Thursday, 31 March 2011

Does April Fools' Fall Early in Latin America?

There is a grave absence of logic at the heart of the decision to award Hugo Chávez the Rodolfo Walsh award for commitment to liberty, human rights and democratic values.  It is, in fact, an incongruous sham.

n. pl. hy·poc·ri·sies

1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. An act or instance of such falseness.

Bare the above in mind, now consider that Hugo Chávez has been awarded the Rodolfo Walsh award by Argentina’s University of La Plata for "his commitment to defending the liberty of the people” and “defending human rights, truth and democratic values".  You would be forgiven for thinking that April Fools’ has arrived early this year, but this is simply a case of dumbfounding hypocrisy, for there is a serious absence of logic at the heart of this disgraceful ceremony.  Forgive me for being so frank, but celebrating Chávez in this regard is not so different from celebrating Fidel Castro for his contribution to the free market.  It is an incongruous sham.
To be sure, the narrative of development in Venezuela’s media sector over the past 12 years is more than instructive.  Through means of legislative reform and revision (which, by itself has been made possible due to Chávez’s ever increasing grip on Venezuela’s political institutions), Chávez has silenced large swaths of the media, exclusively those deemed contrary to his own Socialist mission. 
The Media Content Law of December 2004, for example, was passed by Chávez to devastating effect by making the dissemination of information deemed “contrary to national security” (a benchmark left totally at the discretion of the state) punishable by heavy fines or even the loss of ones broadcasting licence.  Unsatisfied, the regime pushed ahead to extend this law to the internet communications sector some six years later in December 2010.
More asphyxiating still, a new penal code was introduced in March 2005 which criminalised the articulation and publication of opinion that the state deemed to be “offensive”.  Article 147, for example, dictates that any individual found guilty of disrespecting Chávez or the Chávistas who carry out his work can be imprisoned for up to 30 months.  Article 297a dictates that causing panic or anxiety through inaccurate reporting is punishable by the same sentence.[i]  More to the point, the implementation of these laws have been far from idle exercises.  Leading up to the September 2010 parliamentary election, for instance, Chávez used Article 297a to ban newspapers from publishing violent or traumatic images so as to avoid rampant crime from becoming a key electoral issue; an issue that Chávez was no doubt aware would count against his party seeing as crime has quadrupled since he came to power in 1999. 
A further stipulation to the penal code dictates that should an individual reporting “offensive” material be backed by foreign funding and thought to be conspiring against the President, then the sentence could be anything up to 30 years.[ii]  30 years.  If one believes that to be “defending human rights” and the “liberty of the people”, just ask Carlos Correa, a human rights defender and director of the Venezuelan organisation Espacio Público, for his opinion on the matter.   Correa and his organisation have been hounded by Chávez and his regime after committing the somewhat less than heinous crime of taking donations from the US and are consequently under criminal investigation as well as subject to a demoralising state-media harassment campaign.[iii]
In the mainstream media, RCTV, Globovision and Caracas radio station CNB 102.3 are some of the bigger names that have felled victim to Chávez in one sense or another for failing to form a neat formation behind his socialist agenda.  But there are many more; the radio-waves alone have been scathed with some 40 percent of licences revoked – a staggering 240 stations.  Meanwhile, TV executives have been dubbed “white collar terrorists” by Chávez for daring to step across the aisle and diverge from his exuberance for the socialist revolution. 
And what has replaced these broadcasters?  Silence?  Think again.  Chávez has been industrious in expanding his own information empire, now controlling 2 national radio networks, six television channels, 72 regional television stations and 600 radio stations,[iv] providing him with an effective information infrastructure through which he can manipulate political discourse.  He tires even his keenest constituents with an eight hour radio and television slot, Aló Presidente, each Sunday which has been the typical platform for some of his most infamous political theatrics.  For those who care not to watch or listen, hard luck; Suddenly with Chávez was launched in 2010 allowing Chávez 24 hour access to the radio-waves, unannounced.  As the title quite brilliantly signifies, the programme has no schedule time and can be broadcast at midnight, the break of dawn and anywhere between at Chávez’s discretion, often interrupting popular broadcasts such as baseball games so as to maximise his audience.  One can almost imagine Chávez crashing through the television sets of millions of unsuspecting Venezuelans as their sporting idol is poised to hit a game winning home-run.
In sum, and to return to a serious note, Chávez is no such defender of “democratic values”.  He is in fact the polar opposite, waging a war against a core of democratic principles including private property and democratic representation in addition to free information.  This dictator (forget his democratic rise, he is what he has become), has quite simply endeavoured to brand political dissidence a crime thus curtailing the freedoms of information, speech and association through an incessant media offensive.  It is nothing short of dictatorial control and desperate repression of political discourse and debate; an overarching media strategy designed to suppress opposition and retain and consolidate power.
The award of this honour to Hugo Chávez is therefore hypocrisy of the highest order.  While those of us in London, Washington or any other democratic outpost are able to stand, stare and scratch our heads in disbelief, Venezuelans are subject to this sickening suffocation on a daily basis.  The uprisings across the Middle East look unlikely to extend across the Atlantic Ocean in the near future, but if Chávez’s chokehold increases in pressure applied, similar uprisings will surely reach Venezuela given time.

by Dane Vallejo

[i] Jackson Diehl, ‘Chavez’s Censorship – Where ‘Disrespect Can Land You in Jail’, The Washington Post, March 28 2005, at
[ii] Jackson Diehl, ‘Chavez’s Censorship – Where ‘Disrespect Can Land You in Jail’, The Washington Post, March 28 2005, at
[iii] ‘Open Letter: Carlos Correa, director of the Venezuelan NGO ‘Espacio Público’: harassment campaign against him’, Protect Online, August 19 2010, at

This article was originally published by The Henry Jackon Society, 31/03/11, accessed

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

European Pipedreams

Asking the Russians not to block Nabucco and to accept that the Southern Corridor (the project proposed to link Caspian and Middle Eastern gas to Europe) is no threat to Moscow’s own South Stream proposal for European energy diversification is a futile exercise.  It may be true that construction of the gigantic Nabucco pipeline need not necessarily mean the writing on the wall for South Stream, but the Russians will no doubt be more concerned with keeping the European market captive in the long term.

Thus, while EU Energy Commissioner, Gunther Oettinger has endeavoured to assert that Moscow shouldn't pressure gas-rich nations in the Caspian region and to imply that South Stream and the Southern Corridor could co-exist peacefully, these sentiments are bound to fall on deaf ears.  As pointed out by Philip Lowe, EU Commission Director-General for Energy, at a lecture hosted by The Henry Jackson Society on Monday night, the Russians do not like talk of diversification unless it concerns diversification of routes with one end firmly in the Federation.  Diversification of suppliers is a whole new brand of vodka – and, I might add, a brand that is not to the Kremlin’s veteran taste.

Expecting the Russians to give their full blessing to Nabucco is therefore unrealistic.  In fact, Moscow would sooner see Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan send their gas East, to China – a market perceived by many as the future apple of Gazprom’s eye – than to see it head West to Russia’s traditional market (a move which would significantly loosen Russia’s grip on Europe).

Of course, this shouldn’t discourage the EU’s attempts at diversification which is, after all, an integral feature of its energy security policy.  But what it does mean is that despite Gazprom Chief, Alexei Miller’s recent proclamation that the Russians “have nothing against Nabucco”, expecting their full support any time soon is a pipedream too far.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The German Gap in EU Common Policy

Q:  What’s coveted by many in London, yet seemingly out of reach and usually denied at the hands of the Germans?  A:  A united EU foreign policy (half a point if you were thinking the World Cup). 

It wasn’t so long ago that France was bound by the ankle to Germany under the unwanted banner of “old Europe”.  Fast-forward a decade or so and Sarkozy is the new poster-boy for liberal-intervention with Cameron closely in-tow; but where’s Merkel?  It has been suggested that the premier of Europe’s economic powerhouse was left flat-footed due to domestic pressures.  Others speculate that she is constrained by the millstone of a post-WWII strategic culture defined more by pacifism than assertiveness weighing heavily round her neck.  Meanwhile the spin-doctors have been hard at work peddling the preoccupation with Fukushima as the defining rationale.  To cut a long story short, there’s a lack of consensus.  Regardless, the fact on ground (or be it sky) is that there is no black, red and gold to be seen above Libya.

Can we handle Gaddafi without the Germans?  The answer is, we might hope, a resounding yes.  But can the EU handle German absence in its search for a united foreign policy?  Is that even a question that needs asking?

Merkel may blame whipsawing for forcing her hand, yet, on this occasion, the backlash from her decision is now the whipsaw poised above Europe as it splits over the debate on liberal interventionism.  At least Britain can find solace in being on the right side while Germany is forced to get to grips with isolationism.

by Dane Vallejo

This blog was originally posted by The Henry Jackson Society, accessed

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Towards Afghan Autonomy

Whilst events in Japan and Libya continue to dominate the headlines, today’s announcement from President Hamid Karzai that Nato controlled areas, including Lashkar Gah, will be handed over to Afghan forces from July deserves equal attention. While the anti-war brigade may be celebrating, it is the counterinsurgency strategists that deserve the plaudits. The surge currently being led by General David Patraeus has helped ensure the Taliban fall firmly on the back-foot. 

Let’s be clear. This is not Vietnam redux. The withdrawal of foreign troops is not the negative drawdown akin to previous campaigns. The handover to domestic forces marks a positive and necessary step in any counterinsurgency operation as logic dictates that indigenous forces must be prepared to assume the military mantle. 

As Karzai himself has asserted, the people of Afghanistan don’t want foreigners taking responsibility for their national security indefinitely. The announcement today marks the first step on this tumultuous transitional road. Current Afghan forces numbering some 300,000 look set to increase to 378,000 in the coming months as the fledgling democracy aims to fortify its long-term defenses against violent extremists. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has pointed out that reasserting Afghan control over the country’s destiny marks a step on the journey, not the destination. A vital step.

Nearly a decade after the United States overthrew the Taliban, the reinstallation of domestic security forces across the country marks a major positive milestone as Afghanistan seeks a return to autonomous control.

by David Fairhurst

This blog was originally posted by The Henry Jackson Society, 22/03/11, accessed 

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Afghanistan: the winnable war worth winning

The discourse surrounding the concept of a no-fly-zone in Libya has dominated our airwaves, our print and has been put firmly, and quite literally, on the map by David Cameron and William Hague.  Yet, while its significance must not be down-played, the discourse runs the risk of clouding our focus on another military intervention in existence: Afghanistan.  Time to refocus.
Slating the war in Afghanistan has become as popular as the phenomenon of micro-blogging.  Indeed, to hijack and renovate a metaphor once used by historian, Basil Liddell Hart, if the “anti-imperialist”* mindset is the mother of all disparagement vis-à-vis liberal intervention and, by extension, the war in Afghanistan, then social media such as twitter has been its most recent midwife. 
The pattern generally goes as follows: successes are reported from the field and assume the role of the lure on the track as scores of micro-bloggers come tearing out of the traps like a band of excitable greyhounds.  “Crusaders”, “imperialists”, “cultural suppressors” - some of the more popular phrases bandied about.  There are, of course, disapproving voices in government, academia and the professional media regarding Afghanistan; social media is not alone.  But social media gives us an insight into the mind set of the ordinary man on the street; it’s his outlet of choice; it tells us where he stands.  Right now it’s helping to show us that the man on the street is, more often than not, standing with his back turned against the war.  In a telling statistic, just across the pond, nearly two-thirds of Americans no longer see any value in this corner of Central Asia. 
Accordingly, Petraeus’ recent musings regarding an upturn in fortunes in Afghanistan will no doubt be subject to ridicule, disbelief and, in some instances, plain ignorance by scores of disgruntled micro-bloggers amongst others.  But he’s not often wrong. 
The Taliban are indeed on the back-foot.  NATO forces have fought bravely to reclaim critical areas such as districts west of Kandahar city and areas of Helmand Province; areas which, in 2008, were responsible for some 80 percent of global poppy supply, a colossal 7,700 metric tons, fuelling a mutually beneficial (and at times direct) relationship between drug traffickers and the Taliban.  These forces have performed commendably in this role as security enforcers, but it is, of course, patently apparent that NATO neither can nor wishes to fill this security vacuum forever.  Successful counterinsurgency dictates that indigenous forces must take on this mantle in the long term and, today, there is light at the end of this particular tunnel.  The US, for example, remains on course to be able to begin draw-downs in July, shifting the emphasis from foreign intervention to Afghan self-security.  The UK looks to be on a similar track.  Meanwhile, Afghan forces are becoming progressively more able to take on this role, growing both in size and capability.  There are currently over 300,000 Afghan forces, a figure which is hoped to increase to some 378,000 so as to further fortify the country against violent extremists long after NATO forces have returned to their respective shores.  What these gains roughly equate to is a security campaign that is being won; slowly, often painfully, but it is being won.  
Yet, winning in Afghanistan is more than a question of security.  To win this war, we must recognise the nexus between security, development and governance and bring it to fruition.  This is not only possible, but within sight.  In light of this, Petraeus is correct, once again, in highlighting the importance of funding to the State Department and USAID.  These government agencies, as with their British counterparts, the FCO and DFID, must now take on an increasingly important role, using the improved security environment as breathing space to better integrate development and governance into the classic three-pronged counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.  This will take time; this will take effort; and this will take money, but it will be worth the expenditure in all three regards given that it is our only route to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Understanding this is paramount and we should be at pains in our efforts to promote this reality.  This is a winnable war worth winning.  The value is there, not only for the Afghan people, not only for the sake of regional or international security, but for the credibility of the West too.  If we throw in the towel, we seal the West’s fate as the civilization that can be deterred through violent means.  Doing so will create one winner - not the man on the street who calls for an end to the war, but the extremist who fights on the other side.  Not much of an option, is it?

*Disclaimer: the “anti-imperialist” mindset does not necessarily dictate that interventionists are indeed imperialists!

by Dane Vallejo

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Radicalism just got more radical in Iran

Question: What’s worse than having a radical Middle-Eastern regime on the nuclear threshold?  Answer: Having a radical Middle-Eastern regime on the nuclear threshold in which Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is considered “too moderate”.   It may sound like a tired rendition of some old gag, but in reality, it is no such thing.  Rafsanjani has been hounded out of his position as head of the Assembly of Experts, the powerful Iranian clerical body, following increasing pressure from hardliners who felt the ex-president was simply not radical enough to sit at the table.

Let’s get one thing straight: the scope of Rafsanjani’s liberalism was not and is not all that far reaching.  Sure, he may have implemented an “economy first” policy during his presidency, pushing back against the leftist economic inclinations of Iranian politics; he may have opposed harsh Islamic penal codes; and he may have promoted better employment prospects for women, but the latter two in particular are hardly deserving of prolonged recognition; they’re basic human rights which should be expected, not overtly applauded.  After all, would a real moderate uphold a fatwā instructing the execution of Salman Rushdie?  You get the point.

Worryingly, it wasn’t so long ago that Rafsanjani was actually considered a hard-liner and a reliable aid to Khomeini.  So what does this sudden change of labelling really tell us?  That Rafsanjani has undergone a major transition and that the margins of Iranian politics are so slim that divergence from, say, allowing the active harassment of women to ensuring that they are harassed less is sufficient enough to push one into the category of moderate over radical?  Not likely.  More probable is a different and more sinister implication that looms ominously over this whole episode: radicalism is getting worse in Iran and revelling in its role on the centre stage.

Perhaps we should call this the “bad-ish” news, because there is worse to come.  An increasingly radical Iran is one thing, but tally that with nuclear ambitions and you have a real mess.  The prospect of containing a nuclear Iran has always been a daunting one – and one that should be avoided at all costs by preventing its acquisition of the bomb – due to the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, not least its geopolitical stance toward Israel.  But the more radical Iran becomes and the more polarised from the West, the more daunting this task will become.

We’ve heard incessant reference to the Iranian revolution of 1979 over the last month given the on-goings in the Middle East today.  Perhaps our best hope is to wish for events to come full circle and take to the streets of Tehran once more; only this time, for real democracy.

by Dane Vallejo

This blog was originally posted by The Henry Jackson Society, 09/03/11, accessed at

Monday, 7 March 2011

Blood (and Oil) Brothers

As Western leaders continue to stumble and stutter over the ongoing crisis in Libya, Colonel Gaddafi has found vocal support from Latin America’s infamous gruesome twosome, Chavez and Castro. The exclusive ‘Dictator’s Club’ maintained by corrupt autocratic leaders brazenly exploiting their own national oil reserves has been quicker to mobilise support than the floundering Western leaders.

The relationship between Libya and Chavez-led Venezuela goes beyond the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Despite minimal cultural similarities, the robust anti-American sentiments that pervade the autocratic administrations in Libya, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua has created unified sentiment under a common enemy. As the recipient of the comically paradoxical ‘al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights’, Hugo Chavez remains committed to ensuring the brutal subjugation of people under autocratic rule. Chavez said last week it ‘was a great lie’ that loyalist Gaddafi forces had attacked civilians fronting the opposition freedom movement, whilst the old anti-American, anti-Imperialist and irrational Fidel Castro denounced the Western media for promulgating a ‘colossal campaign of lies’ about Libya. The absurd criticism of the Western media would be funny if the enduring state-influenced media in Cuba and Venezuela weren’t so tragic.

As the spectre of civil war looms the lack of coordination between Western governments appears in stark comparison to the chummy dictators. Although the situation remains fluid, as recently as last week Catherine Ashton confirmed the EU was not willing to coordinate on military action and hadn’t even discussed the possibility of a no-fly zone.

If authoritarian dictators are willing to stand-up for their own abhorrent, greedy and repressive regimes why is it that Western leaders have struggled so laboriously to stand up for human rights and democracy?

The coordinated opposition to the lone global hyperpower has created a sense of solidarity against Western intervention. It is both scandalous and morally reprehensible that Western powers do not share the same sense of solidarity in mobilising greater action to prevent the continuing gross human rights violations across Libya.

by David Fairhurst

This blog was originally posted by The Henry Jackson Society, 07/03/11 at

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Kicking Cocaine out of Colombia

Whisper it, but cocaine may be on its way out of Colombia; not as an export, but for good...
Inform someone of your Colombian heritage and the customary response will consist either of acknowledgment of Carlos ‘El Pibe’ Valderrama – the eccentric and effortlessly talented Colombian football icon; worldwide music sensation, Shakira; or cocaine.  Whisper it, but the latter association may be on its way into the dustbin of history.
While acknowledging that Colombia remains the world’s largest cocaine producer, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has dropped Colombia from its list of countries requiring special observation since production has decreased by 58% between 2000 and 2009.  This is high praise indeed for a state that spent the lion’s share of the 80s and 90s as hostage to rival drug cartels that held levels of geostrategic power previously unseen in non-state actors.
Where did it all go so right?  Well, without getting too carried away (Colombia still has a number of socio-political problems that it needs to address as well as the ongoing drug problem itself), much of the acclaim belongs with the preceding Uribe administration.  Much maligned by left-of-centre commentators (even more so further-left-still, principally in Chávez’s Palacio de Miraflores), human rights activists, and indigenous demographics for his military-orientated approach to the war-on-drugs, the ex-president has often been dismissed as a “gringo puppet”.  But it seems his kinetic-military approach combined with mass eradication projects appear to be paying off - for the new Santos administration and Colombia at least.
The drug problem in Colombia is complex.  Its roots hover between left-wing guerrilla groups, principally the FARC, right-wing paramilitary organisations, notably the AUC, and abhorrently violent criminal entrepreneurs.  Solving the problem is therefore equally complex.  If the desired end is simple enough to settle on (eradication of drug exportation), the means are less so.  Uribe’s approach viewed the crisis through a military paradigm; all out war.  But at the other end of the scale there is the development approach which includes providing alternatives to coca cultivation for Colombia’s indigenous populations, tackling poverty and acute inequality, and addressing the grievances of the FARC.  In short, there is a lack of consensus on what needs to be done.
Amid this lack of consensus, a glaring problem arises despite Colombia’s improvements: the drugs may be disappearing from Colombia, but they’re not disappearing.  The Central American isthmus, especially Mexico, and sub-equatorial South America, significantly Peru, have experienced an explosion of drug production in the time that Colombia’s has decreased.  It seems, therefore, that Uribe’s approach has, to an extent, simply pushed the problem away from Colombia’s borders and into its local neighbourhood.   
Thus, while the military approach has served Colombia well, now is the time to foster development in an integrated multi-pronged assault.  While left-wing guerrilla’s and violent entrepreneurs are on the defensive, Bogotá is in a strong position to negotiate their demise.  In turn, decreasing the power of the FARC will delegitimise the raison d’être of the AUC.  Act now, achieve lasting success, and Colombia may well provide the template for future success stories to come.

by Dane Vallejo

This blog was originally posted by The Henry Jackson Society, 02/03/2011, at

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Military Matters' Dane Vallejo in the Mail On Sunday

Following the blog I wrote on private security firms in Afghanistan ("Thieves by day, terrorists by night...necessary in between"), I have been quoted in The Mail On Sunday in an article by Nadene Ghouri.

Ghouri makes an interesting case for why private security firms are strategically counterproductive and traces the murky and controversial dynamics of the private security network.  Well worth a read!