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Burning Down the House to Rid It of Its Termites

Memorandum to the Press

For Immediate Release December 20, 2002

Venezuela: Burning Down the House to Rid It of Its Termites

* The country's anti-Chávez forces are not their nation's loyal opposition, but a group of anti-constitutional zealots - many of them with tarnished backgrounds and questionable credentials - who are prepared to risk the destruction of the country's constitutional system in order to eliminate a government they happen to despise.

* Venezuela's media doesn't report events, it helps to create them, with its point of view not limited to the editorial page, but featured in every column of their papers, in a shocking abnegation of professional behavior.

* The opposition is aiming for the jugular no matter how damaging its tactics may be to the country's democratic fabric and its economic stability.

The End could be Near, with the Nation's Putative Democrats Plunging a Stake Through Democracy's Heart

A middle class historically better known for its penchant for venality than its commitment to democracy, and which for decades supported the corruptocracies alternately fielded by unscrupulous Social Democratic and Christian Democratic leaders, is now staging its fourth general strike, aimed not so much at reforming the government or manifesting a point of view, but rather at bringing it down, as it did for two days last April. Its latest tactic is to quote a provision in the constitution that, in fact, was authored by the Chávez government, allowing Venezuelans not to "recognize any regime, law or authority that contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees or impairs human rights." But undermining the opposition's case is a reality in which there have been no human rights violations under Chávez and that democratic principles have not been "impaired" by the authorities. Rather, it has been the opposition's end-justifies-the-means philosophy and its shifting and soaring appeals and unreasonable, if not totalitarian demands that the military carry out its "mission" by overthrowing Chávez, that is threatening the country's democratic fundamentals.

What's at Stake

Unquestionably Chávez has been a controversial, contentious and confrontational figure, but he has adhered far more closely to the democratic rules of the game than has the opposition, and his many failings are more a matter of style than substance. If he is overthrown in the next few days - which is not unlikely - the tragedy will be far greater for Venezuela's present and future prospects than for Chávez. For the poor and genuinely patriotic, Chávez will be remembered as a leader who fought in their name - not always wisely, but with the best of intentions - and not for personal gain. For the opposition, its anti-Chávez battering ram has gained its thrust from specious and mendacious arguments, meretricious and self-serving goals, as well as through a deceptive interpretation of the constitution and an entirely fraudulent range of justifications for its basically self-serving actions.

A close investigation of the standoff between Chávez and the opposition would find that it is the latter that is mainly blocking the negotiations being sponsored by the OAS. It is also the opposition that is taunting the military to stage a mutiny. It is the opposition, through its near-total control of the Venezuelan media, that is issuing patently false information and a chronically inflammatory and skewed interpretation of events. It is the opposition and not the government that is jeopardizing the lives of Venezuelans by staging frenzied confrontations with pro-government cadres, and it is the opposition that is promoting class warfare and hatred between the poor and rich.

The Story Behind the Story

What the opposition mainly fears is the passage of legislation that includes putting into effect a land reform program in which fallow or excessive holdings could be transferred to small farmers, as well as the enactment of other pieces of reform-minded measures. As of now, 41 percent of the 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 highest concentrations of wealth levels in the region. Its population demographics establish that of the nation's more than 23 million people, 80 percent of them are poor or live below the poverty line. It is from this stratum that Chávez obtains his support, and it is this segment of the nation that will not easily give up on a number of modest reforms enacted under his presidency, that have brought their children milk and school lunches, the availability of micro-credits and use of the military for long overdue civic action construction programs in urban centers and the countryside.

The opposition claims that Chávez consorts with terrorists, meaning that the Venezuelan president, like all of his predecessors, has met with his colleagues from other OPEC-member nations to discuss oil cartel pricing and production norms. The opposition reiterates the existence of some kind of Chávez-Castro cabal, but never presents any evidence, nor specifies charges, or even comes forth with a credible argument to buttress its pure propaganda. The opposition talks about the corruption surrounding Chávez, with such charges being made by some of the most controversial and tainted figures in the Venezuelan business community, trade union movement, and the media, none of whom ever mentioned that most of the nation's stultifying bureaucracy was hired by pre-Chávez governments, with the majority of such personnel now siding with the opposition.

If there is to be a solution to Venezuela's present crisis of governance, it must come as a result of conformity with the constitution, not one imposed from the street or as a result of armed confrontation. There are any number of scenarios that pose a grave danger to Venezuela's organic institutions, but a solution that doesn't follow a constitutional script undermines its prospect for peace and stability and the continuance of the nation's traditional political civility.

There may be a way out for Venezuelans of goodwill. The opposition could wait until next August when the very constitution that the opposition touts for its "impairment" of democracy clause, also provides for a process that would allow for the staging of a referendum midway through a presidential term on whether Chávez should be allowed to finish his incumbency. The National Assembly could go through a process that would call for earlier presidential elections than 2006, or even prior to next August. An opposition victory could and must come in a lawful manner and not through political extortion or through manipulating its minority but powerful financial status and plenary access to a largely fixed media.

Settling matters by threatening to scorch the country's economic and political institutions reminds one of what happened in Chile in 1973. There, an imprudent Christian Democratic Party used the military to rid the country of President Allende, only to bring on not its own expected rule, but 17 years of brutal Pinochet repression.

This analysis was prepared by Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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