Commentary Magazine


Topic: Organization of American States

Chavez the Phantom Remains in Control

Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.

Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.

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Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.

Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.

Has Venezuela entered a new era of Chavismo without Chavez? Paradoxically, the increasingly desperate antics of regime loyalists, who continue to dangle the prospect of Chavez returning to Caracas, suggest that we have. Instead of cheering an inauguration, Chavez supporters are being urged to turn out for a rally today outside the Miraflores Palace. Chavez’s foreign allies, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, have rolled into town for the occasion. All the more reason, then, for Nicolas Maduro to state: “A historic period of this second decade of the 21st century is starting, with our commander leading.”

But the lie that Chavez remains in command cannot be sustained by revolutionary bluster alone. Yesterday, the constitutional chamber of the TSJ, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, defied the country’s constitution when it ruled that the inauguration could be rescheduled, in the words of its leading judge, Luisa Estella Morales, at a “time and place to be determined.” The ruling provides the regime with some breathing space as it figures out what to do next, for its thrust determines, much to the chagrin of Venezuela’s opposition, that the clauses in the constitution that deal with the temporary or permanent absence of the president do not apply. As the dissident Venezuelan blogger, Daniel Duquenal, acerbically remarked: “Chavez is out on a medical trip, he just has a job leave as any Venezuelan worker would, which will last as long as he needs it to last. There is no need to replace Chavez, he is president of Venezuela even if he is on life support.”

Still, there were never any grounds to expect that the TSJ would act differently. Indeed, it can accurately be said that the foundation for yesterday’s decision was laid down nine years ago. In 2004, facing a recall referendum brought about by the opposition, Chavez railroaded through a new law that expanded the number of TSJ justices from 20 to 32. Using his majority in the National Assembly, Chavez was then able to pack the court with his supporters, including Luisa Morales. Since then, the court has faithfully served Chavez’s every whim; among its most notorious, and likely illegal, decisions was the suspension, in 2008, of the opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez from running for public office, on the basis of corruption allegations for which he was never charged, prosecuted or convicted.

Such behavior is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Chavismo, a bizarre concoction of Marxism, nationalism and populism which contemptuously rejects liberal democratic staples like the separation of powers in favor of the enduring faith of an adoring people in their leader. Cabello, the National Assembly president, summarized this system perfectly yesterday: “All of us here are Chavez, the people in the street are Chavez, the lady who cooks is Chavez, the comrade who works as a watchman is Chavez, the soldier is Chavez, the woman is Chavez, the farmer is Chavez, the worker is Chavez; we’re all Chavez.”

Even so, had the TSJ followed the letter of the constitution by ruling that Chavez’s absence necessitates elections 30 days from now, it would have been foolhardy to predict an opposition victory. For one thing, 30 days is hardly enough time to organize an election campaign, especially when the majority of media outlets are controlled by the regime. (During last October’s election, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, embarked on a grueling road trip around the country to meet the voters in person in part because he was denied meaningful air time). For another, while Maduro would most likely be the government’s technical candidate, the real candidate would be Chavez.

For today’s rally in Caracas affords a glimpse of the Chavistas’ future electoral strategy. Dead or alive, Chavez is the leader of all Venezuelans. If “21st century socialism” is to be preserved and deepened, Venezuelans should have no qualms about voting for a phantom.

The opposition, an often fractious coalition of more than 50 parties, thus faces a difficult set of decisions. Capriles himself has acted cautiously, stating his wish for Chavez’s recovery while hammering the country’s institutions for advancing the agenda of the regime. So far, however, there has been no explicit statement that these same institutions, from the National Electoral Council (dubbed by leading opposition figure Diego Arria as the “Ministry of Elections for Mr. Chavez”) through to the TSJ, are beyond redemption for as long as they remain under the boot of Chavez and his deputies.

In such a scenario, one would expect the world’s democracies to loudly proclaim that there is no longer a legitimate basis for the Chavez regime. The Organization of American States, which has tussled with Chavez in the past, may do so. The signals from the State Department, however, are not encouraging. Yesterday’s events were a golden opportunity for the U.S. administration to remind Venezuelans that the future of their country is being decided not in Caracas, but in Havana, where the Cuban leader Raul Castro is acting as Chavez’s guardian. Instead, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued the following anemic statement on the TSJ’s decision: “This is a decision that has to be made by Venezuelans, for Venezuelans, that it has to involve and take into account the views of a broad cross-section of stakeholders.”

In other words, the U.S. has no opinion on what is effectively a coup d’état spearheaded by the TSJ. One more reason, then, for the Chavistas to believe that their eternal leader is the only stakeholder who matters.

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Chavez Agonistes

Hugo Chavez is reportedly refusing to take phone calls from Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. Uribe’s foreign minister can’t get a shout back from his Venezuelan counterpart either. The stonewalling from Caracas comes in the wake of Chavez’s other call on November 8, in his weekly media program, for the Venezuelan army to “prepare for war.” Chavez has been making this kind of call for several months, but last week he also moved 15,000 troops to the border with Colombia. Uribe has responded with 12,000 troops deployed on his side of the border and a request for the UN Security Council and the Organization of American States to rein in Chavez.

The issue, according to Chavez, is the October 30 agreement by Colombia to allow U.S. forces to use its military bases for counter-narcotics operations. Contrary to Chavez’s formulation of the matter, this does not involve a new introduction of American forces into the region. Our forces operated from Ecuador until August 2009 and continue to operate from El Salvador. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, reelected in April after doing a “Chavez” on his country’s constitution, decided to let the basing agreement with the U.S. expire in August, and we negotiated the agreement to use Colombian bases this summer. So why is Chavez so frantic about what is, in effect, a shift of bases rather than a change in U.S. military posture?

Because he knows U.S. forces fighting the drug war in Colombia would have a pretext to pursue FARC guerrillas into Venezuela — as FARC was pursued by Colombian troops into Ecuador in 2008 — and that from Colombia, as opposed to Ecuador, American forces would be in a position to do so. It’s merely sound analysis to project that with U.S. forces using multiple Colombian bases, FARC will be increasingly pushed across borders. Venezuela’s is already hospitable; it would be extremely inconvenient to Chavez to try to close it, especially given the reliance of Hezbollah, the protégé of his great friend Iran, on its ties to FARC and the drug trade. Such developments would also interfere with Chavez’s own policy of supporting FARC as a means of weakening the center-right, U.S.-friendly Uribe government.

Ironically, the preference of many in the Obama administration for stand-off, cross-border raids and aerial attacks — as demonstrated in Pakistan — only strengthens the perception in Central America that the shift to Colombian bases will herald U.S. intervention of that kind. The U.S. preoccupation with forcing Honduras to take Manuel Zelaya back has reinforced, meanwhile, the impression that Obama will act in Latin America with a reflexive, high-handed cynicism.

Chavez would be quite correct, even without these factors, that U.S. forces based in Colombia are an impediment to his regional plans. He fears attack because he knows a valid pretext exists for attacking his territory. His antagonism should not stop us, but we had better be prepared for the actions it will prompt, and keep our own purposes and strategy clearly in mind.

Hugo Chavez is reportedly refusing to take phone calls from Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. Uribe’s foreign minister can’t get a shout back from his Venezuelan counterpart either. The stonewalling from Caracas comes in the wake of Chavez’s other call on November 8, in his weekly media program, for the Venezuelan army to “prepare for war.” Chavez has been making this kind of call for several months, but last week he also moved 15,000 troops to the border with Colombia. Uribe has responded with 12,000 troops deployed on his side of the border and a request for the UN Security Council and the Organization of American States to rein in Chavez.

The issue, according to Chavez, is the October 30 agreement by Colombia to allow U.S. forces to use its military bases for counter-narcotics operations. Contrary to Chavez’s formulation of the matter, this does not involve a new introduction of American forces into the region. Our forces operated from Ecuador until August 2009 and continue to operate from El Salvador. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, reelected in April after doing a “Chavez” on his country’s constitution, decided to let the basing agreement with the U.S. expire in August, and we negotiated the agreement to use Colombian bases this summer. So why is Chavez so frantic about what is, in effect, a shift of bases rather than a change in U.S. military posture?

Because he knows U.S. forces fighting the drug war in Colombia would have a pretext to pursue FARC guerrillas into Venezuela — as FARC was pursued by Colombian troops into Ecuador in 2008 — and that from Colombia, as opposed to Ecuador, American forces would be in a position to do so. It’s merely sound analysis to project that with U.S. forces using multiple Colombian bases, FARC will be increasingly pushed across borders. Venezuela’s is already hospitable; it would be extremely inconvenient to Chavez to try to close it, especially given the reliance of Hezbollah, the protégé of his great friend Iran, on its ties to FARC and the drug trade. Such developments would also interfere with Chavez’s own policy of supporting FARC as a means of weakening the center-right, U.S.-friendly Uribe government.

Ironically, the preference of many in the Obama administration for stand-off, cross-border raids and aerial attacks — as demonstrated in Pakistan — only strengthens the perception in Central America that the shift to Colombian bases will herald U.S. intervention of that kind. The U.S. preoccupation with forcing Honduras to take Manuel Zelaya back has reinforced, meanwhile, the impression that Obama will act in Latin America with a reflexive, high-handed cynicism.

Chavez would be quite correct, even without these factors, that U.S. forces based in Colombia are an impediment to his regional plans. He fears attack because he knows a valid pretext exists for attacking his territory. His antagonism should not stop us, but we had better be prepared for the actions it will prompt, and keep our own purposes and strategy clearly in mind.

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Making Enemies, Influencing No One

The Obami foreign-policy gurus have perfected the art of annoying multiple parties in a number of international face-offs. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis have had it with the Obama settlement-freeze gambit. And now the Obama team’s handling of Honduras has brought howls from several quarters:

Less than two weeks after U.S. diplomats announced a historic agreement to reverse a coup in Honduras, the accord is in danger of collapse and both Honduran officials and U.S. lawmakers are blaming American missteps for some of the failure. Ousted president Manuel Zelaya, who was expelled by the military in June, said in a telephone interview that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had assured him as recently as last week that the U.S. government was seeking his return to the presidency. But he said that U.S. pressure had eased in recent days and that he no longer had faith in the agreement.

It’s not just Zelaya who’s peeved. The “international community” is annoyed too:

José Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organization of American States, which is helping implement the accord, said that negotiations between Zelaya and the de facto government had fallen apart and that he would not send a mission to Honduras to observe presidential elections at the end of the month. That added to the possibility that the previously scheduled elections will not be internationally recognized — and that Honduras’s five-month-old crisis will continue.

Sen. John Kerry and others who took seriously the deal to have Zelaya reinstated are also chagrined to find out that the State Department isn’t really bent out of shape by the failure of the Honduran Congress to take a vote on returning Zelaya to power. The Obami, on background naturally, confess they were in essence pulling a fast one on Zelaya. (“Another senior U.S. official noted the agreement never specifically said that Zelaya would be reinstated, instead giving the Honduran National Congress the power to vote on it.”) The Obami desperately and belatedly want to move on to elections, a position their critics and the Honduran interim government had been urging for months.

The Obami’s “historic” arrangement was, of course, supposed to extract the Obama team from the disastrous stalemate they had helped to create. Realizing they had backed a lunatic for whom there was no popular support within Honduras, the Obami came up with a scheme — let Zelaya back in power, but not really. Leave it up to the Congress, which won’t vote to put him back in power even briefly, and just move on to elections. But now everyone has figured out the game and they don’t much appreciate the trickery.

Once again we see the rank incompetence and disastrous results brought about by the smart Obama diplomacy. They raise expectations unrealistically on one side (Zelaya, the Palestinians), give the critics the back of the hand, dig in, realize the error of their ways, try to reverse course, and pretend they aren’t — and wind up with everyone mad. When is it that we get around to “restoring our standing” in the world?

The Obami foreign-policy gurus have perfected the art of annoying multiple parties in a number of international face-offs. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis have had it with the Obama settlement-freeze gambit. And now the Obama team’s handling of Honduras has brought howls from several quarters:

Less than two weeks after U.S. diplomats announced a historic agreement to reverse a coup in Honduras, the accord is in danger of collapse and both Honduran officials and U.S. lawmakers are blaming American missteps for some of the failure. Ousted president Manuel Zelaya, who was expelled by the military in June, said in a telephone interview that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had assured him as recently as last week that the U.S. government was seeking his return to the presidency. But he said that U.S. pressure had eased in recent days and that he no longer had faith in the agreement.

It’s not just Zelaya who’s peeved. The “international community” is annoyed too:

José Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organization of American States, which is helping implement the accord, said that negotiations between Zelaya and the de facto government had fallen apart and that he would not send a mission to Honduras to observe presidential elections at the end of the month. That added to the possibility that the previously scheduled elections will not be internationally recognized — and that Honduras’s five-month-old crisis will continue.

Sen. John Kerry and others who took seriously the deal to have Zelaya reinstated are also chagrined to find out that the State Department isn’t really bent out of shape by the failure of the Honduran Congress to take a vote on returning Zelaya to power. The Obami, on background naturally, confess they were in essence pulling a fast one on Zelaya. (“Another senior U.S. official noted the agreement never specifically said that Zelaya would be reinstated, instead giving the Honduran National Congress the power to vote on it.”) The Obami desperately and belatedly want to move on to elections, a position their critics and the Honduran interim government had been urging for months.

The Obami’s “historic” arrangement was, of course, supposed to extract the Obama team from the disastrous stalemate they had helped to create. Realizing they had backed a lunatic for whom there was no popular support within Honduras, the Obami came up with a scheme — let Zelaya back in power, but not really. Leave it up to the Congress, which won’t vote to put him back in power even briefly, and just move on to elections. But now everyone has figured out the game and they don’t much appreciate the trickery.

Once again we see the rank incompetence and disastrous results brought about by the smart Obama diplomacy. They raise expectations unrealistically on one side (Zelaya, the Palestinians), give the critics the back of the hand, dig in, realize the error of their ways, try to reverse course, and pretend they aren’t — and wind up with everyone mad. When is it that we get around to “restoring our standing” in the world?

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