December 16, 2002

The President Must Be Crazy

Last week, VenEconomy outlined three scenarios for the brewing crisis here: the government, it was argued, might end the crisis by negotiating an agreement with the opposition; or it might win the war of attrition and break the strike slowly; or the two sides might radicalize their positions, pushing the country into a kind of train wreck of institutions. Just one week on, it’s already clear which scenario is playing out here. And characteristically for the Chávez era, it’s the worst of the lot.

The signs of radicalization – from both sides – are unmistakable. PDVSA’s managers no longer recognize the government’s right to lead the corporation, declaring themselves in charge of operations and vowing to remain on strike until the president resigns. It’s no longer a question of early elections, of referenda or negotiations for them: their demands are solidly entrenched in the maximalist camp. And emboldened by the growing militancy and strength of the protest actions it has called, the Coordinadora Democrática is in no mood to compromise, either.

The president, meanwhile, has only intensified his campaign of public vilification and of military intimidation and harassment against the strikers. What’s more, in over five hours of his latest Aló, presidente, Chávez failed to even acknowledge the existence of the march by some 1.5 million people to demand his resignation that took place less than 24 hours earlier - likely the largest political demonstration in the entire history of Venezuela. And to cap it all off, he exhorted his military commanders, on National Television, to disobey any court order that contradicts his decrees – placing himself in open defiance of the judicial system.

Whether by design or by default, the president is once more pushing towards a crazy confrontation, a fight he looks unlikely to win, and that’s certain to do untold damage to the country. Like in April, analysts are left to wonder whether the president is acting wholly irrationally or whether there is some sort of method to the madness.
In the view of many, he has calculated that his only chance of survival is to provoke a coup attempt, and then crush it. Certainly, his exhortation to disregard the courts seems custom-designed to goad institutionally-minded officers to defy his authority. And, once again, it’s entirely unclear whether he would, in fact, be able to crush a coup attempt at this point. Already, in April, he pushed his luck entirely too far. Eight months later, the strategy seems nearly suicidal.

The alternative hypothesis, that the president is acting totally irrationally, seems entirely plausible, given the evident distance between reality as president says he sees it and reality as it actually is. On Aló, presidente, for instance, Chávez actually kept a straight face as he told the country that “highly credible pollsters” had determined that 94% of the people of Maracaibo are against the oil strike. He has repeated several times that four tankers carrying two million barrels of oil left port on Friday and Saturday, a report that reliable sources in Puerto La Cruz deny categorically. And he has confidently asserted several times that the oil industry is well on its way back to normality. What’s alarming is not that the president lies, but rather the opposite, that he may actually believe his outrageous howlers. If Chávez is making decisions based on such a wildly distorted assessment of reality, it’s little wonder he miscalculates so often.

One thing is clear, though: the government’s attempts to break the strike have only made things much worse. The ongoing failure to take control of the Pilín León oil tanker, even after multiple armed attempts to replace the crew, have crystallized its total impotence in the face of PDVSA’s determined managers and workers. Governmental bluster about bringing in strike breakers from the Persian Gulf lack all credibility: if they can’t even replace a single tanker crew, how can they replace PDVSA’s 40,000+ specialized workers?

The problem, again, is not so much whether they can or can’t. The problem is that the president has clearly convinced himself that he can. And so long as he’s working from that assumption, he’s bound to continue to make moves that further destabilize the country, edging it closer and closer to a much-feared outbreak of violence and anarchy. In the present circumstances, perceptions count for almost as much as reality. And the president’s psychopathological misreading of the reality around him has become one of the most dangerous elements of the crisis.