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

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...