Chávez, Uribe and The Prince: “Machiavellian” Politics in Contemporary Latin America
Abstract: This paper will examine the contemporary application of sixteenth-century political theory through a comparative look Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia. These Latin American leaders have employed various Machiavellian political principles, as outlined in The Prince, to consolidate power in their countries. The paper will use their presidencies as case studies, with the end goal to identifying whether or not either leader can truly be considered “Machiavellian.” The paper will also look to the two cases to see if either one represents instances of Machiavellian politics being used for positive ends.
Chávez, Uribe and The Prince: “Machiavellian” Politics in Contemporary Latin America
When a political leader begins to decisively consolidate power, critics and admirers alike often apply the term “Machiavellian” to that leader’s politics. The word refers almost exclusively to The Prince, Machiavelli’s best-known work,and has taken on a negative connotation. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, defines “Machiavellian” as both “of or relating to Machiavelli or Machiavellianism” and “suggestive of or characterized by expediency, deceit, and cunning” (2004). Most writers emphasize its second meaning, especially when describing politicians.
This tendency oversimplifies the term in several ways, not the least of which is ignoring the rest of Machiavelli’s large body of work, but accepting The Prince as the basis for the definition does not solve the problems. The contemporary idea of “Machiavellian” politics omits The Prince’sfiner points and subtle distinctions, and it can lead to leaders receiving credit for following an intricate, complex set of advice when their actual objective is simply to grab and hold on to as much power as possible using any means necessary. Machiavelli himself recognized this as “wicked” and not worthy of a good ruler ( 1995, 28). Another consequence stems from the general reluctance to recognize as “Machiavellian” those leaders whose rule brings positive change in their countries, regardless of how closely they follow Machiavelli’s advice. This tendency reinforces the popular conception that The Prince constitutes little more than a dictator’s handbook whose implementation will benefit only the leader it keeps in power. A look at two contemporary Latin American leaders illustrates these effects and shows that truly “Machiavellian” politics don’t look like one might expect.
Hugo Chávez and Alvaro Uribe, the current presidents of Venezuela and Colombia respectively, illustrate the difference between “Machiavellian” politics and genuine Machiavellian politics. Both Chávez and Uribe have enacted policies that could be termed “Machiavellian” in as defined by the dictionary. While the term prompts nods of agreement when applied to Hugo Chávez, its use in relation to Alvaro Uribe causes a slightly shocked reaction because of his good reputation.1 The first question to consider regarding Chávez and Uribe is whether either of these leaders can truthfully be described as “Machiavellian.” Determining whether or not they actually employ the principles set forth in The Prince will require a close look at both Chávez and Uribe’s presidencies, comparing their actions and ends to those Machiavelli advocates in his best-known book.
If the two leaders can be deemed Machiavellian another issue arises. Many consider Machiavelli’s most famous book “dark,” advising people to kill, steal and deceive their way to a stranglehold on power. Is it possible to use Machiavellian politics for positive ends? Answering this question will require looking at the consequences of the policies put in place by both Uribe and Chávez and considering whether these policies have a positive or negative effect on their respective countries. The actions of Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chávez both reflect strategies set forth in The Prince, but the true Machiavellian of the two is Uribe, not Chávez. The results of those tactics show that, when used carefully and for the right reasons, even the words of Machiavelli have the potential to benefit a country.
Alvaro Uribe was elected President of Colombia in 2002.2 He took office during a long-standing state of violence caused by conflict between the government, leftist rebel guerilla groups, illegal right-wing paramilitaries, and drug traffickers. The extremely popular Uribe won reelection in 2006 after the constitution was amended3 to allow him to run for a second term (U.S. Dept. of State 2008). In addition to drastically reducing the violence caused by guerillas, paramilitaries and drug cartels in Colombia, his administration has worked toward judicial reform, poverty reduction, development and expanding international trade (U.S. Dept. of State 2008). Although the reduction in violence has been appreciated by the Colombian electorate, Uribe received harsh criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty International for the terms of the peace treaties and laws that helped bring about the decrease (Hanson 2008a). Uribe has been described as “principled,” “serious,” “responsible,” “populist,” and “authoritarian.”4 As the broad range of descriptors demonstrates, individual opinions about him vary widely.
Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998 when he was elected president of Venezuela (U.S. Dept. of State 2009). He was briefly ousted in 2002, but returned to power after two days and later won a referendum securing power for the rest of his term. Chávez is currently serving his third term as President.5 The 2002 revolt was not his first experience with coups; he participated in one in 1992, attempting to depose then-president Perez, and was jailed for his involvement (U.S. Dept. of State 2009). While imprisoned after the attempted coup, one poll ranked him as “the nation’s most popular political figure” (Cockcroft 1996, 400). Although his outreach to the poor makes him generally popular with Venezuelans even after the 2002 ouster, he receives strong criticism for his government’s strong hold on the press and its handling of opposition speech in general. His time in office has been marked by the nationalization of several foreign-controlled industries as part of his planned implementation of “twenty-first century socialism.” It has also seen expanded social programs and constitutional reform (U.S. Dept. of State 2009). His rhetoric, which includes frequent and violent criticism of the United States, is marked by “the criticism of imperialism, one of the most recurrent themes in the Latin American left” (Aguilar 1968, 156).
One element of Latin America’s political culture makes The Prince relevant to both Chávez and Uribe. Latin American politics have a long history of executive branch dominance stemming from the Spanish colonial system, and the amount of power that a president typically exercises in Latin American countries places leaders into a situation similar to that of the Machiavellian ruler (Duncan 1976, 144). Machiavelli writes to a strong, powerful leader in his work- the prince possesses supreme power in his own state (  1995). Uribe and Chávez are both dominant, central figures in their respective countries’ politics because of their role as President. Their power is not absolute, but their wishes carry a great deal of weight. Both wield the power necessary to implement Machiavelli’s advice, or any other advice they choose to take, with few impediments from other branches.
Both Chávez and Uribe utilize the Machiavellian technique of consolidating power by gaining the support of the masses. Machiavelli stresses the importance of doing so throughout The Prince, recognizing that the general population of a state constitutes an important element of society because of its size. If this broad group begins to despise a ruler and decides to overthrow him or her, the explanation goes, they will almost always win because there are thousands of them and only one ruler ( 1995). Although Venezuela and Colombia are classified as republics with power shared among executive and legislative branches, both Uribe and Chávez serve as their country’s chief of state and head of government and have much to lose should the populace revolt (The World Factbook 2009). Contemporary republican politics also introduce a form of “popular revolt” not widely available in Machiavelli’s time: voting the president out of office. The presidents of Venezuela and Colombia are both elected by a popular vote with universal suffrage, which gives the “masses” an opportunity to assert themselves every four or six years without a violent uprising (The World Factbook 2009, U.S. Dept. of State 2008, U.S. Dept. of State 2009).
Mr. Uribe uses various methods to retain this support, including distancing himself from unpopular officials and reaching out to the poor through “Community Council Meetings.”6 These tactics directly apply strategies recommended in The Prince. Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of separating oneself from officials who do unpopular things, explaining that being personally associated with actions that the public disapproves of will hinder one’s efforts to stay in power ( 1995, 24). The “Community Council Meetings” show Uribe going out to the people who would oppose him, especially in areas where the FARC or the drug cartels dominate, and “appearing generous” as he takes time from his work as president of the country, listening to the problems of the common people and promising to take actions to solve them7 (Machiavelli  1995, 70). This follows Machiavelli’s advice exactly, and the gesture has increased confidence in Uribe’s administration because it shows that the president and, by extension, the rest of the government cares about the problems they face.8 In a country as unstable as Colombia this sense of confidence benefits both the government and the general population, increasing support for the government and reassuring the population that at least one force in the conflict is on their side.
Chávez, by comparison, understands the importance of appearing to have good qualities. Machiavelli explains that being seen as “compassionate, trustworthy, sympathetic, honest,” and “religious” will benefit a ruler, even if he does not really possess any of those qualities (  1995, 55). One of Chávez’s strengths lies in his ability to convince people that he is “good for the poor” (Rodriguez 2008), something that gives that appearance and follows another piece of Machiavellian advice. Doing “remarkable things when it comes to domestic policy,” or at least gaining a reputation for doing so, is extremely beneficial for a ruler (Machiavelli  1995, 68). Appearances count, and Chávez maintains the appearance of caring about the poor even though the hard evidence suggests that he may not (Rodriguez 2008). Chávez’s government has created a government fund, the “Consolidated Social Fund” or FUS, and established government missions to go toward helping the poor, improving healthcare and providing literacy training. The “misiones” have the added benefit of creating a chavista presence in poor communities, building support in a way comparable to Uribe’s Community Council Meetings. On the surface all of these changes appear to help the poor, but statistics indicate that any increased spending on social programs resulted more from an oil boom than from making the poor a priority in the national budget. The FUS has been seriously underfunded, receiving “less than a third” of the budget allocation that the law establishing it requires, and “accounting tricks” make it appear to contribute more to “antipoverty” programs than it actually does (Rodriguez 2008).
By allowing this to happen Chávez adheres to the Machiavellian principle of “delegate[ing] responsibility for unpopular actions” (Machiavelli  1995, 58). The Finance Ministry and the National Assembly, which overwhelmingly support Chávez, are directly responsible for allocating money (Rodriguez 2008). Chávez appears to have the “compassionate,” “sympathetic” quality of caring for the poor and can still distance himself from the problem and pin the blame on someone else when his government fails to fund the FUC sufficiently, hire social workers, or deliver on any of its other promises (Machiavelli  1995, 58; Rodriguez 2008). Although they go unfulfilled, the laws mandating these new social programs represent a new way of governing that ostensibly benefits poor Venezuelans, a major step in the country’s domestic policy. As Machiavelli explained, “it is of considerable help to a ruler if he does remarkable things when it comes to domestic policy” when building a base of support (Machiavelli  1995 68).
Chávez’s actions yielded the results Machiavelli predicted in the face of an attempted overthrow. In 2002, during a revolt in which he was forcibly removed from office by military conspirators during a demonstration, Chávez’s broad approval from the Venezuelan populace played a key role in restoring him to power as his poorer supporters “poured into Caracas from the surrounding shantytowns and took command of the streets” while military leaders loyal to Chávez “crushed the revolt and arrested its leaders.” (Keen and Haynes 2009, 495-496). As Machiavelli explains, maintaining the endorsement of the populace provides the most effective protection for a ruler because conspirators understand that in addition to the risk of capture executing their plans “the people will turn on [them] when the deed is done.”(Machiavelli  1995, 57).
Although military power remains important in contemporary politics, Machiavelli’s preoccupation with it can seem outdated at first glance. In Colombia and Venezuela, however, the military remains important in maintaining power for good or for ill. In Latin America in general, the military represents “an established contender for power with recognized capabilities” that is “a force to be reckoned with” in domestic as well as international politics (Duncan 1976, 145). One Colombian president explained that, “In Colombia, if you don’t govern with the military, you won’t be able to govern at all for very long” (Cockcroft 1996, 405). Building, maintaining, and controlling a strong military remains an important duty of Latin American heads of state, and it has been a challenge for both presidents as they have work to consolidate power. For Uribe, the biggest difficulty lies in controlling the military. Chávez, on the other hand, has focused on building up the Venezuelan military into a powerful fighting force.
The military played a particularly important role in Uribe’s consolidation of power because of Colombia’s political situation. The country saw tremendous amounts of political violence in the late twentieth century because of drug cartels, leftist guerilla forces and right-wing paramilitaries. Uribe relies on the reduction of this violence to justify his methods of consolidating power, and he uses the Colombian military to achieve it. As a civilian president, he faces the added challenge of keeping the military under control and maintaining its support for his government.9 He has received considerable criticism for the relatively lenient way he handles the punishments of members of paramilitaries or “death squads” that target guerilla groups and, more importantly, soldiers and officers in the Colombian Security Forces who collaborate with them, with his detractors alleging that the terms are too lenient (Human Rights Watch 2008). Although it could be detrimental on an international level for a contemporary state, making concessions to the military is a very Machiavellian thing to do (Machiavelli  1995, 60).
The international community is much more concerned with human rights today than it was when Machiavelli wrote The Prince, calling for the prevention of violations and punishment for those who commit them. The question remains as to why Uribe would work to implement such a solution in light of the heavy criticism it would certainly receive, and The Prince provides a possible answer. In many instances in The Prince, Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of long-term effects over short-term gains and expresses a dim view of human nature ( 1995). Uribe appears to think along the same lines. A major component of his efforts to end the violence in Colombia consists of attempts to persuade groups carrying out that violence to sign peace agreements. This strategy produced success with the largest paramilitary group in Colombia because of the leniency offered (Hanson 2008a).
The AUC, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, was the first and the largest group to lay down their arms10 and represents one of the main forces in Colombian violence, the right-wing paramilitaries (Hanson 2008a). Once illegal groups such as the AUC sign a peace agreement and end illegal activities, their members may enter a “reinsertion program” that prepares them to reenter society. Members who have committed human rights abuses receive a five to ten year prison sentence (Ministerio de Defensa Nacional 2004). To many observers, this appears inexcusably light considering that the AUC is known for kidnappings and murders (Hanson 2008a). Colombia’s paramilitaries commit unacceptable acts, but surrender remains a distinctly unattractive option if laying down one’s arms means arrest, prosecution and a well-deserved but lengthy jail term. Such terms of surrender would likely motivate paramilitary members to stay and fight on, taking their chances to hold on to their freedom and drawing out the civil war in the process. The current terms offer the same people a chance to eventually rejoin society after they surrender, and in doing so bring about more surrenders and a swifter reduction of the violence.
Paramilitary ties to both the government and the military, up to the point of collaborating with both entities, imply corruption in the military and government and provide a possible explanation for the leniency offered (Hanson 2008). As Machiavelli points out, “When some powerful group…whose support you feel is essential to have if you are to survive, is corrupt, then you have to adapt to its tastes in order to satisfy it” ( 1995, 60). Considering the level of corruption the military-paramilitary collaboration implies and the importance of the military in Colombia, it is regrettable but understandable that Uribe may have pushed for more lenient terms of surrender as a way to accommodate them. The most recent trend, however, is an increase in prosecution of military members for crimes such as civilian killings and paramilitary connections.11 This indicates that Uribe considers his power sufficiently consolidated to reduce concessions to the military.
In deciding how to handle the cases of paramilitary members who surrender, Uribe faced the dilemma of choosing between swifter peace or surer justice and chose peace. Both options led to imperfect solutions. He made the Machiavellian decision, selecting the alternative that seemed to have a greater benefit in the long term. Once a rebel group lays down its arms it becomes much less likely to commit more murders and kidnappings. Allowing former rebels to “get off easy” could save lives if those more lenient terms motivate a group to end their activities. An end to decades of violence is a benefit in and of itself, but it could also benefit the Colombian economy. War-torn countries struggle to develop as conflict disrupts domestic activity and discourages investment. The decision hurt Uribe’s international and domestic public image, but a Machiavellian analysis would find that the ends justify the means if the lenient terms of surrender succeed in bringing a swifter end to the violence.
The Prince states that “a ruler should attend to military matters,” and Chávez is following this advice (Machiavelli  1995, 46) by arming his citizens, purchasing guns and offering weekend training to any and all volunteers in an attempt to form “Latin America’s largest reserve force” with a targeted reserve of two million citizen-soldiers. To motivate Venezuelans to participate in the training, he warns them of a “threat of invasion by the United States.”12 (Romero.) Machiavelli indicates that the most effective soldier is a citizen soldier who is defending his homeland and therefore more motivated, which can be a decisive factor in battle (Machiavelli  1995, 39). More importantly, by taking Machiavelli’s advice and arming his citizens Chávez makes the people of Venezuela more loyal to him. The Prince promises that the process will turn an “obedient subject” into an “active supporter” (Machiavelli  1995, 64.) He is also working to build up Venezuela’s regular military, “renovating” the military’s equipment with arms purchases from Russia, China and Belarus and coordinating military exercises with other countries to show his strength13 (U.S. Dept. of State 2009). According to the Chávez administration, “the United States is determined to kill Chávez, seize Venezuela's vast oil reserves and ensure that Venezuelans remain subservient to ‘the Empire,’” a “narrative” used to justify Venezuela’s actions as it works toward its proposed multipolar system.14
The popular support that results from arming your citizens is particularly important in Chávez’s case. He is well acquainted with the dangers of conspiracies after being temporarily forced out of power in the 2002 coup, and according to Machiavelli the best protection from conspiracies is a loyal populace (Romero, Machiavelli  1995, 57.) In doing all this Chávez is also following Machiavelli’s advice in keeping his citizens afraid of an “enemy” in the form of the United States, using the fear he produces to strengthen his own position of power (Machiavelli  1995, 35). While his efforts to consolidate his power by arming his citizens are proving effective in terms of gaining loyalty, Chávez’s tactics draw criticism for “deflecting attention from domestic concerns” and using the United States to scare his citizens into building a “parallel force loyal to him outside of the regular army.”15 This reflects the international community’s expectations that government leaders be concerned with the welfare of their people, solving domestic problems and being honest with their subjects about violent threats instead of manipulating them.
Both Uribe and Chávez have learned the art of being both strong and cunning or, as Machiavelli describes it, acting as both the lion and the fox (Machiavelli  1995, 54). Uribe’s use of the military to fight drug traffickers, rebels, and paramilitaries all serve as examples of his well-documented ability to play the role of the lion. Operation Jaque, a Colombian military operation in which he played an important role as a planner, proves that he can also take on the characteristics of the fox in his fight against rebel organizations. Operation Jaque hinged on deception and resulted in the rescue of fifteen hostages and the capture of two FARC fighters. The hostages included the Colombian political figure Ingrid Betancourt, eleven police officers and Colombian soldiers, and three U.S. citizens. As the press coverage of the operation pointed out, tricking one’s enemy is a venerable military strategy that has resulted in successful hostage rescues all over the world.16 When its effectiveness can be assured Machiavelli advocates the strategy in The Prince, citing the actions of Cesare Borgia as an example (Machiavelli  1995, 24).
Executing Operation Jaque involved tricking the FARC operatives in on multiple levels. Government forces offered the guerillas refuge in France in exchange for the prisoners, then took advantage of the increasingly bad communication lines between rebel cells to make arrangements with the jailers to move the prisoners. Colombian intelligence operatives and soldiers, masquerading as FARC operatives and employees of a sympathetic humanitarian organization and using a helicopter painted to look like it belonged to that group, picked up the hostages at an agreed-upon transfer point. Once the helicopter got into the air, the military members took the guards captive and welcomed the former hostages to freedom.17 The captors, rather than receiving safe passage to France, were taken into custody to await possible extradition to the United States for trial.18
Uribe played a major role in planning this, coming up with the “humanitarian” ruse himself. His use of Machiavellian cunning in his war against the FARC allowed him to rescue fifteen hostages without firing a shot. The operation’s contingency plan served as a further reminder that the tactics of both the fox and the lion were on the table- had anything gone wrong, the hostage pick-up point in the jungle was surrounded by helicopters and military personnel who were prepared to negotiate or use force to free the hostages.19 Tricking one’s enemies, whether by pretending to be a humanitarian group or by making a promise of a reward and refusing to deliver, does not qualify as honorable but does fall under the advice that Machiavelli gives in The Prince as he points out that it is not in a ruler’s best interest to keep his word all the time. “Because you can’t always win if you respect the rules, you must be prepared to break them” (Machiavelli  1995, 54). The win from Operation Jaque’s “dishonorable” tactics netted a positive effect for Colombia. Fifteen hostages were freed, no bloodshed took place, two FARC operatives were taken into custody and the FARC cannot profit from the hostages because no ransoms were paid. The operation also denied Hugo Chávez the opportunity to serve as a negotiator, something he had done in multiple previous hostage release arrangements in spite of his status as an enemy of many of Uribe’s friends in the international arena.20 By using the “beastly” qualities of both the fox and the lion Uribe won a definite victory, not just for the freed hostages and their families but also for his image and his quest for peace in Colombia (Machiavelli  1995, 54).
Chávez achieved a Machiavellian victory when congress, free of opposition interference because of an opposition party boycott of congressional elections, granted him eighteen months of decree power in 2007.21 The granting of decree power is not uncommon in Latin American politics. Historically, this situation has resulted in a “virtual gift of law-making power to the president” with effects ranging from the implementation of reforms to the consolidation of control over public opinion. This is especially true if, as was the case with Chávez, the legislature supports the president (Duncan 1976, 147). A central idea in The Prince is that bold, sweeping changes are often necessary for the success of a ruler- radically changing the government one rules is difficult, but the reward is being “established” and “idolized,” secure in power (Machiavelli  1995, 19-20.) It is interesting to note how conveniently this idea fits with the Marxist theory espoused by Chávez, which has at its basis the idea of sweeping change in the form of revolution (Tucker 1969, 5.)
The international criticism of Chávez’s decree power proves unsurprising in a global climate that favors democratic government. Several countries expressed concerns about the new level of authority that was placed in Chávez’s hands, with the president of Mexico warning about “the dangers of… dictatorships in Latin America.” The concern appears legitimate, as two of the areas Chávez received increased power over were “public safety” and “national security.” Autocratic control over either of those areas could lead to serious human rights violations, as seen in dictatorships all over the world. One can only hope that Chávez “only want[ed] to help people,” as his supporters allege.22
In addition to instructing rulers on domestic affairs, Machiavelli offers some financial advice to rulers in The Prince. One strategy he recommends is to refrain from being openly “generous” unless the ruler in question is spending money that is neither his nor his subjects’ (Machiavelli  1995). During their administrations both Chávez and Uribe have taken this advice to heart and implemented it in their own countries, albeit in different ways. The military aid and training that Uribe receives from the United States allows him to appear “generous” to the military, an important base of support in Colombia, without bankrupting the Colombian treasury with military expenses. Chávez’s nationalizations allow him to seem “generous” to Venezuelan companies and the Venezuelan people as the nationalized resources and capital from foreign companies are distributed to Venezuelans and the profits are used to administer social programs.
Hugo Chávez has followed the advice of Machiavelli through the nationalization of several industries. The main telephone service provider and the main electric utility in Venezuela have been nationalized.23 At first glance, this seems to conflict with one of The Prince’smain pieces of advice on how to avoid being hated- “never take a man’s property” (Machiavelli  1995, 52.) The companies being nationalized, however, were each owned at least in part by foreign investors- the North American company Verizon had a 28.5% stake in CANTV, the telephone company, and the electric utility, Electricidad de Caracas, was owned by the Virginia-based company AES.24 By nationalizing industries owned by the same “bogey” that his citizens believe is preparing to attack them, Chávez is advances his socialist agenda while keeping his hands off of his citizens’ property.25
Unfortunately, among the wealthier members of Venezuelan society the nationalizations appear to be increasing worries about property seizure instead of calming them. Many are rushing to get their money out of the country, fueling inflation of the already devalued currency and raising prices of basic necessities such as food for the whole country.26 Nationalizations are strengthening Chávez’s grip on power, but the resulting economic effects are making life more difficult for Venezuelans. The high inflation connected to the nationalization of even foreign-owned industries indicates that although this tactic strengthens the leader of a country, it may not be advisable in the contemporary global economy because of the problems it poses for that country’s citizens.
Machiavelli stresses the importance of taking sides, pointing out that admiration comes with knowing “how to be true allies and genuine enemies” ( 1995, 68). Uribe has taken the side of the most powerful state in the western hemisphere, while Chávez has chosen alliances at odds with the United States and made a habit of speaking out against that country in international forums. This has affected the alliances of both countries on their own continent and in the rest of the world, and it has strained relations between Venezuela and Colombia.
In this instance, Chávez’s actions reflect Machiavelli’s writings more closely than Uribe’s do. He has not only taken a stand against the most powerful country in the world but allied himself with its enemies. The Bolivarean Revolution is a recurrent chavista theme, and understanding it is important to understanding the Chávez administration because its frequent use as justification for Chávez’s consolidation of power. This “revolution” is Chávez’s plan for a world of more integrated developing countries and a “multi-polar” world political system with no U.S. influence (U.S. Dept. of State 2009). It is influenced by a Marxist interpretation of history and current events, and so far has involved reaching out to a number of other developing countries including Syria, Iran, and North Korea (U.S. Dept. of State 2009).
Chávez’s work forming alliances show him following the letter of Machiavelli’s advice as he avoids allying himself with the United States, refusing to “take the side of someone who is more powerful than himself against other rulers” as Uribe has done in his alliance with the U.S. Uribe’s actions ignore Machiavelli’s advice to “do everything [he] can to avoid being at the mercy of others” ( 1995, 69). Colombia is considered the strongest ally of the United States in South America, and the U.S. government gives large sums of money to Colombia—under Uribe the government has received several billion dollars in aid military aid—to help the country combat the drug trade because of their mutual interest in the “war on drugs.” Because of their links to the drug trade, the money can also be used against the left-wing rebels (Hanson 2008b). The paramilitaries, many of whom were started by drug cartels and still receive support from them, can also be fought with U.S. money (Hanson 2008a). Uribe could be described as “dependent” on the United States, but this dependency has allowed him to build up a powerful military force and make strides toward ending the violence plaguing his country, providing major long-term benefits for his citizens. This shows him following the spirit of Machiavelli’s advice, if not the letter.
The actions of Hugo Chávez and Alvaro Uribe show that they both implement Machiavelli’s political advice regularly. There is more to being “Machiavellian,” however, than merely following the advice set out in The Prince. Machiavelli wrote that “the ends justify the means,” but he had definite ideas as to what those “ends” should be. He sharply criticizes rulers who “decided to become the sole ruler and hold on to power, which he had originally been granted by his fellow citizens, by violence…” (Machiavelli  1995, 28). Wootton explains that Machiavelli believed “no one should want to destroy good government in order to establish…tyranny” (1995, xxx). Even to Machiavelli, a leader’s intent matters. Although Chávez implements Machiavelli’s specific instructions more explicitly than Uribe does, by this measure Uribe is the more Machiavellian of the two presidents.
The difference between Uribe and Chávez is that Uribe is trying to consolidate power to the people of Colombia, making compromises with the apparent intent of bringing an end to the civil war that has hindered Colombia’s development and hurt its population. His recently announced decision not to seek a third term, which would require a constitutional revision, shows his dedication to the institution of democracy in Colombia.27 Seeking yet another revision of the constitution would provide a reason to question his motives. Currently, however, Uribe appears to share the Machiavellian prince’s dual goal of consolidating power and providing governance that will benefit the country in the long run. For the leader of a republican government like Colombia’s, stepping down and allowing for a peaceful transition of power at the end of one’s term is a step toward achieving those goals.
Chávez, by comparison, appears to be consolidating power primarily to Hugo Chávez despite insisting that his primary goal is to help the poor. As Rodriguez points out, ten years of his leadership has had little tangible effect on the lives of Venezuela’s poor (2008). It has seen a tremendous increase in his own power, culminating in a referendum victory that offers him a chance at indefinite re-election by doing away with presidential term limits.28 His actions in office indicate that keeping hold of the power he has accumulated is his real motivation.
The strategies set forth in The Prince are effective, which makes them both attractive and dangerous. When one way of doing things works consistently the temptation arises to use it as a first resort to solve every problem instead of considering other solutions. Machiavelli acknowledges that there is a right way and a wrong way to use the tactics he advocates, and that they raise serious concerns when used wantonly and exclusively. What may be appropriate to govern Colombia in the midst of a civil war, for example, will likely not be appropriate once peace has been achieved. “A ruler who is not himself wise cannot be given good advice,” and wisdom includes the discretion to understand when a suggested actions may be used effectively and when one might want to consider other options (Machiavelli  1995, 72). It is one thing to fight like an animal when your opponent is doing the same, but when that opponent begins acting like a man one would do best to reciprocate (Machiavelli  1995, 54). If not, a leader sets down the path of becoming the “wicked ruler” described in The Prince, one who destroys a good government instead of creating one (Wootton 1995). Additionally, in today’s climate Machiavellian politics can translate into gross human rights abuses that lead to international isolation when ineptly applied. The attendant problems, ranging from strained diplomatic relations with other states to full-on trade embargoes, make for serious developmental obstacles in the contemporary global economy.
Machiavellian politics come with strings attached and their implementation requires caution and restraint. With that in mind, the presidencies of Hugo Chávez and Alvaro Uribe suggest that the techniques described can be used for good even in a democratic government provided that they are used to consolidate power to the people and institutions of a country, not simply to its leader. Without that element, The Prince’s methods are more likely to lead to authoritarianism than progress.Even with the right intent, however, danger lies in the temptation to use Machiavellian techniques to the exclusion of other methods better suited to the contemporary domestic situation and the international political climate. As Machiavelli himself pointed out, “a ruler will fail if he follows policies that do not correspond to the needs of the times” ( 1995, 75).
1. Rall, Harland (Professor, Abilene Christian University), in discussion with the author, April 2008.
2. "Timeline: Colombia." BBC News. November 15, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/ americas/1212827.stm.
3. See 1 above.
4. Forero, Juan, "Colombian Leader, Seeking Re-election, Warns of Catastrophe," New York Times 28 May 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/28/world/americas/ 28colombia.html?fta=y
5. "Timeline: Venezuela." BBC News. December 4, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ world/americas/1229348.stm.
6. See 4 above.
7. See 4 above.
8. See 1 above.
9. See 4 above.
10. See 2 above.
11. Forero, Juan, "Colombia's Uribe Said to Hinder Militia Probes," Washington Post. October 17, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/16/ AR2008101603613.html.
12. Romero, Simon, "Venezuela's Ragtag Reserves Are Marching as to War," The New York Times. June 11, 2006. http://select.nytimes.com/.
13. Forero, Juan. “In Sea Exercises, A Sign for Obama,” The Washington Post, November 26, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/22/25/ AR202112502552_pf.html.
14. See 13 above.
15. See 12 above.
16."Jaque mate: la operacion perfecta," Semana. June 28 2008. http://www.semana.com/noticias-nacion/jaque-mate-operacion-perfecta/113228.aspx.
17. See 16 above.
18. "Corte Suprema estudia extradición de “César” y “Gafas,”Semana. September12, 2008. http://www.semana.com/noticias-noticias/corte-suprema-estudia-extradicion-cesar-gafas/115423.aspx.
19. See 16 above.
20. Rall, Harland (Professor, Abilene Christian University), in discussion with the author, February 2009.
21.Romero, Simon and Jens E. Gould, "Legislature Grants Chávez Broad New Powers to Shape Venezuela," The New York Times. February 1, 2007. http://select.nytimes.com/.
22. See 21 above.
23. Romero, Simon and Daniel Cancel. "Chávez Threatens to Jail Violators of Price Controls," The New York Times 11 June 2006. http://select.nytimes.com/.
24. "With Marx, Lenin, and Jesus Christ." The Economist. January 13, 2007: 33-34.
25. See 12 above.
26. See 23 above.
27. Bajak, Frank, “Report: No re-election for Uribe in Colombia,” The Associated Press. January 29, 2009. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iaxcpq-9jAMLA0pxBbeaPHS8-XRQD960TUQG2.
28. Hudson, Saul, “Chávez wins re-election chance in economy’s shadow,” The Washington Post. February 16, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/ article/2009/02/15/AR20090215 01808.html.
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