About Ivan Briscoe
Ivan Briscoe is a fellow of the Conflict Research Unit, which is part of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague. After working as a journalist and newspaper editor in Argentina, France and Spain for over a decade, he now specializes in the study of fragile states, the effects of inequality and the emergence of organized crime.
Articles by Ivan Briscoe
Latin America is cleaving into two, with an abyss opening up in its centre. Yet it still manages to share between its polarised political segments some practical techniques in bullying and throttling. The 200 tax-inspectors sent by a left-leaning government to rummage in early September 2009 through the stationery of Argentina's main newspaper sent shivers through the country's press. The jackboots later that month on the stairs of Radio Globo in Honduras showed how a proper dictatorship would do the job of cutting off a media outlet, under the aegis of an impromptu state of siege.openDemocracy writers assess Latin American politics in 2009:
Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)
George Philip, "Hugo Chávez, oil, and Venezuela" (20 February 2009)
Adam Isacson, "Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009)
Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march" (20 March 2009)
Justin Vogler, "Chile: the politics of patriarchy" (1 April 2009)
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, " Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change" (15 April 2009)
Enrique Krauze, " Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: a leader's destiny" (1 May 2009)
Arthur Ituassu, "The price of democracy in Brazil" (21 May 2009)
Ismael Moreno, "Honduras: behind the crisis" (1 July 2009)
Sergio Ramírez, "Nicaragua: between revolution and democracy (5 August 2009)
Adam Isacson, "Honduras: time to choose" (23 July 2009)
Justin Vogler, "Chile always surprises" (17 August 2009)
Arthur Ituassu, "Brazil, the United States and Chile: military ghosts" (21 August 2009)
The muzzle did not keep Globo silent for long. While loyal TV stations and almost all the country's 130 media outlets continued to announce the onset of the evening curfew with a medley of Caribbean marimba, Globo migrated to the internet. First with folk music, then through digitally remastered voices mocking the patriotic oligarchs as they sobbed over their loss of United States visas. Now it is back to reporting as before.
What many expected to be a relatively tranquil year in Latin American politics - in part because there were relatively few elections, in part because time was needed to draw the poison of the George W Bush presidency - has instead brought into sharp focus the ideological divide across the continent. The issue of power over the media has become a shaping symbol of this fracture.
When the fixation began is not easy to say. The media corporations that boomed in the 1990s, spreading their eagle wings over the written and audiovisual spectrum, did not - unlike much of the broadsheet press - take an instant dislike to the new left-leaning cohort. Nor did the radical leaders mount an immediate foray into their territory: former Argentinean president Néstor Kirchner favoured the Clarín group's ambitions for dominance in cable television, while Hugo Chávez's spurt to fame came with a one-minute speech of surrender in front of the nation's cameras. By 2007, he also showed himself willing to barter with the Venezuelan media magnate and coup-monger, Gustavo Cisneros, whose Venevisión channel was duly reoriented towards light entertainment and baseball.
As for the conservatives and the right, a confidence in the ability to sway the mass media when it truly mattered immunised them to its daily probing. For Carlos Menem in Argentina and Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, or disastrously for Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil and the Ecuadorian populist rock musician Bucaram, the exhilaration of self-advertising brought with it a riptide of incriminating details, half-tolerated, from the serious side of the media spectrum.
Pablo Escobar's mistress, Virginia Vallejo, may not automatically qualify as a reliable witness as to the narco-trafficking business of the 1980s, but one grain of truth in what she says of Uribe - published in a book, Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar, that has been excerpted and pored over in the Colombian media - would surely be fit to imperil his presidency. It should also be said that the lack of prior censorship has been more than made up, in Colombia and Mexico, by the ensuing threats of mercenaries and psychotics; these countries remain the chief killing-grounds of the press.
Elsewhere, those of the region's oligarchs busy repackaging themselves in search of political power have become skilled in deploying the TV spot's capacity for cloying superficiality. True, the results have varied: Álvaro Noboa (Ecuadorian banana tycoon) and Eduardo Montealegre (Nicaraguan banker) failed in their effort to use the media as a trampoline to the presidency (rumour had it that the latter disinfected his hand before and after meeting the locals), while the candidate of El Salvador's rightwing Arena party lost to Mauricio Funes (leader of the rebranded, centre-left FMLN) in March 2009. But Panama's Ricardo Martinelli, an ultra-white supermarket mogul and believer in "small government", did ascend to power in May 2009; his $30-million TV election-campaign (slogan: "walking with the people's shoes") had shown him engaging in manual work - at least when the cameras were running.
The conglomerates carved
This easy coalescence of folksy sentimentality, consumer values and the mass media (television greatest among them) has not played easily to the left. It has exposed some of the characteristics of the new radical leaders - now, after several years in power, shorn of their novelty value; among them, a frequently intemperate attitude, a tendency to over-conceptualise, and an instinct to shake hierarchies as well as hands that can slide into the domineering.
The broadsheet press, with very few exceptions, was in any event suspicious of them from the start. It is now in the papers of the Grupo de Diarios de America, for instance, that the archetypal fears of creeping communism and popular militias can be found, or where the venerable liberal commentariat (Andrés Oppenheimer, the Vargas Llosas) pronounce. El Nacional, El Universal, La Nación, El Mercurio, El Tiempo, La Razón are, as their names suggest, saviours of 19th-century liberal values from putative power-grubbers and collectivist nagging. They are also pretty good newspapers.
On their own, however, these papers have been minor irritants. The new legislation of the kind approved by the Argentinean senate early in the morning of 10 October 2009 after a marathon session, or being concocted in Venezuela and Ecuador, cares little for the circulations of the elite press. It is not Clarín in newsprint that the visitation of Argentinean tax-inspectors wished to perturb, but the holding with a $6 billion-turnover that it has grown into since Carlos Menem slashed rules on cross-sector ownership in 1989.
Argentina's media bill bears the political imprint of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Nestor's wife and successor as president. But the team behind it appears to have been largely composed of professors and semioticians, who proceeded on the unarguable basis that control of the country's media is lopsided and grossly unfair. The legislation will - if its provisions are implemented - vivisect the conglomerates, cap TV and radio licenses at ten per company, deny cross-ownership between cable and free-to-air television, and reinforce the purchase of centralised regulation. League football will become a state monopoly.
This extraordinary intervention in the media will entail a frenetic year of bargains and sell-offs; for the head of the national library, Horacio González, one "social culture may be ending and another showing signs of emerging." In Ecuador and Venezuela, the battle is rougher and more bilious. The saga of Chávez's crusade against the TV channels that lined up against him in the 2002 coup is well known. But the "law on media crimes", tabled by attorney-general Luisa Ortega Diáz in July 2009 (and aborted soon after), appears to signal a new phase of meddling in and muzzling press work. To judge from the viper tongue of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the three bills to regulate the media in congress might be similarly harsh. The media, he has said, "do not defend freedom of expression, but the freedom to blackmail and manipulate."
The climate, in short, is darkening fast. Where the Argentinean bill may be looked to as a model of enlightened reformism, the reality is that of vast personal animus between the Kirchners and the private media, anchored in the farm-tax dispute of 2008 (see "Argentina: a crisis of riches", 17 July 2008). A question over Néstor's hugely inflated wealth in one recent press conference provoked his fury at alleged slander, ending thus: "I don't ask what [Clarín owner, Ernestina] Noble does with her money." At this level of supposed public-private equivalence, there is some fear that the law might be the disguise for a vendetta, and the result a media empire loyal to political command. Or, as Mexico's dictator Porfirio Diáz reputedly said: "For my friends, whatever they want; for my enemies, the law."
In response, a host of voices from the liberal as well as conservative part of the spectrum - international columnists, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and other media watchdogs, even the aides to President Obama - express their concerns. Are these the first steps on a ladder of censorship, ending in state control on the Cuban model? Will there be, as in the four state-run information channels of Venezuelan television, wall-to-wall ministerial briefings and Bolivarian lectures and land-award ceremonies, interrupted by sport? It is surely revealing, and deeply perplexing, that the phrase hatched by the Chávez government to denounce the opposition press, "media terrorism", has passed so readily into Latin America parlance that Roberto Micheletti, the bumbling conservative autocrat of Honduras, used it to describe news reports of the return of the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, to the country.
The case for reform
It is easy to dismiss the case for structural change in the media as part of a broader reform agenda. The people's choice, it would seem, has shaped Latin American infotainment. In a sector where public funding has been minimal, no outlet can keep going for long without an audience; the package of soaps and celebs and satirical playfulness with high officials is surely an expression of human nature.
But this ignores the entire architecture of the region's media. The sector is criss-crossed by lines linking it to major economic and political actors, whether through corporate tie-ups on one side or unofficial state patronage on the other. Brazil's Globo and Mexico's Televisa both thrived as a result of these favours; Argentina's two main newspapers have long been major shareholders, along with the state, in the company that supplies printing paper. Dictatorships trimmed the field further, ensuring concentration in the hands of a few.
The boom in communications of the 1990s in turn represented a zenith for business. It was here that the enriched conglomerates were able to distance themselves from the state and sponsor extraordinarily subversive revelations of official sleaze, while also promoting a peculiarly shopaholic outlook on life. By 2004, a survey by the United Nations discovered the effects: 65% of Latin America political leaders believed the media were the real powers in the region, far more than the government, congress, the courts and the United States embassy.
To a large extent, the simultaneous economic polarisation of the continent was eased by the possibility of maintaining these fragmenting demographics hooked to the television screen. Hugo Chávez's TV appearance in 1992, at the conclusion of his failed coup, was a perfect illustration of such paradoxical unity around the small-screen at a time of impending civil conflict. Argentina's implosion in late 2001 cannot be conceived without the mediation of live television, notifying viewers that the crowds were gathering in Plaza de Mayo.
But this cult of television provides a thin, brittle arena for a parody of public life: striated with consumer values, venerating images of the secure upper-middle-class lifestyle (Martinelli white, of course), and unable to generate what Alexis de Tocqueville captured in his beautiful description of north American political life, the "reciprocal condescension" between social classes. To move beyond this strangulated realm and prise open the media would require yet more radical change: democratising access, devolving content to forgotten regions, darker faces routinely on screen, deepened awareness of the real living conditions of the majority.
Slowly, without great fanfare or political oversight, moves are being made in this direction. Venezuela's largest selling newspaper, Últimas Noticias, inhabits the chavista worldview yet aims acerbic criticism at the government's achievements in the shanty-towns. Community radios have multiplied in the same areas. Brazilian soap-operas have long shuffled between social classes, and the rich are by far the nastiest characters.
Expediency vs ecosystems
But the substance of the current batch of reforms lies in the overarching political contest rather than the fine grain of media content. These bills and initiatives are simply too embedded in a project of political survival to stand out as valid cultural engineering (despite certain academic perceptions that try to make them so). The Argentinean legislation is emblematic here: the government has made concessions, but not over licence-caps and the formation of a new regulatory authority (with an inbuilt government majority). In this media power-play, the king is not content but such vital instruments of institutional power.
For Correa, the chief enemies out in the open: Teleamazonas and the newspaper El Universo. A recent column in the latter newspaper - entitled Camilo, el matón - insinuated that the president had links to the FARC guerrilla movement in Colombia, suffered low self-esteem, pilfered public money, spread violence, beat journalists, and was ready to shoot the average citizen. All in 500 words.
The flavour of these reforms derives from the intensity of a moment where sweeping plans are rudimentarily bolted on to stratagems of self-preservation in an era of unprecedented freedom of communication. Perhaps the Argentine bill is no more than the Kirchners' last gasp: the new deputies due to take their seats in December 2009 will terminate the president's congressional advantage, and might consign Cristina Fernández to a largely decorative role. Rafael Correa, Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales are certainly safer in power, but all are aware of the possibility that their deeds could be quickly reverted and their popularity imperilled.
It is also true that populist leaders can profit from the fire and antagonism generated by the media battle. Whereas dictatorships silence politics in the name of a spurious normality, the populist or radical left sees political intention in every space and shape - and needs to preserve internal enemies (and external foes too, where they present themselves or can be pressed into service, most notably from a Cuban standpoint). But in neither case does the logic of preservation or mobilisation match the vague promise of diversity and democracy that the media bills tout.
These reforms, driven by closed presidential circles, seem numb to the real ecology of the mass media. Interestingly, it is the veteran journalists on the Peronist left in Argentina that have sounded this note of caution: for author Álvaro Abos, a newspaper is "never an immobile block, but always a combination of signals, some of them contradictory." The media corporations that are so fearsome to the radicals are also composites, in which working journalists and TV directors bypass largely invisible rules at a vast remove from senior management. Their efforts carved out a space for political transformation, whether through satire (consider Caiga Quien Caiga in Argentina), revelation (the videos of Vladimir Montesinos in Peru, the Bishop Juan Gerardi murder case in Guatemala), numerous cases of high-level sleaze and an interest in long ignored backwaters (such as the fascistic enclave of Colonia Dignidad in Chile). The shotgun killing in El Salvador on 2 September 2009 of French documentary director Cristian Poveda - surely the only onlooker to have recorded the sexual economy and murderous baroque of mara gang culture in such detail (in his exceptional film La Vida Loca) - demonstrated the daring and obstinacy which Latin America needs if it is to expose and comprehend itself.
The seizure of ownership or the disciplining of private firms would do little to animate this working base. None of the public TV channels in Venezuela is remotely capable of criticism of the government or corrupt officials, although TeleSur is showing its teeth at the regional level. The media business may well offer an imperfect and biased capacity for oversight, but some of its attributes - a modicum of journalistic freedom, a slightly inattentive management, and a healthy interest in circulation or viewing figures - surely contribute more to the refoundation of the Latin state than clumsy, improvised interventions or oaths of Bolivarian service.
A little patience is required in this stampede. Even should the authoritarian instinct win out, the word will somehow get out. If not via the internet, then elsewhere. In Tegucigalpa right now, the favoured site for political messaging is next to the cathedral, which is whitewashed by the authorities every day as a result. One graffiti artist wrote the perfect riposte: "Don't paint, I'm coming back tomorrow."
Fidel Castro, reincarnated by some imaginative deity as a bedridden blogger, has recently annotated with the detail of a station-master the movements across Europe of the new United States president. Whereas decades of national and international history have been founded on the rock of antagonism between Havana and Washington, this Castro appears to have a mild heart-flutter concerning Barack Obama.
Only a very brave or simply suicidal person drives past the military barracks on the outskirts of Zacapa in a tinted-glass four-wheel drive. To do so would be to invite eyes to turn, news to pass, and a headlong collision to be invited with the powers that rule this small, idle and sweaty Guatemalan town.
Also on the global drug economy in openDemocracy:
Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (24 October 2005)
Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)
Paul Rogers, "The new opium war" (3 May 2006)
Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: living with drugs" (16 March 2007)
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "The global drug war: beyond prohibition" (4 December 2007)
Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope" (13 September 2008)
Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)
For most of its inhabitants, the supremacy of the drugs cartels is just one more innovation to their backwater status, though it is best to keep out of the hail of bullets when rivals meet as they did in March 2008 (eleven dead, spread over the car-park of a leisure-centre).
In Vienna, meanwhile, government representatives at the United Nations's Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) have once again decided that the effluent empire of crime must be fought as it has always been, though in a more coordinated and sophisticated fashion, which presumably means a police officer might one day book a serious narcotics offence in Zacapa.
The political declaration that emerged on 12 March 2009, in the teeth of opposition from Bolivia's President Evo Morales - literally so, for he chewed coca during his speech to the commission - will soon be forgotten. The concerns that it was supposed to address, however, will not die away so easily. The ludic verbal switchbacks of Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), cannot hide the reality: the criminalised drug economies are silting into durable structures, uniting public allegiance, political and official allies, money and reliable armed units so as to feed growing demand. They are quasi-states, in fact, straddling law and crime much like the policemen-anarchists in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. For the first time ever, a mere trafficker, Mexico's Joaquin "Chapo" Guzmán, stands on Forbes's billionaires list, one place above a Campbell's soup heiress.
The control risk
Some shaking of the legal superstructure which has overseen these outcomes could thus be expected in Vienna. There was Morales, for a start - a month after approval of the new Bolivian constitution, which sanctifies the role of coca in national life. European countries, led by Germany, declared their affiliation to the model of "harm reduction" for addicts, while the United States preferred to avoid a softening of the moral tone while acknowledging the merits of syringe exchange. In Vienna there was much chipping by activists at the prohibitionist pedestal: more opiates for pain relief, amnesties for drug "mules", and recognition of peasant producers' human rights.
But there the lines were drawn. The glittering dome of a drug-free world may be more distant than ever, but it seems hard for some officials to relinquish. Criminal cartels, various armed insurgencies and the $6 billion spent on Plan Colombia since 2000 - where production levels are much the same as ever - are among the "unintended consequences" of the war on drugs, the UNODC has argued. The Colombian expert Francisco Thoumi is among those who observe that it is a strange abdication of responsibility to disregard as collateral damage the handsome economic pay-offs directly generated by prohibition. The extraordinary Matrix Group report from 2007 on traffickers interviewed in British jails makes the issue very clear: arrests and seizures are worked by dealers into the price and final street quality ex ante. Mark-ups basically go wild over controlled borders.
Then there is the issue of harm. "Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled - they are controlled because they are harmful", Costa declared at the opening of the commission's sessions. This sentence is worth poring over, with a long pause on the seemingly watertight argument created by the repetition of that word: harmful. Drugs can indeed be harmful; yet in the absence of criminalisation, the harm is that of the user's health and the welfare of contiguous society.
The harm caused by "control" is radically different. It involves the construction of power, the redefinition of economic opportunity, and the victimisation of the vulnerable (at a cost of approximately €34 billion ($46.5 billion) in the European Union on the entire counter-narcotic apparatus, including prison capacity, and a similar price-tag in the United States). It is about violence and coercion in a way that simply cannot be compared with a drug habit - it is an institution, whereas drug use is a vice.
The life force
At this juncture, the relevant authorities of the United Nations system and the loyalists of prohibition throw out their terms with the glee of religion. "The world drug problem", as it is known in the political declaration made in Vienna, conflates health issues and the effects of criminalisation into a single shorthand: undesirable. Naturally, the only thing left to do with an amorphously unpleasant problem is to fight it, until a "society free of drug abuse" is achieved, preferably by 2019. If cartels and gangs profit from this onslaught, then it is not the fault of the fight but that of the original evil. To give into the drug cartels, says Costa, would be rather like accepting the inevitability of paedophilia.
The alternatives, however, may not be much clearer. Much as the Economist places its bets on legalisation, the ground-level horrors visited by trafficking cartels in Mexico, and the tortuous path towards building a regulated public consumption system that allows free access - so as to drain the alternative criminal circuit - while preventing a flood of new users, are sufficient to generate serious doubts. The halfway houses of decriminalisation and harm-reduction seem attractive, but how would they affect the chains of trafficking power and corrupted officialdom in central America or west Africa? Is there any way to recycle these policemen-anarchists without doing huge long-term damage to the countries involved?
In Zacapa, meanwhile, drugs are neither produced nor consumed. They are not a matter for conversation, nor for questioning. Instead, they are the unseen sources of power; not a disease, but a fast-settling way of life.
A couple of months before Latin America followed Wall Street into the whirlpools, Venezuela was experimenting with a curious, unnoticed and utterly revolutionary version of financial meltdown. "It is our resolve to keep on helping Argentina", beamed President Hugo Chávez as he placed his signature on the dotted line.
Ivan Briscoe is senior researcher at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), Madrid. He was previously editor of the English edition of El País newspaper in Madrid, and worked for the Buenos Aires Herald and the UNESCO Courier
previous articles for openDemocracy include: "Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (17 April 2003)
"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (30 July 2003)
"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell
" (25 May 2005)
"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America
" (18 October 2005)"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow" (10February 2006)
"Latin America's new left: dictators or democrats?" (28 September 2006)
"Never let me go: can Ortega reclaim Nicaragua?" (2 November 2006)
"Evo Morales: the unauthorised version" (16 January 2007) "A ship with no anchor: Bush in Latin America" (22 March2007)
"Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on" (2 April 2007)
"Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007)
"Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007)
"Latin America's dynamic: politics after charisma" (19 December 2007)
"From the shadows: Spain's election lessons" (11 March 2008)
"Argentina: a crisis of riches" (17 July 2008) "The mirror stage: Obama and the Latin left " (21 August 2008) - in openUSA The $1 billion of Argentine state debt that he bought were added to a previous $6 billion, purchased since 2005. From the skulking concrete of Venezuela's central bank, the bonds passed at lightning speed, sprinkling profits as they went: from the state to grossly overpaid brokers, to private banks and onto big investors, each time with the exchange rate into local currency climbing and the dollar value falling. At journey's end, an act of solidarity had sent Argentina's debt ratings into casualty.
As Venezuela's yearly electoral season approaches - this time in regional and local elections, to be held on 23 November 2008 - the bullish feats of Hugo Chávez's last year, from Russian naval exercises in the Caribbean to the expulsion of Human Rights Watch, sit alongside the stunned relics of a political flash-flood. The debt purchases are on hold, and cooperatives are out of fashion. Food prices, once controlled, have steamed upwards. And the great political force unveiled by Chávez in the hour of his zenith, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela / PSUV), is entering the poll facing a threat from the opposition in at least six states out of the twenty-three being contested, and from dissident chavistas in at least three more. At times, the president's enormous pedagogical patience with the faithful wears thin.
"Revolutionary discipline!" he insisted early in November before a red-shirted crowd in the state of Miranda as he got into campaign stride: ticking off the indolent canvassers, seizing their electoral lists, and phoning the voters himself.
The pollsters, however, point to a trend that has deepened since the middle of 2007. Chávez's hard core of loyalists, once close to half the country, has withered to around 20% of Venezuela's electorate. In between the devoted and the enemy stretch an ever widening ground of neutrals and "soft" chavistas, fearful of Venezuela's oligarchy but uncertain how much revolution they can take (see "Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?", 9 August 2007).
Losing the vote on constitutional reform in December 2007 in the hillside warrens of Petare or the district of Libertador signified the end of the Caracas bastions, worn down by food shortages, crime and low-level corruption. The movement's intellectual elites foresaw and welcomed a time of consolidation; Chávez duly granted their wish, proclaiming the need to "review, rectify and recharge" (the three r's, as they are known). For once, it seemed, the great man would sit back and entertain a debate for the eyes and ears of the world on what socialism in a time of plenty can mean.
Silence followed. There has been no internal debate, nor has the action stopped. Ideological fissures and impulses tremble across Venezuela every day: new state takeovers worth around $12 billion, twenty-six decree-laws on almost every realm of policy signed on 31 July, massive arms purchases from Russia. Every day the government follows Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new", even if the direction taken remains blurred, indecipherable, drowned in jargon and anti-imperial theorising. Meanwhile, as oil falls beneath $70 a barrel, the magic figure at which Venezuela can sustain its spending according to former central-bank governor Maza Zabala, the edifice is starting to look decidedly shaky.
In mid-summer, weeks after the package of decree-laws was passed at the stroke of Chávez's pen, passers-by outside a metro station in Caracas could hear a saleswoman's pitch, off-setting the deadening hot midday sun. "New law on transport" she plaintively called at the pedestrians as they shuffled from sunlight to the dark hollows of the underground. "New law on social security, new law on the popular economy, new law...."
The television screens run by the state drummed the message home: "In a revolution, the people's happiness is the law."
"Let the people decide"
For his critics, the about-turns of the last year simply mark an acceleration of Chávez's political hallmark - his ability to shift from the bonhomie of moderation to autocratic stampede in a matter of seconds. "One side of his brain is Girondin, and the other is Jacobin" observes the acerbic critic Teodoro Petkoff (see Jon Lee Anderson, "Fidel's Heir", New Yorker, 23 June 2008). Chávez's free-thinking promise on his creation of the PSUV has likewise swerved violently. "Enough of the little finger, the finger and almost always my finger", he told the adoring crowd in December 2006, "let the people take the decisions." One of the first creations in the party's structure, however, was its discipline committee.
The attitude towards the conditions that underlie the government's ten-year existence - the inclusion of the poor, the refoundation of the political system - verges on the insolent. In Venezuela, but also in Argentina, and to a disturbing extreme in Nicaragua, the triumphant left seems to be growing careless towards the integrity of its project. Bold reforms and domestic stand-offs have given way to a closed circle of self-supporting rhetoric, while the gritty details of state management are skated over in favour of euphoric announcements. Private pensions worth $30 billion are nationalised in Argentina for reasons that are unclear. In Venezuela, business "hoarders" are persecuted, 270 allegedly corrupt candidates are struck off the electoral lists, and the military is put on alert should the opposition win the state of Zulia.
As the state stepped in to rescue high capital around the world, Chávez made clear that his methods would be different. "Bankers can forget about us doing the same. I'll take over the banks, I'll expropriate them."
None of this should downplay what has been achieved in welfare or poverty- reduction, or in building communities that are now organised enough to express their irritations where no one gave a damn before. But unease stalks supporters' minds. In the editor's suite of Últimas Noticias, Venezuela's biggest-selling daily, traditional chavista sympathies are being sorely tested. The paper is immersed in local life, in potholes and murders, but its editor, Eleazar Díaz Rangel shrugs his shoulders, and seems unsure as to where the state is heading.
"No one knows how the three r's have been achieved. There's no general assessment of the errors and what changes to make. But it is clear that the person trying to recharge (reimpulsar) the process is Chávez."
For Juan Carlos Monedero, a Spanish associate of Chávez's leading think- tank, the Centro Internacional Miranda, the bases of a decent state and public life are still being laid in an oil-drenched society. But even he recognises the depth of concern: there is, "a metastasis of Caesarism", of total control of every detail of state by one solitary man. "It's time to make internal discussion a democratic requisite, to multiple dissidences", he wrote after the December 2007 referendum defeat. Yet none of this has happened. The prevailing note of the time is intellectual paralysis and political writhing. The question is why.What is happening in Venezuela?
openDemocracy's many articles on the Hugo Chávez years offer detailed, independent analysis and argument in the interests of informed understanding.
They include:Jonah Gindin & William I Robinson,
"The United States, Venezuela, and "democracy promotion" (4 August 2005)
Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela" (2 March 2006)
George Philip, "The politics of oil in Venezuela" (24 May 2006)
Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez's provocative solidarity" (14 June 2006)
Phil Gunson, "Bolivarian myths and legends" (1 December 2006)
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007)
George Philip, "Hugo Chávez at his peak" (28 March 2007)Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez: yo, el supremo" (13 April 2007)
Julia Buxton, "The deepening of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: why most people don't get it" (4 May 2007)
Stephanie Blankenburg, "Venezuela: a complicated referendum" (4 December 2007)
Adam Isacson, "The Colombia - Venezuela - Ecuador tangle" (17 March 2008)
Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: questions of leadership" (25 September 2008)
Power and betrayal
General Raúl Isaías Baduel is widely regarded as a privileged observer of this process. In the founding myth that Hugo Chávez has propagated of his rise to power, Baduel is there - one of the four soldiers who took a revolutionary oath in 1982 under the Samán de Güere, the tree where Simon Bolívar is said to have rested before routing the Spaniards in 1821. Twenty years later, Baduel led the campaign to rescue Chávez from a coup, commanding the helicopters that brought the exile back to Caracas. Until 2007, few had shown such unbending loyalty.
In an office given to him by a public-relations executive, Baduel is setting out on the next, uncertain stage of his career - that of insider turned antagonist. Hunched in his blazer, recovering from a cold, the general recounts the troubles he has just had: pincered between two cars a few weeks before, his vehicle was shot at four times. "I could see the hand of a foreign government", he says.
In July 2007, Chávez sacked Baduel as defence minister. Relations between the two had long soured: "In 2005, I began to perceive deviations in the project that began under the Samán de Güere." Baduel's tone deepens as he finds words to express the abomination. "It became ever clearer that we were facing a project called 'socialism of the 21st century', which was never properly defined, which was only the repetition of basic slogans empty of content, and which was aimed at sustaining the única y personalísima (nothing but the personal) ambition of President Chávez to become life-president of a Venezuela that grows ever poorer."
Chávez, having been saved from the opposition's battering-rams, has arguably transformed empathy with the poor into self-identification with the people, and finally into conviction that he himself incarnates the general will - that his next caprice is in fact history's iron law. It is not that simple, of course; while Fidel Castro once represented himself as a kind of host of the Cubans' will, Chávez sings, coddles and back-slaps. He is funny. But his absolute power is also lonely, paranoid, and surrounded by an echo-chamber of sycophants.
For Agustín Blanco Muñoz, the political scientist who interviewed Chávez on many occasions in the 1990s, the circle around Chávez has boiled down to half a dozen figures. These include powerful leaders and minister, such as Miranda state governor Diosdado Cabello, finance minister Ali Rodríguez and former vice-president José Vicente Rangel; some, such as Rodríguez, the lynchpin of victory over the general strike in 2002-o3, are brilliant strategic minds. But these are working partners, not the whisperers in Chávez's ears.
The story of his intimate allies, on the other hand, is one of betrayal. Of the three fellow soldiers at the oath-taking of Samán de Güere, one is dead and the other two are turncoats. Luis Miquilena, former head of the constituent assembly in 1999, recently warned that Chávez is "loyal to the traditions justifying totalitarian dictatorship." According to the most respected biography of the president, dozens of friends and allies have turned away, citing their exasperation at Chávez's thirst for power.
Creating a "new man"
Yet it is Venezuela's political moment that has made Chávez into such a towering figure of the regime. The collapse of the opposition and of intermediate democratic institutions, the vertiginous circuits of community-to-president communication, and the establishment of an amorphous mass movement - processes that the president has followed as well as pushed - have created a huge gap between leader and followers. Into this space, no powerful dissident can last for long: there is no platform, no institution, and most importantly, no independent source of resources that is not derived from the oil state (see "Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow", 10 February 2006)
Díaz Rangel's observations in this respect are telling. The call to debate made by Chávez fell flat on its face, but not because a paranoid president snuffed out the effort. "Ideological differences exist, but they are not discussed. Why? Because the centre is Chávez, and it's impossible to chafe the president due to the enormous power that he has compared to everyone else."
Instead, the factions within chavismo prefer to battle for their share of the petroleum pie. Here, the disputes can be vicious even as their content is threadbare. Thus Venezuela, supposedly a "low-intensity democracy" or "quasi-dictatorship", is fielding over 8,000 candidates in the coming elections, from 786 political groupings. "This is not an election", quips Blanco Muñoz, "it's an electoral bender."
Half an hour through clogged traffic from the central bank, a virulent form of internal criticism can nevertheless be found. On the inclines of Sarria, a lower-middle-class suburb of mechanics and thick bundles of hanging cable, discontent with food shortages or crime has mutated into doctrinal purity. The demand is not for a new government, but a "new man".
In a roomy house next to a petrol station, Concepción Alzuru and colleagues in Radio Libre Negro Primero, one of 270 community stations across the country, work to animate the revolution by covering the activities of dozens of community councils and party battalions. Tall and serene, Alzuru is something of a star: his fluid and utterly confident diagnosis brooks no half-measures. "What we have here is 100% democracy," he says. "That said, there are people who are not revolutionaries but who live from the revolution. The next step will involve everyone becoming less egocentric. In many ways, this government has been too subtle."
Shaking up the state
The gap between the realities of state and the demands of the base has grown unerringly large. At their juncture, Chávez has revelled in his political mastery, while finding it increasing hard to satisfy both elements: that of a patronage-dependent, ineffective state and political structure, of the sort that sends Argentine bonds into a spin, and that of a radicalised and expectant base.
For Blanco Muñoz, the new solution to this, the essential structural dilemma of chavismo, is now being tested: "state capitalism". "The idea is to have a strong state, but give it an inverse meaning by putting wealth in the hands of the majority. But we know what this means - the creation of an enormous bureaucracy that simply becomes the new structure of privilege."
The emergence of this class - of bond-brokers, state contractors, governors and military officers - is already well advanced. Since early 2007, reams of evidence pointing to the historical failure of the corporate state in Venezuela have been ignored, no more so than in the takeover of Santander bank's local subsidiary (announced on 31 July 2008), which lifted the Venezuelan state's presence in the banking sector to over 20% without any particular renewal of interest in oversight.
As Víctor Salmerón, economic editor of the national daily El Universal observes, the path towards public owned banking has already been trodden: seven of them collapsed between 1960 and 1993. "The only bank in the country which is making losses at the moment is the state-owned Banco Industrial de Venezuela", he says. "But then, these banks are handled according to political criteria. If you want to finance land reform in Barinas state, then that's where you'll find the money."
Within the state, the experience of working under President Chávez is likewise that of sudden, spasmodic change - of the same battle between dependence on and impatience with the existing machinery. In the foreign ministry, where the breach between the inherited pro-Washington diplomatic corps and the new anti-imperial, Bolivarian mission is evidently vast, agitation is constant (see Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: questions of leadership", 21 November 2008).
One senior adviser to foreign minister Nicolás Maduro, a member of Chávez's close circle, admits he is exhausted: apparently the president is fond of reading official documents at night and demanding instant action. "His priority is politics over economics. As a result, political activity overwhelms our technical capacity - we have to create new structures to respond to new needs as we go, whether it is with Unasur [The South American Union] or Petrocaribe [the oil aid programme for the Caribbean, estimated to be worth $2 billion in 2007]".
"As the Cubans say, structural changes produce areas of anarchy", he adds. "Of course, the difference in Cuba was that they could use their weapons."
The new opposition
When everything is political and the Jacobin faction dominates, the historian of the French revolution François Furet observed, enemies are always waiting. "Like mythological thought, the objective universe is invested with subjective wills, which means culprits and scapegoats."
The Venezuelan opposition has long served as the culprit and the scapegoat, the local branch of empire and the enemy within. It is of course the class-based polarisation generated by the opposition in the coup and general strike of 2002 and 2003 that has enabled all criticism to be treated as a conspiracy to subvert the government. Since those days, however, chavismo has seized control of all state institutions, and the opposition has reached in defence for Chávez's own constitution (adopted in December 1999).
A diminutive blue version of this document is brandished ferociously by Leopoldo López, mayor of the Caracas suburb of Chacao. One of the 270 candidates barred from running for public office for nine years - in his case on a corruption charge dating from 1997 that has never reached a court of law - this 37-year-old stalks the mayor's office with a rabid grimace. Photogenic, dynamic and extraordinarily nimble in his convictions, López is apparently the country's most popular politician, a fact that may have influenced the comptroller-general's ruling.
For López, the constitution is the lodestone for Venezuela's future. Like many citizens, he wishes the revolution would stop there. "The problem is not with the new institutions, but with the appalling execution of policy, the corruption, the lack of balance between the public powers..... Only when three things occur will the institutional scaffolding work: when it is depoliticised, demilitarised and stripped of ideology."
The growing body of the new opposition rightly scents that here, in the middle ground of those supporting the chavista impulse but disregarding its manic excesses, lies the way back to government. Baduel, for his part, is not standing in this poll, but seemingly remains ready for the great presidential contest in 2012, with a similar message of balanced government and the armed forces as his key backers. "No less than 80% of the men and women in the armed forces are increasingly concerned over where the institution is going", he insists. On his table three prominent books illuminate the compass of his thinking: a tome on social policy, a homage to Bolívar and James Redfield's new-age humdinger, The Celestine Prophecy.
Should Chávez lose six or seven of the twenty-two provinces being contested in the 23 November election, he will find himself faced with a reinvigorated opposition at a time of dwindling oil revenues. Although he has pledged to order the tanks onto the streets and crush the political intruders, enlightened chavistas are hopeful that he may use the opportunity to cultivate the very same middle ground. "A period will begin in which all political actors will have to show their maturity", argues an optimistic Monedero. "The opposition will have to show they are sincere in terms of their promise to defend the constitution. And chavismo, for its part, will be obliged to open up to more internal debate."
In short, the first conflict-ridden decade will be over, and the construction of a new political identity in Venezuela complete. Or alternatively, the militarisation of the movement that began in 2005, and has spread arms to the community base through the national reserve and other militias along with a rhetoric of violent class antagonism, could be called on to meet its manifest destiny. It would be an act of the most extreme folly, the spasm of an expiring presidency, and the result of a terrible dearth of sound advice. In short, it will be the test of the central unresolved conundrum of the president's rule: is it the man or the movement that is in charge?
Last year, Time magazine made her the "Latin Hillary." It was a comparison which President Cristina Kirchner seemed to fancy, just as Germany was the country she wished Argentina to become. A few months later, bruised in the opinions polls and beaten in the convulsive struggle over farm taxes, she faced the press - for the first time in her presidency - and let it be known that Obama was her new idol. "I've never been as interested in a presidential election in the United States," she said.