Monday, July 18, 2005

Delenda Sumate!

Rome had already won two devastating wars against Carthage and had reached a compromised peace that lasted many years when senator Marcus Cato started a pro-war campaign with one persisting idea:

“Delenda Carthago!”.

It meant, that, no matter what, Rome would never be safe unless the rival phoenician city of Carthage was totally destroyed. For years, with a stubbornness that was noted even after centuries of history, Cato repeated over and over that Carthage had to disappear. He actually finished every intervention about any topic with the famous sentence.

Publicity is always effective. In the end, Cato’s message was heard and Rome decided to go for what was called the third Punic war. Once Carthage had finished paying all the old tributes to Rome, the latest imposed new and tougher conditions to provoke a new conflictive situation. As expected, Carthage’s inhabitants were mad of rage when they knew the new absurd conditions imposed by Rome and the war restarted again.

It was a tough and dirty war, even for those times, Carthage inhabitants resisted as much as they could but the Romans kept the fight. They had just one objective in mind: thoroughly destroy Carthage.

After three bloody years of continuous fights, Rome reached its objective in such an effective way, that there was nobody left from Carthage to formally surrender. Some say that they even throw salt to the defeated city so that it would never be born again. For the first time in their history, the Romans had failed to incorporate the culture of the conquered city, as there was no culture, history or customs left. To this day, we do not know more about Carthage and its inhabitants because of the unusual Roman will to destroy it..

Ironically, Carthage’s destruction did not prevent the decline of Rome, but rather accelerated it. Some historians claim that this was because it gave the Romans a false sense of security. Others say that the destruction of Rome had already started from within, with the decline of the traditional Roman values that were being heavily influenced by the greek ways of life. Some even say that Cato used Carthage as a diversion, consciously knowing that the real menace to the Roman way of life came from Greece.

After reading this fascinating story, I thought of the similarities between the Sumate persecution by the Chavez government and the insistence of Cato to destroy Carthage.

Chavez was a military man and it is still today a military man. In his quest towards absolute power, he has been treating Venezuelan institutions as if they were “the enemy”. An enemy that had to be controlled and beaten.

He has been extremely successful.

His success is due in part to the clumsy and inefficient opposition, in part because nobody believed that he could go that far and still pretend that he was a democratic ruler. Finally and foremost, because Venezuela had weak institutions to start with.

No matter the reason of Chavez’s success, there was a new type of enemy in town that Chavez was not used to fight: Sumate.

The origin of Sumate is, to say the least, unusual. In a country where the civil society was not used to have its voice heard, suddenly there was a civil group that organized itself to literally prevent a civil war in Venezuela. They found the democratic exit to the terrible polarization crisis that was lived in Venezuela.

It was an exit that any democratic leader would have welcome: a recall Referendum, guaranteed in the 1999 Constitution; let the people decide.

But Chavez government was not happy at all about it and did all the possible tricks to avoid going to a Referendum. Sumate organized a signature collection, not once, but three times! (see Daniel’s excellent summary here). They were systematic and efficient and used Chavez’s own weapon: the 1999 Chavista Constitution to lead the fight.

A few months before the Referendum took place, Sumate persecution started. It was Chavez itself who, like Cato in the Senate, initiated it by talking in his Sunday TV program about the NED funding. But the Chavista government is, in matters of political persecution, much more effective than the Roman government. It did not take years to initiate the “Delenda Sumate” campaign. The very next day, the Sumate directive was charged by the government attorneys.

I do not think that the funding was illegal. The money was a small grant to organize courses to promote democratic awareness. However, if the money had indeed been illegal, then the government should have fined Sumate and asked them to reimburse it. End of it.

But, according to Chavez, Sumate delenda est! The government had to put all its weight and influence to discredit Sumate and to take its directive to court for …no less than treason!

They dusted a very old article of the very archaic Venezuelan penal code to state that Sumate was destroying “the Republican form” of the government. Thanks to a convoluted interpretation that nobody in his right mind would accept, receiving the small grant from the NED resulted in being charged for treason and risking up to 16 years in jail.

And, by the way, we are talking about Venezuelan prisons.

The attack was not directed towards the institution. It was personally aimed at the four highest members of Sumate: Maria Corina Machado, Alejandro Plaz, Ricardo Estevez and Luis Enrique Palacios. The four young engineers that had dared to create a new form of resistance in Venezuela. Chavez idea must have been to kill two birds with one stroke: eliminate the head of the enemy and intimidate anyone that would ever attempt to carry out the type of dissension that Sumate was leading.

Delenda Sumate!

Meanwhile, since the Referendum, the mighty Chavez government has been taking over whatever was left of the democratic institutions of the country. In particular, the judiciary system, that has never been a model of independence, has been revamped to have only judges blindly committed to Chavez. I hope that Sumate is cleared, but the hope is closer to wishful thinking.

So, there is a high probability that, in the end, Sumate will be destroyed, and that the Chavez goverment will have thrown salt to the Sumate office created by a small group of unlikely democratic heroes.

Maybe, like some historians suspected, Chavez, like Cato, is using Sumate as a diversion. Maybe he is really committed to attack this new type of enemy that resists his controlling expansion or maybe he just do not know how to govern without having an enemy in front of him. In any case, it is clear that Chavez has not learned the lessons from Rome.The Romans flourished while they incorporated the good features of the foreign cultures into their own. The anhilation of Carthage was the beginning of the end. Conversely, Chavez has not understood that he needs the culture of Sumate to be integrated to the democratic values of his government. He does not understand either that it is good for his government to have a democratic watchdog like Sumate in his backyard.

Chavez has not realized that his enemy is not Sumate. His enemy, like in Rome, comes from within: his own inefficiency and his own message of hatred and division that have transformed the country and led it to the brink of civil war.

He can ask his followers to “Delenda Sumate” as much as he wants and like the Romans, he might win the last Punic war.

But, in the end, like Rome, he will be defeated.

Jorge Arena

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