September 22, 2002

Notes on a civil war that may or may not happen...

How tense is Venezuela these days? It's an odd, difficult question. If you go by what's published in the newspapers, you'd think that a huge society-wide train-wreck is imminent. The tenor of political debate here is incredibly bellicose, far, far outside the bounds of the normal give and take of a lively democracy. Opposition leaders routinely and quite non-chalantly calling President Chávez a mad narcissist, a genocidal psychopath, a castrocommunist dictator's apprentice, and so on and so forth. The rhetoric coming the other way is hardly tamer - golpista being the preferred term of abuse. That translates literally but clunkily as "coupster", and yes, it's a delicious irony that Hugo Chavez, of all people, should be using it as an insult. More broadly, though, the government sees the "opposition" as a ruse for a plutocratic conspiracy, a well-organized, well-funded reactionary plot intent on driving the country back to a sort of quasi-feudal past when they could oppress the poor unhindered. The long and the short of it is that these people do not see each other as adversaries, they see each other as enemies.

It's little wonder the country's so damn tense. How tense? Well, according to a survey by Alfredo Keller, the best pollster in Caracas, 62% of Venezuelans think there's going to be a civil war here. Now, there are several remarkable things about that figure. Beyond the evident, incredibly alarming fact that 3 out of 5 people here think some sort of gory fratricidal bloodbath is on the way, there's the deeply weird fact that "do you think there's going to be a civil war?" has become a standard survey question! Y'know, just part of the work-a-day routine of public opinion research, "do you approve of the way the president does his job?" and "is the country on the right track?" and "do you think the streets will run red with the blood of the rancid oligarchs/godless communists?" And then the results get reported matter-of-factly on the front pages, just above a story about the Venezuelan team losing in the Davis Cup to Germany and an interview with a Caracas artists whose exhibit is opening in New York soon. Just a normal sunday paper...

But the 62% figure isn't even the worst of it. The worst it, if you ask me, is that 25% of respondents say they would be willing to fight for their beliefs in a hypothetical civil war. 12% of Venezuelans would take up guns to defend the president, while13% would fight to bring the government down. [Reading these figures, my boss snickers and says "great news! it's 13% to 12%, we win!"] It's enough to make me choke on my morning coffee.

Now, maybe I'm just naive, but it's impossible for me to really believe those figures. My take on this is that people are talking out of their asses here. Aside from the sporadic little scuffles at some political marches (magnified a million times by the media circus that inevitable results), the atmosphere on the streets just doesn't suggest an imminent war. Yes, yes, i've read the narratives from pre-war Sarajevo, and I'm aware that I'm echoing what people were saying there circa 1991. I understand that there are extremely radicalized, dangerous men on both extremes, but a civil war? Do these people even know what they're saying when they answer these poll questions? Are they aware of what civil war would actually mean for the country? I just don't think so.

Aside from a small little outburst of guerrilla fighting in the early 60s, Venezuela hasn't had a real out-and-out war in 150 years. People like to think that it's just not in our national character, and I want to believe that. No one in Venezuela has seen a real war here, which probably explains why they're so weirdly blase about the whole thing. But the flipside is that relative ignorance can be incredibly dangerous. People who haven't quite assimilated the scale of the disaster that a civil war could entail seem far more likely to carry out the provocative, confrontational acts that could, little-by-little, escalate towards a civil war. And with big-time civil conflicts, they're easy enough to start but there's just no telling how or when they end. After all, as some of the saner pundits keep reminding us, when the first shots were fired in Colombia in the 1940s, nobody could possibly have known that sixty years later the war would still be going on there. It scares the crap out of me to imagine that some day circa 2050 some grandchild will come up to me and ask what Caracas was like before the fighting started.