June 12, 2002 | WebMemo on Latin America
On the heels of his visit with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, America's peripatetic ex-president Jimmy Carter has accepted a new invitation.
On June 4, Carter was asked by the administration of embattled Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías to help mediate floundering reconciliation talks between the recently deposed and restored leader and political opponents determined to get rid of him. Chávez's vice-president actually sent the request to Carter the day after the Organization of American States made its own offer to mediate-which Chávez refused.
It's hard not to imagine Castro's shadow behind all this, putting a bug in the Venezuelan president's ear to the effect that if he wants the United States to go easy on him, he should use mediation as a way to obtain ex-president Carter's blessing on his schemes, since Carter is known to have a soft spot for leftists, communists, and dictators.
Although Carter encouraged Cuba's Castro to respect human rights and enact democratic reforms, he also praised the 76-year-old tyrant for a health care system in many ways no better than others in Latin America and extensive education efforts more dedicated to political indoctrination than practical learning.
Moreover, he made a plea from Havana for the United States to lift its principled trade embargo with a regime that has trained and armed Latin American guerrillas, harbors fugitives, and supports international terrorist groups. In Castro's eyes, that more than compensated for any trouble Carter's democracy message and visits with dissidents might have stirred up.
Carter's participation in Venezuela's reconciliation process would certainly blunt outspoken criticism of the Chávez government by U.S. officials, allowing President Chávez to retain and strengthen his controversial "Bolivarian Circles," or partisan support groups. Like Castro's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, they serve their hero-but not necessarily the nation.
Members of Venezuela's National Assembly have complained that government money has been used to support these groups, and, indeed, it does appear that some $4 billion has disappeared from Venezuela's macroeconomic stabilization fund that no one seems to be able to explain. During last April's demonstrations against the president, members of these groups allegedly fired on unarmed protesters. Some members of Venezuela's armed forces are justifiably concerned that such groups will form the backbone of a new army, displacing their own institution.
Although that is only one aspect of a widening fracture that separates Chávez from middle-class Venezuelans, the business sector, the media, and elements within the military-it's a clear example of why the choice of mediators is important. There is much that cannot be taken on faith from the man who is in charge-to the extent he may really be in charge. Anyone who mediates in this labyrinth must have a keen nose for mischief and guile.
He or she must also have a fair sense of what is wrong with Venezuela beyond the current squabble. Ever since oil was discovered in the early part of the 20th century, Venezuelan military leaders and democratic politicians have promised citizens a socialist caretaker state without ever promoting individual enterprise or broad public participation in governance.
Former President Carter, who often found good things to say about some of the world's worst dictators, may not be the best person to sniff out the truth. His own willingness to excuse leftist governments that try to guarantee citizens economic privileges in place of political rights may also blind him to the wreckage that populism has left in this oil-rich but poverty-stricken nation.
Stephen Johnson is a Latin America Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.