A small quibble

I just wanted to comment briefly on Javier Corrales’ piece on Nicolás Maduro, the man Hugo Chávez has named as the PSUV candidate for president if he is forced to step down and elections become necessary. In general, I think he captures extremely well how Maduro would be different as a leader than Chávez and the challenges that he would face. What is striking about the piece, however, is the complete absence of any discussion of Maduro’s relationship with Cuba and the importance of those ties to him being named successor.

It’s hardly a secret that the Venezuelan government under Hugo Chávez has become extremely close to its Cuban counterpart over the past 13 years. Venezuela is often considered the new benefactor that, after a bit of delay, replaced the Soviet Union in supporting the Cuban state. Venezuela’s famous Barrio Adentro social program is essentially staffed by Cuban doctors paid for in kind by Venezuelan oil which the Cuban government is able to sell on the open market for a huge profit. Additionally, ALBA the economic integration club created in opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas was formed in Havana by Venezuela and Cuba before being joined by like-minded governments elsewhere in the region. Since Chávez was diagnosed with cancer, he has received treatment in Cuba despite having access to what is considered to be better quality care in Brazil. In this relationship, Maduro—who has been Foreign Minister since 2006—has long been believed to be the preferred choice of the Cubans, perhaps due to his civilian background and beginnings as a radical labor leader as opposed to the more nationalist chavistas who have come from the military like Diosdado Cabello. It is, therefore, striking for there to be such a large omission in Corrales’ piece since his relationship with Cuba likely played at least some role in his selection by Chávez and would certainly play a large role in his actions as president should he win election. As Francisco Toro explains, besides being great at staying in Chávez’s good graces, being part of the pro-Cuba faction of chavismo is among the only things anyone really knows about him.

A General Drug Problem

As it now appears a near certainty that Hugo Chávez will either soon resign the presidency or die as a consequence of his second recurrence of an unspecified pelvic cancer, it seems like a good time to give my two cents on the situation. I have already mused on this topic before, back when Chávez was first being treated, and I largely think things will play out in the way that I predicted; chavismo will certainly outlast Chávez and chavismo sin Chávez will have difficulty staying unified in much the same way that peronismo has splintered over the past five decades. I am certainly not the only person who has made that analysis of this situation but I have noticed that few people are discussing the impact of the military in this whole process, particularly in a situation where Chávez dies before an election for his successor can take place and the opposition wins that election.

In that situation, I see a chance of instability coming from the military because of the reported close ties between high ranking chavista officers and the rampant and growing drug trade flowing from Colombia through Venezuela en route to the US and Europe. In this context, the election of an opposition president in what amounts to a snap election (it would have to occur within 30 of Chávez permanently leaving office of dying) would put these officers in a serious predicament. Corruption is bad enough, but is so pervasive in Venezuela at this point that it would be nearly impossible for an incoming government to deal with even a fraction of those involved amid the other problems it would be facing in its first chance at governing in half a generation. Involvement in drug trafficking, on the other hand, is a much more serious type of corruption than skimming money from government contracts or the oil sector. These officers have far more to lose from the end of chavismo than many of its other beneficiaries, and in the short span between Chávez leaving, the election and a hypothetical president from the opposition taking office, they would have very little opportunity to cover their tracks or escape with what they can (particularly since fewer foreign governments would look sympathetically toward them). In such a situation, it’s not difficult to imagine how a few might attempt to block the new government as a form of self-protection, perhaps while claiming to be defending the revolution from the opposition and the incompetent civilian wing of chavismo that had just betrayed it by losing.

All that said, I don’t see this situation playing out. By naming a successor and so pointedly stipulating that the letter of the constitution should be followed, Chávez has indicated that he is more concerned with prolonging his movement than remaining completely in control until the moment he dies. It seems likely to me that he will, to the extent his health allows, step down with time enough to ensure that Nicolás Maduro—his anointed successor—gets elected. Even if he does die before then, I still believe that chavismo has the resources of the state behind it to a degree that it can win a fair enough election (i.e. not blatantly fraudulent enough to risk more than condemnation from a bunch of countries that chavismo disdains anyway) even without Chávez there to campaign. Beyond that point, with the economy on the brink, crime pervasive and the general unpopularity of non- Chávez chavistas, I see little chance that chavismo can win a subsequent election without becoming increasingly overtly authoritarian. By that next election, at least, those with the really dirty hands will have had time to prepare.

What if Chávez is really dying?

This post is perhaps a bit late to the party, but still seems relevant as it remains a developing situation, with Hugo Chávez undergoing a third round of chemotherapy, this time while remaining in Venezuela. For both supporters and detractors of his presidency, one indisputable fact over the past 12 years has been the centrality of Chávez himself to the political movement he leads. Much like with Perón in Argentina, while there is likely a movement without him, the cohesiveness of the movement depends almost entirely on Chávez’s personal leadership. As such, his health is of critical importance to any possible Venezuelan future. 

As I said before, I believe that chavismo will continue to exist in Venezuela as a potent political force long after Chávez disappears both from the Venezuelan political scene, but also after his death (whether these two moments occur separately or at the same time is a different question). In Argentina, peronismo remains the dominant political force even today, more than 35 years after its namesake’s death in 1973. Therefore, any discussion of Chávez’s health—and by implication, the effect his sudden death might have on Venezuelan politics—should assume that his movement will continue on long after his death. What is more important to consider, I believe, is the effect that his removal as acting leader would have on the movement at large, as well as what spaces might be created for opposition groups within the Venezuelan political arena.

An important caveat before discussing any of this is how Chávez is already relatively electorally weak. It seems very unlikely, considering Venezuela’s sputtering economy, shockingly high levels of violent crime, and food, water and power shortages that Chávez or his successor would win an election by the same margins he won by in 2000 and 2006—when he won more than 59% both times. Additionally, in the parliamentary elections in 2010, parties in opposition to Chávez won a majority of the vote, though Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) won roughly two thirds of the seats in the National Assembly thanks to some creative redistricting which favored sections of the country loyal to the government. This all indicates that chavismo does not dominate popular opinion in Venezuela like it did as recently as five years ago—though it could be argued that it dominates the government to such a degree that this fact hardly matters.

In my view, this makes a post-Chávez splintering of the movement all the more likely if that era begins in the near future. Without Chávez uniting a somewhat disparate coalition and dictating official policy, it is hard to imagine that infighting would not break out among different factions within the movement, especially since the movement is at its least popular moment ever. I can’t say how these fissures would manifest themselves, but my guess would be between a more social democratic wing and a more radical, pro-Cuba wing, based on the types of defections that have occurred in the last several years, and the direction Chávez and his cabinet have seemed to prefer.

None of this means that chavismo would immediately lose power if it were to lose its leader, or even if it were to splinter due to infighting. The Venezuelan opposition—while more united than it has been at any point since 1998—remains diverse and is mainly united by an opposition to Chávez. Two recent examples in Latin America show the potential pitfalls of such a disparate political system. The first is in  Peru, where three centrist candidates split more than 45% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections earlier this year, propelling current president Ollanta Humala (considered a more radical candidate from the left) and Keiko Fujimori (the unapologetic daughter and former first lady of former president and strongman Alberto Fujimori) to a runoff. It is highly likely that if any one of those three had dropped out of the race, that one of the other two would currently be president of Peru. However personal ego and a lack of uniting force (like established parties in the US) kept all three out. In Argentina, a situation more directly similar to this hypothetical situation in Venezuela is playing out. With elections set for October of this year, the opposition appeared last year to be working toward advancing a single candidate to face off against either Néstor or Cristina Kirchner in the election. As Néstor was seen as the real source of power—despite his wife actually being president—and was considered the more likely candidate, the opposition was galvanized to unite to defeat him. However, when he died suddenly last October from a heart attack, the opposition again splintered, and Cristina appears likely to cruise to victory this October, perhaps without even facing a runoff.

The opposition in Venezuela appears to be even more tenuously united than the one in Argentina, and therefore would be very vulnerable to collapsing back into infighting without the specter of Chávez to keep them focused on a common goal. In effect, Chávez could be the main force holding together both his own movement and the opposition, and without him, both could break apart into many smaller factions. Any chavista faction, though, would be able to draw on his support base, which remains considerable and far larger than any single other party’s or politician’s in Venezuela. What this all means is that while the exit of Chávez from the political scene because of his current illness could bring a lot flux to the players in the political arena, it might, in some ways, benefit his movement by taking away the one uniting force among the opposition.

Of course, this barely considers the incumbent factors benefitting Chávez’s supporters, such as the huge influence of the state in virtually every aspect of Venezuelan life. Even without significant popular support, or Chávez, this could be enough to keep chavistas in power though fair-enough elections for the time being. 

Ollanta Humala: A Peruvian Chávez?

For people who follow events in Latin America, the inaguaration of Ollanta Humala as the new president of Peru was something worth paying attention to. Humala’s election was met with trepidation both within Peru and across the region. Humala won a runoff last month against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter and first lady of Alberto Fujimori, an elected strongman who ruled Peru throughout the 1990s until he resigned and fled to Japan in 2000. The fact that Humala and Fujimori were the two candidates in the runoff was a shock to man in Peru as they represented the two most extreme mainstream candidates in the first round, but were able to advance to the runoff because the centrist vote was split between three different candidates—former president Alejandro Toledo; Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the fincance minister in Toledo’s government; and Luis Castañeda Lossio, a popular former mayor of Lima.

Humala nearly won the presidency in 2006 but lost to Alan García in a runoff. During that election cycle, Humala expressed open support for Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez and, combined with is participation in a failed coup the previous year, seemed at best ambivalent to democratic governance. Initially in this election cycle little seemed to have changed. His official platform maintained much of the nationalist, leftist rhetoric—particularly nationalizations in the mining sector—that defined his first campaign and that had defined Chávez and his compatriots in the region. However, as the campaign progressed, Humala moved toward the center and began expressing his desire to be a Peruvian Lula (i.e. moderate leftist who expands social programs within a market-based economy) rather than another Chávez.

Whether Humala’s move to the center was genuine or not remains to be seen. He has taken a number of concrete steps that seem to indicate that he is serious, including recruiting campaign help from Lula’s Workers Party and appointing a number of centrists to important posts in his cabinet. His actions managed to convince both Alejandro Toledo and strident liberal (in the classical sense) and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, both of him whom supported him in the runoff against Fujimori. As The Economist noted, these were likely crucial to his victory in the runoff, and in the case of Vargas Llosa, establishing his legitimacy internationally as a center-leftist and not the radical populist he seemed to be as recently as a few months ago.

My personal opinion is that it doesn’t particularly matter whether he’s genuine or not. While significant portions of the Peruvian population are dissatisfied with the way that Peru’s region-leading growth over the past few years has been distributed—made clear by Humala’s popularity in the poorest Andean regions in the south of the country—there is little reason to believe that Peruvians would go along with any attempts by Humala to implement the type of policies that have made Chávez and others such polemic figures in the region. For one, Venezuela’s economic woes over the last couple of years have taken a lot of the luster off of the anti-market, statist model that Chávez has spent the last decade trying to export. So whereas Chávez took power to significant popular discontent with the existing economic model, Humala inherits a country following an economic model that is far outperforming its Venezuelan counterpart and that is also proving successful in countries across the region—most notably in Chile and Brazil—and will find it difficult to gain popular support to radically change the economic model if he chooses to renege on the oath he swore on the Bible not to. Most importantly though, is that Humala’s supporters are significantly outnumbered in Congress, meaning that, within the democratic framework, he will have little room to implement any policies that are too radical.

While Humala’s election seems on the surface like a return to the first half of the 2000s, when radical leftists were taking power in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua while losing close elections in Peru and Mexico, the reality is far different. Peru’s centrist politicians let personal ambition rob them of a nearly assured election by failing to unite behind a single candidate and the disenchantment with the corruption and uneven distribution of wealth pushed an outsider to the presidency instead.  However, the populist model of Chávez has been nearly spent out, and Peruvians and Humala seem to realize that their country’s best option is following a similar model as their neighbors in Chile and Brazil.  Perhaps Humala will disappoint me, but I am optimistic that he really is a Peruvian Lula and that, like Lula, he will help make his country’s fabulous growth a benefit to all Peruvians.

A case against “winners”

One of my biggest pet peeves among Tim Tebow defenders is their insistence that somehow, the fact that he won in college is somehow a precursor to the type of success that he will have in the NFL, as though there is a strong body of evidence to suggest that quarterbacks who win in college win in the NFL. However, there is virtually no link between quarterbacks who win in college, and quarterbacks who win in the pros. Don’t believe me? I’ll show you.

First, let’s take a look at the list of guys who won both Super Bowls and National Championships:

Ken Stabler
Joe Namath
Joe Montana
Tom Brady (as a backup behind Brian Griese) 

Not so impressive is it?

Alright, well how about Heisman winners who won Super Bowls?

Jim Plunkett
Roger Staubach

That’s an amazing track record of college accomplishments transferring to winning at the NFL level… except not at all. Much more impressive is the list of quarterbacks who won in college and then were mediocre or bombed out in the NFL. For fun, here’s a short list of some of these guys just since I was born:

Danny Weurffel
Troy Smith
Matt Leinart
Charlie Ward
Tee Martin
Brook Berringer
Vince Young
Chris Weinke
Josh Heupel

This is not to say that Tebow will absolutely bomb in the NFL. However, when people point out the myriad of physical and technical flaws to Tebow’s game, his defenders need to stop falling back on the “he won in college, so he will find a way to win in the NFL because he’s a winner” argument. There seems to be much more evidence in favor of trusting guys who never won in college (John Elway, for instance, never even played in a bowl game), than guys that won National Championships and Heismans.  


KAL’s cartoon: this week, consequences.

Too true. Kill me now.


KAL’s cartoon: this week, consequences.

Too true. Kill me now.

An idea

So I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to use this blog as a platform to analyze things going on in Latin America and maybe a bit in the US. What do people think?

The bin Laden Affair

I tried earlier to put into words the uncomfortable feeling much of the reaction to bin Laden’s death has given me, but didn’t really succeed. I know that I am uncomfortable with the idea of Americans celebrating a human being’s death in the streets—even if that human being was responsible for the types of heinous acts bin Laden masterminded. Celebrating death dehumanizes people and that in turn makes it easier for the bin Ladens of the world, and unfortunately many of us, to accept as legitimate murder, torture and other terrible acts against other human beings.

I am also uncomfortable with the fact that in the past few days the US has been involved in what amounts to the assassination of two different people in two different countries—bin Laden in Pakistan and Muammar Ghadaffi’s youngest son and three of his grandchildren in Libya. It’s a dangerous game to become involved in assassinations because it opens the door for reprisals and it purports to be capable to deciding who does and does not deserve to live, something I believe no person is capable of deciding. There may not have been a better way of dealing with bin Laden, but I have a hard time supporting bombings that kill the innocent children of foreign leaders we don’t like. I remain unsure that interfering in Libya was the correct decision, but at least engaging military targets to prevent war crimes involves the targeting of belligerents, not their families.

The last few days have really made me wonder about actions we take in other countries. I am not so naive as to pretend that force is never necessary, or that sometimes in international affairs there aren’t situations where several people’s deaths can prevent the deaths of many more people, but I worry that as a society we are too willing to use force to solve our problems, and that in the process we are losing our ability to remember that there are real, human consequences to our actions and that death never something to be celebrated, no matter how terrible the person who died may have been.

In those years…when they wrote race, they were writing ‘Negro’ not ‘African.’ In those days nobody wrote African as a race, it just wasn’t one of the options. It sounds like it would be written today, in the age of political correctness, and not in 1961 when they wrote white or Asian or ‘Negro’.

Queen of the birthers Orly Taitz reads Obama’s longform birth certificate…and leaves the crazy door wide open.  (via thumbscrumbs)

It’s things like this that make me really marvel at the things our country has achieved. We live in a place were 43% of the population either doubts or or absolutely refuses to believe something that is unequivocally true. Yet, we became the world’s sole super power in spite of being so heavily populated by people who are, to put it mildly, fucking stupid.

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
11 plays

I found this song last week via a blog post on The Economist and had been meaning to share it with my roommate. Tonight, she told me she was sending me a song, which reminded me to send this to her. Turns out, we’d send each other the same song.