After Chávez, the Narcostate

There are powerful men in Venezuela who are far worse than Hugo Chávez. And if Obama keeps "leading from behind" in Latin America, that's who we very well might get.

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has tried for 10 months to conceal the fact that he is losing his bout with cancer, determined to appear in command of his revolutionary regime and the nation's future. This past Holy Week, however, television cameras captured him pleading for his life before a crucifix in his hometown church, his mother looking on without the slightest glint of hope on her face. Chávez's raw emotion startled his inner circle and led some to question his mental health. As a result, according to my sources inside the presidential palace, Minister of Defense Gen. Henry Rangel Silva has developed a plan to impose martial law if Chávez's deteriorating condition causes any hint of instability.

Pretty dramatic stuff. So why isn't anyone outside Venezuela paying attention? Some cynics in that country still believe Chávez is hyping his illness for political advantage, while his most fervent followers expect him to make a miraculous recovery. The democratic opposition is cautiously preparing for a competitive presidential election set for Oct. 7 -- against Chávez or a substitute. And policymakers in Washington and most regional capitals are slumbering on the sidelines.

In my estimation, the approaching death of the Venezuelan caudillo could put the country on the path toward a political and social meltdown. The military cadre installed by Chávez in January already is behaving like a de facto regime determined to hold onto power at all costs. And Havana, Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing are moving to protect their interests. If U.S. President Barack Obama were to show some energetic engagement as Chávez fades, he could begin to put the brakes on Venezuela's slide, reverse Chávismo's destructive agenda, and reclaim a role for the United States in its own neighborhood. But if he fails to act, there will be hell to pay.

Sources close to Chávez's medical team tell me that for months, his doctors have been doing little more than treating symptoms, trying to stabilize their workaholic patient long enough to administer last-ditch chemo and radiation therapies. In that moment of Chávez's very public prayer for a miracle, he set aside his obsession with routing his opposition or engineering a succession of power to hardline loyalists. Perhaps he knows that his lieutenants and foreign allies are behaving as if he were already dead -- consolidating power, fashioning a "revolutionary junta," and plotting repressive measures.

One of them is longtime Chávista operator and military man Diosdado Cabello, who was installed by Chávez to lead the ruling party as well as the National Assembly in January. Cabello's appointment was meant to reassure a powerful cadre of narcomilitares -- Gen. Rangel Silva, Army Gen. Cliver Alcalá, retired intelligence chief Gen. Hugo Carvajal, and half a dozen other senior officers who have been branded drug "kingpins" by the U.S. government. These ruthless men will never surrender power and the impunity that goes with it -- and they have no illusions that elections will confer "legitimacy" on a Venezuelan narco-state, relying instead on billions of dollars in ill-gotten gain and tens of thousands of soldiers under their command.

Chavismo's civilian leadership -- including Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, Vice President Elías Jaua, and the president's brother, Adán Chávez, the governor of the Chávez family's home state of Barinas -- are eager to vindicate their movement's ideological agenda at the polls this fall. Maduro is extraordinarily loyal to the president, and is considered by Venezuelan political observers as the most viable substitute on the ballot. Above all, these men crave political power and will jockey to make themselves indispensable to the military leaders who are calling the shots today.

Cuba's Fidel and Raúl Castro are desperate to preserve the life-blood of Venezuelan oil that sustains their bankrupt regime. According to a source who was briefed on conversations in Cuba, Raúl has counseled Chávez to prepare to pass power to a "revolutionary junta"; Venezuelans who are suspicious of the Castros expect them to pack the junta with men loyal to Havana. Cabello does not trust the Castros, but with thousands of Cuban intelligence officers and triggermen on the ground in Venezuela, the Castro brothers are a force to be reckoned with.

The Chinese have provided more than $20 billion in quickie loans to Chávez in the last 18 months, which are to be repaid by oil at well below the market price. Most of these funds were paid into Chávez's slush funds before the Chinese knew of his terminal condition. Another $4 billion is being negotiated now, but my sources in the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry say the Chinese are demanding new guarantees. Beijing also is angling to ensure that any post-Chávez government will honor its sweetheart deals. However, these predatory contracts are being scrutinized by leading opposition members of the National Assembly.

Iran is more dependent than ever on its banks and other ventures in Venezuela as a means to launder billions in funds to evade tightening international financial sanctions. Companies associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Qods Force, and illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs have invested millions in infrastructure in shadowy facilities throughout Venezuela. Tehran will struggle to keep its beachhead near U.S. soil, which is vital to its survival strategy in the critical months ahead.

Russia is considering making $1-2 billion in payments in the weeks ahead to lock in natural gas and oil deals signed with Chávez. Some in Moscow, however, are weary of the Venezuelan shakedown, particularly because they know that Chávez's days are numbered. Russian firms are deciding now whether to double down on the Chávez regime, which has been a reliable customer of more than $13 billion in Russian arms, or wait to see if a successor government will honor its agreements in the oil and gas sector.

The Soviet-style succession that corrupt Chavistas and their Cuban handlers are trying to impose on the Venezuelan people is anything but a done deal. There is room and time for friends of democracy to play a constructive role.

Cabello and company, my sources tell me, are far more likely to resort to unconstitutional measures and repression if they can count on support from Moscow and Beijing. The Chavistas intend to promise continued cheap oil and sweetheart contracts to leverage this support. Discreet U.S. diplomacy -- working in concert with like-minded allies -- can help scuttle these plans. The Chinese and Russians may not be eager to defend yet another violent pariah regime, and Washington should rally Latin American leaders to draw the line against a Syria scenario in the Western Hemisphere.

At the heart of the Chavista strategy is a narco-state, led by men with well-documented ties to narco-trafficking. The White House should instruct U.S. law enforcement agencies to smash the foundations of this regime. One Venezuelan general or corrupt judge in a witness box in a U.S. federal courthouse will strike the regime at the very top and destroy any illusion of legitimacy or survivability.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been virtually blind to the Iranian presence in Venezuela. If they were instructed to kick over the rocks to see what is crawling underneath, I am convinced that they would discover a grave and growing threat against the security of the United States and its allies in the region. Such evidence will help motivate Venezuela's neighbors to take a stand against an even more unaccountable regime taking shape in Caracas.

Venezuela's military is not a monolith, and Chávez has undermined his own succession strategy by giving the narco-generals such visible and operational roles. The fact that the narco-generals will be more willing to resort to unconstitutional measures and repression to keep power and carry the "narco" label sets them apart from the rank-and-file soldiers and institutionalist generals. The United States military still carries a lot of weight with these men. A simple admonition to respect their constitution and serve their people may split the bulk of the force away from the narcos and deny them the means to impose their will. (Institutionalist generals may react in a similar way to news that Iran is conducting secret operations on Venezuelan territory that are both unconstitutional and a dangerous provocation.)

There is much the United States and the international community can do without interfering in Venezuela's internal politics. Although the leaders of the democratic opposition are determined to keep their distance from Washington, they must at least show the flag in the United States and other key countries to elicit the solidarity they deserve. Moreover, anyone who thinks the opposition can take on Cuba, China, Russia, Iran, drug traffickers, and Hezbollah without international backing is just not thinking straight.

Unfortunately, the career U.S. diplomats in Washington responsible for Venezuela have spent the last two years downplaying the mess there and the three years before that neglecting it altogether. So if there is any hope for U.S. leadership, it will require the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama. Alas, in our own neighborhood, "leading from behind" is not an option.



Fighting the Great Firewall of Pakistan

How an unlikely free-speech campaign defeated the censors.

It takes a strong stomach and a thick skin to be a female activist fighting online censorship in Pakistan. Sana Saleem has both.

The 24-year-old founder of a Karachi-based free expression group Bolo Bhi has been accused of supporting "blasphemy." On Twitter, a chilling message made the rounds last month: "this @sanasaleem is a prostitute who feature in porn movies #throwacidonsana." Her photo was posted in pornography forums.

None of this has fazed Sana, who in conjunction with several other young Pakistani blogger-activists had launched a successful campaign that has shamed the government into halting plans for a national Internet censorship system. A long-time contributor to the international bloggers network Global Voices Online, in March Saleem joined forces with other groups including the Pakistan-based social justice group Bytes For All and other activists like the dentist-blogger Awab Alvi, a.k.a. "Teeth Maestro," who has been campaigning against censorship since 2006. Their success is a victory for free speech, and not only in Pakistan. It holds lessons for activists around the world who are fighting uphill battles against censorship schemes initiated by governments that claim to be acting in the public interest, and who have support from influential political constituencies.

This is not exactly a culture war of the young versus the old. Teenagers are often willing and even enthusiastic foot soldiers for the pro-censorship camp. After writing multiple letters to the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority requesting censorship of adult websites, the pious 15-year old computer nerd Ghazi Muhammad Abdullah was asked to compile specific examples. He and his friends did their patriotic duty and scanned the web for porn -- producing a list of 780,000 websites that they sent to the PTA in March.

Shortly thereafter, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority issued a request for proposals inviting companies and research institutions to bid on a "National Level URL Filtering and Blocking System" (URL stands for "uniform resource locator" -- geek speak for "web-page address") capable of blocking up to 50 million web pages. After facing a month-long campaign against the scheme combining grassroots social media activism with support from international free speech groups and even multinational companies, the government backed down. Last week, an IT ministry official made a verbal commitment to a member of Parliament that plans for the censorship system have been shelved. Bolo Bhi is seeking to solidify this victory by seeking a high-court injunction against the PTA for censoring the Internet in a manner that violates Pakistan's own laws and constitution.

Internet censorship is not new in Pakistan: The government has been doing it in a haphazard way since 2006, provoking an outcry when Blogspot, then Pakistan's most popular blogging platform, was blocked wholesale as part of a campaign against "blasphemy" on the Internet. In 2007, former president Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution and placed the country under a state of emergency after being re-elected in an indirect, widely boycotted election. "Social media was the only source of information" on many issues due to the heavy censorship of mainstream media during that period, says Saleem, who started blogging "about sensitive issues" in 2008 and quickly became part of a national and global movement for online free expression. While she is heartened by the latest victory against censorship, she told me in a Skype interview from her home in Karachi that Pakistan faces a critical moment in a national debate about how the Internet -- and digital networks more broadly -- should be governed.

Pakistan is by no means alone, of course. "States around the world are trying to gain more control over the Internet," Saleem observed. "In Western societies such as the U.S., national security is used as one of the deciding factors. In Islamic countries it is religion. I feel religion and national security are used as ploys for states to muscle in more control." She has some battle-hardened advice for anti-censorship activists everywhere.

1. Focus on facts and public education.

A moral argument about whether censorship is good or bad deteriorates quickly into accusations about who is more or less patriotic, moral, pious, and so on. "Noise making without a strategy is almost always likely to backfire, making it easier for the state to dismiss and suppress our voices," Saleem says. Avoiding emotional or moralistic statements and sticking to facts was the winning approach. When censorship supporters insisted the new system would only be used to block "blasphemous" content that no moral person could possibly support, anti-censorship groups pointed to the PTA's long record of censoring political, religious, and national security content. That record has been well documented by global researchers, including the Open Net Initiative.

Bolo Bhi also wisely highlighted the government's lack of transparency and accountability in this case -- implying that this is a broader problem with which many stakeholders in society have long-running concern. The issue, at the end of the day, is not whether or not to censor but a matter of accountable democratic governance -- of the digital world as well as the physical. In their call for transparency they concluded:

We don't believe the internet should be a free for all (criminals, child pornography and scam); there are limits to content but a blanket filtering of up to '50 million URLs' with no transparency is not the answer. We are a functional democracy and in the presence of stakeholders and experts we demand the ICT R&D Fund and the Ministry of IT consult every sector before moving forward with such an initiative.

Such tactics have contributed, Saleem says, to today's situation in which "the authorities seem to be shifting blame amongst each other" for the censorship scheme.

2. Appeal to commercial and economic interests.

A stroke of strategic brilliance was to enlist the help of the international business community. Saleem contacted the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center, which helped to relay and publicize an open letter to the CEOs of eight multinational technology companies that sell equipment and software often used for Internet censorship, requesting a public commitment to stay out of Pakistan's censorship scheme. Five of them promised not to participate in bidding on the project. (The other three, Huawei and ZTE of China and Netsweeper of Canada, have remained silent.) Global media attention around the corporate response, especially a statement headlined "Say NO to Government Censorship of the Internet in Pakistan" by Websense, which sells web-content filtering and network-security products, caused the Pakistani media to sit up and pay attention. Saleem also enlisted the Global Network Initiative, an organization dedicated to core principles of free speech and privacy in the technology sector whose members include Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo in addition to Websense, which issued a statement calling on companies not to participate. Negative views of Pakistan expressed by prominent members of the global business community are taken more seriously by government functionaries than are appeals by human rights groups.

In calling for government transparency and accountability, Bolo Bhi also pointed out that Pakistani as well as international businesses have been hurt by Internet censorship in the past due to sloppy censorship techniques that caused commercial websites to be blocked even though they published nothing related to the sort of content the government claimed it was censoring. They argued that the PTA's failure to consult with the business community before implementing such a scheme showed a lack of concern for Pakistani businesses that increasingly depend on the Internet. They also pointed to cases in other countries where national blocking schemes hamper research and education. In the United Arab Emirates, for instance, excessive filtering of "obscene" content has denied medical students access to information about breast-cancer research.

3. Call the shots: Tell international groups what is and isn't helpful.

Pakistan's anti-censorship activists were able to rally a chorus of condemnation from free speech and Internet freedom groups as well as a series of largely negative reports about the Pakistani government's efforts in the global media. But the campaign's success was due to the fact that grassroots Pakistani groups were in the driver's seat -- not outsiders.

"It is important to engage the global community but not to involve international groups in shouting at the government, which could easily be translated as an intervention," Saleem observes. She asked her contacts in the human rights and business world to "speak to our government about the repercussions of such a system on [the] economy, academia, innovation and trade because an argument based on democracy and freedom of expression especially from outside is often dismissed."

Saleem is optimistic that she and her comrades will convince the government to issue a formal statement announcing an official end the censorship scheme. "Right now we seem to be in a stronger position," she says. The lessons learned from the Pakistani struggle against censorship are very relevant, she believes, in Tunisia and Egypt, where newly elected politicians are now calling for censorship on religious grounds.

As in Pakistan, Tunisian and Egyptian human rights activists are concerned that any censorship mechanisms, once put in place, will inevitably be abused for political purposes no matter what censorship proponents claim to the contrary. Whether anti-censorship activists in those countries and beyond succeed in the same way their Pakistani comrades did depends on whether they can devise a winning strategy that fits their own countries' political, economic, and religious circumstances.  The struggle for Internet freedom may be global, but stands the highest chance of success when driven locally.