Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Fog of War

Laguna de Mucubají, Merida, Venezuela (December 18, 2010)

I recently posted on Google+ the link to an article by The Guardian's journalist Rory Carroll about the situation in Venezuela. The piece, in my opinion, is a fair account of what is happening in the country. I received a couple of comments from +Bill Stender on Google+ with links to articles on venezuelanalysis.com and counterpunch.org that offer a rebuttal to what is stated in The Guardian. I would like to thank him for the links. I think they contribute to the discussion. I however also think that talking about Venezuela from a purely geopolitic perspective can easily lead to missing important aspects of what is happening, which I believe is what the Guardian journalist is pointing out.

I have been following the situation for many years. My wife is Venezuelan, and her family has been squarely divided between "chavistas" and "opposition", as just about every family in Venezuela. Over the years I have been able to verify first hand how the social policies of the "bolivarian revolution" have significantly improved the standard of life of the majority of the Venezuelan population. This is the same people that the previous neoliberal governments had criminally neglected. Programs like barrio adentro and misión Robinson had a huge effect on health and the literacy in Venezuela. The program of microcredits directed to women, lauded by the UN, has lifted many families out of poverty. These programs are essential, and paying for them with oil money is the right thing to do.

I also agree that the opposition in Venezuela has his part of the blame, and not a small one, in how the country got to be what now is. Two coups in 2002 (inspired by CIA and Opus Dei, yes), refusal to participate to the democratic process in the following years and most importantly the lack of acknowledgement for the needs and aspirations of the majority of Venezuelans are not the hallmark of democracy. Calling for the outright dismissal of Venezuela's president Maduro is plain stupid, not democratic, and again ignores the existence of vast support he still enjoys by at least half of Venezuelans.

Both Venezuela Analysis and Couterpunch are however wrong in describing the current situation purely in terms of a US-led conspiracy. They see the accomplishments of the Venezuelan government through glasses that are way too rose-colored. The Venezuelan government has serious faults of its own for the situation to degenerate to this point.

Let's start with the economic situation. The currency control policies that the government has implemented are pure folly. One thing is to be against neoliberal market economy, and another is refusing to believe that a market exist. It is like negating the existence of the force of gravity: laudable intention, but sooner or later one hits the ground. By centralizing the exchange rate with an artificial rate (with the difference between the market and official values of the bolivar guaranteed by the government), it has created a terrain so ripe for corruption and abuse that the situation was bound to spiral out of control, with or without the need of an external conspiracy. People with the right connections to the agency paying for the dollars got very rich, at the expenses of the government and everybody else. Import of essential goods became impossible for the systemic delays in obtaining hard currency. This is the root cause of scarcity: the government did it to itself out of incompetency and endemic corruption. Corruption in Venezuela is clearly not a chavista invention, it has always been there; Chavez fault had been not being able (or not doing the effort) to root it out. The vision of Venezuelan economy  in Venezuela Analysis is overly optimistic (to be generous). While Venezuela doesn't have a significant national debt with respect to other governments, it has been insolvent with the private sector that has been importing goods in the country: the creditors may not have the recourse to appeal to the IMF, but they can stop importing goods in Venezuela. Hence the scarcity in the near future will became worse, not better, without any need of "acaparramientos" by dishonest merchants. And no, president Maduro didn't solve the issue of high inflation by lowering the price by decree: that was just demagogy and only helped emptying the stores faster.

Then there is the issue of the insecurity. Venezuela has always been a dangerous country, but I can tell from direct experience that the situation has gotten steadily worse year after year, even in areas that have been traditionally safer (e.g. the Andes). I could write many stories I have direct experience with, through my wife's family and friends, but this would take too much space in this post. I still don't understand why Chavez, with all his charisma, never tried to address the security issue. This violence is something affecting all Venezuelan. But while the higher classes can defend themselves with security guards and "alcabalas" at the entrance of their gated communities, this is not an option for the people living in the barrios. The collectivos may present themselves as the defenders of the socialist order in the popular areas, but in fact they act as criminal gangs imposing a mafia order upon their territory. The fatality rate in Venezuela has became similar to the one of a war zone, or of a failed state like Somalia after the collapse of Siad Barre. Why the government never acknowledged this as a major issue defies me: I recall a Venezuelan interior minister declaring that the violence is affecting only the gang members because they are just shooting each other. A similar attitude is criminal because it trivializes a serious issue that affects mostly the government's own supporters: stability and security are necessary to break the chain of poverty, and are sorely missing in Venezuela.

This bring us to the issue of the violence related to the current protests in Venezuela. As I mentioned in a previous post, student demonstrations have always been far from pacific sit-ins in the spirit of Gandhi's tradition. The confrontations with the security forces have however never before escalated to the level of repression demonstrated during this last week. It is not true that the government has demonstrated restrain: this morning the chavista governor of Táchira (the state where the student protests started) went on radio [audio in spanish] asking forgiveness for the violence perpetuated by the national guard, and made a point in asking the Caracas government to recognize that the scarcity in his state is a real problem, and that there are systemic issues in the exchange policy promoted by the government (which he described in economic terms similar to what I wrote above). The national guard is directly responsible for the death of demonstrators: the last victim was Geraldine Moreno, a 23 years old student that died after she was shot at close range in the face with rubber bullets by the guard in Valencia. There are plenty of videos showing the guard gratuitously destroying cars in middle class neighbors and shooting tear gas inside their apartments. There are documented abuses against the students arrested by the guard, including torture and rape. Despite those abuses, it is however not the national guard that is of major concern in Venezuela. The main problem are the paramilitary forces (motorizados, colectivos, tupamaros) that have free hands in terrorizing middle class neighborhoods at night. There is no evidence that these forces (as claimed in the venezuelanalysis article) are provocateurs sent by the opposition: on the contrary is not a mystery for anybody in Venezuela that these same gangs have direct ties with certain elements very close to the government. Chavez himself explicitly acknowledged in several occasions that these groups have been armed by the government as a safeguard of the bolivarian revolution. A government that condones violence against part of its population puts itself outside the principles of democracy, and is a shame for the ideals of socialism.

In summary, dismissing what is happening today in Venezuela as yet another imperialist conspiracy and stating that the violence is entirely promoted by an undemocratic opposition is very irresponsible. It would ignore the struggle of the Venezuelan people of all ideological colors, caused by systemic faults in a government that tolerates an unsustainable level of corruption, suicidal economic policies and a culture of violence that was never addressed and is now getting out of hand. The opposition has its faults too, but until both sides recognize the existence of each other as the legitimate representatives of a significant part of the Venezuelan population, there will be no progress, and the country will keep steadily marching toward the cliff.

Fog over the Andes, Venezuela (December 30, 2007)

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