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Venezuela - A Year Later
Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

Some progress towards reconciliation

A year ago, Venezuela's democracy narrowly survived a major test as rightist sectors of the middle-class-led opposition joined with several ranking military officers to briefly overthrow President Chavez, taking advantage of an ongoing popular protest that was peacefully calling upon him to step down.

Even prior to last April's failed coup, Venezuela's opposition had a list of both valid grievances and skeptical critiques on Chavez's commitment to democracy. These included a concern over a set of government decrees issued by Chavez in November 2001, which his opponents insist undermined local authorities as well as the national assembly's jurisdiction over projects both small and large. These also allowed the president to appoint his political allies to senior posts at the national oil company, PDVSA, which could compromise that venerable institution's belief in a practicing meritocracy in its hiring practices.

The Ouster

At the time of the attempted coup, Chavez's narrow survival was mainly due to his close ties to loyalist factions of the military. Business-federation head Pedro Carmona, who comedically had himself sworn in as the country's new president, was unable to secure support from key senior officers and enlisted personnel at the air-force base at Maracay and at other garrison sites in the interior, which declared that they would not recognize the golpista's rump government. At that point, Chavez's supporters began marching downtown in defense of their revolution.

But ultimately, it was Venezuelans' residual high regard for non-violent solutions that allowed Chavez to return. Broad participation in the repeated protest marches that made up the opposition's core strategy preceding the coup indicated that while Chavez's rule had lost much of its popular support, Carmona did not have sufficient elite backing or support of the poor to neutralize pro-Chavez generals in the country's interior. This was the case even though Chavez was repeatedly being assailed by the media, particularly, the country's four major television stations, which specialized in anti-Chavez advocacy rather than providing a dispassionate, balanced assessment of a deteriorating political situation.

Since last April, the opposition has continued to plot to bring down Chavez by any means, most notably by the now ended two-month general strike that paralyzed the government's main source of income, the national oil industry. Venezuela's private media once again joined the effort by churning out grossly one-sided, anti-Chavez coverage, which included dozens of alternately clever and vicious articles aimed at discrediting him and demanding that the president step down.

The Confrontation

Once again, the opposition was inspired by a valid list of complaints against Chavez's Bolivarian revolution's traditional belief in plebiscitary democracy and its unique interpretation of the rule of law. In recent months, anti-Chavez forces have mobilized around such issues as the now reversed inflammatory militarization of the Caracas metropolitan police, edicts that could curb freedom of speech and the government's allegedly lax stance against Colombian rebels constructing staging sites on Venezuelan territory.

One very important development in recent months has been the emergence of a small bipartisan initiative, mainly located in the national legislature, aimed at reconciling the vast chasm separating the government and the non-government positions. Named the Boston Group (where they will be meeting next month), the initiative was launched with the help of three U.S. members of Congress who visited Venezuela last September. Composed of ten Venezuelan National Assembly members from each side, the group aims at modernizing Venezuela's parliamentary procedures and increasing the national assembly's role in the public policy process. With a constructive agenda in mind, Boston Group members have organized forums where opposition and government representatives can express their views on public policy, rather than blaming the other as the source of their nation's problems. At a meeting in Washington on April 7, group members Calixto Ortega and Pedro Diaz Blum described the recall referendum as the only solution in sight to break the stagnated political climate by means of an electoral solution.

The opposition has provided a distinct service to the nation in reminding the government that democratic legitimacy goes much further than merely respecting electoral results. But, with the decline in the effectiveness of the now disbanded general strike, even the most anti-government sector must realize that lasting changes in Venezuelan society should at least begin within an electoral solution and not by destroying the national economy.

Presently, the anti-Chavez movement has been somewhat hobbled by an abiding hatred for Chavez, which appears to be its only unifying credo. As a result, schisms are breaking out as various likely opposition presidential candidates jockey for the possible race, if a proposed referendum on Chavez's rule in August actually materializes.

Possible Reconciliation

The tough task of establishing a referendum date on Chavez's recall still lies ahead. Yet it should be remembered: none of the admittedly frustrating negotiations on mending Venezuela's democratic procedures would have occurred if the Bush administration had been successful in backing Carmona's White House-approved script by lending support to the ouster of a constitutionally-elected president, which would have all but guaranteed bloody class-strife.

In that scenario, Venezuela's democracy would have been most likely engulfed in political violence, akin to that being witnessed in neighboring Colombia. While no one can deny that Venezuela's democracy still requires a defibrillator, the slow rehabilitation of the country's democratic institutions and the population's almost visceral respect for non-violent solutions to political differences, has at least given it an opportunity to confirm its heritage and move on. This is a lesson that hopefully Washington will also take to heart.

This analysis was prepared by Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and Manuel Rueda, a Research Associate. Issued April 11, 2003.

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