| |

Chavez, Colombia and the Zelaya Deal

In this interview with Paul Jay from TheRealNews, Gregory Wilpert, founder of Venezuelanalysis, discusses the recent foreign policy choices of the Chávez government. Analysing topical issues such as Venezuela's growing relationship with Colombia and Venezuela's vote in favour of allowing Honduras back into the Organization of American States (OAS), Wilpert considers the motivation behind these decisions and how this relates to the Venezuelan left.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. When President Zelaya–and of course he’s now former president of Honduras, but many people think he still should be president because he was removed in what most of the world at the time said was an illegal coup. But a couple of weeks ago, when he returned to Honduras in a deal brokered by President Santos of Colombia and President Chavez of Venezuela, it was met with mixed reaction. Thousands of people greeted him in Honduras, happy that he was back. But the deal itself was open to question because the Honduran government that came to power in an election after the coup, an election not recognized by most of Latin America and not by most members of the OAS, but after this deal, Honduras rejoined the OAS with all states voting in favor, with the exception of Ecuador.

Now joining us to make sense of all of this is Greg Wilpert. He’s the founder of Venezuelanalysis. He now joins us from New York City. Thanks for joining us, Greg.


JAY: So, first of all, why does Chavez make this deal with Colombia after taking such a strong stand against this new Honduran regime?

WILPERT: I think the main reason is that he was subordinating his previous policy, basically, to his new policy of warming relations with President Santos’s Colombia. That is, in the name of improving relations with Colombia, he agreed to be drawn into this deal of brokering an agreement on the return of President Manuel Zelaya to Honduras. I think he felt that even though it didn’t satisfy all of the requirements that had been set up by Zelaya and his movement, it was good enough, and if it was going to help also improve his relation with Colombia, it would be worth it. Of course, as a result Chavez has received some criticism from his own ranks, from the left of his own ranks, that this was a mistake, especially because the human rights abuses are continuing in Honduras, and also because the coup plotters are continuing in office or are not being punished at all for what they had done.

JAY: Right. And for people who have not followed this story–but, of course, if you’re watching The Real News you would know this–human rights violations in Honduras continue almost unabated. Dozens of people have been killed, many, many more wounded, many arrested. The repression against journalists–Honduras is considered one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a journalist right now. So given all that, has Chavez not received criticism within Venezuela for this deal?

WILPERT: Yes, he has certainly received some criticism for that. But as I said, he’s really doing it in the name of improving relations with Colombia, and he feels to some extent he can take this criticism, even though he is running for office again for president in 2012, because he knows that he’s the only option that the left has for Venezuela, and right now he’s more concerned with improving relations with Colombia because of the economic benefits and security benefits that might bring.

JAY: And in Venezuela, how is this warming relationship with Colombia being greeted? My understanding is he’s been going after some people that have been at least accused of being FARC supporters in Venezuela.

WILPERT: Yes, actually, a number of people have been captured in Venezuela, people who are accused by the Colombian government of being FARC members or FARC leaders, and there were three last year and two this year. One of them actually was a prominent journalist who had sought political asylum in Sweden because his wife was murdered in 1993 and he was being persecuted in Colombia. So that was a very controversial case. His name was Joaquin Perez Becerra, where it’s not at all clear that he was actually a member of the FARC leadership or anything like that. Colombia simply launched that accusation against him, and Chavez responded almost immediately, arresting him when he arrived in Venezuela and deporting him to Colombia within two days. That really caused a lot of consternation among the left in Venezuela. And then another case recently of a musician, whether he was considered to be the FARC musician, so to speak. He was arrested in Venezuela as well and is about to be deported or extradited to Colombia. So those cases have caused probably a lot more consternation amongst the pro-Chavez ranks than the brokered Honduras deal did.

JAY: Now, when Santos was running in the election campaign in Colombia, one of the critiques that was coming is that he was actually upping the intensity of the anti-Venezuela rhetoric. His background in terms of when he was minister of justice, I guess it was, or head of the Ministry of Defense was pretty shady. A lot of the disappeared people–he was involved in a scandal where, to up the body count, he was charged with being involved with–where they were killing peasants and calling them FARC activists just to get the body count up. So people were kind of expecting the worst from Santos, if you were–in terms of relationships with Venezuela. How do you account for the fact that he seems to actually be warming up more to Venezuela than his predecessor, Uribe?

WILPERT: I think it was partly his electoral strategy that he saw that with Uribe, that attacking Venezuela worked. But later on he became more of an economic realist and realized that Colombia had $6 billion of trade with Venezuela, which had dropped to less than $1 billion within a matter of two years. And so it’s a tremendous loss for Colombian businesses, which had been exporting their products to Venezuela. In return, Venezuela had only been exporting something like $1 billion worth to Colombia. So there was a tremendous trade imbalance in favor of Colombia, actually. And so I think Santos is somebody who represents the business class more than Uribe does, and therefore become more of an economic pragmatist in that sense and saw that improved relations was good for business, good for the Colombian economy. The other factor which I mentioned earlier is also the security aspect, that he probably calculated, I think, correctly that having good relations with Venezuela would actually improve the security situation with regard to the Venezuelan-Colombian border rather than worsen it, because as we can see now, Chavez has been turning over FARC combatants, and according to Santos himself, there are no more FARC encampments in Venezuela, which was a longstanding claim by the Colombians for a long time.

JAY: It’s kind of ironic. You had the United States actually upping some of the rhetoric against Venezuela, especially with sanctions against the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA because of its trade relationship with Iran. And then you have Colombia, which has usually been seen as the closest American ally in South America to the US warming up to Chavez. On the other hand, Uribe, the former president’s not too happy about all this.

WILPERT: Yeah. So the former president is constantly criticizing Santos, especially on his security policies. And what he means, basically, is his soft approach towards Venezuela or his cozy relationship to Chavez. And that’s a sign, of course, that the Santos camp is conflicted itself. And, of course, the United States is constantly trying to keep Venezuela and Colombia apart. That’s something they’ve been trying for a long time, and sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t. And I think right now the United States is becoming more and more isolated, even with its own allies, in that regard.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, one of the central pillars of US recent policy in Latin America is to try to isolate Chavez. But that’s–if Colombia’s warming up, then who wouldn’t warm up?

WILPERT: Right. There’s a very strong sense of integration right now within Latin America. Next month, on July 5, there will be a major summit where the Central American and Caribbean countries are going to get together to form a new regional organization which basically aims to replace the OAS, the Organization of American States. It’s going to include all of the Caribbean countries and all of Latin American countries and will not include United States or Canada, which is what the OAS has. And so this is really a new approach to–or a new attempt to forge an independent path for these countries.

JAY: Now, let’s look at Honduras now, the return of Zelaya sort of a mixed message, I suppose, to Honduras. People were very happy when he arrived and came out in the tens of thousands. On the other hand, it sort of normalizes things with a government that they say continues to violently repress people’s democratic rights.

WILPERT: Yes. I think there–in Honduras there’s a bit of disagreement, I would say, perhaps, between Zelaya and his supporters as to what might be the best approach to try to reverse the coup that happened, and with Zelaya saying that we need to engage politically, basically, and he sees his role as being very pivotal for that. And that’s why his main demand was that the government, the coup government, essentially, and then subsequently elected government, remove all charges against Zelaya, which they’ve done, so that he could participate politically, and his organization, which is called the Organization for–or the National Resistance Movement, would be legalized. And so that does indeed provide an opening for changing the system from within, although, like you said, the human rights abuses are continuing, and none of the perpetrators of the coup are in any way being touched. They are basically free to act, continue to act with impunity.

JAY: So it serves Zelaya’s interests to go back and kind of get normalized himself. But does it do more than that in terms of the struggle of the Honduran people?

WILPERT: Well, Zelaya has promised that he will keep their struggle for fundamental changes in Honduras, he will keep that as his main target, as his main objective, and will try to work towards a constitutional assembly, just like he wanted to do towards the end of his presidency, before he was ousted in the coup. So it remains to be seen. I mean, what the evolution is, it’s possible that his strategy might work in the end, depending on whether or not his organization and he will have enough freedom and enough freedom of movement to actually challenge the new power structure there.

JAY: In terms of Chavez supporters in Venezuela, and Latin America more broadly, are they in agreement with Chavez’s role in this? Or is there–are they mostly–are they critical?

WILPERT: There has been substantial criticism from Chavez’s left, but I think the attention hasn’t been that focused on that particular issue and that it’s rather the accumulation of issues, the arrests of people who are accused of being FARC members. And of course the support of this agreement for bringing back Zelaya just adds on to the criticisms that people have on the left of Chavez right now, who of course is gearing up for his own presidential campaign in 2012. So it has to be seen in that context. So it’s a tricky situation that Chavez is in, because he’s obviously constantly being attacked from the right, and now he’s got some mounting discontent on the left as well.

JAY: Which is a big deal in Venezuela in politics. The left is big, and it’s what’s elected him in the past.

WILPERT: Yes, but they’re sticking by him, despite all criticism. I think Chavez, he has to be careful in the sense that he can’t take the left fringe for granted. But on the other hand, he is the only alternative, the only choice that they have. I mean, they’re not–.

JAY: But isn’t it a danger for him not so much that, you know, his supporters will vote for opposition candidates? The danger for him is his supporters might just stay home.

WILPERT: Yes, exactly. That is certainly a risk. But, actually, the left, the far left is much more committed, so they actually are less likely to stay home. More likely to stay home are these–the kind of discontented center that is frustrated that many of the policies haven’t been working out or haven’t been implemented as well as they would like to see. That I think is actually the greater danger for Chavez right now.

JAY: Well, we’ll cover more of this as we get closer to the presidential election. Thanks for joining us, Greg.

WILPERT: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.