Dilma, Jesús and the Demise of the Pink Tide

As I watched yesterday's drama in Brasilia, I kept thinking of Jesús Urdaneta - Chávez's first head of intelligence - who saw this whole thing coming years before Lula was even elected.


As I reflected on Dilma’s impeachment in Brazil yesterday, the image I kept going back to is this one:


It was taken in 1992 in Yare Prison, shortly after Chávez’s failed coup attempt. In between a stunningly young Hugo Chávez and In the background, in the shadows, just to the left of a young Francisco Arias Cárdenas, we see a figure I bet most of our younger readers wouldn’t be able to identify at all.

His name is Jesús Urdaneta.

In some alternate universe, one where Chávez kept a bit of his soul past his first year in office, Jesús Urdaneta is now president of Venezuela, having succeeded Chávez after his illness. Urdaneta was one of the originarios, part of the founding clique of Bolivarian rebels who took their oaths beneath the mythical Samán de Güere tree, and led a coup in 1992. Even more, Jesús Urdaneta is the reason there was a “por ahora” moment at all.

On the day of the 4F, 1992 coup attempt, after the insurrection had failed in Caracas, Chávez was ready to throw in the towel. But there was a problem: Urdaneta had successfully taken control of Maracay, seat of the military’s most significant assets.

Urdaneta flat out refused to lay down his arms unless Chávez ordered him to do so in public. It was at his insistence that Chávez was forced to give that fateful, 42-second speech that would catapult him to the presidency before the decade was out.

When time came to take charge, Jesús Urdaneta was revolutionary royalty. He would go on to become Chávez’s first chief of intelligence, heading Disip from 1999 and into 2000.

But it wasn’t meant to last. Urdaneta, it turns out, was the intenso in the group. The guy who took the rhetoric seriously. When he said the Bolivarian movement would have zero-tolerance toward corruption, he actually meant it.

Un conejito, pues. 

Throughout 1999 and 2000, Urdaneta faithfully gathered evidence about corruption and brought it to Chávez’s attention. Chávez didn’t really hide his disinterest on the matter, as Urdaneta said plainly in a 2010 interview with ABC:

Did you denounce cases of corruption? 

Yes, it was burdensome to try to combat internal corruption; from within one’s own people. Chavez told me clearly that he didn’t want me investigating his people, because it would render him weaker, and I said, far from weakening you, it will strengthen you, by preventing his government from falling into a morass corruption, like so many before it have done. I never imagined that corruption could ever reach the levels we see today, which are choking the regime.

Did you make a comparison with the Guaire River in order to convince him?

Yes, he told me that I had no patience, that he had learned to have patience, and that this whole process was like the Guaire River, which carries along plenty of filth with it, filth and garbage, and he was unfortunately out in the middle, and he had to get to the other side to overcome obstacles. I remember I told him that he’d never make it to the other side, he’d be swept away by the river. Today I think time has proven me right.

¿Hizo usted también denuncias sobre casos de corrupción?

Sí, era un esfuerzo por combatir la corrupción interna de su propia gente. Chávez me dijo claramente que no quería que estuviera investigando  su gente porque eso lo iba a debilitar y yo le dije que lejos de debilitarlo ello evitaría que su gobierno cayera en lo que cayeron los anteriores en materia de corrupción. Nunca me imaginé que la corrupción pudiera llegar a los niveles que hoy ahogan al régimen.

¿Para convencerlo le hizo una comparación con el río Guaire? 

Sí, él me dijo que yo no tenía paciencia, que él había aprendido a tener paciencia y que este proceso era como el río Guaire, que trae mucha suciedad, porquerías y que él desgraciadamente se encontraba en el medio del río y que  tenía que alcanzar la otra orilla para superar los obstáculos. Recuerdo que le dije que nunca iba a pasar a la otra orilla y que se lo iba a llevar el río. Hoy creo que el tiempo me ha dado la razón.

In retrospect, Urdaneta’s naiveté is almost touching. But Chávez had no interest in actually fighting corruption. He was far more interested in building up files on each of his associates, files he could later use to extort loyalty from them. Chávez, he soon figured out, was interested in corruption not to make the world better, not as a way of getting rich, but as a way of getting powerful.

Urdaneta finally caught on to what was going on and, true to form, went public. It was February 2000. Chávez had been in power for barely over a year.

I bet a lot of our younger readers can scarcely imagine what the political climate was like in Caracas in February of 2000. Chávez strode the political scene like a colossus, riding an 80% approval rating. The old political parties had been all but wiped from the map, but no new parties had arisen to take their place. Primero Justicia was an NGO run by a bunch of cagaleches barely old enough to vote. There was, in effect, no opposition to speak of.

Urdaneta’s defection, at that stage, was more an act of folly than of courage: a political self-immolation that didn’t inscribe itself into any kind of organized rebellion.

But it’s Chávez’s reaction to this defection that really paints a picture, in my mind, of the kind of character he was.

As Alberto Barrera Tyzska points out in Sin Uniforme, far from being shamed into some kind of action against the people Urdaneta had been investigating, Chávez began to try to dig up some dirt … on Urdaneta. He pressed Urdaneta’s successors at Disip to dig up something, anything, to smear his old co-conspirator with and take the sting out of his allegations.

In time, Chávez came to actively prefer that his closest associates be corrupt: having any collaborator close by he didn’t have some means of blackmailing struck him as an intolerable threat.

Jesús Urdaneta has spent most of the last decade and a half tending to his farm in Guárico State while, I suspect, mulling over his life choices. He’s been a non-player for so long, he’s been completely written out of chavista mythology.

But I’d like to think he was watching that livestream from Brasilia yesterday right alongside me. Because more than anyone else, it’s Jesús Urdaneta who saw it coming first. It’s Urdaneta who first grasped that turning a blind eye to corruption would, sooner or later, destroy the fledgeling leftist-nationalist project he had been fighting for his whole life.

Much has been said about the differences between Lula and Chávez, but maybe more ought to be said about one key similarity: the two seemed to have shared a basic taste for corruption, if not as a means of enriching themselves personally, then certainly as a way of exercising political power.

For all their rhetoric against it, they both made the same strategic choice to leverage corruption as a political tool rather than fight it. From the Mensalão to Lava Jato, Brazil’s PT thrived in a climate that didn’t merely condone corruption but positively fanned it, dazzled by the power to be garnered from brokering it.

In a parallel universe where Latin America’s left is a genuinely progressive force, the story of the last 15 years is the story of the Urdanetas of this world: people who grasped that to stand up for the weak is to stand up for public integrity.

In this universe, though, the story of the Pink Tide is signed by the Chávezes and the Cristinas, the Dilmas and the Lulas. It’s signed by criminals who betrayed the trust of the people they vowed to serve, turning a blind eye to embezzlement on a huge scale in return for the transient promise of power.

It didn’t have to be this way. With enormous resources at their disposal in terms of charisma, popularity, and export revenues, the Pink Tide governments had everything they needed to pursue a genuine transformation of society. The kind of transformation they ran on. The one they promised. The one, incongruously, they still profess to stand for.

It’s obscene for Dilma’s defenders to cast doubt on the process she’s facing saying her accusers are as guilty as she is. The PT has been at the head of the Brazilian state for 13 years. The climate of impunity that Dilma’s accusers took advantage of, that they enriched themselves with, is the climate Lula created for his own political benefit.

It is the executive’s responsibility to prevent such a climate of taking hold. For the PT’s supporters to point to the sleaze they profited from to exculpate themselves is an exercise in cynicism on a scale…well, on a scale that’s entirely in keeping with the kind of moral bankruptcy that was already evident in the Pink Tide governments years before Lula was even elected.

And if you don’t believe me, there’s a farmer in Guarico State who can set you straight.

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  1. This is very good, chapeau.
    Still, not that I am mal pensado, but I would like to know if this guy’s farm is the average conuco where my great-father grew up or bigger…although I suppose it won’t have the dimensions of the Chacín or Chávez haciendas.

  2. You got me started to try and imagine a leftist government that remains “pure” and doesn’t succumb to corruption. I honestly don’t think it is possible. By increasing the power of the state, that is where the crooks will gravitate towards.

    • Come on, Roy! Francisco clearly talked about a parallel universe. As a citizen of Canada, he is very much into quantum mechanics. According to the Theory of the Universal Wavefunction or simply Many-world Interpretation, there are endless universes, including those where humanoid creatures do not need oxygen to breath but sulfur, those with blue flying cows and those with honest extreme left regimes.

      On a serious note: Norway has had many leftist governments (admittedly, within a pluralistic system).

        • Oh no! give Justin “pop star” T. some more time and he will also prove that socialist wonderlands do not work . Not in this universe at least!

          Notley in Alberta (NDP) and Trudeau in Ottawa may prove as bad for Canada as the guys in the picture there….minding differences between the two petro-states.

          • LuisF. Sorry, but that just smacks of Tea Party right-wing knee-jerk sentiment. I’m not going to get into a long diatribe of why your comment is asinine. Suffice it to say equating Notley and Trudeau with Chavez et al is as weak as equating Trump to Hitler.

          • Extremely stupid or foolish you say DJK.

            I guess you can not understand the caveat i added ” Guardando las diferencias”

            It is not how most of Alberta, Saskatchewan and other energy producing provinces see the issue. As I said, lets come back to this in a year and see how i has gone down.


          • FYI: I live in Calgary and have been in the oilfield for 35 years. I don’t think we’re at the Chicken Little phase yet.

        • That childish ‘quantum’ business was a set-up for propaganda purposes which the press lapped up. Trudeau used to be a high school drama teacher with a big inheritance; now they’re trying to bury that.
          All he does is run around doing photo ops.

      • Maybe in the Francisco’s parallel universe, all of the universal physical constants (speed of light c, vacuum permittivity ε0, Planck’s constant h, and the gravitational constant G) are slightly different, and this allows for a stable and honest socialist government. Could be…

        But, since we are stuck in this particular Wavefunction collapse universe, perhaps we should work out a stable governmental system that provides the correct internal negative feedback mechanisms to prevent wild oscillations between extreme social and political models, based on human behavior as it actually exists, and not how we might wish it to be.

        Is that really too much to ask? I mean seriously… Don’t we have a large enough database of historical data to build and test virtual new political models until we come up with one that works?

    • The economic collapse in North America of 2008 was evidence that a weak state and weak regulators result in criminality, shady dealing, and abuses of power in the private sector which can be devastating for an economy. As I see it, that would be the flip side of the coin to the notion that crooks gravitate toward an empowered state.

      As I understand it, the private sector in Brazil was only too happy to supply the grease for the Lula express. I imagine when the dust settles in Venezuela, there will be plenty of evidence of good capitalists playing a supporting role in that mess as well.

      The impeachment of Dilma can hardly then, be a vindication of private virtue over public sector vice. I think people looking for a lesson in the inherent righteousness of a particular ideology do not find it in Brazil, or in Venezuela, and that was maybe Jesus Urdaneta’s underlying mistaken belief when he decided to overthrow a democratically elected government to fight corruption.

      There has to be a balance.

  3. I live in Spain. I’ve not seen one single goverment, left or right, not full of thieves. I lived in Venezuela. I dont remember any goverment from any party that was not full of thieves.

    Is not so much a problem of the left. Is a problem of the kind of material we have to work to make politicians. There is always more money in corruption than in actually doing your job properly.

    The problem with the left is how easy is for many people to deny the stuff just because hey, we are in a TRANSCENDENTAL EXPERIMENT TO SAVE THE SOUL OF HUMANITY so shut up and just say yes or look the other way. Not willing? Then you are aiding the enemy.

    Right corrupt politicians are more of the school of “this has always been mine to do whatever I want”.

    • I prefer the American saying “Never tempt an honest thief.”

      Corruption exists in varying degrees in any system, but Venezuela’s problem is that it’s so easy and so encouraged. To the extent that being the last honest man in the room is an invitation to harm itself.

      The more I see this stuff, the less it’s about virtue, or ideology, but about the software. Does the entire legal and political apparatus that runs government have bugs? Does it invite crime? Does it encourage poor behavior? Does it hide corruption? Does it turn ordinary individuals into monsters?

      That sort of thing.

    • In spain corruption is to be found mostly in elected pols not among the career public officials , the common people are by and large honest , maybe not swiss honest but honest enough.

      Of course in Venezuela dishonesty is too often glorified and celebrated , outwardly criticized but even people who are honest have a lot of tolerance for it provided they are not in the receiving end of the stick. Maybe it has historical and cultural roots , the slaves had to survive by being dishonest ,life was tough and unfair so you fought with the weapons you had , even the mantuanos were subject to strict economic controls that restricted whom they could trade their Cocoa with, The Guipuzcoana was a monopoly but not as competitive as the dutch and english smugglers , so every one that could engaged in smuggling . The Mantuano were constantly at odds with the Local Spanish Colonial Authorities , In fact there was never much respect for any kind of abstract impersonal authority unless it was personified …….Borges mentions the same thing about the Argentinians.!!

      Maybe official corruption exists to the extent it does because we ve never had too much respect for abstract authorities or institutions such as the State, to us they lack substance, only for such authority as is wielded by people we feel we have a personal connection with…………!

  4. The solution lies in education and incentives. With enough awareness among “dolientes”, la cosa publica is better taken care off.

    Large taxes and accountable politicians scared to death of a functioning judicial and public standing (traditional media, social media, the next round of elections) function relatively well.

    Excellent piece Quico. However the solution is not an ideal parallel universe with a “pure ” socialist experiment. People, everywhere are just human.

    They will behave the way they do and if left unchecked, they will plunder and run away with the money every time….

  5. Kudos to francisco for a brilliant piece …….corruption was never something which Chavez was interested in destroying but rather a useful lever to achieve and retain total Political Power , the holy grail in his quest for megalomaniacal bliss.

    One thing which kind of bothers me is the idea that corruption is the sole barrier to a radical populist regime achieving ‘perfect’ governance.

    Even if a regime is absolutely devoid of corruption if it tries to apply delusional formulas to run the economy and destroy the capacity of the economically more competent and productive segments to do their job , if they privilege ideological purity rather than managerial competence in the running of the country they are going to end up by destroying any chance that a better life can be accomplished for the mass of its people.

    The destructive power of ideological delusions and organizational and managerial incompetence are just as great as corruption …corruption is only the one thats easiest to loathe, but as Juan has mentioned in the past some controlled level of corruption will not stop a country from achieving development and giving its people a chance of improving the quality of their lives in a sustainable way. e.g. Korea, Taiwan , China.

    Corruption is at the heart not only of traditional dictatorships ( where those on top get rich) but in the heart of many inmature democracies which foster populist clientelar policies which shower cheap unsustainable benefits on the mass of the population.

  6. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” – Lord Acton (1834-1902)

    I think the old Lord got it right….Lin Giralt

  7. Did you denounce cases of corruption?

    Yes, it was burdensome to try to combat internal corruption; from within one’s own people. Chavez told me clearly that he didn’t want me investigating his people, because it would weaken him, and I said, far from weakening you, it will strengthen you, avoiding a government which falls, from corruption, like so many before it have done. I never imagined that the corruption could ever reach the levels of today, which are choking the regime.

    Did you make a comparison with the Guaire River in order to convince him?

    Yes, he told me that I had no patience, that he had learned to have patience, and that this whole process was like the Guaire River, which brings filth along with it, filth and garbage, and he was unfortunately out in the middle, and had to get to the other side to overcome obstacles.

    I remember I told him that he’d never make it to the other side, he’d be swept away by the river. Today I think time has proven me right.”

    • Don’t know which Wikipedia you’re looking at, but my version in Spanish says:

      Desde el año 2002 administra su hacienda en el estado Guárico, retirado de la política. Considerado por varios historiadores como unos de los fundadores de la oposición en Venezuela, contrario al gobierno de Hugo Chávez, firmó contra éste durante el Referéndum presidencial de Venezuela de 2004.

      So, yes, out of the game and apparently not the governor of Zulia. That would be Arias Cardenas.

  8. Panita Francisco:
    1) The picture was taken in the Cuartel San Carlos, not Yare (Zago, Angela. La Rebelion de los Angeles. Warp ediciones. 4ta edicion. 1998. Caracas. p143).
    2) Ochoa Antich, in Asi se Rindio Chavez (Los Libros de El Nacional. 2007. p170-171), mentions that Vicealmirante Elias Daniels told him that Urdaneta doesn´t believe that Chavez surrendered and that General Visconti is unable to pass on the information and that Urdaneta “..está totalmente aislado..”. Ochoa asks CAP, so he authorizes Chavez to talk to the nation but only if the messge is pre-recorded. Daniels then says”Ochoa, no hay tiempo”, so Ochoa . “Daniels, la situación es tan grave que bajo mi responsabilidad presenta a Hugo Chavez ante los medios sin grabarlo”. So, its no directly because of Urdaneta. Santeliz, Daniels and Ochoa were behind the “por ahora”.

  9. Something similar happened to General Esqueda, who was Minister of Infrastructure and who organized Chávez travels during the campaign to protect him. The General kept telling Chavez about corruptions in contracts and Chavez kept dismissing him. Then Esqueda caught his Vice Minsiter charging comissions and went to Chavez, Chavez removed the Vice-Minister. A few weeks later the Vice Minister resurfaced as Vice Minister of Energy. Esqueda resigned.

    • But not even by mistake Esqueda dared to say a peep about it, because as the “inconforme” Héctor Navarro, the poor little Shiabbe “wasn’t aware of any of this”

  10. No offence Quico but “if only they had listened to Trotski.” The shit you have to do to approach a communist society has more weight, more bearing on reality than the goals of the communist society. Even in countries that only flirt with socialism like Canada and Norway, the mechanisms of control end up shaping citizens much more than the intentions behind them.

  11. It’s precicely the left’s (arrogant) claim to purity that does them in. Machiavelli was wise to the truth: a governing impulse must first and foremost be able to survive its mechanisms.

  12. Well, he decided to follow someone who happily slaughtered hundreds of Venezuelans to seize power and got away with said crime, basically the paragon of corruption, nepotism and impunity.

  13. Me sumo a los aplausos para el señor Toro. Por lo demás, no sé qué pensará cualquier lector que no pueda leer en español y se encuentre con palabras como cagaleches. Como aquí para prácticamente todos el castellano es nuestra primera lengua no hay ningún problema pero posiblemente más de uno perderá su tiempo en google sin terminar de saber lo que significan ciertas palabras.

  14. Quico I’m not sure if it is intentional, but you have two paragrafs from the ABC interview in Spanish as well as in english.

  15. “the story of the Pink Tide is signed by the Chávezes and the Cristinas, the Dilmas and the Lulas. It’s signed by criminals who betrayed the trust of the people they vowed to serve”

    This needs to be framed for posterity. It perfectly summarizes this dark period.

    Funny, Urdaneta also betrayed his promise of the democratic system he once swore to protect.

  16. Corruption for Chavez was not something morally loathful which needed erradication , but simply a tool for use in consolidating ones political power , tolerance for corruption was useful in getting to the main goal absolute power . Of course with absolute power one could then do all sort of wonderful things for the downtrodded , which justified the pursuit of absolute power ……, doubt he ever realized that unconciously absolute power was THE GOAL which his narcicism demanded , defense of the downtrodded being the beautiful excuse for reaching that blissful state of political omnipotence and attracting the worlds attention and bribing the love of his followers…

    Brasil is a big place , as a result in Brasil politics is atomized , many different interests and parties , bringing them together in a democracy required the use of corrupt inducements , just like what happened in 4th republic Venezuela , you let every one have a piece of the pie of public wealth , Govts couldnt get their legislation thru without bribing other political groups with a share in corrupt arrangements , it helped democracy function while corrupting it .

    In a dictatorship corruption is for the top guys and a few favourites, (cronyism, hegemonic plundering) , in a democracy its more widespread , it reaches not only the political operators at the top and in the middle but almost every sector of society which supports de dictatorship, in part it is institutionalized , converted into policies of clientelar populism, cosmetized morally as social justice , which allows large parts of the population to be bribed with ‘social programs’ and subsidies and forcibly enforced Price controls that deplete the countrys public wealth irresponsibly but which make the ruler popular !!

  17. Correction : delete in line 4 of the 3rd parag ´supports the dictatorship’ and substitute for ‘supports the ruling regime’…..

  18. I’m sorry for not joining the praising for this post.

    I see it as yet one more try to whitewash whatever comes from the Left. Francisco is trying to tell us that if only the left followed their theory, all that crap written in their books about reaching Utopia, then we would all be fine. Hogwash.

    It really doesn’t matter what side of the spectrum you claim to come from. All it comes down to is THE FUCKING SIZE OF THE GOVERNMENT. If there is no mammoth government where people is put donde haiga, there is hardly anywhere to steal from.

  19. Excellent article.
    It all goes back to the origins of the New World Colonies. The Europeans who went to North America, were fleeing religious persecution, and were looking for a place to begin a new life. Those who came to South America came in search of El Dorado, that mythical place where all you had to do was “find it”, become super rich and then return to Spain and live (almost) like a king. The idea was not to settle and develop the land but to quickly become rich. This has permeated in the psychological make up of the “criollo” and has marked the country’s social and economic profile, permanently marking its DNA, something that may take centuries to change. I hope I’m wrong and its just a glitch in its history with the new generations of intelligent, forward thinking young people altering the course of history.

    • The English also went to the new world in search for the El Dorado, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh had nothing to envy Pizarro and Cortez in terms of rapaciousness, english colonization was not just about the religious disident, plenty of adverturers and hopeful anglosaxon conquistadors arrived to northamerica aswell and to their dismay the bounty was meager, no great cities or sedentary populations to use for cheap labour, the english crown founded several penal colonies instead with little success, in the end they had to provide incentives to work the land and settle out of sheer necessity to make the colonial endeavour profitable, thus trade emerged as the dominant form of industry which had a lasting effect on the home country as well as in the colonies, but it could have happened in a different way, perhaps in a parallel universe the english arrived first and conquered the native empires and the spaniards where to deal with the cold harsh weather of northamerica and settle asturian, basques, galician, castilians and cantabrian to work the land in the absence of potential slaves, the democratic institutions and economic freedoms of angloamerica emerged more out of necessity then design, it the end the different incentives provided by the colonial experience in the americas to the spaniards and english stimulated different institutional developments.


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