September 23, 2002

Security zones? OK…but for whose security?

Another Monday, another feverish political row in Caracas. This week, the hot issue is the decree Chávez issued last week declaring eight “security zones” around key installations in Caracas: Four military bases, two presidential facilities and the state-owned TV and Radio stations. It will have escaped no one that these eight facilities are at the top of any coup plotter’s target list, making it none too hard to piece together what it is that the government is worried about. In essence, the decree sets out a sort of exclusion zone outside each of the eight installations where demonstrations are not allowed. It was this decree that the government invoked in repressing last week’s Fuerza Solidaria protest, saying it was too close to the La Carlota air-force base.

The opposition is up in arms about it, calling the decree a gross violation of fundamental citizenship rights to freely assemble and demonstrate peacefully. The government seems to be walking on thin-ice here, basing the decree on a law that was meant basically for border regions, and designed to give the state legal basis to keep foreigners from buying real estate too close to the borders. Caracas, of course, is nowhere near a border, and the decree is about anything but real estate. The opposition is approaching it as a civil rights issue, treating it as the thin end of the wedge of an attempt to militarize the whole city and ban protests altogether. An Interamerican Press Society spokesman says the next step will be to shut down an opposition newspaper. Not surprisingly, the injunctions to have the decree quashed as unconstitutional have started raining down on the Supreme Tribunal.

One concern is that the security zones are so big that they stray into areas of the city that aren’t really anywhere near the installations they’re supposed to protect. What’s worse, many of them are areas that have traditionally been used for political protests. For those of you who know Caracas, consider that the La Carlota security zone extends all the way to Chacaito in the west, which is a long bloody way from the Air Force base. Moreover, Plaza Brión in Chacaito has been the starting point to a lot of opposition marches. Not anymore, I guess. The zones would also take up big chunks of the Francisco de Miranda Avenue, including Plaza Altamira, big chunks of the East-side highway, and of course the square in front of PDVSA Chuao: all pretty-well established spots for opposition rallies. Will the National Guard start lobbing tear gas canisters at demonstrators in Plaza Altamira, then, because it’s “too close” to La Carlota? Seems like a recipe for chaos, if you ask me. Or, alternatively, like a recipe for ghettoizing opposition protests into smaller and more remote parts of the city.

But the broader, more important, point is that the government doesn’t have any right to tell me where I can or can’t hold a peaceful demonstration. This is a bedrock democratic right, a matter of principle, and the opposition seems fully justified to feel alarmed that the government is now undermining such fundamental political rights.

Together with the ongoing reports about the government persecuting dissident military officers, and even civilians, more and more actively, the security zone decree is just one more element poisoning the political atmosphere here. Some people are fully convinced that the government is trying to goad the dissident officers into another coup attempt, harassing them, pushing them and prodding them until they feel they have no choice but to act. Once they do, the government can crush them outright, issue a big I-told-you-so about ongoing conspiratorial activity, and go into serious-repression mode.


But then, if what they wanted was carte blanche to purge the military and crack down on civilian dissent, they could’ve done that in April right after the first failed coup. They didn’t back then. What’s changed now? The standard answer is that Chávez is far more desperate now, far more aware of how tenuous his hold on power has become, and has little choice but to take strong action soon. But the alternative explanation, the one that I tend to believe, is that the Chavista governing clique is so isolated from sound, independent advice that they’re once again miscalculating on a big scale. To my mind Chávez’ hold on reality is so tenuous that he really does think that six million people poured onto the streets on April 13th to demand his return. And with a narcissist leader who’s that cut-off from reality, political miscalculation is the order of the day.

In other words, it’s a tightrope act, except the guy on the tightrope is drunk, and mad with power.