April 16, 2007

Wilpert in his labyrinth

An Open Letter to Greg Wilpert

Dear Greg,

I read your piece on the April Crisis with interest. While, obviously, I disagree with your overall interpretation, I'm really glad you wrote it. I found it really refreshing to read a serious effort from the chavista side to come to grips with the actual evidence that's out there. To this day, it amazes me that no similarly evidence-oriented account of the chavista version of events is available in Spanish. But, y'know, there are reasons for that.

As I read your piece, I couldn't help dwelling on those. What a mess you're putting yourself into by telling the story this way, Greg! Re-introducing facts that have been gradually scrubbed off the Official Version - the Plan Avila order, the hushed resignation of the new PDVSA board, the government's advance notice that the march would be re-routed, the scant, fragmentary and circumstantial evidence of US involvement - your account leaves you way out of step with the canonical chavista version of events. It's a re-telling that casts you in the role of "independent-minded supporter," and I know full well that's no bed of roses. You're an independent-minded supporter of a government that, these days, feels almost as threatened by independent-minded supporters as by outright opponents. Seriously, ask Diaz Rangel, or López Maya, or Miguel Salazar, or Ismael García or Jesús Cabrera.

Partly, your problem is that the official version keeps changing, departing more and more from the facts in the public domain, the facts that make up the basis of your post. You tell us that seven opposition members died on April 11th, along with five bystanders. But official mythology has moved on: Chávez now says that everyone who died that day died on his behalf, as martyrs to his cause. You may remember making your way through the opposition crowd on Avenida Baralt, up through no-man's-land, to Puente Llaguno, but Cilia Flores has already announced that the opposition march was never on Avenida Baralt in the first place. So should a principled revolutionary believe you, or the presidents of the republic and the National Assembly?

It doesn't much matter that you're right and they're lying - they have power, and all you have is a keyboard. You may be shielded for a while longer by the fact that you write in a foreign language, but sooner or later they'll figure out that you believe the evidence more than you believe the official story. And the revolution has no use for people like that, Greg.

What's funny, though, is that your retelling goes both too far and not far enough. You're way out ahead of the constantly morphing, increasingly sanitized, mythologized official version, for sure, but your allegiance to evidence has some limits as well. I had a nice chuckle when I got to that delicately balanced bit about how, "unbeknownst to the general public", PDVSA's new board resigned on April 10th. That was some fancy syntactic footwork, gingerly obviating the fact that it was Chávez they'd tendered their resignations to, so if the public didn't beknow it, it's because he didn't betell them!

Most of my quibbles are along those lines: you note the speck in La Fuente and Meza's journalistic eye but never notice the log in yours as you exempt Chávez from his very obvious responsibility for egging on the crisis. You write that Chávez's "style" helped deepen the conflict throughout early 2002, but you write it as though this had been some kind of unwitting byproduct. You omit mention of Plan Colina and the Grupo Colina he set up to execute it. Remember those? Chávez himself, speaking to the National Assembly in 2004, acknowledged (or is the right word 'bragged'?) that he had set them up precisely to precipitate a crisis, to sharpen the contradictions as a way to finally turn PDVSA from a state institution into an instrument of personal discretion.

Not that such an explicit acknowledgment was really needed. Back in 2002, anyone with a pair of open eyes and a TV set could tell that Chávez, as much as the opposition, was working to antagonize the other side as acutely as possible. Unless you think he's plain dumb, you realize he knew this would provoke a showdown. This, when you think about it, is not even really a controversial point.

Thing is, if there's something Chávez knows a thing or two about it's the dynamics of coup management in the Venezuelan military. He was socialized in the AD-era military, where standard operating procedure when the authorities caught wind of a plot was to "let it roll" - to monitor it as it developed in order to flush out as many unreliable elements as possible. Certainly, without provoking an extreme situation, Chávez couldn't have gauged if he could really rely on Rosendo, on Camacho Kairuz, or on Baduel. (No, no, yes - turned out to be the answers.) Already by April 7th, Rosendo's panicked pleas for him to find a negotiated solution, to sit down and talk, and to avoid placing armed civilians around Miraflores must have given him pause. There were, in the two weeks preceding the coup, any number of opportunities to stem it. Chávez passed them all up. Ever wonder why that is?

Of course, here I start to flirt with ideas too dangerous for even an "independent-minded supporter" to countenance. Some taboos are more taboo than others. The notion that Chávez is essentially blameless, que el tipo no rompe un plato, is not really one I can expect you to question. To acknowledge Chávez's obvious - indeed, self-confessed - interest in accentuating the crisis would set you down a slope that is just too slippery, both to your position within the movement and to the precarious internal balance you've had to build to justify your support for a leader you have, on occasion, acknowledged is inclined to authoritarianism.

But still, I'm honestly glad you wrote that piece. I may interpret things differently, but the point is that, surely, we could have a conversation about it. Because what you do is something nobody else on your side seems to do: you present reasoned interpretations based on factual claims backed by the available evidence. You don't just screech generic accusations; you don't just hurl insults at those who disagree with you.

And that makes all the difference. Because it means I can do what I've done here: reply by contrasting your interpretations with different interpretations that are also based on factual claims and backed by the available evidence. And if you choose, you can do the same back to me. So we can go back and forth, in an iterative process that could, little by little, lead to us constructing a shared understanding of what actually happened. Ta-daaaaa: communicative action!

Actually, when I think about it in those terms, your coup piece is the most subtly but profoundly counterrevolutionary thing I've read in months.


Tomorrow: Greg's response.