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Venezuela: Courting the Implosion
Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

By Larry Birns and Matthew Ward,

As well known for its venality as its commitment to democracy, Venezuela's middle class long tolerated the corruptocracies alternately fielded by the country's two main and equally tainted political parties. This sector is now staging a crippling strike against populist President Hugo Chávez, aimed not so much at reforming his government, but at bringing it down. The opposition's latest tactic is concentrated on a constitutional provision that, in fact, was drafted under Chávez, allowing Venezuelans to refuse to recognize any “authority that contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees or impairs human rights.” But under Chávez, human rights violations have been relatively limited, compared to what they were in Argentina, Chile and Brazil, and few democratic values have been "impaired." Rather, it has been the opposition's end-justifies-the-means philosophy and its importuning the army to carry out its "mission" to overthrow Chávez, which threatens Venezuela's democratic fundamentals, as well as its oil industry.

Unquestionably, Chávez has been irritating, insulting, infuriating and confrontational, but arguably, he has adhered to democratic ground rules at least as faithfully as those opposed to his rule, and his failings are as much a matter of style as substance. The president may now be turning the corner in his fight for survival if he can mobilize sufficient fuel and food to satisfy the nation's minimal needs. Nevertheless, if he is ousted in the next few days – which is entirely possible – a far greater blow would be landed on Venezuela's democratic capabilities than on Chávez's personal destiny. For the poor, if overthrown, Chávez eternally will be revered as a leader who, though often not effectively, fought in their name, and not for individual benefit – another Bolivar.

For the opposition, its anti-Chávez battering ram has all-too-often been propelled by mendacious arguments defending meretricious goals. It has featured specious ad hoc interpretations of the constitution and hysterical justifications for what essentially has often been its outrageous behavior. It distorts as often as it invents. Its current mission is to asphyxiate the economy by freezing oil output, which is Venezuela's lifeline. This includes refusing to honor the Supreme Court's decision ordering a temporary discontinuation of the nation's debilitating oil strike, in contrast to Chávez's compliance when the court ruled that control of the Caracas police be returned to the Caracas mayor Alfredo Pena's authority, who is one of Chávez's political enemies.

The current stand-off between Chávez and the opposition results from the latter's decision, when convenient, to join Chávez in frustrating OAS-sponsored negotiations, while condemning the president and being the main stumbling block. The opposition presents no program, except hatred of Chávez; it only barely is able to contain the craven personal ambition of a number of its highest leaders, including Carlos Fernandez and Carlos Ortega, who see themselves as being presidential. With the crucial help of Venezuela's mainly yellow press, opposition figures distribute sometimes false and always inflammatory interpretations of events. Importantly, it is not only the government that is jeopardizing the lives of Venezuelans by staging frenzied confrontations with militants on the other side; rather, it is the opposition that sedulously promotes class warfare as much as any group, with its slogans, chants and banners.

Demonstrably, the opposition's leadership fears the implementation of legislation featuring a modest land reform program in which fallow or excessive holdings could be transferred to small farmers. Currently, 41 percent of the country's arable land is controlled by less than 5% of the population and, according to the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America; Venezuela has one of the hemisphere's highest concentrations of wealth in the fewest hands. Its demographics indicate that about 65 percent of the population lives near or below the poverty line. From this segment comes Chávez's main support base, unlettered loyalists who will not easily return to past injustices or relinquish newly obtained benefits – for example, free meals for their school children.

The opposition accuses Chávez of consorting with terrorists, meaning that, like all of his predecessors, he has met with heads of other OPEC nations to discuss the oil cartel's pricing and production. Anti-Chavistas are on par with Miami's Cuban exile community in their virulent anti-Castro demonology, more reminiscent of the Reagan administration's crusade against Moscow than a sophisticated analysis of détente politics. Some of the more compromised leaders of Venezuela's business and labor sectors are on weak moral ground when they threaten to indict Chávez for corruption even though he, unlike some of themselves, has no record of defalcating the public.

If there is to be a solution to Venezuela's present governance crisis, it must arise from the constitution, and not be imposed only from the street or a resort to arms. One of the opposition's major sources for its lapses in credibility is its calculated naiveté and its illogicality. It stages a political strike against the oil industry and then bemoans the fact that Chávez has the nerve to try to restore production by bringing in foreign or unlicensed substitute workers to produce and transport oil. It wails over the possibility of an environmental disaster or some costly accident due to relatively untrained replacement personnel, but doesn't face up to the fact that the dangers directly flow from anti-Chavista strategy.

The opposition also chronically lashes out at such basic institutions as the “Chávez-controlled” Supreme Court, and then, in passing, cites the court's numerous anti-Chávez rulings that have damaged the president's standing. The same love/hate relationship exists with the constitution. The opposition sees no problem with its contrasting selective indignation or muscular praise – all very well, but this is not the typology of democratic practice.

All told, the opposition's current scenario poses a lethal threat to Venezuela's organic institutions, for any non-constitutional solution will fatefully undermine the country's prospects for domestic peace and its precious tradition of political civility, while opening itself up to bitter infighting among the now united, but predictably, soon to be divided, victors, even if Chávez decides to step down. Of course, don't forget the constitutional role of Jose Vicente Rangel, the nation's vice-president, who would automatically replace the president if called upon to do so.

There may be a way out for patriotic Venezuelans. The opposition could wait until next August, when the very constitution it selectively touts provides for a binding referendum midway through a presidential term on the incumbency's continued tenure. But what happens if Chávez wins such a ballot? This will almost guarantee that the middle class, as it did in Colombia, will turn to vigilantism against the perceived leftist devils, and the epoch of death squads will be inaugurated. Or, the legislature could call for presidential elections earlier than 2006, even prior to next August. But, if the opposition is to triumph, it must do so lawfully and through the amendment process, and not through political chicanery or economic extortion.

As for Chávez, his friends must make him realize that he is partially to blame for failing his nation and his revolution. His excesses, indiscretions and immaturity have helped to make enemies out of former friends, and have jeopardized the enactment of the wonderful vision he had for a better, more democratic Venezuela. It may not be too late, but from this moment onward, his conduct must be tempered by the wisdom and perspective he has thus far failed to exhibit. To begin with, he must come to believe that thousands of the people who have taken to the streets to demonstrate against his rule are worthy Venezuelans, capable of being assets rather than merely fulminating foes. Give these people a chance.

Settling matters by scorching Venezuela's basic institutions recalls Allende's Chile in 1973. There, imprudent Christian Democrats solicited the military to rid the country of its constitutional president in order to bring on their own anticipated rule, but instead they got 17 years of brutal repression.

Larry Birns is the director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, where Matthew Ward is a Research Fellow.

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