October 16, 2002

Yes, yes, I've been delinquent about posting. In my defense, I've been battling a dreadful cold and sinking under a pile of work. And really, it's been an eventful few days. The government held a big counter-march on Sunday, 3 days after ours, and the scene soon descended into an infantile "mine was bigger - no, no, mine was bigger" affair. I think the numbers game is quite silly, frankly, but more or less unavoidable.

Then, yesterday, OAS finally noticed that the country is about to implode. Peru's president Toledo, bless his heart, called for a meeting of Andean-region foreign ministers to at least talk about it, within the framework of OAS's Democratic Charter. This is significant because it suggests that Toledo now thinks that the government might be in violation of the charter - though he hasn't quite said that, yet. The government threw a hissy-fit: until Toledo's speech, its attempts to throw up a facade of "absolute normalcy" - at least in international circles - had held. Yesterday, it started to crack. Not that OAS can really do much about our problems here, but it's just nice that the outside world has finally picked up on the idea that all is not sweetness'n'light here.

And into this already complicated stew you throw in the threat of a General Work Stoppage starting next Monday. Oh dear...

OK, below, VenEc's weekly editorial, penned by me.

Risky business

From the government’s point of view, it was a propaganda triumph. Through fair means or foul, Sunday’s pro-government march managed to create the appearance of roughly equaling Thursday’s opposition march. As usual, Hugo Chávez insulted common sense by claiming no less than three million people were in attendance, when in fact 100,000 might have been closer to the mark. Presidential hyperbole aside, though, the government turned out enough people to manipulate the resulting TV images into a media triumph.

In fact, there’s little doubt that the opposition march from last week was substantially larger. Experts speculate the ratio might have been anywhere from 4:1 to 12:1, though getting an accurate count of the opposition marchers was much more difficult, since they tended to dissipate upon arrival at their Avenida Bolívar endpoint, unlike the government marchers, who stayed to wait for the president’s speech there. The two marches bear out what pollsters have been saying for months: that the opposition now enjoys the support of a clear majority of Venezuelans – some two-thirds, according to most polls. But that hardly means that the government has been left in the lurch: it retains the impassioned support of a significant minority of the population, perhaps as much as a third of the Venezuelan public.

This overall breakdown has remained substantially unchanged since the second half of last year. What makes the situation so volatile is the fact that both sides insist on acting as though they enjoy near-unanimous popular support. The government stubbornly refuses to accept the drastic drop in its popularity, continuing to govern as though four-fifths of the electorate still supported it, as in March 1999. Angered by the government’s pigheaded refusal to accept the obvious, the opposition has fallen into an equally dangerous trap: acting as though support for the government had collapsed entirely, which is also a gross misrepresentation of reality. With each side unwilling to concede that the other has significant support, with neither side accepting the need to play by rules that are seen as acceptable by the other, and with each side overestimating its strength, the stage for miscalculation and violence is set.

It’s against this backdrop that the opposition has called for a 12-hour “general stoppage” to demand the president either resign or call early elections. This is a high-risk operation, one that faces many pitfalls. For one, the government has implemented a fierce campaign of intimidation to cow business owners into staying open. Companies that depend on the public sector for contracts are especially easy targets, but given Venezuela’s business climate, almost every company can be pressured one way or another – bureaucratic permits can be withheld, tax inspectors can become suddenly much more conscientious, labor disputes can tilt the way of the workers, etc. As though all of that were not enough, the government has recently published a draft of its much-feared “co-management” amendments to the Labor Law’s regulations, and government spokesmen have issued repeated threats to use those amendments to summarily take over any private companies that join a strike. In such circumstances, it will take real courage to buck the intimidation and join the stoppage.

So Carlos Ortega certainly has his work cut out for him. At this stage, it’s impossible to say whether such key sectors as the oil industry and Caracas’ transport workers will join the action. The CTV is taking a big risk on this mobilization, and it’s not yet possible to say whether it will pay off.

Overall, though, two points are obvious: as far as the government is concerned, its broad, Marxist vision for Venezuela’s future is not up for debate, and that vision is simply unacceptable to a broad majority of Venezuelans. The only resource the opposition has left is sustained, ongoing street pressure. Even if results are not immediately evident, even if individual actions do not lead to a same-day solution, democratically-minded Venezuelans have a historic duty to register their revulsion at the government’s plans at every possible juncture.

At the same time, it bears remembering that even if the Chávez regime were to collapse next week, the 20-33% of Venezuelans who believe passionately in the president’s message would still be there the next day. The real challenge for any transition government will be to incorporate those people into the post-chavista political process, reassuring them that their concerns are taken seriously and overcoming the urge towards facile triumphalism. Failure to do so would imperil the nation’s stability for years to come.