July 3, 2008

Chávez's Continental Strategy in Tatters

Quico says: A couple of weeks ago, we had a fun time trashing Jon Lee Anderson's latest Chávez piece in the New Yorker. But lets get real, Jon Lee Anderson could write a shopping list and it'd probably still be better written than 99% of what's out there on Chávez. So trawling back through it, it's no surprise to find some interesting (and ever more relevant) bits:
[After breaking the ice at the Santo Domingo regional summit in March,] Chávez had a surprise: the FARC, he said, had just informed him that it was prepared to release six more hostages. Uribe spoke in urgent whispers with his aides. Chávez asked President Fernández if protocol could be broken to allow the mother of Ingrid Betancourt to come into the hall. After some commotion, Betancourt’s mother, Yolanda Pulecio, an elegant woman in her late sixties (and a former Miss Colombia), entered. With her was Piedad Córdoba, a flamboyant left-wing Colombian senator who has worked with Chávez in negotiations with the FARC, and who was wearing a white turban. Uribe looked furious; Chávez was showing that he, not Uribe, was the one who could save the hostages’ lives.
It's an anecdote that goes a long way towards explaining why - treacly cancillería communiqués notwithstanding - the rescue yesterday of Ingrid Betancourt and the 14 others is such a disaster for Chávez's continental strategy.

Chávez's stint as a hostage mediator was an obvious ploy to leverage their plight for increased regional relevance. From day one, it was easy to see the point wasn't so much to free hostages as it was to turn Chávez into a real player in Colombia, an indispensable go-between. The long-term goal was clear enough: to install an ideological ally in Casa de Nariño, whether through the gun or the ballot box, as a stepping stone to the creation of a regional socialist bloc to challenge the US's strategic dominance of the region.

Chávez has never been shy about his continental aspirations. The very label, "bolivarianismo", broadcasts that. Having a US-ally in power in Bogotá has long been the main obstacle to realizing the dream of re-editing Gran Colombia. And if, as Jon Lee Anderson explains, keeping that dream alive means parting ways with reality, well, that's too bad for reality:
Gustavo Petro is an outspoken leftist Colombian senator who is well known for his opposition to Uribe, but last year he publicly condemned the FARC for its drug trafficking and its human-rights abuses. He attributed Chávez’s position to naïveté. “The FARC has latched on to Chávez and his good will because it is in need of political varnish,” he told me. “It behaves like an occupation force, and has abandoned attempts to win over a base of support among the civilians. It actually kills more indigenous Colombians than any other armed group in the country today. Chávez doesn’t accept any of this. He is a romantic. If he sees people he thinks are ‘revolutionaries,’ Chávez salutes them and says, ‘At your service!’ ”

In official circles in Caracas, I found a near-total disconnect with the mood in Colombia. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Nicolás Maduro, dismissed the public’s support for Uribe as the product of “a media dictatorship, with the means of communication in the hands of the most rancid, racist, retrograde oligarchy on the continent.”
So Chávez's plan, such as it was, depended on a way-out-there misreading of Colombian reality, one that resolutely refuses to accept that "Democratic Security" is now a national consensus over there, that Uribe's approval rating seldom dips below 80% (and would probably come in well above that if you took a poll this week), and that FARC-and-friends are reviled by virtually everybody.

We need to keep things in perspective: Chávez's continental project was always more desvarío than strategy. Even in its less insane variant, the whole notion that he could somehow get Colombians to elect a FARC-coddling commie like Piedad Córdoba president was about as hare-brained, in the Colombian context, as it would be in our context if Uribe somehow got it into his head that he could position Alejandro Peña Esclusa to win the 2012 election.

So it wasn't much of a plan, but it was a plan - with the emphasis on the past tense here, because the real significace of yesterday's rescue (from a Venezuelan point of view, at least) is that it has now utterly collapsed. Operación Jaque left FARC looking against the ropes, Chávez looking irrelevant and Piedad Córdoba looking more likely to end up in jail than in Casa de Nariño.

For FARC, it may only have been check, but for Chávez's Espada de Bolívar shtick, it's check mate.

An icon is born

Juan Cristobal says: - Amidst the shuffle of news following the release of the 15 hostages in Colombia, the two things that have stayed with me the most are Ingrid Betancourt's brilliant speech last night on the tarmac of CATAM Air Force Base and her words later in the day in Bogotá's Palacio de Nariño (Colombia's Miraflores).

Showing a hostage release is trickier than you might think. The hostages themselves will obviously be elated, as will be their relatives, but handle it wrong and you can send all the wrong signals. At its worst, you end up putting the hostages on a stage, manipulating them for political purposes. The last thing we needed was another "circus", to paraphrase Ingrid.

But yesterday I didn't see any of that. What I saw was an eloquent, smart woman, a survivor, and a political lioness.

Betancourt didn't miss a beat. Once an anti-establishment crusader, she now stands squarely with the Colombian military. While her mother has bad-mouthed the Uribe administration for years, Betancourt was clearly giving Uribe all of the credit for this, and signalling she is still interested in serving Colombia. Long-forgotten are the days when she accused Uribe of "tolerating murder as a way of fighting the guerrillas."

She also hinted at the indignities of her captivity, how she has felt like a pawn in the hands of FARC all of these years. And in a remarkable statement, she asked Pres. Chávez to respect Colombian democracy. She added she was happy that Alvaro Uribe, the man she was running against in 2002 when she was kidnapped, had been elected instead of her.

This was not lost on Uribe's enemies. In an incredibly-timed decision, last night Colombia's Constitutional Court decided they were not going to review the legality of Uribe's 2006 re-election.

Heartfelt, sincere, historic, and incredibly astute - it was Ingrid's "por ahora" moment.

July 2, 2008

Ingrid! [Updated]

Quico says: Much as I like to play the detached, analytical, curmudgeonly type, I can't deny the wave of relief and joy that swept through my body just now as I learned that Ingrid Betancourt has been rescued by the Colombian army after a seven year ordeal in the jungle.

Thank heaven. After following the news of her kidnapping for all these years, didn't we all feel like we got to know her a little? Who among us didn't feel invested in her case, like a bit of our humanity was being held hostage out in that jungle along with her?

Today, she's free, and we all beathe a little easier for it.

Now, then: that's as much mushy stuff as you'll get out of me all year.

On to my favorite game: Compare and Contrast, headline edition.

El Universal (Caracas): Rescatan a Ingrid Betancourt y a otros 14 rehenes de las FARC

BBC: Betancourt 'rescued in Colombia'

El Mundo (Madrid):
Ingrid Betancourt y otros 14 rehenes, rescatados por el Ejército colombiano

Miami Herald: Colombia: 3 Americans, Betancourt rescued

El Tiempo (Bogotá): Rescatada Ingrid Betancourt, los 3 estadounidenses y otros 11 secuestrados de la Fuerza Pública

VTV (Venezuelan State TV):
Liberada Ingrid Betancourt y otros 14 retenidos

Spot the difference?

Update: A reader sends this in...
Subject: VTV .. even worse than you think.....

I just watched the early evening news on VTV, and the treatment was, "FARC liberated Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others through a Colombian army operation..."

It didn't get any better. Every other phrase was a dig at Uribe or a snide comment of one kind or another. They clipped Ingrid's comments on Chavez/Correa's mediation being "very important" just before the "but..." that introduced the unequivocal condition that it needed to be done "respecting Colombian democracy" and the frase lapidaria .. "el pueblo colombiano elected Presidente Alvaro Uribe, it didn't elect FARC". (To its credit, ABN reported the full quote.)

...and these are the people that want to give us lessons in journalistic ethics. Even as we speak, Izarrita is telling the non-aligned nations that Telesur should be their voice.

July 1, 2008

What Primero Justicia wants, Part III: Tackling crime

Juan Cristobal says: - This is the third part in a multi-part post on the main proposals of the opposition’s political parties. The first two parts of this exclusive excerpt on Primero Justicia's platform dealt with oil and the justice system.


Crime – the biggest problem facing Venezuela. It’s consistently been ranked voters’ top concern for quite some time. It affects everyone, everywhere, in a myriad different ways.

It’s a huge deal.

It’s also really, really difficult to solve. Why has Venezuela turned into such a violent society? It’s hard to say. Explanations are a dime a dozen, and none of them are entirely right. And while politicians may occasionally fret about how crime has soared, many of them haven’t the slightest clue about where to begin.

The following paragraphs lay out Primero Justicia’s proposals for solving the crime problem.

The diagnosis.-

Everyone has a crime story to tell. In the last few decades, we have become a nation under siege. We live behind bars while criminals roam our streets. Instead of having professional cops, we have corrupt, politicized police forces.

Poverty is not the main cause. There are many poor countries in the world that are nowhere near as violent as ours. While it is true that inequality and social exclusion undoubtedly play a role, Primero Justicia believes these simplistic explanations are a cop-out, a way for governments to convince the public that there is no short-term or medium-term solution to the problem. Blaming crime on poverty is what lazy politicians do.

It’s also ironic that poverty is singled out as the main culprit, when in fact the poor are the main victims of crime. Our newspapers are usually filled with horror stories of murder sprees in our barrios. People in poor neighborhoods live in fear, and few dare go out at night. Poor people are usually the victims of such random murders the press likes to call “confrontations between the police and gangs”, but which in fact mask the ugly truth of random human rights violations.

In the last nine years, more than 100,000 Venezuelans have been murdered. There are more than 2 million illegal firearms in our barrios. In 2006, more than 1,000 people died for “resisting the authorities.” That same year, our homicide rate stood at 45 people per 100,000 inhabitants. 200,000 people die in the world each year as a consequence of gunshot violence in non-conflict countries (i.e., countries not at war) – 1 in 17 of them died in ours.

The resulting violence is further fueled by the fact that crimes go unpunished. According to the Central University of Venezuela, only 7% of all murders end in someone being sentenced. There were 5,520 deaths at the hand of military or police personnel between 2000 and 2005, yet only 88 people have been sentenced to jail time for these crimes.

Part of the problem is that there aren’t enough prosecutors. Venezuela has roughly 5 prosecutors for 100,000 people, but other Latin American countries have many more: Costa Rica has 7.1, Colombia has 7.8, the Dominican Republic has 8 and El Salvador has 9.9.

Another part of the problem is that there aren’t enough police officers. According to the government there is a deficit of 36,000 police officers, something they are not doing much about.

The proposals.-

Primero Justicia believes the first thing that needs to be tackled is having a better, larger police force. This is easier said than done – but at least, on this topic, they can point to their hands-on experience in the municipalities they have run.

Some of the things that work at the municipal level and that they propose at the national level include: increasing the police force’s budget, improving mechanisms for selecting and evaluating officers, separating good cops from bad cops, increasing police salaries, giving police officers better preparation by signing agreements with universities and technical institutes, and giving them better equipment. The goal is to increase the number of police officers by 6,000 per year in order to erase the deficit in 6-8 years.

One of the key aspects of their proposal is to turn police corps into preventive rather than reactive forces. In order to accomplish this, they propose increasing the use of technology and assigning more officers to critical crime areas. They also propose a substantial decrease in the number of police officers assigned to serve as bodyguards to politicians. They will emphasize the education of police officers, their salary and the benefits they, and their relatives, are entitled to.

Local police forces should become “community polices.” In order to achieve that, they propose upgrading their technology so that areas where crimes are committed are quickly identified. They also propose creating a fund to distribute among states and municipalities that show the best results in tackling crime.

Primero Justicia does not appear to be dogmatic about the decentralization of police forces. It recognizes the need for an effective national police force, and at the same time, it highlights the importance of strengthening local police forces. The responsibility of the national force should be tackling organized crime, and in coordinating and working with local law enforcement. They come out in favor of civilian police forces, and of reorganizing the DISIP and CICPC so that their main focus is investigating and solving crimes.

The platform discusses the importance of giving the victims of crime better access to information. To that end, they propose a Unified System for Violence and Safety (SUIVI), where victims can follow the course of their cases with the help of law students and other trained personnel. They also propose widening the available network for tips related to criminal activity.

Any proposal for fighting crime would be incomplete if it did not include plans for disarming the population. Primero Justicia proposes decreasing the number of legal and illegal weapons in the hands of civilians with a system of rewards, and modifying legislation to increase penalties for illegally carrying a weapon. The disarmament program must include the public destruction of guns, as well as the creation of a national database to track weapons.

In some areas they are less clear. For example, they propose making it easier to register a gun, but at the same time they propose an increase in the minimum age necessary to be able to carry one. They also propose implementing testing and medical certification procedures for gun permits.

One thing they emphasize is the rescue of public spaces taken over by criminals. This includes increased patrolling in certain areas, such as schools or parks, as well as better lighting of our streets.

The platform includes specific proposals to help spread civic values and create awareness of how communities can help prevent crime. They propose coordinating with community leaders on the best ways to tackle crime and how best to create citizen networks for crime prevention. They also propose integrating communities, churches, NGOs and experts and forming a National Safety Center, to keep track of crime-tackling programs and monitor crime statistics.

A special sub-section in the platform is dedicated to domestic violence. In Caracas alone, for example, a woman dies every 10 days a victim of domestic violence. In spite of the severity of the problem, the Health Ministry and the CICPC have stopped publishing statistics on the issue.

The party’s platform proposes reversing this. Their proposals range from changes in the law to increased penalties for domestic violence. They also discuss helping raise awareness of the issue and supporting citizen networks. The goal is to increase the importance of the problem in citizens’ minds and create the mechanisms for women and children to escape violent situations.

The platform includes proposals for improving the jail system. The goal is to transform Venezuelan jails by promoting the construction of new jails, and the decentralization of their day-to-day management.

The proposals include strengthening the professional capabilities of the staff assigned to our jails, as well as the strengthening of the institutions that help reeducate convicts and ease their reinsertion into society after they have finished their sentence. In order to achieve this, they propose forcing the National Guard out of our jails and creating a special corps that specializes in jail safety.

Finally, they propose increasing mandatory jail time for specific crimes such as kidnapping. They propose a special kidnapping task force, with proper funding and increased international cooperation.


Any proposal to fight crime has to begin with a huge dose of humility. Nobody has all the answers, because nobody understands the phenomenon comprehensively. It’s not so much a public policy challenge as it is a cultural phenomenon. Like a thousand-headed beast, it’s not something that can be tackled by a single person, by a single organization.

Which isn’t to say that we should do as chavismo does – hide our heads in the sand and simply shrug it off as an unintended consequence of “poverty”, “exclusion” and other populist left-wing gibberish. Because while solving the problem of crime is a Herculean task and requires creative thinking, it is not impossible to solve.

I don't know about you, but my grandparents used to entertain me with stories of how Venezuelans used to be able to sleep with their front doors open, and how nobody had bars on their windows. It's up to us to put the pressure on those in charge so that we may once again become that country.

June 30, 2008

Gobble gobble

Juan Cristobal says: - After last December's referendum defeat for Hugo Chávez, Venezuelans reached a consensus, something we don't typically do. Whether chavista or not, we all agreed that one of the factors that hurt the government the most was the increased scarcity in basic staples such as milk, chicken and beef.

Conscious of this Achilles' heel, the government took the problem head on. The result is that the last few months have seen scarcity decrease, although sporadic shortages still appear.

One of the first things the government did early in the year was to increase the regulated prices of many basic staples. As most of you know, the Venezuelan government controls the prices of everything from milk to salaries to apartment rents, and it has been gradually announcing price increases on many of these items.

The other thing the government has done is increase the allocation of dollars to import food. According to ODH, a local consultancy, in the first five months of 2008 food imports totaled US$4 billion, a whopping 113% increase on the same period of last year. While a portion of this can be explained by higher international prices for some food staples, most of the increase comes from higher volumes of imports.

According to their estimates, 26% of what Venezuelans spent on food last year was spent on imported food. They expect this percentage to soar to 50% by the end of this year. Needless to say, this leaves Venezuelans much more vulnerable to fluctuations in international food prices, as well as in the price of oil.

So much for "food sovereignty."

Lest you think the government is veering to the right, it is also tightening its grip on food supply. For example, it has created an extended bureaucratic web seeking to exert more control on the distribution of various food staples across the country, based on their estimates of the amounts Venezuelans should be eating. Apparently, it has begun regulating food distribution with a heavy hand, sometimes limiting truck dispatches if they don't concur with their estimates of where each staple should go to.

The government has also created a web of retail outlets called PDVAL, managed by PDVSA. These outlets are apparently causing an impact, although it's hard to tell exactly how much. Yet whatever the effect, it appears as though the growth of PDVAL has little to do with managerial efficiency and a lot to do with the enormous amount of cash the government has.

Case at hand: last year I took a lot of flack for discussing a Maracucha chain of supermarkets called En-ne. I posted a couple of pictures of people waiting in line to buy milk, and our Caraqueño-centric readers found it amusing that Maracuchos had their own chain of stores.

We'll see how long it lasts - the latest rumour in Maracaibo is that PDVAL is buying En-ne.

Increase imports, regulate distribution, raise prices to please local producers, buy supermarkets and open your own. With a government awash in cash and drunk on power, fearful of losing another election, anything goes. Expect more of the same.