October 30, 2002

Wednesday, it must be time for a VenEconomy editorial...

Negotiating with a Narcissist

Much of what’s happened in Venezuelan politics over the last three years has been unprecedented, but the spectacle in Plaza Altamira over the last week has finally made the leap into the truly surreal. Urged on by a never-ending stream of protestors who are treating the whole affair like a street party, the dissident military officers have launched a sort of anticoup – a military rebuke to the government that specifically rejects violent confrontation. It’s the Gandhi solution: an uprising without arms.

So far, the officers have managed to keep a not-always-easy peace with the civilian leadership of the opposition. Clearly, the more moderate agenda of groups like Primero Justicia and the Alianza Cívica is somewhat at odds with the radicalism of officers like General Medina Gómez or General González González. The former stress the need for a referendum, which would at least allow President Chávez to campaign to remain in office, while the latter put the stress on demanding his “immediate resignation.” Thankfully, so far, the officers and civilians have managed to avoid an open rift, and both have repeatedly and loudly rejected the notion of a violent solution to the crisis.
Many have noted that it’s not exactly clear how the takeover of Plaza Altamira gets the country any closer to the end of the Chávez government. Certainly, street pressure can do little to move a government that remains locked in a private reality. As VenEconomy has reported several times, President Chávez fits the clinical description for Narcissist Personality Disorder with disconcerting exactness. Narcissists have an especially difficult time confronting any kind of criticism, which they see as proof that nefarious forces are arrayed against them. Pathologically unable to handle any view that contradicts his understanding of reality, the president has systematically surrounded himself with yes-men, cutting himself off from contact with anyone who might provide an assessment of the political reality around him that in any way contradicts his increasingly warped mental universe.

For obvious reasons, it’s exceedingly difficult to negotiate with a narcissist. OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria was reportedly shocked at Chávez’ furious refusal to even discuss the possibility of an electoral solution to the crisis. For anyone who has seen the president confronted by a hostile journalistic line of questioning, it’s easy to imagine the debacle that the meeting with Gaviria apparently turned into. Watching Chávez’ face contort at the mention of a topic that makes him so deeply uncomfortable, Gaviria understood right away that it would be impossible to draw the president into frank negotiations with the opposition.

The Coordinadora Democrática might be disappointed by the failure of the secretary-general’s mission, but it couldn’t have been surprised by it. A peaceful, civilized solution to the crisis must and will be found, whether or not the president agrees. Through his pathological inability to engage with views other than his own, the president is merely marginalizing himself from the substantive negotiations on the nation’s political future.

The civilian opposition has reached a consensus that the only democratic, inclusive and peaceful solution to the crisis is to hold a non-binding referendum on Chávez’ continuation in power. Opposition groups have already collected close to enough signatures to force such a referendum. Through the efforts of Súmate, an opposition NGO, the antichavista movement is putting together a signature-gathering drive of unprecedented sophistication. Súmate’s small army of Internet-based volunteers are digitizing and checking every signature against the CNE’s electoral rolls, discarding those of people who signed more than ones, and consolidating all the information in a centralized database held in an offshore computer. This setup will allow Súmate to have an exact, pre-audited count of the valid signatures the opposition has gathered. They will be handed to the CNE in numbered, ordered and bound volumes, along with the digital database.

It’s an unprecedented effort, which will make it exceedingly difficult for CNE to delay a referendum on a technicality. In any event, snubbing such a massive and carefully organized show of force would put the government in a politically untenable position, leaving it well beyond the hemisphere’s democratic pale.

Significantly, key parts of Chávez’ congressional coalition have reached the same conclusion. Statements by two Lara state chavista Assembly members, along with those of several Podemos (former MAS-Más) assemblymen, make it clear that there is now a legislative majority to call a referendum. And while Rafael Simón Jiménez (of Podemos) is reluctant to take the plunge unless a large majority is guaranteed for the proposal, the street pressure (and the Súmate pressure) for a solution is becoming unbearable. With any luck, the Assembly’s chavista majority will read the writing on the wall, buck the pressures coming out of Miraflores, and back some kind of referendum by a unanimous (or near-unanimous) vote. If it refuses to do so, it will merely follow the president into total irrelevance.