November 20, 2002
What a difference seven days make. A week ago, the political scene was dominated by talk of parliamentary procedures, after the government attempted a questionable move to rewrite the new Elections Law. Now, after the partial militarization of the city last week, the takeover of the Metropolitan Police on Saturday, the firebombing of Globovisión on Sunrday morning, the running street battles between opposition activists and National Guardsmen near Altamira on Monday and an opposition march that ended in a cloud of tear gas and confusion yesterday, such concerns look oddly parochial. The question exercising the nation now is rather more immediate: has the country been put, de facto, under a state of exception?
This new constitutional euphemism for what used to be known as a “state of emergency” and its concomitant suspension of constitutional rights has been worrying opposition activists for months. There’s a good case to be made that, rather than making a formal – and legal – announcement, the government has decided to implement the State of Exception de facto. Certainly, much of what’s gone on in the last few days is incomprehensible in any other terms. The presence of troops, including army units, on the streets is clearly exceptional, as are the military checkpoints set up on the roads into the city. With day-to-day security in the city now openly in the hands of the military, much of the effect of a state of exception is simply already in place. And as the government displays greater and greater contempt for legal formalities, it becomes ever more plausible that a full state of exception could be implemented without ever having been declared.
As for the government takeover of the Metropolitan Police (known here as the PM), it’s not so much exceptional as just plain illegal, not to mention its being a gross provocation that has escalated political tensions in the capital to heights unseen since April. In appointing a Freddy Bernal loyalist with well-known ties to the Bolivarian Circles to head the PM, the government has made it clear it’s not so much interested in taking over the police as in dismantling it. There was never a chance that its rank-and-file officers would accept orders from the leader of the street gangs they’ve been fighting for nearly a year. So aware was Mr. Sánchez Delgado that the officers would not accept his authority that throughout his first 48 hours as police chief he didn’t even bother to call around to the various precincts – the government instead sent military units to guard them, with machine-gun turrets turned toward the police stations’ doors. Sánchez Delgado did eventually get around to visiting the various precincts – flanked by Freddy Bernal and a number of Bolivarian Circle activists.
What’s clear is that such reckless provocations have once again put opposition moderates (there no longer seems to be any such thing as “chavista moderates”) in an awkward position. Ultimately, a civilized “electoral outcome” is just not in the government’s interests. Recent polls show clearly that two out of three voters would ask for Chávez’ resignation, a proportion so large that the opposition now stands a good chance of exceeding the 3.7 million votes that would be needed to turn out the president in a formal revocatory referendum.
The government must prevent a vote – and raising political tensions as high as possible seems to be the route they’ve chosen to do so. Under such circumstances, opposition moderates’ calls for dialogue, negotiations, and ballot boxes look more and more out of step. Radical voices, from General Medina Gómez to Copei’s Sergio Omar Calderón, start to seem like a compendium of common sense. And while the Coordinadora Democrática has not left César Gaviria’s negotiating table, expectations for that exercise – which were low to begin with – are withering into nothingness.
The next move in this three-dimensional chess game is up to the Supreme Tribunal, which will have to rule on the constitutionality of the government’s takeover of the PM. Magistrate Hadded Moustafa Paolini has been assigned the task of drafting a ruling. He is said to be one of Proyecto Venezuela’s men on the Tribunal, making it seem likely he’ll side with the opposition. The question, then, will be whether his fellow magistrates back him and, if they do, whether President Chávez will heed the ruling. Failure to do so would represent the government’s clearest, starkest snub to the rule of law yet. But heeding the Tribunal would be a striking humiliation for a government that has staked so much on the PM powergrab. One way or another, the nation’s political future now hangs on this decision, and on the president’s reaction to it.