October 23, 2002

Sensitive New Age Coup

It wasn't hard to guess that sooner or later General Enrique Medina Gomez would eventually try to piece together some kind of antigovernment action, but who could've guessed it would be this? The man called a press conference yesterday with a who's who of the April coup leaders standing behind him in two neat rows in full uniform. He recited the usual litany of grievances but then stunned everyone: just when you thought he was about to order the troops to storm the palace, he stopped, and instead asked other army officers to join him in protest by going to Plaza Altamira, in the foofie east-side, and hold a vigil until Chavez resigns or calls fresh elections.

So that's exactly what they did. 30 hours ago. They're still there. Looks like a particularly excitable core of about 5 or 10,000 people are willing to really tough it out down there. More and more officers have trickled to the scene, giving the typical little speeches, waving, etc. It's quite an extraordinary demonstration, really. These big tough army guys have basically settled for a line saying "damn you Chavez! We're so angry at you that if you don't resign, we're gonna, we're gonna...make speeches! Yeah, and keep making them until you give up! There!" Very odd.

The nice thing is that their attitude, once again, pulls the rug from under the government's line. Of course, predictably, the government went into conniptions of rage over this new outbreak of "golpismo" - coupsterism - their favorite all purpose political slur. But if one thing is obvious is that a coup, at least a normal, traditional coup, is about as far from these guys intentions as could be. One does not stage a coup with flags, pots and pans from Plaza Altamira...that's just absurd. If anything, this is a sort of anticoup, a specific rejection of traditional heavy-handed military intervention, an impassioned demonstration that even the most radical antichavistas in the military reject a violent outcome.

(Cynics will of course point out that since these guys loyalty to chavez had been under a cloud for months, they'd been relieved from direct command posts months ago and couldn't have led a coup even if they wanted to. That's probably true. Still, their very visible rejection of the use of force strikes me as significant and vaguely inspiring.)

Of course, from the government's point of view, the protest is also a strange kind of godsend...they don't even have to purge these guys from the ranks, they've purged themselves. And the longer the protest goes on, the longer the incredible self-purging army has time to do its thing.

But in the short term, the Coordinadora Democratica has played this whole thing beautifully, nailing down the protest as a pristinely pure, democratic affair, again isolating the extremists, and using it to further undermine the government's position. One is inclined to say that the Coordinadora is learning how to do its thing, and learning fast. It's exciting.

October 22, 2002

I'm obviously hopping mad about the government's incredible, howling, flashing, bold-faced lying about yesterday's "paro." Thus, this week's VenEc editorial is about...

Getting rid of Chávez well

On Monday, Venezuela once again spoke loud and clear, and the government once again refused to listen. The message was, in essence, the same as on Dec. 10th, Jan. 23rd, April 11th, July 11th, and Oct. 10th. At bottom, all that opposition minded Venezuelans are trying to say, have been trying to say for close to a year now, is “we exist. Stop ignoring us. Acknowledge us.” And the government – incredibly, absurdly – simply refuses to do so.

Taken at face value, the official denial that a mass opposition movement even exists smacks of psychopathology. Faced with a discomfiting reality, the government’s line is simple denial – denial in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, denial that runs directly counter to what everyone in Venezuela saw with his or her own eyes on Monday. It makes the government come across as disturbingly autistic – locked in a private reality, radically unable to interact with the real world on reasonable terms.
But, of course, this maddeningly obtuse public posture is just that – a posture. It’s clear that, in its heart of hearts, the government understands that most of the country came to a standstill on Monday. (At least one hopes it understand this - the alternative hypothesis, that the government is run by people who actually believe its demented P.R. line, is just too frightening to consider.) In all likelihood, though, the government know its position is a farce, but has calculated that it’s to its advantage to maintain it. The question, then, is why?

In part, chavismo seems to have calculated that, to remain in power, it absolutely has to maintain the support of the 20% of Venezuelans that still follow the president with passion. To keep that fifth of the population mobilized and committed, it’s important that they continue to believe in the political viability of “the project.” Admitting the current strength of the opposition movement could be devastating to their morale.

What’s more important, though, is that if the government acknowledged the evident, the president would be forced to let go of his long-term vision of turning Venezuela into a neomarxist state. Once the government accepted that millions of common Venezuelans oppose Chávez’s ideological model, it would have little choice but to find an accommodation with them. And such an accommodation would certainly entail abandoning the president’s long-term ideological vision. This, in essence, is why María Cristina Iglesias had to go on television at lunchtime on Monday to tell Venezuelans that what they could see happening all around them was not, in fact, happening.

Faced with chavismo’s deeply dishonest obstinacy, the opposition has decided to keep pressing for early elections or for a referendum through a major signature gathering drive. Leaders such as Leonardo Pizani have even taken the significant step of publicly explaining that fair elections cannot be held until the nation’s voting system has been overhauled, and that such an overhaul will take time. Emboldened by the certainty that chavismo is only weakened and further marginalized with each passing day, the opposition seems newly prepared to show the patience and exercise the restraint necessary to reach a constitutional solution to the impasse.

Ultimately, though, democratically-minded Venezuelans have reason to feel confident. The government’s contention that the opposition movement is a fabrication of the media and “four little nutters,” in the president’s words, was a spectacular P.R. debacle. The opposition, meanwhile, is growing not only in size but also in ethical and intellectual stature. The Coordinadora Democrática now seems firmly in the hands of the moderate wing of the movement, led by forward looking, reform minded organizations like Queremos Elegir and Primero Justicia that understand the importance of removing Chávez with ballots rather than bullets. The more radical, immediatist parts of the opposition – including notably Acción Democrática – seem to have finally grasped the importance of keeping the Coordinadora united, avoiding on-the-spot announcements that escalate the potential for violence, and committing to an electoral path towards regime change, even if that means waiting a few months. That shift, in itself, was one of the most significant and positive outcomes of Monday’s protest.

Slowly but surely, the opposition is coming to understand that getting rid of Chávez will not, in and of itself, solve the nation’s problems. It will merely be the first step in the difficult road of reform. If that first step is carried out in a way that divides the country further, it could end up impeding rather than aiding the reform agenda the country so badly needs to implement. Thankfully, the opposition is starting to understand that its job is not just to get rid of Chávez. It’s to get rid of Chávez well.

October 21, 2002

Newsflash: AD toes the line!

I think I just saw the most significant event of the whole strike, and I bet most people missed it. Rafael Marin, Secretary General of Accion Democratica, gave a press conference. At one point, a journalist asked him if the strike would be extended beyond 12 hours, or if other protests could be added. He refused to answer, saying AD had made a commitment inside the Coordinadora Democratica - the opposition's umbrella group - to refrain from making any statement on such questions until agreement could be reached with the whole opposition.

Now, this is significant for a number of reasons. Accion Democratica has consistently been the most strident, radical party in the opposition. The bigger of the old, traditional, hypercorrupt political parties, AD sadly retains a large membership, a well-oiled party machine, and over 400,000 party activists committed enough to vote in its internal elections. For the first few months that the Coordinadora was in existence, AD managed to dominate it and impose its line, which was an immature, immediatist Chavez out NOW line. But for about the last six weeks, the more moderate voices in the Coordinadora have taken center stage. There was a lot of concern that the adecos would just walk away from the Coordinadora if they felt they could no longer dominate it. People feared they'd strike off on their own, walking away with a major opposition constituency, rather than follow the more moderate parties' line. We've had some bad experiences with radicals in the opposition pulling this kind of stunt before, and it makes the opposition look disunited, shambollic, and generally hopeless. Avoiding on-the-spot announcements for new protest actions has been a priority for the Coordinadora, and Marin's refusal-to-answer strongly suggests that AD has finally been made to understand that this is important.

Marin's statement seems to me like a pretty extraordinary event. AD, in a moment of high tension, publicly shuts up specifically on the grounds that it has pledged to do so at the Coordinadora. I've never seen AD act this way before, and I think it's a real sign of just how strong the moderates are getting inside the coordinadora. It strikes me that the time for stridency in opposition is passing, that AD finds itself more and more isolated in its Chavez-Must-Be-Toppled-Anytime-Anyway-Anyhow line. Not only are they outnumbered in the coordinadora, but they realize this and they accept it. It's a very un-AD-like way to behave, that's for sure. And it's very good news indeed.
Strike update...

Well, it looks like a pretty good general strike. Not a great strike. We've had better ones. December 10th was bigger, but this one's bigger than April 9th. Most shops shut in the east side, about half I'd say in the west side, varying numbers in the rest of the country. Far from unanimous, but pretty good.

Of course, neither side is sane enough to put it that way. As far as CTV is concerned, almost no one went to work today. Which is silly. "Exito total!" they say. Ummm....uhh...no. But the government's line is, as per usual, even stupider. There was no stoppage, was the Labor Minister's line. Just idiotic.

Basically, the streets look like it's a Sunday. Most stuff is shut, some stuff is open, and the hysterical political rhetoric or one side or the other is just...well...a sign of the times.