The One South of Us.
Author, Carlos J. Rangel
Translated from the Spanish by Magdalena Rangel and the author
On Monday November 24th 2014, the US was attacked. The largest ever cyberattack to date brought a major corporation to its knees and affected the lives of thousands of people. The Sony hack has been determined with 99% certainty to have come from North Korea, motivated by a perceived attack on its arrogance and self-importance by some comedy filmmakers in Hollywood. Up to then, the tragic cartoonish buffoonery of the Supreme Leader, Kim Jung-Un, had been dismissed in America as innocuous for the most part. While the direct financial impact on Sony is reported at $15M, the overall impact on all corporations and agencies now boosting cyber-security, the personal impact on people associated but not part of Sony, and the gut impact on the American psyche is unquantifiable. All because one rogue person got mad at the US.
The madness of leadership is not singular to faraway lands. Faced with mass poverty, starvation and deteriorating standards of living from health to personal safety, the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela has doubled down on the populist solution of choice, blame the OTHERS: internal (petty bourgeois), external (the Empire) or/and a combination of both conspiring. The lack of real solutions to the country’s increasing problems, however has led to increased autocratic measures and can lead to even more irrational vitriol and actions targeting the US.
Mr. Maduro is a colorful character. Chasing the shadow of his more charismatic and even more colorful mentor, the late Hugo Chávez, he cannot live up to the idolized vision of a dead leader. He has tried: in dynastic, electoral mode, he called himself “The Son of Chávez”; he claims that the spirit of Chávez talks to him in the form of a little bird; he plays the Cuatro (a variation of the ukulele) during rallies; he mimics the affected paternalistic and condescending speech patterns of the late Chávez in press conferences and intervened TV programming (cadenas).
The nostalgic view of the Chavistas will always render Maduro as inadequate. Chavismo fooled a great majority of people some of the time and still some has some fooled all of the time (for more on this read my previous essay– With a Heavy Heart: Facing the Failures of Chavismo). But the intractable problems of the economy and society that face Maduro now are direct consequence of Chavismo. The festive party with no realistic vision of tomorrow that Chávez led, buoyed by high priced oil used to buy and curry favors from fair weather friends, is over. Now it is time to pay the piper.
Caudillismo on Steroids.
The leader cult runs deep in Venezuela. From the time of Simon Bolivar, and with roots in Spanish King authority, strong leaders have been venerated in a quasi religious manner, adding them to the Santeria pantheon that underlies popular beliefs. Santeria is a mixture of Afro-Caribbean, American (Venezuelan) Indian and Christian rituals with an Earth Goddess named Maria Leonza at its center. It is said that most if not all Venezuelan presidents have had links of one sort or another to this undercurrent culture. Not by coincidence, a similar cult exists in Cuba where Maria Leonza is substituted by their own Sea-Earth Goddess, Yemayá.
This idolatry of the leader, of course, is not a Venezuela exclusive and North Korea once again comes to mind, particularly in its close association with religious practice. While nominally a secular atheist state, devotion to the Supreme Leader has replaced traditional organized religion. This devotion has a name, Juche, centered on the cult of the Kim dynasty. According to Juche teachings, life after death exists only if the society that defined that life is continued. The Juche calendar begins with patriarch Kim Il-Sung’s birth in 1912.
The cozy relationship begun with Chávez between North Korea and Venezuela deepened under Maduro, with the announcement in October 2013 of a reopening of the North Korean Embassy in Caracas and a cooperation agreement between the legislative chambers. In typical flamboyant rhetoric of insecure autocratic regimes, the newly appointed NK ambassador to Venezuela, Jon Yong-Jin, is reported to have said that “if the US government dared to engage in a military attack on Venezuela, North Korea would not think twice before joining the fight against the empire”. (Aporrea)
Not much has been heard from Ambassador Jon since his recall to North Korea after his brother in law Jang Sung-Taek, who was also Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, was executed by the Supreme Leader by feeding him to angry dogs in December 2013. Kim was purging his government of enemies out to get him.
Paranoia, imagined plots and savage repression come with the unbridled actions of the “supreme” be it Leader or Commander (as in the case of Chávez). Since his ascension to power in 2013, Maduro has claimed to have uncovered dozens of coup and anti government conspiracies. Usually when public opinion of the government needs a boost. Conspirators in his little red book have included journalists, store owners, former ambassadors, and student leaders. All, of course, aided and abetted by the US and their cadre of gringo-loving local business men. In his latest uncovered counterrevolutionary plot, he arrested four missionaries from North Dakota plotting to undermine the health system of the country. A few months ago it was the turn of the head of a major hospital alerting to possible pandemics due to the shortages of health supplies of all sorts.
Feverish hatred and paranoia can lead to bad decisions and consequences for all parties. The repressive nature of the Venezuelan regime is reaching new heights. From the mundane, such as HR memos in state owned enterprises urging fellow workers to denounce anyone they know traveling to the US, to the unabashed, such as arrests of high profile opposition leaders detained on trumped up charges and held indefinitely awaiting arraignment and trial. Other less prominent opponents from the working and student populations are routinely arrested and recorded as enemies of the state, to be harassed and black balled in employment and school under the watchful eye of Chavismo. Read more here about Democracy under Chavismo.
Public protests are now, by government decree, (un)lawfully squashed with live ammo. In a recent incident a fourteen year old boy, Kluiverth Roa, huddled and scared behind a car after running away from the repressed protest march, was shot point blank in the head by a police officer in charge of stopping the protests. And those are the incidents that make the news. While that particular victim’s family may get a modicum of redress, the population at large gets the message: repression is here to stay.
The shattered economy is evident in the streets, where shop owners big and small are constantly harassed while protected peddlers thrive in a corrupt black market of goods sold way over their regulated prices. Byzantine foreign exchange regulations and the collapse in oil revenues has led to scarcity of essential goods and foods in a country where local production has been all but squashed by Chavista zealotry. Hard to find products include sanitary napkins, toilet paper and, of course, medicines and medical supplies of all sorts. The collapse of health care has forced many to increasingly rely on home medicines and witchcraft solutions. The slogan “Socialist Fatherland or Death” used by Chavez rings so true now.
The “Cartel de los Soles” (Cartel of the Suns, named for the insignias of Generals) –the military led narcotrafficking ring– keeps a firm grip on the government and represses any possible military dissension. From its beginning, in association the Colombian narco-guerrilla FARC, top elements in the military establishment first protected and then appropriated the drug business in the region. Former Vice-President and now National Assembly Speaker, Capt. (act.) Diosdado Cabello was Chavez’s liaison with the FARC and is now a leading figure in this cartel (For a reported chronology of the growth of Venezuela as a Military Drug State, follow the links at the end of this essay).
The social contract is a shambles by Chavez’s own creations: the Social Missions and “Colectivos”. These are groups of die hard Chavistas set up in neighborhoods to enforce Chavista rule. These groups in many cases have become gangs that terrorize their charges and fight each other. In a high profile case a leading and rising young Chavista star, Assembly Member Roberto Serra, was recently stabbed to death by members of his own bodyguards composed of Mission thugs in a rivalry dispute of some kind.
The colectivos have become a de-facto militia, armed, trained and supported institutionally, and called upon when needed to repress anti-government protests. But this dragon nurtured by the regime needs to be fed and Maduro has a hard time complying. The recent death of an outspoken colectivo leader, Jose Odreman, under a hail of police bullets, came shortly after he was denouncing Maduro’s wavering to Chavista principles.
The ingredients for desperation moves are all there. Political intrigue, massive corruption and a repressed population make for a simmering cauldron that President Maduro is well aware of. He needs to cater to his core base of dyed-in-the-wool Chavistas that maintain the Panglossian virtues of socialist Chavista principles. This faction pulls him away from any possible compromise that could affect the unsustainable favor-purchasing economic policies that are at the core of Chavismo –and populism in general.
Given such conditions, distractions are in order. Repeated ad-nauseam uncovered coup plots form the continuing saga of Maduro’s tenure. He uses these supposed revelations to justify repressive moves towards the population and opposition leaders, and dramatically accuses “The Empire” of attempting to strike him down. His latest move, forcing the US Embassy to all but shut down with a skeleton crew of 17 accredited officers, issuing (laughable) travel bans to a who’s who list in American politics and increasing travel restrictions for US citizens into Venezuela, follows a pattern of growing aggression towards the US which, despite it all, is Venezuela’s still biggest trading partner and source of hard currency.
After returning home empty handed from a beggar’s tour of Venezuela’s allies, China, Russia, Iran and the Arab world, Maduro in contradictory statements said “God will provide” while claiming success. He even announced an odd plan to help Qatar import foodstuffs from Venezuela –disregarding the fact that there is no home grown food in Venezuela. In his visit to Iran he reiterated the strong ties between both countries, ties that may weaken if the US succeeds in reestablishing diplomatic relations with that country.
The Cuba-US “apertura” further isolates Venezuela and Maduro, the face of Chavismo, faces a lonely future indeed. Maduro may not prevail but Chavismo, true to its Marxist-Leninist roots, will continue to crush opposition and not give an inch, regardless of its figurehead. Venezuela’s closest remaining ally will be North Korea, sympathetic to Chavismo’s struggle against the Empire, and a model to follow in socialist rule. Having a powerful common enemy, a shattered populace and similar messianic tendencies make these regimes find common ground to support each other; and possibly act in concert in accordance to the madness of their leadership.
Originally written (in Spanish) by Carlos J. Rangel
Cartel de Los Soles: Venezuela’s Government Protected Drug Cartel.
2015 – DEA and US Attorneys build their cases against high ranking government officials –The Wall Street Journal
2015 – National Assembly President and former Vice President, Capt. (Army, Act.) Diosdado Cabello: http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/diosdado-cabellos-head-of-security-defects-to-the-u-s-and-accuses-him-of-narcotrafficking/
2014 – Drugs and the military: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/14/venezuela-s-agony-weak-president-strong-generals-riots-and-cocaine.html
2014 – Too Big to Arrest: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/28/us-venezuela-usa-arrest-idUSKBN0FW0QX20140728
2013 – Too Big to Hide: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/23/us-france-cocaine-idUSBRE98M00920130923
2005 – Getting rid of the competition: http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/1279
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