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Panama’s call for OAS action against Venezuela: What does Martinelli say he wants to defend in Venezuela?

"I was asked by someone in Washington why the government of Panama has become the proxy of the United States and right-wing Venezuelans in the OAS. But has it? Sure, he’s lending the influence of his government to the Leopoldo López faction of the Venezuelan right, but is Ricardo Martinelli really an American pawn here?"

Latin America in Movement/ALC
Panama City, Thursday, March 6, 2014

By Eric Jackson

I think that he might want to be, but I am not sure that he is. Barack Obama humors Ricardo Martinelli when he wants something out of him — drone bases, a trade policy that Monsanto and Obama’s soybean merchant friends at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange want and so on — but he doesn’t seem to actually like his Panamanian counterpart. But how much does the United States really drive events in Latin America anymore? It’s not like it was.

It’s more fruitful to look at Martinelli’s relationships with various Latin American forces, some of which are in the United States.

He’s very close to much of the right-wing Cuban exile leadership in Miami and its main mouthpiece on Capitol Hill, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. (An exception seems to be that Marco Rubio is not so impressed by Martinelli.) There is a group of wealthy Venezuelan exiles in Miami now, the activists among whom have more less become an appendage of the Cuban exiles. That relationship shows in the rhetoric about how Cuba dominates Venezuela and that the cops and soldiers in the streets of Caracas are led by Cubans, which in turn is an extension of the long-running narrative that since Hugo Chávez was friends with the Castro brothers he’s their puppet and that his policies in Venezuela are in the image of the Cuban government’s policies. It’s the sort of Cuba-centric conspiratorial thinking that has been coming out of Miami for more than 50 years now, a delusion that has traditionally been given veto power on US policies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. However, the old reactionaries who dream of a triumphant oligarchic return to Havana can’t carry Florida anymore, and in fact have a hard time carrying the Cuban-American vote. Barack Obama may humor them by avoiding arguments but a Panamanian president who does their bidding is not the same thing as one who does Obama’s bidding.

If you want to look to right-wing forces who drive Martinelli’s actions with respect to Venezuela, maybe it’s better to look to Colombia. Ricardo Martinelli, Colombia’s paramilitaries and their legal political expressions, billionaire Colombian TV mogul Carlos Ardila Lülle and former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe have certain things in common. Consider: 

·         Ricardo Martinelli’s 2009 campaign received at least $900,000 from Colombian racketeer David Murcia Guzmán, now in a US federal witness protection program.

·         Murcia Guzmán was selling pirated CDs on the street when Plan Colombia began, and moved to Putumayo department when the Colombian Army and the United Colombian Self-Defense (AUC) paramilitaries were on the offensive against the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) there, pushing the latter off of turf from which the AUC and its associates the Valle del Norte Cartel then grabbed the share of the drug growing, processing and trafficking business that FARC and its associates had held.

·         In Putumayo Murcia Guzmán quickly became fabulously and inexplicably wealthy and a business partner of Uribe’s two sons. (The official Colombian explanation, that he ran an investor pyramid operation, is doubtful because there is no sign that Murdia Guzmán was paying early investors with the deposits of later investors — there was always money coming in from somewhere else, as in a vibrant money laundering operation rather than a Ponzi scheme.) Whatever fronts he may have put up, Murcia Guzmán became rich as a drug money launderer for the AUC and the Valle del Norte Cartel. It was Colombian death squad money that he injected into the Martinelli campaign.

·         The man who was the conduit for Murcia Guzmán’s money getting into the Martinelli campaign, Salomón Shamah, is a naturalized Panamanian of Colombian origin who was suspected by both the US Embassy and the Colombian Administrative Department of Security (DAS) as a gun runner for the AUC. He is in the innermost of the Panamanian president’s inner circle and is de facto tourism minister, but unofficially such because naturalized Panamanians are constitutionally barred from cabinet positions.

·         Under US pressure, Uribe turned on his former AUC allies, somewhat. A few leaders got extradited to the United States, a few more ended up in Colombian prisons and the organization officially disbanded and disarmed. However, in many parts of Colombia the paramilitaries just went back into business under different names and meanwhile those armed groups retained a hard-right caucus in the Colombian legislature.

·         Uribe thought that his defense minister and chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, would continue his policies. However, Santos has eased tensions with Venezuela, moved to strip the paramilitaries and their wealthy backers of the lands they took during Colombia’s long and dirty civil conflict, moved to end that conflict through peace negotiations with FARC in Havana, and set his legal machinery against many of Uribe’s key people, and the former president himself, for the abuses during the Uribe years. Santos is now the Colombian with whom Obama must deal, not Uribe, and Santos and Uribe don’t get along.

·         Among the Uribe scandals that have emerged during the Santos years was the use of the DAS against not only armed rebels, dissidents and the press, but also Colombia’s Supreme Court. Its Uribe era director, María del Pilar Hurtado, even spied on the Supreme Court with electronic bugs and “honey trap” undercover agents. When a warrant for her arrest was issued Uribe advised Hurtado to flee to Panama, where Martinelli granted her political asylum despite the Santos administration’s protests.

·         As president, Ricardo Martinelli bought the Panamanian part of the RCN television network from Carlos Ardila Lülle, the junk food, soccer team and media billionaire from Bucaramanga. Panama has corporate secrecy laws but it is widely believed that Martinelli was a junior partner with Ardila Lülle in the Panamanian RCN before he bought control and renamed it NexTV. RCN is part of the media empire that includes the NTN24 signal. Martinelli retains his business partnership with Ardila Lülle, for example by buying his violent police telenovelas Corazones Blindados and Comando Elite to show on NexTV.

·         From 2010 to 2012 the news director of Ardila Lülle’s RCN network was Francisco Santos Calederón, who was Uribe’s vice president. In 2008 the RCN group created a 24-hour news channel, NTN24, which has a presence on cable in most major Latin American media markets. A more recent initiative is a business alliance between Carlos Ardila Lülle and Rupert Murdoch, the child of which is the new Mundo Fox network aimed at young and partly assimilated US Hispanic viewers. It should not be a surprise that Ardila Lülle’s NTN24 was the chosen medium through which Uribe took to the Venezuelan airwaves to advocate Maduro’s ouster.

·         By holding Murcia Guzmán as a federally protected witness and ignoring Panamanian prosecutors’ requests for help in bringing him to trial for financial offenses here and not sending him back to Colombia to serve a sentence for illegally taking deposits of money there, Washington probably holds a blackmail card that can be played against Martinelli, Uribe or both. The card is surely not the only one and would probabaly never be shown, but it would limit the ability of the president of Panama and the former President of Colombia to pressure the president of the United States into doing something that he does not want to do.

So, now that we know something of the lay of the land, what does this reporter think about the merits of what the Panamanian government is trying to do at the OAS? It’s not something this reporter is willing to separate from the Panamanian president’s moral authority to do what he’s trying to do.

It was a gaffe for Nicolás Maduro to kick Patricia Janiot and the rest of her CNN crew out of Venezuela. He did have a good reason to complain about what they broadcast and publish — the whole narrative that calls a government led by a movement that has won 18 straight elections a dictatorship — but he dealt with it in clumsy fashion. Cutting the signal of the Colombian-based NTN24 channel — a right-wing billionaire’s wannabe Fox News, with which we in Panama became familiar before its station here was sold to President Martinelli — was probably also a mistake, but in this case it was a closer call because that propaganda arm closely linked to former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was pretty clearly inciting demonstrations and riots whose announced intention was to force the resignation of Venezuela’s duly elected President Maduro.

Maduro’s heavy-handed actions against critical international media is another example of a problem that many Latin America’s leftist leaders, who are used to unrelentingly hostile oligarchic media trying to bring them down, have in dealing with yellow journalism. They need to be able to say “You asshole!” instead of “You’re under arrest!” in the face of scurrilous reporting and punditry. They need to build — and more often just to encourage without any hooks or strings — a new breed of excellent media that run the oligarchs off the field with better content. They need to invest in the cable and satellite networks, online news aggregators and search engines of the South that present attractive alternatives to the oligarchs. In the long run sweet carrots will work better than heavy sticks.

Were Maduro’s actions against CNN and NTN24 an offense against democracy? Can’t we get beyond the slow learners’ civics classes of Cold War vintage and understand the distinction between freedom and democracy? Maduro may have infringed freedom of the press, but NTN24 and arguably CNN were attacking Venezuelan democracy, trying to legitimize the overthrow of the elected government other than by the ordinary constitutional means of a recall or waiting for the next elections and coming up with a stronger candidate.

Let’s get back to democracy and the right to protest in the streets in a moment to consider freedom of the press. Where does a Martinelli administration that has turned the eastern part of our country into a war zone into which Colombian troops are allowed to enter but reporters are excluded have any standing to call upon the OAS to act against any other country over offenses against the press? Where does a Panamanian president who stood up before the International Telecommunications Union to advocate the licensing of websites and the mandatory massive erasure of “dated” online archives have standing to tell any other leader or country anything about freedom of the press? And what if you cite some northern-centric index that shows Panama nearly at the same level of press freedom as Venezuela, but note that the United States has a much higher standing? Does a US government that charges journalists and their sources under the draconian Espionage Act, and routinely conducts electronic surveillance of reporters and newsrooms have much authority to act against another country because it restricts freedom of the press?

It may actually be that the big issue here is not about press laws or the abuse thereof, but about ethics, about truth and other slippery things. What’s happening in and with respect to Venezuela is a war of narratives with rival partisan slants. As in, erasures of inconvenient truths.

For example, neither President Martinelli nor President Obama has spoken up for the rights and dignity of Mayra Cienfuegos, the first media person to be shot in the Venezuelan disturbances. That’s because she was shot by an opposition militant and works for state-owned VTV, whose studios were attacked by masked anti-government demonstrators throwing rocks and molotov cocktails. Back during the short-lived 2002 coup, it likewise was not part of the Bush administration’s narrative to acknowledge that one of the first things that the junta that he supported did was to raid pro-Chávez broadcasters.

It is not, however, just a matter of partisan hypocrisy — it’s much worse than that. Consider, for example the screed in The Hill by Yleem D.S. Poblete, who was chief of staff for the House Foreign Affairs Committee when Ros Ileana-Lehtinen held its chair: “Platitudes are insufficient in response to the killing of Venezuelan students and several Catholic priests following what started as peaceful anti-government demonstrations.”

Oh really? Maduro’s goons are killing Catholic priests now? Set aside that the Cuban exile movement from when Poblete comes was all for that during Central America’s civil wars. What happened was that on February 15 teenagers broke into the residence at a Catholic school with intent to steal, and killed two priests and wounded a third. Venezuelan police arrested one of the assailants and are looking for the other. For Venezuelans these sorts of crimes are surely frightening — just like last year in my hometown of Colon in Panama, when a Spanish priest was slain in a robbery attempt. But nobody tried to link Ricardo Martinelli to the crime, let alone argue that the United States should take action against Panama because of it.

And what might Poblete mean by going beyond platitudes? She’s one of the architects of the Helms-Burton Act that tightened the US embargo against Cuba and offended most of world opinion. Surely she’d like to popularize the idea of US covert or military action to overthrow Maduro.

Poblete is right in step with so much of the Venezuelan opposition, which is backing many claims with the most clumsily fabricated and misrepresented “proofs,” rhetoric that defines the overthrow of a duly elected government as the defense of democracy and scenes of masked young men running amidst burning cars described as peaceful protesters. At a certain point the American people may wise up and understand that, as with Lyndon Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin Incident and George W. Bush’s Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the siren song that attracts a country to war for a lie is being sung again.

But what about violence? If the distinctions among truths, half-truths and falsehoods can be subtle, getting bashed upside the head rarely is. People have been killed in Venezuela. Hundreds have been arrested. And isn’t a legal monopoly on violence one of the fundamental traits of any government, the effective lack of which gets it branded a “failed state” by US political scientists?

The rest of the Americas might reasonably deplore unnecessary violence by Venezuelan riot police, and the Maduro government’s failure to control the assaults on protesters by the radical colectivos. We might also deplore the fires that the colectivos’ right-wing mirror images set, the deadly motorcycle trap steel cable barricades that they have strung across the streets of Caracas and their physical attacks on journalists and other individuals. There are charges and counter-charges but it appears that there has been deplorable violence on both sides. So should the OAS condemn Maduro for it?

What, on Ricardo Martinelli’s motion? On the motion of a president who pardoned the cops who shot two entirely innocent teenage fishermen in what may have been an accident, but also pardoned the for planting an assault rifle in their boat to set up a bogus story for prosecutors? On the motion of an administration that passed a law prohibiting the jailing of cops for any act of violence committed while on the job, then a few weeks later deprived inmates at the juvenile detention center of water for eight days, and when a protest ensued beat and fired bird shot into the surrendering inmates, but who saved their worst wrath for the boys in the cell who didn’t join the protest. The cops set their cell on fire, blocked the firefighters from putting it out, and invited the TV crews in to record them taunting the screaming boys as they burned to death. The thought of any sort of international condemnation of any sort of violence on the motion of Ricardo Martinelli, who treated Panama to a televised extrajudicial mass torture execution, is repulsive.

But that, it might be argued, was just a matter of getting tough with criminals. What’s going on in Venezuela is repression against people protesting against their government. That distinction may be valid, but Ricardo Martinelli’s riot squads killed a number of protesters when he tried to prohibit labor unions, and later when he tried to abrogate indigenous land rights. The Panamanian cops aimed bird shot at the eyes to blind striking banana workers, tear gassed whole neighborhoods and even attacked a hospital. Hundreds were arrested, and Panama has a much smaller population than Venezuela’s. Then there was the attempt to squeeze more money out of Colon, and the violence that Martinelli’s goons visited upon it when people protested. “Stop the repression” is probably a good idea for Venezuela, but the government of Panama should not be the one to say it.

But what about the more moderate Americans? Shouldn’t their condemnation of the arrests of more than 500 people count for something? Yes, the complaints of a country with an incarceration rate surpassed only by North Korea should be taken into account. But excuse me — the OAS said exactly WHAT about the mass arrests of Occupy protesters?

Pope Francis has called upon all Venezuelans who would in any way assault their fellow citizens to stop it, to calm down and resolve differences in a more civilized manner. It’s a good idea, from a man with great popularity throughout Latin America, even among non-Catholics.

There are those on the streets of Caracas, and in offices there and in Miami, Bogotá, Washington, Panama City and other capitals throughout the Americas who will not be inclined to heed this advice. They see a possibility of a regime change in Venezuela to their ideological, partisan or business advantage. But in the greater sense most Americans — North Americans, South and Central Americans and residents of the Caribbean islands — seem to know better.

Barack Obama may try to avoid offending the Miami exiles and may not have much use for the Chavistas, but he surely gets more realistic advice than that which comes out of Miami, or worse yet from a man who campaigned for president of Panama on a platform of being crazy, Ricardo Martinelli. Nor would he be enthusiastic about being stampeded into a Latin American adventure by one of Rupert Murdoch’s business partners. Despite a generally imperial approach to foreign policy, Obama must know that any overt US action to depose the government of Venezuela will alienate much of Latin America, starting with Venezuela’s neighbor Brazil. He must know that Uribe is a disreputable character who has little to offer, and that a White House embrace that rescues Uribe’s reputation would annoy Santos.

And what if the United States, unilaterally or nearly so imposes economic sanctions on Venezuela? If Panama participates in that, then a cheaper supply of Venezuelan oil is lost and profitable commercial ties between Panama and Venezuela, now hampered by the bad economy and currency export controls in the latter, are likely to be lost for a long time. It is not in Panama’s economic interest to join in a sanctions fight against Venezuela.

This reporter suspects that the OAS won’t vote to condemn the government of Venezuela, except maybe by way of a mild admonishment with at least an equal disapproval of opposition violence. “Regime change” on the US model, or worse yet according to Ricardo Martinelli’s model, is something that the OAS probably won’t embrace, and shouldn’t.

Source: Latin America in Movement:

Photo: Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli before the country's National Assembly (La Presidencia  The Panama News)

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