January 18, 2008

Tirofijo in The Hague

Quico says: I find the debate on FARC/ELN belligerence really very bizarre. Both the Colombian rebels and the Venezuelan government talk as though Belligerent Status were a kind of "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" for guerrillas: something with the talismanic power to render them "legitimate".

From a legal point of view, that's nonsense. And while I realize that the politics and the international law of all this run on separate tracks, I still find it odd how little attention the latter is getting.

Belligerent status doesn't confer some hazy "recognition" on FARC's politics or "legitimate" its activities in some vague way. In international law, belligerence is a "term of art": a specifically defined word with precise legal consequences. What it does, basically, is formalize the existence of a war between the government and the insurgents.

In doing so - and this is the key thing - it binds both sides to follow the international law on the legitimate conduct of war (A.K.A. "international humanitarian law" or, for the latinately inclined, jus in bello) which is set out (for the most part) in the Geneva Conventions.

Thing is, International Humanitarian Law is positively bursting at the seams with rules FARC breaks all the damn time.

Recruiting child soldiers is a war crime, as is using indiscriminate weapons like land mines. Kidnapping non-combatants is a war crime. Capturing combatants and grossly violating their human dignity is a war crime too, as is denying the Red Cross access to them. Attacking ambulances? War crime. Forced displacement of civilians? War crime. Monkey trials of captured enemies? War crime.

All of these violations (and a great many others) have been documented in detail in FARC's sprawling, appalling human rights rap sheet. ELN, with its predilection for assassinating politicians and for mass abductions, fares little better.
Granted, Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries have a human rights record every bit as awful...but then, they're not the ones furiously scheming to be covered by a body of law that would surely condemn them.

In fact, FARC and ELN's record is so brutal, it's not even clear whether it's lawful to recognize them as belligerents. The Hague II Convention (the treaty that first specified the concept in 1899), explicitly states in article 2 that an irregular army shall be regarded as belligerent, among other conditions, "if they respect the laws and customs of war." But FARC and ELN clearly don't respect even the rudiments of jus in bello. In recognizing their beligerence, Chávez is arguably in violation of Hague II.

The irony is that if Marulanda and Chávez had their way and Colombia recognized them as belligerents, Uribe's very next move would have to be to denounce FARC's leaders as war criminals. One day Tirofijo would be celebrating his "recognition", the next the International Criminal Court would be handing down an indictment for him.

Chavismo's position in all of this just makes no sense. If the call was to "regularize" the conflict by insisting all involved begin respecting international humanitarian law, you can imagine how that could pave
the way for serious peace talks, which is what Chávez purports to want.

If Chávez was saying "we hereby recognize FARC and ELN as lawful belligerents and, for that very reason, we demand they fully comply with the international obligations incumbent on all lawful beligerents", even some French philosophers would cheer.

But that's not chavismo's line at all.
The National Assembly just passed a resolution demanding that FARC and ELN be recognized as subjects of international humanitarian law without any corresponding demand that FARC and ELN comply with international humanitarian law. Go figure.

And as they handed over to him the evidence of their own war crimes (Clara Rojas and Consuelo González - very literally the body of the crime) Chávez's interior minister told a group of FARC rebels "in the name of President Chávez...we're watching your struggle very closely. Keep that spirit, keep up your strength, and count on us."

It's hard to shake the feeling that, when chavismo says belligerents, what it really means is allies.

January 17, 2008

Everything I need to know about diplomacy I learned from Jim Malone

Katy says: Given the recent spats between Colombia and Venezuela, one of the things that jumps out is the difference in style and tone between the two governments.

While the Colombian government tries to be polite yet firm in asking Venezuela not to meddle in its affairs, the Venezuelan government responds with an outrageous communiqué that ups the ante and basically accuses Uribe of being a warmonger who is not interested in the peace and the lives of his own countrymen.

It seems like any time the Uribe government responds to Chávez, he comes back with something three times worse. It's a weird little dance these two have, with one side foaming at the mouth and yearning for a fight and the other side trying to practice restraint and striving for the high road.

I keep thinking of how useless the Colombian government's tone and strategy are. No press release, no diplomatic note of protest will tone Chávez down.

I keep thinking of Jim Malone, the Sean Connery character in The Untouchables. You probably remember the line:
"Here's how you get Capone: he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone. Now, do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?"
Well, Uribe, are you? Are you ready to raise the rhetoric? Are you ready to out-cuss and out-hood Chávez/Capone? 'Cause erudite notes of protest may go down well in Bogotá's diplomatic circles, but the laughter they provoke over at the Casa Amarilla can be heard miles away.

The only way to fight a street rat is to roll up your sleeves and get down in the gutter.

Chávez's Latest Fixation: What's he after?

Quico says: Poor Colombians. Their country has become the latest focus of Chávez's boundless capacity to fixate. The guy doesn't seem to talk about much else these days - Venezuela is just too boring, I guess.

Me? I'm at a disadvantage here because I'm embarrassingly ignorant about Colombia. I couldn't tell a cachaco from an ajiaco if my life depended on it. And I don't have a sense of the internal dynamics of Colombian politics: I suspect very few Venezuelans do.

But I find it really hard to piece together what Chávez's longer term goals with regard to Colombia are, what his tactical and strategic thinking is in picking a very public fight with Uribe and openly siding with the rebels. Softly softly co-operation of the kind we've seen for years? I can understand the point of that: there's a ton of money to be made, and it really ticks off the US. But setting out to make it all public? I just can't figure out what he thinks he gains from that.

Katy thinks, most likely, his goal is a FARC-style government that reaches power the way he did: through the ballot box. A Colombian Correa, call it, or even a Colombian Evo. But if that's the plan, why openly endorse an organization the vast majority of Colombians fear and loathe? Wouldn't that be like trying to influence the US political process by cozying up to the Nation of Islam? I just don't see how these tactics serve that goal.

So is the goal here an eventual FARC military victory over the Colombian government? Surely he knows that can't happen...unless Venezuela intervenes directly and militarily to help them. Is that really where this is ultimately heading? It's fucking scary...

In such a scenario, the US would surely step in to aid the Colombian government, either directly or (more likely) through massively stepped up military aid. Can Chávez really be out of it enough to think he can get a result under those circumstances?

Which raises an intriguing possibility: could Colombia really just be the mechanism Chávez is using to goad the US into a more overt, maybe even military, confrontation? It doesn't seem unimaginable to me: Chávez must surely be frustrated that the US just keeps ignoring his rants. Siding openly with FARC is one way to force the issue.

By backing a direct opponent of a US client, and holding out the possibility of far more open and frank co-operation with FARC's coke smuggling operation, Chávez moves more and more from the buffoonish irritant category to become a real threat to US national security. Could it be that Chávez ultimately believes his "revolution" will only come to be seen as a real revolution if it survives a proper baptism of fire? An armed confrontation with empire? It's a crazy idea...deliriously risky and very likely to backfire...but it doesn't make any less sense than the others.

Frankly, I can't piece it together. But the military angle can't just be dismissed: it's significant Chávez spent the last four years simultaneously pretending to be best-buddies with Uribe and buying all kinds of weaponry abroad, only to drop the pretense of friendship once he had the guns in place.

Coincidence? I don't believe in coincidences.

January 16, 2008

The permanent rape of Bolívar

Quico says: Even now, nine years into the Chávez era, it's hard for me to know how to handle the surges of raw anger that well up inside of me at some of the president's antics. Blunted, abused, tested beyond any reasonable limit, it turns out my capacity for outrage is not totally exhausted.

The latest instance followed Chávez's barely-veiled endorsement of Colombia's stunningly brutal narco-guerrilla armies. Turns out that, for Chávez, Colombia's rebel armies "are in no way terrorist groups, they are real armies that control territory in Colombia, FARC and ELN must be recognized, they are insurgent forces that have a political project, a bolivarian project that is respected here."

It's that word, "bolivarian", that jumps out at you. One struggles to picture what Don Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Ponte Palacios y Blanco might have had to say to Tirofijo. How exactly would El Libertador feel about Ingrid Betancourt being held hostage in his name, about the streets of Europe being flooded with cocaine and the upper reaches of the Venezuelan government being corrupted by coke money in his name?

As a thought experiment, it's pure grotesque. Of course, we all know by now that when Chávez uses that word he's not speaking in any real sense about the father of the nation: when he says Bolivarian, he's really just talking about himself, using a barely euphamistic formulation for "chavista". In that context, his statement makes a lot more sense: "FARC and ELN insurgent forces that have a political project, a chavista project that is respected here." No argument from me on that count.

The episode brought back memories of the fracas that first made me realize Venezuela faced not merely a really bad government under Chávez, but a serious threat of authoritarianism. It happened back in 1999, barely a few months after the man had taken office. The Constituent Assembly he had promised was duly rewriting Venezuela's constitution and, in a bid to demonstrate its autonomy, the president decided to leave it "unsupervised" as he took a three-week long tour of East Asia.

The Assembly - packed with Chávez allies - was mostly "well behaved" in his absence, adopting most of the proposals in a draft constitution the president had released months earlier. But they were bold enough to discard one of Chávez's highest profile, and most symbolically loaded, ideas: his call to change the country's official name to República Bolivariana de Venezuela.

It's easy to understand the Constituent Assembly members's misgivings. For the bulk of the previous 170 years, Bolívar's name had been sacrosanct: a symbol of national unity well above the partisan fray. Just a year earlier, the Electoral Council had upheld longstanding practice by preventing Chávez from using Bolívar's name in his party's title. By 1999, however, Chávez had already advanced some ways to ending that tradition, repeatedly referring to his own movement by its adverbial form - Bolivarian. More and more, the word came to be used as a rough synonym for "chavista", a conflation of national identity and party loyalty that easily bled into a view of dissenters as "anti-Bolivarian", treasonous rather than merely wrong.

In 1999, even his followers could grasp how toxic such a mix of sectarianism and nationalism could prove. In effect, Chávez wanted a partisan label added to the nation's official name. To get a sense for the symbolic load here, try to picture a US politician who systematically refers to his own movement as Washingtonianism. Imagine he's elected president, and gets the term to "stick" in public discourse, with editorialists and commentators commonly and matter-of-factly using "Washingtonians" as shorthand for his followers. Then, imagine that, on reaching office, he proposes renaming the country the Washingtonian United States of America.

Silly as it may seem, this whimsical little parallel begins to give you a sense of the kind of Grand Theft Symbol Chávez was proposing...but it only begins to do so, because Bolívar is a far, far more central figure in Venezuelans' understanding of their own history and identity than any single historical figure is to US Americans.

And so, making use of the autonomy Chávez had so vehemently insisted it would enjoy, the Constituent Assembly dissented. The symbolic violence inherent in the forced appropriation of national identity for partisan gain was clear even to Chávez partisans. So while the president wrestled with his chopsticks on his state visit to China, the Constituent Assembly approved an article maintaining the ideologically neutral official name the country had had for decades: República de Venezuela.

What happened next chillingly foreshadowed the kind of leadership Chávez had in store for the country, as well as dramatically capturing the spinelessness of the people he had gathered around him to govern it. On his return, the president was furious with his supporters in the assembly. Calling them to task publicly, he demanded that the new country name be adopted, blustering on TV about the Assembly Members' unreliability and hinting darkly about their insufficient patriotism.

Sure enough, almost immediately, with nary a peep of dissent, the supposedly all-powerful, fully autonomous Constituent Assembly folded, reversing its earlier decision in order to placate the president. The show of Assembly autonomy the trip to Asia had been meant to provide didn't quite pan out as planned. Instead, what we had all feared - that Chávez was content with the thinest of institutional veils to mask the underlying authoritarianism of his vision of power - was ever so publicly demonstrated.

It's an episode I'm reminded of every time I travel: my passport is now duly stamped "República Bolivariana de Venezuela". I always feel a bit odd handing that thing to foreign authorities...a Venezuelan, but far from a Bolivarian in its current, politicized sense, I always feel like I'm committing some kind of fraud: identifying myself as something I'm not. And that, of course, was the point of the exercise: reserving full symbolic membership in the national community to a part of the population only, leaving dissenters to feel less than fully Venezuelan, to feel as though in resisting the governing ideology, they cast doubt on their patriotism.

And now, nine years on, Chávez tells me that Ingrid Betancourt's kidnappers are more Bolivarian, in a sense, more fully Venezuelan than I am. That the foreign thugs who pioneered the bicycle bomb, piloted by unsuspecting kamikaze children, have more of a purchase on my national identity than I do.

And here, well...here all possibility of analysis, of reasoned debate, of cold-blooded introspection, of verständigungorientiertes Handeln...it all just comes to a screeching halt. All I can say, from the bottom heart, is damn you to hell, Hugo Chávez. Damn you and your lunatic ideology and your grotesque assault on my history, my identity and my nation.

January 15, 2008

The case for primaries

Katy says: A comment by fellow blogger Miguel regarding primaries got me thinking.

Miguel was reminding me about the experience with Copei in 1993. Back then, Copei decided to hold an open primary, where all registered voters could participate, to pick its presidential candidate. It was an unprecedented move by a political party in Venezuela, and the people chose then-Zulia governor Oswaldo Alvarez Paz over the candidate of the party establishment, Eduardo Fernández. Rafael Caldera was unwilling to participate, and ended up winning the election that year on a slim margin.

It's tempting to think that we should repeat this process. Who could be against such a wise move? Let the people decide who the candidates should be. In theory, I'm all for it.

The problem is that Venezuela right now does not fit theory well. Back in 1993, it was fairly easy to discern some of the ground rules. There was a single, national organization that decided what the rules were, and there were only two candidates with any chance running for a single, national office. It was a much simpler operation.

Now, not only would we have to decide among candidates for governors and mayors, but also for council members, members of parish boards and state legislators.

I guess you could argue that you could focus on choosing only candidates for governor and mayors in a primary, and let the rest of the field duke it out. You could also come up with some sort of formula whereby the representatives to city councils and state legislatures follow the proportion of votes each party got in each state.

I think this isn't viable, but maybe I'm being obtuse. We also have to realize it takes a lot of work, and the costs of carrying out such an operation may outweigh the benefits.

What are the pros and cons of implementing something like this? Is the electorate ready for a move like this? Are the parties? I honestly don't know.

Party Pooper

Quico says:

Dear Katy,

I'll start by noting what we agree on. There's no doubt that there's a psycho edge to a lot of the party whackery we see in the opposition. At times, it's easy to feel we have some deep, masochistic need to sabotage ourselves by making contradictory demands on our leadership and blaming them for the failures that ensue. This tendency was most evident in episodes like the self-purging of PDVSA (paro), of the Armed Forces (Plaza Altamira) and of the National Assembly (2005 boycott). I think it's all part of the Chavez Nos Tiene Locos phenomenon: traumatized by 9 years of vicious attack, disoriented, embittered and all-too-easily-baited into idiot maximalism, the opposition has too often been chavismo's greatest "objective ally".

All of that was supposed to have changed on December 2nd. With the referendum victory, we were supposed to have finally realized the lessons of the last 10 years. That personalizing the debate around Chavez was a losing strategy. That we could compete so long as we distanced ourselves from the excesses of the past. That maximalism is a dead end. That there's a powerful thirst for renewal out there that Chavismo is no longer able to satisfy. That people vote their day to day concerns, not grand abstractions.

Are those lessons sticking? Lets review the bidding. Within 6 weeks of December 2nd we've seen the Salas clan pledge a return to the Carabobo governorship and Enrique Mendoza pledging to do the same in Miranda. We've seen AD launch a separate bid for Miranda before consulting anyone. We've seen Rosales say he wants to install his wife, Kirchner style, in his old job in Zulia. Suddenly, in the opposition, "talking politics" means "talking electoral pacts."

So it's already clear that we won't spend the bulk of this year making our case to the voters, explaining why chavista governors and mayors are failing and how we could do better. Instead, we're staring down the barrel of a long, divisive, debilitating, cynicism-fueling internal wrangle over "unity" candidacies to be fought out by oppo party elites that are still widely loathed, even within the opposition movement itself.

And here is where we disagree, Katy. The fact that the virulent anti-party mood in the country is kind of nutty and ultimately self-defeating does not mean it is gratuitous. It doesn't mean there is no reason for it. Far from it.

Anti-partyism is a function of the self-destructive dynamics that result from the oppo's fragmentation into a dozen non-viable rump partylets, a structure that complicates cooperation and puts a premium on jockeying for internal position over and above what political parties in general are supposed to be all about: presenting voters with a vision and asking them to support it.

To tell the truth, I find it kind of disheartening that thoughtful party people like you seem more inclined to a certain, self-pitying rejection of anti-party sentiment (anti-anti-partyism) than to a cold-blooded examination of what exactly it is about the way the oppo parties operate that drives so many Venezuelans up a bloody wall.

I don't want to wallow in a recitation of the by now familiar litany of laments here (the navel gazing, the petty feuding, the nepotism and personalism, and my personal bugbear: the absence of any institutional mechanism able to force failed leaders to leave the stage and start a second career.)

But I do want to say that parties exasperate people because they appear fundamentally unable to change, to think fresh thoughts, to act creatively or to adapt to changed circumstances in ways that increase their effectiveness.

These shortcomings are real, not imagined. Oppo supporters are desperate for an organization that can effectively challenge the government. Ultimately, it's the parties' inability to do so that makes us so angry.

I don't accept the idea that "parties just can't win" because people are just irrationally repelled by them. I think the opposition parties could alter people's perceptions of them, and quickly, if they could muster the guts and the creativity to pull off some decisive symbolic acts and put an end to the old, discredited politics of caudillismo, sequential splitting, and perpetual fragmentation.

Nothing is preventing Primero Justicia, Un Nuevo Tiempo, Proyecto Venezuela, Causa R, MAS and others from merging into a cohesive, disciplined, effective organization that takes on the serious work of taking on the government: call it the Partido Democratico de Venezuela.

Fragmentation ensures each of the oppo parties will be individually ineffective, unable to reach the critical mass of followers (and fund-raising capacity) needed to create a proper national organization able to put forward a coherent, appealing message. They are very obviously much weaker apart than they would be together. Really, it's a no-brainer.

And yet this idea is so unthinkable, so impossible, so utterly beyond the realm of the imaginable that it's virtually unmentionable. Nobody (aside from me) even mentions it because everybody "already knows" it can't happen.

And why can't it happen? Because Leo Lopez hates Julio Borges' guts, or because Liliana Hernandez has a grudge against the Salas clan, or Rosales doesn't like the color of Enrique Mendoza's ties. Because petty personal piques trump the national interest every time - hell, they even trump the opposition's collective self-interest! And this "trumping" is taken to be such an immutable force of nature, a reality of such overwhelming, self-evident ineluctability that it's not even in need of discussion. Of course UNT is not going to merge with PJ so they can concentrate on fighting chavismo together...why, even to bring it up is preposterous!

If anything, we're likely to see more party splintering into the future, as the student movement decides the best way to avoid being contaminated with the "disease" of partydom is to found new, non-viable parties themselves. That's how the game is played, isn't it?

It is, and largely because that's how it's always been.

And so the oppo parties' future looks more and more like their past: more fragmentation, more personalism, more navel gazing, more mindless jockeying for meaningless tactical advantage. But this passive acceptance of the idea that the way things have always been is the ways they must always be is at the heart of the seething anger oppo supporters feel at their purported leaders.

A movement that needs to spend the next 10 months hammering away at the hopelessness of chavismo's state and local leadership will instead spend a good 6 or 7 months arguing with itself about which discredited figure will be the "unity" candidate in which race. And then, when we get beat in places where we won last month, they'll tell us that it's just that "the campaign was too short" to get voters acquainted with candidates...

So yes, Katy, anti-partyism is certainly self-destructive...but not nearly as self-destructive as the crazy way opposition parties practice politics. Pleading with people to stop being so mindlessly anti-party is nowhere near good enough. If the parties want to overcome the ocean of hostility they face, they have to earn it, by demonstrating that they place the national interest ahead of their individual interests through actions, not words.