Tim Wall, producer of “Global Journalist”: Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party lost its two-thirds supermajority in Venezuela’s legislature after elections last Sunday, Sept. 26. Also lost was their ability to pass laws without opposition. Latin America’s left wing seems to have lost ground recently. Manuel Zelaya, a supporter of Chavez, was deposed last year from the presidency of Honduras. Even Chavez’s role model Fidel Castro admitted that the Cuban model of government doesn’t work in a recent interview with The Atlantic magazine. On the other hand, Evo Morales, another friend of Chavez, was re-elected president of Bolivia last year in a landslide victory. So has hurricane Hugo lost some of this force, or is it just the eye of the storm?
Charles Davis, associate professor, Missouri School of Journalism: Our guests today discuss the state of Latin American politics and what they mean to the rest of the world: Marco Caceres, editor, Honduras Weekly; Geraldine Cols, bilingual producer, News 12 New York, in New York City; and Chris Kraul, journalist, LA Times, Bogota, Colombia. Geraldine, opponents of Hugo Chavez made some major gains in the elections last weekend. What is your take on the Venezuela elections?
Geraldine Cols, bilingual producer, News 12 New York: If you look at the last three elections going back to December 2007, that was the first election that Chavez lost when he was trying to reform the constitution. From there on, opposition has gained more support, and we can see in the polls that he has committed some mistakes. The fact that they won enough seats to take Chavez’s control over the National Assembly is a big sign that he is not immune to popular vote.
Wall: Geraldine, in past elections, the opposition parties have chosen to boycott the elections. What were their motives in doing this and to form a coalition for this election?
Cols: In 2005, they thought if they boycotted the elections, they were rebelling against Chavez. But what ended up happening is they allowed Chavez to gain full control of the National Assembly, and he has gotten a chance to change organic laws. He has gotten several times something we call “la ley habilitante,” an enabling act, which allows him to pass any law he wants. In that term, there was no opposition and nobody to question any of the changes in the law, and I think it was a mistake. As a political move, it did nothing for the opposition parties except completely leave them out of politics for the past four years.
Wall: As Chavez’s power seems to have been reduced in Venezuela, what will this do to Colombia’s relationship with the country? In the past, there has been some criticism from Chavez against FARC raids carried out by the Colombian government, and recently there was a very strong attack against the FARC, which some say may have wiped out their power. Will the change in the balance of power allow Colombia to finally end the war with the FARC?
Chris Kraul, journalist, Los Angeles Times, Bogota, Colombia: Before the Sunday elections, the two governments had pretty much agreed to disagree because they recognized that the two countries need each other tradewise — maybe Colombia needed it more than Venezuela. Both countries have plenty of problems to deal with on their own, so the Colombian government’s effort to deal with the FARC is still the No. 1 priority. Chavez claims that he doesn’t give the rebels safe refuge on his turf, and he may be right, but it is a difficult border to control.
Davis: Marco, what is your sense of the Venezuelan elections from Honduras? Are there aftershocks there?
Marco Caceres, editor, Honduras Weekly: Well, you don’t hear a lot about it right now. There is a little gloating by the middle-upper to upper classes, but I think there is a sense of relief more than anything else. They figure that if Hugo Chavez is no longer able to rule by decree and has to focus to govern Venezuela, he is less apt to meddle in foreign affairs, certainly in Central America and specifically in Honduras. So there is a sense of relief that we’ll get a break from Hugo Chavez and that Porfirio Lobo can have a little time to actually govern and solve some of the social and economic problems of the country.
Wall: Speaking of the political crisis that occurred in Honduras, some people said that what Zelaya was trying to do in his constitutional referendum was similar to what Chavez had tried to do in Venezuela. A book you wrote recently looked at the political crisis and questioned whether it was a legal action. Was removing Zelaya from power a legal action or a coup?
Caceres: I think it was a nontraditional coup. Let’s call it a hybrid coup. It was not a military coup, because even though the military went in to arrest him and illegally exiled him to Costa Rica, it was done under the orders of the Supreme Court of Justice. You can make a good case that it was illegal and it certainly violated Mr. Zelaya’s rights as president or even as a Honduran citizen. But it is not a black and white issue, and you have a country that is divided 50/50 just like in Venezuela. Some people are for Zelaya or against him. Similarly, roughly half the people believe it was a military coup and illegal, and another 50 percent believe it was a “constitutional transition of power.” I believe the average Honduran, if you get him behind closed doors, he’ll say, “I don’t even understand what a constitutional transition of power is. Sure it was a coup, but he deserved it, he provoked it and we’re happy he’s gone.” It depends on whether you talk in private or in public.
Davis: I would like to ask you about the backdrop to the Venezuelan election as well. It seems like a pretty dramatic rise in crime and social issues led to some of Chavez’s downfall. Can you give us some context as far as the crime rate?
Cols: I think crime in Venezuela has always been a problem. There has been a rise in crime, and I think part of it is that society is divided. Everyone is Chavista or non-Chavista. It has created tension among people, and Chavez is losing some of his power because he was supposed to tackle a lot of social problems including education, the amount of paycheck you get at the end of the month and being able to buy sufficient food for your family. In 2003 and 2004, he put in place all the social programs to help those classes out. What we see after six years of these programs is that nothing has improved. Education is about the same. Even though you have more students going to school, it doesn’t mean they actually graduate or end up in the working force later on. In the health sector, the hospitals are not reliable. If you have some money, you would prefer to go a clinic instead of a hospital because hospitals are not well equipped, and more often than not, you have to take your own medicine for the hospital to take care of you. So crime is something that the media is pointing out now, but I think it is a combination of those factors.
Wall: Chris, a lot of people in the U.S. remember the 1980s when Colombia had a reputation for crime. But it seems that under the new president, Santos, and under Uribe, there has been real progress made controlling the narco-traffickers. Do you think the model in Colombia could also be used in Venezuela?
Kraus: Things have improved here, thanks in large part to about $6 billion in military aid from the United States under Plan Colombia. The Colombians have 450,000 soldiers and cops now versus 280,000 when the program started. Essentially, the military and the police have been reinvented here, so yes, the crime situation has much improved, but it is not gone by any means. Can this be transferred to Venezuela? I kind of doubt it. We had a civil society here that 10 years ago was pretty united in wanting to oppose the rebels and the narcos, and Uribe came along and was able to galvanize that support and finance it with all that American money. The violence is as much a reflection of civil unrest and divisions as much as any social factor.
Davis: Marco, after Zelaya’s removal, a lot of people painted him as a populist fighting for the people. Do you think that is justified, or was that public relations?
Caceres: That’s an illusion. If you listen to Zelaya’s words, yes. If you look at his actions, no. Mr. Zelaya comes a part of Honduras called Olancho, which is kind of a wild west Honduras, and it is known for a kind of “caudillo” politics, the big landowners that seek the love and adulation of the people. Mr. Zelaya is from old elite class that he likes to blame for all of Honduras’ social and economic problems. He likes to think of himself as a man of the people, and it is an illusion, because that is not really the way it is. But people do believe him. Honduras is one of the most poorly educated countries in the Western Hemisphere, so people tend to believe him and they don’t really have much alternative. There is a lack of hope among three-quarters of the population and Mr. Zelaya has fed their hopes, but unfortunately, it is a bit insincere in my view.
Wall: Am I correct in saying that Zelaya’s family was involved in the Horcones massacre of land reform activists?
Caceres: Right. This is something that occurred three decades ago roughly, and his father, Manuel Zelaya Sr., was probably the largest landowner in Olancho. Mr. Zelaya’s father was put in prison for about a year or two, convicted for being involved in a massacre of 10 or a dozen people that had crossed his land and were on their way to a march or protest. He was let go around 1981 or 1982 as part of a deal to provide amnesty to people in exchange for the military giving up power and turning it over to civilian rule.
Wall: Geraldine, speaking of the use of “caudillo” politics, do you think some of that has come into play with Chavez’s control over Venezuela? Has he used tactics of oppression against the opposition, and will this change the balance of power? Perhaps allow some of those people who may have been oppressed, imprisoned or exiled to return?
Cols: Chavez come from a military background, and the party that he originally formed, which no longer exists, was composed of military men. So although he is strong, I don’t think he uses his power to oppress. I think his strategy is to use the media. He has a TV show every Sunday that goes on for hours. He would interrupt regular programming at any time he feels necessary and goes on for hours. He uses billboards, radio campaigns and TV campaigns. He has boosted the state’s communications sector. So I don’t think he used military oppression, but he has used a different strategy, which is to promote himself often and constantly, and I think that is how he has managed to stay there for so long.
Davis: That points to one of the macro issues that we should discuss. Chris, don’t you think that has something to do with the state of democracy in the region and how difficult it is for minority viewpoints to be tolerated and to emerge?
Kraus: Well, certainly tougher in Venezuela now because Chavez has made no bones of trying to dominate the media. He shut down 20 or 30 radio stations, forced the closure of RCTV, and intimidated Global Vision. He has withheld government advertising from newspapers he doesn’t like, so minority viewpoints are being suppressed.
Cols: It is not very easy to be a reporter right now in Venezuela. Here in the states, we try to get both sides of the story. In Venezuela, more often than not, you will see one-sided news, either from the opposition channel or from the government channel. Part of it is that there is no transparency and no accountability before the government. You can’t request an interview and expect to get it. You only get interviews with government officials when they want you to cover something they want done.
Wall: Chris, what is the state of press freedom in Colombia. And Marco, how is press freedom in Honduras? Is it similar to Venezuela or much freer?
Kraus: Colombia is pretty vibrant. There is some danger, much like Mexico, posed by narcos and the guerillas. If you say things they don’t like, they could come after you, but that is much less a problem than it was 10 or 15 years ago when Pablo Escobar was killing the editor of El Espectador. So I would say press freedom is pretty good here right now.
Caceres: In Honduras, there is freedom of the press. The four major newspapers are all owned by fairly wealthy businesspeople, so there is a certain bias that you get from some of them. The far left has a few newspapers that have been created in the past year, but they’re not very legitimate. They are extremely biased, so much so that you get no sense of neutrality. So there is press freedom, but a biased toward the wealthy ruling class.
Wall: Around the world, there has been a movement toward citizen journalism that would sometimes take some of the power away from the wealthy elite. Geraldine, have you seen anything like that in Venezuela?
Cols: BlackBerries are very big in Venezuela. Throughout the election, I got messages from friends, family members, who were about “oh, be careful about not doing this during the election, don’t believe it if you hear this,” so I do believe they are starting to do a little community reporting, even if it is just through social media like Twitter, BlackBerry messenger and Facebook. So I think to a certain degree, yes.
Davis: Chris, the news about last month’s raid of the FARC was portrayed as a death blow. Can you bring our audience up to speed on what happened and whether you agree with that sentiment?
Kraus: Well, the Colombian armed forces killed the No. 2 leader of the FARC. It is the latest of a series of bad events for the rebels. The Plan Colombia has given the Colombian military an edge over the rebels. Two years ago, the military briefly invaded Ecuador to kill their No. 2 guy, which prompted an international incident. Venezuela and Ecuador both called up troops along the border, and there have been other killings by the military of top FARC people. The number of FARC rebels is believed to be about half what the total was 10 years ago, between 5,000 and 10,000. But to say that the FARC is gone is really not accurate. They’ve got plenty of resources with the drug trade, narcotics trade, and so much of Colombia is so untamed and ungoverned that they can operate in sparsely populated rural areas where the military just can’t patrol. The government might want to negotiate a peace at this point, but people are waiting sitting down for that one.
Wall: How have some of the other countries reacted to this change in power of Chavez, in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Kraus: My impression is that Chavez’s influence has been fading the last few years. Since the demonstration at the ALBA meeting, there has been a reaction against him because of his attacks on the media and his autocratic ways. Plus he promises things he doesn’t deliver.
Cols: I completely agree. I think the reason why Chavez got into power was because he was an alternative to this elite political group that was running the country for the past 40 years. So he was literally giving people the alternative of paying attention to the poor.
Davis: The far left in Latin America has had lots of ups and downs throughout its history. Last Sunday’s elections may prove to be a major setback for Hugo Chavez’s revolution or perhaps hurricane Hugo will return with gale force winds.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.