Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sunset in the tropics, Lake Maracaibo, 2005. Posted by Hello

Transparency first

I've been reflecting on my time spent in Venezuela and feel that the despondency prevalent at the beginning of my stay (November/December) is slowly lifting, with the government's unwitting help. Its recent blunders and scandals provide fabulous opportunities for the opposition to regroup -- this is what I am most curious and most anxious to see. Perhaps tomorrow's march in Caracas will be the beginning of the process.

I've also spent a lot of time thinking about how a democratic opposition could or should go about helping the Chávez regime dismantle itself. I think there are quite a lot of things that can be done, and they all have to do with transparency and communication. This should actually be the terrain of the political opposition, but is instead done primarily by bloggers. In this sense, their role is of the utmost importance.

The opposition needs to make use of the opportunity offered by transparency. One of its greatest weaknesses is that it is continuously on the defensive, allowing Chávez to take all important initiatives and permitting him to frame the terms of the national debate. One has to admit that he is masterful at this: the way he has split society and created completely new divisions has been all to his benefit. The opposition needs to turn the situation around and find ways to place Chávez on his back foot. Take the initiative and force him to react instead of the other way around.

Here's my recommendation to the opposition: use the concept of framing. Employ linguistics (i.e., use of the right terms and expressions) to show how Chávez is bad for the country and bad for its citizens. Above all, exploit the regime's blunders for all they are worth. Shine the light of transparency on the endless scandals, corruption and unkept promises, and never let up. Repeat it a thousand times if necessary. Take the Chávez administration to task for each street child left abandoned, each terrorist offered a safe harbour, for the money disappearing from public and private institutions, for the rubbish in Caracas, for the fact that Vargas is still a mess, for the endless violations of Chávez's own made-to-measure laws.

There is an endlessly bubbling fountain of material there for the opposition to make use of, and it never once has to invent anything -- just use what is on offer. It should demand transparency -- nothing more, nothing less. This is a playing field on which I can't see Chávez winning. Transparency is something he wants to have nothing to do with: if he denies it, he loses support. If he grants it, he also loses support. The opposition wins either way. The opposition should be scrupulously transparent about its internal workings (finances, meetings, decisions) and demand the same from the government.

It should use powerful imagery such as that of clear water or purifying fire as its symbols. When protesting, instead of banging pots and pans, citizens could carry candles at night -- to show that they want the darkness to lift. During the day, wear white clothing (colour of purity) and carry a glass of water -- anything that is transparent. Also, while maintaining the highest respect for Simon Bolívar, make it clear that we are living in the 21st century, not the 19th. Let the opposition take the lead towards the future and progress, and show that Chávez's view is backward looking, towards the past (not only Bolívar -- also Marxism, communism, Castro...).

Finally, the opposition needs to offer a credible alternative to Chávez's ideas of state and governance -- a concept based on freedom, transparency (which goes along with accountability), and wealth creation. Chávez is weak on all three fronts. Show a future that is better and brighter than that represented by Chávez, which can be seen real-time and in 3D in Cuba. And finally: ensure that the message gets through consistently to all parts of society, to the hard-core opposition as much as to the die-hard Chávez supporters. Democracy is about inclusion, not exclusion as practised by Chávez.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

FARC leader Granda being escorted by Colombian guard (photo taken from El Universal's online edition). Posted by Hello

A safe harbour for terrorists

On 13 December 2004, Venezuelan operatives, acting against the policy of their government and presumably motivated by a substantial bounty, captured one of the FARC's top leaders outside a Caracas café, took him to a town on the Colombian side of the border and handed him over to Colombian authorities. The FARC leader, Rodrigo Granda, was known as the Chancellor of the FARC and acted as a kind of international public relations agent and liaison to terrorist movements in other countries. (The FARC's official propaganda website can be viewed here.)

The Venezuelan government has been left with egg all over its face: not only was Granda comfortably resident in Venezuela, living in a pleasant house near Maracay with his family as well as in an apartment in Caracas, but he was also naturalized as a Venezuelan citizen, registered to vote in last year's referendum and state elections, and attended a revolutionary congress staged by the government at the end of the year. The government has been twisting itself into knots trying to get out of the predicament in which it finds itself. It has tried both defensive and offensive tactics.

In its defense, it has variously claimed that there was no information about Granda having entered the country, or that if he was indeed in Venezuela, he must have entered the country illegaly (Minister for Justice and the Interior Jesse Chacon, 28 December 2004), then, once it became apparent that he had been naturalized, that he must have been naturalized using false documents. The Miraflores autocrat personally declared Granda's citizenship null and void in an attempt to distance himself from the terrorist, but the problem appears to be stickier than that. The government has not yet seen fit to launch an investigation into those who naturalized him; I suspect it is because it was done with the knowledge and consent of the authorities. In one of the most comical moments in the world's legal history, the best that Granda's lawyer, Miguel Gonzalez, could come up with in his defense was that Granda, a top member of Latin America's primary kidnapping ring, had been kidnapped, that this was a crime against humanity, and that his client would seek to be returned to the country of his citizenship, i.e. Venezuela, for trial.

The Venezuelan government has found it impossible to justify the terrorist kingpin's presence in the country, and has moved on to the offensive: they first accused the Colombian government of "violating Venezuelan sovereignty" until it became clear that Colombian security forces did not actually act on Venezuelan territory (the issue still appears to be somewhat in doubt). They then redefined bounty ("recompensa") as bribery ("soborno") and continue to accuse the Colombian government of violating Venezuelan sovereignty by bribing its officials, which is curious because the Venezuelan government has also placed bounties on (non-terrorist!) opponents' heads in the past. The Colombian government acted with admirable restraint and issued terse communiqués in response to Venezuela's increasingly emotional demands. Venezuela overreacted by recalling its ambassador from Bogotá, freezing all trade and binational treaties with Colombia, hindering cross-border traffic, and demanding that the Colombian government publicly apologise for its evil deeds. The government is obviously highly flustered.

Venezuela claims that Colombia should have used the extradition agreement between the two countries as a basis for requesting that Granda be handed over, but presumably Colombia knew that this was going to be an unpromising route (they'd determined that empirically in two similar cases in the recent past, those of Vladimiro Montesinos-Peru and José María Ballestas-Colombia), so they'd decided to act on their own. Consciously or unconsciously, this might have been a masterly move: Colombia has now provided Venezuela with detailed information about another 7 top terrorists living in Venezuela, and the Chávez government is caught in a quandary: either it delivers the terrorists to prove that the Colombians should have used the extradition route to get their hands on Granda (thereby alienating the left wing within the party, as well as ideological allies abroad), or it keeps them in Venezuela, which will make it even more difficult to deny charges of offering a safe harbour for terrorists. Either way, Uribe's government scores points and Chávez loses face. (Today, he's been trying to distract from his humiliation by demanding that Colombia deliver some Venezuelan dissidents who are living as political refugees in Colombia -- dissidents who are not members of an organisation like the FARC, which employs bombings, killings, landmines, kidnapping, extortion, hijacking, as well as guerrilla and conventional military action and uses the drug trade to finance its operations).

Internationally, the consequences of the Granda scandal are also unwelcome for the Venezuelan Führer: either he has to break rank with the international revolutionary movements by distancing himself from movements such as the FARC, or he risks being labeled a helper of terrorists in the eyes of the USA, an unpalatable future considering that country's recent appetite for unilateral action against terrorists. In any case, the scandal means that some of the world's attention is back on Venezuela and that another bit of the true face of the Chávez revolution is being exposed. Chávez is losing some of the ill-gotten credit he received for being confirmed in August's referendum, and can feel himself slowly drifting back into the crosshairs of U.S. foreign policy. From the perspective of ordinary Venezuelans, this is a good thing because Il Capo tends to be conciliatory when he feels watched. It will be interesting to see how events continue to unfold on this story. Together with the investigation into the Anderson extorsion ring, which appeared to have links into the top echelons of the Venezuelan government, and the brewing BBVA scandal over secret accounts currently being investigated by Spanish star prosecutor Báltasar Garzon, the pressure on Chávez is currently mounting from several sides. Let us hope the opposition takes heart and revives to make the most of this opportunity.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Mangos on security spikes, Maracaibo, January 2005. Posted by Hello

Monday, January 17, 2005

Dulce et decorum est?

Here in Venezuela, the effects of Chávez's new censorship laws are being felt not only in the mainstream media, but also in the blogsphere. Regarding the MSM (an abbreviation I saw for the first time yesterday -- I wonder whether it will catch on), reporting on TV and radio stations has become extremely cautious, and criticism of the government has become muted. This is obviously what the Miraflores autocrat wanted, but it is clearly detrimental to freedom of expression as well as the efficiency of government in Venezuela. The media play an important role in society's by placing government's activities under scrutiny, thereby functioning as a anticipatory behavioural corrective. When they are chained or threatened, as is happening here, society suffers.

Bloggers' writings have not yet been addressed by Venezuelan media laws, but the revised penal code severely sanctions criticism of public officials and other forms of dissent by private individuals. Bloggers living in Venezuela are beginning to ask themselves how freely they can write, and how much they need to censor themselves in order to ensure that they will not suffer the consequences of an injust law applied arbitrarily by partisan courts.

Here's a suggestion to such bloggers, whose work I admire and support. Your writings contain two components. On the one hand, you collate information from numerous news sources and make it available in English. On the other hand, you provide in-depth analysis and opinion. Both components are indispensable and should not be given up. But you might want to consider posting to two separate blogs: one in which you post under your own name, and another where you use a pseudonym. Run the first as a fact blog, in which you bring together all the key information on what's going on in Venezuela. Back up your statements by quoting your sources in each case (as you've already been doing). This should keep you safe from prosecution, though in this country it's hard to be sure. In the second blog, vent your opinions and analyse the news for all it's worth, but keep your identity secret in order to ensure you stay out of the chavista's hands.

Is it dishonourable to post using a pseudonym? I certainly don't think so. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori may be a noble sentiment, but it is also an asinine concept. You can do far more for your country alive (or out of prison) than dead (or in prison), so don't sacrifice your life to a cause. Rather live to fight another day. Do whatever is necessary to keep on writing. Post anonymously if that is what's required at the moment, and then make your identity known once reason returns to Venezuela.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Fireworks in Caracas, December 2004. Posted by Hello

Still on holiday

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed great Christmas and New Year's celebrations -- I know I did (though overshadowed by the Asian tragedy). During the last few weeks and until mid-January, my access to computers and the Internet was and is sporadic. I'll be back with fresh postings at the end of January at the latest. Hamba kahle (go well), as we say in South Africa, and may 2005 bring you all that you wish for!