December 19, 2002

A plausible defense of the lunatic's legacy...

As I talk about Venezuela with people abroad, some variation on it always comes up sooner or later. "Come on, Chávez can't be all bad...he must have some redeeming qualities, right?" It's usually an awkward moment, cuz I really can't think of any, so I end up coming accross as a total opposition zealot. Sometimes, if I'm pushed, I'll say something like "well, since he came to power people are definitely much more aware of themselves as citizens, as political beings with political rights who can have an impact on society if they just organize and act. When I was growing up, the level of political apathy and cynicism here was alarming - kind of like in the U.S. now. That, thank god, is over." It's not much of a compliment, of course, but it's something.

So I was both surprised and relieved to see that that's the angle at the center of the the article on Venezuela in the current issue of Mother Jones. Surprised because I haven't seen any other foreign journalists tackle the story from this angle before. Relieved because, well, most foreign lefties get Chávez catastrophically wrong, mangling the facts, putting an aggressively tendentious spin on events, and often just buying into the government's twisted PR line hook, line and sinker. And that's a temptation the story wisely avoids.

MJ's Barry Lynn desserves real praise for his piece, which is well researched and pretty fair. He makes a few minor mistakes, and I would certainly argue with much of what he writes. But overall, he's honest, thorough, and sane. He avoids the pitfalls inherent in trying to lionize Hugo Chavez the man by focusing instead in the effects his government has had on how poor Venezuelans relate to politics, and that's a much welcome change in focus. In fact, after four years living through el comandante's rein of error and reading dozens of chavista tracts, Lynn's piece is probably the best defense of chavismo I've ever read.

Of course, he does make some questionable arguments. I think he makes too much of the exclusionary aspects of the old regime, for one thing. Before Chávez Venezuela was a buddy system, for sure, but it was never the closed oligarchy of, say, Colombia. The country was never close to a meritocracy, but there was certainly social mobility - much more than in most of the region. Many of the old regime's big wigs came from poor peasant families. The last two presidential candidates of Acción Democrática, the emblematic political party of the old regime, were both born poor: one of them was black and the other had a fourth grade education. And it was the old regime that brought Venezuela free universal education, and the free state-university system that opened the doors to the middle class to hundreds of thousands of people born into horrible poverty. Not that I would want to defend the old system - heavens no. God knows it was hideously corrupt and founded on a culture of cronyism. But it wasn't El Salvador, y'know.

Most of what irks about Lynn's piece is not so much what's in it as what's left out. You could read it and come away with the impression that the only reason anyone opposes Chávez is that we're a bunch of overprivileged whiners. And, y'know, granted: there's a good number of overprivileged whiners in the opposition, but it goes far beyond that. There's no way to understand the opposition movement here without knowing something about the president's appalling intolerance towards dissent, for instance, or his regime's thoroughgoing contempt for the legal system, or the way he's stacked every nominally independent state institution with cronies, etc., etc. etc. Lynn doesn't tell you about any of that. And it's too bad.

But these are nits, really, and overall Lynn should be praised for a fair, well-researched article that shines a spotlight on positive aspects of chavismo that critics (like myself) too often overlook.
Extra! Extra! Nothing happens!

Today, the streets of Caracas are witnessing a totally unprecedented development: calm. For the first time in the lat 17 days, there are no marches in the streets today. For the first time since the strike started, tens of thousands of people will not march to demand the government's ouster. The strike leaders have called for a day of "reflection with your family" and prayer.

Now that's new...

December 18, 2002

First casualty: everyday life...

Last night, my sister Cristina asked whether I'd go visit her today, relieve some of the tedium of these claustrophobic strike days, and chat about the project the NGO she belongs to is working on. I was a bit weary of using up the carefully hoarded gas in my gas-tank, but thought, what the hell, it'll be fun. I set out at about 10:15 am, but pretty soon I realized it'd be tough going.

The opposition had called a trancazo for the morning, a half day action where people would block streets and highways to protest the government. It's usually just a 10 minute drive to Cristina's apartment, and I thought I could make it, but no go. The street in front of the Mata de Coco mall was blocked...I swung around and tried the Avenida Libertador: blocked as well. I asked a cab driver if the Cota Mil highway was open, no luck. And I knew Francisco de Miranda Avenue was blocked, so I was pretty well stuck...I remembered that old saying from Vermont: "afraid you can't get there from here." Shit.

So I parked my car close to my mom's in Campo Alegre, bitter about the wasted gas, and figured I might as well do something with my morning. Like everyone else, my Christmas shopping is all backed up, so I thought I'd try to find that Discman I promised my mom's maid - who washes my clothes. I spent 45 minutes going through Sabana Grande, one of the main shopping strips in town, and though a lot of clothes shops and bakeries were operating, every electronics shop in site was on strike. Feeling pretty frustrated, I finally found a quincallería, kind of an odds-and-ends store that looked like they stocked some electronics. "You got a discman for me?" I asked the guy behind the counter. "Sorry man, sold the last one this morning...God knows when we'll get another delivery."

Christ. OK. I still had about an hour to kill before my lunch appointment, so I thought I'd walk around for a bit. I left Sabana Grande for El Rosal, where there are fewer shops, and I thought, well, maybe I should get some coffee. If there's one thing you can get in this stinking town is a cup of coffee, right? I asked a guard by one of the shuttered buildings where I could get one. Guy scratches his head. "Um, I think there's a cafetería that's still open two streets down, maybe." He points me, and I walk over. "A large marrón, please." (it's kind of a dark latte) Woman looks at me, "sorry," she says, "black coffee only...we're out of milk."

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.