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Venezuela - News Analysis

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 of the country's traditional upper and middle-class leadership, which led to an institutional breakdown of government, with the help of a pandering and officious press and a bureaucracy that systematically stole from the populace. This leadership was aided by the country's major business group, Fedecámaras, including a corrupt and heavily manipulated labor confederation (CVT), partially funded from Washington, which was integrated into its ranks. Eventually, a vast majority of the population voted against the traditional rulers, but some did not. It is that latter 20 percent of the population, plus some new recruits coming from disaffected Chavistas, who are staging the present strike, which is now threatening the country's vitals. It is in their neighborhoods where the stoppage has been most successful.

Luring the military with forbidden fruit

The protracted general strike, now going into its fifth day, seems to be achieving a critical mass of the political propulsion needed to pressure the Venezuelan armed forces to seize power after ousting Chávez, if only 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. Such varying scenarios beg the question whether they pose significant short and long-term dangers to the country's organic institutions. To begin, intervention by the military would be an arrant violation of the Declaration of Santiago and 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 of democratic order, as well as seriously weaken the regional organization's relevance and reputation.

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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 the constitutional chain of command. But, this hasn't always been the case, as indicated by General Perez Jimenez's military dictatorship during the 1950s. By breaking with this modern tradition, the armed forces could ultimately follow the course taken by the Chilean and Argentine armed forces in the 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 Frankenstein by fashioning a force that came to despise civilian values, its importunings and shortcomings. The armed forces then, in turn, substituted their own 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 on major issues of concern to the protesters, could bring on a civic explosion, in which the poor and the rich would be at each other's throats. The result could be 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 confrontation between those who benefited and those who would have much to lose upon Chávez'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 history would see that saga replaced with a wave of guerrilla attacks (remember that 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 an onset of political warfare over whom among the opposition will ultimately share the spoils. Such a doomsday script could even reinvigorate support 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 and ruled 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 negotiation and a display - prompted by genuine patriotism, and not craven opportunism - of readiness on both sides to compromise in order to spare the country the very strong possibility that conditions could quickly deteriorate to the point that the dogs of violence will be unleashed, with all sides being the loser.

This analysis has been prepared by COHA director Larry Birns, with the assistance of COHA Research Associate, Kerry Ezard.

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 policymakers."

Council on Hemispheric Affairs 1730 M St. NW, Suite 1010 Washington DC 20036 (202) 216-9261

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