October 1, 2002

“They’d told me what made Venezuela tick was oil…

…but now that I get here, I see that what the country really runs on is rumors.” It was the US ambassador who said that, talking to reporters last week. He’s obviously right: the twin Venezuelan love-affairs with gossip and the cell-phone leave the city awash in speculation. A constant stream of conjecture flashes across my inbox and my phone, and the topic is always the same: the near political future. Caraqueños are obsessed with the government’s overthrow…and it’s not just the opposition who talk about it constantly, even the government won’t shut up about it, denouncing coups and plots at every turn.

So what are the main theories going around these days?

Theory 1: The Crimes Against Humanity charge will do him in…
The lawyers who represent some of the victims of the April 11th shootings (that’s the day of the coup) went to the Supreme Tribunal to ask for the president’s impeachment several months ago. Though the Tribunal Members were originally handpicked by Chávez and his people, a bunch of them have bolted over the last two years as the comandante has gotten crazier and crazier. The tribunal appears to be on a knife edge: last August, for the first time, it handed down a ruling that went against the president’s wishes. That prompted a furious presidential outburst calling them a bunch of corrupt bastards, basically, and threatening to “publish their pictures in a book” so they can be picked out, one presumes.

Back then, Chávez warned that that was just the first step in a process designed to have him impeached and booted out of office, calling it a conspiracy to carry out an “institutional coup.” He said, flat out, that neither he nor the army would pay any attention to the Supreme Tribunal if they started impeachment procedures, (so what’s the point of having a judicial branch, then?)

A lot of opposition members still have their hopes riding on a court ruling on this one case. It’s not that they think that the court can really unseat him. It’s that they think that if the court rules against him and he refuses to abide by the ruling, he would be stepping so far outside the democratic norm that he would give the dissident officers in the armed forces all the cover they need to topple him. From this point of view, the dissident army officers are just itching for Chávez to screw up, so they can take action without eliciting too much international condemnation.

Problem is, it probably won’t happen. Most credible head-counts at the tribunal suggest the dissidents are still two or three votes shy of the majority they’d need to put the whole strategy in motion. Still, a ruling will be handed down in the next few days. The tribunal might just leave me looking silly by ruling against Chávez, and at that point we’d go through the looking glass: a major constitutional crisis is almost guaranteed.

[Those of you wondering about the actual legal merits for impeaching him on these grounds…come on! In this atmosphere every court decision is politically motivated!]

Theory 2: Chávez is trying to provoke a coup attempt.
This theory’s been going around a lot, but it reached its fullest development in an opinion piece written by Argelia Ríos in El Universal. Her point is that Chávez has everything to gain from a coup-attempt against him. It would allow him to finally smoke out and boot out all the dissidents in the armed forces. It would bolster his democratic credentials by painting him as a victim in international opinion. If it was violent, it would wash away the memories of the April 11th deaths. Even if it was succesful, it could play into his hands, turning him into a martyr, a victim, an unrealized promise, a dashed popular dream. A succesful coup might even see him end up taking to the hills and starting a guerrilla resistance, which is what he’s really cut out for.

This, according to Ríos, is the point of the systematic harrasment of dissident military officers (and their wives, and their daughters.) The more incitement there is, the more likely the coup will be rushed, leaked, and infiltrated – so given that a coup was likely, in any event, in the post-April atmosphere, inciting it only makes sense for the government: it multiplies the chances that it will fail. In a sense, though, inciting a coup is a desperate call for help, an acknowledgement on the part of the government that the current situation is unsustainable. Trying to strongarm the country into a post-failed-coup scenario is trying to accelerate a postdemocratic solution to the current stability crisis.

I actually think this is a generally reasonable interpretation, mostly because I think that Chávez really is that crazy, but I could be wrong. I can easily see it as a sort of semi-conscious strategy. I imagine Chávez understands the likely outcome of running roughshod over some of the best respected officers in the armed forces, as a former army officer, I’m sure he understands the intense dissent his decisions are causing within the ranks, and as a former coup-plotter himself I’m sure he understands the way that dissent is bound to lead to a coup attempt. I guess he’s calculated he can survive it and even be strengthened by it. But I also know that Chávez miscalculates all the damn time, and as Medina Gómez says, “nothing is improbable.”

Theory 3: The opposition needs to hold its breath until he goes away
Another seemingly crazy theory that more and more people are going for: this one’s championed by Cecilia Sosa, the far-right wing former chief justice of the Supreme Court. Her theory is that people should just lock themselves at home, “toss the key out the window”, and refuse to leave the house until Chávez gives up and resigns.

It’s that old leftist canard, the insurrectional General Strike, back from the grave and warmed over in a strange right-wing guise. Like the leftist precursors of this strategy, the people who actually think this could work appear to adhere to some sort of alternative system of rationality. In a country where 9 out of every 10 families live hand-to-mouth, this strategy is fairly fantastic: for most Venezuelans, if you don’t work you don’t eat, and it’s fairly hard for me to imagine that enough of them are willing to not eat for long enough to bring the government down.

But even if they were, the actual mechanism whereby a strike obligates the president to resign remains murky and shrouded in mystery. The most likely mechanism is the one we already saw in April: a last minute military push that brings matters to a head. But after the horrid experience of April, that’s something no one wants to go through again. Fact is, these people aren’t thinking: they’re just desperate, and desperation is about the worse adviser imaginable in a situation like this.

What’s worrying is that it’s not some small lunatic fringe that’s pressing for this crazy maximalist strategy. It’s CTV, the million+ member labor union federation. It’s Fedecamaras, the big employers’ federation. It’s Acción Democrática, still the biggest opposition party, which got 400,000 people out to vote in its last primary election. It’s large chunks of the opposition. It’s a testament to how polarized the country is that so many people are really thinking of a general strike as a viable option. I guess desperate times call for desperate measures, as the old saying goes…

That’s just a smattering, but this is a long enough post. More of these to come.