C ésar Gaviria, the General Secretary of the OAS, has the unenviable job of mediating negotiations between Venezuela’s government and its opposition, while the political situation deteriorates and tension grows. Following a full three weeks of negotiations, the two parties at the negotiating table seem farther apart than when they first sat down at the negotiation table. The negotiations were supposed to find solutions to three serious problems in Venezuela: an end to the political crisis, via elections; a truth commission to investigate who was responsible for what happened during the April 11 to 13 coup attempt; and a plan for disarming Venezuela’s heavily armed population.
A number of factors, however, have prevented the negotiations from making any progress. One factor seems to be Gaviria’s inability to prevent the negotiation partners from making statements or taking actions that would have repercussions at the negotiation table. Daily press conferences after each day of negotiations provided plenty of ammunition and obstacles for advancing in the talks the next day. The opposition then began talking about organizing a general strike for early December, which caused the government negotiators to balk and say that they would be unwilling to reach any agreements as long as the opposition tries to blackmail the government with a strike. Next, it was the government’s turn to throw a wrench into the negotiations when it took control over the Caracas metropolitan police—a force controlled by the mayor Alfredo Peña, who is one of the government’s most vocal and strident opponents. Finally, the opposition responded by making good on its threat and scheduled a general strike for December 2.
While it is clear that these actions, both by the government and the opposition have dead-locked the negotiations, it is not clear that any of these actions were really necessary. That is, the Caracas metropolitan police are feared by many Venezuelans, especially in the poor neighborhoods, where many police units operate as little more than legalized thugs, who regularly extort bribes from the people they are supposed to protect. A complete overhaul of the police force was definitely overdue. Also, since the police force was tightly under the control of opposition mayor Peña, many pro-government demonstrations were met with police repression, often with many wounded from gunshots. A factor that government supporters have not forgotten is that the police were largely responsible for the over 50 deaths that occurred during the April coup attempt. The confrontation that led to the central government’s take-over of the police ended with three demonstrators and bystanders killed by the police. While many in Caracas’ poor neighborhoods reacted with relief to the police take-over, the mostly middle and upper class opposition argued that this was further proof that Chavez aimed to set-up a totalitarian state in Venezuela. While the take-over does seem to have merit, the timing could hardly be worse.
The take-over provided a perfect excuse for the opposition to call for the fourth General Strike against the Chavez government that it had been threatening. Gaviria pleaded with the opposition in vain to at least postpone the strike for a few more days, since he had just presented the negotiating table with an eight-point plan that would hopefully resolve the conflict, but the opposition ignored his plea. In response to this, the government announced that it would no longer participate in the negotiations for the duration of the strike and would organize popular activities, such as a large Christmas market, to counter the effects of the strike. Another activity the government has planned is a major pro-government mobilization for December 8.
Monday, December 2, the strike planned jointly by the union federation CTV, the chamber of commerce Fedecameras, and the opposition umbrella group Coordinadora Democratica, took place, even though the internally divided opposition could not quite agree on its duration or on its ultimate objectives. The first day of the strike one could definitely notice a decline of weekday activity on the streets of Caracas, especially in the wealthier eastern part of the city, where almost all of the stores were closed. The poorer western part of the city was also quieter than usual, but by no means as quiet as the east.
As for the rest of the country, the opposition and government provided highly contradictory information as to the success of the strike, but it seems clear that the major industries were unaffected and that the rest were perhaps at 50 percent of their normal activity. There were several incidents, however, where stores in the eastern part of the city decided to remain open, but decided to close because opposition demonstrators harassed the owners with pot-banging and insults. The government ended up arresting three individuals who were actively trying to prevent people from going to work, for doing things such as slashing their tires or putting glue in store locks, so they couldn’t open their doors. The opposition’s response to the arrests was predictable, announcing that it would extend the strike for another 24 hours.
The second strike day clearly enjoyed much less support, with traffic in the poorer western part of the city being at nearly normal weekday levels and in the eastern part at perhaps 50 percent normal. But much more important than the strike were the protests that opposition members staged in front of the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, in the afternoon. The government had several months ago already declared the plaza in front of the company headquarters to be a "security zone," since it represents one of the country’s most economically important installations, and had disallowed any kind of demonstrations in this plaza. The national guard thus rapidly and without forewarning dispersed the demonstration with the use of tear gas and plastic bullets. This also lead to many journalists crying foul, arguing that freedom of the press was being infringed, because they were heavily affected by the national guard action.
Once again, the government’s (over)reaction to the opposition’s provocation led to the opposition’s announcement that it would prolong the strike for a third 24 hours.
For the third strike day, the opposition organized a demonstration march, which went from the PDVSA headquarters to the hotel in which OAS General Secretary Cesar Gaviria was staying.
Parallel to the negotiations and the general strike, another related debate has been raging over the convocation of a consultative referendum. On November 4, the opposition had turned in over two million signatures, calling for a "consultative" referendum on whether or not the president should be asked to resign voluntarily. Venezuela’s new constitution, written mostly by Chavez supporters, allows for several kinds of referenda, among them the consultative and the recall referendum. However, a recall referendum is not allowed until halfway through an elected official’s term in office, which in Chavez’ case would be in mid August 2003. Since the opposition wants to get rid of Chavez as soon as possible, it has opted for the faster and easier route—easier because it requires less signatures and less votes to succeed—of calling for a consultative referendum.
The government argues that this consultative referendum asking the president to resign is unconstitutional because it in effect amounts to a recall referendum, which is organized by different principles than the consultative referendum. However, the national electoral council, which seems to sympathize with the opposition, has declared the referendum and the signatures valid and scheduled a vote for February 2, 2003. Meanwhile, the supreme court has intervened and ruled that the national electoral commission is making illegal decisions because this five-member body needs four votes to make binding decisions and the referendum was approved with only a three vote majority.
Then, on the second strike day, the electoral council announced that it had now approved the referendum for February 2 with a 4-1 vote. But the referendum also still has to pass the test of constitutionality—a ruling that the supreme court has not yet provided. Complicating matters further, the national assembly passed a long overdue electoral law, which would name new members to the electoral council. The opposition, however, has blocked this process by refusing to participate in the naming of a commission, which would choose the new members of the electoral council. The process is effectively blocked because naming this commission requires the agreement of the opposition to its composition.
Making sense of current events in Venezuela would be complicated enough, were it not made even more difficult by the diametrically opposed discourses that the government and the opposition use. If one only pays attention to the mainstream private media outlets, which is what most people tend to do, making sense of events is relatively easy, since these provide nearly exclusively the simplified opposition interpretation of events. According to the opposition, the Chavez government is a "murderous, totalitarian, and terrorist regime." The country has become "ungovernable" under Chavez because he has divided the country in a way that it has never been divided before. Evidence for this division can be found in institutions such as the unions, employer associations, local government associations, peasant worker associations, the military, and the police, are all divided into pro- and anti-Chavez factions.
According to many opposition spokespersons, especially Carlos Ortega, the head of the opposition controlled union federation CTV, and Carlos Fernandez, the new head of the main chamber of commerce Fedecameras (who took the place of Pedro Carmona, the April coup-regime president for two days), Chavez is leading the country towards "castro-communism." The opposition sees evidence for "castro-communism" in the clashes between demonstrators and national guard forces, in the supposedly armed and violent Bolivarian circles that support the government, and in the government take-over of the Caracas city police. Its own struggle against the government the opposition portrays in heroic terms, comparing it to the democratic revolutions of the late 1980s in Eastern Europe and Gandhi’s struggle against the British.
In the opposition’s (public) interpretation of government actions, Chavez is consciously trying to create chaos, so that he can justify invoking martial law, which would then allow him to completely transform Venezuela into a totalitarian-communist society. However, before this happens, the opposition pleads, the Organization of American States (OAS) and Venezuela’s neighbors (read: the USA) should intervene by invoking the OAS democratic charter, which would impose sanctions on Venezuela until Chavez is out of power. As its alternative program for Venezuela, the opposition, that is, the CTV, Fedecameras, the "Coordinadora Democratica," which unites all opposition parties and opposition NGOs, and dissident military officers, signed a "democratic pact," which assures that one of the opposition’s most important projects is to reunite Venezuela and to fight against poverty.
The interesting thing about the opposition’s concern for poverty and the poor, in whose name they often declare their opposition to the government, is that all of their demonstrations take place in the capital city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. According to them, this is because the poor have been tricked by Chavez into believing that he is helping them, making it impossible for the opposition to demonstrate in the poor neighborhoods of the city.
The government and its supporters have similarly colorful descriptions of its opponents. According to them, the opposition is "putshist, fascist, and terrorist." Government spokespersons argue that the general strike is nothing more than a thinly veiled effort to repeat the April coup attempt. They argue that the opposition is seeking as much chaos as possible, so that either the government decrees martial law, which would lead to another coup, or that the international community intervenes via OAS sanctions. The fact that the president and others have declared that martial law is nowhere near being contemplated should make this scenario less likely. However, the government has claimed that it has evidence of radical opposition group plans to assassinate moderate opposition leaders, which could then be used to blame the government, in the hope of then causing a general uprising. Many government officials are clearly and honestly concerned that a second coup attempt is likely, even though Chavez has purged the military of disloyal officers several times.
Given that members of the opposition have on many occasions issued calls for the military and for the OAS to intervene, the government’s interpretation of events might not be all that far off the mark. However, by making blanket statements that this is what the opposition wants, the government loses points for credibility amongst the more moderate members of the opposition. While it is true that the opposition is united in seeking Chavez’ removal from office, it is not united as to the means by which this should happen. It is thus not fair to call all of the opposition or even the general strike.
The Media and Democratic Culture
T he private mass media of Venezuela, by taking a strong protagonist role in the conflict, is merely adding fuel to the fire. If the media were not constantly amplifying the opposition’s strident and distorted discourse, that discourse would probably have little effect on the public. However, the private media amplify opposition discourse by presenting about ten times as many opposition statements than government statements, by covering all opposition demonstrations and hardly any pro-government demonstrations, by emphasizing events that favor the opposition, such as the national guard crack-down on the demonstration in front of PDVSA, and by ignoring events that harm the opposition, such as the threats to stores that open during the strike. It is not far-fetched to estimate that Chavez’ popularity rating, which currently hovers around 30-35 percent according to polls, would be at least 15-20 percent higher if the media took a more neutral and objective approach in covering the news.
The opposition discourse, greatly amplified by the private media, amounts to nothing less than psychological warfare. The population is made to believe that Chavez is the only cause of all of Venezuela’s problems and that getting rid of Chavez will solve all of their problems. A more differentiated approach and whether or not the opposition has a better program or any program at all is irrelevant in this alternate reality that the media has created.
Perhaps even more dangerous to Venezuela, is that the opposition and media discourses willfully undermine democratic culture by arguing that it is perfectly legitimate to remove a president as soon as his popularity rating drops below 50 percent. As a result of this understanding of democracy, the entire opposition and even a pro-government legislator were outraged when Chavez said that he would not resign before his term was up, even if his popularity rating dropped to 10 percent (he has said, though, that he would leave if he lost a recall referendum). What is conveniently forgotten or ignored is that terms of office were created for a reason and that as important as the will of the people is, it is just as important to adhere to the rules of the democratic game.
I n addition to the damage this conflict is doing to Venezuela’s democratic culture, it is also doing severe damage to Venezuela’s economy. Every general strike slows down oil production and shipping. Since a third of Venezuela’s GNP comes from oil, such a slow-down has nearly immediate repercussions for the government’s budget and its reliability as an oil supplier. GNP, largely as a result of declining oil prices last year and due to the first two general strikes, declined as much as 3.5 percent during the first half of 2002. Although the price of oil recovered during the course of 2002, the recent third and fourth general strikes, while not shutting down oil production, will almost certainly be felt in government spending for next year and in Venezuela’s ability to attract future customers and investors.
However, to make sense of the current conflict in Venezuela, it is not useful to look merely at annual economic developments. Rather, one needs to understand that Venezuela has experienced the largest decline in average standard of living, as measured by per capita GNP, and the largest increase in poverty levels of any country in Latin America over the past twenty years. President Chavez has not really been able to prevent the continuation of these long-term trends during his now four years in office. All he has been able to do is to slow down the decline (during his second and third year in office GNP increased slightly) and to distribute the decline more evenly among the population by focusing state resources on the poorer sectors of the population through large increases in spending on education, health, and housing and through large-scale rural and urban land redistribution and micro-credit programs. Also, despite what the opposition says about Chavez’s supposed lack of democratic credentials, Venezuela now has one of Latin America’s most democratic constitutions, thanks to Chavez’s movement—one that allows for popular referenda, for recall votes, and for minority rights, among many other innovations.
One way to interpret this conflict is to see it as a battle over a shrinking pie, a battle that becomes ever more heated as the pie becomes smaller. The Chavez government has attempted to develop an economic program which would diversify the economy and end Venezuela’s deadly dependency on oil, but any such program would have to be long-term and thus cannot help resolve the conflicts of the shrinking economy in the short term. In effect, Venezuela has to figure out a way to resolve both the long term problem of the shrinking economy and the short term problem of how to distribute the losses, without resorting to civil war. But with diametrically opposed discourses and with practically no political leader and certainly no political groups seeking out a more differentiated approach, there is little hope that the conflict will subside any time soon.
Pointing to Venezuela’s internal divisions and blaming Chavez for them is a bit disingenuous, since resource conflicts, which is at the heart of Venezuela’s current problems, are bound to lead to bitter turf battles. Everyone, both pro- and anti-government, says they want a united and peaceful Venezuela in which conflicts are resolved through dialogue. However, both sides seem to lack a real vision for how this could be achieved. A start might be a very strict adherence to democratic rules and principles and a complete honesty as to when this is the case and when not, no matter whose side one is on.
Greg Wilpert is a sociologist and freelance journalist, who is writing a book on Venezuela during the Chavez presidency, which will be published by Zed Books in 2003.