Saturday, January 20, 2007

The expansion of Chavez Empire has started: will someone stop him?

Friday night we were treated with some rather astounding videos from the Mercosur summit. First Chavez had a little séance of sorts when he visited the Rio Town hall. During an associated meeting he criticized the newspaper O Globo in the same way as he trashes Venezuelan papers he does not like. The hysterical crowd was acting exactly as in Venezuela when they want Chavez to close whichever media he is attacking that day, except that we only saw Che posters. Brazilians obviously might have a lush carnival but they have not reached the colorful chavista mass demonstrations that we are used to now. And they have as many proto-fascists as we have here in Venezuela.

Before looking into what that might mean, let’s look at the other scene.

At some point during the meeting Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president in some trouble at home and looking to refurbish his image, decided to attack Alvaro Uribe of Colombia. Why would Evo attack Uribe who is not even a neighbor? Does Evo has not enough problems already with Chile, Peru, Argentina and Brazil to seek yet another totally unnecessary enemy?

What Evo said was also particularly stupid and ignorant. He stated that the “social” models espoused by Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina had given the highest growth rates of these past 2-3 years. He did not add that Cuba was in zero and now with Venezuelan free oil it could do nothing but grow. He also did not dwell in that Venezuela and Argentina were coming out of horrendous recessions and thus had the extraordinary growth that one would expect. He could have pointed out that that growth is ONLY bringing them back to where they were before the recession struck them. He might have added that the jury is still out as how sustained the growth would be for these countries: Venezuela ‘s growth looks very iffy as it is based on oil prices, but there is a case to be made for Argentina. Morales did not enter into such sophistry, assuming he is able or willing to get into that kind of in depth study.

But what made things worse is that Evo attacked Uribe and Colombia saying that Colombia in spite of all the help it was getting from the US was not reaching the levels of growth of the above mentioned countries.

Uribe was not amused and in a rather unusual display of bad temper for such a reserved politician when he travels away from home, reprimanded Evo. He reminded him that trade in Colombia had gone up much more than under anyone else, that all the deficits were under control, that the currency was stable, and more. He could also have added that in the middle of a civil war Colombia managed to keep growing at a respectable rate that Bolivia could envy, and WITHOUT coming out form a major recession. (If you can manage portuguese, O Globo has a more juicier version than the sanitized Bloomberg version linked above).

In other words Colombia like Chile or Peru or Brazil are countries with real growth, based on work and production and not like Venezuela or Cuba based on high oil prices or Argentina based on recovery from the depth of an unjustified depression. Colombia growth is particularly solid as it has none of the energetic and mineral or even agricultural advantages of other LatAm country (think about the huge soy bean production possible in Brazil, a true green gold that Colombia cannot match). In other words, in spite of drugs and a never ending civil war Colombia has a much more equilibrated economy than Bolivia or Venezuela and a much better long term future than these countries (just as Chile does: this blogger thinks that Colombia is the next success story of LatAm if it manages to end its civil war and control drug traffic a little bit better, a big if perhaps, but a real potential).

This would have been already a rather embarrassing moment but Chavez made sure it would turn worse. He intervened to say that Uribe reply to Evo was “sobredimensionado”, a semi polite way to say that he thought Uribe exaggerated. Uribe replied and asked Chavez point blank why he thought that his reply was exaggerated. Chavez, as usual when directly confronted, dodged, saying lamely that they would discuss it later with a surprisingly weak voice. But the fact was for all to see that Chavez went to the rescue of his Bolivian lap dog and when confronted he backed down. Lula was observing and his face was inscrutable. You can see part of it in the CNN video as long as it is available.

Can we make sense of all of this? Certainly! But let’s go by parts.

What drives Chavez

He is sensing that his opportunity is now. The US even with a democratic Congress will be mired in Iraq and the Middle East for at least another full year, or maybe two since probably nothing much will be resolved during the 2008 campaign. Chavez has precious two years. In addition Chavez knows he has now 6 years ahead without any election on his rule (irregardless of a possible bought result) whereas Lula and Uribe will be gone in 4 years. Chavez knows that it is time to start doing whatever he can do to influence the Brazil and Colombian elections. That putting friendly rulers there will help him in becoming president for life in Venezuela.

In Brazil he needs to foster a left wing option to succeed Lula, with a more leftist ruler than Lula. That is why Chavez is more and more traveling to Brazil on his own, meeting with all sorts of leftist organizations such as the Sem Terra, or the Porto Alegre Forum crowds. That event in Rio where inconceivably he berated O Globo is one way to show the left how to attack the media, how to find enemies real or imaginary that allow the fragmented left to coalesce. The nutty left that is, but that is the one Chavez wants in office everywhere.

In Colombia Chavez got the rather unexpected victory of Correa in Ecuador who quickly aligned himself on Chavez, even faster than what Evo Morales did. There is no doubt that Correa campaign was financed by Chavez. But the party is not won for Chavez there. Correa only won a little bit more than a 20% in the first round and he is already suffering of the hubris that the 60% he got in the second round are actually his to do as he pleases with them, as unconditionally devoted to him as the 63% of Chavez. Ecuador has now a well established tradition of ousting presidents and if Correa might have forgotten it his political rivals have not and they are not the pushovers that Chavez found in 1999 Venezuela (and still as much “pushedover” these days).

Thus Chavez is probably seeking a low level confrontation between Colombia and Ecuador as a way to ensure that Correa takes hold in Ecuador. The well tested nationalist card, as in National-Socialism. That in turn could revive old Colombo-Venezuelan border contentions and maybe create enough trouble for Uribe and “justify” certain moves for Chavez. Uribe and Colombia are now trapped between two potential enemies as impenetrable jungles and oceans separate it from possible allies.

What happened at the Mercosur summit

Uribe did point out that the preceding day Evo Morales and himself had a very lengthy meeting where many things had been discussed. He asked Evo why he had not brought in private then what he was so tastelessly bringing in public. This already is a clear sign that they had set up a trap for Uribe. Chavez wants an all socialist Mercosur and Andean Community and South America association. After all Peru’s APRA is not officially on the right, it is in fact to the left of Toledo and a member in good standing of the International Socialist organization. Uribe is the lonely right wing government and Chavez is simply impatient with that (a case of “political cleansing” in the making?). It has to be one of his first objectives before he can unseat Uribe to isolate Colombia as much as possible from the rest of Latin America. Even O Globo sensed that when it reports that Chavez asked for "decontamiantion of Mercosur of Neoliberalism". Thus I am convinced that Morales did not speak of his own purpose. He had no reason or interest to do so. His words and timing could only serve Chavez.

I think that Chavez committed the error to go to the rescue of Morales. I suspect that he did not expect Uribe to turn so strongly on Morales (Uribe is intellectually superior to Morales or Chavez, no doubt there). But see, I am pretty sure that Uribe knew for a long time that something like that was coming and I am sure that he has been preparing himself for this for a long time. Uribe is not embarrassed of his U.S. relationship and he knows when the chips are down he will receive the support of Peru and Chile who are not going to jeopardize the commercial relationship with the US which is bringing them so much benefit, no matter what Chavez screams. In fact by standing up to Chavez Uribe has demonstrated clearly that it was time to stop Chavez abuses at these summits (O Globo reported that Lula had asked all his colleagues to limit their speeches to 13 minutes but Chavez talked 35 minutes anyway: just as in Venezuela, rules are not for Chavez).

Uribe has demonstrated that the best way to silence Chavez is to ask him in public a tough but fair question. Chavez demurred, backed down. It seems that Uribe has pierced the secret of Chavez, why Chavez avoids like the plague any serious press conference of the type that democratic leaders of the world must submit, where real answers are expected and not some tall tale that Chavez delivers until he narcotizes the audience and even the journalists. The day that Lula asks Chavez a tough question in public, that day Chavez is done for the international road show he leads. But Lula also knows that Chavez has a fat wallet that he is willing to share with people that suck up to him.

However this demonstration of Uribe is a side benefit of the day. What is really important here is that the attack on Uribe has started, and that might also mean that Chavez might have triggered the attack on him. Cards are going to drop now as people will start revealing what hey have been hiding in their sleeves. Or does anyone thinks that Uribe who has escaped uncounted real attacks and assassination attempts from the FARC will be browbeaten by a fake like Chavez who has yet to demonstrate that there has been a real assassination attempt against him? Not even on April 12 2002 was Chavez in the type of danger that Uribe lives with EVERY DAY.

This will play fast on many scenarios. Colombia and Peru will work hand in hand to weaken Correa. Ecuador is landlocked between the two and there is little that Venezuela can do for it if Colombia and Peru play their cards well. Another coup in Ecuador will have no consequences as the OAS is actively mined and discredited by Chavez. Correa will be soon put into a position to either rule for his people or for Chavez. If he opts for Chavez his days are probably counted. Correa could even turn against Chavez: Ecuador is the only dollarized country in LatAm and the people have paid a heavy price for it but are starting to enjoy the benefit with lower inflation, better budget control, an improving growth rate and an ease for international trade. Correa and Chavez have alluded to a new currency for LatAm and it remains to be seen if Ecuador will drop the dollar for a new currency. Will the natives supporting Pachacutik decide to drop their hard earned few dollars when Correa officials want to force them to trade them for a new currency that will follow the fate of the Venezuelan Bolivar? If Chavez wants Ecuador to drop the greenback he might find himself in front of an operation that will cost him much more than any gift giving he has been doing so far.

Evo Morales has made a mistake by getting a new gratuitous adversary. As his democratic credentials are going down the drain fast (did he have many democratic credentials to begin with?) he will be open now for criticism by many leaders that will not find it strange anymore to give an opinion of what is going on now in, say, Cochabamba where Morales is hypocritically trying to oust an elected governor through mob rule. Morales also told again to Lula at the summit that it had to pay higher prices for its gas. Morales is certainly right to cash as much money as he can for Bolivian gas but why would Argentina and Brazil look without sympathy on a federal settlement for Santa Cruz, the only really productive province of Bolivia. What would Argentina and Brazil gain from a Santa Cruz dominated and exploited by Morales? The prosperity of Santa Cruz is in fact vital for Argentina and Brazil!!! Santa Cruz is essential for the remote Mato Grosso and Salta regions, two areas that cannot be well serviced by Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires (look at your maps). Morales is playing a very dangerous game for the integrity of his country and a few Venezuelan soldiers will not be enough the day that Santa Cruz declares secession.

In other words today we crossed a new line in the complex geopolitical game that is taking place in South America, and the all but general bickering at the Mercosur summit is only the start. Chavez is now openly threatening the political stability of Colombia, Brazil, Peru. He is definitely a perturbing and direct agent in Bolivia and Ecuador. He could become one in Argentina and even Uruguay. Chile and Paraguay (for its inconsequence) are the only two countries that are out of reach. Yet the latest U.N. fiasco and insults to OAS secretary Insulza have brought home to Bachelet that for all her romantic notion of the Left she could land on Chavez menu anytime.

There are choices

South American countries can chose between keep cashing with Chavez (for a while) or decide to put a sanitary yellow band around Venezuela. It is not too difficult: you just need to shut up Chavez in public. Uribe showed how it is done, watch the video. But they must know all that Chavez will never stop until he has put everywhere regimes that are his close allies. He will not stop, there is nothing else that interests him. Look at what he does in Venezuela to silence the opposition once and for all. Do you think he is tightening the clamp in Venezuela so he can play nice with you guys? In fact what he wants to demonstrate is the democracy that you represent is useless and convince the people you rule to try a leftist willful dictatorship. Correa got it and he is already busily trying. You will see soon that the Venezuelan embassy has the biggest delegation in Quito even if there is little we can sell to each other.

But of course as usual and unfortunate the United States is the one with the biggest options here, and the most likely to ONCE AGAIN blunder its way through. To the Democratic Congress, before Iraq consumes you as it consumed Bush, make sure you pass the free trade treaty with Colombia and Peru, EVEN IF YOU REALLY THINK THAT YOU DO NOT GET A GOOD DEAL. The best counter measure to Chavez is a prosperous and stable Colombia, Peru and Chile. And no matter how much such a treaty might seem to cost to the U.S. today, trust me on that one, it will be infinitely cheaper than trying to rebuild LatAm after hurricane Hugo is done with it.

Dear U.S. Congress and White House, if you act for selfish interests, if you are not a little bit altruistic, the final result of all of this is that South America will end up as a Brazilian territory (the only possible winner in the long term out of Chavez follies). You will also get an immigration wave to the US that will make you look fondly to the days when you thought that a wall would stop Mexican immigrants. This might not be too bad if democracy prevails in Brazil. But it could be very bad if Brazil produces its own Chavez to challenge you. If you want this not to happen you have only one choice: create a Pacific area of prosperity with Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Peru and Chile. In fact, Mexico's Calderon gave you a powerful clue when asking all spurned investors of Venezuela and Bolivia (and soon Ecuador) to come over to Mexico.

Once you do that, Dear Congress, once you realize that sacrifices for a few countries are a small price to pay, sooner or later the other countries will come just as Eastern Europe eventually came to Western Europe. Ask Germany and France how much they had to sacrifice to build the EU. Was it not worth it?

If you do not like that option, then get ready for war someday.

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Note: I could not find other videos for what happened at the Mercosur summit. I am sure that soon enough they will appear. But while I was looking through Youtube I found an interview of Moises Naim by Fareed Zakaria. I recommend it as Moises explains clearly what Chavez is all about today. A nice complement to help understanding what is written above.

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