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

ANDRÉ CARRILHO FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

A progressive's guide to Theresa May

The new Prime Minister has rebranded herself as a champion of social justice and equal rights. Should we believe her?

Over the past two weeks, a strange phenomenon began to afflict Labour MPs, left-wing think tankers and progressives of all sorts. They started to wish fervently that Theresa May would triumph in the Tory leadership election. Yes, the woman who sent vans around north London ordering immigrants who had overstayed their visas to “go home”; she who has long been the darling of the Daily Mail, which praised her lukewarm speech in favour of staying in the EU in terms it normally reserves for actresses who have lost their baby weight freakishly fast; the woman who (erroneously) claimed in 2011 that human rights laws had allowed an asylum-seeker to avoid deportation because he owned a cat.

May’s rivals for the Conservative leadership included the blustering Boris Johnson, the neocon Michael Gove (“I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once,” as Ken Clarke put it), the disgraced Liam Fox, the largely untested Stephen Crabb and, finally, Andrea Leadsom, the brittle Brexiteer who crumbled under scrutiny. May turned out to be the only serious candidate.

When the contest came down to the final two, she continued to pursue a quiet, calm strategy. On the night it was revealed that Andrea Leadsom had suggested that being a mother gave her the edge over May, who does not have children, her rival was on the front page of the Telegraph talking about her “positive vision” for the country and profferring a “clean campaign” pledge.

Then, at lunchtime on 11 July, Leadsom pulled out, saying a nine-week campaign would be “undesirable” and that she could not hope to govern when only 25 per cent of Tory MPs supported her. (This had the happy side effect for Conservatives of delivering a swipe at Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoys the confidence of only 20 per cent of Labour MPs.) Immediately, May rushed back to Westminster from Birmingham, where she had given the first speech of her campaign, to be acclaimed as the new party leader and thus our new prime minister.

With that coronation, the yardstick against which May must be judged has changed. No longer is she merely preferable to the British Tea Party stylings of Leadsom; she must be judged on her own record and professed opinions. As we outline below, these are mixed. Nonetheless, it appears that May intends from the start to differentiate herself from David Cameron and George Osborne’s brand of corporate, chummy, laissez-faire Toryism. In background and temperament, she is already offering something new.

***

The daughter of a vicar, Theresa May attended a grammar school before studying geography at Oxford University (rather than PPE or classics, the usual favourites of aspiring Conservative politicians). She worked at the Bank of England and then, after being elected as MP for Maidenhead in 1997, she was the first of that year’s intake to reach the shadow cabinet, as shadow education and employment secretary. In July 2002, she became the first female chairman of the Conservative Party and at conference that year made her famous “nasty party” speech. A succession of shadow cabinet roles followed, at Transport; Culture, Media and Sport; and Work and Pensions. When Cameron formed a coalition government in 2010, she became home secretary historically a poisoned chalice – and she was the longest-serving holder of that post since Rab Butler in 1962.

The first inklings that May was seriously considering running for the Tory leadership came in 2013, the year after George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget, in which he slashed the 50p income-tax rate and paid for it by raising taxes on grannies and pasties. Addressing the grass-roots organisation ConservativeHome, May delivered a speech that strayed widely from the Home Office brief. It also ranged freely across the political spectrum, borrowing as much from Ed Miliband as it did from David Cameron. She outlined “the three pillars of Conservatism”: freedom, security and opportunity.

When backing May’s candidacy, the right-wing papers inevitably compared her with Britain’s only previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. But a better choice would be Angela Merkel, a purposefully dull technocratic workaholic who has spent 11 years as chancellor of Germany.

May seems to be offering the same pragmatic spirit, which may come as a relief after the ideological fervour of the EU referendum campaign, with its grandiose promises and divisive debates. Had she spent the summer running against Leadsom, she might have had to tack right, stressing her anti-immigration credentials. As it is, given her rival’s early departure, the only substantial statement of her political mission is her launch speech in Birmingham.

This was an astonishing statement for a Conservative to give though perhaps not as unexpected as her speech to the Police Federation in 2014, in which she excoriated a roomful of (mostly male) officers over the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and sexist language used about women who reported domestic violence. “If anybody here questions the need for the police to change, I am here to tell you that it’s time to face up to reality,” she said.

The surprise in Birmingham this week was that she talked about Britain’s problems in a way that was reminiscent of Milibandism. Energy bills were too high (an echo of the former Labour leader’s most popular policy, to freeze bills). Bankers’ bonuses had swollen, while real wages had stagnated. Monetary policy since the economic crisis, which has relied on low interest rates and quantitative easing, helped those who own their homes, at the expense of renters.

“There is a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation,” she added. “And there is a gaping chasm between wealthy London and the rest of the country.” There was even a passage that would not have seemed out of place in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn:

“Right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”

Are these just warm words a social and fiscal conservative appropriating the language of social justice and equal rights? Behind the scenes, May has been a quiet champion of women in the party, co-founding the mentoring group Women2Win in 2005. Her “nasty party” speech of 2002 was a rebuke to an activist base that was socially conservative to the point of indulging racism and homophobia. Sam Gyimah, one of the party’s most prominent black and minority ethnic MPs, supported May’s candidacy because of that. “The reason the Conservative Party now has roughly a third of women MPs and a record number of BME MPs is because front-line politicians like Theresa set the party on that course,” Gyimah says. 

“I backed Theresa because her politics chime with my politics – that delivering on the economy is not enough if it doesn’t work for everyone. But also her track record of standing up for real injustices even where there isn’t an electoral dividend to be had, like on modern slavery and stop-and-search and her determination to confront issues head-on, which she did with our own party when she was party chairman.”

That said, her willingness to criticise her own side should not blind us to the many ways in which Theresa May is a conventional Conservative. Much of her success recalls Bill Clinton’s despairing phone call to Tony Blair about George W Bush, then a candidate for the presidency: “One reason Bush is doing so well is because he criticised one thing on the right. He is making people think he is saving them from the right.” 

"But," Clinton concluded, "It's a fraud because he actually is for them on everything else. I have to find a way to expose the fraud."  He never did. The opposition will hope for better against May. 

Now read the full policy audit on Theresa May

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM