Nor Saint, Nor Demon: The Price of a Bolivarian Revolution
“To those who wish me death, I wish long life so that they can witness the progress of the Bolivarian revolution” –Hugo Chávez Frías
“As he went on telling me about his life, I started to discover a character that did not at all correspond with the image of the despot that has been formed by the media. This was another Chávez. Which of the two is real?” – Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This is a two-in-one post; the first analyzes the good, the bad, and the ugly of Chávez regime from my perspective and tries to complicate both his demonization by the powers that be and his romanticization by progressives. The second piece looks at how he has in a paradoxical fashion both exacerbated the armed conflict in Colombia, and towards the end of his life, facilitated it’s forthcoming end.
Yesterday, at 4:25pm PST, (Vice)-President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, announced that after a 20 month struggle with cancer, President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías passed away in a military hospital. Maduro has called on the army, who is arguably more in hands the of Diosdello Cabello than the Venezuelan government, to go into the streets to keep the peace and has called for “unity”. Elections have been confirmed to take place in 30 days, as outlined in the Venezuelan constitution (which Chávez changed). Given ambiguity around whether or not Chávez was officially sworn in as President and whether that matters, some are saying that it should be Cabello and not Maduro, who should be interim President.
This situation is a emotional, and political powderkeg waiting to blow. I think a call to calm is wise; for example a Colombian journalist from RCN, an Colombian establishment news channel was yesterday brutally beaten outside of the military hospital where Chávez died, as she was associated with the opposition. Colombian newspapers such as El Espectador have already published a letter of condolences and adulation from the FARC, Gabriel García Marquez wrote a lengthy profile in hommage to his friend, and statements by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were rejected as “insensitive” by the Venezuelan government.
Arguably, Chávez was one of the most transformative and controversial figures in Latin American politics in the last decade. Other than Uribe, I cannot think of a figure that has more dramatically changed a country in Latin America, for better or for worse, than him.
Before proceeding however, I must acknowledge three things. Firstly, Hugo Chávez was the father of four children.
He was married several times, and is a son. Yesterday, a country with an intense and possibly explosive political situation lost a central figure, and a human being lost his life to cancer at the tender age of 58. Uribista, Caprilista, antichavista, or not, a death is nothing to celebrate.
Secondly, I am Colombian. Although growing up we have all been socialized into recognizing Venezuela as our pueblo hermano (our brother people), I do not know what it was like to live under the, some would say dictatorship, of Chávez. Colombians, from ex-Senator, Human Rights activist, and ultra-chavista Piedad Córdoba Ruíz, and archenemies of Chávez such as the Ex-President himself Alvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombians do not speak with one voice about Chávez. I just want to recognize my positionality as an outsider and recognize that I am speaking as myself and not for Colombia, although both countries’ destinies are to a certain extent tied to each other. Given how his personality and controversial statements captivated the attention of the American media, I suspect much of the coverage will be foreign. I would love to hear some Venezuelan voices, both anti-Chávez and pro, particularly in English.
Thirdly, on social networks, the mainstream media, and the blogosphere, particularly in the region, this story will be the ‘flavour’ of the month and eclipse all other news. Chávez’s death is a watershed movement, and a time to reflect on his significance, but although the media’s gaze may exclusively or disproportionately focus on his death, we can’t forget that the daily structural violences and oppressions against many Venezuelans, Colombians, Latin Americans, and people all over the world in a myriad of different contexts. For one instance, the FARC throw 3 bombs at a Police station in Chocó tonight where the governor called on the President to make security an urgent priority.
Chávez In Context
Both for Venezuela and for the region at large, Chavez was an individual with a mixed record, and a very polarizing and divisive one at that. For some he was a Dictator who ran Venezuela into the ground, especially in terms of security. For others, he was a revolutionary figure who represented the beginning of a progressive era, and the end of the Venezuelan petro-oligarchy. He was, and in my view will always be, remembered as either The Devil for conservative segments of society, or the Saviour for progressives and popular sectors. The editor of the Colombia Politics, who is by no stretch of the imagination Pro-Chavez, says it best:
It would be churlish to argue that nothing Chávez did had any merit. It would be churlish too to ignore his popularity in certain sections of Venezuelan society. He won 8 million votes last year – sure not all of them were won openly and fairly, but win them he did.
Yes, Chávez´s Venezuela played host to many of the FARC guerrillas, and the accusations of complicity of his government in acts of terrorism are well documented, but it is an undeniable truth that Chávez´s leadership was key to getting the rebels to the table in Havana.
There’s been great work done on the ground by scholars such as Alejandro Velasco, Sujatha Fernandes, Naomi Schiller and George Ciccariello-Maher on these social movements that, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere. One study found that organized Chavistas held to “liberal conceptions of democracy and held pluralistic norms,” believed in peaceful methods of conflict resolution and worked to ensure that their organizations functioned with high levels of “horizontal or non-hierarchical” democracy. What political scientists would criticize as a hyper dependency on a strongman, Venezuelan activists understand as mutual reliance, as well as an acute awareness of the limits and shortcomings of this reliance.
As Grandin continues, Venezuela was an urbanized, socially poor, unequal petro-state which had to submit itself to the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), exacerbating a regional populist sentiment that has its roots in the Cuban revolution, the assasinations of Leftist leaders such as Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Torrijos in Panama, Gaitan in Colombia, and Allende in Chile which forever radicalized the Latin American Left. Chávez, as a military man attempted a coup, failed, was jailed, and became a martyr. In 1998 his Movimiento V República brought him to the Presidency, under which he began implementing his socialism of the 21st century or Bolivarian socialism.
Chávez did not establish a one-party rule, throughout his tenure he faced 13 elections of which we won over 10. He rather used petro-dollars to establish patronage networks instead of dealing with corruption, and arguably like Uribe with his community councils, established a consultative, open, albeit chaotic form of grassroots and citizen-centred democracy that helped create a political space for the lower-classes, something that had been absent during the two-party rule of the oligarchy beforehand.
Nevertheless, Chávez critics are not only discontent plutocrats with a political agenda, but local activists and notably, Human Rights Watch (HRW). Progressives and leftists can sympathize which Chávez raw, outspoken, and colourful criticisms of the United States and the powers that have traditionally governed and owned much of Latin America; nevertheless, just because the man talked a good talk does not excuse him from the same ethical and moral considerations of any other leader. As HRW outlines, the Chávez regime curtailed freedom of the press, stacked the judiciary, and rejected the Inter-American Human Rights system of the OAS:
In 2004, Chávez and his followers in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, adding 12 seats to what had been a 20-seat tribunal, and filling them with government supporters. The packed Supreme Court ceased to function as a check on presidential power. Its justices have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and pledged their commitment to advancing Chávez’s political agenda. This commitment has been reflected in the court’s rulings, which repeatedly validated the government’s disregard for human rights.
After Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, an opposition politician, appeared on Globovisión’s main political talk show in March 2010 and commented on allegations of increased drug trafficking in Venezuela and a Spanish court ruling that referred to possible collaboration between the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas, Basque separatists, and other “terrorist” groups, Chávez responded in a national broadcast that these comments “could not be permitted” and called on other branches of government “to take action.” Two weeks later, Álvarez Paz was arrested on grounds that his “evidently false statements” had caused “an unfounded fear” in the Venezuelan people. Álvarez Paz remained in pretrial detention for almost two months and was then granted conditional liberty during his trial, which culminated in July 2011 with a guilty verdict and a two-year prison sentence. The judge allowed Álvarez Paz to serve his sentence on conditional liberty, but prohibited him from leaving the country without judicial authorization.
In a similar vein, Chávez regime was characterized by rising inflation, food shortages, and one of the most extreme deteriorations of security in the region. After Chávez, Venezuela became much more dangerous than Colombia and Caracas had one of the highest murder rates in the world.
InSight Crime analysis, a think tank focusing on violence and organized crime in the region, argues that the security crisis in Venezuela is due to a complex of factors, but is mostly driven by the international drug trade (read= a transit point for Colombia cocaine), the fact that local elites on the Venezuelan and Colombian borders have taken control of the border, which is de-facto run by (neo)paramilitaries, cartels, and the FARC and the ELN guerrillas.
As The Economist points out, Chávez could be considered an ‘elected autocracy’; he had his own militia of 125,000 soldiers.Although a centre-right and neoliberal-oriented paper who’s political bias needs to take in consideration, The Economist also provides some food for thought in juxtaposition to Grandin’s analysis:
Foreign leftist academics claimed that all this added up to an empowering “direct democracy”, superior to the incipient welfare state set up by Latin America’s social democratic governments. But to others, it looked like a top-down charade of participation, in which all power lay with the president.
Behind the propaganda, the Bolivarian revolution was a corrupt, mismanaged affair. The economy became ever more dependent on oil and imports. State takeovers of farms cut agricultural output. Controls of prices and foreign exchange could not prevent persistent inflation and engendered shortages of staple goods. Infrastructure crumbled: most of the country has suffered frequent power cuts for years. Hospitals rotted: even many of the missions languished. Crime soared: Caracas is one of the world’s most violent capitals. Venezuela has become a conduit for the drug trade, with the involvement of segments of the security forces.
Mr Chávez’s supreme political achievement was that many ordinary Venezuelans credited him with the handouts and did not blame him for the blemishes. They saw him as one of them, as being on their side. His supporters, especially women, would say: “This man was sent by God to help the poor”. He had llanero wit and charm, and an instinctive sense of political opportunity.
The paper has also argued that Chávez disdain for the private sector has contributed to the growing inflation and food shortages in Venezuela. At the same time, Venezuela’s oil money helped finance social programs that reduced inequality and poverty in the country. For example, in 2011 the UN Economic Comission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated that Venezuela has the third lowest poverty rate in Latin America, at 27% compared to Colombia’s 45% (this was using Colombia’s old poverty measurement scheme which has since been changed in 2012). Extreme poverty during Chávez’ ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ was reduced from 22% to 10%.
Although in places like Colombia, Central America, South Africa, which have both some of the highest GINI coefficients and murder rates in the world, there is assumed to be a correlation between inequality and violence. In Bolivarian Venezuela, there is the paradox of plummeting inequality and poverty with skyrocketing violence.
Indeed, it seemed as though Chávez completed his goal of creating a more inclusive and equal Venezuela, but at the price of letting security deteriorate. Another important point to emphasize is that, especially during the elections, many Venezuelans were more concerned with what as termed as many in the media as the ‘Colombianization’ of the Venezuelan security situation than with the political repression that is emphasized by northern Human rights groups. Others, such as self-identified member of the Venezuelan oligarchy Vanessa Neumann, argue that the social gains are typical of an oil boom, and that if anything, Chávez’ bold Bolivarian socialism has exacerbated the economic crises faced by Venezuelans.
Chávez was, indeed, loved by his people. In 2002, when the oligarchy tried to overthrow him through an illegal coup/golpe de estado, it was his supporters from the barrios who poured out into the streets of Caracas who arguably saved his government. Nevertheless, Chávez opponents also came from the grassroots, and not just the elite. When he refused to renew the license of one of the last independent TV stations in Venezuela, Radio Caracas/RCTV, University students very cleverly staged protests which arguably led to one of Chávez’s few electoral defeats; at one point the regime even tried to buy the students out, and threatened their families, but they would not cave. A must-read account of this is Will Dobson’s account of the Caracas student movement.
Opponents of Chávez, particularly within the Latin American oligarchies and in Canada and the United States, need to check themselves and recognize how dangerously parallel some of their language is to the blatantly ideological and McCarthy-esque discourse of Western governments towards progressive movements in Latin America that threaten the investment climate. Chávez did close democratic space, but he is not Stalin, and to make equivalent comparisons is to impose on Venezuela a a false narrative reminiscent of the Cold War which is employed within the Western media for very particular purposes. If opponents to Chávez in the West, in my view, truly wanted to create a productive and constructive criticism of him, they may have done better to question his support of the Colombian guerrillas.
My final reflection on Chávez’ impact on Venezuela is that yes, the fact that he was so unapologetic and boldly socialist and anti-imperalist did led to a satanization of him within the Western media. There is little that Hugo Chávez had done that can’t be found in a nations that the West/countries like the United States and Canada call ‘allies’ (Saudi Arabia, Israel, even Colombia just to start). However, just because Chávez was demonized and his political language was a useful and bold critique for the Latin American Left against imperialism, I would caution progressives not to romanticize him. I, like many Colombians, agree with several of the FARC’s criticisms of neoliberalism and its effects on Colombian culture, the news media, the oligarchy, the crimes against humanity committed by the state, and the government itself (parapolitica). Like many self-identified progressives, I think that Chávez sensational yet poignant critiques of US imperialism, militarism, market economics, the banana, oil, coca, and mineral plutocracy that became Latin America, and his efforts to make Venezuela a more inclusive and more equal society in a region that has in many ways not changed much since the colonial era, are extremely interesting if not useful. Yet, something in my gut tells me that I just cannot call myself a chavista or a guerrillero. True criticism of the powers that be need to whole heartedly reject both state power and militarism; you cannot destroy the master’s house with his tools. Chávez lack of leadership, autocracy, tolerance of the FARC, repression of political opposition does not make him a dictator, but it shows that the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ came at a high, high price for many Venezuelans.
Creating Crisis, Building Trust, Leaving Uncertainty: The Impact of Hugo Chávez on the Civil War and Peace Process in Colombia
“Colombia proposes to go before the International Criminal Court and denounce Hugo Chávez for the financing and support of genocidal armed groups” –Ex-President Alvaro Uribe
“The best thing that Colombia can do to honour Chávez’s legacy is to see the success of the peace talks” – Current President Juan Manuel Santos
Uribe and Chávez pretending to play nice.
Chávez’s mark on Colombia can be neatly summarized by some of the most highly mediatized events in recent history in the region. Firstly, the acuerdo humanitario (or humanitarian exchange). This was a deal under which the FARC-EP would hand over kidnapped Colombian police officers, military servicemen, politicians, civilians, journalists etc. in exchange for the release of FARC-EP members imprisoned by the Colombian government (who they considered “political prisoners”). The second is the 2008 and 2010 Andean Political Crisises in which Venezuela and Colombia almost went to war, and the third, and in my view, most important, is the current peace talks in Havana between the government and the FARC-EP.
To give a bit of context: From 2002-2010, Alvaro Uribe was President of Colombia. Uribe is accused of having ties to right-wing paramilitaries and very clearly represents the land-owning elite and a socially conservative and neoliberal segment of the regional elite who has deep distaste for the guerrillas and Lefty populism, and a tolerance, at times promotion of anti-insurgent violence. Uribe, who was a personal friend and close ally of George W. Bush, re-built the Colombian army with funds from Clinton’s Plan Colombia, and opened the country to foreign investment. Clearly, not Chávez’s favourite Colombian president.
Humanitarian Exchange and Chávez’s cozy relationship with the FARC
Nevertheless, for the humanitarian cause of ‘rescuing’ or ‘liberating’ abducted people in the hands of the guerrillas, Uribe recognized that Chávez, and ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba (a human rights defender or a guerrilla sympathizer, again, depending on who you ask) had the trust of the guerrillas. Córdoba, one of the most forceful critics of the Uribe government, proposed to Chávez to mediate the liberations between Uribe and the FARC. In a rare instance of cross-partisan and ideological cooperation, Chávez, Córdoba and Uribe cooperated in coordinating liberations with the FARC. Of course, no matter what your political stripe or intention is, images of ‘innocent’ soldiers and civilians being liberated from the hands of ‘terrorists’ wins everyone political points.
The concept of ‘humanitarian exchange’ was nothing new, and it was an idea actually proposed by the guerrillas and not the government, who throughout the 90s had kidnapped civilians en masse in an effort to both rock the Colombian establishment, and to build political bargaining chips to liberate some of their troops in Colombian jails.
However, due to politics, miscommunications, only Clara Rojas, a former Vice-Presidential candidate kidnapped in 2002 was freed in 2007. Around the same time, Uribe called off mediaton with Chávez, beginning the souring of relations between the two.
Often in his speeches, Chávez has supported the FARC’s ideology, but he has also called on them to turn to the ballot over the bullet for their revolution. When Alfonso Cano became the Chief of the FARC Secretariat, he called on him to release all abductees. However, when Manuel Marulanda Vélez, alias “Sure Shot”, the historical leader of the FARC was killed, a statue of him was erected in the main Plaza in Caracas, causing outrage in Colombia. Chávez, as the Colombian government has often pointed out with satellite evidence, has for a long time been willingly providing a safe haven for the FARC and ELN guerrillas in Venezuela. Chávez has also made contradictory statements about the FARC, saying he does not support their armed struggled, but that one of the key FARC commanders, Raul Reyes, spent a night at the Venezuelan Presidential Palace on his invitation, and that they ended up talking “for an entire night”.
The Andean Political Crisis – Chasing ‘Terrorists’, Violating Sovereignty
In 2008, Uribe had had enough of the FARC enjoying a sanctuary in the neighbouring country, and along with the then Defence Minister and now President Juan Manuel Santos, decided to blatantly violate Ecuadorean sovereignty by bombing a FARC camp 1800 metres deep into the Ecuadorean side of the border. The Ecuadoreans had been given no notice of the operation, or that Colombia had reasons to suspect that the FARC were in Ecuador (although this was somewhat of an open secret in both Quito and Venezuela). 17-22 ‘terrorists’ were killed in addition to one of the top leaders of the FARC, Raul Reyes, as well as 4 Mexican university students and an Ecuadorean who were being held hostage in the camp.
Laptops retrieved from the camps would later reveal that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Chávez had, to put it politely, cozy relations with the FARC (the guerrillas were treated as diplomats in both capitals). Quito and Caracas would later claim that this was to advance negotiations for peace and the humanitarian exchange. Some of the documents which point towards ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba as a guerrilla supporter have been questioned by Colombian legal authorities, as many of them were on Word Documents that ‘anyone’ (the Colombian authorities) could edit. Later there would even be questions about Chávez, either by omission or comission, facilitating the arming of the FARC, including giving them Venezuelan rocket launchers.
This crisis led to the breaking of diplomatic relations between the three countries, a war of words between Uribe, Chávez and Correa. Then, Hugo Chávez, on state television over the phone, claiming a need to defend Venezuela’s sovereignty against the ‘paramilitary’ Uribe, ordered 10 batallions to the Colombian-Venezuelan border as if he was ordering take-out. For many Colombians, yours truly included, we knew of many Colombians who did business in Venezuela that quickly had to leave (After the US, Venezuela is Colombia’s largest trading partner), and it looked like Venezuela and Colombia were going to war.
The Colombian Defence Minister would later apologize for violating Ecuador’s sovereignty.
The crisis ended symbolically at the Río Summit in the Dominican Republic a short time afterwards, in which the President of the DR asked Chávez, Correa and Uribe to shake hands in a gesture of Andean fraternity. Afterwards, Chávez retreated his troops from the border and declared the crisis over.
This would not be the last crisis between Venezuela and Colombia. During the last days of Uribe’s tenure in the summer 2010, during a summit of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Colombian Ambassador to the OAS, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, gave a presentation, visuals and all, in which he affirmed that Colombia could prove the presence of the FARC and ELN in both Venezuela and Ecuador. Venezuela again cut off diplomatic relations. Uribe would later say that he was fully intending on “intervening militarily” against the FARC in the bordering nation. Thankfully though, after some clever diplomacy by Brazil, and the fact that Uribe’s term would be up in a few weeks, this episode didn’t escalate like in 2008.
The Peace Process in Havana – An Uncertain Future
Since taking office, Juan Manuel Santos has re-established diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and tried to create a more conciliatory and less combative personal relationship with Chávez. For example, Santos gave to Venezuela Reyes’ laptops. This dramatic change in Colombian policy towards Venezuela provoked Uribe to call Santos a traitor. Nevertheless, this could have been seen as a pragmatic move by Santos to reverse the regional isolation Colombia experienced under Uribe, and to establish a rapport with Caracas that would be necessary for the eventual peace negotiations with the FARC.
Among with Chile, Cuba, and Norway, Venezuela is one of the “guarantor” countries for the process, and Chávez, given his close relationship with the FARC, played a key role in convincing the FARC to trust the government in preliminary talks. For example, former Colombian President and client of the Rodriguez-Orejuela/The Cali Cartel, Ernesto Samper says that Colombia has much to thank to Chávez for helping brokering peace. The Colombian state also has a mixed record on how it treats demobilized armed groups, from letting some exercise political office, to perpetrating genocide against others. The main role of Venezuela, and especially Chávez given his personal rapport with the FARC leadership, would have been to guarantee the trust and respect of both parties in an eventual demobilization i.e. convince the FARC that they would not be slaughtered after putting down their arms, as the wounds of previous campaigns against left-wing politicians are still very fresh.
(L) Commander of the Caribbean Bloc of the FARC and delegate to the peace talks, Iván Marquez, (centre), President Chávez, (R) Former Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba
Santos was elected as on the credentials of the (perceived) success of Uribe’s counterinsurgency ‘Democratic Security’ policy. He was supposed to be a continuation of (militarily) ending the FARC. However, Santos chose to walk through his own path by reconciling Colombia with Venezuela and choosing to talk peace with the FARC. Politically, Santos cannot afford to be perceived by the Uribista segments of Colombian society (who are still very powerful in the business sector, the media, shaping public opinion) as ‘soft’ on terror. Therefore, even before and during the peace talks, Santos had to keep the FARC’s feet to the fire and kept the intensity of the military campaign; the government has refused to enter into a ceasefire with the guerrillas, even when they declared a unilateral truce. By the same token, last year, when the preliminary talks were still being negotiated in secret from the entire country, Santos took the extremely difficult decision of giving the order to kill Guillermo Leon Saenz (or Alfonso Cano) the then de-facto head of the FARC. Even after having their main leader killed, the FARC’s trust in the peace process, and in the government, did not falter, showing a very different change in attitude and a deep willingness to have the process succeed this time around. Chávez role both in public and in private in mediating these extremely difficult situations between two parties that who’s relationship has been based on mutual distrust of almost five decades, exacerbated by the ‘War on Terror’-esque policies and demonization of Alvaro Uribe, cannot be understated.
Perhaps Chávez, after Uribe’s presidency, recognized that the FARC was a spent force and the best way to save face his support for them would be to play the role of peace broker. Perhaps he was genuinely convinced that democracy, and not ‘la lucha armada’/the armed struggle was the only legitimate way for progressives to take power in neighbouring Colombia. Only time will tell if Chávez will be remembered/understood/constructed in Colombia as the man who helped bring peace instead of continuing to support the ‘export’ of the socialist project, or if his support for the rebels will continue to be what defines his image in the brother republic.
As the dynamic and independent journalists of the progressive and alternative news media, La Silla Vacia/The Empty Seat said, three possible impacts of this death have been identified by Colombian analysts. One, Maduro wins the upcoming elections and the peace process moves forward as planned. Two, the divisions within the Chavista regime harden, and Maduro pressures the FARC to sign a peace deal in order to quickly get rid one of the Venezuelan government’s priorities and focus on consolidating his power or in turn, Maduro puts consolidating his power first and Venezuela becomes less active in the process or three, the most unlikely yet not unplausible scenario of the opposition winning the upcoming elections, and the hard-liner Chavistas looking towards the FARC as a form of armed resistance within Venezuela. It’s also important to note that for the Leftist governments of Correa and Venezuela, the FARC were somewhat of a liability as they served as pre-text for an ongoing American military presence on their borders; no more FARC would mean no more Plan Colombia.
Although every diagnosis of the peace process has a political agenda behind it, it seems that generally the talks in Havana are on a steady path to bringing the beginning of the end of 49 years of relentless suffering due to armed violence. Nevertheless, it is unclear what Maduro’s role will be in supporting the talks. Moreover, if elections are to occur in 30 days in Venezuela, the charismatic and centre-right Henrique Capriles Radonski becoming President is unlikely but completely possible. What would an anti-leftist, and undoubtedly Anti-FARC Venezuela mean for a peace process brokered by the rapport Chávez had with both Bogotá and the armed Marxists? If Chávez death brings anything to Colombia, it is an aura of uncertainty to the peace process.