December 29, 2002
...or: the broken record defense
In a nationally broadcast message Thursday, Chvez stated emphatically that "I will not allow our leading industry to be brought to a halt."
"They are not going to break PDVSA, they are not going to stop it," the president said on Sunday, threatening to replace striking staff and use troops to run oil operations
EFE (Spanish news agency)
"The dispatch of crude to the world, especially to the United States has resumed," Energy and Mining Minister Rafael Ramirez announced during a news conference at Miraflores presidential palace in downtown Caracas. "We already broke the blockade they forced on us in the east and in the west and we're now dispatching crude to the world," the minister reiterated.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
"This violent strike is being defeated," Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said. "We are breaking the blockade and are exporting oil to the whole world."
Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez assured that the government has "long ago managed to stop the planned sabotage, which has been planned for violence and a coup."
Venezuela's embattled President Hugo Chavez has declared that oil production and distribution are restarting as a general strike prepared to go into its 11th day. "The most important thing is we are getting out of this crisis," he said. "The situation is progressively impoving. The supply of petrol is flowing."
PDVSA president Ali Rodriguez stressed that "we are taking all necessary steps to resume production". When asked about Venezuela's foreign customers, Ali Rodriguez Araque said: "We are in a situation of force majeure", and added, "we are already restoring production and we are already able to meet commitments."
Ali Rodriguez said that "difficulties are being overcome", that production has recouperated, and that soon Venezuela will be able to meet its trade obligations.
In statements to a radio and television station, Ali Rodriguez Araque, the president of PDVSA said that as from midnight on 17 December, he is taking the necessary measures to regain control of the company and to guarantee the supply of fuel for the country.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
State oil company president Ali Rodrmguez insists the government is working to guarantee gasoline supplies for "many days."
"Now we are in the process of returning to normal."
Energy and Mines Minister Rafael Ramírez.
Dow Jones Business News
PDVSA president Alí Rodríguez said he expects export operations should be back to normal by Jan. 15. "We've had difficulties, but we are overcoming them," he said.
"The situation is excessively normal."
Vicepresident J.V. Rangel
"We are over the most critical situation and, today, things are frankly improving."
December 19, 2002
A plausible defense of the lunatic's legacy...
As I talk about Venezuela with people abroad, some variation on it always comes up sooner or later. "Come on, Chávez can't be all bad...he must have some redeeming qualities, right?" It's usually an awkward moment, cuz I really can't think of any, so I end up coming accross as a total opposition zealot. Sometimes, if I'm pushed, I'll say something like "well, since he came to power people are definitely much more aware of themselves as citizens, as political beings with political rights who can have an impact on society if they just organize and act. When I was growing up, the level of political apathy and cynicism here was alarming - kind of like in the U.S. now. That, thank god, is over." It's not much of a compliment, of course, but it's something.
So I was both surprised and relieved to see that that's the angle at the center of the the article on Venezuela in the current issue of Mother Jones. Surprised because I haven't seen any other foreign journalists tackle the story from this angle before. Relieved because, well, most foreign lefties get Chávez catastrophically wrong, mangling the facts, putting an aggressively tendentious spin on events, and often just buying into the government's twisted PR line hook, line and sinker. And that's a temptation the story wisely avoids.
MJ's Barry Lynn desserves real praise for his piece, which is well researched and pretty fair. He makes a few minor mistakes, and I would certainly argue with much of what he writes. But overall, he's honest, thorough, and sane. He avoids the pitfalls inherent in trying to lionize Hugo Chavez the man by focusing instead in the effects his government has had on how poor Venezuelans relate to politics, and that's a much welcome change in focus. In fact, after four years living through el comandante's rein of error and reading dozens of chavista tracts, Lynn's piece is probably the best defense of chavismo I've ever read.
Of course, he does make some questionable arguments. I think he makes too much of the exclusionary aspects of the old regime, for one thing. Before Chávez Venezuela was a buddy system, for sure, but it was never the closed oligarchy of, say, Colombia. The country was never close to a meritocracy, but there was certainly social mobility - much more than in most of the region. Many of the old regime's big wigs came from poor peasant families. The last two presidential candidates of Acción Democrática, the emblematic political party of the old regime, were both born poor: one of them was black and the other had a fourth grade education. And it was the old regime that brought Venezuela free universal education, and the free state-university system that opened the doors to the middle class to hundreds of thousands of people born into horrible poverty. Not that I would want to defend the old system - heavens no. God knows it was hideously corrupt and founded on a culture of cronyism. But it wasn't El Salvador, y'know.
Most of what irks about Lynn's piece is not so much what's in it as what's left out. You could read it and come away with the impression that the only reason anyone opposes Chávez is that we're a bunch of overprivileged whiners. And, y'know, granted: there's a good number of overprivileged whiners in the opposition, but it goes far beyond that. There's no way to understand the opposition movement here without knowing something about the president's appalling intolerance towards dissent, for instance, or his regime's thoroughgoing contempt for the legal system, or the way he's stacked every nominally independent state institution with cronies, etc., etc. etc. Lynn doesn't tell you about any of that. And it's too bad.
But these are nits, really, and overall Lynn should be praised for a fair, well-researched article that shines a spotlight on positive aspects of chavismo that critics (like myself) too often overlook.
Today, the streets of Caracas are witnessing a totally unprecedented development: calm. For the first time in the lat 17 days, there are no marches in the streets today. For the first time since the strike started, tens of thousands of people will not march to demand the government's ouster. The strike leaders have called for a day of "reflection with your family" and prayer.
Now that's new...
December 18, 2002
Last night, my sister Cristina asked whether I'd go visit her today, relieve some of the tedium of these claustrophobic strike days, and chat about the project the NGO she belongs to is working on. I was a bit weary of using up the carefully hoarded gas in my gas-tank, but thought, what the hell, it'll be fun. I set out at about 10:15 am, but pretty soon I realized it'd be tough going.
The opposition had called a trancazo for the morning, a half day action where people would block streets and highways to protest the government. It's usually just a 10 minute drive to Cristina's apartment, and I thought I could make it, but no go. The street in front of the Mata de Coco mall was blocked...I swung around and tried the Avenida Libertador: blocked as well. I asked a cab driver if the Cota Mil highway was open, no luck. And I knew Francisco de Miranda Avenue was blocked, so I was pretty well stuck...I remembered that old saying from Vermont: "afraid you can't get there from here." Shit.
So I parked my car close to my mom's in Campo Alegre, bitter about the wasted gas, and figured I might as well do something with my morning. Like everyone else, my Christmas shopping is all backed up, so I thought I'd try to find that Discman I promised my mom's maid - who washes my clothes. I spent 45 minutes going through Sabana Grande, one of the main shopping strips in town, and though a lot of clothes shops and bakeries were operating, every electronics shop in site was on strike. Feeling pretty frustrated, I finally found a quincallería, kind of an odds-and-ends store that looked like they stocked some electronics. "You got a discman for me?" I asked the guy behind the counter. "Sorry man, sold the last one this morning...God knows when we'll get another delivery."
Christ. OK. I still had about an hour to kill before my lunch appointment, so I thought I'd walk around for a bit. I left Sabana Grande for El Rosal, where there are fewer shops, and I thought, well, maybe I should get some coffee. If there's one thing you can get in this stinking town is a cup of coffee, right? I asked a guard by one of the shuttered buildings where I could get one. Guy scratches his head. "Um, I think there's a cafetería that's still open two streets down, maybe." He points me, and I walk over. "A large marrón, please." (it's kind of a dark latte) Woman looks at me, "sorry," she says, "black coffee only...we're out of milk."
December 16, 2002
The President Must Be Crazy
Last week, VenEconomy outlined three scenarios for the brewing crisis here: the government, it was argued, might end the crisis by negotiating an agreement with the opposition; or it might win the war of attrition and break the strike slowly; or the two sides might radicalize their positions, pushing the country into a kind of train wreck of institutions. Just one week on, it’s already clear which scenario is playing out here. And characteristically for the Chávez era, it’s the worst of the lot.
The signs of radicalization – from both sides – are unmistakable. PDVSA’s managers no longer recognize the government’s right to lead the corporation, declaring themselves in charge of operations and vowing to remain on strike until the president resigns. It’s no longer a question of early elections, of referenda or negotiations for them: their demands are solidly entrenched in the maximalist camp. And emboldened by the growing militancy and strength of the protest actions it has called, the Coordinadora Democrática is in no mood to compromise, either.
The president, meanwhile, has only intensified his campaign of public vilification and of military intimidation and harassment against the strikers. What’s more, in over five hours of his latest Aló, presidente, Chávez failed to even acknowledge the existence of the march by some 1.5 million people to demand his resignation that took place less than 24 hours earlier - likely the largest political demonstration in the entire history of Venezuela. And to cap it all off, he exhorted his military commanders, on National Television, to disobey any court order that contradicts his decrees – placing himself in open defiance of the judicial system.
Whether by design or by default, the president is once more pushing towards a crazy confrontation, a fight he looks unlikely to win, and that’s certain to do untold damage to the country. Like in April, analysts are left to wonder whether the president is acting wholly irrationally or whether there is some sort of method to the madness.
In the view of many, he has calculated that his only chance of survival is to provoke a coup attempt, and then crush it. Certainly, his exhortation to disregard the courts seems custom-designed to goad institutionally-minded officers to defy his authority. And, once again, it’s entirely unclear whether he would, in fact, be able to crush a coup attempt at this point. Already, in April, he pushed his luck entirely too far. Eight months later, the strategy seems nearly suicidal.
The alternative hypothesis, that the president is acting totally irrationally, seems entirely plausible, given the evident distance between reality as president says he sees it and reality as it actually is. On Aló, presidente, for instance, Chávez actually kept a straight face as he told the country that “highly credible pollsters” had determined that 94% of the people of Maracaibo are against the oil strike. He has repeated several times that four tankers carrying two million barrels of oil left port on Friday and Saturday, a report that reliable sources in Puerto La Cruz deny categorically. And he has confidently asserted several times that the oil industry is well on its way back to normality. What’s alarming is not that the president lies, but rather the opposite, that he may actually believe his outrageous howlers. If Chávez is making decisions based on such a wildly distorted assessment of reality, it’s little wonder he miscalculates so often.
One thing is clear, though: the government’s attempts to break the strike have only made things much worse. The ongoing failure to take control of the Pilín León oil tanker, even after multiple armed attempts to replace the crew, have crystallized its total impotence in the face of PDVSA’s determined managers and workers. Governmental bluster about bringing in strike breakers from the Persian Gulf lack all credibility: if they can’t even replace a single tanker crew, how can they replace PDVSA’s 40,000+ specialized workers?
The problem, again, is not so much whether they can or can’t. The problem is that the president has clearly convinced himself that he can. And so long as he’s working from that assumption, he’s bound to continue to make moves that further destabilize the country, edging it closer and closer to a much-feared outbreak of violence and anarchy. In the present circumstances, perceptions count for almost as much as reality. And the president’s psychopathological misreading of the reality around him has become one of the most dangerous elements of the crisis.
December 14, 2002
Cold Civil War
(...or is it Civil Cold War? Which do you think sounds better?)
Another march in Caracas today, a really bloody big one this time. I'm no expert, but it looks like the better part of a million people are out there waving flags and blowing whistles. They cover all 6 lanes of the East-side Highway for about a mile or so at this point, and many more people are joining from every part of town.
This is happening as the country more or less crumbles to bits. Gasoline has run out almost entirely everywhere in the country except for Caracas, where about half the stations have run out and the other half will run out within a day or two. Cab-drivers and bus drivers, who live hand-to-mouth, are getting pretty desperate in some places. The government is now talking about importing gasoline (think of that! That's like an emergency shipment of cameras into Japan!) An assembly of several thousand Caracas-area PDVSA managers have disowned the authority of the National Government and declared themselves in charge of the company. Staple foods are running low all over the place. The crisis is deep, all-encompassing, the situation couldn't really get much more dire. There's no shooting yet, but short of that it's hard to see how things could get worse. Some pundits are calling it a Cold Civil War.
And the president's response in this hour of direst national emergency?
"There is no strike in Venezuela, what we have is an oil-industry conspiracy by managers that have started to sabotage."
That's just one shard from his weird-ass interview with CNN yesterday. He then went on to claim victory over the strikers, because a half full tanker, the Josefa Camejo, managed to sail off to the US two days ago - the only ship that's left a Venezuelan port in a week, a period when we normally would've sent out over 40 tankers.
His insistence that the entire mess boils down to a few sabotage attempts on the part of a handful of hyperprivileged oil executives is really just crazy. I mean that quite literally: if you can't tell how incredibly dire the situation here is, you have a serious psychiatric problem. Even Cesar Gaviria, the international mediator trying to knock some sense into the government's head, is sick of it, calling the denial a main impediment to negotiations.
Chávez's position is so crazy it's becoming ever harder for Chavista spokesmen to tow the official line. So this morning, for instance, if you checked out the Union Radio web-page (required reading for Venezuelan politics junkies) the two top headlines you would have seen were Vicepresident Rangel: "The Situation in the Oil Industry has Improved Notably" and President of PDVSA Recognizes: The oil industry is "mostly paralized."
OK, so which one is it, guys?
So with the president locked in his own private reality, even his top lieutenants having a hard time defending his psychotic PR line, and the country falling to small bits, the future has never been more uncertain.
Thankfully, now that oil shipments to the US have been cut off for almost a week, Washington is finally getting its ass in gear. In a significant departure from previous policy, the White House is now calling for Early Elections as part of a settlement. The government's negotiators are still stalling; Gaviria is having a harder and harder time coming up with creative ways to put a positive spin on negotiations, and the opposition is emboldened by the day. The president is locked in his own private little warped head-world. We've tried everything we can think of to get this guy to reason with us. We've begged for a negotiated settlement, we've whimpered for referenda, we've pleaded for elections, but he continues to talk as though we don't exist.
What next? Who can tell?
December 11, 2002
The BBC News write-up is hysterical. José Vicente Rangel's story is, of course, an incredible howler, and this guy knows it. Of course, it's the BBC, so the writer can't quite launch into attack mode like, say, I can. Still, the guy manages to write it in a way that leaves you in no doubt that Rangel is full of shit.
Take a minute to read through it, it's fun.
Of course, this guy has to stay within a certain set of boundries. There are standards of politesse that make it impossible for this dude to write something like "in an amazing bit of wishful (or delusional) thinking, Venezuela's Vicepresident José Vicente Rangel tried to snow under the BBC with one of the most outrageous, absurd, screaming lies this reporter has seen in years." That probably wouldn't make it past the editors in London. But it's clearly what he wanted to say. This dude is obviously angry, personally offended that Rangel's thinks he can put this shit past him.
The write-up showcases what I was trying to get at with my entry on the media a couple of days ago. BBC man (it's too bad there's no byline) is so incensed at the government's blatant mendacity, you can see it's actually made him angry. He feels this overpowering need to show Rangel as a fraud, to write in a way that leaves no doubt in the reader's mind that this guy is an asshole. The thing is, Venezuela's independent journalists have been dealing with that same urge for four years now! It's just been going on much much longer here, and it's gone much much further. On top of that, journalists here are not hamstrung by editors who insist on keeping a veneer of editorial politeness. So they let it rip, again and again, leading to the weird one-sidedness in the Venezuelan media I wrote about a few days back. At heart, though, they're just pissed at a government that lies so so much, and so so artlessly.
As this journalist has figured out, merely reporting Rangel's words at face value would give them a patina of legitimacy they plainly don't desserve. "Balance" in this case would make him an accomplice to a ridiculously obvious dissinformation campaign. And he's not willing to play along. But, guess what? That`s precisely the position most Venezuelan journalists have spent the last four years in. So the piece basically showcases, in embryonic form, the sentiments that have led almost every independent journalist in Venezuela to become an aggressive government critic over the last four years.
It tickled me pink, really.
December 10, 2002
For years, it’s been the proverbial “nuclear option” for the opponents of successive Venezuelan governments. Protests and strikes might embarrass or pressure a government, but ever since 1936 Venezuelans have known that the ultimate tool against a petrostate is to cut off its lifeline: the oil industry. The notion of a massive oil strike has a kind of iconic status in Venezuelan political life as the final, most radical course of action possible. For over 65 years, it remained just an idea. No one had ever been able to really turn it into a reality. Until now.
PDVSA has shut down as comprehensibly as it is possible for PDVSA to shut down. The company is no longer selling either crude oil or refined products, its tankers are at a standstill, its refineries are either at a complete stop or running at a tiny fraction of capacity – just enough to keep the machinery in working order and produce enough natural gas to keep the nation’s stoves and power-plants burning, and enough chlorine to keep the nation’s water drinkable. Gasoline is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. The fiscal hit will be massive – at least $25 million per day in lost government revenue.
In short, PDVSA’s dissident managers have crossed the Rubicon; they’ve gone well beyond the point of no return. They are fully aware that their careers are on the line: if this strike fails, they’ll all be fired, and they’ll likely watch their country morph into a Cuban style regime. So, not unlike the government, the dissident oil managers have fallen prey to the logic of unending escalation. At any given juncture, pressing forward looks more appealing to them than backing off. The consecuences of these parallel strategies could be, literally, explosive. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.
The government’s response, meanwhile, is guaranteed to exacerbate the conflict. Led personally by the president, the government has launched a campaign of perpetually intensifying vilification and intimidation against its opponents, a drive whose only effect has been to embolden its critics and add to the crisis. At times, it seems as though the government is maliciously seeking to escalate the crisis beyond all control, as part of a plan to achieve God-only-knows what.
It’s true that the private media has hardly been impartial throughout the crisis, often acting as an conglomeration of opposition propaganda organs. But the government’s attempts to intimidate the private TV networks by sending hundreds of followers to bang pots outside their studios (in Caracas) or actively vandalize the premises (in the rest of the country) has left it looking precisely like the intolerant, authoritarian regime it is. And the chavista attempts to subdue the striking oil workers and merchant marine sailors through military force and intimidation has left them looking a fool: not only have these attempts been remarkable operational failures, but they’ve also turned into spectacular public relations debacles, showing the regime’s ultimate impotence in the face of an organized society determined to disobey its authority.
At times, it seems like the government is stuck in a pit of quicksand: the more fiercely it struggles to lift itself out, the quicker it sinks. As everyone knows, there is only one way to make it out of the quicksand alive, and that’s to avoid panic, quit making moves that make the situation worse, and reach out to those who might be able to help. Will the government ever get it, or will it keep antagonizing and insulting those who might imaginably throw it a lifeline?
The question on everyone’s lips is “where does the crisis go from here?” VenEconomy cannot, obviously, predict the future, but it can help you think about the future in a structured way, through scenario-based forecasting. At this point, there seem to be three broad routes the crisis could unfold.
1-Negotiated agreement: At some point in the next few days, faced with a patently unmanageable crisis, the government could be forced back to the negotiating table. Having run out of options after its attempts to return PDVSA to operation through military intimidation fail completely, Chávez might accept a tactical retreat like he did on February 4th, or April 11th. Perhaps pushed by a stern statement from upper-echelon chavistas or by the military high command, the President could finally order his negotiators back to the table with unambiguous instructions to reach a compromise agreement. The nation would then head to some sort of electoral arrangement, with the opposition accepting Chávez as a candidate in an election he would be almost certain to lose. This is the option favored by the catholic church, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, César Gaviria, and every moderate in Venezuela, and it’s patently the least destructive, most sensible and democratic way out of the impasse. That, in itself, makes it unlikely to be accepted by Chávez.
2-The strike fizzles: At the moment, the momentum seems to be on the side of the opposition, but that could change. Through a mixture of threats and lavish strike-breaking bonus payments, the government might still be able to lure back enough PDVSA workers to operate the industry. As time wears on, the opposition could tire of street protests, coming to see the nightly cacerolazos as a waste of time and energy. It would take tremendous political skill, and, especially, a lot of restraint, for the government to pull it off. But it’s not entirely impossible. The opposition would find itself in a terribly awkward position, urging people to spend Christmas eve banging on pots and pans even while the government manages to restore gasoline supplies and oil shipments, taking much of the wind out of the strikers’ sails. PDVSA’s dissident managers would find themselves marginalized, and the government in a stronger position than ever before.
3-Train wreck: The current stalemate drags on indefinitely into the future. In this scenario PDVSA’s managers stand their ground, but so does the government. Though the situation on the ground becomes worse and worse, neither side will give in – like a game of Chicken taken to its logical extreme. The government continues to refuse a negotiated solution, but increasing gasoline shortages cause greater and greater problems throughout the economy and society, eventually, perhaps, even endangering electricity and domestic gas supplies. With radicalism increasing on either side, this is the truly explosive scenario. It entails the increasing likelihood of some sort of violent outcome. Faced with a real national emergency, the government would be constitutionally justified in declaring a state of exception, which the opposition would be certain to defy. With increasing numbers of people on the streets, the potential for violence would multiply, as would the chances of some sort of military intervention, from one side or the other. The scenario could even lead to a total breakdown in law-and-order, a much feared “social explosion” along the lines of Feb. 27th, 1989.
In short, the much over-used cliché is now an understatement: Venezuela is at a decisive crossroads. The decisions of the next few hours and days will determine the nation’s fortunes for years to come. And while the country is fortunate to enjoy an increasingly cohesive and highly conscious opposition movement, it’s cursed with a government that seems not to know how to de-escalate, whose one-size-fits-all response to any and every juncture is to press ahead, no matter how dangerous an escalation might be, how much closer to the edge it might take the country.
December 9, 2002
Turn on the television in Venezuela, any channel, any time, and you're in the thick of it. Every day, on every station, all you see is news. No more cheesy American sitcoms, no more soaps, no more game shows, not even baseball. It's gotten to the point where they don't even show commercials anymore, just running commentary on the political crisis every minute of every day. (Well, except for the folks at Channel 5, who, God bless them, stick doggedly by their animal documentaries.)
The media overload goes a long ways towards explaining the pervasive climate of tension here. But it's more troubling than that, because the media have abandoned any semblance of fair reporting, any pretense of balance. You have six channels. The five private networks show non-stop antigovernment propaganda, some of it more shrill, some of it less so, some of it better grounded in reality, some of it frankly fantastic, but all of it opposition minded. And then you have Channel 8, the state run channel ("The channel of All Venezuelans" as the slogan goes) which shows a never ending stream of chavista pap, almost all of it blatantly, aggressively false.
Now, professional journalistic ethics have been tossed overboard on both sides, it's true. While I’m obviously an opposition journalist, I'm sane enough to realize that much of what the private media peddles is pretty thin gruel. But while there are exaggerations and distortions, certainly, and an appalling absence of balance, I know for a fact that most opposition journalists are trying to get at the truth most of the time. (It just happens that the truth is most often terribly inconvenient to this government.)
In that respect, there's a fundamental difference with Channel 8, which resembles nothing more than your standard issue totalitarian dictatorship propaganda organ. There's a willfullness to the disinformation on Channel 8, a shamelessness to it, a kind of aggressive aversion to telling the truth that the private media very rarely stoops to. There are taylor made agitprop videos, endlessly repeated, peddling aggressively distorted versions of reality on issues ranging from the April 11th massacre to supposed opposition coup plots. The private channels distort and exaggerate, slant and stretch, but they rarely go out of the way to lie the way Channel 8 does. Aggressively. Willfully. All the time.
It creates a strange kind of dual reality. Switching from a private channel to channel 8 and then back again it's scarcely believable they're both reporting the news out of the same country. It scares the hell out of me to realize that there are millions of people, millions of chavistas in this country who rely exclusively on channel 8 for their news, who eat that crap up with mustard. I understand the rage this causes in opposition circles, I understand the need opposition journalists feel to counteract the unending barrage of government lies. I share their frustration at the fact that almost every government spokesperson you interview lies to you openly, to your face, with no compunction at all. I don’t think it does the cause of objectivity any good at all to report, with a straight face, President Chávez’ earnest report that he has followers who are in touch with extraterrestrial civilizations, and that they support him all the way, just to pick an especially weird example. But I'm also well aware that the opposition media have created their own oddly warped reality, a reality that's much closer to the real reality than channel 8's reality, for sure, but which is still fundamentally distorted.
For the private media, chavismo is a weird sect followed only by a tiny fringe of far left drunkards, rabble rousers and violent, trigger-happy thugs - the lumpenproletariat. As far as the private channels are concerned, Hugo Chávez is basically Fidel Castro waiting to happen - it makes little difference to them that Chávez has never shut down an opposition TV station or newspaper, imprisoned an opponent or that he was democratically elected. He is a communist dictator, period. As far as the private media are concerned, there were no social divisions in this country before Chávez, no class tensions at all. Income inequality was politically meaningless. And Chávez created all of these problems singlehandedly, out of thin air, through his rhetoric.
Now, all of these are serious distortions of the nation's reality, there's no doubt about that. But they are Pulitzer-worthy examples of objectivity compared to the alternate universe on display at Channel 8. For the state-run media, the opposition is basically a satanist neonazi conspiracy. Literally. For a while the state media showed an agitprop video "demonstrating" that the opposition was secretly led by members of a neonazi satanist cult called TFP. Channel 8 is committed to the notion that there is no such thing as a mass opposition movement, that it's all a giant media lie, a conspiracy to magnify the view of a tiny cabal of obsenely rich conspirators bent on screwing over the poor. The PDVSA managers, in fact, everyone in the opposition, are not merely political opponents but enemies, terrorists, coup mongers. The public line about demanding elections is a hoax, a cover for a reactionary plot. Nothing that Chávez has ever said or done has ever been wrong. And the opposition isn't merely wrong, but actually evil.
Both media visions are out of line, but they're out of line in fundamentally different ways. The private media's version is based on a solid foundation of facts, facts that are often taken too far. Channel 8, on the other hand, is psychotically detatched from reality.
Channel 8's version of the world reflects nothing so much as the government's own ongoing difficulties with reality. The private media massively overindulge their propensity for wishful thinking, but the public station, much like Chávez himself, is locked in a reality all its own, built on a foundation of pure lies.
Which doesn't excuse the private media's bias. But it does, to a certain degree, explain it. It hardly seems sensible to give equal time to an opposition that, while flawed, is essentially sane alongside a government that, deep down, really is crazy. Do you really serve the interests of truth and objectivity when you adopt a he-said-she-said approach even while you know that one side, for all its faults, is basically trying to get at the truth while the other side is blatantly and systematically lying? And doesn't the overwhelming human duty to resist a government that's founded on a bedrock of deception overwhelm the dictates of standard journalistic ethics, dictates designed for reporting on situations where all sides act, more or less, in good faith?
I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know that even for someone who strongly opposes the government, as I do, the private media is going too far. It's one thing to ignore government spokesmen when they make absurd claims, like saying that Joao Gouveia is on a CIA payroll, but it's quite another to simply blackout any coverage of chavista marches that turn out 100,000+ marchers. Maybe I'm naïve to think there's still room for some sort of middle ground given the incredibly accute political strife we're going through here, but I sure wish I had some source of news willing to tell me the truth even if when it doesn't happen to be convenient to its side of the divide.
December 7, 2002
The December Crisis
The National Work Stoppage called for December 2nd has grown into the most dangerous crisis the Chávez administration has faced since April. Can the government ride this one out?
Eight months ago, an oil-sector strike escalated into a general work stoppage that brought the Chávez regime to its knees. This time, it's been the other way around, with a general work stoppage escalating into an oil strike, but the results look to be the same. As this issue goes to press, the Chávez administration appears as wobbly as it did in the second week of April, stuck in its rhetoric of unending escalation, and autistically unable to acknowledge the facts that surround it.
But if the similarities are obvious, the differences are even more relevant. In April, Chávez faced a scattershot opposition, a hodgepodge of parties, movements, unions and businessmen with little effective coordination and a multiplicity of ends. Today, the opposition has come together remarkably, congealing in the Coordinadora Democrática. It has had months to learn to work together, to work out its differences through talks, to reach decisions via consensus, and, most importantly, to air out differences in private but preserve a solid unity when dealing with the government. The fractures between moderates and radicals appear ever less relevant, with both sides committed to presenting a common front.
That unity has been aided tremendously by the amazing clumsiness with which the government has handled the crisis. And while that can't be said to be a change from April, what is new is the government's propensity to use violence to reach its goals. On April 11th, the regime's willingness to turn guns on its opponents shocked the nation and the world - it had never happened before. But by now, shooting has become standard procedure for government backers. Government followers have used guns at political events at least seven times since August: starting with the anti-PM ambush on August 12, then during the rioting in front of the Supreme Tribunal two days later, then the ambush at two roads into Caracas hours before the march on October 10th, the march to hand in the signatures to demand a nonbinding referendum on November 4th, then the riots outside the Metropolitan City Hall the following week, and culminating with the appalling massacre at Plaza Altamira on December 6th.
This new propensity to violence goes a long ways towards explaining the opposition's newfound unity. Faced with an aggressive regime, the moderates have been pushed into increasingly hard-line positions. At the same time, radicals have come to understand the need for negotiation in dealing with such a dangerous situation. Overall, the sense of common struggle against a radicalized enemy has generated a remarkable esprit de corps in the coordinadora, and the distance between moderates like Elias Santana and radicals like Andrés Velásquez has never been less.
Saving the paro
In fact, it was the excesive use of force by the government that's saved the fledgling general strike called for Dicember 2nd from what might have been a devastatingly embarrassing failure. On the first day of the strike, the opposition had plenty of reason to worry. While most shops in the East-side of Caracas were shut, vast stretches of the west-side, and the rest of the country, enjoyed an almost normal day. And Tuesday morning was even worse, with more shops opening and more traffic on the roads. What's more, the National Elections Council voted again on the call to a nonbinding referendum for February 2nd, this time by the requisite 4-to-1 margin, a decision that seemed to remove much of the reason for the stoppage. At that point PDVSA's workers were hesitant to give decisive backing to the action, fearing they would lose their careers over a lost cause.
Some organizers worried privately that the entire strike innitiative had been misconceived; that the CNE's decision would cause a fatal rift in the Coordinadora. Though the government had refused to install the OAS-mediated negotiating table formally, informal talks were on their way to swap the end of the strike for an end of the government's takeover of the Metropolitan Police. At noontime Tuesday, sources close to the talks considered it a done deal. But then, around lunch-time, the government stepped in to save the strike.
What happened is that a small band of opposition activists, angry at the seeming failure of the strike, started roaming the Francisco de Miranda avenue in Los Ruices forcing open shops to shut down. Their attitude was certainly aggressive, but not violent. But the government's response was heavy handed by any measure, sending a National Guard unit to repress them using copious amount of tear gas and rubber pellets.
Meanwhile, a small number of people had gathered outside PDVSA Chuao to speak to the press about the pressure some PDVSA managers had been put under, and to reject the arrest of Gualberto Bello, the pro-stoppage head of human resources at the El Palito refinery. Within minutes, National Guard units showed up in large numbers to repress the completely peaceful gathering in a similarly heavy handed way, shocking TV viewers all over the country. What came next, however, would save the fledgling strike.
While tear gas had been useful for dispersing the PDVSA managers in Chuao, it had done nothing to disperse the media crews on the scene, since almost all of them were wearing gas masks. But the guardsmen insisted on clearing the space, swinging batons and shooting rubber pellets indiscriminately, at close range, into the assembled journalists, as their cameras carried the images live to the rest of the nation. In the space of less than an hour, this senseless show of force antagonized and radicalized the two constituencies that are most dangerous to the government: PDVSA's managers, and the news media.
The Nuclear Option
By Wednesday, dissident managers decided to cross the rubicon, shutting down the Oil Industry entirely for the first time in its history. It's the proverbial "nuclear option" in Venezuelan politics.
And it worked. Absenteeism spread throughout PDVSA's facilities quickly. As refineries implemented safe-stop procedures, docks shut down, gas pipeline pressures decreased and storage tanks filled up, the entire production chain ground to a halt. That night, the crew of the oil tanker Pilín León joined the action, quickly becoming the symbollic center of the stoppage. President Chávez, as usual, made things worse by giving a belligerent speech slamming the strikers as criminals and saboteurs and the Pilín Leon's crew as "pirates." The result? By Thursday morning seven other tankers had joined the strike, and by week's end all but two of PDVSA's tankers were anchored and on strike.
Wednesday also saw the spread of antigovernment rallies all over the country, with some becoming quite violent. Several people were hurt in Barquisimeto and San Cristóbal, where pro-Chávez state governors ordered heavy-handed police responses to the protests. Tense confrontations were reported in cities throughout the country. Late night on Wednesday even witnessed the plainly surreal sight of a street riot in Prados del Este, a sleepy, upper class neighborhood in the East side of Caracas, after neighbors launched a pot-banging protest outside the house of General Eugenio Gutiérrez, head of the National Guard.
As dawn broke on Thursday, the media reported that PDVSA's headquarters in La Campiña had been surrounded by a group of perhaps 2000 chavistas, headed by Mayor Freddy Bernal. Bernal quickly denied he had been there, until an amateur video arrived in Globovisión showing the mayor clearly leading a group of heavily armed civilians. The video also showed a face recognized by few and remarked on by none at first: Joao Gouveia's.
The opposition, which had been planning to march from PDVSA's Chuao offices to its La Campiña seat, cancelled the march, calling the chavista gathering an ambush. Instead, attention focused again on the oil industry and the tanker fleet. After four days of dwindling operations, the first fuel shortages were starting to be felt, most strongly in Valencia and Maracay, cities supplied from the Yagua tanker-truck filling station, which had been hard hit. Caracas, which is supplied via a different route, remained well stocked.
Throughout the crisis, the government had refused to return to the OAS brokered negotiating table, demanding that the strike be lifted first. But by Thursday evening, the crisis had become dire enough for the government to offer to return, though the pledge came only at the end of another combative speech, this time from Education Minister Aristóbulo Istúriz. But as Friday wore on, the opposition was kept waiting for a government's delegation that never arrived.
Then, at about 7 in the evening, everything changed. Shots were heard at Plaza Altamira. The crowd gathered there dived to the ground in panic, as TV cameras carried the scenes live to millions of anguished households. Once the panic lifted, three people had died and 28 had been injured, several seriously. Within minutes, seven people had been arrested, including one Joao Gouveia, a Portuguese citizen caught on video 48 hours earlier at the chavista rally in La Campiña, just inches from Freddy Bernal. He claimed he had been trying to hit the Globovisión crew on the scene. Additionally, an amateur audio recording was published, apparently between military officers at Fuerte Tiuna who seemed to have advanced knowledge of what would happen.
The shootings galvanized the anger of the opposition, which pointed the finger at the government from the start. Wasting a valuable opportunity to remain quiet, President Chávez went on the air to say that Gouveia's confession was not sufficient proof that he was guilty. Presumably the dozens of eye-witnesses and the physical evidence will also be dismissed as insufficient, even while the government holds that Otto Neustadtl's sole off-the-cuff statement on the April 11th shootings is definitive proof of the opposition's guilt.
The opposition stiffened its demands, riding a wave of intense anger over the shootings, and now asked for the president's resignation and immediate elections, rather than the mere nonbinding referendum they'd called for just hours earlier. But the government stayed away from the negotiating table, now alledging that the furious cacerolazo outside the Meliá was too great a security risk and asking for the talks to be moved to the Military Circle, a request that was plainly unacceptable to the opposition. As this article is written - Saturday afternoon - the Negotiating Table has still not been installed. However, breaking the diplomatic silence over the crisis, the government of Peru did take the initiative to call a special meeting of the OAS Permanent Council to discuss the crisis. The opposition will send a delegation to speak at the meeting.
All through the night from Friday to Saturday, the crew of the Pilín León reported it had been approached by Navy units carrying a judge and a public prosecutor who were seeking to board the ship, but would not allow the crew's lawyers to board. Finally, at noontime Saturday the ship was boarded by an elite Navy unit, the crewmemebers were stripped of their cellphones and left incommunicado, while a replacement crew was brought on board. There are reports of similar operations in an oil tanker off the Puerto La Cruz port. The decision prompted the port crews at La Guaira and Puerto Cabello to join the strike, shutting down much of the country's port infrastructre. The government continues to bluster, but it looks increasingly unable to stem the protests.
The opposition is clearly on the driver's seat of the Venezuelan crisis, riding a wave of popular revulsion at the violence of December 6th that's not to be underestimated. To its credit, even faced with the incredible provocation of the Plaza Altamira, the opposition has stuck to the course of negotiations, elections, and constitutional change. Even in the heat of the minutes immediately following the massacre, for instance, congressman Julio Borges had the presence of mind to remind the crowd of Gandhi's maxim - "An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind." Most coordinadora leaders, though incensed by yesterday's violence, are bringing competent and responsible leadership to what is now the overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan people.
Which is not to say that the president's supporters have abandoned him. On Saturday, a pro-government marched filled the streets of downtown Caracas, gathering as many as 100,000 people, though many were bussed in from the provinces. The private media gave almost no coverage to the march, repeating one of the most unfortunate errors of last April. It is worth noting that even in this most embattled juncture, a significant number of people still support Chávez vehemently, and are still willing to march for him. As it approaches what looks for all the world like a final confrontation with his regime, the opposition must keep that in mind to refrain from the kind of catastrophic miscalculations of April 12th.
December 5, 2002
Now we're cooking without gas!
Well, I've been really delinquent about blogging, but for the love of christ this country has gone completely ape, and I've had about 18 hours of work a day, and it's all very very complicated. To make a long story short, the strike totally failed...and it's a great success!
On the one hand, not that many shops, offices and factories joined, even on the first day. By the second day, even fewer shops had joined, and days 3 and 4 have been basically normal shopping and work days in Caracas, with scattered exceptions. In fact, if the government weren't so dismally stupid, the whole thing might have dissipated into nothingness...
But then, on Tuesday, they inexplicably sent a National Guard platoon to disperse a small, peaceful march in front of PDVSA's Chuao offices. The guardsmen were ridiculously belligerent, spraying tear gas, rubber pellets and baton swings like it's going out of style. The excess really riled up the oil managers, who saw their colleagues roughed up for no discernible reason at all. That, along with another couple of totally moronic instances of military thuggishness, was enough to breathe new life into a strike that looked fairly doomed on Tuesday morning.
Don't get me wrong, the shops and offices and factories still opened, it's just that they antagonized PDVSA's workers into a shutdown. And that, well, that's the Nuclear Option in Venezuelan politics. Oil, of course, is the lifeblood of the nation, and the source of half the government's income, so you can imagine the impact of literally shutting off the industry. Now, shutting down a giant refinery is not exactly a matter of flicking a switch...it's a complicated, multi-day process, and if you screw it up you damage the equipment and you can't restart it again. But that's precisely what they're doing these days...winding down the refineries, shutting down the docks, blocking the shipping channels with tankers, and forcing the oil wells further upstream to shut down to, since they have no place to ship their oil. At this point, the three major shipment points for Venezuelan oil and refined products have all shut down, including the Paraguana Refining Complex, the biggest refinery on earth, which will cease production altogether tomorrow.
Now, this is totally unprecedented. This has just never even come close to happening in Venezuela, we're in uncharted waters here. There's panic buying of gasoline all over the country, and some cities (Maracay, Maracaibo, parts of Valencia, parts of Ciudad Guayana) have already run out. You need gas to run this country. And the valves are shut off.
At the same time, while business continues, there are more and more street protests, all over the damn countryy. These are no longer confined to Caracas, they're everywhere, they're militant, and they're angry. The National Guard seems to have realized how unhelpful their earlier attitude was, and are showing a bit more restraint now. But it seems like the street protests have kind of reached a point of no return, that they're now emotional and widespread enough that they can't really be stopped, not even by opposition leaders anymore.
The government still has its head buried in the sand, still claims they don't have a gas problem, still attacks the opposition as terrorists and fascists and electoral coupsters. Nothing new there. But tonight they finally decided to go back to the OAS-mediated Negotiating Table, and that's very good news indeed. Their back is really really up against the wall now. This PDVSA protest is quickly reaching the point where it just can't be papered over or spun away with clever rhetoric. People will notice when the gas runs out. People will notice when their lights go out. You can't talk them out of thinking it's happening, so the government really doesn't have any choice but to negotiate at this point, and that they'll do holding a very weak hand.
Watch this space...
(or watch Devil's Excrement...that guy updates much more often than me!)
November 30, 2002
...you have only your crappy low hit-counts to lose...
My friend Tony Guzmán Blanco brought two new sources for news and views on the telenovela that is life under Chávez to my attention recently. They seem pretty good. Better yet, they're in English.
vcrisis.com is a pretty thorough, though openly partisan (who isn't, these days?) website run by some folks in the UK, I think. Good collection of stories pulled from reputable English-language news outlets, from The Economist to CNN and the BBC...fun pictures of Chávez sucking up to Saddam Hussein.
The Devil's Excrement is a blog written, it looks like, by a Venezuelan expat in the US. It's more focused on news and latest events, but seems like a pretty good source for that.
I'm adding them both to my list of English links on the page-template, so you can always find them.
Did I mention they're both in English?
November 29, 2002
Yeah, yeah, so four days ago I wrote a long, rambling blog entry explaining why the general strike was going to fail. But, cripes, it’s Venezuela! Four days are an eternity here. In the meantime, the National Electoral Council called a referendum for Feb. 2nd that the government described as an electoral coup, and the very next day the Supreme Tribunal turned around and quashed the referendum on a technicality. It’s the mother of all provocations.
The Washington Post ran a dire editorial today pleading with Washington, Bogotá and Brasilia to help defuse the crisis. I wish I could say it was exaggerated, but it isn’t. We’re reaching a point of no-return here.
My boss quips that it seems like the government was concerned that the strike wouldn’t be successful enough, that they’re acting like they’ve decided to galvanize the opposition, uniting it into pro-strike monolith. It’s true: if the Supreme Tribunal had just held off on that ruling for a week or so, that would’ve been enough to split the opposition. There were plenty of people in the opposition who were either lukewarm or, like me, against the strike. It didn’t make any sense to us to launch such an extreme measure while our referendum request was still in the cards.
But now that the Tribunal has gone ahead and killed it, now that they’ve spited the spirit of democratic idealism and the thousands of hours of work it took us to gather and systematize over 2 million signatures, now that the government has made it clear they’re more than willing to shit all over our movement, to mock us openly, that they’ve made such a public show of contempt for the constitution they themselves drafted, well, there’s not much room for division anymore, is there? The government is willing to do anything to stay in power, it’s just a lie that they’ll ever accept a vote they’re not sure they can win. The clipboard and roses path seems hopelessly naïve, hopelessly out-of-touch, in the face of their brand of authoritarianism.
Yesterday’s ruling erases the divisions between opposition moderates and radicals. That tension, which could’ve hobbled or killed a strike, is now gone. We’re all radicals now, the government has made us all into radicals. For months they’ve pushed and prodded, provoked and mocked, until they got their wish: they made moderation moot. For a long time I’ve feared violence is inevitable. For the first time, I’ve started to consider the notion that it might be necessary. Chávez is just not going to go down without a fight.
November 28, 2002
There’s nonsense, there’s hard-core nonsense, and then there’s chavista nonsense. The government’s public statements over the last few days have reached such amazing levels of internal contradiction it’s hard to know what to even say about them anymore. The ultimate outrage – the worst I can remember – is their reaction to the National Electoral Council’s decision to call a non-binding referendum on whether Chávez should resign for February 2nd, 2003. Faced with the decision, J.V. Rangel railed furiously against the decision, calling it an “electoral coup.”
Now, stop to think about that last phrase for a second.
Swirl it around your head a few times. What, exactly, does it mean? Rangel is really starting to sound like a parody of himself – his P.R. strategy of labeling anything and everything the opposition does as a coupsterie coup-plotting coupetie coup coup coup has driven him right up to a reductio ad absurdum cliff-edge, and he's just kept on driving, Thelma & Louise style, into the logical chasm.
Isn’t the whole point of a coup that it’s an end-run around democratic decision-making, supplanting a given group’s political views for the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box? Isn’t an election the specific polar opposite of a coup? Can anyone think of a more perverse, a more intellectual bankrupt two-word combination than “electoral coup”?
My sister thought it the ultimate oxymoron, but it seems to me an altogether deeper, more pernicious specimen than that. The phrase is a final surrender to the forces of nonsense, of propagandistic gobbledygook. It’s a declaration of war against common sense, a unilateral surrender to contradiction, contradiction no longer merely as a P.R. tactic, but as a code of ethics, a life principle.
It reminds me of the fascist slogans during the Spanish Civil War. Long live death! Death to intelligence! Electoral coup!
It is, and I don’t make this statement lightly, the single stupidest phrase anybody in the Chávez administration has uttered in the last four years.
Chávez himself isn't far behind. His rhetoric has reached a kind of fevered pitch of rampant self-contradiction unhindered by any kind of reflection. During his speech on Wednesday – which he broadcast, like in the old days, on a cadena nacional, hijacking the signals of every TV and radio station to ramble for a few hours – he switched blithely within a few minutes from a stirring homage to the “redemptors of the republic” who staged an actual, shoot-shoot-bang-bang coup-attempt on November 27th, 1992 (precisely 10 years earlier), to a furious denunciation of today’s clipboard-and-ballot-box electoral coupsters.
The contradiction was so blatant it makes any kind of reasoned rebuke seem superfluous. The guys 10 years ago are heroes, even though they used tanks and F-16s to try to bomb the presidential palace, even though they left dozens of innocent bystanders dead as they stormed, guns blazing, into the Channel 8 studios, in a bid to oust a democratically elected government. Why? Because they were chavistas. But the people going around these days gathering signatures to ask for a referendum so every citizen can have a say on the nation's future are fascists; terrorists staging an “electoral coup.” Why? Because they’re antichavistas. It’s a simple, straightforward calculus, based on a belief-system armored-plated against critical reasoning, where chavistas are good no matter what they do, simply because they’re chavistas, and antichavistas are bad no matter what they do, because they dare to question him.
Like Elizabeth Fuentes said last week, “it’s shit like this that makes my capacity for tolerance follow the nation’s economic statistics, i.e., into a nose-dive.”
November 25, 2002
This strike doesn’t have a chance…
The big news these days is that, last week, the coordinadora democrática (the big umbrella group that speaks for maybe 95% of the opposition) called a General Strike for next Monday, December 2nd. It’s all anyone talks about around here, especially since they didn’t specify how long the strike will go on for – and they’ve let it be known it could drag on indefinitely. Now, I think up until now the coordinadora has done a pretty good job of representing the opposition responsibly and within the spirit of democracy. But this time, I really think they’ve gone off the deep end.
Why? Well, first and foremost because the strike will fail. It’s totally nuts to call an indefinite strike in the middle of the holiday shopping season: too many retailers and industrialists rely on December sales to balance their books for the year – especially after a disaster of a year like 2002 has been. Asking them to give up a week’s worth of holiday sales seems totally crazy to me: they won’t go along, couldn’t go along, will go bankrupt if they go along…it’s asking them to jump into some sort of sacrificial pyre for the sake for very uncertain results.
The strike’s only hope for success is if the opposition can shut down the oil-industry. And while many executives and managers at PDVSA seem ripe for protest, it’s very doubtful whether the blue-collar workforce, fresh from signing a very lucrative collective bargaining agreement, will go along. Can you run a giant oil company for a week without any managers? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I bet the it’s something along the lines of “not very well, but kind of.”
The coordinadora leaders claim they’re just following their followers: to hear them tell it, the grass-roots pressure for some kind of radical move against Chávez is just too strong to ignore. I hear that and I just have to shake my head: I have no doubt that among a very small, highly radicalized, militantly antichavista slice of the business class, there are probably some very loud voices calling for a strike. And credible polls do show that most people support a strike in the abstract. But from that to saying that there’s a deafening national roar for a strike there’s a big gap, and I suspect what’s really going on here is that most coordinadora members only talk to other coordinadora members, setting up a little resonance chamber where radical antichavismo is taken as the only sane way of thinking. Locked up inside this circle, the coordinadora’s leadership has managed to convince itself that its views are a reflection of a huge popular groundswell. I don’t buy it.
Of course many many Venezuelans are very very angry at Chávez. But 9 out of 10 Venezuelan households live on less than the $750/month it takes to purchase the Basic Consumption Basket – the government’s estimates of the basic goods and services you need for an adequate middle-class life. With that many people struggling that hard to make ends meet, and so many who just don’t earn enough to even feed themselves and their families properly, an open ended general strike seems like lunacy. For the upper class and upper-middle class people who lead the coordinadora , calling a strike will not mean going hungry, but for millions of the people they claim to lead it does. And it’s precisely that tone-deafness towards the needs and conditions of the poor that made the poor angry enough at them to elect Chávez in the first place. I dunno, I just think that by calling a strike the coordinadora shows just how out of touch it is with the material conditions that most Venezuelans live under, and does nothing at all to reassure the poor that a coordinadora-led government would be even a little bit concerned about their needs.
Still, the strike need not happen. The coordinadora has made it quite clear that if the Elections Authorities call a national referendum on Chávez’s rule before Monday, they’ll call off the strike. I’m praying CNE plays along, thus saving the coordinadora from itself. At that point, the strike can be kept in reserve, as a threat against the government should it even think to do anything to block a vote. If the government did block a vote, a strike – while still far more socially painful than the coordinadora leaders seem to realize – would at least be somewhat more defensible. And while it’s easy to sympathize with the seething anger people feel when they see Chávez openly mock the two-million+ signatures gathered to back up the request for a consultative referendum, I don’t see how the way to confront that is applying a tactic that condemns millions of people to real hardship…instead, it seems like a sure-fire strategy for alienating the people we should be trying to win over.
November 22, 2002
Ask people in Caracas what or where Las Cristinas is, and mostly you’ll get blank stares back. It’s a specialist concern, this Las Cristinas thing, with most Venezuelans totally unaware that one of the four or five biggest gold-mines on earth is right here in Southern Bolívar state. Much less have they heard about the titanic 16-year legal saga over control of the mine, or the incredible tales of corruption that emerge when you even scratch the surface on this story.
It really bothers me that the Caracas press doesn’t pay more attention to this issue. It’s kind of understandable, though: After 16 years full of legal battles that have seen just about every player in the saga sue just about every other player at one point or another, the story amounts to a dauntingly complicated, headache inducing web of emnities peppered with incomprehensible technical disputes. So most journalists don’t have the time/energy/concentration/legal know-how/geological know-how to get into it. It doesn’t help that global mining companies are largely perceived as a bunch of aggressively predatory outlaws – the fight between Minca and Crystallex Corporation over the mine was described to me once as “a fight between Al Capone and Don Corleone.” Yowza.
Still, the story itself is delicious, full of weird twist and turns, sworn-political enemies quietely slipping into bed with each other to share the spoils of the deal, every sort of outrageous financial trick and illegal maneuver, tape recordings of Venezuelan politicianss haggling over the price of their support over the phone, American PR firms hired by one partner of the joint-venture to fling mud at the other partner, and people becoming millionaires on the strength of their willingness to play dirtier than the other side. The fun thing is that the information isn’t even hard to get at: a couple of phone calls will produce copious evidence for just about everything in this paragraph.
The extremely stripped down version is that Crystallex Corporation – a small Canadian gold mining company that very much fits the Al Capone school of corporate strategizing – has for years been using an extremely dubious claim to hold legal rights over the mine to pump up their stock prize at the Toronto stock exchange. But while their claim to the mine had been seen as basically laughable by most people who follow the saga, it suddenly became much more serious a couple of months back when the Venezuelan government suddenly decided to unilaterally ended the contract it had signed with a company called Minca (which is actually a partnership between a larger Canadian mining company called Vannessa Ventures and Venezuela’s State-owned regional development corporation, CVG) without even going through the International Arbitration procedures demanded in the contract. Though the procedure to strip Minca of its concession was a juridical travesty, within a couple of months the government had mysteriously turned around and granted the contract to Crystallex, a company that still had open litigation against the government for this very same track of land.
Ever since, Minca has been suing and suing and suing just about everyone involved in the issue ever since, but Crystallex appears to have deep pockets and many friends in high places. A lot of people certainly perceive Minca’s crusade to get the mine back as slightly quixotic and pretty much doomed. Of course, it’s news to no one that Venezuelan government decisions are for sale, and Crystallex is certainly in the business of buying. The contract granted to them after the government inexplicably rescinded Minca’s contract was an incredible give away. Crystallex paid just $15 million for $172 million worth of mining equipment that Minca had built. It’s plainly obvious that Crystallex is too small a company, and too shady, to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars in project financing that it would take to actually develop the mine, so the government’s claim that they’re acting in the interest of getting the mine intor production as soon as possible are an evident sham. Moreover, the government granted that contract while Minca’s claims to the mine were still pending – with three separate suits awaiting judgement at the Supreme Tribunal. Don’t be surprised if you see the magistrates involved start driving shiny new $80,000 Mercs soon.
Still, given the pending arbitration, the $15 million price-tag is probably too much, not too little – it’s hard to see how any serious mining company would have paid any money at all for a mine contract so deeply mired in legal disputes. Still, it’s easy to see that Crystallex is far from interested in actually developing the mine – the game appears to be to use the favorable press-coverage from the new contract to pump up the company’s stock price in Toronto even higher, allowing the well-connected to cash-in bigtime on their Crystallex stock options. A lot of shady Canadians (and Venezuelans) are getting obscenely rich out of this whole thing…including, incredibly, one of President Chávez’s most hated political foes.
Certainly the weirdest part of the whole story, the part I’d love to develop into a nice juicy scandal, is that frikkin’ Enrique Tejera-Paris, the former AD diplomat whose house got raided by the Secret Police a couple of months back, the octogenarian accused by Chávez of leading a fascist conspiracy to topple his government, is knee-deep in the whole affair. As of a month ago, he was still on Crystallex’s board of frikkin’ directors. He apparently got $20 million worth of business for his law firm out of Crystallex, and eight million stock options. There’s a dark story going around that he (or his son, who has the same name) was sent to Bolívar state to physically tamper with the civil registry showing the mine’s ownership. And given the spike in Crystallex’s stock price after the government gave it the new contract, he’s probably pocketed millions of dollars more from the whole putrid deal since.
Which strikes me as a remarkable, almost unbelievable story. The man accussed by Chávez of the most egregious reactionary coupsterism turns out to be in bed with his government on a multi-million dollar corruption scandal! Why oh why is the fucking Caracas press not picking up on this? It drives me slightly batty. I have a sinking suspicion, though this I can’t prove, that Crystallex pays off well-connected newspaper editors here for favorable press coverage. It’s painfully obvious that they pay off at least one newsweekly – Quinto Día – which has been giving them outrageously favorable coverage for days. Rumor has it that Quinto Día actually approached Minca to say, pretty much, that their editorial line could change…for a price. My guess is that that’s part of the explanation, but there’s more to it. The press silence is probably the outcome of a series of interlocking issues: the story is too complicated and/or they see Minca as a lost cause and/or they have this kind of defeatist attitude that treats corruption as a kind of force of nature, unstoppable and therefore not worth fighting, and/or they’re on the take from Crystallex. One way or another, it’s a delicious, juicy scandal that no one’s really going after – I’d love to go after it myself, except nobody reads the damn magazine I write for – and this blog…well, it’s almost as much a “specialist interest” as the Las Cristinas saga is…
November 20, 2002
What a difference seven days make. A week ago, the political scene was dominated by talk of parliamentary procedures, after the government attempted a questionable move to rewrite the new Elections Law. Now, after the partial militarization of the city last week, the takeover of the Metropolitan Police on Saturday, the firebombing of Globovisión on Sunrday morning, the running street battles between opposition activists and National Guardsmen near Altamira on Monday and an opposition march that ended in a cloud of tear gas and confusion yesterday, such concerns look oddly parochial. The question exercising the nation now is rather more immediate: has the country been put, de facto, under a state of exception?
This new constitutional euphemism for what used to be known as a “state of emergency” and its concomitant suspension of constitutional rights has been worrying opposition activists for months. There’s a good case to be made that, rather than making a formal – and legal – announcement, the government has decided to implement the State of Exception de facto. Certainly, much of what’s gone on in the last few days is incomprehensible in any other terms. The presence of troops, including army units, on the streets is clearly exceptional, as are the military checkpoints set up on the roads into the city. With day-to-day security in the city now openly in the hands of the military, much of the effect of a state of exception is simply already in place. And as the government displays greater and greater contempt for legal formalities, it becomes ever more plausible that a full state of exception could be implemented without ever having been declared.
As for the government takeover of the Metropolitan Police (known here as the PM), it’s not so much exceptional as just plain illegal, not to mention its being a gross provocation that has escalated political tensions in the capital to heights unseen since April. In appointing a Freddy Bernal loyalist with well-known ties to the Bolivarian Circles to head the PM, the government has made it clear it’s not so much interested in taking over the police as in dismantling it. There was never a chance that its rank-and-file officers would accept orders from the leader of the street gangs they’ve been fighting for nearly a year. So aware was Mr. Sánchez Delgado that the officers would not accept his authority that throughout his first 48 hours as police chief he didn’t even bother to call around to the various precincts – the government instead sent military units to guard them, with machine-gun turrets turned toward the police stations’ doors. Sánchez Delgado did eventually get around to visiting the various precincts – flanked by Freddy Bernal and a number of Bolivarian Circle activists.
What’s clear is that such reckless provocations have once again put opposition moderates (there no longer seems to be any such thing as “chavista moderates”) in an awkward position. Ultimately, a civilized “electoral outcome” is just not in the government’s interests. Recent polls show clearly that two out of three voters would ask for Chávez’ resignation, a proportion so large that the opposition now stands a good chance of exceeding the 3.7 million votes that would be needed to turn out the president in a formal revocatory referendum.
The government must prevent a vote – and raising political tensions as high as possible seems to be the route they’ve chosen to do so. Under such circumstances, opposition moderates’ calls for dialogue, negotiations, and ballot boxes look more and more out of step. Radical voices, from General Medina Gómez to Copei’s Sergio Omar Calderón, start to seem like a compendium of common sense. And while the Coordinadora Democrática has not left César Gaviria’s negotiating table, expectations for that exercise – which were low to begin with – are withering into nothingness.
The next move in this three-dimensional chess game is up to the Supreme Tribunal, which will have to rule on the constitutionality of the government’s takeover of the PM. Magistrate Hadded Moustafa Paolini has been assigned the task of drafting a ruling. He is said to be one of Proyecto Venezuela’s men on the Tribunal, making it seem likely he’ll side with the opposition. The question, then, will be whether his fellow magistrates back him and, if they do, whether President Chávez will heed the ruling. Failure to do so would represent the government’s clearest, starkest snub to the rule of law yet. But heeding the Tribunal would be a striking humiliation for a government that has staked so much on the PM powergrab. One way or another, the nation’s political future now hangs on this decision, and on the president’s reaction to it.
November 17, 2002
Well, I'd been forecasting it for weeks, but still I was a little shocked when it happened. The government has moved on the Metropolitan Police. It was obvious that they wouldn't tolerate a large, armed group in the capital to remain in the hands of the opposition for long. There are National Guard and army units all over town right now, and it's definitely the most tense the city has been since April. Most police commanders seem to be siding with Mayor Alfredo Peña and against the government at the moment, but the situation is incredibly volatile.
It's barely a big surprise how badly the government is bungling this one. Realizing that if they tried to appoint a chavista loyalist to head the PM they'd have no credibility at all, they at first tried to appoint a relatively independent new Chief of Police, Commissar Delgado. He went around all the different police stations yesterday, quickly realized that the move had no support at all, and resigned less than 12 hours into the job. So next up they appointed a chavista loyalist, named Gonzalo Sánchez, who is being identified by CNN as "the former right-hand man of Libertador Mayor Freddy Bernal." He appears to have strong ties to the Bolivarian Circles, and is obviously totally unacceptable to the opposition and most of the PM. Bernal, of course, is one of the most militant and dangerous supporters of the government, and is widely seen as the key organizer for the Caracas area Bolivarian Circles.
This entire move is plainly illegal, way, way, way out of line, and escalates tensions in the capital alarmingly. Anything could happen here. It’s clear that most PM field commanders are not going to recognize Sánchez, they’re still only recognizing Peña’s police chief, Henry Vivas, as their commander. It’s a very, very fluid situation, with many heavily armed men on either side, and it’s incredibly dangerous. There are army tanks parked outside every PM station.
The short-term result of this idiocy is to totally marginalize the moderates on each side. It's very hard for me to see how OAS brokered negotiations can go forward in this climate. It's just too serious a provocation on the part of the government.
November 13, 2002
It happened again yesterday. For the Nth time. A small but bellicose pro-government mob showed up at the Metropolitan City Hall (Alfredo Peña’s office) to block the last open entrance, leaving the Mayor and a bunch of opposition leaders he was meeting with stranded for hours. Then the Metropolitan Police showed up to clear them out. From there on end, it was the usual…tear gas and rubber bullets from the police, real bullets from the chavista crowd. What wasn’t usual, what makes my blood boil, is that one guy – apparently a bystander – was killed. Deaths don’t get any more pointless than his, or any more angering.
The chavista line was the predictable same old. To hear Desiré Santos Amaral (the chavista National Assembly member) tell the story, all that happened is that some dissident (chavista) PM officers decided to go protest peacefully outside Peña’s office when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the rest of the Policia Metropolitana decided to brutally repress them using violence. Desiré is adamant that it was Peña’s cops who did the shooting. The crowd can hardly be blamed for throwing a few rocks back at them faced with this fascist onslaught, could they? All the chavistas are towing this line…they don't seem at all inconvenienced that it’s a demonstrable lie.
Why demonstrable? Because once again, they got caught. On camera. Doing what they accuse their opponents of doing. This time, it was a Channel 10 (Televen) cameraman who got “lucky,” getting footage of one of the dissident (chavista) PM officers using a cloud of tear gas as cover to unload his gun into Peña’s guys. (Note to chavista gunmen: Is it really so hard to refrain from shooting your guns when there are cameramen just feet away?! How stupid are you?) So the government’s line is, one more time, a sham. We should’ve gotten used to it by now. This time, the gunman wasn’t even wearing a ski-mask: his face was very clearly visible in the Channel 10 footage. But I’ll bet you anything he won’t be held accountable for this, bet you anything he won’t spend 5 minutes in jail for it. Not so long as el Comandante runs the country…
The riot went on for most of the afternoon and into the evening. 15 people took gunshots. One of Peña’s cops took a bullet to the stomach. A Channel 2 cameraman was shot (that’s the second time a Channel 2 cameraman has been shot by rioting chavistas in the last three months – high risk job! – but neither was seriously hurt.) Perhaps the most disturbing incident came at around 8 pm, when Peña went to the Lidice Hospital to visit the wounded and give his condolences to the family of the dead. A small crowd of Chavistas was there and they assaulted him, screaming “Fascist!” “Assassin!” and “Kill him!” as they tried to beat the crap out of the mayor. At one point he fell to the floor and the crowd literally tried to lynch him, kicking him in the face until three of his bodyguards managed to get him out of it. Worst of all, several of the people leading the crowd were National Assembly members – Iris Varela and Darío Vivas are clearly visible in the footage from the hospital. This whole atmosphere is terrifying – but what’s scariest is to think that someone like Iris Varela, someone who is now literally on the record trying to incite a crowd into lynching the Mayor of Caracas, that someone like her is part of the ruling clique here, that she sits in on high-level government meetings, that she has the president’s ear and plays a part in setting policy. It’s…it’s…deeply, deeply wrong.
November 12, 2002
I’m reading Christopher Hitchins’ new book on George Orwell at the moment, and enjoying it immensely. As I read about Orwell’s horror at Stalin’s tactics, it’s hard not to relate it to events here, which are at once so similar and so vastly different to 1930s Russia. What Orwell makes clear, what he made his reputation writing about, is the way that the systematic denial of the truth is the cognitive cornerstone to totalitarianism. Mangling reality wasn’t just something Stalin did accidentally: it was at the center of his control of society. And while there are many, obvious differences between the two, Hitchens’ book shows up some terrifying parallelisms between Chávez and Stalin, at least in terms of their attitudes to reality.
Take, for instance, Orwell’s satirical take of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow during the dark years of the pre-war purges:
“To get the full sence of our ignorance as to what is really happening in the USSR,” he writes, sometime in the mid 1930s, “it’s worth trying to translate the most sensational Russian event of the past two years, the Trotskyist trials, into English terms. Make the necessary adjustments, let Left be Right and Right be Left, and Trotsky be Churchill, and you get something like this:”
“Mr. Winston Churchill, now in exile in Portugal, is plotting to overthrow the British Empire and establish Communism in England. By the use of unlimited Russian money he has succeeded in building up a huge Churchillite organization which includes members of Parliament, factory managers, Roman Catholic bishops and practically the whole of the Primrose League. Almost every day some dastardly act of sabotage is laid bare – sometimes a plot to blow up the House of Lords, sometimes an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Royal racing-stables. 80% of the Beefeaters at the Tower of London are discovered to be agents of the plot. A high official at the Post Office admits brazenly to having embezzled 5 million pounds and also to having committed lese majesté by drawing moustaches on postage stamps. Lord Nuffield, after a 7-hour interrogation, confesses that ever since 1920 he has been fomenting strikes in his own factories. And meanwhile the Churchillites never cease from proclaiming that it is they who are the real defenders of Capitalism…
“Anyone who has followed the Russian trials,” Orwell comments, “knows that this is scarcely a parody. From our point of view the whole thing is not merely incredible as a genuine conspiracy, it is next door to incredible as a frame-up. It is simply a dark mystery, of which the only seizable fact – sinister enough in its way – is that communists over here regard it as a good advertisement for Communism.”
Now, think about this, and think about Chávez’ Venezuela in terms of this. When we hear MVR congressman Raul Esté telling us that on November 4th the gunshots were fired by undercover Chacao policemen who had infiltrated the chavista protest but forgotten to change their boots, when we’re told on State TV (channel 8) that the Plaza Altamira protest is a satanist/neonazi plot spearheaded by Alejandro Peña Esclusa, when we’re told that the Metropolitan Police routinely drops tear gas canisters on perfectly peaceful chavista demonstrators for no good reason, when Pedro Carreño tells us that Henrique Salas Feo’s Operación Alegría street-sweepers are a highly trained corps of provocateurs who sneak into chavista marches, when Chávez tells us that an offhand comment by a CNN correspondent proves that the opposition planned and organized the April 11th massacre…when we hear things like that, isn’t there a more than evident streak of totalitarian truth-twisting to the rhetoric? Isn’t there an obvious and alarming parallelism between the way these statements mangle the truth beyond all recognition for partisan gain? Aren’t each of these items “next door to incredible as frame-ups”?
Yet, the differences are just as telling. What made Stalin Stalin is that state-lies held a monopoly of the information available to common people in Russia. His aggressive convolution of reality was paired with a willingness to use as much violence as it took to crush anyone who questioned the state line. Stalinism wasn’t just about routinely making up impossibly far-fetched lies, it was about making it compulsory to believe them. It was about routinely using impossible lies lies as the justification for putting bullets in people's heads, or sending them for long sojourns in Siberia.
Chávez won't go all the way, which explains why the Chávez era has been one-part-tragedy, two-parts-farce. Without total control over people’s access to information, twisted state lies are laid bare before the end of the day, becoming a farcical joke rather than a source of deep terror. Not only is it not compulsory to believe the crap the government peddles, but making fun of various chavista lies has become a kind of passtime for the middle classes. To make a proper totalitarian leader, you have to balance off your willingness to mangle the truth with an equal dose of cruelty and violence – Chávez just can’t strike that balance, because he’s just not comfortable enough using violence to achieve political ends. Thank God. And people are realizing that Chávez isn't really willing to use massive, indiscriminate violence to stay in power. Think about it: this is a country where military intelligence raids are foiled by pissed-off, pot-banging housewives who block the access roads with their cars and laugh at the heavily-armed, ski-masked intelligence officers when they demand to be let through. Think that’s a problem that Stalin had?
November 8, 2002
The game now is quite clear. The latest polls suggest the government would lose the consultative referendum 60-40 at best, as much as 71-29 by some measures…a political disaster for Chávez. So the government has to go all out to obstruct the referendum, and the opposition needs to do whatever it takes to press for it. That’s the game we’re playing now, and while the political momentum is clearly with the opposition, nothing is improbable here.
The first skirmish went to the opposition, when the Supreme Tribunal refused to rule on a strange petition by Chávez to suspend all the members of the National Elections Council (CNE), which would have made it impossible to hold any kind of vote. It’s really not clear why the Tribunal sided against the prez, and there’s all kinds of speculation about, though the government is taking it as proof that they don’t really own the Supreme Tribunal, like the opposition says. Right.
It’s pretty clear that the government will keep obstructing the vote. PPT has already filed another injunction at the tribunal saying that the proposed question is unconstitutional. The Tribunal’s decision on that case is of utmost importance. The opposition is quite clear that they won’t negotiate away the will of the 2 million people who signed a petition for a vote, and if the government does manage to block it, all bets are off.
The coordinadora democrática is committed to calling an open-ended General Strike if a vote is blocked. In a sense, it’s win-win for the opposition on this score: if there is a vote, Chávez is toast. If he blocks a vote on a technicality, he’ll lose the last shard of democratic legitimacy he might still retain.
There is still the question of the shambolic CNE, universally agreed to be a mess of nepotism and incompetence. Gambling the nation’s future on a referendum means putting ourselves in the hands of these no-hopers. It’s not the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the one we've got.
November 6, 2002
I wasn't that excited about this week's VenEconomy editorial, but my boss insists that primaries are absolutely crucial and that we have to start writing about them now.
Monday, November 4 was a historic day for Venezuela. For the first time, the chavista rhetoric about “participative democracy” where the people are the protagonists took tangible shape – though in a way very far removed from what chavismo had envisioned. Handing in over 2 million signatures to demand a consultative referendum, the opposition made a decisive show of how far it has come since the inchoate days of April – polishing its credentials with irreproachably democratic actions. As Juan Manuel Raffali said, Monday’s actions will divide the history of the opposition movement into “before” and “after.”
The country was hardly surprised by the reception received at the hands of the government’s most militant supporters. It barely seems strange any longer that activists bearing citizens’ signatures to demand a referendum were branded “fascists” by their opponents. It’s hardly even newsworthy that some of the government’s backers fired guns into the opposition crowd, wounding at least nine, including a reporter whose life was saved only by the bullet-proof vest that has become standard equipment for journalists. These acts of barbarism have been seen so often that they’re almost commonplace by now. Yet they continue to shine a spotlight on the government’s dwindling democratic legitimacy, and on its growing embrace of violence as a way to hang on to power. On the whole, it was yet another public relations disaster for the president’s incongruous campaign to maintain a patina of democratic civility.
Yet the hard part is only starting for the opposition. As the momentum builds towards a referendum, the once seemingly distant prospect of a presidential election looks more and more likely within a relatively short period of time – six months, say. With the collapse of the chavista regime accelerating, the prospect of power has already started to poison the cooperative relationship within the Coordinadora Democrática. To the extent that the Coordinadora’s members begin to see each other less as partners in a common struggle and more as soon-to-be electoral competitors, the cooperative spirit that has marked the last few weeks could start to fray.
So, paradoxically, this present time marks both the peak of the Coordinadora’s prestige and its most dangerous juncture yet. As elections loom ever closer, it’s crucial that its members continue to reaffirm their commitment to work collaboratively, eschewing the temptation to grandstand for electoral advantage. It won’t be easy: grandstanding is, one sometimes feels, hardwired into the way many Venezuelan politicians conceive of their jobs. But at this juncture, the cost of division is simply too high to bear; dividing the opposition is the president’s last remaining hope for remaining in office.
In a nightmare scenario, three or four opposition candidates, including at least two heavy-hitters, would run for election against Chávez, splitting the vote enough to allow him back into office. Of course, the president could conceivably try to increase the chances of that happening by finding some way to call a new election very soon, leaving the opposition no time to choose a single candidate. This might contradict everything Chávez has been saying for several months now, but it would not be the first such radical turnabout for him. Certainly, from a rational choice point of view, it’s probably his best option. Yet even in an abrupt-election scenario it’s conceivable that opposition voters would flock to whichever candidate looks to have the greatest chance of defeating Chávez – conceivable, but by no means a foregone conclusion.
The only way to really ensure that the president is defeated cleanly at what now looks like an inevitable presidential election a few months down the road is for the opposition to agree on a single candidate. It’s crucial that the choice be fully democratic, legitimate and binding on the entire Coordinadora. And the only way to achieve that is for the single candidate to be selected through a primary election, preferably in two rounds.
This would certainly be a radical innovation for Venezuela, but in the present climate of heightened democratic sensibilities, and given renewed revulsion with old-style backroom political deal-making, the Venezuelan opposition looks ready for such bold proposals. Spurred on by the growing urgency of making sure President Chávez leaves office, the proposal might just catch on. This will, in any case, be the next great debate within the Coordinadora.
Some might think it too early to be speculating on such topics. After all, it’s not even clear that a consultative referendum will be held at this point, much less that Chávez will face his opponents head-to-head at the ballot box any time soon. But given his vested interest in splitting the opposition by holding elections sooner rather than later, an ounce of prevention will be better than a pound of cure. If the Coordinadora doesn’t launch a serious debate now on the method for selecting a single candidate, it could be caught out by a chavista power-play; after all, even if elections were called for next April, that would leave a fairly short window in which to organize a primary and hold a serious public debate. So it’s not at all too early to start talking about primaries. It will soon be too late.