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Archive for September, 2012

Chavez’s Swansong?

30 September 2012

Chavez’s Swansong?

By Gwynne Dyer

It is imaginable – not certain, but certainly possible – that Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s strongman ruler since 1998, will lose the presidential election on 7 October. The most recent opinion polls showed that his challenger, Henrique Capriles, has closed the gap between them to only 5 percent or less of the popular vote. If Chavez loses, would he actually hand over power peacefully?

He says he would, of course – but he also says that it’s an irrelevant question, since he will surely win. “It is written,” he tells his supporters reassuringly. But it is not. Chavez really could lose this time, for thirty different opposition parties, ranging from the centre-left to the far right, have finally got together and chosen a single candidate for the presidency. Moreover, Capriles is no Mitt Romney: he knows that the votes of the poor matter.

In previous elections, the Venezuelan opposition railed against Chavez’s “socialism” and Marxism, and lost. Capriles, by contrast, promises to retain most of Chavez’s social welfare policies, which have poured almost $300 billion over the last dozen years into programmes to improve literacy, extend high school education, improve health care, build housing for the homeless, and subsidise household purchases from groceries to appliances.

Capriles can make those promises because, like Chavez, he can pay for them out of the country’s huge oil revenues. He HAS to make them, because poorer Venezuelans – and most Venezuelans are poor – won’t vote for a candidate who would end all that. But Capriles says he will spend that money more effectively, with less corruption, and a lot of people believe him. It would not be hard to be more efficient than Chavez’s ramshackle administration.

Capriles also has the advantage of being 18 years younger and a lot fitter than the incumbent, who has been fighting cancer for the past fifteen months. Chavez says it is cured now, but physically he is clearly not the man he was. Some of his own supporters suspect that he is not long for this world – and while they still love Chavez himself, they neither love nor trust the people around him, who might seize power when he was gone.

Moreover, though Chavez’s rule has benefited the poor in many ways, they are still poor. Venezuela’s economy has grown far more slowly than those of its big neighbours, Brazil and Colombia, even though it has enjoyed the advantages of big oil exports and a tenfold rise in the world oil price.

Indeed, almost all the growth in Venezuela’s economy since Chavez took power is due to higher oil prices; most other parts of the economy have shrunk. And while the oil revenues have been big enough – $980 billion during Chavez’s presidency – to sustain the subsidies at their current level, they will never be enough to transform the entire economy.

You can work it out on the back of an envelope. There are almost 30 million Venezuelans. Even if all of that $980 billion had been shared out among them during Chavez’s twelve years in power, they would only have got about $3,000 per person per year. Since the oil revenue also had to pay for everything from defence to road construction, the real number was more like $1,000 per person per year.

That’s nice to have, but it’s not going to transform lives. In fact, many people now feel that they are sliding backward again, for inflation has been about 1,000 percent since 1998, ten times worse than in Venezuela’s neighbours. And the shelves in the government-subsidised food shops are bare most of the time.

It’s like the old Soviet Union: when a shipment of some basic commodity finally arrives, it is all snapped up instantly, and then there is nothing until the next delivery. Nationalisation and central planning didn’t do the old Communist states of Europe any good, and they haven’t worked in Venezuela either. Something radical must be done to get the real, non-oil economy growing at a decent rate.

So even Chavez loyalists can be tempted by a politician who promises to keep the subsidies, but to scrap the antique Marxist dogmatism that cripples the economy. Henrique Capriles is exactly that politician, and therefore he really might win the election. What then?

What would probably happen is a grudging but peaceful hand-over of power to the newly elected President Capriles. Chavez has not been reluctant to exploit the government’s near-monopoly of the broadcast media and his rhetoric is often vicious – he has called Capriles a “pig” and a “fascist” – but unlike the former Communist states of Europe, he has always held real elections that he could actually lose.

If he loses this one, he still knows that the welfare state he began to build will survive his departure: it is now part of the country’s political furniture. He will be conscious that his health might not be good enough to sustain him through a long post-election crisis. And for all his bluff and bluster about defending the “Bolivarian revolution”, he may actually respect a democratic vote that goes against him.

Whether his colleagues and cronies would feel the same way is another question, but they could hardly reject an outcome that Chavez himself accepted. This thing could still end well.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Capriles also…gone”; and “It’s like…rate”)


“Double Tap”

26 September 2012

“Double Tap”

By Gwynne Dyer

“Double Tap” is what mobsters do when they put somebody down. One bullet in the heart, one in the head. That way they stay down. It’s practically standard operating procedure among hitmen.

Then there’s a different, nastier kind of “double tap”. Suppose you live in some hill village in western Pakistan, and one of the families nearby has a boy fighting with the Taliban who has come home for a visit, bringing several friends with him. It’s worrisome, because you are always hearing American drones overhead – and sure enough, one day there is a terrifying explosion and his house is destroyed.

What do you do now? There was a whole extended family living in that house: children, old folks, a cousin or two. Some of them are probably still alive under the rubble, perhaps badly injured. Do you rush over and help to dig them out? Better not. The Predator or Reaper drone (lovely names) will wait until all the neighbours have gathered round, and then launch a second Hellfire missile onto the site. Double tap.

“These strikes are becoming much more common,” Mirza Shahbad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents the victims of drone strikes, told “The Independent” newspaper recently. “In the past it used to be a one-off, now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”

Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic have just released a report, based on nine months of research and 130 interviews, which concludes that barely 2 percent of the victims of US drone strikes were known militants. That’s not to say that everybody else killed or injured was an innocent civilian, but these are definitely not “surgical” strikes.

The best estimate of the number of people killed in US drone strikes over the past eight years comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: between 2,532 and 3,251 dead in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those, between 475 and 879 deaths were civilian non-combatants who just happened to be nearby when the Hellfire hit – often because they were trying to rescue survivors from an earlier strike.

The Stanford/New York University study, entitled “Living Under Drones”, describes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s database as “far more reliable than other aggregating sources,” based on a far wider range of sources than other comparable studies. And of course there are no official numbers. The US government doesn’t even try to count the casualties.

Washington doesn’t formally admit that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a remote-control assassination programme at all, because it is legally a very doubtful area. At the same time, it strives to reassure the American public that there is almost no “collateral damage”: that practically all the victims are “bad guys”. Including the 175 children who, according to the Bureau’s numbers, have been killed in the strikes.

Let’s be honest here: children always get killed in air strikes. When you explode 10 kg (20 lbs) of high explosives on a single target (the standard Hellfire load), there can be nothing surgical about it. The really questionable aspects of the CIA’s drone programme lie elsewhere.

First, is it legal to make air attacks in a country that you are not at war with? Second, can you distinguish sufficiently between “militants” and civilians living in the same area? And, above all, why are you making double-tap attacks?

The legal question is particularly problematic in Pakistan, where the government has not authorised the United States to carry out attacks. Islamabad tacitly accepts them, but sometimes public opinion forces it to respond vigorously, as when an American missile killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year. That blunder also highlights the difficulty of distinguishing between “militants” and civilians through the lens of a remote-controlled camera.

It’s the double-tap attacks that are truly shameful. Do the controllers really think that the people rushing to rescue the survivors of a first strike are all “militants” too? Or are they just trying to deter people from helping those who were wounded in the first strike? That is certainly the effect of the policy: villagers now often leave the injured survivors of an attack in agony for hours before going to help them, for fear of becoming victims too.

There’s no point in telling the military and their masters that this tactic is counter-productive, generating more new “militants” than it kills. The bureaucratic machine doesn’t respond to such subtle arguments. There’s probably no point in talking about the moral problem of killing innocent people either. But the fact that some fifty countries now have drones should inspire a little reflection about this unwritten change in the rules of engagement.

The latest proud possessor of these weapons is Iran, which has just unveiled a new drone with a range of 2,000 km (1,300 mi), capable of flying over most of the Middle East. If it is really copied from the US drone that Iran captured last year, then it has major air-to-ground capabilities. So what if it starts using those capabilities over, say, Syria, against the rebels that the Syrian government calls “terrorists”?

The US could not really complain (though no doubt it would). What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 11. (“These strikes…it”; “The Stanford…casualties”; and “The legal…camera”)


No More Coups in Turkey

23 September 2012

No More Coups in Turkey

By Gwynne Dyer

In my trade you get used to it after a while, but the first time you wake up to find a military coup has happened overnight where you live is quite alarming. That was in Turkey back in 1971, when the army seized control of the country after months of political turmoil. It was not as bad as the 1960 coup, when the military authorities tried and hanged the prime minister, but it was bad enough.

There were two more coups in Turkey: in 1980, when half a million were arrested, tens of thousands were tortured, and fifty were executed, and 1997, a “post-modern” coup in which the army simply ordered the prime minister to resign. But there will be no more coups in Turkey: the army has finally been forced to bow to a democratically elected government.

On 21 September a Turkish court sentenced 330 people, almost all military officers, to prison for their involvement in a coup plot in 2003. They included the former heads of the army, navy and air force, who received sentences of twenty years each, and six other generals. Thirty-four other officers were acquitted.

Five years ago, nobody in Turkey could have imagined such a thing. The military were above the law, with the sacred mission (at least in their own minds) of defending the secular state from being undermined by people who mixed religion with politics. Making coups against governments that trespassed on that forbidden ground was just part of their job.

This was the duty that the 330 officers thought they were performing in 2003, according to the indictments against them. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate Islamic party espousing conservative social values, had come to power after the 2002 election: the voters had got it wrong again, and their mistake had to be corrected.

With public opinion abroad and at home increasingly hostile to military coups, a better pretext was needed than in the old days. So the plot, “Operation Sledgehammer”, involved bomb attacks on two major mosques in Istanbul, a Turkish fighter shot down by the Greeks, and an attack on a military museum by Islamic militants. The real attackers, in every case heavily disguised, would actually be the military themselves.

The accused 330 claimed that “Operation Sledgehammer” was all just a scenario for a military exercise, and the documents supporting the accusations (probably leaked by junior officers opposed to a coup) have never been properly attributed. But given the army’s track record of four coups in fifty years and its deeply rooted hostility to Islamic parties, the charges were entirely plausible, and in the end the court believed them.

The army has no choice but to accept the court’s judgement. The AK party has been re-elected twice with increasing majorities, the party’s pious leaders have not tried to shove their values down everybody else’s throats, and the economy has flourished.

A new constitution, ratified in a referendum in 2010, has finally made elected civilian governments superior to the army. It even removed the legal immunity that those who carried out the bloody 1980 coup wrote into the previous constitution to protect themselves. As a result, the leaders of that coup, retired generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Sahinkaya, have also been brought to trial. And about time, too.

Even now, many secular-minded people in Turkey do not trust the motives of an Islamic party in government. They still think that the army is there to protect them from the dark oppression of the religious fanatics, and that any attempt to curb its power is a conspiracy against the whole principle of the secular, neutral state.

But the Turkish secular state has never been neutral. From the time when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his companions, all military officers, rescued Turkey from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, the state was at war with religion.

Ataturk began by abolishing the religious schools, the Sultanate, and the Caliphate (religious authority over all Muslims) that Ottoman sultans had traditionally claimed. He banned forms of headgear, like the fez and the turban, that had religious connotations. He replaced Islamic law with Western legal codes, and declared the equal status of women and men (including votes for women).

It was understandable, because Ataturk had always argued that Turkey must Westernise its institutions and write off the non-Turkish parts of the empire if it wanted to survive in a world dominated by industrialised Western empires. But that was 75 years ago. Today’s Turkey is modern, powerful, and prosperous, and there is no external threat.

It’s high time for the Turkish army to stop waging a cold war against the part of the population who are still devoutly religious. They are entitled to the full rights of citizenship too, although they are not entitled to force their beliefs and values on everybody else.

That was the significance of AK’s victories in the past three elections, and of the trials that have finally brought the army under control. The head of the Turkish armed forces and all three service chiefs resigned in July in protest against the trials of military personnel, but President Abdullah Gul promptly appointed a new head of the armed forces – who tamely accepted the post. It’s over.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 9. (“With…themselves”; and “The army…too”)


Is Romney One of the 47 Percent?

18  September 2012

Is Romney One of the 47 Percent?

By Gwynne Dyer

It has always been hard for people with strong opinions to tolerate the discipline of electoral politics, which demands that they never speak their minds in public. Say what you really think, and you are bound to alienate some of the votes that you need to win. But it’s getting harder: even at private gatherings, today’s politicians are likely to be secretly video-recorded, so they must NEVER reveal their true opinions.

The latest victim of this rule is Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the US presidency. He needed to feed some red meat to the people who had paid $50,000 a head to attend a fund-raiser in May in Florida. Most of them doubtless believed that poor Americans are shiftless, Palestinians are evil, and Iranians are crazed fanatics, and they were not paying to have their views challenged. Still, he should have been more careful.

Blaming the failure of 19 years of negotiation to bring a peace settlement in the Arab-Israeli dispute entirely on the Palestinians was not going to get him in trouble at home. “The Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace,” he said, which would be seen as a distortion of the truth in most parts of the world, but it does no harm to Romney domestically. Indeed, lots of Obama voters think that too.

Same goes for the bizarre scenario he drew about the alleged threat from Iran. “If I were Iran – a crazed fanatic, I’d say let’s get a little fissile material to Hezbollah, have them carry it to Chicago or some other place, and then if anything goes wrong, or America starts acting up, we’ll just say, ‘Guess what? Unless you stand down, why, we’re going to let off a dirty bomb’.”

This is only one or two steps short of expressing a fear of werewolves, but in the United States this sort of discourse is routine. The US Department of Defense regularly uses equally shoddy and cynical arguments to justify its huge budget. Romney will not get into any trouble with the electorate for this “gaffe”.

Where it all went wrong was when he said that “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” referring to the Americans who don’t pay income tax. “There are 47% who are with (Obama), who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

The audience at the fund-raiser obviously believes that, and it’s pretty likely that Romney believes it himself, but it is simply not true.

If all of the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income tax automatically vote for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, then the Republicans can never win an election. At least not unless EVERYBODY who pays income tax votes Republican, which seems pretty unlikely.

Surely some tax-payers must vote Democratic, even if they are only Latinos, African-Americans, gays, women, Asians, union members, and effete Eastern intellectuals. And some non-taxpayers certainly do vote Republican. In fact, the Republican Party’s core strategy for decades has been to win white, working-class votes by stressing its conservative social values. Without their votes, the last Republican president would have been Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But Romney actually dismissed the importance of those voters, although white, working-class voters who are unemployed or underemployed, and pay no taxes, could make the difference between victory and defeat for him. So could retired people too poor to pay taxes, who are often social conservatives.

In Romney’s view, his role “is not to worry about those people (the 47 percent). I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” If this is not outright contempt, it comes very close.

It was especially reckless of Romney to couch the whole discourse in terms of who pay taxes or doesn’t. This from a man who has refused to release more than the past two years of his own tax returns. Why endure all the criticism about not releasing the past five years, say, if there was nothing to hide in the returns for the preceding years? Like, maybe, the possibility that Romney paid no tax at all in those previous returns.

The people who pay no taxes in the United States are the very poor and the very rich, and Romney certainly falls into the latter category. If he paid no tax at all in 2007, 2008 and 2009, say, he would have fallen into the 47 percent in those years. So should we conclude that he voted for Obama in 2008?

Probably not, and we can feel a certain sympathy for a man whose supposedly private remarks, shaped to appeal to an ultra-rich and ultra-conservative audience, have been dragged into the public domain. But he should have known better. Almost invisible to him, there was another group of people in that room who were not rich at all: the people who waited on the tables of the mighty.

It was almost certainly one of those helots who took the video of his talk. They are getting in everywhere.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 11. (“Surely…close”)