Shadow Government

Latin America's Evildoers and Their Enablers

"All that it takes for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke.

Bassil Da Costa was a first-year student in one of Venezuela's universities. Distressed about deteriorating freedoms in his country as a result of increasing abuses of power by the country's ruler, Nicolás Maduro, Da Costa marched peacefully with fellow students on Feb. 12 in the capital of Caracas to protest those things that distress his generation: Venezuela's obscene official corruption; unprecedented shortages of food and medicine in the country with the largest reserves of oil in the world; and the increasing lawlessness that has made the country the third most violent in the world.

It was the first time that Bassil had ever demonstrated against any government. It would also be the last. He was killed by a bullet to the head fired by uniformed security forces sent to break up the peaceful march, one of two students killed that day alone.

The videos and photos from Venezuela expose the government's abuses: defenseless, unarmed, bloodstained young people in the streets under attack from military, police and government-organized gangs of thugs that shoot, savagely beat and arrest them.

As in a George Orwell novel where day is night and black is white, Maduro responded to the bloodletting not by calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, but by persecuting the victims. He ordered the arrest -- on charges of murder -- of the young political leader that has led the peaceful marches, Leopoldo Lopez.

Yet, as the images of corpses in the street, like Bassil Da Costa's and his friend's, circle the globe, in Latin America not one single elected government has raised its voice in protest. To its credit, the U.S. State Department has condemned the Maduro government's assaults on its people.

The orders to kill are given by the communist regime in Cuba, the real power in Caracas and one long accustomed to murdering its adversaries. The orders are obediently followed by Venezuelan officials, starting with the illegitimate "president" Maduro, whose election last year was widely challenged by observers but ratified by the government-controlled Supreme Court, which did not allow any impartial examination or recount. 

By all accounts, there are over 50,000 Cubans in Venezuela, including military, intelligence and civilian security officials. They oversee all important strategic communications, espionage and national security agencies. In turn, Venezuela's gives Cuba 120,000 barrels of oil daily -- worth about $5 billion a year -- representing the island's single largest source of income by far and equaling the Soviet subsidies to Castro during the Cold War. Cuba's next two largest revenue sources are also foreign: tourism, and the renting of medical doctors abroad, a modern-day form of indentured servitude whereby the Cuban government keeps three quarters of the doctors' earnings paid by third countries such as Brazil.

The tragedy of the Second World War could have been avoided, wrote Winston Churchill, if the democratic governments of Europe had had the courage to stand up to Nazi aggression early. The deepening tragedy of Latin America can still be averted, but only if there is a reappearance of principle and courage in one or more of these oddly voiceless "leaders" of democracies.

There are many lessons for the U.S. in what is happening today in Venezuela. One is that as much as other nations applaud freedom, democracy and human rights, there is still only one nation willing to defend those when they are truly in peril: the United States. We must never stop loudly siding with the oppressed.

A second is that unless Latin American governments change their double standards of behavior toward dictatorships, the U.S. should pay little attention when a Latin American or Caribbean head of state pretends to speak on behalf of democracy, freedom, or the rule of law.

These see-no-evil governments seldom speak out against massive violations of human rights or corruption by regimes of the left such as Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, or Nicaragua. Leftists are the only authoritarians in power in Latin America today, and weak-willed elected presidents and prime ministers who apparently don't care what happens to freedom or decency right over their borders are enabling them. All right-wing dictatorships in the western hemisphere were gone by the end of the Reagan Administration, a fact seldom cited by U.S. "Latin Americanists."

Today evil is occurring in Venezuela and in Cuba itself, where peaceful dissidents are also being beaten and accosted in their homes, arrested on Orwellian charges, or allowed to die in jail from hunger strikes and from denial of water or medical attention, like Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

Edmund Burke was prophetic: evil is triumphant in Latin America today -- we hope only temporarily -- because the men and women that were thought to be good have decided instead to collude with thugs, trying to buy time for their own survival, hoping that the aggressors will be satiated before they consume the appeasers. Churchill also said that an appeaser is one that feeds the crocodiles while hoping the animal will eat him last.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

What's in a Name? A Valentine for the National Security Council Staff.

On a Valentine's Day bereft of roses, one is reminded of Shakespeare's question, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet " -- or, more in Shadow Government's bailiwick, would a National Security Council (NSC) staff smell as good as a National Security Staff (NSS)? National Security Advisor Susan Rice thinks the NSC staff would be sweeter than the NSS, and I am inclined to agree with her. 

Rice's predecessor, Tom Donilon, thought otherwise and, when he was deputy national security advisor, helped arrange for the staff to have a new name -- the National Security Staff -- which would reflect the blending of the decades-old NSC staff with the more recent Homeland Security Council staff. While the idea of working more closely together was a good one, the mechanism of the symbolic name change was somewhat unfortunate.

Many of the costs were minor -- some transaction costs and some confusion -- but in general the Beltway responded the way it always responds when a new bit of jargon is introduced: People scrambled to show that they were "in" and "current," so took to using it freely, if not merrily.

However, the benefits seemed even more minor. After all, you don't create a seamless staff by giving it a single name; you create it by having a clear, uncomplicated chain of command. You don't get better coordination across disparate units through labels; you get it through streamlining, close daily contact, and joint projects.

Team Obama seems to have come to this same conclusion, for after announcing in 2009 that the name change was needed to foster better cooperation, the White House this week boasted that the staffs could go back to their old, differentiated names, precisely because of "the very successful merger of the two organizations." In a cheery and breezy blog post, the NSC staff spokesperson announced, "Given that the merger has done just that, and we are well aligned and organized to meet complex 21st century threats with the re-organization, we can revert to our historic and well recognized name, while maintaining a strong sense of cohesiveness and unity in supporting the President and the principals on his national security team."

Perhaps, but one suspects that something else was also weighing in the balance. Weeks ago, Rice signaled that she was working to go back to the old name, and this move was highlighted in a flattering piece crafted to show how Rice was breaking with the more contentious and turbulent tenure of her predecessor. The move would be a gesture to the staff, who did not like the new name and who needed bucking up since morale had suffered under Donilon's tenure.

I did not like the NSS nomenclature, though for admittedly parochial reasons. I thought it created needless confusion with another well-established NSS acronym, the National Security Strategy, which I worked on as an NSC staffer in both the Bush and Clinton eras. And like other alums, I did not appreciate having my title viewed as anachronistic and obsolete. (Perhaps I am overly sensitive to this sort of thing since my alma mater, Lehigh University, changed its mascot from Engineers to Mountain Hawks!) 

But even a crusty alum like me recognizes that performance matters more than labels, so while I applaud the name reversal, I am more interested in what Rice will do to reverse other trends. Rice has a daunting task ahead of her in restoring staff morale when the principal lines of strategy that her staff is working on are in trouble. One of the lingering effects of the debate over Robert Gates's controversial memoir is the renewed attention it placed on the familiar complaint of the White House's micromanagement and mismanagement of the foreign-policy process. Even President Barack Obama is admitting that his Syria strategy is failing. And when the president has to warn a friendly ally on a state visit, then it is fair to say that the Iran policy is going wobbly too.

This is a challenging time to head the NSC staff. Changing the name will not make that job any harder, but it won't make it much easier either.

Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images