Venezuela's Latest Victory Is... Saving a Suspected Drug Lord?

Within the pantheon of Latin American political archetypes, few figures are as reviled as the intelligence chief, whose cowled outline is often found nestled beside populist strongmen and tin pot dictators alike. Fujimori had his Montesinos, Trujillo had Johnny Abbes, and from 2004-2009, Hugo Chávez had Hugo "The Chicken" Carvajal Barrios.

Chávez's heirs very nearly lost Carvajal last week when he was seized by Aruban authorities cooperating with an outstanding U.S. warrant. Days later, Carvajal was released from jail in a confusing chain of events that saw Dutch authorities override Aruban ones, as Caracas passionately declared that the arrest was illegal and violated international treaties.

In 2008, as he was nearing the end of his tenure as intelligence chief, Carvajal became one of three high-ranking Venezuelan regime officials to be accused by the United States Treasury Department of illegally aiding FARC rebels in neighboring Colombia, which it classifies as a "narco-terrorist organization." Specifically, the Americans charged him with supplying weapons and fake documents to the rebels and protecting their shipment routes and camps along the Venezuela-Colombia border. These accusations came at a time of escalating diplomatic fury between the United States and Venezuela; Chávez had recently accused the United States of attempting to kill him, followed by tit-for-tat expulsions of ambassadors and a bevy of furious rhetoric. Once the diplomatic furor had died down some, however, the charges against Carvajal -- ignored entirely by Venezuelan authorities -- seemed to have been largely forgotten.

Then, in January 2014, the now retired general and intelligence czar was granted a cushy posting at the Venezuelan consulate on nearby Aruba, a tranquil and idyllic vacation destination particularly popular amongst the Chávista elite. It was upon arriving in Aruba to occupy his post that Carvajal was detained at the airport by local authorities acting at the behest of the United States. This initial arrest led to a rush of excitement both among Venezuela's vestigial opposition and within the U.S. intelligence community. If Aruba indeed extradited Carvajal to the United States, he might have been willing to cut a deal with the United States -- and any testimony or insider information he shared could potentially humiliate, or even undermine, the chavista regime.

And he would know a great deal. The retired general was a close associate of Chávez's from the time they first took up arms together in one of the failed 1992 coups against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Carvajal was intelligence director during a critical period in which the tightening of ties with Cuba's G-2 intelligence agency began, persecutions against the regime's political opponents became more open, and cooperation with FARC forces and Iranian Mullahs became more entrenched. Furthermore, as Chávez was famously mistrustful of his lieutenants, Carvajal would likely have overseen the monitoring of today's Venezuelan military and party leadership while they were still coming up through the ranks -- including currently influential caporegimes such as National Assembly Chief Diosdado Cabello and PDVSA chief Rafael Ramírez, who are widely alleged to have themselves engaged in serious corruption and have ties with narco-criminal organizations.

Faced with the prospect of a having party secrets exposed, the famously secretive Venezuelan regime argued that his detention violated Carvajal's diplomatic immunity under the 1961 Vienna Convention. The Aruban judge tasked with deciding the matter was unconvinced, however, deciding that immunity was unavailable as Carvajal had not yet been confirmed in his post, and since the crimes he was accused of (and the warrant) predated his becoming a diplomat. The judge granted Carvajal a 2-month stay during was slated to he would remain on Aruba while the U.S. presented its case for his extradition. Then, on Sunday, the Dutch government (Aruba is a semi-autonomous nation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands) played deus ex machina, superseding the local authorities to secure Carvajal's release.

Following Carvajal's return home, the United States complained that Venezuela had threatened and intimidated Aruba during the crisis. For example, Caracas canceled all national flights to Aruba, a gesture of no small consequence given that in Aruba's tourism-based economy, Venezuelans make up the second largest visitor contingent.

On Monday night, Aruba's chief prosecutor, Peter Blanken, came forward with even more evidence of Venezuelan threats, according to the Wall Street Journal, and claimed that Venezuela had threatened to withdraw its management and export links to an Antillean oil refinery, and that Venezuelan naval vessels had even been seen prowling the outskirts of Aruba and Curacao over the weekend. The Dutch Foreign Ministry was quick to dismiss such talk, however, assuring all parties that their decision had been based on legality alone, and that any Venezuelan ships would have merely been on an exercise.

Meanwhile, Venezuelans themselves are deeply divided on how to interpret this bizarre series of events. Upon arriving back in Caracas, Carvajal received a hero's welcome and was transported directly from the airport to an auditorium packed with nearly 1,000 pro-government supporters, where he was embraced by President Nicolás Maduro, who declared his detention a "kidnapping" and his release a great "people's victory." The president also noted, with his characteristic coherence, that "the Chicken is alive and free thanks to this permanent miracle in which we all live." (Carvajal agreed, noting that he felt sorry for the poor Arubans whose corrupt officials were almost certainly being bought off, as seen by his own recent persecution.)

Following the celebration, Maduro turned to more serious matters. He accused the United States of having orchestrated the whole sordid affair out of "desperation," and announced that he would be a guest on Diosdado Cabello's television show later this week to present further evidence on the matter.

Among the Venezuelan opposition, however, Carvajal's release resulted in disbelief, confusion, and anger. Diego Arria, former mayor of Caracas turned colorful presidential candidate, suggested that it was the close business ties between Dutch Shell and PDVSA (Venezuela's national oil company) that motivated the Netherlands to override local authorities. Indeed, in his view, the Venezuelan government may even have gotten their ally Vladimir Putin to exert pressure on the Netherlands still further (a highly imaginative scenario, given the current Russo-Dutch relationship).

Elsewhere, on Caracas Chronicles (the go-to blog for all things Venezuela), Venezuela-watchers frantically sought to reconcile the Chicken's unexpected liberation with their unrequited longing for some kind of justice. This was an unlikely victory for the Venezuelan government, and a lucky one. They are likely to be a bit more careful with Carvajal from now on, pampering him, but making sure he stays safely in his coop.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.


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The Good News from Indonesia's Election Stalemate

We don't know who the winner is yet, but the presidential election in Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, is already proving to be the most exciting in recent memory: messy, polarized, and full of drama. Both candidates -- Djoko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto -- are claiming victory, each citing unofficial results produced by several private polling agencies. Indonesia's official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in order to calm the waters before the official results are released.

The Indonesian Election Commission is expected to complete counting the votes on July 21. According to the English-language Jakarta Post, cases of foul play are spreading "like a rash during the vote tabulation phase." Most of the complaints are coming from Jokowi's supporters.

Whoever wins, his margin of victory will be small. Both candidates have already made it clear that they will not accept defeat on the basis of the vote count determined by the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU). That means that the second-place candidate will probably take matters to the Constitutional Court, which will delay the official announcement of the results by a month, complicate the country's already chaotic post-electoral politics, and test the (so far admirable) discipline of each camp's supporters. On the positive side, an appeal will further institutionalize these procedures and establish a road map for future contingencies. Indonesia has approximately three months to complete the electoral process before a new president takes the charge by mid-October 2014.

Over the past three months, the election has opened up a sharp political divide between the traditional political elite and groups that are demanding greater political change. The former camp has coalesced around Prabowo, an ex-general who played a leading role in Suharto's security apparatus. The latter, consisting mainly of civil society groups and ordinary citizens, have supported Jokowi, who has used his position as mayor of Jakarta to buttress his reputation as a reformer. These two sides of the Indonesian electorate have found themselves at odds over the question of how much democracy is good for Indonesia and how much political space is needed for Indonesian citizens.

The Prabowo-led coalition of forces from the established political elite has been dueling with a Jokowi-led movement that is demanding more democratic reforms, clean government, and greater political accountability. While Jokowi is widely viewed as a champion of good governance, Prabowo has been linked with large-scale human rights violations during the riots of May 1998, when the businesses and homes of Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin were attacked around the country.

Jokowi, the man of the masses, represents the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest political party in the Indonesian parliament. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto, is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the third-largest political party in parliament.

You might think that Jokowi would have the edge simply because of his populist reputation as a man who represents the aspirations of ordinary Indonesians -- and you wouldn't be far off, since he has indeed been the national favorite ever since the campaign first got under way. Yet Prabowo has gone from single-digit approval ratings at the beginning of this year to his current status as a challenger on almost equal terms with the front-runner. Why has his candidacy taken off so dramatically? What is the source of his appeal?

Above all, Prabowo has tapped into growing popular frustration with what many see as Indonesia's chaotic democratic process. His vote-winning strategy has relied on a highly effective media campaign organized around themes of economic nationalism and xenophobia. He has built a strong electoral alliance, mobilized lucrative support from business elites, embraced religious hardliners, and cast himself as a strong leader who will vigorously defend the country's national interests and natural resources. It was the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, that allowed international companies to start mining in protected forests in 2004. Prabowo's economic nationalism has proven so popular during the campaign that Jokowi was forced to include similar planks in his agenda several months ago.

In order to win over the support of Indonesia's majority Muslims, Prabowo has openly embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious militia that has launched several attacks not only on religious minorities but also on non-Sunni Muslims.

Prabowo has also proven to be a skilled coalition-builder, ultimately putting together a broad alliance of seven conservative parties. The coalition's members, who include four Islamist groups as well as Suharto's own Golkar party, potentially command more than two-thirds of total votes as well as a parliamentary majority. The coalition not only drew in supporters and sympathizers but also extended Prabowo's political and social appeal.

Shortly after the election, Prabowo announced plans to transform this electoral alliance into a five-year permanent coalition -- one that will stand for unapologetically majoritarian rule, policies closely tied to moneyed interests, and resistance to further democratic reforms. (In reality, Prabowo's "permanent" coalition may not last very long if he loses; Golkar, in particular, has a long history of opportunism, switching sides whenever it sees fit.)

Prabowo's most effective (and polarizing) campaign tactic, however, has been his smear campaign against Jokowi. In a significant departure from past presidential campaigns in the democratic era, Prabowo launched a frontal attack on his rival, charging him with insufficient Islamic piety, Chinese origins, and communist sympathies. This is, essentially, a reprise of the approach favored by Suharto, who used the same three accusations as the basis for eliminating a large number of Indonesian citizens during his three decades of authoritarian rule. Prabowo's apparent success at reviving the old formula has raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the legacy of Suharto-style authoritarianism remains alive and well. Indonesia's dark past, as Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald noted, "is proving uncomfortably persistent."

Yet there is actually quite a lot of good news amid the darkness. The same very ingredients that Prabowo has used to his advantage -- the politics of exclusion, fear, and intimidation -- have mobilized common citizens and civil society against his candidacy. Indonesians began to worry that his victory could mean an end to democracy. On July 4, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most influential daily papers, broke a 30-year policy of neutrality and officially endorsed Jokowi as a presidential candidate. The paper's editorial staff defended their decision by arguing that the stakes were too high in this election, and that the fate of Jokowi's candidacy would also decide the fate of Indonesian democracy.

Even though this contest has sorely tested Indonesian democracy, it has also demonstrated once again the strength of popular participation and of respect for democratic norms. Turnout in this election has broken all previous records, proving that Indonesians are determined to see that their votes count.

Equally importantly, this election has been almost completely free of violence. Indonesians have adhered to the democratic norm of expressing their political differences by peaceful means. The Indonesian security forces have remained neutral, successfully maintaining law and order throughout the country. Meanwhile, electoral authorities, civil activists, and party volunteers have been keeping a close watch on ballot boxes and vote tabulation processes in order to prevent tampering.

In this respect, Indonesia's presidential election is reinforcing the broader positive trend among Asian democracies. As in many other countries, the burgeoning Indonesian middle class is pushing for corruption-free, reform-oriented, distributive politics. This class, which now includes around 75 million people, and which is growing by some 10 percent per year, is demanding transparency and accountability.

The likelihood of Jokowi's victory (in the absence of mass-scale electoral fraud) implies that the majority of Indonesians reject Prabowo's revival of Suharto-style authoritarianism. For now, the idea of inclusive, progressive, and good governance-driven democracy seems to have trumped the exclusivist, conservative, and elite-driven politics of the few.

Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Scholar-in-Residence at ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He is also a Visiting Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He can be reached at

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