important was the French Revolution of 1789 which struck terror into the crowned heads, the religious leaders and the political establishment, and reverberated across the Atlantic. Directly in its wake came the massive slave uprising in St Domingue, where the ‘Black Jacobins’ ended slavery in the island and inspired black rebellion from New York to Sao Paolo. The simmering cauldron of hundreds of thousands of slaves along with free blacks and mixed race descendants threatened to boil over anywhere.

Simon Bolivar was one of the new generation in Venezuela, which did not accept the absolutism and centralism of Bourbon Spain. Born into the white elite as a seventh generation descendant of Basque migrants, he enjoyed the privilege of wealth and the status of his race. He followed a fairly typical upper class education, including the grand tour to Spain at the age of 15. He returned to Europe in 1803 to visit France and Italy, there to witness the march of republican France and the maelstrom of new ideas. John Lynch says ‘it was the French authors of the Age of Reason who unlocked the minds of Americans and infused the thinking of Bolivar’.

Bolivar himself summarised his ideals like this:

‘A republican government: that is what Venezuela…should have. Its principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery and the abolition of monarchy and privileges. We need equality to recast, so to speak, into a single whole, the classes of men, political opinions and political custom.’

As Lynch comments, these words not only state his ideas for Venezuela, but describe the model of revolution evolved in the Western hemisphere since 1776. But Bolivar was not an idealist. His ideas were a guide to action and he stressed pragmatism as well as ideology. As much as ideas, he saw American interest as a motivator for change. The idea of colonial independence was not integral to the ideas of all Enlightenment thinkers. Spanish liberals, for example, often saw the possibility of a liberal government running a more enlightened empire. There was no agreed vision either of equality between peoples or of colonial wars of independence. Some were indeed passionate advocates of colonial liberation. Abbe Reynal and Thomas Paine were outstanding in this. Paine fiercely defended the right to American independence with the blinding logic that ‘there is something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually ruled by an island’ and Reynal prophesied the imminent separation
of Spain from its American colonies. These, however, were the exception.

Bolivar’s fusion of the ideas of the Enlightenment with a distinctively pro-independence position took him further than many in Europe and indeed in Venezuela. Some there wanted more autonomy from Spain but, fearing the social upheaval which this might bring, drew back from support for independence. His whole-hearted commitment made him a figurehead in the South American independence movement and marked, I think, a genuine advance in the logic of Enlightenment ideas.

It was Spain’s collapse as a major European power which opened the door to revolt in South America. Thoroughly eclipsed by a vibrant commercial Britain and an aggressive and confident republican France, it lost the ability to hold its colonies as the new century began. The growing prominence of the US as a market and producer also loosened ties between South America and Europe. The British fleet cut links to Spain and threatened territory. Revolts of autonomy-minded Venezuelans and freedom-minded slaves showed what was to come. In 1810 independent juntas sprang up in various parts of Spanish America, confused and divided among themselves about autonomy, independence or loyalism. Bolivar acted as unofficial ambassador in London and became more and more convinced that only outright independence would safeguard both the interests of his country and of his class. Meanwhile the Spanish reasserted control and the junta in Caracas fell.

Returning to America in 1812 Bolivar operated from New Granada (now Colombia) from which Venezuela was ruled. His Cartagena Manifesto declared roundly for independence, but in an interesting precursor of his moves away from mainstream liberal ideas, also for strong central government in order to secure military survival and social peace. With a small army of around 700 he moved down the Magdalena River and began raiding Spanish positions and invaded Venezuela. Entering Caracas in August 1813, he was granted supreme power in January 1814. His favourite occupations, history records, were ‘being in the company of his numerous mistresses and lying in his hammock’. His struggle with the Spanish was ruthless and bloody on both sides, including the execution of prisoners. The Venezuelan elite was divided between the republic and the monarchy as to how best to protect its interests. The new republic was threatened not only by the colonial power but also by the possibility of slave
revolts and attacks by the llanero warlords of the interior, also mainly black. The republic fell and Bolivar went into exile in British Jamaica in 1815.

Once there Bolivar developed and reconstructed his vision of colonial emancipation. It was an exercise in applied liberalism, featuring natural rights, resistance to oppression, and economic and political opportunity. It also argued for strong central authority, in the belief that:

‘Events…have proved that wholly representative institutions are not suited to our character, customs and present knowledge. In Caracas this led us back into slavery.’

In 1816 he moved to Haiti, where he was promised aid in return for a pledge to free the slaves in Venezuela. A thwarted invasion from there was followed by another from Guyana. Bolivar widened his base this time, incorporating the main llanero leaders into the republican army and co-opting the aspirations of many mixed race (pardo) Venezuelans. Offering freedom in return for military service, he also neutralised the threat that slaves could be used against the republican cause. A new assembly was called to combine politics with his military strategy. He demanded an explicitly Venezuelan model of government, with legal equality between races, and a two chamber parliament with a strong and centralised executive. The army grew, including up to 6,000 British and Irish volunteers, and crossed the Andes in one of Bolivar’s epic marches. Routing the Spanish at Boyaca he entered Bogota in August 1819 and declared a joint republic of Colombia, Venezuela and the as yet untouched
Ecuador. By 1821 the Spanish Empire was crumbling across the continent—in Buenos Aires, Chile and Guayaquil. Bolivar mopped up along the Caribbean coast and re-entered Caracas to establish the joint republic.

Bolivar’s republic had in theory a strong central government with provincial governors. It was torn from the very start between centralisers and federalists. Bolivar himself was strongly centralist and also believed in the use of the army as an agent to unify and to impose national identity. A rstricted franchise left power firmly in the hands of the elite. The indian tribute was abolished, but slavery was not. Liberation released a flood of incompatible interests, over land, power, race and slavery. Wealth replaced hereditary status as the key to access to power, with a shift in favour of wealthy agricultural producers and traders (though much trade was dominated by foreigners). The republic defended the interests of the creole elite. Beneath was a volcano of social tension.

In his section on Bolivarian society, John Lynch states the following:

‘Bolivar conceived the American Revo-lution as more than a struggle for political independence. He saw it also as a great social movement, which would improve as well as liberate.’

However, the project of improvement had very severe limits. Bolivar aspired to a society of property owning citizens. Land was given to the soldiers of liberation, but largely in the form of bonds, which were promises of land. There was anyway an inequality between grants made to officers and those to men, but the ordinary soldiers often sold their bonds for cash, resulting in a concentration of granted land in the hands of the officers. Independence produced greater land concentration than before. There was little economic development or investment and a systematic attempt by the rich to avoid taxes. Bolivarian society did not materially benefit the poor. Nor did it break from the dependence on trading raw materials for manufactured goods. Arguably those who benefited most from the post-colonial economy were the British, who dominated trade in the region.

Bolivar was an abolitionist and never a racist. He stressed that it was ‘madness that a revolution for liberty should try to maintain slavery’. However, no abolition legislation was passed. There was some manumission in return for military service, but it was not until 1854 that abolition came to Venezuela.

Bolivar had a paternalistic regard for the indigenous people:

‘The poor indians are truly in a state of lamentable depression. I intend to help them all I can. First as a matter of humanity, second because it is their right and finally because doing good costs nothing and is worth much.’

The indian tribute was abolished, but paradoxically this tended to work against indigenous people. Tribute had at least conferred some implied entitlement to communal lands. Now the land was privatised and generally taken over by creoles. For the indigenous there was a cycle of debt, sale and encroachment.

Bolivar was frustrated by the faction fighting among the creole elite in Colombia and still had ambitions for a greater vision, so he headed south in 1822 to incorporate Quito, only nominally part of the republic, and Guayaquil, now under a republican junta. He met considerable resistance but the royalists were defeated at Pichincha by General Sucre, advancing from Guayaquil. Peru was largely royalist and hostile and the Bolivar bandwagon moved down in 1823. Fighting first on the coast and then again crossing the Andes, the multinational republican army of Colombia defeated the Spanish first in Peru at Junin and Ayacucho and eventually in 1825 in Upper Peru, now Bolivia.

Bolivar was now the figurehead of a liberated territory stretching from Potosi to the Orinoco. Sucre had done much of the crucial fighting in the later southern campaigns. His military brilliance was matched by his unswerving loyalty to Bolivar and his insatiable desire, like so many of us, for early retirement. Bolivar was usually acclaimed in office by a local creole elite, which sometimes had not even fought for liberation. Here he devised his political constitutions, with the Bolivian one thought to be the culmination of his political thought.

His commitment to his original liberal ideas was matched by a desire for strong central control. The aide de camp and chronicler Daniel O’Leary records that:

‘He sought a system of controlling revolutions, not theories which might foment them; the fatal sprit of ill-conceived democracy which had already produced so many evils in America had to be curbed.’

Bolivar himself echoed this:

‘The sovereignty of the people is not unlimited, because it is based on justice and constrained by the concept of perfect utility… How can the representatives of the people think they are authorised constantly to change the social organisation? What then will become the basis of rights, properties, honour and the life of citizens?’

The constitution was a liberal document. It held commitments to legal equality, civil rights, security and property. It had an independent judiciary and an elected legislature. The slaves in Bolivia were declared free. But it also provided for a president for life who could appoint his successor. The vice-president was also selected and acted as prime minister. Thus, as Bolivar put it, ‘elections would be avoided, which are the greatest scourge of republics and produce only anarchy’. The British consul claimed it was based on the British model of ‘useful liberty but obviating any mischievous excess of popular power’. The faithful Sucre was left running Bolivia in what Lynch describes as ‘a model of enlightened absolutism’.

In fact, Bolivia and the rest of the liberated territories suffered the same fate. The economy stagnated. Progressive initiatives were either unaffordable or strangled by the ruling class, who fought among themselves and agreed only in preserving their own self-interest against the volcano beneath. The identities which had galvanised the revolt against the Spanish fractured against each other. Bolivar himself undoubtedly had a vision of continental unity, even attempting a Congress of the Americas in Panama in 1826. This was not shared by most of the creoles. Bolivar returned to Bogota to preside over internecine strife and to hear of revolts in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and parts of Colombia itself. By 1830 Venezuela and Ecuador had declared independence. Bolivar, unable to contain a fractious Congress and a homicidal vice-president or resolve the political problems, left for exile and died en route.

Bolivar’s most famous quote is from 1830 as he surveyed the wreckage of his dream. As self-assessments go, it is not very positive:

‘I have ruled for 20 years and from these I have gained only a few certainties:
America is ungovernable, for us;
Those who serve a revolution plough the sea;
The only thing one can do in America is emigrate;
This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unbridled masses and then pass almost imperceptibly into the hands of petty tyrants, of all colours and races;
Once we have been devoured by every crime and extinguished by utter ferocity, the Europeans will not even regard us as worth conquering;
If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America in its final hour.’

It should be said that this was followed by a final message of stubborn commitment to republican Colombia.

So what about our own assessment of Bolivar? He was the pioneer of the independence movement first and foremost, but also the most important figure in establishing the political ideas of the Enlightenment in the continent. In his attachment to colonial liberation from empire, he pushed the logic of those ideas further than many. In his implementation of them in constitutions and political regimes he was pragmatic before being idealistic, especially in his commitment to (some would say, his obsession with) strong, centralist government. Lynch says he advocated ‘not the best system of government, but the one most likely to work’. However, his influence was still behind the establishment of modern notions of governance such as constitutional government, the sovereignty of the people and the rule of law. He was the bearer of the most important ideas of the French and North American revolutions into South America, as well as some advanced views on education, literacy and social
improvement. He was a man of his time and a man of his class, the privileged creole elite which defended its economic interests through new, modern political means in the early 19th century. His ignorance of the mass of the people in his political vision makes him part of the mainstream of liberal ideas of the time, not a betrayer of them. We should neither be surprised nor disappointed by the limitations of his project.

Bolivar’s legacy is being claimed by all and sundry in Latin America and has been for decades, if not centuries. His body was returned to Venezuela from its grave in Colombia to help a president in trouble in 1842 and transferred in 1867 to a suitably impressive pantheon. His legacy remains a subject for debate, appropriated by many and shaped to fit their political needs.

The Chavez government’s biographical pamphlet assesses him thus:

‘Rather than a valuable American historic symbol, he is the citizen who changed the course of our history; he is the Caracas man whose glory is immortalised in each of the main squares of Venezuela and other countries. Whether on horseback, in bust or standing, he looks to the North as a rule, without losing sight of victory; living in the memory of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the Fifth [Chavez’s] Republic that dignifies the memory and puts into practice the thought of Simon Bolivar, The Liberator.

‘That is why, at this historic moment, the Venezuelan people honour The Liberator, not only by calling themselves Bolivarian, but also by giving continuity to his anti-imperialist struggle for the integration and vindication of the peoples.’

Most of this notion that Bolivar’s ideas are a model for modern political processes is at best insubstantial and at times, frankly, bogus. In a process which seeks a new socialism for the 21st century, Bolivar’s notions of democracy, sovereignty, even equality, are not models or ideas to be put into practice. Even in his anti-imperialism this is questionable. James Dunkerley has pointed out that Bolivar’s hostility to colonial powers is restricted to Spain. His view of Britain’s government and empire is much more generous.

There remain, however, two central parts of Bolivar’s dream which are still valid and explain the attraction of his mantle. The first is the vision of unity, common interest and solidarity, which is shared by millions of ordinary Latin Americans. The second is the vision of liberation in which the resources, sovereignty and political mastery of the continent lie firmly in the hands of Latin Americans themselves.


Misreading Venezuela

Excellent article!

Gustavo Coronel: Misreading Venezuela

Contrary to what Americans hear constantly from the media, Venezuelans have a poor opinion of their president, Hugo Chavez, and a positive opinion of Americans and the United States.

As a senior Venezuelan currently living in the U.S. while keeping up-to-date with Venezuelan affairs (I am also a former member of the Venezuelan congress), I have come to accept that Venezuela generally merits little attention from U.S. society, except in three or four areas: baseball players, beautiful women, oil and the antics of Hugo Chavez.

Hugo Chavez’ September 2006 UN speech in which he called President Bush a “devil” and spoke aggressively against the United States, helped to push Chavez and Venezuela, even if negatively, onto the American consciousness. Due to this speech, millions of U.S. citizens felt curious enough to do some research on Chavez and learned, for example, that Citgo, the chain of corner gas stations, is really a major oil company owned by the Venezuelan government and being used by Chavez to make inroads into American domestic politics. Americans also learned that Chavez loved Saddam Hussein and now calls Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe "brothers." However, few still know that his buddies in the U.S. include:

• actor Danny Glover, who received $18 million from Chavez to make a movie. Glover has been known to compare Chavez to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.;

• Joseph Kennedy Jr., who runs Citgo's distribution of “cheap” Venezuelan fuel oil for Chavez in the northeast;

• Jesse Jackson, who was decorated by Chavez in Venezuela;

• Ramsey Clark, a famous anti-war activist from the Vietnam era and one of the lawyers who defended Saddam Hussein;

• Don King, the boxing promoter;

• Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war activist; and

• Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt.

The intense propaganda machine installed by Chavez in the U.S. (that costs the Venezuelan Embassy well over a million dollars per year) is trying to sell U.S. public opinion on the idea that Hugo Chavez is universally loved by Venezuelans while the United States is bitterly hated.

In fact, neither of these two claims is correct, judging by all credible polls, both in Venezuela and outside the country. In Venezuela the most professional and respected polling company, Hinterlaces, produced its poll for the month of June, with a 95% reliability. Some of the results are quite interesting:

• Hugo Chavez is rejected by 43% of those polled and approved of by 39%;

• Attacks against the U.S. by Chavez are rejected by 75% of participants and approved of by 14%;

• To give money away to other countries, as Chavez is doing from the Venezuelan oil largess, received the support of only 9% of those polled, while 87% rejected it;

• The pretense of Chavez to re-elect himself indefinitely by modifying the existing constitution is rejected by 63% of those asked and approved of by 19%.

• 81% of Venezuelans would generally like to see new political leadership in the country.

According to the survey by Hinterlaces, the political style of Hugo Chavez is starting to rub Venezuelans the wrong way, since he is increasingly being perceived as a dictator. A poll conducted by a reputed Chilean company, Latinobarometro, in January 2007, indicated that Venezuelans clearly prefer democracy to any other political system. This poll also revealed that Hugo Chavez had a very low approval rating in Latin America, only better than Cuba's Fidel Castro and Peru's Alan Garcia. The highest ranked Latin American leader in this poll was Brazil's Lula da Silva, followed by Chile's Michelle Bachelet, Colombia's Alvaro Uribe and Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, while Hugo Chavez, Alan Garcia and Fidel Castro were at the very bottom of the ladder.

Pew Global Attitudes Poll, issued in June 2007, surveyed the views on the U.S. in 47 countries, including Venezuela. While it is true that the U.S. image in Latin America has deteriorated, the clear majority of respondents in countries such as Mexico, Peru and, yes, Venezuela, expressed a positive opinion about their northern neighbor. In fact, it might come as a surprise to many Americans that more Venezuelans (56%) thought favorably about the U.S. than did the British (52%), the Swedes (46%) and the French (39%). While 71% of Venezuelans enjoyed U.S. music and movies, only 63% of the British shared their enthusiasm. At the same time, 76% of Venezuelans professed admiration for U.S. science and education, while 74% of the British did. Venezuelan opinion of the U.S. was much more favorable than that of most European countries.

The picture Venezuelans have formed of Hugo Chavez and of the U.S, according to these polls, is not the picture Hugo Chavez's propaganda machine in Washington is trying to sell to American public opinion. The positive sentiment that Venezuelans have about the United States appears to be culturally driven, not political. Not since the times of Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt and President Kennedy, a team that made possible the end of dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere and the success of the Alliance for Progress, have there been warm relations between the political leadership of both countries.

The U.S. should consider taking the initiative to work with the Venezuelan people, through organizations of civil society, to promote the conversion of more Venezuelans into productive citizens. The Venezuelan population is highly dependent on a paternalistic, authoritarian state and cannot prosper without a critical mass of self-starting citizens. Such an initiative could create new good will for the U.S. in my country.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Antonini isn't the only "testaferro" from Venezuela

Antonini isn't the only "testaferro" from Venezuela.

Financial Crime Consultant, for World-Check
17 August 2007
The $800,000 detected and seized by Argentinean customs authorities from Venezuelan Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson has generated a firestorm of public disgust, both in Argentina as well as in Venezuela. It has provided a rare public look at the darkest side of Latin American election politics, illegal cash payments designed to influence the outcome of presidential elections, made by the leaders of another nation, in this case, Venezuela. As this article is about trade-craft, the actual money laundering tactics seldom seen, but effectively employed, today we open a door to the truth, and detail the story of another Venezuelan "Testaferro" (bagman), and how he engineered "regime change" in another South American country. Antonini is, unfortunately, but one of many who move illegal cash to corrupt fair and free elections and topple elected governments.
Let's turn back the clock a couple of years. Ecuador was in turmoil; the legitimate government there under extreme pressure from several quarters. A renegade Ecuadorian colonel, interested in the installation of a radical leftist government, makes a plea to the Venezuelan leadership, the " Bolivarian Elite.": assist me in putting a government similar to that which you have into power. His wish was granted, and the dirty little game commences.The testaferro de jour, selected for the job, was a Venezuelan insider: Pastor Bismarck Arraez. According to witnesses, he immediately obtained $2m in government funds, and traveled to Ecuador via commercial aviation. Meanwhile, the colonel traveled to the same destination via another flight, and ensured that the money Bismarck was carrying was passed through customs without incident. Perhaps Ecuadorian customs officials can explain how this happened.The $2m was turned over to the colonel by Bismarck, and went to the financial support the of radical candidate, and to the leftist trade unions, whose members were soon out in the street, en masse, creating chaos and calling for the resignation of the government. The rest, as you know, is history. A radical leftist government, instantly allied with the foreign government that financed its ascension, came into power. Bismarck is known to have also traveled to Peru and to Mexico. What exactly was he doing in those countries? We cannot say, but perhaps the customs and immigration services of those nations might want to see how frequently he was a visitor, and the purpose of his trips. Who did he see whilst there? We do not yet know the identity of the individual who performed those services in Nicaragua, but our investigation is continuing.These illicit payments can serve many functions:

  • Fix elections, fund extensive bribery of public officials and bureaucrats.
  • Allow favoured candidates to purchase votes.
  • Pay for high-profile television and media advertising.
  • Fund expensive dinners and public functions of the candidate.
  • Bribe military officers who can order troops or police to interfere with the exercise of voters' rights.
The number of testaferros operating in Latin America today, plying their dirty trade, is unknown. The only way to shut them down is to arrest and convict them for money laundering. Will this happen to Antonini?

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The rise of the "Boligarchs"

Inconsistency seems to be the norm for the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

The rise of the "Boligarchs"
Aug 9th 2007 | CARACAS
From The Economist print edition

"PETROLEUM socialism" is how Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, recently dubbed the blend of military populism and neo-Marxist statism to which he is subjecting his country. Its prime objective, he insists, is to improve the lot of the country's poor majority. Mr Chávez proclaims that "being rich is bad". He frequently lashes out at what he calls "the oligarchy". Strange,then, that the streets of Caracas are clogged with big new 4x4s (Hummers are especially favoured), it is hard to get a table at the best restaurants, and art dealers and whisky importers have never had it so good. A new oligarchy seems to be rising in Venezuela on the back of the "Bolivarian Revolution",named for the country's independence hero. "Some of Chávez's speeches are for the gallery," says Alberto Muller Rojas, a retired army general who was until recently the president's chief of staff. "And I'll give you an example: the attack on the bourgeoisie." As evidence, General Muller singles out the banks: "the most extreme expression of the bourgeoisie" but "the most favoured sector" of the economy since Mr. Chávez came to power in 1999.

Their prosperity owes much to an oil windfall: the price of Venezuela's main export has increased almost eightfold since 1999 and the economy has been growing at 10% a year. But government policies, too, have favoured the bankers and other intermediaries: inflation is close to 20% and the official value of the currency is twice its black-market exchange rate. So the savvy investor looks for access to cheap dollars, import opportunities and government contracts, all of which are largely conditional on political obedience. By contrast, manufacturers and farmers face price controls and risk sporadic official harassment. The result has been the rise of what isknown, in obeisance to Bolívar, as the "Boli-bourgeoisie". Thanks to economic growth and social programmes, the government claims that only 30% of Venezuelan families now live in poverty, down from 55% at the peak in 2003. But according to a new report by the central bank, income inequality has widened slightly under Mr Chávez: the Gini coefficient-astatistical measure of inequality-has gone from 0.44 in 2000 to 0.48 in 2005.

Typical of the new "Boligarchy" is Wilmer Ruperti, a shipping broker who was once a merchant seaman. His ascent was helped by a two-month strike against Mr Chávez by workers at Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil company. Mr Ruperti chartered ships to help the government break the strike. Another is Arné Chacón, whose brother Jesse is the communications minister. Arné now owns half of Baninvest, a bank. He acquired it with loans for which his main apparent collateral was his official connections.

Mr Chávez claims to be pursuing economic nationalism and "endogenous development". But farmers and manufacturers struggle against cheap imports. Though local dairy products are often missing from the supermarket shelves, Gouda and Emmenthal cheeses nestle beside Irish butter. The frozen chickens at Mercal, a government chain of subsidised grocery shops, are Brazilian. The importers who supply Mercal have grown rich. But Venezuela's ranchers are becoming extinct, threatened by expropriations, land invasions and price controls, as well as by extortion and kidnappings by criminal gangs.

Officials stress that two-thirds of the poor have benefited directly from government social policies. As well as Mercal, these include the "missions", which offer education and health care. Up to 2m people get a small cash stipend. But despite hefty increases in the minimum wage and price controls on basic goods, inflation is eating away at the gains.

For those with connections, however, the rewards are great. The World Bank recently ranked Venezuela as the second-worst country in the Americas for the control of corruption, above only Haiti. Others confirm this perception."We usually ask for 10%," a foreign diplomat reports one government official admitting. "But some get greedy and want 15-20%."

Since his re-election in December, Mr Chávez has frequently suggested capping the salaries of the highest-paid public officials. He also called on those with "excess" wealth to donate part of it to worthy causes. The response has been meagre. If he really tries to make socialism more than a slogan, some of the fiercest resistance may come from the new bourgeoisie his own policies have created.

Labels: ,

Assignment: Venezuela

A balanced view on Venezuela's political situation presented by a local TV station in Miami. Enjoy!

Part I of V:

Part II of V:

Part III of V:

Part IV of V:

Part V of V:

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A letter to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez: On the subject of his oil handouts to Fidel Castro.

*Gustavo Coronel:
A letter to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez:
On the subject of his oil handouts to Fidel Castro.

Mr. President:

The purpose of this letter is to let you know that your recent public declaration about Venezuela and Cuba being “one single nation” and about the 93,000 barrels of oil per day you have been delivering to Fidel Castro for about four years constitute acts of treason.

Let me tell you why:

1. Your decision to send Venezuelan oil to Fidel Castro was never properly consulted with the Venezuelan nation. Venezuelans would have rejected this handout due to our immense and unfulfilled needs. The subsidy you are giving Fidel Castro is estimated at some $2.3 billion per year. After the 15 year-life of the agreement you will have given Castro an amount of Venezuelan money that is similar to the current international financial reserves of our country. This is a gift of abnormal proportions, an act of aggression against the Venezuelan people;

2. You claim that “only lackeys of imperialism” object to these handouts. This is typical of your arrogance and the manner you deal with those who oppose your decisions. Recently you have accused the members of the Brazilian Congress and the Cardinal of Honduras, in addition to the Venezuelans who dare to dissent from your actions, of being “lackeys of the empire”. In your eyes, therefore, I will also be a lackey because I have no doubt that you are illegally giving away to Fidel Castro our national property, resources that do not belong to you but to the Venezuelan people. You will have to answer for this when your time comes;

3. The supply of oil to Fidel Castro is being done in terms that are totally adverse to the interests of the Venezuelan people. The low interests, the periods of grace, the payment in services which cannot be properly quantify constitute a fraud against the Venezuelan nation;

4. Oil, as you should know, is a non-renewable resource. It was formed in nature millions of years ago, when your political regime was not around. Giving oil away, exchanging it for political favors, bartering it for bananas, black beans Cuban bodyguards and pseudo medical staff, constitutes a criminal management of this resource. In the name of all Venezuelans I protest for this detrimental aggression against our nation;

5. You argue that the volumes of oil being given to Fidel Castro are “small”, as compared to the amounts Venezuela has supplied to the U.S. for “one hundred years”, in occasions “a gift”. Let me tell you that Venezuela has never given away its oil as you do today. It always obtained money for its exports. The money coming from oil has often been wasted by governments, but never in greater amounts than today, under your regime. The only Venezuelan president that has given oil at great subsidies to U.S. citizens is you, through a program of “oil for the poor” that already costs us over $100 million and targets U.S. communities that have an average income ten times higher than the average income of millions of Venezuelans. You do it for political propaganda, at the expense of our real national needs.

6. You say that Cuba “is already paying more than it has to” for the oil you send Castro. This is an irresponsible statement on two counts: one, you validate the irregular payments Cuba is making and, two; you open the doors to increased demands from Castro. This is double treason.

Finally you say that today “Cubans and Venezuelans are one and the same nation”. I protest against this servile assertion. We are free citizens, not slaves. We have no wish to belong to a single nation under the bloody paws of a dictator that has recruited you as heir. One thing is to feel solidarity with the peoples of the hemisphere. A different thing is to become oxen driving the wagon of Latin American despotism. All-out resistance from democracy loving Venezuelans will meet your attempts in this direction. .

*Gustavo Coronel is a 28 years oil industry veteran, a member of the first board of directors (1975-1979) of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), author of several books. At the present Coronel is Petroleumworld associate editor and advisor on the opinion and editorial content of the site. All Coronel's articles can be read in his blog www.lasarmasdecoronel.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 5, 2007

On the Road With Sean Penn and Chavez

It's easy for Sean Penn and many other Americans that have visited Venezuela to praise a revolution that doesn't affect them. I wonder what they would think if they were blacklisted by Bush for being anti-war activist. Like many anti-Chávez Venezuelans are criminalized just for expressing their dissidence.

On the Road With Sean Penn and Chavez
By IAN JAMES 08.04.07, 5:04 AM ET

LA GRITA, Venezuela - Aboard the presidential jet, a grinning Hugo Chavez put a hand on Sean Penn's shoulder, praised his acting and added: "And he's anti-Bush!"

The Venezuelan president reveled in his role as host to the Hollywood star as they flew across the country Friday and traveled through the countryside in a military jeep with Chavez at the wheel, stopping to greet cheering supporters.

The Oscar-winning actor has previously condemned the Iraq war and called for President Bush to be impeached, but he revealed little about his thoughts on Venezuela, saying he came as a freelance journalist after reporting stints in Iraq and Iran - and was saving his conclusions for print.

"He's a courageous man," Chavez said as he introduced Penn to reporters and dignitaries during the flight from Caracas to western Venezuela. "He's very quiet, but he has a fire burning inside."

Penn is the latest in a series of U.S. celebrities and public figures to visit Chavez, including actor Danny Glover, singer Harry Belafonte and Cindy Sheehan, who became a peace activist after her soldier son was killed in Iraq.

Enlivened by his conversations with Penn, the socialist president lambasted the U.S. government for "destroying the world" with war and warned of brewing economic troubles, saying Washington should do much more for its own poor.

"There could be a revolution there," Chavez said. "We'll help them. The United States must be helped because the United States is going to implode."

Driving a Venezuelan-made Tiuna jeep through fields of potatoes, corn and lettuce, Chavez craned his head to chat with Penn, who rode in the rear seat wearing sunglasses and taking in the spectacle.

Penn's star power was eclipsed by Chavez, who honked to flag-waving admirers along the road through a mountain valley and stopped to kiss children and clasp hands with screaming women.

At the end of the trip, Chavez and Penn donned white lab coats and toured an agricultural research laboratory.

Some Chavez opponents have been critical of Penn's visit, saying he is being used for political purposes.

While Chavez made a speech, however, Penn stood at a distance alongside the audience, occasionally jotting down notes. He spoke only when Chavez asked the actor to say a few words.

"I came here looking for a great country. I found a great country," Penn told the crowd.

"I'm also here as a journalist and so I owe it to that medium to wait until I've digested, fact-checked and finished my journey here" before saying more, Penn said. He thanked Chavez for the visit.

The president lauded Penn as "a man who is critical of his government and of imperialism."

At one of Chavez's many roadside stops, Penn remarked: "I'm just here to take it in like everybody else."

Chavez noted they were visiting "one of the most tense zones of Latin America" - near the border with Colombia, a haven for drug traffickers, left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries. Security was tight, with soldiers and bodyguards lining the motorcade route.

Holding a map of the border region, Chavez said the U.S. "empire" has a strong presence on the Colombian side, including military advisers and spies.

But he kept the tone light with visiting dignitaries from countries including Canada, Poland and Burkina Faso who joined him on the presidential Airbus jet. With a hearty laugh, he said: "Surely they're going to take satellite photographs, and they're going to say in Washington that Chavez is going around with... a crazy international battalion - African, Canadian, Cuban ... and gringo!"

Labels: ,

Man and superman

For those of you that still have doubts about Mr. Chávez.

Meet the real Hugo Chávez, military caudillo and political televangelist

IN THE eight years since he was first elected Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez has become the most controversial political figure in Latin America. He has also, as Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan minister who now edits Foreign Policy, points out in his introduction to this biography, bracketed himself with Fidel Castro as one of the very few from the region to have become a household name.

He has achieved this partly through sheer verbal effrontery, as in his badmouthing of George Bush. But Mr Chávez's fame stems, too, from his oil-backed claims to be leading a new revolutionary project of “21st-century socialism” that tears up the nostrums of economic liberalism. His fans see this as a model for the developing world. To his opponents, he is an elected dictator who is destroying his country's democracy and, through reckless public spending and controls on private business, its economy.

So there is already much mythology surrounding Mr Chávez. But the man himself has remained elusive. This highly readable biography, first published in Spanish in Venezuela in late 2004, is not “definitive”. But it is an essential starting point to understanding Mr Chávez, and thus to seeing what lies ahead for his country. Cristina Marcano, a Venezuelan journalist, and Alberto Barrera, her novelist husband, interviewed a number of people who at varying times have been close to Mr Chávez. They also draw on the little-publicised work of other researchers, especially regarding the plotting in which Mr Chávez was involved as an army officer. They offer a scrupulously balanced account of a man whose belligerence has polarised opinion in his country and beyond.

The Hugo Chávez who emerges from their book is a complex and astute populist. He is first and foremost a military man. Born into respectable poverty in the tropical lowlands, he saw the army as a route to advancement—as do so many lower-middle-class provincial youths in Latin America. Once politics had replaced baseball as his primary passion, his heroes would be nationalist military rulers such as Peru's General Juan Velasco and Panama's Omar Torrijos, rather than Mr Castro or Che Guevara. Indeed, Mr Chávez distrusts civilians; in government, he has placed many military officers in civilian jobs.

As a politician Mr Chávez is a cool strategist, though a sometimes reckless tactician. He is a natural showman with the talents of a televangelist. The authors are surely right when they say that the “root of Chávez's power resides in the religious and emotional bond” he has forged with ordinary Venezuelans, especially poorer ones. In the tradition of the televangelist, that bond has survived its creator's metamorphosis from austere crusader against corruption to a man who clearly enjoys power and its perquisites. Nowadays, the book notes, Mr Chávez sports designer clothes and Cartier watches—and a growing personality cult.

This bond has allowed him to pull off the remarkable trick of posing as the leader of the opposition to his own incompetent government. Along with all this goes a certain kookiness: the authors cite several sources who say that Mr Chávez believes himself the reincarnation of Ezequiel Zamora, a 19th-century caudillo, and that he leaves an empty chair at meetings for the spirit of Símon Bolívar, the hero of Venezuela's independence.

Mr Chávez has also enjoyed much luck. He has been underestimated by opponents. He is still in power today because of a massive oil windfall. Had his predecessors benefited from today's oil prices Venezuelans would almost certainly not have abandoned their 40-year experiment with a two-party system in favour of an outsider like Mr Chávez.

The authors have relatively little to say about their subject's economic and social policies. But they are particularly useful in tearing away the mythology surrounding the most controversial episode in Mr Chávez's presidency. In their account of the failed coup that briefly toppled the president in April 2002, they show that the army's commanders rebelled when the president ordered them to repress a vast anti-government demonstration. Those same commanders then recoiled, restoring Mr Chávez to power after a conspiratorial group tried to use the confusion to decree an end to democracy.

In their righteous indignation over this conspiracy, Mr Chávez's acolytes gloss over the fact that their hero himself led a similar failed coup against an elected government ten years before. His intention, we are told, was to set up a military-dominated government which would shoot civilian politicians for corruption.

For this English-language edition, the authors have added a brief postscript to a narrative that stops with their subject's victory in a recall referendum in August 2004. At times their text seems dated. A man previously known “for moving nimbly through the terrain of ideological ambiguity” has in recent months swerved more decisively in the direction of state-socialism and a lifetime presidency. That is already limiting his appeal in Latin America, and among the left in Europe. Mr Chávez's closest allies nowadays are in Iran and Belarus. Mr Naím worries that Mr Chávez has “hit a global nerve that makes him internationally relevant”. Perhaps so, but only so long as Mr Bush is around to hate, and so long as the oil money lasts.