When Machetera read that the prosecution in Gerardo Hernandez’s case repeatedly referred to Gerardo’s ratting out of a counter-revolutionary cabdriver during a visit to Havana as an example of his devotion to the Revolution (which in Miami is a capital offense all by itself), she raised her glass and sent a toast in Gerardo’s direction. Machetera knows justice when she sees it, even when it’s meted out in infinitesimally small amounts.
If you don’t already know, Gerardo is one of the five Cubans convicted in a Miami kangaroo court; of conspiracy (i.e; a thought crime) to commit espionage and the even more preposterous charge of somehow steering Jose Basulto’s unfortunate marks’ planes by remote mind control to a magical spot just outside of Cuban waters where they could be shot down, thereby deepening and perpetuating the U.S. blockade against Cuba. But that’s a topic for another day.
Today Machetera is talking about those bloody counter-revolutionary cabdrivers.
Gerardo got the number of one, but sad to say, for every one, there seem to be nine more out there trolling the autopista, which explains why Cuban cabdrivers are every foreign journalist’s favorite source of information for their stories.
(“Can [Obama] win?” an Afro-Cuban cabdriver asked an American visitor in Havana. “I mean, can he win?” he asked, wondering if a black man could be elected in a land that Cubans are taught to see as riven with racism.)
Machetera can parse that one some other day as well…
It’s always been a mystery and a huge source of frustration. Driving a cab in Cuba, particularly a tourist cab, is a good job. You don’t spend much time on your feet and chances are, you even have air conditioning. You can go around all day listening to the radio, or if you want, even a reggaeton tape (unless Machetera asks you nicely to remove it). And, you have the possibility of collecting foreign currency tips. Something the vast majority of Cubans cannot do.
So why do so many Cuban cabdrivers feel the insatiable need to ask for more?
This is how it works. Once you’re installed in the cab, the driver turns to you and proposes a deal. Machetera’s heart always sinks a little when the cabdriver turns around because she knows what’s coming. The deal is always skewed not just slightly, but completely, overwhelmingly, 110% to their advantage. You have to know a little about distances and average fares to understand the math. A trip that costs, say $9, will be offered to you for $8. No meter – the cabbie offers to shut it off in return for cash on the barrelhead. The state, which owns, fuels and maintains the cabs, gets nothing. The cab driver, instead of collecting a dollar or two as a tip, swallows the fare whole. And here’s the interesting thing. A trip that might cost $20 will never be offered for $10, although a $10 tip could be considered generous just about anywhere. A trip that might cost $10 will not be for sale for $5. No, these cabdrivers don’t want just a little extra, they want it all.
Machetera’s preferred response is to get out of the cab, but if it’s a very hot day and cabs are hard to come by, she will simply insist on running the meter, and get out at the end of the trip without leaving a tip. On the other hand, cabdrivers who respect the rules and do not view their jobs as a licensed theft opportunity are rewarded with very generous tips.
And here’s why. It’s not just that Machetera has family working hard all day in honest jobs where there is no possibility whatsoever of so much as a glance at foreign currency. She’s got plenty of that. It’s that cabdrivers are notorious for their counter-revolutionary networks. They’ll take a system down. And in a place like Cuba, where the National Endowment for Democracy or the International Republican Institute or USAID or the plain old frickin’ CIA have an especially hard time launching shell NGOs or color revolutions or buying off socialist splinter parties, counter-revolutionary networks matter. The CIA knew this in Salvador Allende’s Chile, they knew it in Nicaragua, and they know it now in Venezuela.
As Gerardo put it at his sentencing hearing: “I wonder how many taxi drivers are being watched by the FBI at this very moment in airports across the United States, not only for expressing their discontent with the government, but probably simply for wearing turbans.”
Which brings us to Machetera’s next translation.
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No-one doubts now that the penetration of Colombian paramilitaries in Venezuela, where they perform as death squads for the powerful, is taking over certain lucrative economic sectors a little at a time. Designed outside Venezuela, this is a strategy that seeks to destabilize the country.
In May of 2004 when a group of more than 100 paramilitaries was detained on a ranch near Caracas owned by the anti-communist Cuban-Venezuelan Robert Alonso, it thwarted an assassination plan designed to finish off President Hugo Chávez. Three years later, under the auspices of the Venezuelan president’s mediation plan for a humanitarian agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, Chavez decided to pardon them and send them to Colombia, as a symbolic gesture directed at both parties. The hundred or so mercenaries returned to their country but subsequently an even higher number of paramilitaries were dispersed throughout various parts of Venezuelan territory.
Over the past couple of years the Venezuelan authorities have given the impression that this expansion of Colombian paramilitarism was sidelined. However, in recent months, it appears to have been awarded the attention it deserves, thanks to the increasingly worrisome penetration of these groups.
As is obvious, neither Washington nor the Creole oligarchy have given up on destroying the Bolivarian Revolution and therefore continue to utilize diverse mechanisms to try to do away with the process of change which has been taking place since 1998 for the people of Venezuela. They failed with their coup d’etat, with their petroleum sabotage, and with their strikes, but the reality is that the destabilization strategy manifests itself through a combination of elements: one of them is the known hoarding and stockpiling of food products and another, the progressive insertion of Colombian paramilitaries in the towns and cities throughout the country, in order to wear down and undermine the revolutionary process, including opposing it openly in the future, as the Contras did in Nicaragua.
The penetration of the Colombian paramilitaries in Venezuela has come in two well-defined stages. The first of them came within the Land Law of 2001 and Agrarian Reform, when a legal framework was established to fight against the latifundio and redistribution of land to the campesinos. From this date onwards, via hired assassins, the landowners began to demonstrate their way of facing the campesinos’ struggle. The owners of immense tracts of Venezuelan land contracted with Colombian paramilitaries to exterminate the campesino teams who were leading the agrarian reform.
The effects, up until today, have been devastating. More than 180 campesinos have been killed, according to data provided by the same agrarian organizations. But the most troublesome is not simply the physical disappearance of all these people, but the general impunity; practically none of the paramilitaries or landowners have been brought to trial for this. The non-defense, therefore, of the campesino movement has been extreme, and has obliged them in more than one case to organize and arm themselves for purposes of self-defense.
But even more than turning itself into a tool of death at the service of the ancient oligarchy, the penetration of Colombian paramilitaries has shown itself over more than seven years, in the insertion and control of important territories along the Colombian/Venezuelan border. Border states such as Táchira or Zulia are current and significant examples of the noticeable presence of these gangs, which little by little are appropriating highly lucrative economic sectors for themselves. Such profitable businesses as black-market Venezuelan gasoline for the Colombian market have been under the control of Colombian paramilitaries for some time, according to official sources. They are also presumed to be driving the black market in food, and thereby playing an important role in the food stockpiling strategy that has made the country suffer for more than a year.
In cities such as San Cristóbal, the capital of the state of Táchira, they’ve been able to establish a “vaccination” system, in other words, a “protection” racket, for countless business owners, copying the classic modus operandi of the mafia. Whether or not this business has common elements with certain sectors within the security forces (National Guard, Army, Police) as well as some authorities – according to denunciations made by locals – the level of concern has increased considerably. The scarcity of the Venezuelan state over large parts of the border has without doubt, facilitated the expansion and strengthening of these gangs.
Insertion in the Cities
The most visible jump in the implementation of paramilitarism in Venezuela has taken place over the past couple of years, with the progressive insertion in the country’s biggest cities; accounting for the second phase of penetration. Gradually and silently, it has installed itself in scores of slums in the biggest cities, using assorted mechanisms to impact community life and moving to appropriate certain areas to control later on. The sale of drugs at low prices has been one of the fundamental ways to attract area youth, with the implicit final objective of capturing and integrating them into delinquent gangs.
In other cases, taking advantage of slum insecurity and the ineffective police, it offers itself as protector and guarantor of public order, thereby achieving a legitimacy that confers a power status of incalculable value. In most recent times, in fact, it has come to reproduce the classic scheme that has been implemented over decades in Colombian cities such as Medellín, Cali, Bogota, etc; selective killing of community leaders and political teams that play particularly important roles in mobilizing the public. In spite of the fact that for some time, there’s been a desire to attribute these deaths to the “underworld,” it is becoming more obvious every day that it is part of a plan to weaken the popular movement in these communities.
Now practically no-one doubts that the phenomenon of paramilitarism is a growing and worrisome one in Venezuela, that corresponds with a strategy designed elsewhere, which serves the interests of the internal oligarchy and of course, the White House. Maybe the intelligence services of the U.S. government could provide some worthwhile information about this affair.
Dario Azzellini, the Italian-German political scientist, writer and documentarian, has conducted an in-depth investigation of the phenomenon of paramilitarism in Colombia. In 2003 he published the book “The Privatization of War,” some parts of which have run in “Txalaparta” in Spain and in “Question” in Venezuela.
A War of Attrition Such as That in Nicaragua, is Much More Effective
Recently, Dario Azzellini has dedicated himself to the search for information about Colombian paramilitary penetration in Venezuela, which he confirms has been produced with U.S. aid and whose interests are not those of direct intervention but rather, a “war of attrition” whose goal is “negative demoralization” instead of a “military victory”. Azzellini indicated that one of paramilitarism’s objectives is the taking control of transport, specifically, taxis, thanks to the fact that it is “a privileged and decisive space for constructing an intelligence network.”
In your investigations about the phenomenon of paramilitarism in Venezuela, you assert that it corresponds to a strategy orchestrated by imperialism, where the Colombian army and the Venezuelan oligarchy play a fundamental role. You make comparisons to that played by the Contras in Nicaragua. Has Venezuela reached this level of risk?
I’ll tell you that today we’re not at the level reached in Nicaragua, but without doubt, somewhere in between, and if necessary measures aren’t taken, it could reach that point. The paramilitary penetration began at the border and has extended itself along the entire backbone of the Andes, approaching the North coast, where one finds one of the country’s industrial centers. At any given moment, a war of low intensity could be launched which would take advantage of this corridor in order to attack the strategic industrial zone, and thereby strike a blow at one of the key points of economic development.
The United States, then, wishes to avoid direct intervention, and is betting on a war of low intensity, using these types of groups?
Effectively, yes. A direct intervention by the United States is unthinkable under the present international situation and because it would unify patriotic feeling within the country. A war of attrition, that doesn’t seek a military victory, but rather negative demoralization, is much more effective, in line with what they developed in Nicaragua, which gave such splendid results.
You point out in your investigation that one of the primary objectives of the paramilitaries is the control of transport. Why?
Because it’s a strategic sector, as has been historically proven. For example, in the Chilean case, the halting of transport was decisive in weakening the government of Salvador Allende. The specific case of the taxis is truly significant, for it is one of the privileged spaces where an intelligence network can be built. Keep in mind that for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Zapatistas in Mexico, one of the first cooperatives they created was taxis, with the clear objective of designing their own intelligence network. In Venezuela, the paramilitaries are appropriating this sector bit by bit, including zones within the very capital, Caracas.
You give the impression that Colombian paramilitarism is extending itself more and more throughout the entire country, and that it’s not being efficiently dealt with. What might be the solution for this serious problem?
It’s true that until very recently, the State has not given it the necessary attention, and therefore it has been able to extend itself in a progressive and growing fashion. Now, it appears that the security organizations have begun to take the problem seriously and are beginning to take the first steps. In the first place, the State’s intelligence agencies have to design a serious and rigorous plan to take on the phenomenon in all its dimensions. But that’s not sufficient. It must complement this with “social intelligence” by the organized community, given that this is where the paramilitary groups have installed themselves and are developing their activities. The State and the people should work together to jointly address this serious problem. Once again the concept of “people’s power” is essential here; in this case in the area of security, transferring power to citizens in order to make public policy more effective.