Ideas

Venezuela: An Empty Shell Named Juan Guaido

Venezuela's next problem, besides a crashed economy and an authoritarian regime, may be an opposition president incapable of running the country.

Jan Guaido in Caracas on Feb. 20
Sergio Ocampo Madrid

-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — Obviously, I want Maduro to fall. Obviously, I'm counting the minutes to the end of Venezuela's nightmare, so we may start to rebuild it after a 20-year experiment that has both destroyed the country and largely killed the dream that many of us in Colombia share: of a reasonable, modern Left coming to power. Indeed, Venezuela's Bolivarian movement has reversed the pendulum across the continent, favoring the resurgence of the most recalcitrant and corrupt conservatism.

Certainly, I am pained by the state of Venezuela. It is our other self as a nation, our continuity in the jungle, across the Andes and plains, and along the Caribbean. It is the other bank of the Orinoco and Arauca rivers to our "west bank," and a helpless reminder of the greater nation-state that could have been: a vast nation that already shares its joys and melancholies, sings and dances to the same music and has a similar, easygoing demeanor.

Yet in spite of this all, I am resolutely opposed to the solution touted as the last option for toppling the beastly dictator and heir to that megalomaniac charlatan, Hugo Chávez. The incidents that have followed since legislator Juan Guaidó decided to proclaim himself president — and I cannot imagine why — seem neither serious nor responsible, smacking instead of opportunism.

I am pained by the state of Venezuela.

This putative president is nothing like Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles or María Corina Machado, those opposition veterans with 15 years of fighting, persecution and imprisonment. Guaidó, in contrast, emerged overnight. Yet he won the backing of the Americans, then neighboring countries like ours, and then 45 other states, including some of the most respectable in the world. Together they have staged a real pantomime, naming ambassadors without embassies or resources, and issuing decrees to the winds.

I observe Guaidó, analyze his speech, posture and vocabulary, and I simply cannot imagine him reviving the Venezuelan utopia, rebuilding a productive apparatus, restoring institutions in ruins or disarming thousands of militiamen fired up with the delusional promises of a glorious revolution for the 21st century. I cannot even seen him organizing an election within two months to ease a transition.

The events of recent days were immensely foolhardy and irresponsible. After selling a star-studded and well-intentioned concert, the ground was prepared for a "humanitarian caravan." Six hundred tons of food and medicines were taken to the Colombian border, 200 on Brazil's, and a bunch from Curaçao, but all in improvised fashion, without a distribution strategy or clear ideas on how to get it all inside Venezuela. It was naively, or deliberately, imagined that a vast human chain would shift them all in, box by box. Notably, neither the UN nor the Red Cross accepted this task as it seemed evident the plan had none of the three criteria of international law for such cases: impartiality, neutrality and independence.

Then a few shots heard and couple of flashes on a bridge provoked the forceful reaction of the Bolivarian police and sinister National Guard, who put an end to this "dream" of taking medicines to the forlorn in the various states of Barinas, Zulia, Mérida and beyond.

I simply cannot imagine Guaidó​ reviving the Venezuelan utopia.

It is an absolute scandal to expose ordinary folk who are both sick and hungry, just so you can then claim the tyrant would not let aid in for his people! Or worse, to use some stray bullet to "justify" subsequent armed intervention. There were 70 injuries by the end of the day though none were serious, and two native Venezuelans were killed in Kumaracapai along the Brazilian border. They do not count of course, just as they haven't in the last 500 years!

The Colombian president has found in this string of theatrical incidents the opportunity to shake off criticisms that he is a simpleton, superficial, inept at his job and a puppet. His image had been sagging for six months until the current crisis, when his approval ratings have suddenly swelled. Daily the broadcasters Blu Radio and RCN and the daily El Tiempo expound on his impressive leadership.

I do not know whether or not the dictator will have fallen by the time this article is published, given the reports of 70 or more soldiers (of junior ranks I think) shifting loyalties to Guaidó, the savior pulled out of a hat. If that happens, the young Venezuelan leader should be more afraid than Iván Duque, another upstart who unexpectedly won an election last year and found himself having to actually govern a real country.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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