Misunderstanding Hugo?

Reading Chávez from Álvaro Uribe’s Colombia




by | Sep 18, 2008

Two men carry sacks on their backs across a small stream. Price-controlled goods are illegally transported across the border to be sold on the Colombian black market that thrives on gasoline and food goods subsidized by the Venezuelan government.

Price-controlled goods are illegally transported across the border to be sold on the Colombian black market that thrives on gasoline and food goods subsidized by the Venezuelan government. Photo by Meredith Kohut/Chiron

On January 10, 2007, heads of state from all over the world attended the inauguration of Daniel Ortega as president of Nicaragua. As usual, photographs of the event found their way into the international pages of the world’s press. A particularly striking photo shows Hugo Chávez whispering conspiratorially with fellow presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Chávez, resplendent in red shirt and black slacks, is clearly in full flow, even though Correa has to lean over to catch his words. Between them, Evo gazes out thoughtfully at something beyond the photographer. However, what might seem to be simply an image of three left-wing presidents in a conspiratorial mood was given added impact by the appearance of a fourth figure, Alvaro Uribe of Colombia. Clearly excluded from the confabulation, Uribe looks somewhat forlorn and bedraggled, as well as bored. He leans away from the other three, towards Spain’s Prince of Asturias.

A simple coincidence? Perhaps, given the smiles and handshakes that marked the rest of the occasion’s conventional photo opportunities. Yet the fact that this image was so much in demand shows that it was deemed to have captured a significant moment in contemporary politics. Every photo tells a story, or so the cliché goes. In this case, the body language of the men involved seemed to reflect the political gulf that separates Uribe from his fellow presidents and in particular the policy divide between Colombia and Venezuela, “sister republics” born of the same revolt against Spanish rule and for a brief time part of the same state. This back story also speaks of Colombia being out of step with the rest of Latin America in its role as a key U.S. ally at a time when a so-called pink tide is sweeping through the region. But exactly how the photo is read depends, of course, on where one is reading from. At the time I first saw it I was living and working in Bogotá, the Colombian capital, and the meaning of the figure of Hugo Chávez, read from Colombia, is what I want to explore in this short essay.

Much has been made of Chávez’s desire to project his image beyond the borders of Venezuela itself. His attempt to cast himself in the role of regional leader has been a major feature of Venezuelan foreign policy initiatives and has proved irksome to other leaders who see their autonomy and authority, at times even their legitimacy, under threat. In the case of Colombia this has been particularly acute, something that is not entirely unrelated to the historic rivalry and very different political trajectories of the two states.

The case of the relative status of independence leaders Santander and Bolívar help to illustrate this point particularly well. When I was engaged in fieldwork in Caracas in January 2006, it soon became apparent that few ordinary Venezuelans were familiar with Francisco de Paula Santander, Colombia’s “man of laws,” who played a fundamental role in laying the institutional foundations of the nineteenth-century state. In Colombia, on the other hand, Santander, who at one time served as Bolívar’s vice-president but was later exiled by the Liberator, is revered as the guarantor of the civil liberties beloved by the Liberal party. Bolívar, in contrast, has tended to be co-opted both by conservatives who favor a strong state and by the revolutionary and nationalist left, who see in him a symbol of resistance to tyranny. In Venezuela, however, Bolívar is simply a secular saint. Indeed, a political argument between pro- and anti-chavistas in the plaza Bolívar in Caracas became particularly heated when I suggested that to attempt to construct a “Bolivarian socialism” was absurd. In fact, much of the heat was very quickly directed at me for daring to question the Liberator’s democratic credentials.

Much of this turns on a failure to understand the dynamics of political rhetoric in the neighboring state. However, though sloppy misreadings abound, so do willful misreadings. This is certainly true of the way in which the figure of Hugo Chávez himself has been used in Colombia. Over the last five years Chávez has played a supporting role in one of Uribe’s central political strategies, the demonization of the FARC guerrilla movement. Coming to power after the failure of the peace negotiations, Uribe capitalized on the FARC’s unpopularity. His rhetorical master stroke has been to blame all of Colombia’s problems on the insurgency, and to present himself as the only politician capable of ridding the country of this menace. The subsequent successes in the struggle against the guerrillas, culminating in the decimation of the FARC’s general staff and the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and the other high-profile kidnap victims, has allowed him to reach levels of popularity that were previously unthinkable for a president in his second term.

One could say that Chávez has been the unwitting victim of this strategy. His own regional pretensions led him to offer himself as an honest broker in the attempt to negotiate the release of the hostages, a role which, if successful, could have won him many friends both within Colombia and abroad. But it was never going to be an easy process. Prudence suggested that he keep a safe distance from a group whose tactic of holding kidnap victims for years in Colombia’s mountains and forests has been almost universally condemned for its inhumanity. But the populist logic of chavismo, with its constant emphasis on the people’s struggle against the oligarchy, was unable to cast the FARC as the villains in a melodrama. Instead, Chávez had frequently showed signs of sympathy for the FARC’s main goals.

Furthermore, Chávez’s confrontation with the “empire” was always going to put him at loggerheads with Colombia, whose complex and often fraught relationship with the US has rarely been understood. US pressure on Colombia has been particularly intense over the last 25 years due to the latter’s central role in Latin American drug production and distribution. Yet although deals such as Plan Colombia have usually been tailored to meet American rather than Colombian demands, the relationship between the two countries has not always been one of simple subservience. For the Colombian president to be seen a mere lackey of the US would not fit in with the image of the strong nationalist leader, and in 2007 Uribe actually went out of his way to underline that America could not simply expect to impose its agenda. Chávez, however, has rarely shown any sensitivity to such nuances.

In the event, it was no real surprise that the attempted collaboration between two notoriously prickly leaders ended in disaster. In November 2007 Uribe brusquely fired Chávez as his go-between when the Venezuelan made an unauthorized telephone call to the head of the Colombian army to float the possibility of setting up a demilitarized zone within Colombia in order to facilitate negotiations with the FARC. Even though the traditions and mindset of the Colombian military are very different from those of the Venezuelan armed forces, which provided fertile ground for the gestation of Chávez’s Bolivarian project, the last thing that Uribe wanted was for Chávez to begin to canvas possible sympathizers behind his back. But the curt dismissal by the Venezuelan president could hardly have been carried out in a less diplomatic fashion.

Things reached their lowest point to date, however, in March 2008, with Colombia’s illegal incursion into Ecuadorian territory to kill Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s international spokesman. The claims that Reyes’ laptop revealed collusion between Chávez and the FARC have yet to be backed up with any real evidence, which in itself suggests that there is probably none to be found. But that is of little moment compared to the political capital to be accrued through branding Chávez a sponsor of terrorism and a meddler in Colombia’s internal affairs, especially at a moment when Uribe himself was under serious domestic pressure after the revelation that dozens of his supporters in Congress had links with the right-wing paramilitary groups that have been responsible for thousands of murders over the last twenty years.

For his part Chávez also played the nationalist card, threatening to nationalize Colombian companies in Venezuela, sending tanks to the border, eulogizing Reyes, and describing Uribe as a “pawn of empire,” a “liar and a cynic,” and accusing him of wanting to start a war. For good measure, he followed this up by suggesting that Uribe presided over a “right-wing narco-government” and that Colombia “deserved a better president.” Even his well-known obsession with his hero Bolívar came into play, as he revealed that his own research had proved that that the Liberator did not die of tuberculosis in Santa Marta, as was commonly supposed, but had been poisoned, presumably on the orders of the exiled Santander. Uribe was promptly branded a spokesman for the “Santanderist” and “anti-Bolivarian” oligarchy in Bogotá.

Though the confrontation was never likely to be anything more than verbal, both sides appealed to national pride in its most vulgar form and neither emerged from the conflict with much dignity. If one of the weaknesses of chavismo is its dependence on the figure of Chávez himself, the same could be said of Uribe, who has frequently tried to present himself as the embodiment of the Colombian nation. With Chávez as bogey man, the Colombian media were more than happy to follow the president’s lead and frame any insult to Uribe as an insult to Colombia herself. As a result, almost the entirety of the country’s political class closed ranks behind the president, while one only has to browse the commentary blogs of El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading daily, to get a flavor of the reaction from Uribe’s middle-class supporters. Chávez continues to be vilified and ridiculed, presented as a buffoon and even as an indio levantado, “an Indian who doesn’t know his place,” a comment that shows socio-racial prejudices that the Colombian elites share with their Venezuelan counterparts.

In this overheated environment the Venezuelan leader has become a headache for the Colombian democratic left, which in recent years has functioned with a great deal of courage in an extremely harsh political environment. Given the climate of growing intolerance for anything that smacks of support for “subversion,” populist pronouncements are likely to lead to claims that any left-wing program is linked to the FARC. Such is Colombia’s tragic recent history of political violence that smears of this sort are not to be taken lightly, as they suggest that the elimination of any such traitor to the patria should be accepted without demur. Even so, the Polo Democrático, a coalition party made up of a number of left-wing groups, has distanced itself from the armed struggle and fashioned itself into the main opposition to Uribe, achieving major successes such as dominating municipal politics in the capital. Within the Polo there are many who admire the misiones, the social programs in health and education that have been rolled out across Venezuela’s poor barrios, but with Chávez accusing Colombia of being a pawn of the US, the leaders of the Colombian left have more than once wished that Chávez would simply say nothing at all.

Furthermore, left-wing activists in Colombia are often taken aback by the heterodox discourse of chavismo, in which Bolívar, Marx, Ché Guevara and Chávez himself can all find a place alongside Christ at the last supper, as a mural in Caracas so powerfully shows. To the Colombian left, this approach seems long on appeals to the emotions and short on policy content, something which is particularly true of Chávez himself, with his rambling communicative style. During a visit to the rural areas of Venezuela in order to study the impact of Chávez’s agrarian reform program, Alfredo Molano, one of Colombia’s most respected left-wing sociologists, was appalled at what seemed to be the vulgarity and lack of sophistication of chavismo, noting his “incredulity and disgust” at the president’s remarks during his program Aló Presidente (El Espectador, August, 2005). Again, however, this reveals just how much suspicion the Colombian left has of populism. Uribe would have no such qualms.

In spite of all this, however, Chávez’s image inside Colombia still probably has more relevance to domestic politics than to international relations. The diplomatic confrontations between the two always yield to the fact that Colombia and Venezuela need each other. While Chávez may boast that he doesn’t need to do business with Colombia and even threatens to nationalize Colombian companies, Venezuela continues to import about a third of its foodstuffs from its Andean neighbor. On the Colombian side, for all Uribe’s bluster, Venezuelan petrodollars have been important at a time when the steady revaluation of the peso has made life increasingly difficult for Colombian exporters. Indeed, the trade between the two countries accounts for some six billion dollars, and is one of the few areas in which Colombia can boast a positive balance of payments. It was welcome news, therefore, when in June 2008 Chávez announced measures to make trade between the two countries easier, not harder, and finally distanced himself from the FARC and demanded that they release their hostages without conditions.

The liberation of the highest-profile hostages and the apparently terminal decline of the FARC has taken away Chávez’s opportunity to play peace maker. As Uribe seeks to capitalize on the euphoria surrounding this event in order to cover up the cracks that are beginning to appear in his own image, the figure of Chávez will fade into the background. But the temptation to use the mutual antagonism for domestic consumption may prove simply too hard to resist for both presidents. Each has built up a profoundly negative image of the other that will be very easy to mobilize in future. And given the populism that is a central feature of both their political platforms, we can probably expect more conflict in future.

Fall 2008Volume VIII, Number 1

Nick Morgan is a lecturer in Latin American studies at the university of Newcastle, UK. His recent work focuses on nationalism in Colombia, and participatory democracy in Colombia, Venezuela and Panama. He can be reached atnicholas.morgan@ncl.ac.uk.

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