Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rafael Correa

In Venezuela, Chavez Still Haunts Maduro

Confirmation that Hugo Chavez’s allies knew all along that the late Venezuelan president was suffering from terminal cancer, despite their protestations to the contrary, has come from an unexpected source: Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. As Bloomberg reports:

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro told Correa the facts after the Ecuadorian leader visited Chavez at his hospital in Havana on the eve of his fourth operation in 18 months to treat an unspecified form of cancer.

“He told me the matter was very serious and that President Chavez had few months of life left and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally,” Correa said today in an interview on Telesur. Castro asked for his “absolute discretion.”

“Absolute discretion” was required, of course, to sustain the falsehood that Chavez was going to recover and return for a further term as president. Note that Correa and Castro held their conversation in December; two months previously, Chavez comfortably won the presidential election in part because he himself insisted that he was cured. In the event, Chavez missed his inauguration on January 10 of this year, handing the reins of power to his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro went on to win the emergency election of last April by a tiny margin, amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud.

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Confirmation that Hugo Chavez’s allies knew all along that the late Venezuelan president was suffering from terminal cancer, despite their protestations to the contrary, has come from an unexpected source: Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. As Bloomberg reports:

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro told Correa the facts after the Ecuadorian leader visited Chavez at his hospital in Havana on the eve of his fourth operation in 18 months to treat an unspecified form of cancer.

“He told me the matter was very serious and that President Chavez had few months of life left and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally,” Correa said today in an interview on Telesur. Castro asked for his “absolute discretion.”

“Absolute discretion” was required, of course, to sustain the falsehood that Chavez was going to recover and return for a further term as president. Note that Correa and Castro held their conversation in December; two months previously, Chavez comfortably won the presidential election in part because he himself insisted that he was cured. In the event, Chavez missed his inauguration on January 10 of this year, handing the reins of power to his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro went on to win the emergency election of last April by a tiny margin, amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud.

It’s tempting to think that Correa broke the silence around Chavez’s illness in order to undermine Maduro. Chavez may have been the undisputed figurehead of Latin America’s left, but that’s certainly not true of Maduro, whose government is negatively viewed by nearly half of Venezuelans. By contrast, Correa, who also runs his government on the twin pillars of drumbeat nationalism and state domination of the economy, is wildly popular in his own country, and is therefore a more credible candidate to take on Chavez’s mantle.

It’s equally tempting to suggest that Maduro is thoroughly tired of being chased by Chavez’s shadow. Yesterday, Maduro marked his first one hundred days in office on what would have been Chavez’s 59th birthday, an occasion that served as a bitter reminder that he has no choice but to invoke his predecessor to shore up his crumbling legitimacy. “It has not been easy,” Maduro told a crowd in Sabaneta, Chavez’s birthplace. “On behalf of our Comandante…[we must] become more united and prepare for new battles and new victories.” Earlier in the day, Maduro welcomed none other than Rafael Correa to Caracas. In what may well have been another swipe at his host, Correa declared that “[C]onformity, mediocrity, corruption, and inefficiency are the internal enemies of the left-wing governments of Latin America.”

Make no mistake, these are the same ills that define Maduro’s regime. Chronic mismanagement has left the government so cash starved that it is now auctioning U.S. dollars at almost twice the official rate, though the exchange still falls far short of the dollar price on the black market. Simultaneously, Venezuela’s dependence on imports has dramatically swelled the price of basic goods like corn and coffee, the net of result of an agrarian reform program denounced by a leading representative of Venezuela’s agricultural sector as a “failure” that “drove farmers out of the fields.”

Rattled by these developments, Maduro has become increasingly vindictive toward the half of the population that rejected him in April, and still rejects him now. Over the weekend, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, took to Twitter to announce that she was seeking to freeze the bank accounts of Miguel Henrique Otero, editor and publisher of the opposition newspaper El Nacional. As AP reported:

Asked whether freezing his bank accounts could affect El Nacional, Otero said, “I don’t think so, but I haven’t seen the court papers.” His lawyers also hadn’t seen the documents, he said.

Legal documents have similarly been missing from another controversial case involving Richard Mardo, a parliamentarian from the opposition MUD coalition. Mardo is accused of receiving funds ­­of approximately $100 million–the source of this money has not been specified–and of declaring only a tiny a fraction of this sum. However, Henrique Capriles, the MUD leader who stood against Maduro during the April election, is adamant that Mardo is the victim of entrapment. As with El Nacional, the real goal here, say MUD supporters, is to silence the opposition by throwing the charge of corruption–an offense normally leveled at the government–in its direction.

Given how agonizingly polarized Venezuelan politics have become, the absence of mass street demonstrations might seem surprising. Capriles, though, has eschewed this approach, opting instead for a strategy of patiently exposing Maduro’s  corruption wherever it appears, in the hope of weaning away disillusioned supporters of the regime. Whether this method is sustainable is an open question; the emergence of a “birther” movement in Venezuela, which claims that Maduro was actually born in Colombia and is demanding that the president follow Barack Obama’s example by releasing his birth certificate, indicates that the more uncompromising opponents of Venezuela’s regime are determined to get rid of it sooner rather than later.

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Julian Assange and Ecuador’s Gesture Politics

Ecuador’s decision to grant political asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is a spectacular example of the gesture politics beloved by the far left. It is gesture politics because Assange, an Australian citizen who has spent the last two months camping in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, will have to smuggle himself past a phalanx of armed police officers if he is to make it to Quito in one piece.

While Assange and his supporters are portraying his current status as the consequence of politically motivated persecution, the truth is considerably more sordid. Assange fled to the Ecuadorean embassy after the British government decided to extradite him to Sweden, where he is wanted on sexual assault charges. To go by a recent op-ed penned for the Guardian by the dreadful Glenn Greenwald, you’d think that Sweden was a slightly milder version of North Korea, where prisoners are held in “oppressive pre-trial conditions,” and where someone like Assange could quickly find himself in American custody in order to face trial for espionage, given the release by Wikileaks of several thousand confidential American diplomatic and military cables.

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Ecuador’s decision to grant political asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is a spectacular example of the gesture politics beloved by the far left. It is gesture politics because Assange, an Australian citizen who has spent the last two months camping in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, will have to smuggle himself past a phalanx of armed police officers if he is to make it to Quito in one piece.

While Assange and his supporters are portraying his current status as the consequence of politically motivated persecution, the truth is considerably more sordid. Assange fled to the Ecuadorean embassy after the British government decided to extradite him to Sweden, where he is wanted on sexual assault charges. To go by a recent op-ed penned for the Guardian by the dreadful Glenn Greenwald, you’d think that Sweden was a slightly milder version of North Korea, where prisoners are held in “oppressive pre-trial conditions,” and where someone like Assange could quickly find himself in American custody in order to face trial for espionage, given the release by Wikileaks of several thousand confidential American diplomatic and military cables.

It’s worth remembering that before hiding out in the Ecuadorean embassy, Assange acquired celebrity status in Britain, trading on his self-image as a courageous whistle-blower being hunted down by the vengeful Americans. (To amplify that point, pro-Assange demonstrators have taken to brandishing placards, lifted from a cover of Time magazine, that show Assange’s mouth gagged by an American flag.) For over a year, Assange very publicly lived in the enormous (and luxurious) country manor belonging to Vaughn Smith, a wealthy left-wing journalist and socialite, and the founder of The Frontline Club, a journalistic watering hole in central London. In January of this year, RT, a satellite news network controlled and financed by the Russian government, gave Assange his own show with the curious title The World Tomorrow, in which he interviewed the sorts of people known in marketing-speak as “high profile individuals.”

Those individuals included Hezbollah’s chieftain Hassan Nasrallah, whom Assange excitedly described as “one of the most extraordinary figures in the Middle East.” Another guest was ­– coincidence? – the left-wing President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, who joked with his host, “Are you having a lot of fun with the interview, Julian? I am glad to hear that. Me too.”

Being a journalist in Correa’s Ecuador is, however, considerably less enjoyable. Since Correa’s election in 2007, which brought Ecuador into the “Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas,” a body controlled by Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez, media freedom in the country has been the subject of a sustained attack. A recent report by Freedom House noted that the closure, on June 6, of the independent station Radio Net was the fifth example of the shuttering of a media outlet within a fortnight. And a January item in the Washington Post about media censorship in Ecuador contained the following observation by a media freedom advocate:

“Ecuador is moving faster than anywhere else to restrict free expression,” said Cesar Ricaurte, director of the Andean Foundation for Media Study and Observation in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. “There is the discourse that leads to aggression, there are the lawsuits, there are laws to muzzle. And you also have a powerful propaganda system.”

The fact that Assange, depicted by much of the Western left as a poster child for the battle against government secrecy and censorship, can cozy up to a leader like Correa is only baffling if you believe that Wikileaks was promoting universal standards on the freedom of expression. The reality is that Wikileaks was, and remains, a project to present the U.S. as the ultimate rogue state, crushing press freedom in the name of imperial power. By contrast, those populist, “anti-imperialist” regimes who do actually censor the press are engaging in “resistance.” What we have here is not so much  a doctrine of moral equivalence between the United States and assorted autocracies, but a doctrine of moral superiority on the part of the latter.

Like the tyrants with whom he holds court, Assange is also a conspiracy theorist. And like all conspiracy theorists, he knows who really pulls the strings. A January 2011 telephone conversation between Assange and Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, a British satirical magazine, went like this:

Assange claimed that Private Eye was ‘part of a conspiracy led by the Guardian which included journalist David Leigh, editor Alan Rusbridger and John Kampfner from Index on Censorship – all of whom “are Jewish”.’

‘I pointed out that Rusbridger is not actually Jewish, but Assange insisted that he was “sort of Jewish” because he was related to David Leigh (they are brothers-in-law),’ wrote Hislop.

‘When I doubted whether his Jewish conspiracy would stand up against the facts, Assange suddenly conceded the point. “Forget the Jewish thing”.’

It is doubtful that Assange has forgotten the “Jewish thing,” particularly as one of his closest associates is Israel Shamir, a sinister formerly Jewish anti-Semite who used Wikileaks data in defense of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus. Should the stand-off at the London embassy end badly – and it may well do, given that Ecuador is clearly breaking British law – rest assured that we’ll be hearing dark mutterings involving the J word from Assange and his acolytes.

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Colombia Going Green?

The Wall Street Journal has a piece from the weekend pointing out the poll surge of the Colombian Green Party’s presidential candidate, Antanas Mockus. Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and a former university professor, was mayor of Bogota for two non-consecutive terms. He gained fame in that office for walking around Bogota in a caped superhero costume, discouraging traffic violations by stationing mimes on street corners to embarrass drivers, and showering for a TV commercial to encourage water conservation.

Until early April, pundits had addressed the Mockus candidacy with the stock phrase “has trouble gaining voter interest outside of Bogota.” His Green Party run against Alvaro Uribe in 2006 netted him less than 5 percent of the national vote. But his surge with voters this month now has a poll showing that he would narrowly defeat Uribe’s former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, in a runoff between the two.

As this article indicates, the demographics of Mockus’s support are strikingly similar to Barack Obama’s in 2008. He galvanizes youth voters, independents, and the very wealthy. On the superficial trappings of the Green appeal, he is flawlessly Euro-Green: sunflower symbol, studied informality in attire and grooming, demure fist-pumping. The WSJ analysis that many Colombians are looking for something new is probably quite accurate; as Uribe’s tenure comes to an end, Colombians feel safer and less worried about internal security. Santos, in contrast to Mockus, is the scion of one of Colombia’s oldest and most entrenched political dynasties. For many voters, he reeks of a stuffy, irrelevant past.

How irrelevant that past truly is remains a question, however. The issue on which the Mockus candidacy still founders with many voters is his posture on “democratic security,” the Uribe-era policy expression for a tough stance on internal security and drug-fueled insurgencies like FARC. Mockus enthusiasts frame the dramatic improvement in internal security under Uribe in a somewhat disingenuous fashion, as if the situation simply changed on its own while Uribe was off menacing civil rights. But there is no question that Uribe’s policies and actions are what have wrought the transformation.

In addressing the particulars of democratic security policy, Mockus is alternately categorical and temporizing — in exactly the wrong places. His Green Party platform affirms without caveat, for example, that he would never pursue Colombian insurgents across the border as Uribe’s forces did in 2008. This would naturally be a green light for FARC to consolidate cross-border bases, something Hugo Chavez has been very accommodating about in neighboring Venezuela. On the question of holding a dialogue with FARC, however, Mockus deems it merely “unlikely” unless the guerrillas change their language and cease being “slaves to kidnapping.”

It’s not that Mockus appears to have any connection with Chavez or Castro, like such entrenched or aspiring presidents-for-life as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Manuel Zelaya, lately ousted from Honduras. But policies like those embraced by Mockus quickly become prostrate and ineffective in the face of guerrilla aggression. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez has ramped up a war of words against Juan Manuel Santos over the past week, calling him a “threat to the region” and predicting war if he wins the election. There’s no doubt whose policies Chavez expects to dislike. When Colombians go to the polls on May 30, we can hope they will remember what it has taken to transform their domestic-security environment — and why they now have the sense of political leisure to take flyers on theatrical boutique candidates.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece from the weekend pointing out the poll surge of the Colombian Green Party’s presidential candidate, Antanas Mockus. Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and a former university professor, was mayor of Bogota for two non-consecutive terms. He gained fame in that office for walking around Bogota in a caped superhero costume, discouraging traffic violations by stationing mimes on street corners to embarrass drivers, and showering for a TV commercial to encourage water conservation.

Until early April, pundits had addressed the Mockus candidacy with the stock phrase “has trouble gaining voter interest outside of Bogota.” His Green Party run against Alvaro Uribe in 2006 netted him less than 5 percent of the national vote. But his surge with voters this month now has a poll showing that he would narrowly defeat Uribe’s former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, in a runoff between the two.

As this article indicates, the demographics of Mockus’s support are strikingly similar to Barack Obama’s in 2008. He galvanizes youth voters, independents, and the very wealthy. On the superficial trappings of the Green appeal, he is flawlessly Euro-Green: sunflower symbol, studied informality in attire and grooming, demure fist-pumping. The WSJ analysis that many Colombians are looking for something new is probably quite accurate; as Uribe’s tenure comes to an end, Colombians feel safer and less worried about internal security. Santos, in contrast to Mockus, is the scion of one of Colombia’s oldest and most entrenched political dynasties. For many voters, he reeks of a stuffy, irrelevant past.

How irrelevant that past truly is remains a question, however. The issue on which the Mockus candidacy still founders with many voters is his posture on “democratic security,” the Uribe-era policy expression for a tough stance on internal security and drug-fueled insurgencies like FARC. Mockus enthusiasts frame the dramatic improvement in internal security under Uribe in a somewhat disingenuous fashion, as if the situation simply changed on its own while Uribe was off menacing civil rights. But there is no question that Uribe’s policies and actions are what have wrought the transformation.

In addressing the particulars of democratic security policy, Mockus is alternately categorical and temporizing — in exactly the wrong places. His Green Party platform affirms without caveat, for example, that he would never pursue Colombian insurgents across the border as Uribe’s forces did in 2008. This would naturally be a green light for FARC to consolidate cross-border bases, something Hugo Chavez has been very accommodating about in neighboring Venezuela. On the question of holding a dialogue with FARC, however, Mockus deems it merely “unlikely” unless the guerrillas change their language and cease being “slaves to kidnapping.”

It’s not that Mockus appears to have any connection with Chavez or Castro, like such entrenched or aspiring presidents-for-life as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Manuel Zelaya, lately ousted from Honduras. But policies like those embraced by Mockus quickly become prostrate and ineffective in the face of guerrilla aggression. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez has ramped up a war of words against Juan Manuel Santos over the past week, calling him a “threat to the region” and predicting war if he wins the election. There’s no doubt whose policies Chavez expects to dislike. When Colombians go to the polls on May 30, we can hope they will remember what it has taken to transform their domestic-security environment — and why they now have the sense of political leisure to take flyers on theatrical boutique candidates.

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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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