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.