Across Latin America there are a slew of cases in which governments are engaging in more or less transparent misconduct, ranging from simple corruption to repression to murder, and offering patently implausible excuses. The litany includes Venezuela, where the most popular antigovernment mayor has languished in prison for the past year while sham judges maunder. Then there is Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa has taken to tearing up newspapers in public and prosecuting them when they are critical of the government. Add to the list Argentina, where a prosecutor was murdered the night before he was going to exposit his case that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was being bought—by Iran! Finally there is the comparatively benign case of Chilean president Michelle Bachelet’s son taking advantage of his mother’s position to extract a massive low interest loan from a prominent bank, a misdeed about which President Bachelet has remained aloof.
In each case, the government claims, implausibly, that nothing wrong has taken place. Why do governments caught in flagrante across the gamut from opportunistic influence peddling to murder make such lame excuses?
A guide to what’s going on can be discerned in the 2006 “murder by state” of Alexander Litvinenko, a critic of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Litvinenko was poisoned by a minion of the Russian government using a radioactive isotope of polonium found in nuclear reactors. The Russian government might as well have advertised its involvement with a full-page ad in a major newspaper. No private individual, indeed no nongovernmental crime syndicate, can lay its hands on the exotic poison used to murder Litvinenko—yet the Russian Federation denied any role, and to this day feigns indignation that anyone would be so unkind as to suspect its involvement.
Given their long experience with such matters during the Cold War years, it beggars belief that the Russian secret police could not have found a more surreptitious means of committing murder. Why act in such an obvious fashion? Precisely because everyone will know from the use of polonium that Litvinenko was murdered by the Russian government to silence him, and so others will be intimidated. And because it is convenient for its diplomats to be able to show up at international events, because of the comity of conducting business with a pretense of being civilized, and to allow the British government an excuse to humiliate itself by not taking stern reprisals, the Russian government goes through the motions of denial.
In the epitome of what we might call implausible deniability, Putin sent his message: The world knows Litvinenko was killed for speaking out against me. The flimsy fig leaf of implausible deniability is there only to provide the rest of the world with an excuse not to act.
Perhaps out of nostalgia for the Cold War, the Latin American left seems once again to be following Moscow’s lead. Consider the case in Venezuela of Leopoldo Lopez. This principled public figure was elected mayor of the municipality of Chacao. Last year he called for peaceful protests against the rule of despot Nicolás Maduro; he has been in military prison ever since. False corruption accusations against Lopez brought by the government of Hugo Chávez spluttered to failure in the courts. Since then the government has gained firmer control over the judiciary. President Maduro’s new strategy is to deny Lopez’s lawyers access to tribunals, and to keep the brave leader in jail without bothering to convict him of anything.
As if to mark the first anniversary of the detention of Lopez, 80 of Maduro’s hooded henchmen descended on the offices of metropolitan Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma and brutally abducted him. Ledezma is now in the same infamous prison as Lopez. Maduro has also recently jailed several pharmacy executives who had the imprudence to continue trying to serve the Venezuelan public. The pretense? There were queues of customers at the pharmacies. No one mistakes Maduro’s actions for law enforcement, but we are not supposed to be fooled. The real message is that with the new, low price of petroleum, the government of Venezuela will be replacing its earlier policy of badly administered subsidies that appealed to the greed and envy of a segment of the public, with a system of control based on fear—criticize the government, and you can join Lopez and Ledezma in prison.