Venezuela: Victim or Target?

Washington, Bogota, and Caracas agree that the cocaine that used to be exported from Colombia to the U.S. is now being exported from Venezuela to the U.S. A decade of U.S. arms and money has apparently just moved the drug gangs’ headquarters to a neighboring piece of jungle. MSM rhetoric has a profound anti-Venezuelan bias. As Washington appears to be shifting its focus from the Mideast to Latin America, will Venezuela be treated as victim or target?

From the Wall St. Journal, the classic mouthpiece of the U.S. corporate elite, we are informed that Hugo Chavez is funding social programs to provide free housing and food to the poor. The Wall St. Journal does not see fit to point out that things are much better in the U.S., where some ten million of those citizens made newly poor by banker mortgage fraud and Wall St. financial “irresponsibility” (the most delicate and polite word I can think of) have effectively been defined as “superfluous” in a country swept up in the passion of electoral rhetoric about maintaining the position of the nation’s treasured super-rich capitalist class (considered to be 0.1% of the population, perhaps similar in size to the real ruling class of Venezuela in pre-Chavez days). Since the Wall St. Journal of course cannot imagine a leader actually wanting to help the poor escape from a life of poverty to which they have been condemned by virtue of an economic system run by the rich and for the rich, it concludes that the only reason Chavez is helping them is “to shore up support” for his own upcoming election.
No criticism of the Wall St. Journal is intended here. After all, that newspaper is naturally accustomed to operating in the U.S., where politicians shore up support for re-election not by handing out money to the poor but by declaring themselves “pro-business.” For an example of being “pro-business,” one need only think of the new pro-Monsanto president of Paraguay, just installed by a smooth little afternoon impeachment.
The Wall St. Journal soundly rebukes the hapless populist president of Venezuela by quoting a Venezuelan broker…kind of like asking Jamie Dimon for an assessment of the 2010 financial reform legislation. I guess that settles that.
The Wall St. Journal overlooked one point – the growing Latin trade bloc Mercosur just announced that Venezuela has been invited to join. Perhaps there is hope for Venezuela’s economy, burdened by the legacy of impoverishment resulting from the long tradition of rule by the rich and, for whatever complex set of reasons, the failure of Chavez’ economic policy completely to overcome that legacy despite the enormous progress he has made (according to the UN):

from 2002 to 2010, poverty was reduced by 20.8 percent, descending from 48.6 percent to 27.8 percent, while extreme poverty went from 22.2 percent to 10.7 percent, which translates to a reduction of 11.5 percent.

The Wall St. Journal also failed to note the impact on Venezuela’s government budget of defending itself against the Colombian cocaine gangs that have flourished during the U.S.-supported civil war against the FARC. Venezuela just arrested a Colombian drug dealer living in Venezuela in a joint U.S.-Colombian-Venezuelan effort. Will Washington now provide Venezuela with economic aid in gratitude? The arrested drug dealer had formerly been a member of the “paramilitaries,” according to Fox News—that is, the AUC, the paramilitary organization supporting Bogota in the civil war while Bogota was the recipient of massive amounts of U.S. aid. He was, according to Fox News:

the leader of the “Rastrojos,” or Leftovers, a violent offshoot of the Norte del Valle cartel that engages in drug trafficking, extortion and murder as it competes with other criminal bands that grew out of the far-right militias known as paramilitaries.


Fox News did not describe the past relationship between the paramilitaries and the government of Colombia (though it did briefly review that history in a previous article), nor did any of the articles referenced here dwell on the history of U.S. treatment of Chavez.

Washington’s response, instead, may be signaled by a scary piece in the New York Times on July 27 that portrays Venezuela as the source of a (bright red, in the enclosed graphic) flood of cocaine headed for the U.S. So it may be; all sides appear in complete agreement that Colombian drug gangs are solidly entrenched in Venezuela after a decade of U.S. support for Bogota in its civil war against the poor and a decade of U.S. hostility toward the populist regime in Venezuela. The question is:

How is it that all the flood of U.S. money and arms to Bogota in recent years served not to end the flow of cocaine north but simply to divert it from the Colombian jungle next door to the Venezuelan jungle?

Election Debate: Where Are the Ideas?

An election in a democracy should be an opportunity for fresh ideas to rise to the top. So where are the ideas in the current U.S. presidential election? The list of dangerous and highly unstable situations in the world that are likely to make life miserable for the next U.S. president is long, and the level of instability is rising. Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, and Colombia-Ecuador-Venezuela are all on a knife’s edge. Mexico’s drug cartel issue is not far behind.

From the Republican side, Ron Paul has been shunted aside, and McCain is grinning, “Full speed ahead!” One wonders exactly where he thinks he is going.

From the Democratic side, Kucinich and Robertson and Gravel have been shunted aside. Obama says “Change!” and says it grandly, but whenever he makes the mistake of becoming specific, he sounds just like every other mainstream leader who has gotten us into this trouble. Clinton can’t make up her mind whether she (A) is still part of Bill Clinton’s old liberal group that offered such hope to the nation for a brief moment so long ago or (B) another angry Republican suffering from an overdose of testosterone.

Neither Clinton nor Obama looks like Bush, and neither is likely to win by trying. On domestic issues, there are real differences, but the rest of the world is not going to disappear. How to climb out of the hole we have dug ourselves into needs to be addressed.

Nader is not going to win, unless of course the unthinkable happens and we all start thinking for ourselves, but at the moment a protest vote for Nader does indeed, as suggested elsewhere, sound like the way to go.

Addicted to Violence

Politics is the art of the possible. Without talking to opponents, one cannot find out what might be possible. Politicians who refuse to talk to opponents ensure that at least some of the potential solutions will not even be considered. Such behavior is, however, not necessarily the result of stupidity or sulking.

When political leaders refuse to talk to their opponents, the simplest explanation is the obvious one: they do not want a solution. They do not have a problem. They are satisfied with the status quo. A politician who proclaims loudly his or her desire for compromise provided that the opponent concede on the key issue in advance is simply talking to the gallery.

Politics is all about negotiating: that’s what they are hired to do. When they refuse to do their job, you are entitled to ask why they want failure. The answer may well be that they do not consider the absence of a solution a failure. “Solution” implies change. Regimes that refuse to talk to those who want to alter the system do so because they are benefiting from the status quo.

  • Chaos and low-level insurgency may well be a price a colonial regime will be quite willing to pay in return for being able to use that violence as the excuse for keeping the colonized people in subjugation. After all, the very point of colonization is to preventing the colony from going its own way.

  • The destruction of a conquered society may well be a price a conqueror will be quite willing to pay in return for gaining access to natural resources or military bases to be used in further adventures. Indeed, social chaos in the colony provides a nice cover for the establishment of military bases for totally unrelated purposes.
  • Low-intensity rural insurgency may be a price a rich urbanized elite will be quite willing to pay if in return it receives massive amounts of military aid from foreign patrons. The military will be likely to enhance its prestige and acquire far more sophisticated weapons than it needs to use against rural rebels.

The elites who reject negotiation and compromise, who promise to “stay the course,” seldom end up on the front lines facing the insurgents whose “radicalism” they have provoked. Waste no time asking such politicians what they want. Rather, ask yourself how the violence in a remote rural jungle, or a colony, or a conquered land may be benefiting those elites. It is not the rebellious peasant whose land was stolen by a cattle baron who should be called an “extremist.” It is not the rebellious teenager raised in a refugee camp hearing how his parents were ethnically cleansed from their homeland who should be called an extremist. It is not the rebellious militiaman fighting against foreign invaders who should be called an extremist. Is a man who defends his home and family an extremist? No, the extremist is the politician who refuses to talk to his enemy, instead insisting on a policy of preconditions and force.

Complexity and Dynamics of Global Violence

How to comprehend the functioning and evolution of human civilization as a complex system will be one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century. A key sub-question concerns the interplay between individual human behavior and the various components of the international political system. Progress toward answering this question promises invaluable payoffs in terms of wars avoided and human aspirations satisfied.

To sketch out the nature of the problem, one can simplify to a three-lens view of international relations:

· One lens shows the familiar broad overview of events: sequence is fairly clear but causality far less so, which leaves us vulnerable to surprise.

· A more powerful lens reveals the causal dynamics. The concepts for interpreting what we see at this magnification are well developed and can even in some fields be represented by equations (because it is assumed that all actors in a given class behave the same), but culture lags behind: we are unfortunately not accustomed to thinking very clearly about the nature of feedback loops and delays in the context of international relations. We have a valuable set of interpretive tools for minimizing surprise in global affairs and for avoiding foreign policy failures that we have simply not bothered to use.

· The third lens is still being polished; though the view through it remains murky, we need to start using it because it shows a far more accurate image of reality. This is the lens that reveals not only the actions and dynamics of a system but also the various structural components. If these components are at multiple levels (individual, group) and all are interdependent, the result is complexity. The theory of complexity that is taking shape today is designed to illuminate systems composed of multiple interdependent parts whose connections at one level (e.g., individual) give rise to seemingly counterintuitive behavior at other levels (e.g., group, national, regional, or system-wide).

The first lens shows us speeches, invasions, elections. The second lens shows the forces causing those events, which it may be reasonable to classify into political, economic, demographic, cultural, and technical. The third lens presumably should show how new behavior emerges at one level from highly complicated interactions at another. More precisely, behavioral dynamics will occur at multiple levels within each of the five sectors mentioned above and others will occur among those sectors.

Exactly how to apply these ideas to international relations is a challenge that remains to be solved. Among the specific problems that seem appropriate subjects for viewing from the complexity perspective are:

· How Palestinian infighting has emerged to undercut the Palestinian people’s long struggle for independence from Israeli colonization;

· How a peasant rebellion for justice against exploitative big landowners in Colombia evolved over half a century into a battle between guerrillas and paramilitaries, with both selling narcotics and committing atrocities against the innocent;

· How violence-addicted extremists gained ascendancy on all sides so quickly after the brief glow of post-Cold War hope, leading to the casting aside of fundamental rules for governing the international political system;

· How the Iraqi insurgency evolved into Sunni-Shi’ite in-fighting at the expense of efforts either to resist the U.S. occupation or rebuild Iraq, with the emergence of new types of behavior (e.g., blowing up holy sites).

Complexity theory sensitizes us to questions that might otherwise be overlooked.

· The interdependence of the parts of a complex system (think of the difference between giving drugs to a sick person and repairing a car) warns one to expect “side” effects. Thus, if a problem in ties between two ethnic groups appears, from the complexity perspective, one would automatically ask how that would ripple through the whole system, with implications for system stability.
· The expectation that the way the parts of a complex system interact will be affected by the context in which the system exists focus attention on how external pressures modify the behavior of actors within the system.
· The assumption of complexity theory that variation exists among individuals cautions one to pay strict attention to details. (Note that this assumption directly contradicts the assumption of smoothness that is made when viewing dynamics [the second lens, above].)

· The concept of “emergence” sensitizes us to anticipate rather than be surprised by new forms of behavior that violate cultural norms (the rise of narco-paramilitaries, revenge destruction of holy sites, intifadas, ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, bombing of cities, threats of nuclear war against non-nuclear states).

The generic complexity theory we have today sensitizes us to ask certain key questions and prepares us to anticipate surprise. There is as yet little application of that generic theory to the specifics of human civilization, much less to the field of global politics, so the theory does not—yet—tell us what type of behavioral modifications we should anticipate. It remains to be seen whether or not we can construct a “science of human socio-political complexity.” What is the next step in the direction of that vision? The development of a framework to allow us to think more conceptually about the proper ways to use each of the three above-described powers of magnification–events, dynamics, and interdependence—would be a good place to start.