Rudolf Hommes: “Citizens for Life” Another attack on an indigenous community
Jan 062009

In 1992, Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez sought to capitalize on a period of political and economic crisis with an attempted military coup.

Most of the U.S. discussion of Venezuela centers on Hugo Chávez’s highest-profile actions. His rhetorical bluster. His efforts to get himself re-elected indefinitely. His consolidation of executive power. His relationships with Russia and Iran.

Are these concerns well-placed? Several issues that Chávez’s government is not attending to – or is addressing poorly – are perhaps even more worrisome for Venezuela’s stability, as well as the region’s security.

  • Public security. Venezuela’s crime rates have worsened to some of the worst levels in Latin America, and by extension the world. The December 3 Christian Science Monitor reported, “Since president Chávez was elected in 1998, the homicide rate in the capital has more than doubled from 63 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants to 130 today. The country has experienced a parallel spike: from 20 to 48. That compares with a homicide rate in the US of 5.6.” Venezuela’s murder rate has exceeded Colombia’s since 2004. According to official data, meanwhile, the number of kidnappings increased from 44 in 1999 to 382 in 2007. Most are in states that border Colombia.
  • Narco and organized crime. Though Venezuela says it has destroyed 230 clandestine airstrips last year and increased seizures 60 percent since 2005, a huge amount of Colombian cocaine is being transshipped through Venezuelan national territory. Even if one disputes the U.S. government’s claims that as much as one-third of Andean cocaine passes through Venezuela, even a lower figure like 20 or 25 percent should be cause for great worry about the presence and power of wealthy organized-crime syndicates. While drug-related violence has not reached northern-Mexico levels, Venezuela is now seeing troubling incidents like the January 2008 gangland-style murder of Wilber Varela (alias “Jabón”), one of Colombia’s top narcotraffickers, in the resort town of Mérida.
  • Insecure borders. Several journalistic accounts over the past year have detailed the ease which which Colombian armed groups, particularly guerrillas, operate on Venezuela’s side of the two countries’ common border. Debate continues about whether the presence of groups like the FARC owes to (1) the difficulty of policing the borderlands, (2) corruption in the security forces, or (3) active help from President Chávez. Whatever the reason, the armed-group activity is a major factor of insecurity that the Venezuelan government is not sufficiently addressing.
  • Civil-military relations. Speculation about discontent within the Venezuelan armed forces increased in 2007 and 2008 when President Chávez’s longtime defense minister, Gen. Raúl Baduel, moved to the opposition, and when officers bristled at a requirement that they salute with the words “fatherland, Socialism or death.” In the middle of last year, AP reported that one-seventh of Venezuela’s officer corps had either requested early retirement or had been relieved of formal duties as a result of their dissent. Relations with the military were further complicated by an April 2008 decree creating a “National Reserve” outside the chain of command, reporting directly to the president.
  • Chaotic politics. In recent years, the only constant in Venezuelan politics has been the President himself. At all other levels, in both the government and the opposition, shakeups and realignments have been common and frequent. Neither state institutions nor political parties have been able to consolidate themselves. Ramón Carrizales is Chávez’s sixth vice-president since the 1999 constitution created the office. The President carried out far-reaching cabinet shakeups in each of the last two Januaries. And Venezuela’s constellation of political parties – both pro-government and opposition – is gigantic, complex and constantly shifting. (See Wikipedia’s enormous list of active Venezuelan political parties.) This ever-shifting, uncertain leadership situation is cause for concern about whether Venezuela’s institutions are able to carry out their assigned roles, especially in a crisis.
  • Inflation. “Inflation is running at 36% in the last 12 months, the highest in Latin America,” the BBC noted in November. The exchange rate of Venezuela’s bolívar is fixed at about 2,150 (2.15 “bolívares fuertes“) to the dollar. On the black market, however, a dollar routinely goes for much more.
  • Oil. Venezuela now gets 93 percent of its total export revenue from oil, making it the absolute cornerstone of the country’s economy. An October Washington Post story included a dire prediction from a Washington-based consulting firm, PFC Energy: “oil must be at least $94 a barrel to ensure Venezuela’s macroeconomic stability this year and generate enough money to pay for imports.” In December, though, a barrel of Venezuelan crude sold for an average of $32.66. While OPEC cutbacks and the Gaza fighting appear to be reversing the slide, Venezuela’s economy is undoubtedly hitting a rough patch along with the rest of the world, as evidenced by yesterday’s cancellation of CITGO’s program offering cheap heating oil to poor U.S. families.

A steep decline in oil prices in 1986 sent Venezuela’s economy into a severe tailspin. A 1989 attempt by President Carlos Andrés Pérez to implement neoliberal economic “shock treatment” policies triggered days of intense rioting in Caracas. The official death toll of the so-called Caracazo was 276, but is widely believed to have been several times higher. Within three years, Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez carried out a coup attempt that sought to capitalize on popular anger at the continued decline in living standards.

A replay of anything like the Caracazo is an outcome to be avoided. But the list of concerns laid out here calls seriously into question whether the Chávez government would be able to manage a period of severe economic hardship and instability, especially after several years of rapidly rising expectations among the poorest Venezuelans. A breakdown in Venezuela – or even just a period of social disorder – is not in anyone’s interest, not even those of Hugo Chávez’s most implacable opponents. And it would of course have dire consequences for the entire Andean region.

For the United States, the conclusion to draw from this is plain. Instead of putting all the focus on Chávez’s outbursts, Ahmadinejad’s visits, or ambassadorial expulsions, the next administration had also better be prepared to help Venezuela. And to do so at a moment’s notice.

24 Responses to “Better reasons to worry about Venezuela”

  1. jd Says:

    Good post Adam. Just to add, if anyone out there is still doing themselves the disfavor of not reading the Caracas Chronicles blog, y’all better rectify! It’s one of the best Latin America blogs – English or Spanish – out there, period (along with this one, of course). In fact it’s one of the best single-subject blogs (insofar as an entire country’s politics merit the label “single subject) about anything. Unless you’re Chavista, of course, in which case better stick with Venezuela Analysis (or Aporrea), which can be decent is of much more variable quality.
    http://caracaschronicles.blogspot.com/

  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    So I don’t seem quite to understand the problem, Colombia’s cocaine is circulating and making it through Venezuela’s territory, and Venezuela is to blame.

    Well, that’s because according to recent news the president of the country originating the drug is going to be honored by Mr Bush before stepping down. Ain’t life a zilch? :)

  3. El Común Says:

    At first glance, Jaime has a point….why is Uribe not blamed for all of the cocaine originating in Colombia while Chavez is blamed for providing routes and airstrips? I even had several posts on my (now defunct) blog about this. But these are really two separate problems aren’t they? The inability of third countries (such as Venezuela and Mexico) to block drug running corridors makes them just as culpable as Colombia with respect to providing a supply of drugs.

    Nevertheless….the war on drugs is hopeless. Too much politics. Some sort of decriminalization is needed.

  4. Montserrat Nicolas Says:

    Adam:
    help in what way?
    best

  5. Jaime Bustos Says:

    El Comun, it’s all a question of games. People is playing games all the times. The so called war on drugs is another game, and let me tell you, a very mean and nasty one. Until you realize it’s not that the war on drugs is a failure, and it’s just what is meant to be, Mainstream media will convince you that all efforts are being put forth to stop the scourge. Behind the curtains, however, money generated by the business is sustaining an ongoing spiral of violence terror and grief, that the governments condemn paying lip service to the cause, but crossing their fingers hind their backs as they speak, as what remains after, goes to boost their emporiums and wealth.

    Everyday we hear that thousands of acres have been sprayed with pesticides in order to kill the coca crops, but only once in a while we hear that the precursors necessary to process the drug are being pursued or regulated, not to mention confiscated. It does not make any sense at all. AT ALL.

  6. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Mont,

    “the next administration had also better be prepared to help Venezuela. And to do so at a moment’s notice.”

    I think Adam means an invasion.

  7. MZR Says:

    Another amazingly one-sided and biased post by Adam regarding Venezuela …

    There are, of course, many problems occurring in Venezuela. It’s certainly not perfect! There are, of course, many problems occurring in the Latin American region. The whole region suffers from many different problems. Nonetheless, with specific relevance to this blog (i.e. Colombia and its conflict) I’m firmly with Jaime Bustos on this one – we’re blaming Venezuela for the cocaine which originates in Colombia and eventually comes through Venezuela’s borders? By the same logic, then, the US is to blame for all the cocaine that makes it through its border and, indeed, is actually consumed by its citizens. This part of the post seems utterly bizarre. Unless, of course, the post is simply referring to the problems which might be associated with this problem. The situation is, for example, far worse in Mexico… But no-one seems to be blaming its government.

  8. Will Says:

    Adam,

    You refer to Venezuela’s “chaotic politics”, but you give no mention to the progress achieved in the formation of the PSUV or the fair/competitive elections that took place in November in which this party dominated regional/local elections. The PSUV stands out relative to other parties in that it maintains a nominating process that selects its candidates, despite the fact that they are led by the “totalitarian dictator” Chavez. Also, the opposition obtained some important victories in these elections indicating the extent that they are increasingly committed to a legal, electoral process (as opposed to illegal coups and strikes). Finally, a barrel of Venezuelan oil cost $22 in April of 2002 and Chavez not only survived this low price, the attempted coup that month, but also the oil strike in December-February (2002-2003)…in fact his political position became stronger with each victory. Chavez’s government still retains a great deal of popular support and will probably win the constitutional change for indefinite re-election, not necessarily an indication of a government in “crisis”.

    Best,

    Will

  9. Kyle Says:

    OK, since I side more with Adam on this blog topic, I guess I’ll speak up a little. OK, does the cocaine in Venezuela originate in Colombia? Yes. There we have a problem for Colombia. Does cocaine travel through Venezuelan territory? Yes. Therefore Venezuela has a problem with territorial control. Just like Mexico has issues right now. It would be illogical to blame Colombia/Uribe for Mexico’s drug war right now; while if we got rid of all cocaine, those problems wouldn’t be there, we must not confuse this with culpability. Colombia, for example, cannot do anything once the cocaine reaches Venezuela. I don’t think that Adam is putting all of the blame on Chavez for the cocaine in Venezuela, just highlighting that the government of Venezuela is not doing enough once the cocaine does hit Venezuelan territory.
    Also, the war on drugs is a complete failure. But Jaime, just because we do not hear about precursor chemicals being seized does not mean it is not occurring. Check the world drug reports and the UN coca surveys for data about this.
    I also doubt Adam is advocating for invasion of Venezuela but just better governance. Though I cannot speak for Adam, it is an inference I am making based on the time I’ve spent reading this blog.
    Will, if it is not mentioned in the blog, Adam has overlooked it (intentionally or not) or may not see it as a problem. Also “totalitarian dictator” are your words.
    Marco, the US has blame in cocaine that circulates around in the US. It is of course consumed here. Also Mexico is at fault for its years of complicity with drug trafficking and its inability to protect its borders completely. Of course, again, my comments earlier to Jaime apply as well.
    The war on drugs is a failure, and cocaine flowing from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru through Venezuela, Brazil, Panama, the oceans, by flight to numerous Central American countries, through Mexico and into the US or into African nations into Europe is evidence of FAILED POLICIES. Therefore, each country has shared blame over cocaine trafficking. Yet, we should not blame ONLY Colombia (or Bolivia/Peru) for cocaine, as cocaine reaching its final destination represents a failure in countless steps of policy by numerous countries.

  10. Adam Isacson Says:

    Folks, the point of this post is that Venezuela simultaneously faces several severe problems on its near horizon, and that these problems hardly ever come up in the U.S. discussion of Venezuela.

    The time for finger-pointing has pretty much run out here. Anyone who wants President Chávez to succeed ignores or downplays these problems at their peril. Anyone who sides with the opposition should see nothing to celebrate here because of the instability and insecurity they portend.

    The drug issue is a clear example. This blog has said repeatedly that US drug policy has failed. But while it remains in place, Venezuela is seeing a huge amount of drug transit. It is almost axiomatic that drug transit brings with it sharply increased violence that is both organized and ruthless in character. Look at Mexico or Guatemala right now: with increased transit, Venezuela risks similar levels of narco-violence in the not-too-distant future. This risk is real, regardless of whether it’s because of a failed U.S. drug policy or descuido in Caracas (or both).

    And there’s nothing ominous about the United States being prepared to help Venezuela. The type of help would depend on the crisis. Balance of payments support? Direct economic aid? Leading or participating in multilateral diplomacy?

    Who knows. Probably something far less dramatic. But the point is that circumstances may force the U.S. government to pivot from an adversarial relationship to a supportive relationship far more quickly than the U.S. government is accustomed to moving.

  11. Chris Says:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=atCuTtQ6B1pM&refer=worldwide

    Help to Venezuela should be through USAID!

  12. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Adam, sorry for misinterpreting your prose, buy next time beg your specificity. On the other hand, and realizing that the blog’s main subject is Colombia, what have the good relations and monetary help from the US to Colombia accomplished: drug-trafficking-wise? Terrorism-wise? Poverty-relief-wise? Nada, more social turmoil, upheaval, a despotic government in connivance with organized crime, a disaster in human rights violations, money laundering as usual and many more aberrations. Is that what you are proposing for Venezuela? I doubt it but, I think it’s fair to analyze the possibilities.

  13. Chris Says:

    So, we should not give any aide whatsoever and let things play out? I am all for that… all of this aide we give every where, every year somebody claims progress, but decades pass and we’re still contemplating how to deal with the same problems.

  14. El Común Says:

    Another troubling aspect of the Venezuelan state is its high level of corruption, according to Transparency International’s 2008 rankings, Venezuela ranked 158 out of 180 countries (Colombia is 70th on the list).

  15. Jose David Says:

    so Colombia is 70 out of 180 in worlwide corruption, and far more “transparent” than Venezuela? I guess Yidis-politics, Para-politics, death squads, dissapearances and extrajudiciary executions don’t count…not a reliable source I’d say.

  16. Will Says:

    Kyle,

    You write:

    “Will, if it is not mentioned in the blog, Adam has overlooked it (intentionally or not) or may not see it as a problem. Also “totalitarian dictator” are your words.”

    Yeah, thats I why I wrote my post, isn’t one of the points of the comments section to point out omissions and or differences of opinion? I think Adam would be pretty bored if all we did was compliment him : )

    “Totalitarian dictator” was in quotes and was not meant to suggest that Adam believes this (I know he doesn’t), I was referring to a common and well-known (and silly) label applied to Chavez by the opposition.

    Best,

    Will

  17. MZR Says:

    Chris, the same USAID that continually funded (and supported in so many other ways) the opposition to Chávez who then proceeded to kidnap the democratically elected President and thus stage an illegitimate and, as it materialised, extremely unpopular coup? The coup that the USA failed to criticise or condemn? I don’t think USAID has a great future in Venezuela – a fact which is entirely its own fault.

    El Común, I will copy and paste parts of another post regarding the totally biased organisation called “Transparency International”. Don’t believe a word that organisation writes…

    ———————————————
    Transparency International [TI] has been heavily criticised for its bias against Venezuela and its state oil company, PDVSA, which received the lowest rank of 42 oil companies analysed in a 2008 TI report entitled “Promoting Revenue Transparency”. Why? Because the data was collected by Mercedes de Freitas, a staunch Chávez opponent who backed the illegitimate 2002 coup. De Freitas also previously headed the group “Fundacion Momento de la Gente”, an anti-Chávez group that was subsidised by the US agency “National Endowment for Democracy” (that one always makes me laugh. For example, it funded and supported an illegal coup against a democratically elected president: Hugo Chávez). And who are the main donors of Transparency International? Well, main donors include western governments and big business, including the US and UK governments. Also, ExxonMobil is a donor, a company which despises the Chávez administration. For links on donors please see link below for sources, although an internet search would also be easy and this information, i.e. sources of funding, is also available through TI’s website.

    From the Guardian:

    *****Transparency International [TI] denies that they pursue an anti-Chavez agenda. “We are not a political organisation”, their spokesperson told me. Despite this denial, TI’s Venezuela bureau is staffed by opponents of the Venezuelan government (pdf available from link below). The directors include Robert Bottome, the publisher of Veneconomia, a strident opposition journal, and Aurelio Concheso of the Centre for the Dissemination of Economic Knowledge, a conservative think-tank funded by the US government. Concheso was previously a director of the employers’ organisation, Fedecamaras. The president of Fedecamaras, Pedro Carmona, led the failed 2002 coup and was briefly installed as Venezuela’s dictator.

    The data in TI’s report was gathered by Mercedes de Freitas, the head of their Caracas bureau and a longtime opponent of President Chávez. De Freitas’ previous job was running a US government funded opposition “civil society” group. The Nation reported on her response to the 2002 military coup: “… on the night of April 12 – after Carmona suspended the assembly – Mercedes de Freitas, a director of the Fundacion Momento de la Gente, a legislative monitoring project subsidized by NED [National Endowment for Democracy, a US government agency], emailed the endowment defending the military and Carmona, claiming the takeover was not a military coup.”*****

    http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/calvin_tucker/2008/05/seeing_through_transparency_in.html.printer.friendly

  18. Chris Says:

    MZR, don’t focus too much on USAID, but rather on the administration of that time. USAID does what the executive branch & congress (in particular) tells it to do. So with different players in govt as a whole you have a different USAID.

    This was in today’s reporting:

    http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=324975&CategoryId=12393

    I haven’t seen the actual documents that were declassified.

  19. Milagros Says:

    These are not new reasons for concern. Oil prices? Inflation? Blah blah blah. This is the same drivel we see in the mainstream media about Venezuela every day. “Murder capital”? I’ve definitely heard that one, and it isn’t true. Venezuela has a lower murder rates than Colombia and El Salvador (not that that’s anything to brag about). There is certainly nothing new about trying to whip up more worry about Venezuela.

    What this post forgets is all of the stuff that has changed over the last decade. The old, corrupt and broken political party system of the pre-1999 period has been dismantled. There is nothing inherently wrong with having a long list of parties. The new ones appear to be functioning better all the time. The once fragmented and discredited opposition parties are beginning to propose propose actual policies and participate in elections, instead of simply try and drag down the elected Chavez government through coup-plotting. Chavez’s PSUV has become a mass organization with the potential to create new agendas within “chavismo.” Women’s participation in politics has increased thanks to the insistence of the National Electoral Council that parties must propose equal numbers of female and male candidates in elections.

    Inflation is at an eleven year high, but it is still vastly lower than it was curing Carlos Andres Perez’s day. Poverty has been reduced by 35% since Chavez was first elected, and extreme poverty has been halved (to meet one of the Millennium Development Goals). The social missions — in health, education, nutrition, etc — are truly having an impact on human development that is unprecedented in Venezuela.

    The end of this post is eerie. The U.S. would do best to simply respect Venezuela as a sovereign country capable of making its own way in the world. NOT be ready to invade — i mean, “aid” — at a moment’s notice. If you remember, those policies did not work out well for us in the past.

  20. MZR Says:

    But Chris, regardless of the administration, do you really expect the government of Venezuela to trust USAID after everything that has happened? I certainly wouldn’t. The left-leaning governments of South America seem to distrust the organisation too. One could say that USAID is simply a tool of respective US governments to further their ideological/economic/etc, etc, goals within the countries where it operates, and USAID simply masks itself under the banner of “US aid”. And I think your point above, arguing that the character of USAID changes depending on which government players are in power, alludes to this point.

  21. Chris Says:

    MZR… you’re right. It’s just a tool, not really aid per se and it’s purpose is to forward our own agenda (heck, part of AID’s stipulation is that the receiving country accepts OUR democratic priniciples). I think all govts know that… the question becomes: is it worth sleeping with the devil for the aid (whatever it may be — $$$, military, etc.). As administrations and Congress change then so do the requirements that come with that aid. Perhaps with Obama, Venezuela would find it worthwhile to accept our help.

  22. El Común Says:

    Fair enough MZR, your comments about TI are duly noted.

  23. Camilla Says:

    I think the post is good, I agree with it, up until its conclusion. Sorry, not one American life should be lost to perpetrate Hugo Chavez’s term in power. How would a president sell such thing? Hugo made his country a hellhole and now to be patriotic, American Marines need to clean it out? It won’t sell, I’m tellling you. I’d rather seal the country off and let what happens, happen.

  24. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Social control through common crime? Says:

    [...] a post three weeks ago, we discussed Venezuela’s persistent public security problems, including [...]

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