The growing risk of conflict in Venezuela
Enrique ter Horst
Caracas, 18 September 2009
Signs announcing conflict in Venezuela have been present ever since Hugo Chávez was elected President of the Republic in 1998, with his discourse of social hatred and political revenge. These signs are now impossible to overlook, as President Chávez, flagrantly violating the Constitution, has started to turn his discourse into decrees, laws and governmental decisions directed at cancelling civil and political rights and dismantling the liberal state and market economy the Constitution, his Constitution, theoretically guarantees. His declared aim is nothing less than to extend his authority to all sectors of human activity, indefinitely, under the guise of “socialism”.
President Chávez has clearly spelled out his objective, in writing and in detail, in his proposal to reform the Constitution, which reform was rejected by the Venezuelan people when the referendum on the subject was defeated in December of 2007. President Chávez himself recognized his defeat, even if he added that for the opposition it had been a “victoria de mierda”. The reform proposal would have entailed the elimination of private property and the end of representative democracy and citizens’ rights, as well as the establishment of a centralized state and controlled society along the Cuban Marxist-Leninist model, with the state and the party (the PSUV in this case) constituting one power structure controlled by the latter and President Chávez leading both, concentrating all power at the top.
It must be added that the proposed reform of the constitution was most probably rejected by a margin much larger than the one announced by the National Electoral Council (CNE); the CNE has still not published the final results of the referendum as it cannot explain the destiny of some 800.000 ballots, about 8% of the valid votes. Chávez did not take No for an answer, however, and has continued to push ahead with his Marxist blueprint, destroying his electoral legitimacy by usurping powers he constitutionally does not have in order to pursue a radical societal project for which he has no mandate.
Before presenting his reform proposal for approval to the people Chávez had in these last ten years abolished all checks and balances on his exercise of power and taken full control of the state, including parliament (with the help of the politically organized opposition, it must be said, when it decided not to participate in the last legislative elections), the judiciary (including the TSJ, the Supreme Court), the electoral authority, the Armed Forces, the oil, steel, aluminum and cement industries, all electricity generation, almost half of food distribution, as well as about half of all TV and radio stations.
Nationalizations have led to the state now controlling around 40% of GDP. In addition, the regime has complete regulatory control of the banking system, which anyhow largely depends on state-owned oil revenue to function. In addition, some 40 products are now the object of price regulation and production quotas set by the government, complete with specific daily monitoring mechanisms for each one of them. Although oil prices have recovered significantly from the lows of 6-8 months ago, oil production and exports have not recovered in the same manner for lack of investment and diminished demand, while financial needs have increased dramatically with the large number of nationalizations and the almost immediate inefficiency that has set in in their wake. The only criterion for advancement in the nationalized companies is political loyalty.
Ten years of price controls, nationalizations and disinvestment by the private sector have led to inflation and scarcity. As an overvalued exchange rate has become untenable, the regime has ensured a minimum of economic stability by importing the goods that domestic industry and agriculture have stopped producing, and by progressively moving to a more centrally planned economy, nationalizing not only key “strategic” sectors but also larger companies in sectors like food and banking in order to gain a presence able to influence the market and advance its political objectives. The regime has undoubtedly moved closer to controlling costs, margins, and prices, and mistakes and inefficiencies can always be repaired by the huge oil income, almost $ 100 billion last year, and about half that amount this year.
The regime has now become so radical that it no longer recognizes its own trade unions as negotiating partners on the other side of the bargaining table, as the concept of “social property” makes the entire tripartite philosophy of cooperation between employers, workers and the state (now by far the largest employer in Venezuela) “useless”, according to a spokesman of the Communist Party. According to Andres Velazquez, the Secretary General of la Causa R and a respected labor leader, also citing the Labor Observatory of the Catholic University, labor conflicts have increased from 45 in January to 59 in February, 113 in March, and now total over 400. They affect mainly the aluminum, steel, iron briquette plants, electricity, iron ore mining, health, education, salt mining, oil, car assembly and the judicial sectors.
Two regions are carrying a disproportionate portion of the job destruction and social tension brought about by the regimes’ nationalizations and its policy of confrontation with organized labor: the Ciudad Guayana cluster of heavy industry, concentrating the steel mills and aluminum smelters, and parts of the oil industry, especially on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo. Although it could be attributed to incompetence, the fact that these two situations have been allowed to fester for over six months gives the impression that the regime is no longer only punishing individuals and some social groups that openly oppose it, but entire regions, as Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Duvalier and Hafez el-Assad were fond of doing. The state of Táchira, for ten years the object of governmental neglect, and which elected last November a tough opposition governor and massively voted against Chávez’ indefinite reelection amendment last February, also has been the object of government retaliation and harassment.
Freedom of expression has been under attack since early on in the Chávez regime. A law on the “social responsibility” of the media has regulated contents for already some years, and most TV and radio stations have practiced some degree of self-censorship ever since. Those that do not are selectively subjected to verbal abuse by Chávez personally, punitive fines, and aggression by government-controlled groups of hoodlums that physically and verbally attack their journalists and deface their offices. Their reporters are not allowed to government-organized press conferences. The written press, most radio stations and one TV station (Globovision) still speak their mind, but freedom of expression is now high on the list of rights to be further curtailed by the regime. Private TV station Globovision and over 240 private radio stations (out of a total of some 500) have become the focus of Chávez’ personal attention. 32 of them and 2 TV stations were closed last July, and in early September the competent Minister announced the closure of an additional 29. To nobody’s surprise, growing self-censorship in a large number of stations has led to the cancellation of programs critical of the government.
Although they might not fundamentally affect the nature of the political system, Chávez had already in January 2008, barely a month after the defeat of his reform proposal, added the expression “del Poder Popular” to the names of all Ministries, and “Bolivariana” to the Armed Forces, also imposing on troops and officers the Cuban-style “Patria, socialismo, o muerte!” salute. He attaches great value to symbols, as have all totalitarian leaders and movements, be they fascist or communist, and he has allowed himself to clearly show his colours by imposing their very public use. He has taken a very different approach however when it comes to applying the radical legislation that he has been promulgating. It will be recalled that Chávez promulgated in early August 2008, in exercise of his delegated legislative powers that ended on 31 July 2008, 21 Decree-Laws ranging from food security to the Armed Forces, all critically important to the establishment of a Marxist society, but he still did not feel that his revolution had enough support, nor could he rely on a sufficiently committed and efficient state to ensure that such radical legislation would be implemented. Then also, the regional elections at the end of November were only three months away.
Chávez’ slow incremental approach came however to an abrupt end with the 15 February electoral approval of his unconstitutional proposal amending the constitution to allow for his indefinite reelection, and a new stage of accelerated imposition of his totalitarian blueprint was initiated. Indeed, the National Assembly has before it four draft laws on Public Planning (planificación publica), which will ensure that central funding (oil income) will flow mainly to governors and mayors that implement the socialist model; Social Property (propiedad social), abolishing private property of means of production; Workers Councils (Consejos de Trabajadores), regulating the management of expropriated private industry; and the reform of the Organic Law on Work (Ley Orgánica del Trabajo), which in its present form would become inapplicable in a socialist economy. All these laws are in furtherance of the Simon Bolivar Socialist Plan for 2007-2013, which spells out the intended Marxist objectives in remarkable clarity. Discussions on the draft laws are to start before 15 August, and the intention is to approve them before the end of the year. The National Assembly also has before it a new tax law, new laws on the sale and rental of real estate, and new banking and insurance laws.
Furthermore, at the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Constituent Assembly (half of its members did not participate in protest at the violation of the 1999 Constitution it approved), President Chávez announced his intention to accelerate the “move to the proletarian state”, adding that by 15 December “not a single counterrevolutionary law” should remain valid. “We must finish demolishing the structures of the bourgeois state and create the new structures of the proletarian state”, he stated on the same occasion. He added that for that purpose he might request a fourth delegation of legislative authority from the National Assembly.
Chávez had announced in early 2008 that, had the constitutional reform been approved, he had 100 “socialist laws” ready to be promulgated under his third delegation of legislative authority. Apparently their time has now come. As his standing in the polls is slowly but steadily eroded by his governments’ dismal performance and by its much reduced income, the pace and depth of his movement to a totalitarian society has accelerated. It is now or never, he feels, and he is “flooring the revolutionary accelerator”, as he said he would. By December these new laws will constitute the “legal” edifice the regime will use to impose, under the guise of “socialism”, a totalitarian society. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice will not declare any of them unconstitutional, but it remains to be seen if they will be implemented, fully or partially, before the legislative election late next year.
Chávez is a very gifted communicator and a formidable campaigner. He also is a ruler, not a statesman nor a manager, and not a team-builder but a loner in search of glory, a narcissist. He demands unconditional loyalty, not honest advice, particularly if it crosses his plans; his former closest collaborators will tell you that the more you know the man, the less you like him. He has lost his most competent and honest collaborators, and is now surrounded by sycophants; a regime held together by the solidarity of accomplices. He is, however, far from being a spent force.
Domestically, Chávez’ control of Venezuela’s institutions is now such that, in addition to everything else described above, he is able with impunity to persecute his political opponents with the help of the judiciary, and to not recognize the authority of governors and mayors declared elected in free and fair elections, cancelling their political and administrative attributions. It is no exaggeration to say that Hugo Chávez has become a very powerful dictator who has proven that he is prepared to openly use his power in an arbitrary and brutal manner. Some call his continuous violation of the Constitution “el golpe de estado permanente”, the permanent coup d’etat. As he sees his Marxist plans turned into reality with diminishing resistance he feels emboldened to deepen and extend them.
Chávez’ majority support has ben melting, and the process appears to be irreversible. His extraordinary communication skills had allowed Chávez him to boast, as recently as December 2006, of having been reelected with 62% of the votes after almost a decade in power, but a year later, in December 2007, he lost the constitutional reform referendum by a margin larger than the one resulting from the partial “but irreversible” results published by the CNE (Sumate says 8%). Pulling out all stops and benefitting from the fact that the opposition did not field unitary candidates in all electoral districts, his candidates in the November 2008 regional election garnered 53% of the popular vote against 47% for those of the opposition. Exploiting the fact that the opposition parties where then financially and otherwise exhausted, he used the favorable momentum and every trick in the book to call the referendum on his indefinite reelection, which he then also won with 55% of the votes.
However, since the defeat of his proposed reform of the Constitution in December 2007, electoral victories have come at an increasingly steep cost to Chávez, both politically and financially. His slow slide downwards seems irreversible, according to the three most important polling companies, as his radical program and failed policies are more and more associated with him personally and no longer attributed to his incompetent ministers or to sinister plots by the old oligarchy. Since his 15 February victory securing his indefinite reelection (never mind that submitting the same issue to referendum more than once within one presidential term is unconstitutional), he is increasingly basing his authority on fear.
Since February 15 he also has acted as if he had been elected President for Life, with unlimited powers and no obligation to report to anyone, and his radical Marxist blueprint has been advancing at greater speed. Chávez has been pushing his radical Marxist project forward while ruling against a sizable minority whose floor has never been lower than 35%, and which has been growing in numbers and militancy pari passu with the radicalization of his societal proposal and his dismal government performance. Opinion polls show that since June the country is now split right down the middle, 50% favoring him, 50% against him, and the trend now favors the opposition.
Until 22 August the days of the large marchas (the huge crowds of opponents marching in protest against the regime) appeared to be a thing of the past, but the brutally repressed large march of that Saturday has proven the contrary. All opinion polls show that the numbers growing now are those of Chávez’ opponents, slowly but steadily, ever since the President decided to take this radical, dogmatic course. This growth is also directly related to Chávez’ inability to even come close to satisfying the enormous expectations he has generated (on the contrary, personal insecurity has never been worse, and inflation will pass 30% this year, both factors affecting mainly his political base), and his obsession of concentrating all power on his person has not gone down well with egalitarian Venezuelans. As opinion studies show that this trend is, in all likelihood, irreversible, many political analysts have lost hope that there ever will be another free and fair election under his rule.
Instilling fear has become essential for Chávez to maintain his ambitious quest of both retaining power and imposing a totalitarian system, but the pace and provocative manner the regime has chosen in moving forward is also geared to force its opponents into the open in order to cut them down, particularly its leadership, as soon as they show their colors, also with the aim of justifying more extended and robust repression. Until February he had acted much more carefully, mindful of his democratic credentials, but the new dynamics he has created force him to do so. He knows full well that he cannot remain for too long in the gray zone between capitalism and socialism, and, more importantly, between democracy and dictatorship, also as his perceived weakness could entice his adversaries within his own movement, as well as those opposing him, to remove him forcefully. But then, by jettisoning his few remaining democratic credentials he has unleashed even more powerful forces at a time when he has not yet put in place an institutional and value system that could more or less reliably carry out his extraordinarily radical project.
The momentum Chávez has now generated might satisfy his most extreme and dogmatic faction, but nobody knows for how long. His political movement is still made up of a fairly wide array of power factors, kept together by his charisma and by his revolutionary discourse, as well as by the privileged access to power and money that only he can provide. His party, the PSUV, is basically an undisciplined bunch of opportunists with little ideological commitment and cannot be relied on in difficult times. His military support responds mainly to personal loyalty and material advantages, and a too radical course will not go down well with many of them.
Chávez also has on his side about 15 % of the population that worships him. A part of them, nobody really knows how many, are prepared to fight and die for him, and a number of them has received military instruction and has been armed. It is a factor that has to be taken into account in any assessment, as have to be the armed and often motorized groups of hoodlums co-opted and supported by the government, mainly in Caracas. The recently created “Socialist Patrols”, organized along the model of the Nazi SA, do not yet constitute a force to be feared, but they do not need to much training.
Internationally, Chávez has little to fear from his neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is now reaping the benefits of his extraordinary largesse, which has ensured him a web of complicities with like-minded movements within each of the regions’ countries, as well as solid friendships with most of its heads of state and government. The tide is turning, however. Even if his open intervention in Honduras in support of a President intending to reproduce his own script of abusing his electoral legitimacy in order to remain in power was almost applauded by some, it did confirm a pattern of interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries that is troubling for all counties in the region, as was apparent at the Bariloche UNASUR summit only a few weeks later (see Summary 40).
The same is true in the case of the US. Even if the guilt complex of the new US administration regarding its own past intervention in Latin America appears to have paralyzed its policy towards the region, and that President Obama is busy dealing with Afghanistan, Irak, Iran, North Korea, and the economic crisis, the last visit by Chávez to Libya, Syria, Iran (a very public agreement to cooperate in the development of nuclear energy “for peaceful uses” in Venezuela), Byelorussia and Russia (an agreement to sell Venezuela “all the arms it wants”, as stated by President Medvedev, against the Venezuelan recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) did finally get the full attention of the new administration. Chávez is now recognized as a real threat in the western hemisphere, as the Colombia-US agreement on the use of 7 military bases, the Bariloche UNASUR summit and Brazil’s new strategic relationship with France show. Nobody should forget that Chávez started buying an increasing amount of weaponry almost as soon as came to power.
The new leaders of the politically organized opposition - the Governors and Mayors elected last November, particularly Ledezma of Caracas, Perez of Zulia and Perez Vivas of Táchira, as well the deputies of PODEMOS led by Ismael Garcia – have made a name for themselves for their courage and their intelligence in standing up to Chávez in his effort to undermine their authority. It has been a golden opportunity which they are using well. They have the possibility to lead a movement that represents half of the country now, and which is bound to continue growing. It still needs, however, to be galvanized into a political force that can act on short notice.
The challenge for the opposition, as political analyst Diego Bautista Urbaneja says, is to continue resisting the totalitarian onslaught while growing and turning the new majority into an effective political movement. Political parties of the opposition still have quite a distance to go as together they have the support of only 25% of the electorate, but they have the monopoly on the fielding of candidates for elected offices. Headed by the third or fourth tier leaders of the past, they continue to mainly behave as electoral movements, at best reacting to events in a slow and haphazard manner, and still not able to present a common alternative political program that would attract a good part of Chavez’ political base. This glaringly absent alternative governance proposal constitutes without any doubt the big Achilles heel of the politically organized opposition, and shows its inability, up to now, to break out from its purely reactive mode, pretty much foreclosing any further possibility of significant growth.
With the new electoral law establishing the first- past- the- post principle the opposition would have a good chance to control the National Assembly if - a big if – its political parties agree on unitary candidates in each and every electoral district; the “perfect alliance” promoted by Teodoro Petkoff. As if this were not difficult enough, the new electoral law also gives the CNE, the electoral authority, the prerogative of redrawing electoral districts, and Chávez controls four of its five magistrates. In addition to an alternative governance program, the opposition political parties need to agree on a strategy to restore democracy and on a strong leader with the authority to set the agenda and have it carried out. But in Venezuela, as in many other places, these leaders are not agreed on, they appear.
The student movement is bound to find its bearings again soon, once classes start at the beginning of October. The regime has had some success in intimidating a part of its leadership, mainly with direct personal threats, but its national network, which has proven its capacity to act on short notice through text-messaging remains largely intact. They will be back, and they will probably be the detonator of developments that would lead to increased tension and a heightened degree of confrontation.
The other potentially important actor is organized labor, even if the main trade union federation, the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) is now a spent force, with no credibility, no strategy and weakened by corruption. However, the labor movement as a whole has gained importance recently by the regime’s decision to eliminate the private property of means of production, with its proposed “propiedad social”, cancelling the entire tripartite employers-workers-government philosophy. This has led to opposition and chavista trade unions joining forces in some key sectors, such as the oil industry. Organized labor has a long democratic tradition closely associated to the struggle against the Perez Jimenez dictatorship and as a consequence of it having been the creature of the two main political parties of the previous political system, Accion Democratica and Copei. A new more combative labor movement is emerging, with a new leadership steeped in the same tradition. It is clearly another force that could act as a detonator, also as the tensions in Ciudad Guayana and the Maracaibo lake eastern shore mentioned above stem mainly from labor problems created by the regime. In the past, the coalescing protests of the labor and student movements have proven to be an unstoppable force.
The best hope for a peaceful transition to a new democracy is a strong showing of the opposition in the elections for the National Assembly in the second half of next year, and then victory for the opposition presidential candidate in December 2012. Chávez and his regime have on the other hand clearly established their revolutionary and authoritarian credentials, and it is clear that they will not negotiate the dilution of their power nor their Marxist, totalitarian objectives. Recall Chávez’ expression “Esta revolución esta armada y vino para quedarse”. This is an armed revolution, and it is here to stay. A peaceful, democratic return to democracy will be very difficult indeed, but Chávez still has a keen interest in retaining a democratic varnish that avoids his international isolation. He has been very good at “force projection”, but only used physical violence in exceptional circumstances, even if he has proven that he is also prepared to shoot on people to retain power. He also knows that he cannot rely on his Armed Forces to shoot to kill, and that they could quickly turn on him instead, as happened in April of 2002.
Chávez still insists on his totalitarian blueprint receiving a democratic seal of approval. He stated a few weeks ago, at the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Constituent Assembly that his strategy is to conclude by December this big push forward and to then concentrate on the campaign for the legislative elections as from January. Informed sources report that monetary liquidity will be boosted next year, and it is assumed that most of the new legislation now being promulgated will not be implemented until after these elections. For the opposition this means that the game could be over if its political parties do not field unitary candidates in all electoral districts. On the other hand, if it does it could end up controlling parliament.
Still, Chávez’ now openly dictatorial behavior geared to imposing his radical project no matter what has undoubtedly created a new dynamic, opening the door to “unorthodox events” entailing the use of force.
These could originate from a growing array of sources, as Chávez constantly opens new fronts of confrontation and conflict and the opposition political parties do not appear up to the task of organizing a peaceful, democratic response that is proportional to the regimes’ strong totalitarian push. If they are to succeed in channeling the enormous discontent of half of the country and direct the effort to contain the regimes’ onslaught they need to rapidly put in place a much more creative and assertive strategy that reacts more quickly to the regimes’ initiatives and allows them to regain the political initiative.
Among other things it entails reestablishing the legitimacy of their authorities and correcting the impression that they are more preoccupied with petty internal questions than with the fate of the country. Only by acting as one political movement would they deserve to keep their monopoly on the presentation of candidates to elected offices. Such a strategy to ensure a peaceful, electoral transition reestablishing representative democracy appears extremely ambitious at this stage, but it would be aided by Venezuelans’ long-standing aversion to violent political conflict as it exists in Mexico, El Salvador, and Colombia, and which probably still is a consequence of the long and gruesome independence and civil wars of the XIXth century that forged our national identity.
Opposition to Chávez and his regime has grown to the point were all polls show that since June he no longer has a majority supporting him. The opposition is now made up of a wide array of people and persuasions, and is unable to articulate a coherent strategy ensuring an electoral return to representative democracy. The position of democratic governments in the region and in Europe, which continue to deal with the regime as if nothing has happened, demoralizes opposition political actors here and compounds the problem.
The regime, having secured the indefinite reelection of its leader and benefitting from a set of favorable national, regional and global circumstances, is now quickly moving to establish the legal framework severely curtailing personal freedoms. As mentioned above, it intends to conclude this task before the end of the year. It is safe to say that the control the regime now exerts over the population bears very little relation to what it was only a year ago, and that it is bound to become even more pervasive. There is now a high risk of political tension erupting into open violence. It is far from certain that such violence could be contained within the borders of Venezuela.
Venezuelans alone will not be able to ensure a peaceful return to democracy. A return to democracy would disarticulate the military threat the regime now represents for its neighbors. The active help of the democratic governments of the Americas has become indispensable, and they would carry a grave historic responsibility if they continued to refuse to do so.
This appears to have much to do with the fact that the regime has always made a difference between approving legislation and actually implementing it. Still now, it is only applying the legislation it approves in a selective manner, advancing where it finds less resistance and halting all implementation whenever it senses that it could ignite widespread and lasting protest.
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