Transitional justice


A man makes millions of dollars helping Colombian guerrillas ship cocaine to hungry markets via Venezuela.

Or he makes them through bribing financial institutions in order to exempt them from legal problems.

Or he makes them by soliciting illegal kickbacks for certain government permits only he can give.

The details are not important. What is important is that he has power, and he knows how to trade it.

Imagine, for a second, tomorrow. The government that protects him, the one that gives him his power, the one that allows him to live the good life, falls. What happens to that man?

The only logical, human answer, the only one that anyone who has ever had to work for a paycheck or suffered the abuse of those in power, the only one those of us still with a soul can give is: he must go to jail!

And, of course, if this were just one guy, the decision would be a slam dunk. But the thing is, it’s not just one guy. It’s an entire caste.

We’re talking hundreds, thousands of people. Military and civilian in nature, the new governing elite has long understood that power in Venezuela is a commodity, easily and inconsequentially tradeable for money, and that money can be swapped for status, women, luxury, and admiration. Many have weapons. All have power and money.

The day may come when the government will change, and they will have less power, but they will still have weapons and money. And weapons and money allow you to defend yourself from the natural reaction of all decent people who oppose them. This means they will have at their disposal the means to destabilize any new government threatening the privileges they have accumulated by waving the “No more privileges!” red flag.

This is one of the key ethical dilemmas any new administration in Venezuela will likely face. The demands of those pining for punishment for the accomplices of a corrupt system will endanger the very stability of the system that supplants it.

We might as well get used to the idea of an incomplete, conditioned, negotiated justice. A transitional justice is not likely to be very just, but it may well be the only one available.

(Quico’s original version in Spanish here).

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  1. Venezuela is becoming a nation of violent criminals.The ” in ” place to be to make money from evil sources.

    What sets it aside from other countries in similar situations is the degree to which the criminal and corrupt are heavily armed, whereas those who are not, are unarmed and don’t have the stomach for violence.

    I find it funny( being ironic here) that people speak of the possibility of a civil war in Venezuela where the only people with access to weapons are largely the criminal government and the street criminals.

    Even before Chavez appeared we had the situation in which the police who were often criminals themselves would pretend to be controlling crime, and in some instances-even did so partially – but now it is worse because it is a total free-for-all, sanctioned by the very revolutionaries themselves.There has never been much of a tradition of honest people joining the police to protect and serve the community.

    When the passive community learns to defend itself instead of taking a fearful stance, while simultaneously claiming the high road, we will see NO end to the violent governments in Venezuela.People get what they create.The acceptance of violence towards themselves is a form of self hatred.It has reached a critical point where personally I see no way out.In the beginning there may have been some chance, but with the huge, armed, and criminal population, coupled with a passive,and fearful population creates the perfect cocktail for the continence of Chavez.

  2. Although it would be nice to think of a Nuremberg-style court for all the desgraciados and sinverguenzas that have driven Venezuela into the ground, the truth is that any country mired in poverty that has been touched by drug trafficking is tainted from the bottom up and all around. If Venezuela had an opposition government, it would probably be full of narcotraficantes as well. That or they’ll negotiate with the incoming government so that they don’t end up getting sent to jail or extradited to the U.S. for racketeering or drug charges. I don’t think there’s a country in Latin America where decent people prevail and all the lowlifes get sent to jail where they belong. That might be a little pessimistic of me, but I have very little hope of seeing people like Rangel Silva in prison.

  3. The UN CICIG (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala or Comission Against Impunity in Guatemala) was initiated in 2006 and they have made a difference especially in 2009 and 2010.

  4. Yep. This is why you so often get amnesty laws post-dictatorships. Take Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, to name a few locals. Hell, it’s the reason Chavez himself got his own pardon without a trial.

    It’s a touchy position, because you’re walking a tightrope between instability and impunity, and it’s impossible to know where you will eventually land. Reality sometimes turns out different than expected, which is one reason Argentina is reversing some of the amnesties. (Not the only reason.) Given worst case scenarios, I don’t find it surprising that these agreements tend towards the side of impunity.

    I think a good solution, though this depends greatly on the limits of the justice system, is to get as many convictions as possible, but with relatively light punishments at the far end. I wouldn’t expect the courts to pass out light sentences – at least if it wasn’t optional in the law – but it could mean Presidential pardons/commuting of sentences. Big fines for many, but no jail time, at least not for the bulk of them. Pleas could be frequent if they know this is coming. I’m sure everyone reading this blog has thought more than once about how different Venezuela would be had Chavez been treated that way instead.

    • One big part of this: televise the trials, and demand a detailed admission of guilt and forthright public contrition in return for pleas.

    • Although I believe Chavez runs a dictatorship, we have to ask ourselves one question: Has Chavez carried out actions that would warrant holding a large, organized series of trials against him and his co-conspirators? The April 14 killings are definitely one instance where he could be tried, as are individual instances of vote tampering, violations to the constitution and the like. However, we have to remember that running a demagogic, incompetent government and being a general ass is typical for Latin American governments, and the chances of trying him for plunging Venezuela into an elected dictatorship are close to nil. Most large, public trials are carried out only after industrial-scale killing has taken place, as was the case in Argentina in the 70s or in African countries to this day. There also has to be an incentive for the incoming government to try them, and in a country where the new funcionarios could just as easily have been the ones taking kickbacks and facilitating the transport of illegal drugs, there is very little incentive for them to carry out these trials lest they themselves be tried in the future for the very same crimes. As much as I would like to see ex-president Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias in the criminal docket, there probably won’t be much energy from any future authorities to engage in an exercise that enormous.

  5. This is the real reason Venezuela is screwed. Too many people are exposed, they cannot afford for Chavez to lose power; so eventhough they disagree with him, all of them will do anything to keep him in power just to save their asses.

    That is the REAL problem, and Chavez knows it, he has file on everyone, he lets them be corrupt thus giving him power over them…


  6. In my mind what Chavismo has done is take the “stomach politics” – the idea that I strive to achieve power to satisfy my own necessities rather than those of the public- to a whole other level. What we need to do is make sure that we remove the incentive of becoming rich, when people consider public service.

    To Quico’s point the whole purpose of committing crimes by people in power in Venezuela is to make money. Remove the ability to keep/enjoy that money and you go a long way in changing this behavior in the future.

    How do you do this? By setting up very strict rules on declaration of wealth before/after taking a public service position, putting the burden of proving the source of wealth on the shoulders of public employees and most importantly making sure that these rules are enforced for all.

    As for what to do with those who are already trillionaires (Not only Chavistas)? Make them go through the same process. If you can’t prove how you got that US$2MM mansion in La Lagunita, we will take it away from you. Sorry.

    IMO that threshold is much lower than the one needed to send someone to prison, and the punishment is just as harsh.

    • Pixar, if I remember well, state employees at least in some regions had to give a complete declaration of what they owned already in the nineties. I will ask them but that was the rule back then.
      And yet we had what we had.
      See…Venezuela has very stringent environmental legislation and yet our average compatriots are environmental pigs and we keep destroying our jungles, our rivers, everything.
      El papel aguanta todo

    • Here’s one method for doing that, at least the after the fact part: .

      As I understand it, it’s not just drug money that can be grabbed. It’s money/assets where the source can’t be justified by proven legitimate means. (Essentially paragraph 4 of Pixar’s comment.) The U.S. has had this law on the books for many years, as has Colombia, and Guatemala just passed something similar. There may be others. I believe in most, if not all, countries it needs court approval (therefore you can’t lose things on the whim of a single public official, but they have to actually make a real case), but since you’re dealing with goods instead of the person, the threshold of proof is less than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

      With this, you might not even need the big trials I mentioned before. Mike Nelson, you have my vote for the name of the fund (perhaps “Robada por Chavismo”) that will receive all these assets!

    • You are correct Kepler, such a rule is in place. In theory the Procuraduria should do this for every public employee (The General one for national positions, and local ones for local posts). That’s why I say that most importantly it needs to be enforced.

      In the big scheme of things this is not a hard thing to do, it would (and should) go something like this: “Venga para aca senor Ministro, anote ahi cuanto real tiene en el banco, que propiedades tiene y cuanto vale”. The procuradoria checks that the statement is acurate (i.e: La casita de la mama en Ocumare no cuesta 2 palos de los verdes) and at the end of his/her tenure they go back, add any salaries, other explainable incomes (inheritance, lottery winnings, etc…) and generate a document stating that this individual is clean. Everything I’ve described above is writen, it’s just that no body does it.

    • Thing is: whomever’s job it is to field a Cabinet full of people capable of passing that test is not going to have it easy…

    • You think? If I came to you as President of Venezuela and asked you to be my Minister of Communications for $US150k a year, wouldn’t you take the job? I think that’s acceptable, what is not acceptable is you taking the job with the expectation that you will get US$20MM out of the whole deal.

      What kills me (and I assume JC as well) is that the historical standard is that Venezuelan Public Officials go from normal to gazillionaries in a very short period of time.
      I think that even though many of our countrymen are all about the easy money, there are plenty honest people who would be willing to devote their life to public service as long as they can make a decent living doing it. Heck if we manage to eliminate corruption we can afford to pay people world class salaries and still come out ahead.

  7. In two short words: A Mafia. Organized crime. That summarizes the role government fills in the third-to-fourth world hopeless hellholes countries that Venezuela is rushing to emulate. And by Venezuela I don’t mean the government only.

    I don’t know about impunity. But if there is one thing I would like for a future Venezuela, is to have the barest minimum of the above (maybe with the exception of one or two agencies NOT directly tainted managed by the Central government).

    Being a Venezuelan should be experience enough. Of what Venezuelan governments look like since 1976. My hopes tend to zero from below; that ANY Venezuelan government, of whatever sign, can be much better than this. It begins with the employees from the former administration and it continues with expectations by the rest of people.

    “People get what they create.The acceptance of violence towards themselves is a form of self hatred.It has reached a critical point where personally I see no way out.”

    There’s a way out; but it is not pretty. It is about the point when people have enough with accepting violence and oppression, and they do not have a civilized way to seek justice. That Venezuelans hate themselves, I have no doubt. Electing Hugo is proof enough.

  8. Pixar is definitely on the right track and I’m sure the idea of “repatriating” all the money that is proved to have been stolen by Chavistas (and others) would play well on the street with “el pueblo”.
    Considering that a lot of Chavez’ initial and subsequent success can be attributed to the majority poor’s notion that he would deliver on the “take from the rich and give to the poor” mantra, it should be beginning to dawn on all those poor that are still waiting that XXIst Century Socialism has turned out to be little more than a ploy for “Chavismo, Inc.” to continue to divert money to their own pockets that could/should have gone to help the plight of the poor.
    Hell, call it the “Fondo de la Plata Robada de Chavismo Repatriar Por la Dignidad d’el Pueblo” or something like that (excuse my atrocious Spanish) and use the money for a massive job creating cleanup of the physical manifestations (garbage, grafitti, potholes, etc.) of Chavismo.
    Such an idea might even nudge some ‘ni-ni’s’ off the couch to vote against the status quo and maybe even join the riots after the expected sham results.

  9. The most important crimes in Venezuela have not yet been committed. These crimes relate to the elections of 2012, and to the totalitarian temptation to reverse the results by force-which would open the door to a universe of crime. It should be utterly clear that any interference with these elections, including promptings to do so, will be punished with heavy prison terms.

    With respect to the crimes committed to date, I think that Barack Obama’s formulation, that the emphasis will be on looking forward, while refusing to rule out prosecutions for the most egregious crimes, makes sense. The last thing needed is to galvanize government supporters by threatening them indiscriminately with prosecutions. At the same time, there may be murders and other extremely serious crimes which cannot be pardoned.

    A peace and reconciliation commission incorporating incentives for those prepared to divulge their roles, combined with a refusal to allow the recalcitrant to seek public office or public employment, have been successful in other transitional societies.

  10. Quico!
    3 Cheers again that you’ve brought up another difficult but very real matter: punishment of your future losers.

    Venezuela took the easy road to equality: bleed the rich and make everyone poor. In that seriously negative-sum environment, a smart dude can’t use his brains to make an honest living; he can only choose to be victim or victor. What else can he do but grab some of that shrinking pie?

    So I’d like to put in a word against revenge and for mercy in the LAC (Life After Chavez). Locking up your clever people won’t build the nation. As long as they didn’t make the rules you had to play by, make them squirm, take their ill-gotten gains – but don’t send them to prison to earn doctorates in crime. Ask their advice, and make sure your government doesn’t make its own stupidity so profitable. Make sure its money is always handled by people on good salaries ONLY.

    There’s no ethical conflict between ranting against the utter stupidity of US government ethanol subsidies and yet making a lot of money on them. It’s like that, only a lot worse. Give ’em a break.

    And Good Luck with it. I hope the answers to these questions come in handy real soon.




    • “Venezuela took the easy road to equality: bleed the rich and make everyone poor. In that seriously negative-sum environment, a smart dude can’t use his brains to make an honest living; he can only choose to be victim or victor. What else can he do but grab some of that shrinking pie?”

      The history of the Petrostate. A rather good explanation of a significant portion of our “entrepreneurial” class, increasingly of that part which gets along with the Revolution. A description of Venezuelan Socialism, and social democracy before that, too.

      People don’t use their brains to provide service to others for money or for reputation. The brains are there, they are used to milk (and con) the system and other people too. Isn’t it lovely? How when the State controls all money (or worse yet, manages it directly), earning money for personal gain becomes the same as gaining political power and connections. It’s called corruption.

  11. Jeffry and Deedle,

    I’ve been biding my time (and biting my tongue) waiting to see if anyone else had anything to say about your comments but so far… “crickets”.

    While I agree with the general tone of your comments and the pragmatic approach expressed, big picture-wise, I have to ask if you’re suggesting that those who have stolen millions upon millions of dollars shouldn’t be prosecuted and (at the very least) have their ill-gotten gains confiscated?

    If so, then I have to disagree, but I do apologize in advance if I’ve taken your comments the wrong way.


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