THE BLOG

Who Wins Out In The Ideological War Over Venezuela?

12/02/2015 06:29 EST | Updated 12/02/2016 05:12 EST
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In this courtroom sketch, a U.S. marshall stands guard in the background as defense attorney John Reilly, left, Francisco Flores, center in blue shirt, Efrain Campos, second from right, and defense attorney Rebekah Poston make an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in New York. An indictment unsealed on Thursday accuses Campos and Flores, nephews of Venezuela's first lady, of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

Earlier this month, Francisco Flores and Efrain Campos Flores, nephews of Venezuela's first family, were arrested for trying to transport 800 kilos of cocaine through Haiti. Information leaks were immediate and specific. The arrests were the result of an eight-month operation by the DEA and related agencies, which included video surveillance, wire taps, witness statements, and meetings between the nephews and agents posing as buyers. No one has yet been convicted (though it doesn't look good), but if, as seems likely, they are, it is indicative of a worrying trend of drug smuggling among the powerful in South and Central America. What is also worrying, however, is that this drug bust cannot be looked at objectively as potential evidence of this trend. No position can be taken on the arrests without incurring the inevitable accusations of ideological bias.

The feeding frenzy has begun. And why shouldn't it? Those 800 kilos of cocaine were headed for North America; recent arrests of members of the Canadian Air Force and Coast Guard, caught smuggling 200 kilos of cocaine, have reminded us of our porous borders; major cartels such as Sinaloa and La Familia have set up shop in key Canadian cities to receive and redistribute product from south of the 49th parallel; and Venezuela's expanding position as a clearing house for Colombian drugs has reached a volume of 200 tons a year.

Along with the feeding frenzy, of course, come the blind defenses and the blanket assertion that the allegations and evidence must have been manufactured in order to disgrace the country's government. This is the story being promoted by President Nicolás Maduro's office.

No matter who one talks to, though, it is impossible that any opinion on the arrest will be seen as objective. A reading of the major Venezuelan press (especially the two largest newspapers, El Universal and El Nacional) makes clear it has tried to avoid taking sides by reporting the DEA's allegations and the First Family's response without further interpretation. Yet the over-determining political expedient in this case far outpaces the objective significance of a drug deal involving the nephews of a head of state. Because as we know, Venezuela like Bolivia constitutes a special case. It is among the new self-declared socialists, participant in a politically different South America that has looked to a populist political left to escape the need for U.S. approval. This has destabilized American influence in the region and has inevitably divided commentary into ideological camps, even where none should exist.

It is, after all, worth noticing that when the Haitian president's son, Olivier Martelly, was arrested on drug smuggling charges only a few months ago, no one noticed and no one cared. And no matter what you think of Venezuela, Haiti is worse: the regime there is fierce, and the illicit activities surrounding the president include everything from drugs, to rape, to kidnapping rings. If we're honest, the media does generally cast a sharper eye, and often a prejudicial eye, on Venezuela.

Meanwhile, Maduro makes the case that this oversight is evidence of an unacknowledged but very real economy of power in the Americas, which is defacto regulated by the U.S., that one more perk of economic and political cooperation with the U.S. is a pass when it comes to making a bit of money on the side out of American addicts.

What gets lost, of course, is the larger point that this cannot serve as an excuse. If the young men are found guilty, they should serve suitable prison terms, and there should be an inquiry into the links that might have implicated President Maduro's office. One question in the comments to an article in El Universal, asking why they were travelling on diplomatic passports, seems particularly appropriate. And rumored links between the nephews and the Speaker of the National Assembly seem like priorities for investigation. Yet you can't say a thing on the topic without one side or the other accusing you of blindly following your own ideological predilections.

Is it possible to move beyond ideological affiliations to target the greater problem of drugs smuggling? I fear it is not. The camps are too entrenched and both sides loudly declaim absolutist positions. The result is that no matter where you stand on Venezuela's internal politics, there is little hope of Venezuela and its U.S.-backed neighbours finding a workable solution to enforcement and seizure. Meanwhile, the tenor of Canada's international diplomacy in recent years has done little to help its potential position as an ostensibly neutral intermediary.

And as both sides harden their rhetorical positions and focus on the greater ideological battleground, the traffickers exploit the situation to their own advantage. Venezuela remains the largest export route for Colombian drugs after Colombia itself and its share in the drug trade is only on the rise. Amidst the baiting and posturing, the blind accusations and blanket denials, there must be room for a little pragmatism. The cartels have no flag and no ideology; their distribution networks exploit every interruption in our strategies for enforcement.

Our first step in this case is perhaps to convince ourselves that the enemy is neither an imperialist oppressor nor a socialist menace, but the apolitical -- and brutal -- participants in a parallel economy that will continue to thrive to the detriment of the good people of Venezuela and the region.