‘The Legacy of Hugo Chávez’

On Wednesday 30 April, a conference was held by Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute, to discuss the domestic, regional and international legacies of Hugo Chávez, the former Venezuelan president.

The first thing to say was that I was one of several people who arrived late at the talks because the UK capital was being disrupted that morning as a result of a strike by London Underground workers.

After a prolonged journey to the venue, I crept into the lecture theatre to hear Pedro A. Palma lambasting an economic legacy that he clearly thought was in tatters. Dr Palma, a Venezuelan economist who was a founding partner of consulting firm MetroEconómica, railed against “rampant inflation…an unsustainable situation”, saying that a “180-degree turn” was needed to try to save Venezuela. He referenced several slides showing different economic data and finished by outlining his fears that if action were not taken, there would be what he labelled “the materialisation of an exchange-rate tsunami”.

Someone who disagreed with Dr Palma was the next speaker, Arturo Sarmiento, the president of Telecaribe, a television station. He argued that 13 years of chavismo had led to political stability in Venezuela, and that despite his many critics, ‘El Comandante’ continued to win elections. He admitted that that opposition had been “castrated and suffocated” in many ways but was met by derisive cries from some members of the audience when he called the country’s electoral system “magnificent”. He said that the private sector must start to look at events in Venezuela in a different light and he ended with another statement that drew sarcastic chuckles from a few of those in the room. Mr Sarmiento believed that the arrival of Hugo Chavez into Venezuelan politics “helped avoid what could have been an even bigger social explosion than the French or Russian revolutions”.

Mr Sarmiento was well placed to comment on the media situation, and his response to a question about freedom of the press in Venezuela was firm. He said he had never experienced any censorship regarding any of his media ventures, going on to say that the press had a healthy role to play and that journalists were able to report freely in the country.

L-R: John Hughes, Canning House Chairman; Julia Buxton, Comparative Politics professor; Arturo Sarmiento, President of Telecaribe; Pedro A. Palma, Economist

L-R: John Hughes, Canning House Chairman; Julia Buxton, Comparative Politics professor; Arturo Sarmiento, President of Telecaribe; Pedro A. Palma, Economist

Julia Buxton, a professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy, had given her introductory speech while I was enjoying the gridlock in Piccadilly Circus but I got a taste of her position on the domestic legacy when she answered a question about the record high levels of crime. She agreed that Venezuela was “unique in its levels of criminal violence” but noted that, although crime had risen, poverty had fallen. Ms Buxton called for a “national dialogue and a consensus” on disarmament, lamenting the high numbers of light weapons and small arms in circuit and what she called “the glorification of violence”.

Next up were Dick Wilkinson, a former UK ambassador to Venezuela and to Cuba, and Alicia Castro, the Argentinian ambassador to the UK and former ambassador to Venezuela; they discussed Chávez’s regional legacy. For Mr Wilkinson, who met ‘El Comandante’ several times, the ‘participatory, not representative’ idea of democracy that Mr Chávez introduced was a refreshing method of engaging the masses. The Briton argued that there were four main groups into which you could fit Venezuela’s neighbours when it came to how they felt towards the former president:

1) Friends and supporters: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Caribbean nations

2) Who Chávez thought sold themselves to the USA: Colombia and Mexico

3) Suspicious towards his politics: Chile

4) Not hostile but viewed him with a certain condescension: Argentina and Brazil

L-R: Roger Cartwright, Canning House trustee; Alicia Castro, Argentinian ambassador to UK; Dick Wilkinson, former UK ambassador to Venezuela

L-R: Roger Cartwright, Canning House trustee; Alicia Castro, Argentinian ambassador to UK; Dick Wilkinson, former UK ambassador to Venezuela

Ms Castro spoke after Mr Wilkinson and she was in a combative mood. She denied that her country was condescending towards Caracas and opened her speech by saying “Venezuela is under an international media attack”. She thought that Chávez “gave Latin Americans hope of a better world”. There had been an enthusiasm across the region regarding the “challenge that Hugo Chávez presented to the neo-liberal agenda”, she stated and she went on to praise the “social revolution through democracy” that the socialist leader promoted.

In the questions that followed their discourses, the tension rose in the room as Ms Castro blithely swatted away some of the issues raised with short, snappy answers. She replied to a question from a Venezuelan about the issue of Caracas sheltering members of Colombia’s FARC rebels by asking how old the person posing the question was, intimating he was too young to know much about such matters. She was also robust in answering my question about how Hugo Chávez’s legacy could guide and shape the future of Mercosur, (which Venezuela joined in 2012), when set against the rising Pacific Alliance free-trade bloc. Ms Castro responded by focusing more on wanting to know why “British journalists” were fascinated by the issue of the Pacific Alliance, rather than the arguable politicisation of Mercosur and how the former Venezuelan leader’s policies would or would not guide Mercosur.

She closed with the above statement, a stance that provoked a lot of reaction online, with users both supporting her position and criticising her as a “true Peronist”.

(The third panel saw Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London from 2000-2008 and Diego Arria, a Venezuelan politician, discuss the international legacy of Hugo Chávez – this blog did not cover this final discussion)

Moving against Maduro – Report from anti-government protest in London

On Saturday 21 April there was a large pro-opposition demonstration outside the Venezuelan Embassy in London

To the chants of “fraude, fraude” and “se ve, se siente, Capriles presidente” (You can see it, you can feel it, Capriles is the president), supporters of defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles massed outside in the warm afternoon on the sunny side of the street. In West London’s museum quarter, the Saturday afternoon locals and tourists wandering past the brimming cafes and delicatessens of the neighbourhood were met by two lively sides of Latin political passion: the mostly yellow, blue and red pro-Capriles fans and the colourful rainbow coalition of pro-Maduro demonstrators.

The police kept the two sides apart and they only came to vocal blows. The main points of contention for the opposition were over the administration of the results – such as the apparent ratification of the election outcome before all the votes had been counted – and the resulting calls for an election audit, and for the pro-Maduro supporters it was the alleged undemocratic capitalist-etched attempts to overthrow a popularly and fairly elected government. Here are some of the protesters in their own words:

1. Marisol Mantilla, 32, IT consultant, Venezuelan, pro-Capriles

“The supposed support the chavistas give to the poor is a lie…the real poverty in Venezuela should be exposed…I would like to go back one day but there is security in London…80% of the Venezuelan population is ignorant.”

2. Paul Barbara, 70, human rights campaigner, British, pro-Maduro

“I have solidarity with the poor people of the world and with legitimately elected governments…the Venezuelan voting system is celebrated as a better system than the British one.”

3. Jenny, 31, human resources manager, Venezuelan, pro-Capriles

“I’m flabbergasted. I question how there can already have been an inauguration…it’s a slap in the face and a joke.”

4. Teresa, no age given, artist, no nationality given, pro-Maduro

“The Venezuelans are being oppressed by multi-national companies…we have conviction and the Capriles supporters are scared…you have to tell both sides of the story to be truthful.”



This was undoubtedly a major opposition protest and something that the pro-Maduro men and women lamented was the short notice they were given to try to organise a counter-protest. And the global make-up of the chavista demonstration was notable, with Peruvian, Argentinian, Bolivian, Cuban, rainbow and many more flags strung on the shady side of the embassy building.

The pro-opposition supporters never stopped loud-hailing their anti-Maduro chants and they swayed and seethed against the election results together. The cacerolazo, the classic Latin American pot- and pan-banging protest, was brought to the South Kensington streets. When it was added to the yellow tops, red-and-blue caps, and deep lines confronting the Maduro bloc, it made for a heady effervescence. It was quietly challenged by Morning Star British socialists and other Latin Americans showing their broad spectrum of solidarity that they placed opposite what they labelled as a privileged elite rich enough to be able to leave the homeland and thus be immediately disconnected from the travails on the ground. They defended the scarcity of Venezuelans in their ranks by saying that the true Venezuelans eking out a living at home cannot afford fancy flights to European capitals. When questioned about wealth, many opposition activists were more than willing to defend their expatriate status – “I had nothing when I arrived, I knew no English, I’ve worked hard all my life”, “I married a Briton and return to Venezuela for Christmas” and “how can you question someone’s patriotism just because they are not in their homeland at one particular moment” were some of the responses I received.

If you take the course of the Comandante’s 13 years in power as a whole, then whilst there certainly was positioning and jostling behind him, his throne was never in real danger from either a) rivals from his own side or b) the opposition. He was knocked off briefly during the short coup in 2002, but all that revealed was an unsteady opposition with an unsure plan and a reinforced military standing full-square in league with Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution.

But now, with the mercurial man gone, the opposition senses, perhaps more convincingly then in recent memory, that they have a true chance of derailing the fledgling Maduro administration. Henrique Capriles was defeated by Chavez in October 2012 – the last election that the late ‘son of Bolivar’ fought before his death in March – but this time around, having gone in again for the presidency, Capriles and his supporters are certainly not taking his apparent second election loss lightly. In October he accepted the defeat, despite the energetic campaign he led. But this time around, he seems to be going nowhere against a juvenile cabinet full of uncertain positions and policy and one that is reeling from the death of its brother comrade, the man who answered all previous queries, who filled all previous vacuums and whose exit from the stage has exposed more than ever a country in need of a sure footing. It does not seem to have that at the moment.

Adiós Comandante?

At the weekend Venezuelans go to the polls in a presidential election. Incumbent Hugo Chávez is under pressure

7-O is coming in Venezuela. On Sunday 7 October the South American country will elect a leader who will take it through to pretty much the end of the decade. The favourite to secure the victory in the race is well-known. He is loved and loathed across the world. He is the man who has campaigned on a self-created ideological mix of socialism, nationalism and personality since he was first voted into the Miraflores Palace in 1998. He is, of course, Presidente Hugo Chávez Frías. There is almost no need to say his name, such is his celebrity (or notoriety), and indeed that is one of the electioneering tactics being used by the main opposition candidate.

Henrique Capriles Radonski represents the opposition’s best chance to oust Chávez since the buccaneering leader came to power. Capriles has united dozens of anti-government groupings and parties under his ‘Primero Justicia’ (First Justice) banner. He is also refusing to recognise his powerful opponent by name, preferring to label Chávez as “the candidate of the PSUV” [the ruling government party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela]. Capriles knows the president has constructed a personality cult in the country, be it through his TV programme Alo Presidente or through his high-falutin international speeches attacking one Western country or another; the opposition’s man recognises he has to chip away at Chávez’ charismatic charm in every way he can.

Capriles has been whizzing around the country on his so-called ‘Pueblo por pueblo’ (Town by town) tour, trying to employ the energy that was once synonymous with the president, but who now cannot run around as he once did. Chávez has been suffering from an unconfirmed type of cancer and his team have been unable to silence the whisperers that doubt whether he will be fit enough to serve his country for another six-year term and that ponder the power vacuums that would arise should he be forced to give up power suddenly. The president has been popping back and forth to Cuba as he was treated for the disease and has declared himself cured.

Hugo Chávez is 57 whereas Henrique Capriles is 40 and the younger man has been squeezing every ounce out of his advantage of being 17 years younger than the leader. On Sunday, with a week to go until the vote, he mobilised hundreds of thousands of supporters in the capital, Caracas, whipping up the cheering crowds into a frenzy, shouting “you are the future, you must choose who is in the process of change and who is sick of power”. Chávez was once the forty-something upstart revolting against an entrenched order and the battle he faces on Sunday from Capriles resembles very closely the political fights that he used to pick and win.

Mud-slinging has been as evident in this campaign as in any other. Henrique Capriles has railed against perceived corruption amongst the ruling echelons of the country and lamented the attention that the government gives to foreign matters, saying the focus should be on a more domestic outlook. Hugo Chávez has said his rival will never win the election because he is a “pig”. But there has been a darker side to the election trail, with two members of opposition parties that are backing Mr Capriles’ campaign shot dead on Saturday 29 September by unidentified gunmen, but who were linked by witnesses to the state-owned oil company PDVSA. For its part, the government has said it will bring the killers to justice but it has opened up a bubbling public worry: that an inconclusive result could stoke civil unrest.

Big, social proyects aimed at alleviating some of the widespread civil suffering that is present further down Venezuelan society are a mainstay of the president’s policy bank and have proved very popular. Henrique Capriles has tried to assuage those who fear he will ditch all welfare support by pledging to maintain and improve the social programmes. He has said that he wants to build a ‘Venezuela for all’ but has been criticised by the government as someone who is too close to the interests of big business and religious conservatives. The president could never be accused of being in the pocket of capitalists; he has embarked upon a large-scale nationalisation package drawing many private interests back under state regulation. There is much to separate the men policy-wise, but there seems to be little to split them when it comes to the polls. Hugo is up in most but Henrique has a lead in two of the recent surveys.

The mercurial soldier who once launched a coup attempt on what he saw as the corrupt order in his beloved Venezuela is now the establishment himself. Hugo Chávez is facing an energetic challenge from a rival who has captivated large segments of Venezuelan society just like Hugo used to do. The president has to convince the citizens that, despite the popular appeal of his younger challenger and despite his own faltering health, he is still the powerhouse man to lead the oil-rich country for the next six years. Chávez has to show that he can clean up the awful rising crime and that he can safeguard the economy. In short, (and to use a word that the president himself is not averse to employing), Chávez’ unwritten slogan seems to be ‘better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t’.

Puzzling clues

A Venezuelan government sympathiser claims to find death threats hidden in a crossword puzzle

The supposed inflammatory answers were “asesinen” (they kill), “Adán” (Adam) and “ráfaga” (burst of machine-gun fire). Put together they could seem like a coded threat to the life of the president’s brother, Adán, but the veteran compiler who constructed the puzzle in Ultimas Noticias newspaper last week has totally denied the suggestion of a secret plot. Neptali Segovia was quoted as saying “I have nothing to hide because the work I have been doing for the last 17 years has only a cultural and education intention, and is transparent”.

The man accusing the wordsmith of the alleged subversion was Perez Piruela, a pundit on state TV. Piruela said “It’s a message…I’m speaking in the name of truth” and then went on to draw an amazing comparison between Segovia’s crossword and the coded resistance messages sent by General de Gaulle from London to France during the Second World War. The arguments over the clues go so far as the meaning of the last offending answer, with ‘ráfaga’ also being used daily to describe a gust of wind, not just a hail of bullets.

President Hugo Chávez has now been at home for a week since getting back from Cuba after his latest successful round of radiotherapy. He has admitted that the illness and subsequent treatment have been a setback. However, he says he is determined to recover enough to reach a level where he can get back on his political horse, rejoin the presidential race and gallop freely past Henrique Capriles, his opposition challenger in the October election.

“As the hours and days pass, I’m sure that with God’s favour, medical science and this soldier’s body that envelops me, I will get back to where I must be, in the front line of the battle, alongside the Venezuelan people, promoting the socialist revolution.”

The last week has been a busy one for Chávez as in the past seven days he has also created an advisory body called the ‘Council of State’. The new national group will have nine members but it has already come into question with regard to the unorganised issue of political succession. The Bolivarian leader of the country has not designated anyone to follow him in the short-term, should he succumb to his illness, or in the long-term, if and when he steps down. Just before one of his recent trips to Cuba for another round of cancer treatment, he jokily warned his brother, (the crossword-concealed Adán), against trying to wrest the presidency from his control behind his back while he was lying in hospital.

But on a more serious note, it seems that the president has not even considered the possibility that he might not be able to stand in the autumn vote, and he has equated his health battle with the battle against the West: i.e., one that he must win, one that he will win, and one that unites all anti-imperialists. Nor has he even come clean about the idea that he might truly lose the election. He has said openly that his rival will not be able to defeat him, but, if Capriles does win (the unwinnable election), then as a ‘democratically mature’ president, Chávez has also said that he will freely stand aside.

With a leader as misty and mercurial as this, it is no wonder that political paranoia is on the rise in Venezuela. The presidential ballot is too far off and too uncertain to call just yet. But as we have seen this week with the scandal over the apparent ‘death-clues’ crossword, it would not be too odd an idea to suggest that the result of the election may not truly lie with the pollsters but with the puzzlers instead.

Taking on a man and his revolution

On 12 February Venezuelans chose Henrique Capriles to run against Hugo Chávez for the presidency

Last week the country held its first-ever primary for the voters to select a single, unified opposition candidate to take on Mr Chávez in October’s presidential election. Can Mr Capriles win? The governor of Miranda state certainly convinced the electorate taking part that he was the man for the job, winning more than 60% of the vote and beating Zulia governor Pablo Pérez into second place.

Capriles is young – at 39 he is 18 years younger than Chávez – and the dynamism of youth could well be a bonus and will be deployed by Capriles in an attempt to paint the powerful incumbent as an irrelevant coaster, whose revolution has turned stale and is holding the country back.

The revolution Mr Capriles is going to have to try to stop is a big, international beast. Hugo Chávez embodies Bolivarianism and has located himself firmly at the forefront of the movement. He is not planning on going anywhere any time soon. Chávez regularly hails the most famous Venezuelan, Simón Bolívar, who campaigned for independence from Spain and later became president himself, as the past and future spearhead of his politics and hero for all Latin America. Mr Chávez has forged an ideology of proud self-determination, anti-Westernism and pan-Latin Americanism based on firm socialism, all of which, he claims, invoke the spirit of Bolívar.

Chávez sees his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ as an ongoing, unfinished project that is constantly evolving. He has managed to bring much of the region along with him, and he has set up the ALBA bloc as a sort of ‘Bolivarian international club’ (see ‘Bolivarian bluster‘ – 05/02/12).

Henrique Capriles has to assure the voters that there is another way. This is all the country has known for the last 13 years. He has promised to be “a president for all Venezuelans” but his foe is the ultimate populist. He has said he will get to grips with the economy but Venezuela has been growing under Chávez. The opposition is also focusing on the real scourge of rising violence and continued high murder rates. They are also united in a mass effort to boot Chávez out of power  in a pragmatic manner, totally different from the bombastic electioneering of their rival. Mr Chávez has also been making promises; he has said he will accept the result of the vote on 7 October but, at the same time, has declared that Mr Capriles cannot win and must not be allowed to take the wheels off his revolution.

Hugo Chávez is a seasoned orator and he has managed to refine a particular style of public performance that allows him to cover all manner of moods and atmospheres. On his daily morning programme Alo Presidente he can easily switch from being cocky and jovial to being condemnatory, patriotic and defiant. He recently described Mr Capriles:

“you have a pig’s tail, a pig’s ears and you snort like a pig you low-life…therefore you are a pig”

Comments such as this can seem tongue-in-cheek but Mr Capriles will be under no illusions that behind the comic asides and mercurial turns of phrase there lies a determined and barbed mind. Mr Chávez has come through recent treatment for cancer and is ready to engage again with his supporters, many of who live at the poorer end of society, and who have been helped by government social programmes and food subsidies. The president has won acclaim for his patriotism but has been criticised for hyperactive nationalisation of private companies, corruption and cronyism, and a dictatorial approach to government.

Hugo Chávez has had great success at home and abroad and will not give up on his revolución without a bloody electoral battle. Mr Capriles must be ready for the fight and show why he believes Venezuela has a better future ahead without Chávez at the helm in what are stormy regional and global waters.

Bolivarian bluster

A Latin American left-leaning bloc show their internal unity and their international exposure

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) group of socialist nations is certainly filled with bombastic leaders living up to its florid name. The bloc has just had its most recent get-together and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was a more than willing host for the club.

The leaders met yesterday for talks and debates and came out with some conspicuous agreements. Firstly, they ensured they set themselves against popular opinion at the United Nations by resoundingly supporting Russia and China’s veto of a proposed Security Council resolution on Syria endorsing an Arab League peace plan. These Latin and Caribbean countries are well known for their dislike of all things Western (as far back as September 2010 this blog highlighted the friendship between Bolivia and Iran – see ‘Latin-Persian alliance on the way? – 25/09/10′). Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador last month to re-affirm the mutual contempt for London, Paris and New York. Hugo Chávez called the veto “very positive” and Bolivian president Evo Morales said that ALBA “joins the veto”.

Controversial statements like these were not surprising. Chávez took this opportunity to criticise the handling of the Libya conflict by the Western powers with his famous categorical hyperbole :

“They invade, bomb, destroy a country, assassinate its president…it’s imperialism’s schizophrenia”

There are two Latin American nations sitting as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and, notably, neither of them are in ALBA. Colombia and Guatemala (who both currently have conservative presidents) voted in favour of the resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling on president Bashar al-Assad to stand down. So despite the fact that the leftist bloc’s title supposedly includes ‘the Peoples of Our America’, their support for Russia, China and Iran and anti-Western sentiment is not shared across the region.

One topic that does garner more backing from Latin Americans outside ALBA is the Falkland Islands/Malvinas territorial dispute. This weekend ALBA favourite Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian leader, called for:

“more concrete, more forceful decisions, Latin American sanctions against Great Britain…[the UK’s position is] an assault on sovereignty, extemporaneous colonialism”

Hugo Chávez has excitedly addressed Queen Elizabeth II in the past to hand over control of the islands to Argentina and this blog has covered the issue in previous posts (see ‘An island life for me‘ – 11/02/11).

The membership list of ALBA is a real political mix, including regional giants like Venezuela, Central Americans like Nicaragua and tiny Caribbean states like Antigua & Barbuda. The noises they make are often parochial proposals. But every now and again they come out with provocative opinions on sensitive global issues. ALBA loathes foreigners meddling in other states’ affairs but it seems unmovable on the Syrian violence even if, in this case, the UN resolution was based on Arab League reforms drawn up by Middle East politicians. While the Western powers will not lose sleep over the failure of St Kitts & Nevis to support them, Ecuador and Cuba are important players in that developing region and it is worrying that the ALBA organisation seems fundamentally opposed to all Western ideals.

Diagnosis elections

Presidential health problems must be taken seriously as soon as they are uncovered

On 1 September, the president of Guinea-Bissau, Malam Bacai Sanha, was flown to neighbouring Senegal for a ‘medical check-up’, according to the government. He has had numerous hospital trips recently, normally to next-door Dakar. In December 2009, Sanha postponed a visit to Portugal ‘for health reasons’. He was hospitalised in Paris for ten days. When asked about his health, Sanha said: “It’s true that I also suffer from diabetes but that is not as serious as people want to make out.”

Popping in and out of the country over health concerns can make the people worry. Unsurprisingly, as a small West African state, Guinea-Bissau has suffered political turmoil and in March 2009 the then president Joao Bernardo Vieira was assassinated. Mr Sanha has provided some welcome stability to the tiny nation after a peaceful transition followed Vieira’s killing. But the balance could easily swing back a violent way if Sanha can no longer go on or dies.

If you look 1,600 miles to the east, a similar situation arose last year when Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died. He had suffered from a chronic kidney condition for at least 10 years. One health trip to Saudi Arabia, in November 2009, lasted three months. This left a power vacuum and Nigeria began to rock. Replacing him with the vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, was far from a simple step: Mr Yar’Adua was a Muslim northerner. The Abuja presidency, on a regional and religious rotation schedule, was on its Muslim spin, though in subsequent elections, Mr Jonathan won a majority fairly.

The most well-known poorly president at the moment is Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has cancer and completed his third round of chemotherapy on 2 September. He has been undergoing treatment in Cuba and the opposition has claimed that this has been putting national security at risk. However, Mr Chavez underwent his latest batch of treatment back home in Caracas. This was surely a move designed to prove his recuperating fitness and to warn both his deputies and the opposition that his full recovery is approaching. Chavez has been defiant so far, saying on Friday that he “feels better than ever”. He has warned his older brother and other ministers off eyeing up his office, saying he will contest and win next year’s elections.

The manoeuvring and electioneering that inevitably occurs as soon as the main man whizzes off to some overseas clinic is destabilising to a country. Fragile situations, such as those in West Africa, can be left on a knife-edge. In Venezuela’s case, there are worries over to what extent Mr Chavez really can run the country from his hospital bed, despite the president’s phone-ins to state TV. As enticing as triumphant returns from the brink of death can be for presidents lured by possible electoral boosts, the best health policy must surely be honesty from the start over the seriousness of the condition and clear planning for elections and successions if things get worse. And, of course, some of that fresh foreign air.

Pacha Mama Mia

The presidents of Peru and Bolivia face resistance from indigenous communities over environmental plans

When Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, became the leader of Bolivia in 2005 he also became the first indigenous president. He came to power on a mandate to govern with a sort of ‘indigenous socialism’. Morales has been a strident defender of the rights of Bolivia’s native inhabitants and their stunning natural environment. He always liked to equate their struggle against colonial invaders with his fight against foreign traders, the US and Western capitalism; politics with which Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader currently battling cancer, has identified very strongly.

But it has been six years since his arrival and the outlook is now different for Evo. In the past he has called any interference in the way-of-life or homeland of the indigenous communities ‘ecolocide’. Now he is the one being accused of destroying pacha mama. On 16 August indigenous activists took the first steps on a 233 mile-long protest march from the Amazon plains to the capital, La Paz. Normally, this would be a demonstration that Morales would be more than happy to join. But the march is in opposition to one of his policies, namely a government plan to build a 190 mile-long highway through a national park in aboriginal territory.

The road would potentially link the Beni plains to the Chapare, where Evo was a coca farmer before going on to lead a coca farmers’ union. Brazil has stumped up $420m for the project and certainly knows a thing or two about controversial environmental politics and upsetting local tribes, having given the Belo Monte dam the green light on 1 June. Foreign investors are on the horizon and the forest stands between them. Morales’ ‘indigenous socialism’ seems to be morphing into something more like ‘investment socialism’.

Ollanta Humala, who replaced Alan Garcia in the Peruvian presidency in July, has also found that he is having to alter the populist, pro-indigenous policies he has previously championed. In opposition he had been a creature in the mould of Chavez and Morales, denouncing free trade and capitalism but he has since ensured his new government is not seen as isolationist and instead said:

“We are building a government of national unity. This isn’t a Cabinet of the left or the right, but a Cabinet for all of Peru.”

He has angered native Peruvians with his plans for expanded oil and gas investment and exploration. And, just like in Bolivia, new roads through the Amazon rainforest have been proposed. The indigenous communities have criticised Humala and seem ready to rise, just as Bolivia’s Indians are now doing against one of their own.

Both countries could do with more infrastructural integration with neighbours and natural resources can be shared and developed but there is now a strengthening indigenous challenge. The once-quiet, Quechua and Aymara-speaking communities seem to have found a collective and growing voice.

Returning to the front line

Although many focus on future policy planning, the way politicians recover from setbacks can define a career

On Friday 1 June, the French president’s office released a statement in which they announced they would “not comment on the course of American justice” and “respect the presumption the innocence”. The innocence being presumed was that of a man who had recently been arrested, forced to pay an enormous bail and surrender his passport for an alleged criminal sexual offence.

Returning to try to rebuild your life after such a setback would be hard enough in itself. If you were Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it would seem near impossible. But, incredibly, the French press are already talking about him manoeuvring back on to the track he was chugging down until he was detained on 15 May: organising a bid to be the Socialist presidential candidate for next year’s election.

It would be a stunning return to action but it is unlikely. Many think it more possible that he become openly involved with one of the current candidates’ campaigns. DSK will not be able to waltz back into the corridors of power; France’s outlook on ‘bedroom politics’ has changed permanently, whatever the final outcome of his case.

Recovering from this setback, (and there is no doubting there was a sexual element to the incident), will be difficult but big political personalities in Paris (especially those who have been seen to belittle the US in some way) hold a lot of strings with which to pull themselves back up.

For Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, the challenges are different. He is now back in Caracas after convalescing in Cuba following surgery to remove a pelvic abscess. Chavez revealed on 30 June that he had also undergone an operation for a cancerous tumour. Speculation has mounted over his position but Chavez himself simply called his health problems “a new battle that life has placed before us” and pledged to defeat them as though they were some irritating Western critics: “Forever onward toward victory! We will be victorious! Until my return!”

But will he be victorious? There are three main scenarios that have evolved from this medical setback:

1) He is too ill ever to come back properly and fulfil his energetic socialist agenda and has to leave power (although there are no similarly charismatic pretenders waiting in the wings)

2) He takes quite a while to improve and has to transfer power temporarily to his brother Adan Chavez or maybe vice-president Elias Jaua or Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro

3) He is fit and well and deliberately delayed his comeback in order to make his return to Caracas all the more triumphant (today, 5 July, is Venezuela’s bicentenary of independence from Spain)

Whatever their nature, it would be folly for politicians always to live in the future. How (if, at all) they overcome setbacks can be critical to their lives in the limelight.

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.