WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 Jan 2003 | Commentary

Behind the Spiraling Conflict

Fred Rosen and Coletta Youngers, Published by NACLA


Fred Rosen, NACLA’s former director, is an investigative reporter based in New York and Mexico City. Coletta Youngers is Senior Associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). They participated in a Global Exchange-NACLA delegation to Caracas from September 21 to September 28,2002, meeting with a wide range of individuals and organizations, including those sympathetic to the opposition and to the Chávez government; government officials, including Vice President José Vicente Rangel; union leaders; members of Boliviarian circles; and representatives of the media. They are grateful to Martin Austermuhle and Ron Smith, fellow members of the delegation, and to Enrique González, of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, for helpful comments on the first draft of this article

As this is written in late December, Venezuela’s fourth business-led general strike of the year, this one enjoying the participation of managers and a good many workers from the country’s crucial—and privileged—oil industry, is into its third week. It is led by an opposition umbrella group called Democratic Coordinator, the same coalition of business, union and political party forces that briefly forced President Hugo Chávez from office last April. The strikers have been deliberately provocative, shutting down economic activity on an ongoing basis, and holding demonstrations in prohibited areas; their avowed aim is to build sufficient pressure to force Chávez from office. The government has responded in kind, using tear gas and plastic bullets on the strike’s second day to disperse demonstrators from the prohibited “security zone” in front of the oil company headquarters.

One of the key focal points of strike activity has been Plaza Altamira, a public square in a wealthy Caracas neighborhood that has been occupied since late October by a group of dissident military officers. As the officers daily proclaim their loyalty to Venezuela and their sworn opposition to the populist government of President Hugo Chávez, they are celebrated, fed and housed at the plaza by their mostly middle class supporters. On Friday December 6, the fifth day of the current work and business stoppage, a Portuguese immigrant with no apparent political ties opened fire on the festive anti-Chávez crowd at the plaza, killing three demonstrators, including a teenage girl. The killings inflamed all sides, cranked up the ultra-high level of political confrontation, gave birth to an industry of conspiracy speculation about the true identity and motives of Joao de Gouveia, the mysterious Oswald-like assassin, and gave notice—if additional notice was needed—that Venezuela’s armed-camp violence might be at the verge of spiraling out of control.

The opposition’s only demand at this point is that Chávez resign immediately and a new presidential election be scheduled as quickly as possible. The government, citing a provision in the constitution, has offered to hold a referendum on Chávez’s rule halfway through his term this coming August. Should he lose the proposed referendum, offers the government, a new election would be called. The opposition would accept a referendum, but only if it were held immediately.

Concerned that the spiraling conflict might undermine their own tenuous stability—Chávez’s plummeting 35% approval rating is still among the highest for a Latin American head of state—Latin American governments have committed resources to a negotiated, constitutional resolution to the conflict. Concerned that Venezuela’s oil keep flowing, Washington has put aside its dislike for Hugo Chávez and is currently backing the ongoing negotiations between the government and opposition being mediated by César Gaviria, the ex-president of Colombia who is Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS). The negotiations are sponsored by the OAS, the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the Carter Center; at the moment they are focused on an attempt to reach an agreement on the form and timing of a popular referendum or early elections, to take steps to disarm the heavily armed population and establish a “truth commission” to look into the events of the coup and countercoup of April 11-14. As we write, the importance given to these negotiations by a broad spectrum of Latin American leaders has been underscored by the decision of Brazil’s President-Elect Lula, a friend of Chávez, to send his chief foreign policy advisor to Venezuela to help the mediation efforts.

Equally interesting is the Bush administration’s apparent about-face on a negotiated outcome. Having celebrated Chávez’s brief removal from power last April, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas issued a statement in September in which it made clear that Washington would not support another interruption in constitutional rule in Venezuela. Given the U.S. government’s quick support of the short-lived coup-installed government—and continued speculation as to the extent to which U.S. officials may have been involved in the coup plot itself—the statement surprised many and led to a round of editorials in Venezuela’s opposition press critical of the U.S. change-of-heart. A variety of factors may account for the shift in policy, and the Bush administration has clearly used its new-found leverage with the Chávez government to its advantage.

Perhaps of greatest importance, Washington quickly secured an agreement with President Chávez to ensure a continued flow of oil to the United States. In addition to maintaining its oil supply, as the United States prepares for war against Iraq, it is looking for stability beyond its southern border as well as the support of Latin American governments for the war effort. Further, the Bush administration’s support for the coup-installed government was widely criticized across the region; it may now be trying to make amends as it gears up for war in another part of the world.

While the Bush administration may be willing to postpone its desire for a regime shift in Venezuela, neighboring Colombia does remain a top priority. In late September an official U.S. delegation sought a reversal of Chávez’s refusal to allow U.S. surveillance planes to fly over Venezuelan airspace. President Chávez subsequently agreed to the U.S. flights, key for U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts in Colombia, and may be negotiating other points with Washington regarding operations along its extended border with Colombia.

However, as the strike entered its second week and with the viability of Chavez’s government increasingly called into question, the U.S. government once again threw its political weight behind the opposition, publicly calling for new elections. Under criticism that immediate, new elections would be unconstitutional, Washington reversed course again and appeared to endorse a popular referendum. In short, Washington clearly prefers to see Chávez go, but also does not want increased political instability in Venezuela to jeopardize the flow of oil or its other regional interests. Concerns remain regarding what covert U.S. assistance may presently be going to Venezuela.

Hugo Chávez came to prominence when he led an attempted coup on February 4, 1992. The coup of mid-level officers and a subsequent military attempt inspired by the still-imprisoned Chávez in November of that year, were not seen by most Venezuelans—and especially not by poor Venezuelans—as conventional military attempts to seize power, but rather as attacks against a system gone corrupt and elitist and no longer able to deliver on its promises. While the population showed no inclination to support a coup—and in fact displayed a remarkably strong commitment to the country’s democratic institutions—the coup attempt marked the beginning of the rise of Chávez as a political player. While the February coup attempt failed, it was widely commented at the time that it succeeded in bringing large numbers of new participants—particularly from among the poor—into the political process, changing the climate and structure of Venezuelan politics. Pardoned by President Rafael Caldera in 1994, Chávez formed his own political party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), and successfully ran for president in 1998.

Not only have the popular movements been energized by the Chávez presidency, but Chávez has been intent on replacing the old political class with a new set of players loyal to the Bolivarian Revolution. This has created two set of displaced enemies: the economic elites, grouped around the Chamber of Commerce (Fedecámaras), and the old political class, many of whom are affiliated with the once-dominant social democratic party Democratic Action (AD) and its affiliated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). This accounts for the uneasy alliance of the opposition—the alliance that split and undermined the April coup. It also accounts for the apparent paradox that ideology by itself does not dictate one’s position within the Venezuelan political landscape. Among the old political class, for example, are trade union and social democratic actors now excluded from power and determined to regain their old privilege.

Chávez has a remarkably strong rapport with the poor. His long televised speeches are typically aimed at the poor; he carefully explains world events, basic geography and national politics in ways that include people who have typically been left out of the political debates. In that sense his public talks promote a kind of dignity that had been lacking. Politically they create a sense that “Chávez is our president.” For many of his middle class opponents, the speeches are patronizing, repetitive and demagogic, but for the historically excluded, Chavismo has attempted to democratize power; it has struggled for a politics of respect, dignity and social rights.

In the current geopolitical context,Chávez’s rapport with the poor—the inclusion of the excluded—is more than symbolic. Neoliberal globalization, the model Chávez has vowed to combat, is based on the discipline and exclusion from decision-making of poor and working populations. An inclusive political-economic program is antithetical to a neoliberal economic program based on the maximum freedom and mobility of global (and to a lesser extent national) capital. While Chávez has yet to develop such an inclusive program, the “inclusion” of the poor is frightening to those who advocate neoliberal development for Venezuela. The neoliberals form a significant part of the opposition, principally in the faction associated with the Chamber of Commerce-led “coup within the coup” last April.

Venezuela has not had a credible model of development since its oil boom faded and its foreign debt reached the limits of manageability in the mid 1980s; the country’s economy has suffered from an extended decline ever since. In that context, Venezuela’s immediate crisis is embedded in a much deeper crisis of much longer duration. In the short term the country faces a crisis of governability and political tolerance. In the long-term there is a crisis of sustainable, equitable economic growth and development. The two crises are intertwined, but the short-term crisis is explosive and dominates the political discourse on both sides. In the short term, the principal discourse of all participants in the political debate focuses on “democracy” and “political tolerance,” with both sides accusing each other of violence and intolerance.

Beyond the important questions of class, the political opposition, comprised mainly of the non-poor, objects to Chávez’s inflammatory and revolutionary rhetoric, his personalistic and authoritarian style, and what they claim to be his gross mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy. Many point to problems with an ineffective and at times inoperable public administration, which they view has led to a situation of ingovernability. The most visible and hard-line sectors of the political opposition maintain that by acting in an authoritarian manner, the government has forfeited constitutional legitimacy; they see the immediate ousting of the president as the only option. The political opposition appears to be very divided between economic elites and the old displaced political class, and there may be no one leader who could eventually take on Chávez at the polls.

Following the brief April 2002 coup, the country is more profoundly polarized than ever before. The hard-line sectors of the opposition and within the government monopolize the public debate while “moderates” on both sides pin their hopes on the Gaviria-led dialogue. The events of April showed that intense pro and anti-Chávez sentiment was evenly divided within the population and, significantly, within the armed forces. Given this context, emotions and tensions run high, as does the possibility for violence.

Owned and controlled by the hard-line opposition, much of the print and television media have become protagonists in the conflict. Far from providing fair and accurate reporting, the media by and large seek to provoke popular discontent and outrage in support of its political position. The government is often referred to as the “Taliban” and there appears to be a boycott of allowing any regular coverage of President Chávez or government events. News is frequently presented in the future tense, as auguries, playing on the fears of the readership. For example, this past September, the mass circulation El Nacional headlined the imminent closing of a daily paper by Chávez. Upon reading the story, the closing of a paper turned out to be the dire prediction of a visiting Argentine journalist. No official persecution of the press or journalists is evident in Venezuela; there is no overt censorship and no paper or television station has been closed.

Following Chávez’s verbal attacks on the press, however, working journalists have been roughed up and equipment belonging to reporters, newspapers and broadcast media has been damaged. So while freedom of expression is strong, the freedom of reporters to practice their profession has been compromised. The perpetrators of this anti-press violence seem to be informally organized activists perhaps mixed with petty criminals; the violence is disowned by the government. Chávez’s supporters say he got along well with the press at first, even as the press began to attack the government. His discourse, they say, turned progressively sharp and bitter when the media campaign turned in a direction he considered racist and defamatory. Whatever the origins of the media-government antagonism, it has become a key part of the ominous spiral of confrontation and intolerance.

The situation is tense. Pro-Chávez forces say that the president is confronting a corrupt and discredited political system and that he is promoting the interests of the poor majority. They say he is the point of departure for the reconstruction of an honest and progressive Venezuelan political class. His opponents say he is precisely the culmination of the deterioration of the old political class itself. The old parties are discredited, though the social democratic AD retains a certain institutional coherence and influence. The social Christian Copei has virtually disappeared. Chávez’s initial popularity was based on his willingness to confront the old live-off-the-oil-rent politics of inefficiency, clientism and corruption. The decline of his popularity rests not only in his abrasive personality, but in the long-term crisis of sustainable economic development in Venezuela and virtually all of Latin America.