May 16, 2008

The fallout

Katy says: - A day after the Interpol report on Raul Reyes' laptops and President Chávez's predictably Orwellian reaction, it's worth analyzing the possible implications from this scandal. So put down your dulces de lechoza, get comfortable, and let's start speculating.

It's worth pointing out that much of the fallout will depend on the type of information the Colombian government chooses to make public. This is not to say that what we already know isn't serious. Don't get me wrong, what we know so far is cause enough for impeaching the President. But in a country with no institutions, that will not happen (por ahora) and the scandal, if left as is, may very well go away.

The Colombian government is likely to play this one by ear. It has already showed a willingness to practice real-politik with the laptop, as leverage to try to keep Chávez at bay. Its ability to do so will depend on the credibility of the evidence in the eyes of foreigners (we have already seen the EU's Javier Solana back the report's findings).

However, Colombia will not want to play this hand too heavily, for fear of incurring commercial sanctions on the part of Venezuela. The Colombian economy is significantly dependent on exports to Venezuela, paritcularly labor-intensive commodities such as food and textiles. And while the risk of losing the Venezuelan market is small (Chávez needs Colombian food staples to keep inflation and scarcity somewhat under control), Chávez hinted yesterday that commercial relations will suffer, and this should cause some concern in Bogotá.

With the Interpol report, Colombia gained credibility in a court of law. Bogotá daily El Tiempo reports that the head of Interpol confirmed that the material given back to Colombia includes sealed copies of the files. If Colombia were to find more incriminating evidence in the laptops, it could hand them over to a domestic or foreign court of law with Interpol's seal of approval. All you would need to verify is that the same file is contained in Interpol's sealed copy and the evidence would most likely be accepted.

Needless to say, Colombia's threats to haul Chávez to the International Court of Law, as amusing as that would be, are not really credible. In order for that to be viable, two things would need to happen: the price of oil would have to fall, and more incriminating evidence would need to surface. I'm not sure the evidence we have seen so far is enough to convict Chávez in a court of law (although, as a reader told me yesterday, the fact that chavismo is claiming the laptop's contents fall short of incriminating Chávez reinforces the files' accuracy - after all, if Colombia is making stuff up and putting it on the computer, why wouldn't they make the evidence even more incriminating?).

Furthermore, Venezuela has not yet reached a point where people would stand by while Chávez is dragged to The Hague. If we recall the instances when Presidents have either been impeached or completely lost their legitimacy, we can recognize periods when society as a whole reached a consensus regarding the person being questioned. In 1993, pretty much everyone in Venezuela accepted that Carlos Andrés Pérez was a crook. In 1998, everyone accepted that Caldera had been an awful President. We haven't reached that point yet.

The government's tenacious questioning of the authenticity of the documents stemming from Reyes' computer is sure to convince its most ardent followers just like the revelations so far have convinced moderate and strident opponents of the President. But unless new evidence surfaces, we will not reach a consensus in Venezuela as to Chavez's links to the FARC, with each side arguing their point to the death. It will all boil down to those in the middle (more on that later).

Colombia's real leverage comes, I think, from the evidence linking the FARC to some of the people in Chavez's government. The files point to deep financial, logistical, political and military links between the FARC and chavista apparatchiks, so Colombia may very well press on the issue of Chávez's subordinates even further without pressing on Chávez's direct role. The case of Lybia and its protection of the Lockerbie bombers comes to mind.

Under this scenario, the Chávez government would come under intense pressure to hand over some of its collaborators. This could prompt increased rivalries within chavismo itself, including the Armed Forces.

The political fallout, on the other hand, is likely to be small for now. Unfortunately, I have yet to see evidence that this scandal is hurting the government. Links to the FARC are an issue for people already in the opposition and for people living along the border, but the fabled Ni-ni voters are more worried about inflation, crime and scarcity.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like swing voters either care nor understand the implications. This is not to say that they couldn't be convinced to care. After all, a cover-up of the massacre of Venezuelans is something that anyone can understand and be apalled by. Continued scarcity due to Chávez's fights with Colombia will continue eroding the President's popular support. But it's going to take a lot of work, and the political benefit for the opposition from pressing the case is not evident.

The only immediate internal effect I see is an indirect one. Colombia's continued highlighting of this case will force Chávez to focus on defending himself to save face with international public opinion, something our resident megalomaniac deeply cares about. This will draw his attention to external affairs, which will mean taking his eye off the Regional Elections. As we saw in the second part of last year, the President finds it hard to walk and chew gum at the same time, so this could pave the way for big opposition gains in November.

Nine years of chavismo has left Venezuelan society somewhat immune to scandals. We saw it with Maleta-gate, and we will probably see it with laptop-gate. It's a real disgrace, and I hope I'm wrong, but the short-term fallout from all this is likely to be small.

May 15, 2008

They're real ... and they're spectacular

Katy says: - Well, Interpol confirmed what everyone already knew: that the three laptops, three USB drives and two portable hard drives the Colombian government claims belonged to the late Raúl Reyes are in fact his, and the files they contain have not been tampered with.

Interpol, a respected, impartial institution, is basically putting its reputation on the line. It said the Colombian government had not altered the information, and that the files they have already made public do indeed come from Reyes' computers. They have expressed a desire to talk to the Venezuelan and Ecuadorean governments and explain the technical work they did, but so far they have not been invited. You can access their report here.

The sheer size of the evidence is staggering: 37,872 text documents, 452 spreadsheets, 210,888 images, 10,537 multimedia files, 7,989 e-mail addresses and 22,481 webpages. All in all, a whopping 610 gigabytes of information.

Kind of makes you wish the Colombian government put all this stuff online. Could you imagine? Accessing Reyes' world-famous ajiaco recipe, or verifying whether Reyes ever read Caracas Chronicles? The possibilities are endless.

This should be an interesting summit coming up.

May 14, 2008

Obsessions make the man

Katy says: - The US, the Constitutional Reform, the FARC, Fidel - these are some of Chávez's well-known obsessions. His latest one is November's Regional Elections. Lately, not a day goes by without someone from the government reminding voters of the importance of the coming vote. But why? What is it about November that is so important to Chávez?

Chavistas talk non-stop about what they think is at stake in November. They say this election is crucial for the Revolution and they outlandishly suggest that an opposition win would risk breaking up the country and plunging us into a civil war.

Yet Chavez's infatuation with the Regional Elections is curiously overblown. It's as if nobody has bothered telling him to relax, because the reality is that a good outcome is much more important for the opposition than for the government.

The previous regional elections, held in 2004 on the heels of a Recall Referendum, left the opposition completely bewildered. Predictably, Chávez ran the table, winning 20 of the 22 state governorships up for grabs and all but a handful of the mayor's offices.

So in spite of record-high oil prices, there is little Chávez can do to prevent the opposition from doing better. Bouyed by last December's victory, and in spite of continuing internal struggles to define unity candidates, the opposition seems well-positioned to do much better than the last time. Their challenge is not to improve but to hold on to a key fact they established in the last Referendum: that the government is no longer backed by the majority.

The effect of likely opposition gains on chavismo is minimal. Chavista governors and mayors are serial underperformers, notoriously inefficient public servants that are more concerned with busing people to rallies in Caracas and driving around in expensive Hummers than delivering for their constituents. This is something Chávez himself has recognized on the numerous ocassions he has scolded mayors and governors on live TV. It's only natural that voters want to dish out a little dose of whoop-ass on their very red local leaders.

And if they do, so what? Most of the power of state and local governments is being diluted anyway, thanks to the government's unorthodox budgetary practices.

It works this way: the capacity of Venezuelan states and municipalities to raise their own taxes is extremely limited, if not inexistent. What little power they have to raise their own income is shrinking, as witnessed by the central government's recent moves to eliminate tolls from interstate highways and take away the administration of ports and airports from state governments.

State and local governments rely on a budget allocation called "Situado Constitucional." The law governing the Situado requires that a certain percentage of each year's budget go straight to the coffers of state and local governments, allocated according to their population.

The problem for the states is that the budget is based on unrealistic assumptions. Each year, the budget assumes an average price of oil that is much lower than the market price, thereby underestimating the level of income that has to be shared with state and local governments.

Furthermore, the central government is increasingly relying on extraordinary income that is not part of the budget such as excess oil royalties, and less on traditional (or "ordinary") sources of income like the VAT tax. All this extra money goes to a parallel budget institution called Fonden, directly managed by the President and generally not available to state and local governments. Revenues distributed to state and local governments are much lower than they should be - independent estimates I have seen reckon they are receiving 30% less than what they should be getting.

Chávez has never been a fan of decentralization. Ever since reaching office he has been promoting parallel forms of community organizations - from "Bolivarian Circles" to "Communal Councils" to "Socialist Cities" - which share one thing in common: they are all heavily dependent on Miraflores. This makes his obsession with state and local governments, institutions he has never cared for and he has actively undermined, dumbfounding to say the least.

His attitude seems to be the response of a wounded narcissist, someone who woke up one December morning and found to his dismay that the majority of the country doesn't approve of him. His posturing is to prove to himself, his followers and the world that his is not a movement in decline.

Due to his extremely competitive nature, he needs a victory. He is a soldier, and for the military it's all about winning battles. It's been a year and a half since he's had a victory at the ballot box, and few egos the size of Chavez's can withstand that.

May 13, 2008

May 12, 2008

SSOT? Maybe. Criminal conspirator? Definitely.

Quico says: What would it take to get Mark Weisbrot, Larry Birns & co. genuinely cheesed off at the Venezuelan government? Would documentary evidence that Chávez had actively conspired with foreign gunmen to cover up the killing of Venezuelan soldiers do the trick? We'll find out soon...

Lets connect some dots. In their recent communiqué questioning Colombia's interpretation of the Reyes laptops, Birns, Weisbrot and their motley crew of groovy ñángara academics credit Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy with conducting "the most extensive evaluation of the available documents."

Isacson, in his latest post, notes that:
There is little doubt that the documents are real and untampered with. Interpol is very likely to conclude that, and it stands to reason - it would be hugely embarrassing for Colombia to be discovered to have been tampering with the computer files. We have to proceed on the assumption that these guerrilla communications are real. Venezuela’s denials of their authenticity constitute a weak defense.
Nonetheless, Isacson concludes that the material on the laptops, while troubling, is probably not enough on its own for the US to label Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism. Fair enough: if your main concern is the US policy implications of the Reyes files, that's sound advice. Given the massive economic and geostrategic consequences of such a move, erring on the side of caution seems like the only sane course for a US policy maker.

But notice what's happened here: in the context of a debate about US policy, Larry Birns and Mark Weisbrot have basically told us that their go-to-guy on the Reyes Files thinks the files are authentic, and that Interpol will say as much.

Question is, what else was on those laptops that Birns and Weisbrot's favorite expert thinks are for real? Lots and lots of stuff...much of which has no direct bearing on SSOT status, but raises very troubling questions about the regime they have been working so assiduously to bolster for so long.

A button for show: Colombian weekly Semana reports that the Reyes Files contain a detailed e-mail volley about a massacre perpetrated by FARC inside Venezuela, in Apure State on September 23, 2004. (Excerpts in English here.)

The emails, between Iván Márquez, 'Mono Jojoy', Rodrigo Granda and the late Raúl Reyes, reveal that FARC mistakenly ambushed a group of PDVSA engineers and their Venezuelan military escorts near La Charca that day. It was all a big case of mistaken identity, but when the dust settled six Venezuelans were dead: five soldiers and one woman working as a PDVSA engineer.

As soon as he hears this, Reyes sends a message to his brothers in arms noting that the Venezuelans would have no trouble realizing FARC was responsible for the killings. He says FARC should immediately own up to its mistake and apologize to the Venezuelan government, stressing the need to keep the whole thing quiet. Later emails from Granda note Chávez's anger at the killings, but also his determination to give the mishap a 'prudent and political' response.

The files detail the close collaboration between FARC and the head of Venezuelan military intelligence, General Hugo Carvajal, their determination to improve coordination in future, and their shared interest in not allowing "the right wing" to exploit the fracas.

Sure enough, within days, then Venezuelan defense minister Jorge García Carneiro was in front of the TV cameras in Caracas blaming the Apure Massacre on Colombian paramilitaries who had "acted in cold blood." The perpetrators were never caught, much less tried. The murders remain unsolved.

So if I'm keeping score right here, Weisbrot and Birns' more or less accept the authenticity of documents detailing Chávez's involvement in a criminal conspiracy with foreign insurgents to pervert the course of justice in the mass murder of five Venezuelan soldiers and one Venezuelan public employee. We'll be expecting a strongly worded communiqué from them denouncing this chicanery any time now.

The Apure Massacre and its cover up have very little bearing on the SSOT status debate. If your main concern about the Reyes Files is what the US should do about them, you can see why you might not pay much attention to these sordid events.

But if your worry is focused more on the moral sensibility of the Chávez regime and its foreign boosters, the massacre and its cover up take on a whole different hue. Larry, Mark, the time to take a principled stand is now. Here's your chance.

Lets step back and think through what we're really dealing with here. Imagine, for one fleeting second, what would happen if Larry Birns and Mark Weisbrot got their hands on authenticated documents detailing George W. Bush's personal involvement in a conspiracy to cover up a multiple murder of US servicemen carried out by foreign insurgents.

Just picture it.

Chávez and Correa give the game away

Quico says: I'd been planning to wait until Thursday's Interpol report on the authenticity of the Reyes laptops to join this particularly sordid fray, but really there's no need to hold off. In parallel, weirdly unhinged damage limitation speeches, Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa pretty much gave the game away yesterday, with Correa insisting that whatever Interpol hasn't said yet is not worth listening to and Chávez charging that Interpol is - wait for it - a CIA puppet.

After all that, wouldn't it be fun if Interpol came out and said the computers were faketie-fake fake!?

It's a fun thought, but unlikely: even the Birns-Weisbrot Axis - in a masterpiece of misplaced outrage - implicitly own up that the laptops are for real and obliquely accepts that the Chávez-FARC relationship has been cordial all along and close since the fall of 2007.

No such nuance was forthcoming from Chavez or Correa, entrenched as they are in deny everything-accept nothing-make counter-accusations mode.

Correa's prenial was bizarrely childish - the diplomatic equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying "nyaaa nyaaa-I'm not listening to you-nyaaaa nyaaaa..." Chávez's was characteristically more non-sequitur oriented: demanding "evidence, not documents!" despite the fact that some of the information in the computers has led directly to real-world busts, like the $480,000 in recovered cash in Costa Rica. (To say nothing of the fake distinction between "documents" and "real evidence.")

It's hard to beat Chávez for sheer lunacy when he shifts into full-rant mode but, to be fair, there were some real head-scratchers in Correa's speech as well. I especially enjoyed his contention that anyone who believes what FARC's commanders say to one another in private emails is, somehow, duty-bound to also believe their anti-Uribe propaganda. Credibility is credibility, ¿o no?

[and this, mind you, is how they talk when they're trying to distance themselves from FARC!]

These guys are running around like chickens with their heads cut off; they know the other shoe is about to drop. There's something grimly amusing about the whole scene but, like so much else, it's a sideshow.

Beyond the public posturing, beyond the denials and prenials and smoke-screens and obfuscations, the camera-ready histrionics and the tsunami of insults pointed at the Casa de Nariño, one thing is becoming clear here: Venezuela under Chávez is a state that sponsors terrorism.

Whether, in some bureaucratic/legalistic/diplomatic sense that's grounds for labelling Chávez's regime a state sponsor of terrorism, I don't know. But, in ordinary language, a state that mobilizes its resources to help arm a group that relies on murder and kidnapping is a state that sponsors of terrorism.

That's what Venezuela's been doing. Colombia knows that, Ecuador knows that, the US knows that, and of course Chávez knows that.

Since Colombia started sharing the Reyes files on a government-to-government basis, Ecuador and Venezuela have known that Colombia and the US know that, and Colombia and the US have known that Ecuador and Venezuela know that Colombia and the US know (and so on and so forth.)

From Thursday (but, really, since yesterday) it's out in the open: everybody knows that everybody knows.

A desperate cancillería
official goes to Plan B.

Gather around, kiddies: grandpa's a gonna tell a story!

Quico says: In the latest Letras Libres (in Spanish), Alberto Barrera Tyszka and Ibsen Martínez sit down for a long chat with old man Petkoff. Turns out Teodoro's just as lucid about the world around him as he ever was.

Key chunk:
Chávez is not a social activist, a leader shaped by social struggles or the academy. Chávez is a lucky conspirator, just a man of great daring and, it's true, a man with great political instincts. Unfortunately for us, he reaches power without knowing what to do with it: without a program, without life experience, without real knowledge of the country and its problems. Later, when he starts to try out solutions, his Utopian side starts to come out, though fortunately his is not a bloodthirsty utopianism, at least not so far. He's a Utopian who doesn't think it's necessary to chop off the girl's toes to make them fit into cindarella's glass slipper. Instead, he goes about applying his ideas - which almost always fail - without jailing his adversaries.

Now, why can we have a non-bloodthirsty utopian? Because he has a hell of a lot of money. Our non-bloodthirsty utopian can afford these kinds of experiments in Venezuela because he has the kind of money nobody else has. We're a country of 27 million that's set, this year, to take in $70 billion from oil exports. Man, who gets to live like that?! Chávez can't think up ways to spend the money fast enough: he can feed all of his fantasies.
Much of the piece riffs on the theme of Chávez-as-atypical-latin-lefty. The whole thing is worth a read.