Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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Memorandum to the Press
02.48 For Immediate Release December 6, 2002
Venezuela - News Analysis From the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
* Playing a dangerous game of chicken
* By winning, the opposition could lose
* By playing by the rules, Chávez is almost on the ropes
* Does the opposition wish to negotiate or merely forcibly oust a
constitutional president - dialogue or diktat?
Hugo Chávez is president of Venezuela today because the population
became disaffected with the corruption, venality and selfishness ofthe
country's traditional upper and middle-class leadership, which led
toan institutional breakdown of government, with the help of a
panderingand officious press and a bureaucracy that systematically
stole from the populace. This leadership was aided by the country's
major businessgroup, Fedecámaras, including a corrupt and heavily
manipulated labor confederation (CTV), partially funded from
Washington, which was integrated into its ranks. Eventually, a vast
majority of thepopulation voted against the traditional rulers, but
some did not. It is that latter 20 percent of the population, plus
some new recruits comingfrom disaffected Chavistas, who are staging
the present strike, which isnow threatening the country's vitals. It
is in their neighborhoods wherethe stoppage has been most successful.
Luring the military with forbidden fruit
The protracted general strike, now going into its fifth day, seems
tobe achieving a critical mass of the political propulsion needed
topressure the Venezuelan armed forces to seize power after ousting
Chávez, ifonly briefly, to spare the country a social, political and
economic breakdown. At the same time, Chávez seems to be making
important political concessions to stave off a constitutional crisis.
Suchvarying scenarios beg the question whether they pose significant
short and long-termdangers to the country's organic institutions. To
begin, intervention by the military would be an arrant violation of
the Declaration of Santiagoand the Inter-American Democratic Charter's
strictures against any extra-constitutional change of power. Any
accommodation by the membership of the Inter-American system with a de
facto coup would invalidate recent OAS actions on the inviolability
ofdemocratic order, as well as seriously weaken the regional
organization's relevance and reputation.
At the same time, a military takeover might embolden anti-democratic
elements of the Venezuelan armed forces, which in recent years have
followed a laudable institutional path of respecting theconstitutional
chain of command. But, this hasn't always been the case, as
indicatedby General Perez Jimenez's military dictatorship during the
1950s. By breaking with this modern tradition, the armed forces
couldultimately follow the course taken by the Chilean and Argentine
armed forces inthe
1970s and 80s, in which those countries' civilian democratic
oppositions, to their later intense regret, initially had solicited
action by their armed forces to rid their societies of constitutional
governments that they had come to despise.
But, rather than simply recycling the political system in a process
where frustrated political parties would be the main beneficiaries,the
opposition's political leaders unintentionally created a
Frankensteinby fashioning a force that came to despise civilian values,
itsimportunings and shortcomings. The armed forces then, in turn,
substituted theirown proto-authoritarian values and became the new
government, after expressing their contempt for bickering politicians.
Refusing to negotiate
Sensing the whiff of success after flexing their muscles and eager to
fish in dangerous waters, the Venezuelan civilian opposition, if it
chooses to continue to spurn Chávez's new signs of flexibility onmajor
issues of concern to the protesters, could bring on a civicexplosion,
in which the poor and the rich would be at each other's throats. The
result couldbe the creation of a sullen society in which the losers
would not easily forgive or forget what had happened. This could
ignite class warfare, which could end up triggering a massive and
bloody confrontationbetween those who benefited and those who would
have much to lose uponChávez's exit. In this process, Venezuela would
most likely begin to resemble war-torn Colombia.
After a recent history of relatively peaceful demonstrations in
Venezuela, the latest chapter in the country's turbulent historywould
see that saga replaced with a wave of guerrilla attacks (rememberthat
Venezuela had a guerrilla presence during the 1970s), right-wing
vigilantism, massive human rights violations on all sides, a spate of
abductions and a huge rise of common street crime, as well as anonset
of political warfare over whom among the opposition will ultimately
share the spoils. Such a doomsday script could even
reinvigoratesupport for Chávez (if he survives his present trials)
among the poor in the country, who represent an incontestable majority
of the population.Even if a democratic election was staged later, who
could guarantee that Chávez would not emerge as the ultimate victor?
Would the opposition really allow this? Remember, in spite of the
snarling placards, Chávez was no dictator - ever.
Democratic rights have been respected and human rights violations have
been minimal. It could even be argued that Chávez's current plight
might have been different if he was less the democrat and invoked
martial law andruled by decree.
At this point, the best prospect for a solution to the dangerous game
now being played out in Venezuela is for an OAS-brokered
negotiationand a display - prompted by genuine patriotism, and not
cravenopportunism - of readiness on both sides to compromise in order
to spare the countrythe very strong possibility that conditions could
quickly deteriorate tothe point that the dogs of violence will be
unleashed, with all sidesbeing the loser.
This analysis has been prepared by COHA director Larry Birns, withthe
assistance of COHA Research Associate, Kerry Ezard.
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