Tuesday, October 20, 2020

OP-ED | 04-05-2019 10:42

Responsibilities and regional vacuums

Argentina has various reasons to feel a special responsibility – reasons going beyond the number of Venezuelans fleeing here from the Bolivarian regime or the incidents outside the Venezuelan Embassy.

News of last Tuesday’s abortive militar y uprising in Venezuela circumstantially carried an even bigger impact here, with this country halted by labour protests virtually reducing the week to its last two days. But in any event Argentina has various reasons to feel a special responsibility – reasons going beyond the number of Venezuelans fleeing here from the Bolivarian regime or the incidents outside the Venezuelan Embassy.

Part of that responsibility is shared. Venezuela is undoubtedly the region’s biggest problem and there are over 60 Latin American integration associations of one kind or another (a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms and names with ALBA, CEPAL, LAFTA, OAS, Unasur, the Ibero-American Summit, the Pacific Alliance, Mercosur, etc. etc.). Yet none can find any solution to this crisis – at time of writing information was not available on the outcome of the ongoing Lima Group huddle. Instead all the running is coming from outside the region (notably the United States and Russia with Venezuela’s main creditor China strangely silent). It is easy enough to blame this failure on the respective integration association but the whole is not necessarily more than the sum of its parts here – each individual member should feel responsible with Argentina needing to be far more proactive in a regional context.

This regional vacuum is all the more unfortunate because other contributions have been far from positive. In particular US President Donald Trump (via his outspoken National Security Advisor John Bolton) typically only seems to take one foot out of his mouth to insert the other – the complete opposite of Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Thus naming the three key members of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s entourage allegedly negotiating with the White House is a major blunder – it not only flags US intervention, thus boosting Maduro’s strongest argument, but also discourages anybody from now talking to the opposition, for fear of having their cover blown by Washington. Unless it was all a cunning ruse to sow mutual distrust among the Bolivarian helm. Meanwhile, Russia blusters against US intervention while unconvincingly denying its own.

Yet beyond the region Argentina is a unique touchstone for the Venezuelan dilemma for reasons pertaining to the past, present and future alike. Tuesday’s uprising not only failed but deserved to fail for reasons which have nothing to do with Bolivarian solidarity – they lie instead in Argentine history. When on Tuesday morning a military overthrow of Maduro seemed underway, there was a general rush to celebrate here – beyond the ranks of Kirchnerism and the hard left, of course – which bore an eerie similarity to the mood in the early autumn of 1976 (just as Tuesday’s events in Venezuela bore an uncanny resemblance to the failed Air Force uprising here on December 18, 1975). With all the hindsight about the 1976-1983 military dictatorship (its sickening state terrorism, its quadrupled foreign debt, its lost war) it becomes easy to forget that its advent was greeted with almost universal relief – not so much the best as the only alternative to the disastrously inept Isabel Perón presidency. Even the late Buenos Aires Herald (which was to become internationally renowned for denouncing human rights violations under Robert Cox) basically followed this approach for the first three or four months. Both the Isabel Perón and Maduro presidencies are surely among the worst in history yet Argentina’s post-1976 experience should show that military coups are not the way.

A more recent news item should also warn us to take a harder look at the Venezuelan alternatives. It would be grossly unfair to judge the Venezuelan opposition by Catherine Fulop’s imbecile outburst this week about the Jews being worse than Hitler but the fact remains that the former soap opera star hails from Venezuela (one of the few pre-Bolivarian arrivals here) and is a strident critic of Maduro. At the very least she represents a lunatic fringe – and perhaps not even fringe judging from some of the record of Popular Will leader Leopoldo López whose freedom triggered Tuesday’s events (whether released or jumping house arrest remains unclear).

But even if Venezuela’s opposition were perfect Jeffersonian democrats, Argentina’s experience of the last three years should kill any illusions that a mere change of government suffices. There is too much talk of Maduro’s exit and little of what would come next. Venezuela’s economic malaise has less to do with Maduro’s undeniable incompetence than having to give 40 percent of its oil free to China against previous loans just as any future government here faces uphill prospects against foreign debt overhang. And then there’s the question about how to unify a country that seems polarised into two ideologically driven camps. Opposite ends of South America but the parallels are multiple.

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