Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Opinion: Confronting Hugo Chávez

Just over two months ago, I wrote a piece that I called, ‘The Dictator Club’.  In it, I slammed Hugo Chávez for his utterly deplorable support for Muammar Gaddafi during, what was then, the embryonic stages of what has since become one of the most widely discussed human rights violations of this century.

Bequeathing Gaddafi the title of “Símon Bolivar of the Libyan people”, Chávez drew a parallel that even the most warped Chávista must have struggled to make sense of.  As the people of Benghazi were mowed down by the hundreds, here was Hugo Chávez praising their tyrannical ruler for supposedly playing the modern-day liberator; freeing his people from the ostensible clutches of the evil “neo-liberal” empire.  It sounds preposterous, quite simply because it is.

Hugo Chávez is an infamous demagogue.  His 21st century socialism project relies heavily upon a specific brand of populism that has a significant portion of its own foundation laid into a bed of anti-Western rhetoric.  The formula is quite simple: Chávez has created the image of an “enemy”, projected most commonly upon the United States, in order to legitimise the centralisation of power that has occurred in Venezuela over the past 12 years.  

Absurd alliances with the likes of Gaddafi are a twisted feature of this phenomenon and help to create and retain a paradigm of “us” vs. “them”.  With it, he is able to masquerade as a defender of the people.  Without it, he is just another power-hungry autocrat.

And now he’s at it again.  Hosting a contingent of Libyans in Venezuela earlier this week, Chávez took the time out to criticize NATO intervention, dubbing it “madness”, before accusing the United States of being in it for the dirty black stuff.  It might seem logical that if the United States really were in it for oil, she would simply continue to opt for grubby contracts with oil-endowed despots, regardless of internal human rights records, as opposed to politically and economically costly intervention.  

This, of course, is the pattern currently conformed to by the Chinese, ironically, in Venezuela amongst other places.  For Chávez though, this argument doesn’t hold up; it can’t if he is to maintain the aforementioned paradigm.  The United States must therefore remain the flag-bearer for the evil empire, concerned with fattening her own belly at the expense of millions of underprivileged worldwide.  That it is she who endeavours to protect the thousands under siege from the war-machine of the Libyan state, is a postscript destined to be glazed over inChávista accounts of history.

But by today’s fast paced standards, Libya is no longer the flavour of the month.  Now is Syria’s turn.  And once again, this self styled man-of-the-people has come down hard on the side of his brethren; not Syria’s citizenry, but the dictator that subjugates them.  Since mid March, in excess of 400 Syrians have been killed at the hands of its barbaric security forces for the alleged crime of political protest.  Hundreds if not thousands more in Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere have been left wounded.  Yet, abominably, it is Assad who receivesChávez’s support while he has branded the people of Deraa as “terrorists”.

At times, Western commentary gets its kicks out of poking fun at the spectacle that is Hugo Chávez.  This eccentric screwball has often become a parody of himself and the perfect candidate to cast in satirical light.  But it is on occasions such as this that we must recognise that Venezuela’s authoritarian leader is so wildly out of sync with the virtues of liberal democracy that it makes even a wry smile hard to muster.  

It may be the case that we are able to detect demagoguery when we see it, but it makes Chávez’s tempestuous opposition to the West no less threatening in a climate where nascent aspirations for democracy are being cut brutally short.  Preposterous he may be, but downright dangerous too.

Originally published by The Commentator

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Reading: What's going on in Syria?

It's been a very busy few days either side of the long bank holiday and in keeping up to date with proceedings in Syria, I've had precious little time to get any thoughts down on paper.  Here's what's been keeping me occupied...

The revolutions that are unfolding in front of us across the Middle East will become the subjects of many books, academic journals, and university modules in the years to come.  In the 'real' world, policy makers will pick proceedings to the bones.  More importantly though, these revolutions are the manifestation of the desire of a people: a desire for representative democracy; for prosperity; for liberty.

The case of Syria is no exception.  For those of you who aren't up to date with this corner of the Middle East, take a look at the Henry Jackson Society's Media Briefing, released today.  It's low on analysis; high on matter of fact.  Think of it as more of an aggregation of events into an orderly and digestible read.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Opinion: Viva La Revolucion?

Following the Arab springs, recent reforms proposed following the much anticipated Communist Party Congress in Cuba may appear inconsiderable; certainly less worthy of front page headlines.  Yet these proposed reforms, specifically that top political positions should be subject to term limits and that private property will finally be permitted after 52 years in the wilderness, must be embraced for the incremental improvements that they are.
These politico-economic adjustments mark a rational step in the right direction. 
The concept of private property, fundamental in promoting the rights of the individual and prosperity, is a necessary component of liberal democracy.  While Cuba appears less than ripe for an over-night democratic revolution (indeed, the party is still committed to the endurance of communism) this belated acknowledgment of individual rights can provide a foundation for a future middle-class to build upon.  It will surely provide the impetus for further reform.
Moreover, the introduction of term limits, while a vaguely defined concept within this current context, ought to underline the growing consciousness apparent in Havana regarding the serious limitations of communism.  Totalitarian demagogues, of whom Fidel Castro has been no exception, have failed consistently throughout history to deliver political projects that bring prosperity, freedom and human rights to its citizens.  Such top-down models are outdated and even the most formative steps away from them must be fostered by the West in order to encourage the adoption of liberal traditions everywhere. 
Considering the kinship between Cuba’s Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, these proposed reforms must also be supported for the role they might play in demonstrating the ills of 21st century socialism to peoples beyond Cuba’s own sovereign borders.
Latin America is a region with historical, linguistic, cultural, political and religious ties to the West.  It is therefore imperative that the West endeavours to maintain this affinity, supporting democracy throughout the region. 
Cuba remains a disquieting case in point for its human rights record and these proposed reforms are far from the democratic revolution we might desire, yet should Cuba’s formative steps gather momentum and turn into purposeful strides, the West must be well positioned to lend its support. 

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Opinion: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Following my rambling thoughts yesterday, I put together a more coherent blog for The Henry Jackson Society which I'll share here...

What do the notorious drug trafficker, Walid Makled Garcia, Barak Obama, and Hugo Chávez all have in common?  They are all, either directly or indirectly, contributing toward the loss of the key US ally in Latin America.
Barak Obama has kept Colombia at arms length throughout his time in the White House.  While the free trade agreement between Bogotá and Washington seems to have enough left in the tank to crawl over the finish line, Obama’s recent tour of Latin America made no time for a trip to El país del Sagrado Corazón.  The days of Uribe and his close relationship with the Bush administration are gone.  In their place, a cooler climate has emerged in which Juan Manuel Santos has understandably allowed realism to creep in. 
Santos’ stand-out foreign policy agenda has been the warming of the relationship between Bogotá and Caracas; from foes to friends in roundabout a year.  The showpiece of this renaissance is the decision to extradite Walid Makled Garcia, the drug trafficker who has shot to fame by claiming collaboration with some of Chávez’s most senior staff, to Venezuela, and not the US as originally scheduled.   In return for this cover-up opportunity, Chávez has offered payment of circa $1 billion Venezuela owes to Colombian exporters and to end the foreign policy crisis between the two countries once and for all.
The rationale behind Santos’ shift is clear: he is seeking to reintegrate Colombia back into the Latin American neighbourhood since playing the right-hand-man to the US under the Obama administration is proving a gamble. 
Obama has been weak on the Chávez issue, disappointing once again on his recent Latin American tour, this time in failing to even mention the crackpot authoritarian.  And his weak leadership is costing the US.  As the security situation in Colombia clears drastically (an achievement in which the US can claim a great deal of credit), could it be Chávez who takes advantage of the opportunity to invest?  After years of heavy hand-outs, don’t blow it now Obama.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Opinion: "No FARC in Venezuela" - Santos

I just read over a news piece on the BBC website; it seems Juan Manuel Santos has reinforced the formative bridge between Colombia and Venezuela by congratulating Chávez and the state for upholding their promise in the fight against the left-wing guerrillas.

A few thoughts:

Are the FARC really waning?  It seems as though the offensive initiated by Uribe may actually be improving Colombia's internal security situation.  As someone who is a staunch believer in population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN), this is in some ways surprising, but also very interesting.  Colombia's struggle with the FARC is, of course, different from COIN as we conceive of it in, say, Afghanistan, or even Iraq.  But I am still intrigued by the relative success of a conventional military approach in Colombia.  Can this set a precedent for future COIN efforts?  Will hawks in Washington be able to sit back and throw piles of cash (without sending in ground troops) at irregular conflicts across the globe, provided the target country's necessary institutions are in a relatively healthy state (government, security forces, development agencies, judicial system etc)?  It's interesting to say the least, particularly in a post-heroic era where the general public seems reluctant to support far-away wars and tolerance for casualties is thin.

Is Chávez really cooperating?  Can the perceived absence of FARC camps in Venezuela's borders be taken as hard evidence that Chávez is on board, fighting left-wing guerrillas?  Seems surprising.  I wouldn't suggest that Chávez is so clouded by his ideological underpinnings that he would be willing to break relations with Colombia once more by overtly support the FARC.  But a full partner in the fight against it?  Perhaps the answer to the question above - that is, whether the FARC is actually on the decline - helps to draw some light here.  Perhaps the FARC really is on its last legs; perhaps this explains its current absence.

With Colombia and Venezuela getting cosy, what does this mean for the US?  We've moved on from the days of Bush, Uribe and Chávez.  Unfortunately (if you are inclined toward the 'right' at least), Chávez is the only survivor from this contingent.  Bush has been replaced by Obama who, despite his recent tour of Latin America, seems less interested in engaging with Colombia (or at least views it differently from Bush who had his security lenses firmly in place post 9/11).  Uribe has been replaced by Santos who continues to melt away the layers of ice that had built up across the border with Chávez by reintegrating Colombia in the neighbourhood, somewhat at the expense of its close alliance with the US.  And so, with kidnappings and violence sharply down in Colombia after many years of US support, is the opportunity for investment now set to swing out of Washington's favour?  Will the cosying of the relationship between Colombia and Venezuela draw Bogotá into Venezuela's sphere of influence, say, toward the anti-market energy cartels proposed by Chávez?  It seems inevitable that bilateral trade between Colombia and Venezuela will once again become a focal point of their respective foreign policies (and that is a good thing since both countries rely heavily upon it), but would wider initiatives in the mould of Petrocaribe or Petrosur mean that the US is losing Colombia?

Of course, this is, as they say, conjecture.  But it certainly makes for some interesting thoughts...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Announcement: Welcome

Hello and welcome to my new blog. 

This is a space I intend to use to post the articles, op-eds and blogs that I write in my day job and to engage in debate with those of you who agree with my opinions (and of course, those of you who inevitably won't!)

The sharp-eyed viewer will see that I've already posted up a couple of old articles to get things started...I hope to have new content up very soon.

Topics will vary, but will likely revolve heavily around my main areas of interest: foreign policy vis-á-vis Latin America; Counterinsurgeny; and energy geopolitics.

I hope those of you who read this page will feel free to comment liberally.  It really doesn't matter how long or short, how well constructed or how off-the-cuff comments are; the whole point is to share points of view and clash ideas together, so let's.

Thank you for reading and I hope to see you back from time to time,


Opinion: Afghanistan: The Winnable War, Worth Winning

The discourse surrounding the concept of a no-fly-zone in Libya has dominated our airwaves, our print and has been put firmly, and quite literally, on the map by David Cameron and William Hague.  Yet, while its significance must not be down-played, the discourse runs the risk of clouding our focus on another military intervention in existence: Afghanistan.  Time to refocus.
Slating the war in Afghanistan has become as popular as the phenomenon of micro-blogging.  Indeed, to hijack and renovate a metaphor once used by historian, Basil Liddell Hart, if the “anti-imperialist”* mindset is the mother of all disparagement vis-à-vis liberal intervention and, by extension, the war in Afghanistan, then social media such as twitter has been its most recent midwife. 
The pattern generally goes as follows: successes are reported from the field and assume the role of the lure on the track as scores of micro-bloggers come tearing out of the traps like a band of excitable greyhounds.  “Crusaders”, “imperialists”, “cultural suppressors” - some of the more popular phrases bandied about.  There are, of course, disapproving voices in government, academia and the professional media regarding Afghanistan; social media is not alone.  But social media gives us an insight into the mind set of the ordinary man on the street; it’s his outlet of choice; it tells us where he stands.  Right now it’s helping to show us that the man on the street is, more often than not, standing with his back turned against the war.  In a telling statistic, just across the pond, nearly two-thirds of Americans no longer see any value in this corner of Central Asia. 
Accordingly, Petraeus’ recent musings regarding an upturn in fortunes in Afghanistan will no doubt be subject to ridicule, disbelief and, in some instances, plain ignorance by scores of disgruntled micro-bloggers amongst others.  But he’s not often wrong. 
The Taliban are indeed on the back-foot.  NATO forces have fought bravely to reclaim critical areas such as districts west of Kandahar city and areas of Helmand Province; areas which, in 2008, were responsible for some 80 percent of global poppy supply, a colossal 7,700 metric tons, fuelling a mutually beneficial (and at times direct) relationship between drug traffickers and the Taliban.  These forces have performed commendably in this role as security enforcers, but it is, of course, patently apparent that NATO neither can nor wishes to fill this security vacuum forever.  Successful counterinsurgency dictates that indigenous forces must take on this mantle in the long term and, today, there is light at the end of this particular tunnel.  The US, for example, remains on course to be able to begin draw-downs in July, shifting the emphasis from foreign intervention to Afghan self-security.  The UK looks to be on a similar track.  Meanwhile, Afghan forces are becoming progressively more able to take on this role, growing both in size and capability.  There are currently over 300,000 Afghan forces, a figure which is hoped to increase to some 378,000 so as to further fortify the country against violent extremists long after NATO forces have returned to their respective shores.  What these gains roughly equate to is a security campaign that is being won; slowly, often painfully, but it is being won.  
Yet, winning in Afghanistan is more than a question of security.  To win this war, we must recognise the nexus between security, development and governance and bring it to fruition.  This is not only possible, but within sight.  In light of this, Petraeus is correct, once again, in highlighting the importance of funding to the State Department and USAID.  These government agencies, as with their British counterparts, the FCO and DFID, must now take on an increasingly important role, using the improved security environment as breathing space to better integrate development and governance into the classic three-pronged counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.  This will take time; this will take effort; and this will take money, but it will be worth the expenditure in all three regards given that it is our only route to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Understanding this is paramount and we should be at pains in our efforts to promote this reality.  This is a winnable war worth winning.  The value is there, not only for the Afghan people, not only for the sake of regional or international security, but for the credibility of the West too.  If we throw in the towel, we seal the West’s fate as the civilization that can be deterred through violent means.  Doing so will create one winner - not the man on the street who calls for an end to the war, but the extremist who fights on the other side.  Not much of an option, is it?

*Disclaimer: the "anti-imperialist" mindset does not necessarily dictate that interventionists are indeed imperialists!

This article was originally published by The Henry Jackson Society, March 2011

Friday, 8 April 2011

Opinion: Did April Fools Fall Early in Latin America?

n. pl. hy·poc·ri·sies

1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. An act or instance of such falseness.

Bear the above in mind, now consider that Hugo Chávez has been awarded the Rodolfo Walsh award by Argentina’s University of La Plata for "his commitment to defending the liberty of the people” and “defending human rights, truth and democratic values".  You would be forgiven for thinking that April Fools’ arrived early this year, but this is simply a case of dumbfounding hypocrisy, for there is a serious absence of logic at the heart of this disgraceful ceremony.  Forgive me for being so frank, but celebrating Chávez in this regard is not so different from celebrating Fidel Castro for his contribution to the free market.  It is an incongruous sham.
To be sure, the narrative of development in Venezuela’s media sector over the past 12 years is more than instructive.  Through means of legislative reform and revision (which, by itself has been made possible due to Chávez’s ever increasing grip on Venezuela’s political institutions), Chávez has silenced large swaths of the media, exclusively those deemed contrary to his own Socialist mission. 
The Media Content Law of December 2004, for example, was passed by Chávez to devastating effect by making the dissemination of information deemed “contrary to national security” (a benchmark left totally at the discretion of the state) punishable by heavy fines or even the loss of ones broadcasting licence.  Unsatisfied, the regime pushed ahead to extend this law to the internet communications sector some six years later in December 2010.
More asphyxiating still, a new penal code was introduced in March 2005 which criminalised the articulation and publication of opinion that the state deemed to be “offensive”.  Article 147, for example, dictates that any individual found guilty of disrespecting Chávez or the Chávistas who carry out his work can be imprisoned for up to 30 months.  Article 297a dictates that causing panic or anxiety through inaccurate reporting is punishable by the same sentence.[i]  More to the point, the implementation of these laws have been far from idle exercises.  Leading up to the September 2010 parliamentary election, for instance, Chávez used Article 297a to ban newspapers from publishing violent or traumatic images so as to avoid rampant crime from becoming a key electoral issue; an issue that Chávez was no doubt aware would count against his party seeing as crime has quadrupled since he came to power in 1999. 
A further stipulation to the penal code dictates that should an individual reporting “offensive” material be backed by foreign funding and thought to be conspiring against the President, then the sentence could be anything up to 30 years.[ii]  30 years.  If one believes that to be “defending human rights” and the “liberty of the people”, just ask Carlos Correa, a human rights defender and director of the Venezuelan organisation Espacio Público, for his opinion on the matter.   Correa and his organisation have been hounded by Chávez and his regime after committing the somewhat less than heinous crime of taking donations from the US and are consequently under criminal investigation as well as subject to a demoralising state-media harassment campaign.[iii]
In the mainstream media, RCTV, Globovision and Caracas radio station CNB 102.3 are some of the bigger names that have felled victim to Chávez in one sense or another for failing to form a neat formation behind his socialist agenda.  But there are many more; the radio-waves alone have been scathed with some 40 percent of licences revoked – a staggering 240 stations.  Meanwhile, TV executives have been dubbed “white collar terrorists” by Chávez for daring to step across the aisle and diverge from his exuberance for the socialist revolution. 
And what has replaced these broadcasters?  Silence?  Think again.  Chávez has been industrious in expanding his own information empire, now controlling 2 national radio networks, six television channels, 72 regional television stations and 600 radio stations,[iv] providing him with an effective information infrastructure through which he can manipulate political discourse.  He tires even his keenest constituents with an eight hour radio and television slot, Aló Presidente, each Sunday which has been the typical platform for some of his most infamous political theatrics.  For those who care not to watch or listen, hard luck; Suddenly with Chávez was launched in 2010 allowing Chávez 24 hour access to the radio-waves, unannounced.  As the title quite brilliantly signifies, the programme has no schedule time and can be broadcast at midnight, the break of dawn and anywhere between at Chávez’s discretion, often interrupting popular broadcasts such as baseball games so as to maximise his audience.  One can almost imagine Chávez crashing through the television sets of millions of unsuspecting Venezuelans as their sporting idol is poised to hit a game winning home-run.
In sum, and to return to a serious note, Chávez is no such defender of “democratic values”.  He is in fact the polar opposite, waging a war against a core of democratic principles including private property and democratic representation in addition to free information.  This dictator (forget his democratic rise, he is what he has become), has quite simply endeavoured to brand political dissidence a crime thus curtailing the freedoms of information, speech and association through an incessant media offensive.  It is nothing short of dictatorial control and desperate repression of political discourse and debate; an overarching media strategy designed to suppress opposition and retain and consolidate power.
The award of this honour to Hugo Chávez is therefore hypocrisy of the highest order.  While those of us in London, Washington or any other democratic outpost are able to stand, stare and scratch our heads in disbelief, Venezuelans are subject to this sickening suffocation on a daily basis.  The uprisings across the Middle East look unlikely to extend across the Atlantic Ocean in the near future, but if Chávez’s chokehold increases in pressure applied, similar uprisings will surely reach Venezuela given time.

This article was originally published by The Henry Jackson Society, March 31, 2011

[i] Jackson Diehl, ‘Chavez’s Censorship – Where ‘Disrespect Can Land You in Jail’, The Washington Post, March 28 2005, at
[ii] Jackson Diehl, ‘Chavez’s Censorship – Where ‘Disrespect Can Land You in Jail’, The Washington Post, March 28 2005, at
[iii] ‘Open Letter: Carlos Correa, director of the Venezuelan NGO ‘Espacio Público’: harassment campaign against him’, Protect Online, August 19 2010, at