April 19, 2008

Everything I know about Chavista geostrategic thinking I learned from a fat gringo neo-con

Quico says: If you're looking for some mind-broadening reading this weekend, I heartily recommend this New Republic piece by Iraq War-monger extraordinaire Robert Kagan. It's about the rising contours of 21st Century Geopolitics, and though it's long, I found it exceptionally enlightening. Actually, it did more to help me understand Chávez's geostrategic stance than a truckload of Centro Miranda policy papers could have...which is remarkable, considering the guy never once mentions Venezuela.

Kagan's piece is hard to summarize. It deals mostly with the global impact of the autocracies in China and Russia, their role in "the end of the end of history." For Kagan, we're heading neither towards some Fukuyamesque shangri-la of liberal hegemony nor towards some Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, but rather towards an international order that looks a lot like the 19th century's: democracies on one side, autocracies on the other, and a lot of conflict between the two.

Most of the piece is devoted to a dissection of the big autocracies' strategic outlook, and the way liberal universalism unwittingly pushes them into muscular defensive stances that often look downright paranoid from the outside. For Kagan, there's nothing irrational about Russia and China's rulers' deep distrust of the U.S.-led west; the West's whole understanding of the idea of sovereignty really does threaten their survival:
The presumption over the past decade has been that when Chinese and Russian leaders stopped believing in communism, they stopped believing in anything. They had become pragmatists, without ideology or belief, simply pursuing their own and their nation's interests. But the rulers of China and Russia, like the rulers of autocracies in the past, do possess a set of beliefs that guides them in both domestic and foreign policy. It is not an all-encompassing, systematic worldview like Marxism or liberalism. But it is a comprehensive set of beliefs about government and society and the proper relationship between rulers and their people.

The rulers of Russia and China believe in the virtues of a strong central government and disdain the weaknesses of the democratic system. They believe their large and fractious nations need order and stability to prosper. They believe that the vacillation and chaos of democracy would impoverish and shatter their nations, and in the case of Russia that it already did so. They believe that strong rule at home is necessary if their nations are to be powerful and respected in the world, capable of safeguarding and advancing their interests. Chinese rulers know from their nation's long and often turbulent history that political disruptions and divisions at home invite foreign interference and depredation. What the world applauded as a political opening in 1989, Chinese leaders regard as a near-fatal display of disagreement.

So the Chinese and Russian leaders are not simply autocrats. They believe in autocracy. The modern liberal mind at "the end of history" may not appreciate the attractions of this idea, or the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world; but historically speaking, Russian and Chinese rulers are in illustrious company. The European monarchs of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were thoroughly convinced, as a matter of political philosophy, of the superiority of their form of government. Along with Plato, Aristotle, and every other great thinker prior to the eighteenth century, they regarded democracy as the rule of the licentious, greedy, and ignorant mob. And in the first half of the twentieth century, for every democratic power like the United States, Great Britain, and France, there was an equally strong autocratic power, in Germany, Russia, and Japan. The many smaller nations around the world were at least as likely to model themselves on the autocracies as on the democracies. Only in the past half-century has democracy gained widespread popularity around the world, and only since the 1980s, really, has it become the most common form of government.


For all their growing wealth and influence, the twenty-first-century autocracies remain a minority in the world. As some Chinese scholars put it, democratic liberalism became dominant after the fall of Soviet communism and is sustained by an "international hierarchy dominated by the United States and its democratic allies," a "U.S.-centered great power group." The Chinese and Russians feel like outliers from this exclusive and powerful clique. "You western countries, you decide the rules, you give the grades, you say, 'you have been a bad boy,'" complained one Chinese official at Davos this year. Putin also complains that "we are constantly being taught about democracy."

The post-Cold War world looks very different when seen from autocratic Beijing and Moscow than it does from democratic Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, or Brussels. For the leaders in Beijing, it was not so long ago that the international democratic community, led by the United States, turned on China with a rare unity, imposing economic sanctions and even more painful diplomatic isolation after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. The Chinese Communist Party, according to Fei-Ling Wang, has had a "persisting sense of political insecurity ever since," a "constant fear of being singled out and targeted by the leading powers, especially the United States," and a "profound concern for the regime's survival, bordering on a sense of being under siege."

In the 1990s, the democratic world, led by the United States, toppled autocratic governments in Panama and Haiti and twice made war against Milosevic's Serbia. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), well-funded by western governments, trained opposition parties and supported electoral reforms in Central and Eastern Europe and in Central Asia. In 2000, internationally financed opposition forces and international election monitors finally brought down Milosevic. Within a year he was shipped off to The Hague, and five years later he was dead in prison.

From 2003 to 2005, western democratic countries and NGOs provided pro-western and pro-democratic parties and politicians with the financing and organizational help that allowed them to topple other autocrats in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. Europeans and Americans celebrated these revolutions and saw in them the natural unfolding of humanity's destined political evolution toward liberal democracy. But leaders in Beijing and Moscow saw these events in geopolitical terms, as western-funded, CIA-inspired coups that furthered the hegemony of America and its European allies. The upheavals in Ukraine and Georgia, Dmitri Trenin notes, "further poisoned the Russian-Western relationship" and helped to persuade the Kremlin to "complete its turnaround in foreign policy."

The color revolutions worried Putin not only because they checked his regional ambitions, but also because he feared that the examples of Ukraine and Georgia could be repeated in Russia. They convinced him by 2006 to control, restrict, and in some cases close down the activities of international NGOs. Even today he warns against the "jackals" in Russia who "got a crash course from foreign experts, got trained in neighboring republics and will try here now." His worries may seem absurd or disingenuous, but they are not misplaced. In the post-Cold War era, a triumphant liberalism has sought to expand its triumph by establishing as an international principle the right of the "international community" to intervene against sovereign states that abuse the rights of their people. International NGOs interfere in domestic politics; international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor and pass judgment on elections; international legal experts talk about modifying international law to include such novel concepts as "the responsibility to protect" or a "voluntary sovereignty waiver."

In theory, these innovations apply to everyone. In practice, they chiefly provide democratic nations the right to intervene in the affairs of non-democratic nations. Unfortunately for China, Russia, and other autocracies, this is one area where there is no great transatlantic divide. The United States, though traditionally jealous of its own sovereignty, has always been ready to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. The nations of Europe, once the great proponents (in theory) of the Westphalian order of inviolable state sovereignty, have now reversed course and produced a system, as Robert Cooper has observed, of constant "mutual interference in each other's domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages." This has become one of the great schisms in the international system dividing the democratic world and the autocracies. For three centuries, international law, with its strictures against interference in the internal affairs of nations, has tended to protect autocracies. Now the democratic world is in the process of removing that protection, while the autocrats rush to defend the principle of sovereign inviolability.

I found myself nodding in amazement at all this: for the first time I was able to discern a smidgen of rational thought hiding behind the seemingly pure paranoia that defines Chávez's ranting anti-Americanism. But only a smidgen because (did I mention?) the entire looooong piece makes all of one passing reference to "Latin America" and none at all to Venezuela itself.

Which, I think, is pretty indicative of just how small the hemisphere looms in US geostrategic thinking: autocrats in the areas of actual interest to the US probably should freak out if a Sumate pops up in their countries...but in South America? The continent and the folkloric strongmen it sprouts are a footnote, an afterthought in gringo strategic thinking, if that.

Even the mighty US has finite resources at its disposal: is it really going to malversarlos on Chávez?

It doesn't hang together.

April 18, 2008

Red goes the neighborhood

Katy says: Victor Vargas, remember him? BOD President, father-in-law to royalty, polo-playing socialist, poster boy for the Revolution of the Rich and the Well-connected?

Well, turns out Mr. Vargas landed a sweet deal on a modest Palm Beach home. The sticker price? $70 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. Ah, your nota estructurada bolívars at work! According to this other article, it is not Mr. Vargs' first home in Palm Beach. The article also notes that Vargas' business interests "range from banking to oil holdings, and he oversees 6,500 employees in several countries."

Which begs the question: oil holdings?

(thanks to Lucía for the heads-up).

Expropriation by any other name...

Quico says: People tend to think of nationalization as a black-and-white thing: either you're in the private sector or you're in the public sector. But I think it's better to picture property rights in the Chávez era as running along a continuum.

The state has lots of ways to expropriate you under the radar screen: from tax and regulatory schemes that hem you in to the point where you have no real say in the way your business is run to the latest innovation in the dark arts of softly-softly expropriation: nationalizing your profits rather than your shares. As my super secret sources explained to me:

The other day the Assembly passed a new tax on oil that will kick in when Brent crude hits $70, and then escalates at $100 a barrel. So when low-grade Venezuelan crude hits about $55 a barrel, companies will pay a marginal tax rate of 92 percent. 97 percent at about $85 a barrel.

Chavez demanded that this money go to Fonden. But it's illegal in Venezuela to earmark the destination of a tax.

Deputy Luis Tascon demanded that the tax go into effect immediately on publication, likely in the next few days. But (as I understand it) it's illegal in Venezuela to impose a tax at any time other than the beginning of the month.

How to avoid these legal strictures? Magical language, as usual. This isn't a "tax," oil-and-all-things-related minister Rafael Ramirez said. It is a "special contribution."

So if someone objects to the destination of the tax, they'll have a tough one in their hands. They'll have to argue in court that an obligatory payment to the government is a tax. That if I kill someone, I can't say, "that wasn't homicide, it was a special life-termination event." That words have meanings. A challenging case to make these days!

Of course, the effective-immediately thing also underlines how bad the government's cash flow problems must be getting. They really can't forgo two weeks worth of revenue? How desperate is that?

April 17, 2008

Six degrees of Hugo Chávez

Katy says: How many people separate Barack Obama from Hugo Chávez? Yesterday's debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton gives us the answer: two!

Barack Obama ... sat on the board of the non-profit Woods Fund of Chicago with '60s radical and University of Illinois professor Bill Ayers, a friend of the Bolivarian Revolution and father of...

Chesa Boudin, a Rhodes scholar, one of the founders of chavista think-tank and PSF echo chamber Centro Internacional Miranda, who has an office in Miraflores Palace and is a key advisor of...

Hugo Chávez, autocrat extraordinaire.

In fact, if Ayers himself has a personal relationship with Hugo Chávez, then that's one degree of separation.

April 16, 2008

Everybody Already Knows Everything About the Anderson Case

Quico thinks: Oh, man, I should write something about the Anderson case. It's getting really, really over the top, this one. I mean, sure, I know, everything else in the newspapers is really, really over the top too, but this one! This one is really, really, really over the top. With a cherry on top.

The conspiracy's out in the open now. They thought they could cover it up, but it's gone as pear shape as pear shape could go. And it's not a joke, man, it's no laughing matter. They've exiled people over this sham...they've put people in jail for it. Hell, they even killed people over this. Over a lie. Over a pack of lies told by a nutsoid liar who everyone knows is a nutsoid liar. And now their defense is...that he's a liar!

You should definitely write something about this. Yeah, ok, but what, exactly? That Isaías Rodríguez is a gutter rat? Stop the presses! That the Venezuelan legal system is a sham wrapped inside a joke locked into a farce covered up in a circus side show? Ah, the revelation!

It's just so soul draining, the Anderson case. You want to write about it, but the prospect is so dreary. It's like excavating a barrel of shit...you can dig all day and all night, but all you're going to find is more shit. The story is so ridiculously convoluted by now, how do you even begin to explain it to someone who hasn't been following it?

That's the thing...you can't. There's no 30-second version of the Anderson case. Homer vs. CJ it ain't. Those two get on 290 newspapers worldwide, but nobody runs with Danilogate, cuz nobody can figure out a way to explain it succinctly. The AP put a single story on the wire about it. Six days ago. Nobody picked it up.

Which is just the way the perps wanted it, I guess.

What's weird about it is that nothing is really hidden in the Anderson case. Not really. The lies are all out in the open. The guilt of the guilty is 20% more visible now than it was a month ago...but then, it was already 130% visible a month ago, so what have we really added? Confirmation on top of what was already blindingly evident? I guess...

Man, I should really write something about the Anderson case. It's the kind of case bloggers exist to ferret out. It's some kind of indictment of my abilities as a blogger that I can't think of anything fresh to say about it.

But I can't. I really can't.

They killed him, they got away with it, that's it.

Everybody already knows everything about the Anderson case. That's the thing, man. That's the thing.

April 14, 2008

Confessions of a dangerous mind

Katy says:
"Por allí se nos fueron miles de millones de dólares el año pasado (en compras de Internet), he ordenado ajustar al vicepresidente y que más nunca ocurra eso, cualquier decisión debe ser consultada conmigo aun cuando el BCV es autónomo, pero yo soy el jefe del Estado y jefe es jefe"
- Hugo Chavez, yesterday.

Translation: "Billions of dollars vanished last year on Internet purchases, and I have ordered the Vice-president to adjust that so that it never happens again. Any decision has to be run by me because, although the Central Bank of Venezuela is autonomous, I'm the Head of State, and the boss is the boss."
For all his flaws, Hugo Chávez is an unparalleled communicator. Still, there are moments when his oratory transcends humdrum communication goals and enters into the realm of legend.

Yesterday was such a day. The amount of truth encapsulated in this little nugget of a quote is so complete, so all-encompassing, it more or less defines chavismo itself.

Not only does Chávez brilliantly exploit the fact that the term "Head of State" uses the word for "boss" in spanish (jefe), he leaves no room for doubt that he is personally in charge of everything and anything related to the State. Autonomous institutions? Pish posh...the boss is the boss...

It's so naked, this one, so unwittingly honest, you almost have to tip your hat to its accidental candor. It's a philosophy that takes care of everything.

The Constitution may say that courts are autonomous, but, hey, the boss is the boss.

The Constitution may say the Prosecutor General is autonomous, but, don't you forget it, jefe es jefe.

Venezuelans may think we have a right to private property, but jefe es jefe.

The Constitution may say that Chavez must leave office in 2013, but he's the head of state and jefe es jefe.

Jefe es jefe, sin derecho a pataleo.

This is a government that makes satire superfluous.

April 13, 2008

Newsweek's Credibility Tanks

Quico says:
With sources like these, can you believe a word Newsweek says?

Right-hand Column overhaul

Quico says: In a fit of procrastination, I just checked, updated and re-organized the entire right-hand column. All the links have been checked and all of them work now. Some no-longer-active sites were dropped, and some newly active ones added: welcome Vicente and Julio to the blog roll.

I'm especially eager to bulk up the "Blogs in Spanish" section. Am I missing your favorite? Don't be shy with comments and suggestions.