Scant Prospects Emerge From High-level Meeting on Venezuela
Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2003
Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Acting Assistant Secretary of State Curtis Struble met with diplomats from Brazil Mexico, Chile, Portugal and Spain, in Brasilia on Monday to discuss the prospects for an electoral solution to Venezuela's simmering political crisis. A complex mediation task is at hand for Venezuela's self-appointed Group of Friends, who heard starkly different accounts of the crisis from government and opposition representatives.
Two Self Serving Positions
Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, Jorge Valero, who spoke on behalf of the Chavez administration, presented a report on the normalization of political and economic life in the country, including the stabilization of oil production. The government obviously was trying to present an image that Venezuela is back to its old politically stable and oil-reliable self, in order to negate support for an opposition-backed constitutional amendment, that calls for immediate elections, and which would reduce the terms of all elected officials, including President Chavez, to four years.
Timoteo Zambrano, a congressman and delegate for the opposition at the negotiations table, urged delegates to pressure the government to accept elections as he painted a stark picture of Venezuelan political realities. Prior to the meeting he informed the press that the government is staging a "political persecution" against the leaders of the Coordinadora Democratica (CD), which heads up the opposition group. His report strongly suggested that the government is blocking efforts to reach an electoral agreement by heightening political tensions surrounding the negotiations. Zambrano cited the law on media contents, drafted by Chavez supporters in the national assembly, and the arrest of several opposition leaders for their participation in the general strike, as acts that have sabotaged prospects for an electoral solution.
The opposition also demanded that the Group of Friends send permanent representatives to the negotiations, who would be in a position to pressure the government to accelerate the negotiations, and could possibly press for the opposition's constitutional amendment. Furthermore, they asked that Secretary General of the O.A.S. Cesar Gaviria, convert his role as a facilitator into that of being a mediator, in which he could influence which items must be resolved on the agenda.
The government camp would most likely consider such action as an intrusion into Venezuela's sovereign rights, mindful of the fact that President Chavez already has lashed out at such countries as Spain for criticizing the Fernandez arrest. But despite the Chavez administration's concerns with foreign intrusion, its delegates pushed once again for the Group of Friends to include countries such as Cuba, France and China, that maintain close political and economic ties with Caracas.
It appears that Venezuelan government and opposition delegates traveled to Brasilia to push for concessions that would facilitate their political agenda, rather than to present proposals that could strengthen Venezuela's democratic institutions, such as reformation of its biased media or its flawed judicial system. As negotiations towards an electoral solution resume in Caracas today, the Group of Friends will be left with few pragmatic points to build upon, while the Chavez government as well as its embattled opposition are single-mindedly hindering prospects for an electoral solution, by seeking to influence the judiciary and manipulate free speech and the press in order to blast each other out of the country's political arena.
Oil Appears to Change the Tide
Washington is showing signs that it might accede to the opposition's requests of becoming more involved in the negotiations process. On Thursday March 6th, seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, expressing their concern regarding the arrest and criminal charges brought against several leaders of the Venezuelan opposition who helped plan the two-month general strike. In a few words, they meant to remind Chavez that they would not remain indifferent towards any shortcuts in Venezuela's democratic process which does not fully respect the opposition's rights. Overall, the tide seems to be turning in U.S. -Venezuela relations as Washington's officials show signs that they may take a proactive stance towards Venezuela's political crisis.
But does this invigorated stance come solely out of empathy for Venezuela's embattled opposition? After an ill advised and embarrassing demand for immediate elections in the early days of the strike, the White House has avoided any high profile role in Venezuela's conflict by throwing its support behind the OAS' lengthy mediation efforts.
However, it is probable that the Bush Administration might increase its involvement in Venezuela's political strife as White House officials grow concerned that the decay and politicization of PDVSA, Venezuela's national oil company, may threaten U.S. energy interests in the region.
Renewal of a High Profile U.S. role
Washington's professed unrest isn't necessarily a cover to blast Chavez for his leftist and nationalistic ideologies, or defend the interests of the local elite. Oil has been the glue that has held Venezuela and the U.S. together in the past 50 years. For decades, U.S. administrations have tolerated various nationalistic measures taken by Venezuelan governments, even those appearing to be anti-American, such as nationalizing oil production or imposing tariffs on U.S. imports. Venezuela gained Washington's trust by maintaining a reliable oil supply in times of both prosperity and crisis.
The Chavez administration was given similar treatment in its early days in office. Washington officials were prepared to discount the new president's fiery rhetoric and praise for the Fidel Castro regime, as they rushed to assure the American public that his actions didn't match his words and that there appeared to be no evidence that the Bolivarian revolution would threaten United States' energy concerns in the region.
But PDVSA's turmoil could give the U.S. good reason to become more actively involved in negotiations towards resolving the country's political crisis. During the strike, PDVSA became increasingly politicized as mid-level as well as senior managers carried out an oil stoppage in consort with opposition leaders. It is no secret that this alliance decimated PDVSA's production levels and cut exports to the United States. As oil prices rise and a likely war in Iraq approaches, U.S. policy-makers are asking if Chavez's embattled government will be able to supervise this fractured company and deliver oil in a reliable fashion.
Mixing Oil and Politics
Venezuelan officials are eager to convince Washington that PDVSA will soon recover its full production and its reputation as a reliable supplier. However, the State Department is not altogether buying this optimistic projection. At a meeting on February 26th with Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, State Department officials told that country's officials that Venezuela cannot be considered a reliable oil supplier to the United States at the present time. This sentiment is also shared by some members of the Bush cabinet. Despite assurances from Ramirez that his country was now producing 2.4 million barrels of crude daily in the last week of February, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told a Senate hearing it might be two to three months before Venezuelan oil production reaches its normal levels. Prior to the strike Venezuela produced 2.8million barrels of crude daily.
Chavez's efforts to manage PDVSA efficiently are further complicated by the opposition's negotiation strategy. Its representatives in the negotiations, have demanded that Chavez reinstate thousands of PDVSA beaurocrats, technicians and managers who were fired for joining in the general strike, or no electoral solution will be permitted to come about. Such a demand could be an incentive for the United States to influence negotiations, as it would offer Washington an opportunity to play a hand in the restructuring of PDVSA, its main interest in Venezuela's current strife.
Drugs Invigorate America's Response
Political instability in Venezuela also appears to be undermining Washington's war on drugs. One of the main pillars of the Bush administration's northern South American strategy is to widen Washington's role in combatting Colombia's drug trafficking rebel groups. Recent reports suggesting that important leaders of the FARC, including Manuel Marulanda, are hiding out in Venezuela, have damaged the standing of the Chavez administration in Washington. At the very least, they have led some U.S. officials to ponder whether an embattled government hobbled by protests, unpopularity and constant challenges to its legitimacy is a worthy partner, willing and able to tackle the drug traffic issue with resolve. On February 27th , Drug Czar John Walter's expressed this concern at a House Committee on International Relations hearing, stating that "Venezuela's political problems have created a haven for narco terrorists to operate with impunity."
Oil policy and anti-narcotics interests may be powerful reasons for the United States to claim a bigger stake in the resolution of Venezuela's political tensions. Furthermore, some of Bush's officials are growing suspicious about Chavez's commitment to an electoral solution. Following the arrest of opposition leader Carlos Fernandez, U.S. Ambassador Roger Noriega, who appears to be the administration's choice to succeed Otto Reich as the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, urged his fellow OAS ambassadors to reflect upon the U.S. belief that "there is little doubt that Chavez's rhetoric has contributed to a climate of violence that does not contribute to the search of a peaceful solution."
Venezuela's Hard Nosed Negotiations
As negotiations resume today in Caracas, the framework for holding elections will top an agenda that also included the disarming of civilians and establishing a truth commission to investigate the controversial events surrounding last April's coup aimed at ousting Chavez. In late January of this year, President Jimmy Carter had visited Caracas and proposed that a constitutional and electoral solution could be achieved via a constitutional amendment or a revocatory referendum on President Chavez' rule. Very little progress has occurred on either track.
The middle class led opposition is demanding new elections to be based on a constitutional amendment which it tabled on January 29th. This provision would be subject to a popular vote and, if passed would shorten the president's and congress' terms from six to four years. Once approved, presidential and congressional terms would immediately end and elections for both levels of governance would take place within 30 days. This bold, if self-serving initiative would challenge the government's grip on all elective offices. It also calls for other concessions, including an amnesty for oil workers who participated in the general strike. It is unlikely to find many supporters on the government side, which has repeatedly insisted that constitutional amendments lie outside the scope of the current round of negotiations.
The government's proposal basically buys into the status quo. A mid-term referendum authorized by the Chavez-inspired Bolivarian constitution, would take place in August if the electorate qualifies for it by gathering sufficient signatures. The referendum would only challenge the president's tenure; the national assembly and the constitution would remain intact. Both sides agree that a new national electoral board should be selected. This could also delay either game plan, as the new body becomes institutionalized.
Human Rights: A Condition for an Electoral solution
Human right's violations would endanger the environment in which either electoral proposal would take place. On February 18th, government and opposition negotiators issued a declaration in favor of peace and democracy, with the blessings of Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general of the OAS, the Carter Center and the United Nations Development Programme. One of its most telling points calls for freedom of the press and acknowledges that as a democratic institution, the media must play a constructive role in "promoting peace, tolerance and peaceful coexistence."
But in real life, the media's problems are increasingly reflecting the degree of Venezuela's social and political polarization and its drift away from any prospect for a near-term electoral solution. On the 26th of February, a delegation of journalists from Venezuela's private media visited the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, to denounce the government's restraints on free speech. In a forum held the previous day at the Heritage Foundation, its members presented evidence that their physical safety was now under threat and that the government is an accomplice to this dangerous situation. According to Sergio Dabar, associate editor of the Caracas daily "El Nacional," there were 200 cases of harassment against Venezuelan journalists in 2002. Most of these have gone unpunished due to the indifference of the courts and the bureaucracy.
In several cases, evidence points directly towards the government's complicity in the intimidation of the press. The opposition claims that during the general strike, civic groups affiliated with the government systematically targeted the media. For example, on the night of December 9th, 26 media facilities were simultaneously attacked by government supporters while the police and national guard made themselves blatantly unavailable. Some government backers went as far as to physically destroy some of their targets, including Globovision news network's Maracaibo studio.
Scenes of journalists in bulletproof vests being beaten back by national guardsmen as well as being hectored by pro-Chavez supporters have become everyday occurrences over Venezuelan TV. At the very least, it appears that state prosecutors appointed to office by the Chavez administration, are taking a convenient siesta when it comes time to defend the safety of journalists working for private television stations and newspapers.
A Darker Picture
Some journalists go further and paint a darker picture of the realities they are facing. They are concerned that the government is wielding its judicial muscle against them, and making them "a war target", as stated by Levy Benshinol, the president of the National Journalist's Association. Unfortunately, President Chavez gives his opponents little reason to believe that he is particularly interested in the status of a free press. An indication of Mr Chavez's personal contempt for the media is his labeling the four major private television stations as " the four horsemen of the apocalypse." The opposition argues that by failing to guarantee freedom of the press, the government threatens any future prospects for fair and free elections. Elections where media coverage is reined in by violence or appears to be intimidated by the manifestation of state power, will inevitably give off an air of illegitimacy.
The Media's Bias Hampers Possibilities
But the media situation is far more complex, and the Venezuelan press is far less peaceful and fair minded than appearances would have it be. The local media is a closely held monopoly where conservative press owners like Gustavo Cisneros, of Cuban refugee descent, decide which issues will be discussed and which will be ignored by the nation's closely held television and radio stations. Coverage of the events surrounding the coup in April 2002, provide a case in point. After reporters valiantly risked their lives and producers defied the government to maintain coverage of Chavez' ouster from power on April 11th 2002, the private media was notoriously absent when Chavez returned to office. Simply put, whatever the issue Chavez was always wrong. Looking back over the past 12 months, the charge can be made that, for the most part, the bulk of Venezuela's media acted in a blatantly unprofessional manner with little accountability and saw itself more as an adversary to Chavez, than a neutral, responsible operation.
Most of the privately owned media has not used its freedom to prudently encourage an electoral solution that is acceptable to both sides in Venezuela's current crisis. This is because most of the nation's newspapers and television stations have been serving as a loud speaker for radical, rightist elements in the opposition. Throughout the general strike, private TV stations sacrificed paid commercial time in order to make way for spots calling for the president's resignation. In some ads, children have been used to play on the audience's emotions. One witty commercial featured a news clip in which a young girl tells the president that she wants a suitcase for Christmas. Chavez cheerfully asks "why a suitcase?" and a black screen with white letters intercepts the clip, replying "para que te vayas" (so that you will leave).
Throughout the two-month general strike, the media's unrelenting antagonism against the government went even further by provoking a sense of derision towards the country's constitutional order. As the strike entered its second month, television stations repeatedly broadcasted statements in which opposition leaders, Carlos Ortega and Carlos Fernandez, incited viewers to undercut the government by boycotting tax payments.
The opposition's de facto merger with the media gives the government grounds to believe that the period running up to the proposed elections will serve as the occasion for a major anti-Chavez defamation campaign which is being scripted right now. This is a serious consideration because in Venezuela, private television stations account for at least 80% of the public audience. Chavez is no fool and for good reason will be reluctant to take part in an electoral event where the media will go to any length to paint him as a villain, with little opportunity for his being able to respond to these charges. Inflexible ground rules must be agreed to.
The Media Under New Threat
Many analysts fear that in response to the opposition's aggressive media tactics, the administration may be taking steps to limit freedom of speech. Currently, Chavistas are wielding their power in the national assembly to draft a radical law on media content. This measure proposes restrictions on the hours in which TV stations may show programming that is not apt for children, which could lead to the banning of the opposition's political shows and their often strident morning news programs. Furthermore, the law bans content which "alarms the audience," "incites violence," or "threatens national identity," which could be used to cancel coverage of opposition rallies as well as unpopular government activities.
Foreign monetary exchange controls dictated by the chief executive could also be put to work against the media's interests, as they will arm the authorities with the ability to prevent opposition newspapers and television stations with access to the foreign currency that is needed to import vital newsprint and other materials required for media organizations to operate.
Freedom of Speech: An Impasse
Venezuelan government officials argue that legitimate elections cannot occur if the media is not conducting itself by professional norms, distorts coverage of Chavez at every turn, while lauding the virtues of the opposition. However, such actions could be equally flawed if the opposition can be silenced by legal or economic schemes.
In order to break with this latest chapter of polarizing confrontation, people of good will are beginning to argue that it would be wise for Chavez and the opposition to open negotiations on the issue of media content right now, where concrete issues such as the number of anti-government commercials or the number of obligatory presidential television appearances could be up for discussion.
The Struggle over the Judiciary
But the struggle over freedom of speech is not the only obstacle towards fair and free elections. The executive's power to appoint judges gives Chavez sway over the judiciary. Lately, some judges have complicated the prospects for an electoral solution by seeming to be part of a campaign to behead the opposition's leadership. The conditions surrounding Carlos Fernandez's detention last month, give the impression that a personal vendetta is being carried out in the name of justice. Fernandez, who heads the country's major business association, Fedecamaras, clearly had been compromised by his likely illegal involvement in the April 2002 coup. Strangely, however, the government only decided to come up with its charges against him the week after it signed a non-aggression pact with the opposition, and then used undercover agents to arrest him. In addition, Mikel Moreno, the judge who ordered the arrest, is himself a person with a suspect background. He has been previously accused of murder and his personal biography fails to fulfill criteria, such as possessing a post graduate degree which the Venezuelan constitution requires in order to be appointed to the bench.
Opposition leaders are not likely to be in a mood to carry out good faith negotiations after what they see as a politically motivated arrest having taken place. Instead, they are fighting back by leveraging their control over the media. Frequent press conferences sympathetic to Fernandez are now the norm, while local TV and newspapers make little effort to remind the public that the business leader was involved in a junta that had illegally overthrown a constitutional government and that he had been fully prepared to abolish civil liberties in the process.
The judiciary has now upped the ante by calling for the detention of 7 executives of the national oil company who participated in the general strike against Chavez. Rather than inappropriately focusing on neutralizing the opposition, the courts might consider helping to prepare the legal framework for the elections to occur under the terms of the existing constitution.
Back to the Basics
The collection of 4 million signatures calling for a referendum on February 2nd demonstrates that Venezuelan society is aching for healthy debate, and both sides must be heard in a fair and transparent dialogue. But if an electoral solution to the political crisis is to come about, both the government and opposition must be guaranteed fair play by the ground rules. The government must be accorded balanced coverage in the media, while the opposition must receive guarantees against antagonistic laws and judicial prejudice.
As of now, both sides wield their control over their domain as if their mission is to expel each other from the political arena. If the Group of Friends decide to take a stand in favor of free and fair elections, it would be wise to press for the reform of this country's media and its fledging democratic institutions.
This analysis was prepared by Manuel Rueda, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Washington, D.C.
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