Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Putting the deportation of Joaquín Pérez Becerra in context

written for RATB by Sam McGill, 03 May 2011.

On the demand of the Colombian government, on 22 April 2011, left-wing journalist Joaquín Pérez Becerra, allegedly an ex-leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was arrested at a Venezuelan airport on arrival from Frankfurt in Germany. Two days later, he was deported by the Venezuelan government to Colombia. The arrest and deportation has caused a domestic and international outcry against Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela. Pérez Becerra is the director of The New Colombia News Agency (ANNCOL) and a source of re-published communiqués of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP).

Pérez Becerra survived during the mass murder of leaders of the Patriotic Union (UP), which was the legal political party, a coalition of a range of social actors, including the FARC and the Colombian Communist Party. Some 5,000 members of the UP have been killed since 1984, including Pérez ’s first wife. Pérez was a leader of the group during the 1990s. He received political asylum in Sweden in 2000 where he was living until he boarded a plane to Venezuela. Pérez Becerra was wanted by the Colombian Legal system and according to the Colombian and Venezuelan Government; Pérez Becerra had an INTERPOL order out for him.

There have been protests in Venezuela against his arrest and deportation by representatives from Pro-Chávez organisations, including: Coordinadora Simón Bolívar (CSB), the Simón Bolívar National Communal Front (FNCSB), the “Clara Zetkin” Women’s Movement, the Front for the Detained and Disappeared of the Continent, and the Revolutionary Tupamaros Movement. Also in attendance were former Venezuelan Trade Minister Eduardo Samán, current Venezuelan lawmaker Oscar Figueras Yul Yalbur, and investigative journalist Eva Golinger.

Whilst the deportation is a blow to the sovereignty of Venezuela and the struggle for freedom in Colombia, it must be considered in the context of international relations between Venezuela, Colombia and Latin America. Below we detail the current context and analyse the difficult situation that both the Venezuelan government and Joaquin Pérez Becerra were put in.

Political battles over extraditions: Posada Carriles and Walid Makled
In an interview on Telesur the Venezuelan foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro made it clear that they felt obliged to honour the Interpol order for the Pérez Becerra’s extradition to Colombia and that if they didn't they would lose all their grounds for demanding the extradition of Posada Carriles, a Cuban-exile with Venezuelan citizenship, who escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985. Posada Carriles is wanted by Cuba and Venezuela for his involvement in various terrorist attacks including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian aeroplane that killed all 73 people on board, and the 1997 bombings of four Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist. Carriles walks free in Miami today despite Venezuela’s demand that he be extradited to stand trial.

Colombia has recently agreed to extradite accused drug trafficker Walid Makled, a Venezuelan businessman, back to Venezuela. Makled is wanted in Colombia, Venezuela and the US for drug trafficking, money laundering and involvement in 3 separate murders. The US are also calling for Colombia to deport him to be tried in US courts. There is significant US interest in the case due to Makled’s spurious claims, exploited by the Venezuelan opposition to demonise the Bolivarian Revolution, that the Venezuelan government is involved in narco-trafficking and the funding of terrorist groups. There have been several investigations, seizures and denunciations by Venezuela’s National Anti-drug Office (ONA) into Makled’s businesses and his $1.2 billion fortune.

US military threats to Venezuelan security
In 2009 the previous Uribe administration in Colombia signed an agreement to establish seven new US military bases in Colombia, with provisions for the US to use any land, sea or airspace of Colombia as it saw necessary. Furthermore in July 2010, Colombia and Costa Rica agreed to the deployment of 6,000 US troops whilst presenting various arguments to the Organization of American States (OAS) for intervention in Venezuela on the alleged basis of the presence of FARC camps in Venezuelan territory. Chavez placed Venezuela on high alert for invasion and broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia.

These military threats emerged within a regional context that included two new US military bases in Panama, the June 2009 military coup in Honduras, where there are two US military bases, the deployment of up to 10,000 US troops and 47 US warships in Costa Rican territory, the reactivation after 60 years of the US Fourth Fleet to patrol South American and Caribbean waters and the occupation of Haiti by 10,000 US troops following the January 2010 earthquake.

In August 2010, Uribe was replaced in Colombian elections by the new administration of President Juan Manuel Santos. Santos had previously served as the Minister of National Defence under Uribe’s Administration and continues to represent the Social Party of National Unity (Partido Social de Unidad Nacional) of which Uribe was president. Although Santos in no way represents a break from the politics of Uribe, at present he is adopting different tactics, by restoring trade relationships with Venezuela and halting the establishment of the US bases. The Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the US-Colombia Defence Co-operation Agreement was unconstitutional as it had not been passed by Congress. The Santos administration has upheld this decision so far.

The decreased threat of a large-scale, US backed military intervention in Venezuela is clearly something that Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution need to maintain in order to preserve stability and security in Venezuela, not to mention to prevent loss of life. It removes the necessity of huge military spending increases which means more resources for the Revolution’s social and development programmes.

International and bilateral trade
Economist Mark Weisbrot has analysed recent trade and diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela, including a cross-border security committee, the resumption of fuel shipments from Venezuela to Colombia and the payment of $800 million outstanding debt owed to Colombian exporters.

Weisbrot highlights that during 2009-2010 when Venezuela cut off relations with Colombia in the face of military threats, Colombian exports to Venezuela fell from 15.6% to just 3.6%. This represented $2.3 billion in trade for Colombia and 11.2% of their total exports. To break this down further, the loss in trade represented more than 20% of Colombia’s non fuel exports, 83% of total livestock exports and 63% of textile exports.

In the context of a global economic crisis and widespread flooding across the region, Colombia accepted further loans from the World Bank totalling US$250 million in December 2010 alone. Given these factors, it seems that Santos is pursuing the normalisation of relations with Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution through economic necessity rather than any political change of heart. However it is an economic and diplomatic relationship that benefits Venezuela also and will no doubt have influenced the Venezuelan government’s decision to deport Pérez Becerra. It is easier to maintain popular support for the revolutionary process if people do not lack basic necessities which are imported from Colombia.

The strength of revolutionaries in Venezuela
Since the 2010 national assembly elections, the opposition are more represented in the national assembly and can block decisions requiring a two-thirds agreement: the Bolivarian forces are having to choose their battles.

The murders of several peasant leaders in the Colombian border regions in April 2011, demonstrates the intensity of the struggle in which Venezuela is engaged. Despite land reforms being enshrined in law, campesinos (farmers/peasants) have been fighting to reclaim land from large land estate owners who in turn are hiring private police and paramilitary squads to murder activists.

Although Chávez has been able to intervene and positively support some prisoner swaps between FARC and the Colombian government, the Venezuelan government is not in a position to declare support for the FARC or to deny Interpol regulations requesting deportations. That is not to say there are not significant forces in Venezuela calling for this kind of position.

Reflections from Iván Maiza
The article by Iván Maiza in the opinion section of TeleSur’s website sets out a very considered explanation of the deportation and sets it in the context of the Bolivarian Revolution’s position globally and its political strengths.

Maiza points out that:

“The fact is that Joaquín was not in Maicao being chased by a pack from the AUC [United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia] and forced to cross the border, nor was he in hiding, nor even terribly upset. He was in Sweden putting together his publication, in peace. So then, he hops on a plane, comes to Venezuela and all of a sudden lands at Maiquetía. And before he arrives, there’s a call from Santos to Chávez, “Hey pal, how’s it going? Somebody I’ve been looking for is headed there, get him for me and send him over, ok? You’re not going to wreck our new friendship, are you?

“And of course to answer that we must first answer the first question: Who told Pérez Becerra to get on that plane? Who told him that everything was ok? Who gave him assurances that everything was in order? I’m sure that if someone told him that the Venezuelan government was not apprised and not prepared to defend him, and that Santos would be riled, he’d never have come. I’m sure he must have asked several times about his security and someone told him, “everything’s ok buddy, we’re waiting for you here.

“The timing was ideal. Negotiations in Cartegena between Lobo and Zelaya, a reopening of trade and relations between Venezuela and Colombia, and the expected extradition of Makled. It was just the moment to make Chávez choose between his leftist friends on the continent, or return to the days of closed borders, of the accusations that his government is an outlaw government that defends terrorists, a return to militarization at the border states of Zulia, Táchira and Apure.

“We are going to elections in a year. The Bolivarian Revolution should be confirmed once again for President Chávez’ last and most important presidential term, and for that we’re looking at two basic fronts in the struggle, both with the premise of granting a better life to the majority of the people. For the people who seek to consolidate their definitive independence, these fronts are housing and food sovereignty, which would allow for increased happiness for the people, guarantee a good life for the country’s children, allow us to prove that socialism is more productive than capitalism and consolidate a new model of development and production in the region.

"All that implies:
1. Not being at war.
2. Not being forced to increase military spending.
3. Not having a closed border (just try to win an election without sanitary napkins or diapers).
4. Stopping the murder for hire of popular leaders in agricultural zones.
5. Being able to rely on construction materials to build housing.

The main task is to guarantee that the objectives set for the election in 2012 are met, that homes, buildings, and communities can be built and that crops be planted, and in that we’ve decided to bet on the continuity of the revolutionary process, giving our best day to day, so that later in 2013 and 2019 when we face the need to consolidate the revolution beyond a particular leader, the revolution can walk on its own two feet.”

When drawing any conclusions from this series of events, it’s clearly a difficult and regrettable state of affairs that has lead to the arrest and deportation of Pérez Becerra. It represents a blow for the anti-imperialist struggle in Colombia and Venezuela. However, given the economic, political and military pressures facing Venezuela currently, it seems that the decision was forced when Becerra boarded the plane in Frankfurt (where the Interpol order was not implemented).

The deportation has been used inside and outside Venezuela by groups on the left and the right alike to denounce Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. However, we must recognise that the project of building socialism in Venezuela is not a utopia or some idealist dogma that exists in a political and economic vacuum, free to be guided by absolute principles. The Bolivarian struggle develops in a hostile world dominated by imperialist interests which seek to destroy it at each turn, it is forced to make concessions, sometimes taking two steps back to take one step forward.

Is it still a process worth fighting for and defending, warts and all? The millions of Venezuelans who have started to take control of their own lives through communal councils and other organs of people power, who have benefited from free healthcare and education for the first time in history, and who have won control over nationalised natural resources will answer this with their actions. No doubt, they will continue to strengthen and deepen the revolutionary process demanding more and greater radicalisation in their own interests and in the interests of the poor and oppressed throughout the world.