January 11, 2003

The case for despondency

Today I came closer than ever to succumbing to complete despondency, just absolute hopelessness. The impasse is total right now, and it's very difficult for me to visualize any way out of the crisis. On the one hand, as Gaviria keeps saying, the only possible solution is through negotiations, through give-and-take. On the other hand, Hugo Chávez will not, cannot, doesn't know how and wouldn't want to negotiate. Everyone can see that escalation is mad at this point, just mindlessly destructive and stupid. But escalation is all we seem to get.

Gaviria's speech two nights ago was powerful and wise. He said Venezuela might find an "outcome" that's not negotiated. The government could crush the opposition outright, or the opposition might overthrow the government against its will. But those wouldn't be solutions, they would be outcomes. They wouldn't address the underlying causes of the crisis, and they could leave the country unstable for years to come.

The opposition may not be able to stop the country cold, but they can disrupt life enough to send the economy into chaos and make the country ungovernable. And if Chávez is shoved out of power in a way his supporters don't accept as legitimate, they could set the country alight. So outcomes are cheap, there are lots of possible outcomes. But a solution to the crisis, a solution that leaves the country peaceful and democratic and minimally functional...that's something else entirely. Only bona fide negotiations can bring about a solution.

Now, it's sad but true that not everyone in the opposition wants a negotiated solution. There's a fringe that would clearly prefer a right wing coup. But I think there's a critical mass of opposition opinion that would support a negotiated agreement, if one was on offer. Moderate voices would probably reach a deal if they could. The opposition crazies could be marginalized through debate.

The problem is that, on the goverment's side, there's no comparable debate where extremists might be isolated, because there is no comparable variety of views. There's no such thing as "a critical mass of government opinion" because "government opinion" is exactly the same thing as Hugo Chávez's opinion. And you can't marginalize their crazies because the government is run by the crazy-in-chief.

The autocratic, cult-of-personality underpinnings of the chavista movement are so marked that only the president's opinion matters. And his views are like the antidote to negotiation. Hugo Chávez has made a political career out of equating negotiation with selling out, compromise with treason, and accomodation with surrender. Every time he speaks, he makes a mockery of the hopes of those who think it might be possible to work out an agreement with him.

It's hard to know how to write about Chávez's style of oratory. For those of you who've heard him, any description is superfluous; for those of you who haven't, any description is insufficient. Picture the most charismatic southern preacher you've ever seen, then square it. Behind a podium, Hugo Chávez is a man possessed. He doesn't speak, he shouts into a microphone in a kind of ecstatic fit. He can keep it up for hours and hours at a stretch. In four years he's fine-tuned his fire-breathing style of oratory. As his face contorts and the bombastic nonsense spews out in thicker and thicker densities, it's impossible not to wonder about the man's mental health. And as his ecstatic supporters get worked up into a hero-worshipping frenzy, it's impossible not to wonder about theirs.

The soundbytes that make it into the following day's newspapers vary, though usually they focus on the most over-the-top remark of the speech. Picking it out is not always easy; there are so many candidates. Real jewels get relegated to the inside pages by truly grotesque nuggets of megalomanic gobbledygook. For instance, yesterday he described Venezuela's four major private TV channels as "the four horsemen of the apocalypse." But the remark - incredibly incendiary though it was - was upstaged by his even more sinister threats to order a military take-over of Venezuela's entire food industry.

On the other hand, some of the most destructive stuff he says doesn't even make the news anymore simply because he's repeated it so often. Nobody cares that he labelled the oil industry's managers a cabal of coup-plotting terrorist saboteurs again yesterday: it's the Nth time he's said it this week. There's a strong element of pathos to the nonsense marathons: nobody really takes him that seriously. After all, if he literally thought the PDVSA managers are really terrorists, wouldn't you think he might have put at least some of them in jail? So it's empty bluster, and people recognize it as empty bluster, but it still rankles. Today it was a threat to takeover all the nation's private schools and jail their principals to break the strike, tomorrow it will be some other fantastically unworkable bit of neomarxist intellectual onanism. The specifics don't really matter that much, because none of these mad schemes are even remotely practicable. Nobody really takes them that seriously.

Now, it's an open question whether the president intentionally sets out to inflame the crisis with statements like those or whether they're just an accidental byproduct of the self-hypnotic trance that the presence of TV cameras seems to send him into. What nobody can question, though, is the way this kind of talk poisons the nation's political atmosphere. Columnists here have said it a million times in a million different ways: the torrent of bile that pours out of the president's mouth everytime he gets near a microphone could be the single biggest obstacle to a negotiated solution in Venezuela today.

So you can understand the reasons my despondency. It's a simple, ineluctable syllogism, really:

Premise 1: Negotiating an agreement is the only way to find a peaceful, democratic solution to the crisis.
Premise 2: One of the parties to the conflict is working as hard as he can every single day to make sure negotiations can't succeed.
Ergo: There cannot be a peaceful, democratic solution to this crisis.

A dire, dark, depressing realization, no? The deadlock continues indeffinitely into the future while more and more businesses fail, more and more people lose their jobs, and the nation continues its steady, seemingly irreversible descent into total chaos. It's grim, it's really grim.