ForeignPolicy.com has done a remarkably poor job covering Latin American politics since the magazine overhauled its site, brought in a new crop of editors, and built up an otherwise impressive stable of regular columnists. Its chief weakness in this regard has been in neglecting the region more than anything else, so when garbage analysis like Francisco Toro’s recent piece on Venezuela’s “narco state” gets run, it really stands out.
Toro writes about the two federal magistrates— Eladio Aponte and Luis Velásquez Alvaray—who have captured headlines in the past couple of weeks by revealing (or threatening to reveal) information that exposes the corruption plaguing Venezuelan government. “To paraphrase Oscar Wilde,” he quips, “To lose one Supreme Tribunal magistrate may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.” I’m not sure what this means, to be frank, or what Toro intends to insinuate by it, but his breakdown of the situation only deteriorates from there.
He notes that the information beginning to trickle out “paint[s] a picture of a criminal justice system deep in bed with the Colombian Rebel Armed Forces (FARC) guerrillas, where political interference, crooked rulings, collusion with drug traffickers, and occasional contract killings, are entirely routine. The cocaine route out of Colombia, through Venezuela, and on to the U.S. and Western Europe is simply too profitable—and the tentacles of the trade’s millions have seeped into every corner of the system.”
What Toro fails to mention is that the tentacles have allegedly also put some of that money into the pockets of Aponte and Alvaray, who were each driven out of the country under clouds of suspicion questioning their own crooked ways. Both face corruption charges at home, giving each a very good reason to raise questions about Hugo Chavez’s leadership during an election year (also not mentioned in Toro’s article).
Instead of taking the time to offer a measured, properly contextualized analysis of what’s going in Venezuela, Toro is clearly more interested in fear mongering—a quality that either throws into question his journalistic integrity or his personal political preferences, or both. “The mounting revelations paint Venezuela as a budding narcostate,” he offers, “a country where big-time drug trafficking money has not just bought this and that judge, or this and that prosecutor, but has taken control of the state as a whole. Large-scale drug trafficking is a business that invariably leaves a trail of blood on its wake, and a spate of recent contract killings of army officers alleged to be deep in the business raises the possibility of a Mexican-style drug war to come.”
Actually, it doesn’t, but it hardly matters since Toro believes that the possibilities for bedlam are even worse in Chavez’s Venezuela! “Alas, the analogy [to Mexico] isn’t really accurate. In Mexico, the drug war pits the armed forces against the drug cartels. In Venezuela, if the former magistrates are to be believed, the drug cartels operate from within the Armed Forces. And what do you call it when one part of a country’s armed forces goes to war against another? That’s right: a civil war.”
To suggest that Mexico’s drug war pits the military against drug traffickers is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation there. Indeed, the military has been forced to take up arms because the country’s police have systemically failed to combat the country’s gangsters. So bad is the situation that on more than one occasion the military has battled police themselves. The military in shootouts with state police units? That sounds more like a civil war than anything going on in Venezuela (though it is assuredly not). And what evidence is there to suggest that Venezuela’s military (apparently split into corrupt and non-corrupt factions) would begin operations against itself? Not much, aside from the predictions of opposition candidates and chavista loyalists in the run-up to the national elections in October.
It’s true that the political climate in Venezuela is tense with uncertainty—and has been for some time—under Chavez’s erratic and largely unsuccessful tenure as president. And, as usual during election season, anxieties are being intentionally ratcheted-up by various operatives seeking political gain (especially given the uncertainty produced by Chavez’s declining health). This is precisely why journalists have a responsibility to offer level-headed explanations of what’s going on in Venezuela. Toro has done the opposite by recklessly forecasting doom. We deserve, and should demand, better.