March 28th, 2008
Ever since he got in trouble for defending MP Francisco Ameliach, and later for making comments about Raúl Isaías Baduel (the former Chavista Minister of Defense and now bitter enemy of the revolution), I have wanted to talk with the pro-government MP, Luis Tascón.
But, luckily, I do not meet with him until a trip to Caracas in early March, six months after he and MP Iris Valera publicly defended Ameliach. I say luckily because in the last few months the plot of his story has thickened.
The latest episode Tascón was involved in is like something out of a novel.
In mid-February, inspired by Chávez’s call for his followers to be more conscientious, Tascón decided to go to Parliament’s Anti-Corruption Committee to report a supposed administrative irregularity at the Ministry of Infrastructure with regards to the purchase of public transportation vehicles.
Tascón handed the committee’s chairman a copy of a procurement request from the Ministry of Infrastructure to the President for the acquisition of 100 Land Cruisers at a price of 75,000 Bolívares Fuertes ($34,924) per vehicle.
Tascón said that one month after the request, the Toyota company estimated the price per vehicle to be 57,000 Bs.F ($26,542), twenty thousand less ($9,313) per vehicle than the price that appears in the ministry’s request, which, Tascón pointed out, adds up to an overcharge of roughly 4 million Bs.F ($1,862,630).
Tascón also said that, on top of the Land Cruisers, the procurement request asks for 200 minibuses at a price of 180,000 Bs.F ($83,818) per vehicle when, at the time, the National Transportation Fund had established the price of each minibus at 160,000 Bs.F ($74,505).
Tascón was cautious in the way he worded his complaint. He emphasized that he was not accusing anyone of wrongdoing and that the difference between the estimated price and the price in the request was not necessarily proof of corruption.
“I am just asking that the difference be investigated.”
Like Ameliach, Tascón could not have imagined the reaction that his complaint would provoke – a complaint that had already been made by a union of transport workers (the union that gave the documents to Tascón).
The first to attack him was the governor of the Venezuelan state of Miranda, Diosdado Cabello, whom Tascón accuses of orchestrating the campaign against him.
Cabello, whose brother could be seen as the target of Tascón’s complaint (since he was the Minister of Infrastructure when the presumed irregularities occurred regarding the vehicle purchase), referred to Tascón as an “instrument of the empire” and said that perhaps they had “injected a chip into his blood” in a meeting he had with Microsoft president, Bill Gates.
He also accused the MP of having political ties to the old parties Democratic Action and COPEI, and of arranging for a diplomatic passport for Alex del Nogal, a Venezuelan banker accused of drug trafficking.
With regards to the complaint itself, Cabello did not say much. He asserted that it was false because the Land Cruisers in question had not yet been purchased.
This argument that the complaint is unfounded was reiterated by several MPs and even President Chávez, who highlighted the fact that the Land Cruisers had not been purchased (the 100 Land Cruisers, according to the procurement request presented by Tascón, represent only a third of the vehicles – the 200 minibuses were purchased).
The President of Congress, Cilia Flores, declared that Tascón was irresponsible for, first, presenting a report without proof, and second, for not consulting the Socialist Parliamentary Bloc before filing the complaint.
Flores proposed a meeting of the bloc to expel Tascón for conspiring against the revolution with the television station Globovisión and the American “empire,” a charge that, ironically, Flores did not support with proof despite accusing Tascón of making unfounded charges.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The day that Tascón’s expulsion from the bloc was announced, a shady militant from the Socialist Party (PSUV) appeared in the media accusing him of a plan to destabilize the government, which included the assassination of Chávez’s ex-wife, Marisabel Rodríguez.
And that same day, MP Carlos Escarrá (who was with Tascón at the meeting with Bill Gates) came forward with a letter allegedly from Tascón to Foreign Secretary Nicolás Maduro asking for help in renewing Alex del Nogal’s passport.
Is there any truth to these accusations? Maybe. But, as Tascón says, it is suspicious, if not laughable, that the accusations all appeared immediately after he presented his report to the Anti-Corruption Committee.
Another laughable detail, says Tascón, is his supposed expulsion from the PSUV, which Jorge Rodríguez and Diosdado Cabello announced on the state television channel Venezolana de Televisión (VTV). Tascón says that Cabello and Rodríguez lied to the country in saying that he had been expelled from the party by a unanimous decision of the Foundational Congress. He assures that “the Foundational Congress never voted.”
Did the Foundational Congress vote? It did not. On this point, Tascón is telling the truth. But what Tascón does not mention is that when they expelled him, Cabello and Rodríguez were following orders from Chávez. The President himself said to VTV that he had given the expulsion order.
“I have no alternative outside of Chavismo”
Talking to Tascón is a confusing experience. At times, especially when he talks about Diosdado, his arguments are solid and coherent. During our conversation, I often feel that I am talking to a man with a perhaps unrefined intelligence, but nevertheless one that is vivacious, agile, and quick.
But then, when one brings up Chávez, his arguments become weak, evasive, and, sometimes, incoherent. No matter how much one pushes him, Tascón refuses to harshly criticize the president. No matter how much one tries to convince him that Diosdado Cabello’s campaign against him obviously enjoyed the President’s blessing (and maybe his active participation), Tascón insists that the President was “misinformed.”
Examples abound. When I ask him if he thinks it’s irresponsible that Chávez did not ask questions about the overcharge for the minibuses, Tascón responds that “that is our responsibility; the president is the decision-maker; it is our duty to monitor.” When I ask him why he criticizes Diosdado’s insults and Manichean discourse but not Chávez’s, Tascón tells me that it is not his role to criticize the president “because he has his way of doing things.”
The same happens when I ask him about the episode with Francisco Ameliach (see part IV of this report). Doesn’t it seem an abuse of power the way Chávez punished Ameliach for expressing simple criticisms, worries and suggestions? Is that the kind of treatment someone who risked his life for him in the events of April 2002 deserves? Tascón explains to me what happened by saying that “the letter (that Ameliach sent) generated a reaction in groups close to the president that misinformed him.” In other words, Chávez does not bear responsibility for what he himself thinks, but rather those around him do, who put things in his head.
Does Tascón himself believe such idiocies? No: he is too vivacious and intelligent for that. Why, then, does he find it so hard to break with Chávez? The answer is complex. In part, it is admiration. Tascón admires Chávez. As I speak with him, he refers to Chávez several times as a “historic leader.” Another factor is that the decision to break with Chávez is not easy. Tascón has been a Chavista for years. It is not easy to abandon the political project he has been a part of – and that he has believed in – for more than a decade.
But there is another reason, perhaps stronger, that Tascón addressed a few months ago in an interview with a newspaper. In that interview, Tascón expressed with brutal honesty that he had no alternative outside of Chavismo.
During our conversation, I decide to remind him of it. I remind him that in the interview he explained that, because of The List, he is hated by the opposition and that, if the opposition retakes power, he would be persecuted and probably jailed for human rights violations. I ask him if there is an element of personal survival in his support for Chávez.
At first, Tascón is adamant. He tells me, “no, no, the main reason is ideological.” But then, without having to pressure him, he admits that there is an element of personal survival in his support for Chávez. “It is no secret that the opposition hates me.”
Tascón’s belief sheds light on the vicious circle of polarization. Right or wrong, many pro-government officials feel that they would be persecuted and possibly jailed in an opposition government. And feeling that they will not survive without Chávez is a powerful incentive to remain in the party ranks. Feeling that they will not survive without Chávez is also an incentive to help him do everything necessary to remain in power, a task that, of course, stokes opposition hatred – thereby reinforcing the idea that they have no life outside of Chavismo.
And feeling that their future depends on Chávez remaining in power makes them submissive servants or it forces them to tolerate and accept, heads bowed, the offenses and abuses of the president.
It is true that Tascón may be an extreme example, because few Chavista figures are as hated by so many militant oppositionists. But I would bet that many pro-government officials consider their adherence to the revolution not just an opportunity to accumulate power, recognition, wealth, etc., but also as a question of personal survival.
Final note: As I edit this last part of the report, the pro-government MP, Wilmer Azuaje, decides to file a complaint against some members of the Chávez family with the Anti-Corruption Committee. The reaction in Parliament is similar to that provoked by Tascón’s charges. Attacks against Azuaje. Insults. Unfounded accusations against him. It is decided that the committee will investigate Azuaje’s accusations, but also, highly unusual calls are made to investigate the accuser because of “the economic resources he is using to spread news of his complaint.”
I call Tascón. I tell him, annoyed, that they are doing the same to Azuaje that they did to him. Is he not going to say anything in his defense? Is he not going to take a position? How is it possible that everyone who reports potential wrongdoing is threatened with an investigation? Tascón’s response – which he valiantly reiterated hours later at a press conference – lives up to all my hopes. He tells me that he already delivered a speech in Congress against the insults, and he clarifies that he categorically condemns intimidation of MPs for filing complaints.
“So, Mr. Tascón, when are you going to admit that, ultimately, Hugo Chávez is the one guilty of intransigence?”
Tascón laughs and again refuses to endorse my opinion. But something tells me that, little by little, his commitment to Chávez has worn down. Listening to him speak with pride about his proposed “infogovernment” law (to increase transparency in public administration), I sense that this man, whom I have many times criticized in the harshest terms, perhaps will soon cross the line that has been so hard for him to cross. And maybe there, in that new position, the sun will shine on his better side.