January 21, 2003

How to slide from political crisis to civil war without really trying
How the chavistas learned to love their guns

It's a tricky subject to write about, mostly because the opposition has been so irresponsible in talking about it. Listen to the strike leaders speak, and you'd think we're in Argentina in 1977, if not in Russia circa 1951. One of Carlos Ortega's favorite ways to start a sentence is "this totalitarian regime has..." That's absurd. Actually, it's worse than absurd: it's an unconscionable insult against the tens of millions of people who have been imprisoned, tortured and killed under real totalitarian regimes in the last hundred years. And that's something I refuse to do.

However, no matter how irresponsible strike leaders have been in characterizing the Chávez government, No matter how grotesquely exagerated their claims may be, that doesn't make it any less true that violence is on the rise in Venezuela. And fast, alarmingly fast.

Anyone who's followed my writing knows I'm pretty well covered against charges of alarmism here. The most puzzling thing about the first few years of the Chávez administration was not how much violence it employed, but how little. I've made that point again and again, both in print and informally, and it sure hasn't made me any friends. I've been attacked as a "cryptochavista" for saying so, doubtlessly it's landed me on opposition radicals' lists of the not-fully-reliable.

That, in itself, is a clear illustration of the infernal levels of intolerance that have gripped this country. As far as many people in the opposition are concerned, saying anything that might in any way reflect favorably on the government is close to heresy. And opposition radicals could always rebut my claim with all kinds of stories of intimidation, harrassment, baton beatings, rubber pelleting, tear gassing and even sporadic shooting to try to paint Chávez's as a kind of mobster regime.

Of course, I don't dispute that violence of that sort took place, and indeed it continues to take place. Some of my friends have been among the targets. What I mean when is that the mass-scale, indiscriminate, use of murderous violence to achieve political ends remained oddly absent from the mix.

I say "oddly" because everything else we knew about the regime suggested it should have had no compunctions about using violence - the theatrical militarism, the cult-of-personality, the autocratic intolerance, the use of threats in place of arguments, the endless chatter about revolutionary this and revolutionary that, the demonization of opponents, the entire ideological structure of chavismo seemed like a complex web of justifications for violence. Yet when the rubber hit the road, when the time came to actually act on that ideological combo-pack, chavistas seemed weirdly bashful.

What's alarming, though, is that little by little they're getting over it.

You can see it happening in Venezuela these days. The process is gradual, yes, it doesn't happen all at once. But you can actually see it happening in front of your eyes now, on your TV screen. It's unmistakable. And it's spooky as hell.

When chavistas first turned their guns on opposition protesters, back on April 11th, the country was so uniformly stunned that Chávez was actually toppled for 48 hours there in response. It was just inconceivable to us back then that one Venezuelan could shoot another over something so fleeting and banal as a political disagreement. These days, it's become almost routine. It barely elicits outrage anymore, just a grim shake of the head and a knot in the pit of your stomach.

And how could we be surprised at this point? Ever since since August 14th, when the Supreme Tribunal ruled that there had been no military rebellion on April 11th, groups of chavistas have been using guns on us more and more often. Especially since the start of 2003, the uptick in chavista violence is unmistakable. Attacks have happened all over the country, from Margarita to Punto Fijo, from big cities like Caracas and Valencia to tiny little villages like Socopó, in Barinas State, Carayaca and forgotten little hamlets in Guayana. This cannot be a coincidence; it's absurd to think that chavistas all over the country suddenly all decided to start attacking opposition gatherings at the same time. This is part of a plan.

(And I know I sound like a crazed opposition radical when I write that, and I hate to sound like those people, but the evidence is no longer ambiguous here.)

The gunmen have been fully identified several times now by stunningly brave amateur cameramen. The private TV stations - you know, the ones Chávez wants shut down (I wonder why?) - play the videos again and again. But the government never acts against these people. The only gunman now in detention is Joao de Gouveia, who wound up in jail merely because he broke the 11th commandment of the chavista shooter: if you're shooting in an opposition-controlled area, then for chrissake don't get caught be a municipal cop.

Yet even by the standards of this gradual routinization of violence, yesterday's shooting spree against the opposition in Charallave was especially troubling. On several levels. First off, because the opposition wasn't even ambushed, as in so many other occassions, by government supporters waiting at the end of their march path. No, this time, the gunmen were literally delivered to the march's starting point, opening fire from the roofs of speeding jeeps as a huge crowd of all ages and genders was getting ready to start marching. (Again, one very gutsy home video enthusiast has the footage to prove it.)

So there was no question of "clashing crowds" here, or "policemen trying to keep the groups apart" or any of the standard repertoir of obfuscation and smoke-screening the government usually employs to keep their denials plausible. None of that. Just a large crowd of people "armed only with flags and whistles" as the cliché goes, suddenly and randomly attacked for no reason at all other than being opposed to the autocrat.

When you peel away all of the nonsense and the visceral outrage and you just stare that situation straight in the face, what word comes to mind? And I am mindful of the way the term has been abused for political gain over the last 17 months, but when I look at what happened in Charallave yesterday I can think of only one word to describe it: terrorism.

And state terrorism, at that.

It's not just the incredible cowardice of the attack, its openness, its shamelessness. Perhaps even worse is the way the chavista mayor of Charallave more or less claimed responsibility for the attacks, in a statement that can't be that far off from what Hezbollah issues after shooting up some Israeli settlers. After proudly announcing that Charallave is | chavista territory,| mayor Marisela Mendoza said she hoped "it won't even occur to the opposition to try to march here again," apparently not fully aware that she was coming perilously close to confessing to being an accessory to murder. Because, oh yes, did I forget to mention that? Among the dozens of wounded there was one guy who never made it out of that march.

But then, in Venezuela, that barely counts as news these days.

The fear, the very widespread fear, is that we're only starting to see the top few inches of the tip of a distant iceberg here. I don't think there's any doubt anymore that the government has armed many, many of its civilian supporters, trained them, and is now working on getting them used to shooting at us when the order comes without thinking twice. That charming Mayor Mendoza there makes it achingly clear that some of them no longer feel the need to go through the motions of covering up their tracks. It's a fantastically dangerous situation.

It's just a fantastically dangerous situation.