Francisco Toro is a former journalist with VenEconomy and the New York Times. For the past year he has been running an oppositional weblog on Venezuela called Caracas Chronicles. The following exchange is one of several that Francisco and I have had over the past few months. We have agreed to post this exchange on both Venezuelanalysis and his weblog.
From “Francisco Toro” Date Thu, 18 Dec 2003 9:46 AM
To “”Gregory Wilpert”
Subject: rumanian rambling
You wrote, in Venezuela Analysis –
“Also, if the pro-Chavez camp numbers are correct, this time could be used to forge signatures, so that the total turned in equals the number the opposition reported it collected from the different signature locations in the country.”
I say: Remember the actas. The actas are there. They are signed by both sides. Forging signatures after the fact is impossible – CNE would automatically throw out any signature totals not already signed off on at the acta stage.
Overall, it is a cogent argument you put forward. This theory about political participation among the poorest rising due to increased mobilization is provocative, but not born out by turnout figures in 1998-2000, the peak of chavista popular mobilization. If you’re really suggesting that the poorest people are MORE politically engaged now than in July 2000…well, it’s an empirical question, but it seems wildly unlikely to me.
But, again, only an actual vote will tell.
BTW, after Chavez’s little outburst of the second to last alo presi, do my concerns about committing the gov’t to follow a CNE decision, whatever it may be, sound a little less shallow? Sure, he contradicted himself last Sunday, but that’s just the point – the nation’s political stability seems predicated on which particular side of the bed the guy gets up on each morning.
Oh, and also – do you read Teodoro Petkoff very often? You really ought to – we don’t have that many sane commentators with integrity on our side, so it’s worth taking the time to read the ones we have. Last Monday he had this to write, which I think gets to the heart of what is unacceptable about the Chavez regime, to me anyway:
Ethics? With what do you eat that?
The disregard the president has for legal norms and the impudence of his behavior reached its highest levels with the transmission which he made yesterday of the recording of a conversation between Ramón Escovar Salom and his son. Lowering himself to the level of Juan Barreto, Tascón, or any of his acolytes, in which this type of behavior does not surprise, Chavez has transmitted a recording which in itself could not even be presented with the excuse with which secrets of a conspiracy, of a coup, or of a presidential assasination, which, at least, would explain it. It is a banal conversation, with general political considerations, without any “politicl” value. This makes Chavez’s act all the more repugnant. It is the pure and simple admission that laws don’t mean a damn to him. Tapping telelphones is prohibited. However, the government does it.
And it does it without hesitation. It boasts of it. But until now the spreading of a recording at least stated in the hands of the usual suspects. Now it is Chavez himself, with an unheard of impudence, with which he does his dirty work. Because it is not just the laws that don’t mean a damn. Neither does ethics.
Greg, Greg, Greg…I shall forever remain baffled by how it is anyone sane could think anything good could come out of a government that behaves this way. Yes every previous government has failed, spectacularly, at the central task of establishing a rule-of-law based system of government as well. But excusing Chavez amazing flaunting of the law on that grounds is like excusing my decision to beat my wife cuz her previous husband used to beat her too!
From “Gregory Wilpert” Date Thu, 18 Dec 2003 3:09 PM
To “‘Francisco Toro'”
Subject RE: rumanian rambling
> Overall, it is a cogent argument you put forward. This theory about
> political participation among the poorest rising due to increased
> mobilization is provocative, but not born out by turnout figures in
> 1998-2000, the peak of chavista popular mobilization. If you’re really
> suggesting that the poorest people are MORE politically engaged now than
> in July 2000…well, it’s an empirical question, but it seems wildly
> unlikely to me.
I think you have to talk more to people from the barrios. Perhaps you have and we each get a wildly distorted picture of what’s going on there because we end up talking to unrepresentative samples. But I have a very strong impression, from talking to both barrio organizers and folks like my cleaning lady, that the barrios are more politicized now than they ever were. Chavez got elected by the middle class back in 1998 and 2000. Next time around, however, I would bet he will be elected by the folks who live in the barrios (and participation will be correspondingly higher, of course).
> But, again, only an actual vote will tell.
> BTW, after Chavez’s little outburst of the second to last alo presi, do
> my concerns about committing the gov’t to follow a CNE decision, whatever
> it may be, sound a little less shallow? Sure, he contradicted himself
> last Sunday, but that’s just the point – the nation’s political stability
> seems predicated on which particular side of the bed the guy gets up on
> each morning.
Obviously, I think you give Chavez less credit for being a rational person than I do. I realize that he has emotional outbursts ALL of the time. However, in the end, I see him as being swayed by rational argument and that’s what, in the end, guides his decisions. I have seen him make emotional statements plenty of times, only to in the end do the rationally right thing. I basically agree with you that he is a narcissist, but I don’t see much evidence that this has a major impact on policy decisions. Unlike you, I do not think that Chavez makes all or most decisions alone.
> Oh, and also – do you read Teodoro Petkoff very often? You really ought
> to – we don’t have that many sane commentators with integrity on our
> side, so it’s worth taking the time to read the ones we have. Last Monday
> he had this to write, which I think gets to the heart of what is
> unacceptable about the Chavez regime, to me anyway:
> ¿Etica? ¿Con que se come eso?
Taping the phone conversation was indeed an illegal and unethical act. Releasing it was certainly highly questionable. On the other hand, if it contributes to proving that there was large-scale fraud, to which the public should be alerted, it might be acceptable. Unfortunately, the conversation was somewhat ambiguous, which makes the ethics of releasing it all the more questionable. I don’t know. Obviously, if you believe that there was no fraud, then the conversation proves nothing. If, however, you are convinced that there was fraud, then it’s a confirmation to which the public should be alerted. In other words, I see both sides of this issue, but would tend to agree with you and Petkoff that it was wrong to release it.
> Greg, Greg, Greg…I shall forever remain baffled by how it is anyone
> sane could think anything good could come out of a government that
> behaves this way. Yes every previous government has failed,
> spectacularly, at the central task of establishing a rule-of-law based
> system of government as well. But excusing Chavez amazing flaunting of
> the law on that grounds is like excusing my decision to beat my wifecuz
> his previous husband used to beat her too!
This is a quite absolutistic statement of yours: “how it is anyone sane could think anything good could come out of a government that behaves this way” If previous governments also behaved this way (and you seem to imply that this true), then nothing good ever came from them either? Here you are basically using a mirror argument of what the Chavistas use (to which the opposition always objects), which says that there was nothing good about the previous governments because they were unethical in many cases. I am not defending unethical activity, but I do think we can separate the unethical from the ethical and the good – i.e., not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
From “Francisco Toro” Date Fri, 19 Dec 2003 1:22 PM
To “Gregory Wilpert”
Subject RE: rumanian rambling
> Taping the phone conversation was indeed an illegal and unethical act.
> Releasing it was certainly highly questionable. On the other hand, if it
> contributes to proving that there was large-scale fraud, to which the
> public should be alerted, it might be acceptable. Unfortunately, the
> conversation was somewhat ambiguous, which makes the ethics of releasing
> it all the more questionable. I don’t know. Obviously, if you believe
> that there was no fraud, then the conversation proves nothing. If,
> however, you are convinced that there was fraud, then it’s a
> confirmation to which the public should be alerted. In other words, I
> see both sides of this issue, but would tend to agree with you and
> Petkoff that it was wrong to release it.
My point is that the content of the conversation doesn’t make any difference one way or another. The content is a red herring. The country’s problem for 173 years since 1830 has been the absence of the rule of law, of basic citizen guarantees, the existence of governments always based on force, on the caudillo or the party, rather than on the law. It’s the constant flouting of the law that made the pre-1998 governments totally unacceptable, that made it imperative to change them. It’s the reason my very first involvement in Venezuelan politics, in 1996, was with the radical opponents of the Punto Fijo system, and why it grates so fucking much when Chavez tells me, tells us, that we are accomplices of the old regime simply because we do not dogmatically accept everything he says.
Ese es el centro de la mezquindad de [This is the center of the meanness of] Chavez, and the center of his falsification of the history that brought him to power. But me? I haven’t changed positions. My position is the same: people are only free when the powerful are bound by the law as much as the weak. It’s the flouting of the law, the gleeful pissing all over the constitution, that makes the Chavez government precisely as unacceptable, unfair, retrograde, undemocratic and ultimately destructive to the nation as the old regime. And that I will not accept, can never accept – and I continue, naively, to think that deep down inside you cannot really defend it either.
I dunno how long it’s gonna take for us to learn that the laws are binding, not just on your enemies, not just on the poor, not just on those without connections or cronies or old school friends in power, but on EVERYONE. Every time Chavez gives a speech, every time he uses state money and state property for party political purposes, every time he shits all over the rule of law with the certain knowledge that he is above the reach of the instutions (cuz the Fiscal General is a crony) Chavez deepens the central problem of the venezuelan polity – its total disregard for the law.
Chavez did not create this problem. He has just deepened it immensely. And again, it’s hard for me to see how you can support a government that behaves this way, simply cuz the ideological background music happens to please you.
From “Gregory Wilpert” Date Fri, 19 Dec 2003 4:17 PM
To “‘Francisco Toro'”@fas
> My point is that the content of the conversation doesn’t make any
> difference one way or another because the country’s problem for 173 years
> since 1830 has been the absence of the rule of law, of basic citizen
> guarantees, the existence of governments always based on force, on the
> caudillo or the party, rather than on the law. It’s the constant flouting
> of the law that made the pre-1998 governments totally unacceptable,that
> made it imperative to change them. It’s the reason my very first
> involvement in Venezuelan politics, in 1996, was with the radical
> opponents of the Punto Fijo system, and why it grates so fucking much
> when Chavez tells me, us, that we are accomplices of the old regime
> simply because we do not dogmatically accept everything he says. Ese es
> el centro de la mezquindad de Chavez, and the center of his falsification
> of the history that brought him to power. But me? I haven’t changed
> positions. My position is the same: people are only free when the
> powerful are bound by the law as much as the weak. It’s the flouting of
> the law, the gleeful pissing all over the constitution, that makes the
> Chavez government equally unacceptable, unfair, retrograde, undemocratic
> and ultimately destructive to the nation. And that I will not accept, can
> never accept – and I continue, naively, to think that deep down inside
> you cannot really defend it either.
As I said before, I tend to agree with you about the unacceptability of breaking the law. However, I find your position so purist that I find it hard to believe that you could be active in politics anywhere. I mean, how does the taping and broadcasting of a private conversation compare to the wholesale trashing of the constitution, which is what many in the opposition did and almost everyone at least supported during the coup? Even someone you look up to, such as Teodoro Petkoff, was much lamer and tamer in his critique of the coup than he was of Chavez and the phone conversation in the editorial you sent to me recently. I did not see anyone (I mean this literally) from the opposition get as upset about the coup as they are getting now about this publicized phone conversation. I mean, how can you possibly work together with people who are so hypocritical? I think, given your standards, you should really be much more ni-ni than you are.
Besides, while it is illegal to tape and broadcast phone conversations in most countries, it’s something that happens all of the time. Just think of the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal. This does not excuse it, but it should put such practices into perspective and they have to be weighed against other values. I mean, what if someone in the conversation had actually said directly “we forged xx number of signatures”? Would you still say that under no circumstances could the conversation be revealed? If you say it can’t, fine. Your position would be well based on legal precedent, which forbids the use of illegally obtained evidence for convicting someone (at least in the U.S.).
I guess my main problem with the whole line of argument you present, which is quite rational, is that while you present an admirable standard, it’s not all that realistic in the Venezuelan context. That is, I agree in principle, but cannot draw the same conclusion that something like this proves that the whole government is corrupt. I have myself questioned the legality of some of the government’s practices before (most recently in an article on the Globovision microwave equipment case). While such incidents exist all over the place, I have to weigh them against the practices of the opposition, which I find much more objectionable, and the other aspects of the government that I find positive. In other words, I don’t find your position realistic in the sense that it does not seem to weigh the real alternatives. I find your position honorable, but inconsistent if you are not equally harsh against the opposition. I know you can be, but in the end, in your comparisons the opposition always comes out ahead of the government.
> Chavez did not create this problem. He has just deepened it immensely.
> And again, it’s hard for me to see how you can support a government that
> behaves this way, simply cuz the ideological background music happens to
> please you.
First of all, I do not think that Chavez deepened the problem. True, though, he has not contributed much towards resolving it. Secondly, I do think there are more positive things to the government than pleasing “ideological background music.”
From “Francisco Toro” Date Fri, 19 Dec 2003 5:36 PM
To “Gregory Wilpert”
Subject RE: rumanian rambling
I use the term “flouting” for a reason. It’s not that playing that Escobar Salom recording is a great sin. It’s that it’s a symbol, an EXCEEDINGLY EVIDENT demonstration of the shallowness of the government’s commitment to a system of law. This is not a detail. This is the crux of the Venezuelan problem. There is no republic, for 173 years there has been no republic. There is only power, and those who wield it. And until we learn to understand the law as, um, mandatory, we have no chance at all at advancing on ANY OTHER field!
So fuck the opposition, the opposition is half full of goons, I know that, I can do nothing about them but criticize them in public, which I do constantly. I do believe that the saner, democratically idealistic faction within the opposition is much closer to totally controlling the opposition movement now than it ever has been before. (Again, Petkoff writes very eloquently about this.)
But ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, I am not a member of the Venezuelan opposition. I am a member of a democracy movement, a movement for the institution of a system of government based on the rule of law. Both because this is right in itself, and because establishing a proper vibrant democracy based on respect, tolerance and inclusion is the ONLY way to move the country forward over the medium and long term. So I will continue to oppose this government for its catastrophic failure in this regard, and I will judge any future government by this same standard. Simple.
Because achieving this, finally establishing a government of laws for the first time in the country’s entire history, that Greg would be the real revolution. This is the challenge, the ball we need to keep our eye on. It would change everything, it would constitute a far more fundamental alteration of the power system in the country than anything Chavez has ever even come close to achieving.
So yes, Greg, if what you think insisting on democratic legality makes me unfit for politics, then yes, I am gleefully, proudly unfit for politics. I admit it, I am the wildly unrealistic one here – the one unrealistic enough to insist that, as a citizen of a free republic, I should enjoy the same protection to my citizenship rights as those taken for granted in all semi-functional democracies.
Remember how angry you were when you saw the US Republicans abuse their privileged position on the Supreme Court to give Bush the presidency? Remember how you felt your citizenship rights had been raped, that you’d been stripped of the basics of your political freedom? Remember how unacceptable it felt, how violent, how insolent, how wrong? That’s basically how I feel Greg. And quite rightly.
You would not accept this type of wholesale scorn for the rule of law in your country, and I don’t accept it in mine.
What’s so damn unrealistic about that?
Isn’t it a hateful, discriminatory, borderline racist but at the very least exoticist vision of Latin America one that leads you to argue that the basic procedural and citizen rights that you take as non-negotiable in the first world are “unrealistic” in Venezuela? Is real democracy, real political freedom, then also unrealistic in Venezuela? Are we not entitled to it? Are we not fully justified when we fight for it? Or is it only in gringos and Europeans who are entitled to political freedom?
Societies need wildly unrealistic people, Greg, they call us intellectuals. Me, I will wildly unrealistically support any political movement that demands the democratic rights of all its citizens, whichever side of the political divide those people my be on. It’s just that I can see, to my utter spookment, that many of the governments cadres – the ones I know are in Obispos municipality in Barinas, not the Caracas barrios – have an ultimately autoritarian attitude to political power to match Chavez’s perfectly! Dogmatism and intolerance of dissent are a fundamental part of the president’s political imagination, it’s very hard for me to see how the resulting instability and extremism can be anything but damaging.
From: “Gregory Wilpert Date Mon, 22 Dec 2003
To: “Francisco Toro”
It’s obvious to me that you are very angry about Chavez and the way he governs the country, just as Chavistas are very angry about the opposition and past governments and how they governed the country. There’s an incredible amount of anger to go around. Contrary to what most people think, I believe that much, if not most, of Venezuela’s conflict is based on righteous anger of this sort and a smaller portion is based on resentment. Though, resentment of earlier governments and its supporters profiting from privileges and of Chavistas taking away privileges and in some cases for themselves, is also an important factor.
I think it is painfully clear to me just how important a role anger plays in both sides. Also, it is important to somehow deal with this anger, in a way that does not get in the way of resolving Venezuela’s problems. Unfortunately, the anger on both sides is so great (just see the fist fights that break out in the National Assembly every once in a while) that it has completely blocked a “normal” democratic and rational resolution to Venezuela’s problems when managing the conflict between government and opposition.
I know, I changed the topic. I just want to acknowledge, just as you do, that it’s important to recognize the role the emotion that you are expressing is playing in Venezuelan politics.
As for your vindication of an “unrealistic” political position, I think that’s fine and support your right to take such a position 100%. Ultimately, where we disagree is which side in the conflict is more prone to the violation of law and which side is more likely to bring positive results to Venezuela. In my articles I have repeatedly made the argument that while the Chavez government is not the best of all worlds (there is no government in existence which is), it is better than Venezuela’s opposition, in my opinion. I think Chavistas have often made the mistake of bending the law, thereby hurting Venezuela’s fragile political culture and making the implementation of a better society more difficult. Still, I see the combination of the opposition’s even greater willingness to bend the law (or outright violate it) and the lack of a political program (let alone a decent one) as being far more harmful for the country’s future.
I think there are three basic political positions one can take in the Venezuelan conflict: support for the government, support for the opposition, and support for neither. While you say you only support Venezuela’s democracy movement, you seem to tend to straddle the fence between supporting the opposition and the “ni-ni” side of things because you seem to believe that what you call the democracy movement is stronger in the opposition than in the government. That is fine. It’s just that I see the democracy movement as being stronger in the government. That’s all.–Greg