Show of strength

Hugo Chávez says he wants to bring peace to the warring factions in Colombia's cocaine wars but his

Squinting into the glare of the late-afternoon Caribbean sun, hundreds of pleated khaki-dressed soldiers and military dignitaries form orderly rows facing their chief of staff and head of state, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

Positioned on stage and flanked by a few lines of tanks and helicopters in a military training ground in the provincial city of Valencia, western Venezuela, President Chávez waits for the roaring fighter jets to pass overhead before addressing the assembly.

"From Colombia, Venezuela is threatened," Chávez says, dismissing as "inventions" widespread allegations that his government has colluded with drug trafficking and arms sales to Colombian guerrillas.

The speech is being delivered to mark the 16th anniversary of the attempted coup led by the then-young Lieutenant Colonel Chávez on 4 February 1992. Although it ended in failure and Chávez and his cohorts were imprisoned, many believe the event - now commonly referred to as 4F - paved the way for his eventual democratic election to the presidency in 1998.

But while the Venezuelan president was commemorating his failed putsch, over a million protesters took to the streets in neighbouring Colombia and in cities across the world to voice their opposition to Chávez's hostage-taking rebel allies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

In an almost implausible coincidence, anti-Farc campaigners chose 4 February to mobilise a global protest against the Marxist insurgents. They maintain that the event was entirely apolitical and directed only at the rebel fighters, but in a statement on their website they denounce Chávez's "interventions in the internal matters of Colombia and, particularly, his declarations which seek to justify the Farc as a representation of the Colombian people".

Chávez's inflammatory comments about the threat from Colombia came two days after he declared that the Venezuelan armed forces were "on alert" against possible aggressions from the neighbouring country. In a televised broadcast, the president had warned: "We don't know how far it could go. We don't want to hurt anybody, but no one should make a mistake with us."

He added: "One day things will change in Colombia," referring to the cocaine-fuelled civil war that has raged across the border for almost 60 years. "Theirs is a war in which we cannot participate except as peacemakers."

His words have further aggravated the deepening diplomatic crisis with Bogotá. After successfully negotiating the release of two hostages held by the Farc, he requested that these narco-rebels be removed from lists of international terrorist organisations and expressed an ideological affinity with their insurgent cause.

"The Farc and [National Liberation Army] ELN are not terrorist bodies. They are real armies that occupy space in Colombia. That must be recognised. They are insurgent forces with a Bolivarian political project, which here we respect," Chávez said in his yearly address to the National Assembly on 11 January.

As the anti-Farc movement gathered global momentum through social networking sites such as Facebook, it was quickly seized upon by the Colombian government. On the day of protest, Colombian president Álvaro Uribe even delivered a message of thanks to marchers in the city of Valledupar. "Our gratitude goes to all Colombians who today expressed with dignity and strength their rejection of kidnapping and kidnappers," Reuters reported him as saying.

Back at the Valencia barracks, Venezuelan officials reacted truculently. Jesús González, the strat egic commander of the armed forces, rejected it as a "political ploy to try to identify 4 February with opposition to the Farc".

President Chávez reminded his army and onlookers of the history behind the day's cele brations. "The events of 4 February [1992] swept Venezuela into the 21st century. It was when the Bolivarian revolution truly began," he declared.

In recent years, the flamboyant Venezuelan president has used 4F to demonstrate his increasing regional influence and to launch stinging verbal attacks on his enemies.

While critics maintain that it is hypocritical for a democratic country to celebrate a coup, albeit a failed one, Chávez's supporters see it as the day that planted the seeds for Venezuela's ongoing socialist transformation. Chavistas call it the "Dawn of Hope" and regard it as a stepping-stone to true democracy for the poverty-stricken masses.

"It was the lightning bolt that illuminated the darkness," Chávez said in an interview with the Chilean author Marta Harnecker in 2005.

Continuing his speech to the military, the president maintains that 4F is not finished. "It reminds us we need to be even more revolutionary. My government is a child of 4F," he says.

After two years in prison, Chávez and his allies were released by presidential pardon in 1994 and began a new effort to take over the government, this time through democratic means.

"We realised that another military insurrection would have been crazy," Chávez said in 2005. "A large part of the population did not want violence, but rather they expected that we would organise a political movement structured to take the country on the right path." He came to believe, he has said, that the Bolivarian revolution had to be a peaceful one.

However, some scholars consider the Venez uelan government's decision to actively celebrate 4F a rewriting of history intended to indoctrinate the population.

Néstor Luis Luengo, a professor of sociology and head of research at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in south-west Caracas, believes commemorating the failed coup is a key element in Chávez's broader socialist agenda. "There is an ideological battle taking place in this country. If [the government is] going to push for more reforms, they have to change the ideology of the country and the historical events celebrated." It is in their interests, he says, to make 4 February a patriotic day.

Opposition leaders also criticise Chávez for using the commemoration of the failed coup as an attempt to politicise the military. "For us, the important thing is to have an armed force that is apolitical, modern and at the service of the Venezuelan people, and one that does not become a political party," said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition party Primero Justicia.

Other Chávez opponents are concerned at the militarism: "This government prefers to celebrate a day of violence. They should instead be celebrating the day he was democratically elected president," said Armando Briquet, secretary general of Primero Justicia.

A violent act

Chávez's supporters obviously disagree. Cruz Elena Peligrón, a civilian participant in the 1992 coup and friend and neighbour of Chávez in the 1990s, says: "We have always celebrated our independence day and that was a violent act. The US military commemorates wars like Vietnam and the Second World War. They say you have to fight for peace and unfortunately that's true."

Since Chávez took office in 1999, he has survived an attempted coup, oil strikes and referendums on his presidency. Last December, a package of proposed reforms to the constitution, which would have allowed him to stand for indefinite re-election, was defeated at the polls - his first political loss in nine years.

With Chávez's opponents invigorated by their poll success, this year's 4F festivities were notably restrained, taking place in a small pro vincial barracks instead of the grand military base at Fuerte Tiuna.

Venezuela's ambassador to the UN and former coup plotter, Francisco Javier Arias Cárdenas, said political priorities have changed: "We are no longer going to support unconditionally any segment of the Colombian military that has the objective of destroying either the Farc or the peace process in Colombia. Venezuela is just a third party in the civil war."

He concluded: "Of course we don't support guerrilla warfare, kidnapping or drug trafficking. But to end the war you don't necessarily need to end the Farc - just end the poverty, misery and violence that occur in Colombia every day. Both sides should go to the table and talk peace."

President Uribe maintains an unwavering zero-tolerance stance against the Marxist rebels and has shown much support for paramilitary forces that have been responsible for a catalogue of human rights abuses throughout Colombia's intractable civil war.

Meanwhile, Chávez's flamboyant militarism and allegiances with the Farc make dialogue between Colombia's warring factions seem less and less likely.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty

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Can Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs learn to get along?

The leadership candidate has the declared support of just 15 MPs. Both sides are preparing to enter what feels like an alternate universe.  

On the morning of 12 September at the QEII Centre in Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn will be declared the new leader of the Labour Party. This is the outcome that almost all MPs now expect. A result that scriptwriters would have rejected as too outlandish before the contest began is regarded as near inevitable. Given the number of ballots returned in the first week of voting, the game may already be over. “It’s like a bad dream” and “It’s like a bad film”, shadow cabinet ministers told me.

All sides are struggling to adapt to the strange new world in which Corbyn – lifelong backbencher, serial rebel – becomes leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. When his candidacy was announced in four short paragraphs in his local paper, the Islington Tribune, on 3 June, most believed that he would struggle to avoid finishing last. No one believed that he would reduce two former cabinet ministers, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, to an unseemly squabble over which of them is in second place.

Several weeks before the result is announced, blame is already being cast around the party. Labour staff are furious with MPs for allowing Corbyn on to the ballot. Some are preparing their CVs, either having decided they will not serve under Corbyn out of principle or out of fear of being “liquidated by the new regime”.

When MPs lost their “golden share”, which gave them a third of the votes in Labour’s abolished electoral college, the nominations threshold was raised from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent of MPs as a firewall against maverick candidates. Several of those who helped Corbyn over the barriers are now repentant. But others are not. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I nominated Jeremy,” Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, told me. “The longer it goes on, the thinner the post-Blair gruel that the other candidates offer us appears. It is going to change the debate and, at the end of the day, we’ll owe Jeremy a huge thanks.”

When Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn by 0.8 percentage points in the 1981 deputy leadership contest, it was the moderate trade unions (with their 40 per cent share) and MPs (with their 30 per cent share) that saw off the hard-left constituency parties. This time, there is no such cavalry available. The two largest unions, Unite and Unison, have endorsed Corbyn, and an MP’s vote is worth no more than that of a registered supporter. Ben Bradshaw, a deputy leadership candidate, whose Exeter constituency party has the second-highest contact rate of any in the country, told me that 10 per cent of “supporters” in his area had consistently voted for other parties. Labour, however, has ruled that individuals cannot be excluded on this basis alone.

“The party’s processes were never set up to cope with this situation and nor was it foreseen that you would have a potential infiltration issue of this scale,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “We don’t have copies of the TUSC [Trade Union and Socialist Coalition] membership list, or the Green Party list, or the Left Unity list, or the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty list. You can’t know how in-depth this has become.”

Yet Corbyn’s success owes less to entryism than thought. There are Labour voters who departed under Blair and now feel liberated to return; left-wing members who joined under Ed Miliband (and regard Corbyn as his successor); and young voters who are losing their political virginity. On the party’s right, there is self-reproach at their failure to sign up moderate supporters to counter the radicals. “We were hideously complacent,” one MP said.

Others attribute Corbyn’s rise to the ­unattractiveness of his opponents. “Andy, Yvette and Liz have a lot to answer for,” a senior MP told me. “If you can’t beat Jeremy Corbyn, how you can beat George Osborne, Boris Johnson or Theresa May?” Some of the other three’s own backers are stunned by how few new ideas they have offered. The decision of all three to position themselves to the right of Miliband following Labour’s defeat is regarded by Corbyn’s supporters as central to his success.

“They trusted Ed’s instincts,” an ally of the former leader said of Labour left-wingers. “They knew how he’d react in a crisis. They don’t feel like that about any of the others.” Burnham, who many expected would occupy this space, alienated the left by beginning his campaign with a pro-business speech at EY (Ernst & Young) and warned of the perception that Labour is “soft on people who want something for nothing”.

However, the Corbyn and Kendall campaigns say that Burnham remains ahead of Cooper in their internal data. Kendall’s chief lieutenants, such as John Woodcock and Toby Perkins, have endorsed Burnham out of fear that his supporters’ second preferences would transfer to Corbyn. But it is the title of leader-in-waiting, rather than leader, that most believe Burnham and Cooper are now fighting for.

The tens of thousands who have signed up explicitly to vote for Corbyn will not be dissuaded by apocalyptic warnings from Labour grandees. The shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett, one of the left-winger’s most senior allies and a former adviser to Miliband, told me: “It’s become an article of almost blind faith for the anti-Corbyn camps that he can’t win an election. But nobody’s actually bothered to set out the case in detail to show he can’t win.”

If Gordon Brown’s intervention on 16 August was regarded as insufficient, those of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson (who suggested that the three other leadership candidates try to halt the race by withdrawing) were regarded as actively helpful to Corbyn. “Mandelson and Blair are making it look as though the three other candidates are interchangeable, as if there are personality differences but no real political differences,” Trickett said. “There are clearly some differences – but essentially the effect of the these grandees’ interventions is to make the three look as though they are all a part of the same political establishment while Jeremy’s in a different camp. The consequence is that all those members who want to use their vote to achieve real change will clearly go to the only candidate who apparently represents something different.”

Conversation in Labour circles is increasingly turning to what the party would look like under Corbyn. Would he be ousted by MPs? Would he be able to form a shadow cabinet? To form a front-bench team? And how would he perform in a general election?

“The idea there’ll be some kind of coup – that’s total nonsense, it won’t happen,” John Mann, the Labour MP and Treasury select committee member, told me. Under Labour’s rulebook, rival candidates are required to attain the support of 20 per cent of MPs (46) in advance of the party’s annual conference. But in these circumstances, there would be nothing to stop Corbyn, or a left-wing successor, standing in the subsequent contest. Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich South, a former BBC journalist and army reservist, is already being identified by some Corbyn supporters as a possible heir. “Personally, I think it’s the political kiss of death,” Lewis told me. “I know Owen [Jones] and others mean well but I’ve seen what this accolade has done to other MPs in the party who’ve had similar prophecies made about them.”

If Corbyn wins he will do so with the declared support of just 15 MPs – 6.5 per cent of Labour’s Commons membership. “I’ll show him as much loyalty as he showed other leaders,” Mike Gapes MP told me. Those senior figures who have publicly pledged not to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet, such as Cooper, Kendall, Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie, intend to keep their word. The view is that he deserves “maximum room for manoeuvre to implement his prospectus”. Shadow cabinet members are alive to the danger of a backlash if they appear to obstruct him. In time, they hope, not merely Corbyn, but his policies, will be discredited.

There will be no SDP-style split but the energetic Umunna is already preparing for life on the back benches. He has formed a new group, Labour for the Common Good, led by himself and Tristram Hunt and open to MPs from “the right to the soft left of the party”.

In spite of “the resistance” (as it has come to be known), most believe Corbyn would be able to form a shadow ministerial team. “The party always comes first,” a senior MP said. Contrary to reports, Corbyn does not intend to bring back shadow cabinet elections, and so could unite MPs from Labour’s old left and from the new intake (13 of whom nominated him). In addition, Clive Lewis told me: “A number of MPs I’ve spoken to who supported both Yvette and Andy are quietly very excited at this turn of events.” He also predicted that “many others, sensing an opportunity to move from virtual political obscurity to front-line politics, an option that wasn’t there three months ago, will do so with guarded enthusiasm”.

Corbyn’s supporters cite his genial manner and modesty as crucial advantages. “He’s one of life’s co-operators and will work with people,” Cat Smith, the newly elected Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, who worked for Corbyn for six years, told me. “He’s not seeking to exclude anybody, that’s not his way of doing things. When I was a member of his [constituency party], Islington North CLP, we had people who were very active and prominent in Progress, people who were in the LRC [Labour Representation Committee] and all the spectrum in the middle. Those CLP meetings were some of the nicest meetings I ever went to because it felt like people left a lot of that baggage at the door. Jeremy’s not going to hold any grudges.”

But MPs question whether Corbyn’s co-ideologues would be similarly ecumenical. “He has said all the way through this that he doesn’t want to do personal politics, he wants it all to be about policies, he’s not going to attack anyone and so on,” Pat McFadden, the shadow minister for Europe, said when we spoke. “And yet some of his supporters are saying some pretty nasty things on social media about other candidates.

“Will his supporters refrain from doing personal things? Jeremy rebelled 500 times against the whip. If other people were to do that would they be afforded the same tolerance that he has been afforded for the past 30 years, or would it be different?”

MPs who plan to oppose Corbyn’s stances fear deselection by their local parties. His team told me that he did not favour the reinstatement of mandatory reselection (abolished under Neil Kinnock in 1990) and would not endorse moves to “depose sitting MPs”. But grass-roots members would still have the power to initiate “trigger ballots” against recalcitrant Blairites.

Corbyn has announced that, if elected, he will review Labour’s membership fee (currently £46.56 a year) with the aim of attracting registered supporters (who paid £3) into the fold. Should he succeed, the party’s centre of gravity will move sharply leftwards. Labour faces a split not just between moderates and radicals but between MPs and members.

There are three early tests that senior figures believe Corbyn would face: Prime Minister’s Questions (his first appearance would be 16 September), relations with the media and next May’s elections in Scotland, Wales and England. John Mann told me that the left-winger had “talked a big game” and that most MPs would judge him by results. “The Tories are rubbing their hands with glee but they also know Labour’s not going to tolerate any leader who performs disastrously in elections.” Others fear, however, that the members will merely blame MPs for being insufficiently supportive of Corbyn if he flounders with the electorate. “It’ll be all our fault. They’re already preparing a great narrative of betrayal,” Gapes said.

Should Corbyn make it to a general election, shadow cabinet members believe that Labour would face a generation or more in opposition. One predicted that the party would lose between 30 and 50 seats and fall below 200 MPs for the first time since 1935. Some fear that the Conservatives, like the Christian Democrats in Italy and the Social Democrats in Sweden in past decades, would attain hegemonic status. The Tories, meanwhile, are divided between those intoxicated by this prospect and those who fear that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would force the Conservatives to move leftwards to occupy a redefined centre ground.

Others note, however, that Margaret Thatcher proved immune from this affliction in the 1980s as she dragged the political consensus rightwards.

In Labour, all sides are preparing to enter what feels like a looking-glass world, or an alternate universe. “There is going to be a new establishment: Corbyn, [Michael] Meacher, [John] McDonnell, [Ken] Livingstone, [Diane] Abbott,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “They are now, for the first time in their political careers, going to be the political establishment. They are going to have responsibility and they will be running things. They won’t be able to pose as being outsiders or insurgents any more: they will be the establishment.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars