December 14, 2002

Cold Civil War

(...or is it Civil Cold War? Which do you think sounds better?)

Another march in Caracas today, a really bloody big one this time. I'm no expert, but it looks like the better part of a million people are out there waving flags and blowing whistles. They cover all 6 lanes of the East-side Highway for about a mile or so at this point, and many more people are joining from every part of town.

This is happening as the country more or less crumbles to bits. Gasoline has run out almost entirely everywhere in the country except for Caracas, where about half the stations have run out and the other half will run out within a day or two. Cab-drivers and bus drivers, who live hand-to-mouth, are getting pretty desperate in some places. The government is now talking about importing gasoline (think of that! That's like an emergency shipment of cameras into Japan!) An assembly of several thousand Caracas-area PDVSA managers have disowned the authority of the National Government and declared themselves in charge of the company. Staple foods are running low all over the place. The crisis is deep, all-encompassing, the situation couldn't really get much more dire. There's no shooting yet, but short of that it's hard to see how things could get worse. Some pundits are calling it a Cold Civil War.

And the president's response in this hour of direst national emergency?

"There is no strike in Venezuela, what we have is an oil-industry conspiracy by managers that have started to sabotage."

That's just one shard from his weird-ass interview with CNN yesterday. He then went on to claim victory over the strikers, because a half full tanker, the Josefa Camejo, managed to sail off to the US two days ago - the only ship that's left a Venezuelan port in a week, a period when we normally would've sent out over 40 tankers.

His insistence that the entire mess boils down to a few sabotage attempts on the part of a handful of hyperprivileged oil executives is really just crazy. I mean that quite literally: if you can't tell how incredibly dire the situation here is, you have a serious psychiatric problem. Even Cesar Gaviria, the international mediator trying to knock some sense into the government's head, is sick of it, calling the denial a main impediment to negotiations.

Chávez's position is so crazy it's becoming ever harder for Chavista spokesmen to tow the official line. So this morning, for instance, if you checked out the Union Radio web-page (required reading for Venezuelan politics junkies) the two top headlines you would have seen were Vicepresident Rangel: "The Situation in the Oil Industry has Improved Notably" and President of PDVSA Recognizes: The oil industry is "mostly paralized."

OK, so which one is it, guys?

So with the president locked in his own private reality, even his top lieutenants having a hard time defending his psychotic PR line, and the country falling to small bits, the future has never been more uncertain.

Thankfully, now that oil shipments to the US have been cut off for almost a week, Washington is finally getting its ass in gear. In a significant departure from previous policy, the White House is now calling for Early Elections as part of a settlement. The government's negotiators are still stalling; Gaviria is having a harder and harder time coming up with creative ways to put a positive spin on negotiations, and the opposition is emboldened by the day. The president is locked in his own private little warped head-world. We've tried everything we can think of to get this guy to reason with us. We've begged for a negotiated settlement, we've whimpered for referenda, we've pleaded for elections, but he continues to talk as though we don't exist.

What next? Who can tell?