The fallout

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Katy says: – A day after the Interpol report on Raul Reyes’ laptops and President Chávez’s predictably Orwellian reaction, it’s worth analyzing the possible implications from this scandal. So put down your dulces de lechoza, get comfortable, and let’s start speculating.

It’s worth pointing out that much of the fallout will depend on the type of information the Colombian government chooses to make public. This is not to say that what we already know isn’t serious. Don’t get me wrong, what we know so far is cause enough for impeaching the President. But in a country with no institutions, that will not happen (por ahora) and the scandal, if left as is, may very well go away.

The Colombian government is likely to play this one by ear. It has already showed a willingness to practice real-politik with the laptop, as leverage to try to keep Chávez at bay. Its ability to do so will depend on the credibility of the evidence in the eyes of foreigners (we have already seen the EU’s Javier Solana back the report’s findings).

However, Colombia will not want to play this hand too heavily, for fear of incurring commercial sanctions on the part of Venezuela. The Colombian economy is significantly dependent on exports to Venezuela, paritcularly labor-intensive commodities such as food and textiles. And while the risk of losing the Venezuelan market is small (Chávez needs Colombian food staples to keep inflation and scarcity somewhat under control), Chávez hinted yesterday that commercial relations will suffer, and this should cause some concern in Bogotá.

With the Interpol report, Colombia gained credibility in a court of law. Bogotá daily El Tiempo reports that the head of Interpol confirmed that the material given back to Colombia includes sealed copies of the files. If Colombia were to find more incriminating evidence in the laptops, it could hand them over to a domestic or foreign court of law with Interpol’s seal of approval. All you would need to verify is that the same file is contained in Interpol’s sealed copy and the evidence would most likely be accepted.

Needless to say, Colombia’s threats to haul Chávez to the International Court of Law, as amusing as that would be, are not really credible. In order for that to be viable, two things would need to happen: the price of oil would have to fall, and more incriminating evidence would need to surface. I’m not sure the evidence we have seen so far is enough to convict Chávez in a court of law (although, as a reader told me yesterday, the fact that chavismo is claiming the laptop’s contents fall short of incriminating Chávez reinforces the files’ accuracy – after all, if Colombia is making stuff up and putting it on the computer, why wouldn’t they make the evidence even more incriminating?).

Furthermore, Venezuela has not yet reached a point where people would stand by while Chávez is dragged to The Hague. If we recall the instances when Presidents have either been impeached or completely lost their legitimacy, we can recognize periods when society as a whole reached a consensus regarding the person being questioned. In 1993, pretty much everyone in Venezuela accepted that Carlos Andrés Pérez was a crook. In 1998, everyone accepted that Caldera had been an awful President. We haven’t reached that point yet.

The government’s tenacious questioning of the authenticity of the documents stemming from Reyes’ computer is sure to convince its most ardent followers just like the revelations so far have convinced moderate and strident opponents of the President. But unless new evidence surfaces, we will not reach a consensus in Venezuela as to Chavez’s links to the FARC, with each side arguing their point to the death. It will all boil down to those in the middle (more on that later).

Colombia’s real leverage comes, I think, from the evidence linking the FARC to some of the people in Chavez’s government. The files point to deep financial, logistical, political and military links between the FARC and chavista apparatchiks, so Colombia may very well press on the issue of Chávez’s subordinates even further without pressing on Chávez’s direct role. The case of Lybia and its protection of the Lockerbie bombers comes to mind.

Under this scenario, the Chávez government would come under intense pressure to hand over some of its collaborators. This could prompt increased rivalries within chavismo itself, including the Armed Forces.

The political fallout, on the other hand, is likely to be small for now. Unfortunately, I have yet to see evidence that this scandal is hurting the government. Links to the FARC are an issue for people already in the opposition and for people living along the border, but the fabled Ni-ni voters are more worried about inflation, crime and scarcity.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like swing voters either care nor understand the implications. This is not to say that they couldn’t be convinced to care. After all, a cover-up of the massacre of Venezuelans is something that anyone can understand and be apalled by. Continued scarcity due to Chávez’s fights with Colombia will continue eroding the President’s popular support. But it’s going to take a lot of work, and the political benefit for the opposition from pressing the case is not evident.

The only immediate internal effect I see is an indirect one. Colombia’s continued highlighting of this case will force Chávez to focus on defending himself to save face with international public opinion, something our resident megalomaniac deeply cares about. This will draw his attention to external affairs, which will mean taking his eye off the Regional Elections. As we saw in the second part of last year, the President finds it hard to walk and chew gum at the same time, so this could pave the way for big opposition gains in November.

Nine years of chavismo has left Venezuelan society somewhat immune to scandals. We saw it with Maleta-gate, and we will probably see it with laptop-gate. It’s a real disgrace, and I hope I’m wrong, but the short-term fallout from all this is likely to be small.

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