Photo Jonathan Blair

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why Venezuela matters for Brazil

Some may have been surprised by the swiftness with which the Brazilian government recognized the victory of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Along with Venezuela’s closest allies, from Cuba and Argentina to Bolivia and Ecuador, Brazil congratulated Maduro Sunday night, even before the chavista-dominated National Electoral Council even declared him president-elect, early Monday morning. Why would Brazil, which has in fact been the target of Venezuela’s claims to regional prominence under Chavez, be so keen to secure the sympathy of his successor?

Ideology played its part, with Lula himself openly rooting for Maduro’s victory and the knee-jerk leftism of the Workers' Party's (PT's) core constituency predictably pushing for the a quick and strong affirmation of solidarity, especially once the United States had expressed reservations.  As Paulo Sotero has pointed out, however, most leaders of Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party were to say the very least measured in their praise of Chavez and the disputed election provided an opportunity to play out the global “seriousness” that the country’s elites, right and left, so strongly strive for.

Security worries may also have been at play. Brazil shares a long border with Venezuela and the prospects of political instability right over a poorly-controlled frontier area must have worried Brasilia. The extent to which an early recognition could help stabilize the country in the face of strident resistance and the mobilization of the opposition, however, is far from clear. Why then move so quickly?

I think the answer lies deeper than ideology or even security preoccupations and reaches to the very core of the Brazilian government’s economic model, which is still rooted in old and increasingly far-fetched dreams of industrialization. The ten-year-long Golden Age of Lula’s presidency was based on low inflation and the effective redistribution of reasonably high growth. The axis of that growth, however, has lied in growing exports of primary products, primarily agricultural. For twenty years now, Brazil has been quickly de-industrializing. The fast decline of its manufacturing sector has taken place in the face of strenuous efforts of the government, particularly under the PT, to shore up and protect what a half-century of state efforts had produced, until the brief neo-liberal opening of the early 1990s triggered a debacle that China’s rise, and the primary goods bonanza it produced, only deepened. 

Much of Brazil’s industry is not competitive globally. Domestic protection and support for national “champions” have consequently been crucial to its survival, but so has regional integration, particularly Mercosur. Hiding its industries behind a common tariff with even less competitive—and even keener protectionist—Argentina, ensured that a market would be found for Brazilian products. Bringing Venezuela on board was an even better deal: with no industry to speak of, Venezuela brought no competition within the bloc but putting its sizeable market behind the tariff wall broadened the reach of Brazil’s uncompetitive manufactured products.

Deepening economic instability in Argentina is now threatening the whole scheme. Cristina Kirchner’s attempts to protect its own industrial sector by imposing barriers to Brazilian products, along with declining demand in Argentina, is hurting Brazilian manufacturing exports to that country which, to take a recent example, have declined by 10% in the first three months of this year. With mass protests against Kirchner in the streets of Buenos Aires and most of the country’s major cities last week, continuing high inflation and falling confidence, things are not looking up.

In such a context, what export market is left for Brazil’s industrial goods but troubled Venezuela, whose oil revenues “protect” from economic collapse? Mercosur is a raw deal for Venezuelan consumers, who would be much better off importing from the cheapest world producers, but the chavista mix of ideological blindness and economic incompetence is proving to be a boon for Brazil. In that context, quickly recognizing Maduro and keeping a clearer-eyed opposition out of power was a no-brainer.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Venezuela's soon-to-be coup-maker? Meet Diosdado Cabello

As Hugo Chavez' health was declining, discussions about his succession focused on a small group of individuals, two of whom dominated the field. One was Nicolás Maduro, a long-time follower of Chavez who had been President of the National Assembly, foreign minister and most recently vice-president. The other one was Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer—he joined Hugo Chavez in a military coup attempt, in 1992—governor, government minister and President of the National Assembly since January 2012. While Maduro had little power of his own and was largely dependent on Chavez, Cabello had built on his close relationship with the military and he was seen as a force of his own within chavista ranks, in spite of the many accusations of corruption that have followed him over the years. In the dramatic press conference Chavez held before leaving for his last journey to Cuba, he put an end to the speculations and told Venezuelans that his chosen successor would be Maduro. Cabello complied and, once the leader was gone, he very publicly embraced Chavez' designated heir.

During the campaign itself, Cabello was given little space while Maduro himself—along with Chavez' ghost, regularly brought in through birds and tweets—completely dominated the party's public presence. Cabello may have been working on his own power base in the background but, clearly, Maduro was trying to fully exploit the Great Man's unction to consolidate his position within the party. He blew his chance however, barely squeaking through with a still contested advantage of 270,000 votes.

Cabello was quick to pounce. On the very night of the "victory" and right after Maduro's confused and shaky speech, Cabello, wearing a military shirt and Chavez' signature red scarf, said very publicly that the tight results called for "a profound auto-critique," a comment clearly directed at Maduro. Suddenly, his lesser presence in the doomed campaign had become a major asset. He has been on the offensive ever since.

Maduro, who had claimed in his post-election speech that he did not fear a full recount, quickly backtracked, no doubt under pressure from those, Cabello chief among them, who had made their sums and saw the danger involved in playing too clean. The government thus made it clear that the results would stand.  Maduro, in an "express ceremony" held Monday morning, was formally declared president-elect by the head of the country's electoral commission, Tibisay Lucena, something she had conspicuously avoided to do the night before, when announcing election results. President Maduro now has to contend with a divided international reaction and a very calm but determined opposition.  His standing among chavistas, meanwhile, is at its nadir.

Cabello is grabbing an increasingly large share of the post-election crisis media coverage. His well-publicized rants at the National Assembly have been extremely aggressive. He keeps calling opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles a "fascist" and has just dismissed a number of opposition members from their position as heads of various National Assembly commissions. Part of his vehemence can probably be traced to his 2008 defeat to Capriles in the race for governor of the state of Miranda, but as one of the regime's leaders most commonly associated with corruption—a leading "narco military," as Venezuelans put it—he may also have an awful lot at stake in his party's keeping control of the state.

Thanks to his much stronger base among the party and the military, Cabello's hand should grow stronger as things deteriorate and tensions rise. If Maduro attempts to resist his influence, or if Cabello is just unhappy with having to wait six years before getting his chance at power, a forced resignation—or a removal by a simple decision of the chavista-controlled Supreme Court (as per art. 233 of the Constitution)—would offer an easy cover for a legal coup. While formally out of the country's line of executive succession, Cabello's position as President of the Assembly is in fact perfect to take over power. In cases of resignation or incapacity, indeed, the Executive Vice-President is prevented by the Constitution to run in the new elections, which must be held within thirty days. Cabello by contrast would be free to run...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Nicolás Maduro's Disastrous Elections and the Coming Chaos in Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro had all the cards in his hands: personally and very publicly anointed by Chavez himself and free to use all the resources of the state to promote himself, he was running a two-week campaign in the wake of the massive outpouring of grief that followed the death of the country's most popular politician ever. No wonder he was universally seen as a shoo-in. The opposition, still reeling from an 11% -margin defeat barely six-months old and with little time to organize or raise money, could only hope for a miracle. It almost happened.

Maduro's utter lack of charisma, his claim to have seen portly Chavez appear to him as a cute little bird and to have received tweets from the late Chavez himself were rightly seen as crass and demeaning attempts to exploit the quasi-religious fervor in which the late leader was held, and they no doubt played a role in his disastrous performance. But the results should probably be traced to the dreadful situation in which a decade of Chavismo has placed the country. Without Chavez himself to whip the crowds, and in spite of the very real impact that his programs were having on the poorest everyday life, the utter emptiness of his legacy showed starkly: stratospheric homicide, common crime and corruption levels, the highest inflation rate in Latin America, incompetent public administration, declining oil production with the world's largest reserves, crumbling transportation infrastructure, regular and sometimes extended electricity blackouts, and so on. The inability of his successors to move early enough to embalm the great man—decomposition was too advanced—should stand as the eternal symbol of their incompetence and disorganization. Chavez' hyperactive and constant presence, epitomized by his weekly hours-long "Allo Presidente," television show, had been propping up a chaotic and unsustainable "model," and when his death put an end to the telenovela, reality came back with a vengeance.

What happens now? The opposition is asking for a full recount, but the government has decided to recant from Maduro's commitment in the speech he made right after the results was announced, and now refuses to do it. The missing one percent of the roughly 15 million votes counted (150,000) comes mostly from outside the country, where the opposition dominates. With a difference of about 250,000 votes between the two candidates, errors on the domestic front could turn Maduro's tight victory into a defeat. The opposition is already taking to the street and things could quickly turn very ugly. In the end, however, the opposition doesn't have guns and the ruling party, its militias, and the army do: the rebellion should quickly be quelled, though possibly in blood.

Over the medium term, what the opposition does may matter less than what happens within Chavista ranks. Chavez had been stuffing an ever-expanding state with his followers and for them, who have everything at stake in staying in power, Maduro has proven to be a huge liability. The problem is also acute for the Cuban regime, whose economy has become deeply dependent on the injection of cheap oil from Venezuela. Maduro, who held power strictly by virtue of Chavez' trust and support, finds himself in a desperate position: the kind of reforms needed to put the country back on track call for a kind of leadership and a legitimacy he doesn't possess. The problem is, nobody among his "colleagues" has them either.

Those who could lose everything in the next elections, six years down the road, have two options: grab as much as they can, while they can, or make sure that, even without reform, they win the next context. The first path leads to a deepening economic and social crisis, the second one to a crisis of the country's political institutions. In this landscape, the military is likely to become increasingly central. As an institution, they have less at stake than the Chavista establishment because the opposition in power would still need them, and probably fear them too. With growing violence and chaos, moreover, calls for some authoritarian solution are likely to be heard, and support for it to be broad.

The next six years will be troubled in Venezuela, and the 2019 elections even more, if they ever take place. The regime's bet on a clean electoral process now looks a lot like the hubris that led Chile's Pinochet to dream of a victory in his 1989 plebiscite. Don't expect anybody to make the same mistake again: if Chavez' men are still in power in 2019, they won't let a disaster like this year happen again.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Brazil's "Responsibility while Protecting"

Some people are gushing about Brazil's challenge to the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) doctrine.

Brazilian diplomats have indeed come up with a twist, calling their own version of R2P "responsibility while protecting." Those looking for new leadership and a more humane, empire-free and sexier version of the good old "humanitarian intervention" think that Brazil could be "The One."

The Canadian International Council has a new "In Depth" (!!!) piece on the issue. Its ends with a question that is beyond laughable: "With the economic and political decline of traditional Western powers, will Brazil lead the world’s police force in a new multipolar world?"

Let's just mention two little problems that should give CIC's deep thinkers a few clues to an answer.

1) Brazil has an extremely limited capacity to deploy serious forces on any significant scale anywhere in the world. Their mission in Haiti is the largest and most extensive venture they have engaged in since the Brazilian military's excellent adventure in the Dominican Republic, in 1965, and it fully occupies them.

By the sad standards of this world, Haiti is much closer to a Club Med than to a failed state war zone. As a Brazilian military analyst who certainly prefer my not mentioning his name, the best thing about engaging in Haiti is that nobody can ask Brazil to go to the DRC, Sudan, or other really hot spots.

2) About 40,000 people are murdered every year in Brazil and in the country's two main cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, at least a thousand are executed by the police. "Resistance to arrest" is also a major cause of death in most of the country's large cities. Trials of policemen accused of such executions are exceedingly rare and condemnations even more.

At home, in other words, Brazil neither protects, nor shows much responsibility when apparently trying to. And that's our candidate for global police chief...

So what should we make of the Responsibility while Protecting? Not much.

The original R2P is little more than a clever conceptual fig leaf to hide--barely--challenges to the sovereignty of smaller powers by the large ones that still dominate global governance institutions. There are good reasons for those who have little say in the decision to worry about entrenching a principle that could make intervention easier. Brazil's RwP is just one way they have found to try to neuter R2P (if you can forgive the twisted mixed metaphors). Nothing more.