October 18, 2002

My country has become a scare tactic...

How embarrassing. In the final few days before the Brazilian presidential election, the doomed right-wing candidate has started likening Lula, the lefty front-runner, with Chavez, all in a final desperate ploy to win some last minute votes. "Elect this lunatic and we'll end up as screwed up as Venezuela is," seems to be the crux of Serra's campaign these days. Sad...Venezuela has become a scare tactic in foreign elections.

What's really telling, though, is Lula's reaction. An old-time lefty with two decades of experience in politics and four presidential elections behind him, Lula's seasoned enough to realize how lethal the association is and has decided to run full speed in the opposite direction. He called Serra's statement "electoral terrorism"...yikes! And to think chavistas of all sorts had been licking their lips over a supposed Fidel-Chavez-Lula axis. Doesn't look likely, does it?

Of course, it's just an international iteration of a trend that's been evident here for a long time. Serious Venezuelan left-wingers have been horrified by Chavez for years. Responsible people of the left are alarmed by the way Chavez is blackening the progressive movement's name here. We're talking people with unimpeachable credentials as social activists, people who risked their lives as guerrillas in the 60s, who've been working for radical reform since Chavez was at his mother's teat...we're talking Americo Martin, the old Revolutionary Left Movement leader, we're talking Teodoro Petkoff, who spent years in jail after organizing an incredibly daring raid for the Communist Party's guerrilla movement. We're talking Pompeyo Marquez and Douglas Bravo and Luis Manuel Esculpi and Pablo Medina and Andres Velasquez and even Jorge Olavarria; leaders who've devoted their lives to actually improving the lives of the poor, rather than talking crap about it. These people realize that, in the long-term, Chavez is doing incredible damage to the movement by convincing the middle-class that leftists really are the deranged lunatics they'd always feared they might be. The irony is that with this grotesque charade of a people's government, Chavez is actually making it harder and harder for any serious leftist to be taken seriously in the future. It's pretty sad. Ask Lula.
This riot is brought to you by...your government!

It's hard to contain the seething anger I feel when watching the TV footage from yesterday's riot downtown. I've written again and again about the need to de-escalate the crisis here, to chill out, to negotiate, to take chavistas seriously, to take their hopes and fears into account, to include them in a democratic solution. But then I watch the Lina Ron sponsored little affair downtown yesterday, I can't help but fall into despair. How, how is it possible to de-escalate a confrontation with a government that condones this shit? How is it possible to trust a government whose supporters have tacit permission to shoot guns at their political opponents in the streets?

Takes two to tango. Takes two to de-escalate. And yesterday made it, once again, totally obvious that the government has no interest at all in de-escalating.

It depresses me to no end that Lina Ron now sets the national agenda in this country. A full time provocateur, professional riot-organizer who coined the hideous phrase "a shut shop is a looted shop" to intimidate shop-keepers into staying open next monday, she's the incarnation of the basest, the vilest in the chavista regime. In any halfway serious country she would've been locked away months ago: she's been captured on camera inciting her underlings to violence so often it's become a journalistic cliché here. How can we be sure her little acts are government-backed? It's not just her evident immunity from prosecution, her constant hyper-heated pro-government rhetoric. It's that she's so assured of the official backing she enjoys that yesterday she even took a short break from the riot to pop over next door into the National Assembly to consult strategy with the government's congressional delegation. All in full view of the cameras. So how do you trust a government that operates this way enough to negotiate with it? How do you de-escalate with people that are this deeply committed to violence?

I mean, my God, at this point we've just gotten used to the phrase "disturbances generated by backers of the government" as a standard journalistic phrase...it doesn't even strike us as odd anymore, it's just...routine...

If moderate chavistas (are there any left?) had any sense at all - or any power at all - they'd realize that it's precisely this kind of crap that's pushing this country towards violence. The grotesque scenes last night marginalize doves like me, making us look like fools for calling for an accomodation with these people. It incites the non-chavistas in the army, who have it rubbed in their faces one more time that government-supporters can do anything they want downtown and the law just doesn't apply to them. It raises tensions across the whole society, pushes it towards a coup, towards a confrontation, towards a war. It's insane...

In the end, it was just Lina and a few dozen hot-heads making trouble downtown. The hotheads are not the problem. The problem, what's totally unacceptable about these episodes, is their evident coziness with the government, the obvious fact that nobody in power is willing to move against them, that they're protected. Whatever it takes, the government must be made to understand that this is not an acceptable way to do politics, not to 90% of Venezuelans. We can't accept it.

October 17, 2002

Anatomy of (yet another) downtown riot …
(sigh…these are getting predictable…)

At first, people weren’t sure what to make of the protests at the Metropolitan Police. A pretty good number of PMs (as the cops are known) started protesting about back-pay, which seemed reasonable. The Greater Caracas Mayor answered that he sympathized, but that the money to pay them had not been handed down to him by the National Government, where all of the Mayor’s money originates. That seemed reasonable too. But as the protests got more drawn out and militant, people started to get suspicious. There was a definite whiff of the political about this protest – the Metropolitan Mayor is a fierce Chávez critic, after all, and the Metropolitan Police has been a key to the big anti-government protests over the last 10-months. Without a big PM presence, a lot of opposition activists would’ve been too scared to protest in public. So the idea that the protest was a ploy to undermine, maybe even destroy the PM began to take shape. And those suspicions were born out when Channel 8, the doctrinally chavista State-run channel, started devoting more and more air time to the protests.

So today, when the dispute finally got out of hand, when the dissident cops tried to set fire to the Metropolitan Mayor’s Offices, when other PMs had to disperse them with tear gas, when groups of masked trouble-makers joined them and fired gunshots at the PM lines, and when no one in the National Government lifted a finger to stop the whole sorry exercise in Avenida Urdaneta, we weren’t surprised. We’ve come to expect this madness from the government. Time and time again they've shown that this is how they deal with opponents: round up some street thugs, set them on your enemies. Preserves plausible deniability.

Frankly, we're scared. We're scared that when they manage to provoke an incident that gives the government an excuse to take over the Metropolitan Police our right to protest in the streets will be truly in peril. Without a well-armed PM presence standing guard, marching would just be too scary. And these days, marching is one of the last means of protest we have left.
[it occurs to me that, especially for non-Venezuelans, the column above might not make that much sense without an…]

Explicative note on how this crazy city is organized

The municipal structure of Caracas is a daunting tangle. When my grandmother was born 90 years ago, Caracas was a town of maybe 200,000 confined to what is now known as el centro, downtown, over on the west side of the valley, in what was known as the Distrito Federal – a DC type federal entity. With the advent of oil and modernity, it grew incredibly quickly, like many third world capitals, to its current 4 million inhabittants. In the process, it spilled out of the central core, growing eastward along the valley into areas that laid outside the D.F., in Miranda State. Many towns that for centuries had been quite separate from the city were swallowed up in the sprawl – Chacao, Petare, El Hatillo. But each of those had their own municipal governments. By the 1990s, these had become neighborhoods of Caracas rather than towns of their own, leaving the broader city without a unified municipal government.

When the Constituent Assembly was convened in 1999, many proposals surfaced to bring chaos to the madness by consolidating these into a single administrative entity. But the Miranda State government didn’t like the idea one bit: the wealthy East-side Caracas neighborhoods held a huge proportion of its population and its tax base, and the governor realized it would be a disaster for the state if those were taken out of its jurisdiction. So the proposals faced serious resistance, and a compromise was eventually reached: a new Metropolitan Mayorship would be created, encompassing the East-side neighborhoods, but without dismembering Miranda State. Each of the East-side neighborhoods would retain its own municipal government, which would coexist with a Greater Caracas mayorship. The result was a municipal structure even more complicated than before: the city now has both a Metropolitan Mayor with jurisdiction over both the East and West-sides of the city, stradling both the D.F. (which, just to make things even more convoluted, had its name changed – it’s now the Distrito Capital, D.C.) and parts of Miranda State AND five local mayors. In the Eastern Districts, there are three levels of regional government: the municipal, the greater-caracas municipal, and then the state governor, whereas the Distrito Capital has no governor, so in that part, the metropolitan mayor acts as de facto governor. Confused? So’s everyone else.

The point is that whenever you hear someone say “the mayor of Caracas” you have to ask “which one?”

The thing is that unlike normal municipal governments, the Greater Caracas mayorship has no autonomous tax-raising powers at all. It relies completely on the National Government for its funding. And the Greater Caracas mayor, Alfredo Peña, is now an ardent antichavista (though, once upon a time, he sat on Chávez’ cabinet,) and has become a major bete noire for Chávez’s followers. So, not surprisingly, the National Government nickel-and-dimes Peña’s bureaucracy to no end. The municipal workers get paid verrry irregularly, if at all, and that includes Peña’s Metropolitan Police officers.

October 16, 2002

Yes, yes, I've been delinquent about posting. In my defense, I've been battling a dreadful cold and sinking under a pile of work. And really, it's been an eventful few days. The government held a big counter-march on Sunday, 3 days after ours, and the scene soon descended into an infantile "mine was bigger - no, no, mine was bigger" affair. I think the numbers game is quite silly, frankly, but more or less unavoidable.

Then, yesterday, OAS finally noticed that the country is about to implode. Peru's president Toledo, bless his heart, called for a meeting of Andean-region foreign ministers to at least talk about it, within the framework of OAS's Democratic Charter. This is significant because it suggests that Toledo now thinks that the government might be in violation of the charter - though he hasn't quite said that, yet. The government threw a hissy-fit: until Toledo's speech, its attempts to throw up a facade of "absolute normalcy" - at least in international circles - had held. Yesterday, it started to crack. Not that OAS can really do much about our problems here, but it's just nice that the outside world has finally picked up on the idea that all is not sweetness'n'light here.

And into this already complicated stew you throw in the threat of a General Work Stoppage starting next Monday. Oh dear...

OK, below, VenEc's weekly editorial, penned by me.

Risky business

From the government’s point of view, it was a propaganda triumph. Through fair means or foul, Sunday’s pro-government march managed to create the appearance of roughly equaling Thursday’s opposition march. As usual, Hugo Chávez insulted common sense by claiming no less than three million people were in attendance, when in fact 100,000 might have been closer to the mark. Presidential hyperbole aside, though, the government turned out enough people to manipulate the resulting TV images into a media triumph.

In fact, there’s little doubt that the opposition march from last week was substantially larger. Experts speculate the ratio might have been anywhere from 4:1 to 12:1, though getting an accurate count of the opposition marchers was much more difficult, since they tended to dissipate upon arrival at their Avenida Bolívar endpoint, unlike the government marchers, who stayed to wait for the president’s speech there. The two marches bear out what pollsters have been saying for months: that the opposition now enjoys the support of a clear majority of Venezuelans – some two-thirds, according to most polls. But that hardly means that the government has been left in the lurch: it retains the impassioned support of a significant minority of the population, perhaps as much as a third of the Venezuelan public.

This overall breakdown has remained substantially unchanged since the second half of last year. What makes the situation so volatile is the fact that both sides insist on acting as though they enjoy near-unanimous popular support. The government stubbornly refuses to accept the drastic drop in its popularity, continuing to govern as though four-fifths of the electorate still supported it, as in March 1999. Angered by the government’s pigheaded refusal to accept the obvious, the opposition has fallen into an equally dangerous trap: acting as though support for the government had collapsed entirely, which is also a gross misrepresentation of reality. With each side unwilling to concede that the other has significant support, with neither side accepting the need to play by rules that are seen as acceptable by the other, and with each side overestimating its strength, the stage for miscalculation and violence is set.

It’s against this backdrop that the opposition has called for a 12-hour “general stoppage” to demand the president either resign or call early elections. This is a high-risk operation, one that faces many pitfalls. For one, the government has implemented a fierce campaign of intimidation to cow business owners into staying open. Companies that depend on the public sector for contracts are especially easy targets, but given Venezuela’s business climate, almost every company can be pressured one way or another – bureaucratic permits can be withheld, tax inspectors can become suddenly much more conscientious, labor disputes can tilt the way of the workers, etc. As though all of that were not enough, the government has recently published a draft of its much-feared “co-management” amendments to the Labor Law’s regulations, and government spokesmen have issued repeated threats to use those amendments to summarily take over any private companies that join a strike. In such circumstances, it will take real courage to buck the intimidation and join the stoppage.

So Carlos Ortega certainly has his work cut out for him. At this stage, it’s impossible to say whether such key sectors as the oil industry and Caracas’ transport workers will join the action. The CTV is taking a big risk on this mobilization, and it’s not yet possible to say whether it will pay off.

Overall, though, two points are obvious: as far as the government is concerned, its broad, Marxist vision for Venezuela’s future is not up for debate, and that vision is simply unacceptable to a broad majority of Venezuelans. The only resource the opposition has left is sustained, ongoing street pressure. Even if results are not immediately evident, even if individual actions do not lead to a same-day solution, democratically-minded Venezuelans have a historic duty to register their revulsion at the government’s plans at every possible juncture.

At the same time, it bears remembering that even if the Chávez regime were to collapse next week, the 20-33% of Venezuelans who believe passionately in the president’s message would still be there the next day. The real challenge for any transition government will be to incorporate those people into the post-chavista political process, reassuring them that their concerns are taken seriously and overcoming the urge towards facile triumphalism. Failure to do so would imperil the nation’s stability for years to come.