October 31, 2002

There's no stopping the referendum...

One of the perils of journalism is that you end up writing stories now and then that, though perfectly reasonable at the time of writing, wind up being left behind by developments by the time they've hit print. It's not very pleasent. No sooner had I scoffed at the thought of president Chávez starting an earnest negotiation with the opposition than Miraflores issued a fairly remarkable statements vowing to establish just such a dialogue, "without taboos or exclusions" and explicitly including the possibility of bringing forth some kind of referendum. Ooops. Well, we've gotten burned so many times by seemingly broad-minded chavista pledges to engage in dialogue that peeter out into nothingness within hours that we're obviously justified to be a little skeptical about this last pledge. Narcissist personality disorder doesn't just go away one day, and from a single statement to a real good-faith negotiation there's a long distance. We'll see.

What's for certain is that the whole early-referendum proposal is now right where the moderate wing of the opposition has wanted it for months: front and center. As I write this, out of the four main headlines on Union Radio's website, three are about Early Elections. That's a sure barometer of what the political mood is like here, a rising realization that there's just no other solution. With any luck, we'll get to vote within a few months. The polls seem to indicate that Chávez is doomed if it comes to the ballot box, but he's a formidable campaigner, so we'll have to see. But, at the very least, this suffocating sense of a crisis with no possible solution is starting to lift. There's a light at the end of the tunnel. Chávez's grudging acceptance of this course of action suggests that he may be willing to accept a referendum result after all, especially if it's an overwhelming defeat. Or his supporters have finally realized that the situation is so dire he has no other option.

Still, the atmosphere here is so thoroughly poisoned it's hard to really believe they're earnest about this. Hidden agendas abound here, and not just on the opposition side. Another tactical retreat paving the way for some off-script attack? Who can tell?

October 30, 2002

Wednesday, it must be time for a VenEconomy editorial...

Negotiating with a Narcissist

Much of what’s happened in Venezuelan politics over the last three years has been unprecedented, but the spectacle in Plaza Altamira over the last week has finally made the leap into the truly surreal. Urged on by a never-ending stream of protestors who are treating the whole affair like a street party, the dissident military officers have launched a sort of anticoup – a military rebuke to the government that specifically rejects violent confrontation. It’s the Gandhi solution: an uprising without arms.

So far, the officers have managed to keep a not-always-easy peace with the civilian leadership of the opposition. Clearly, the more moderate agenda of groups like Primero Justicia and the Alianza Cívica is somewhat at odds with the radicalism of officers like General Medina Gómez or General González González. The former stress the need for a referendum, which would at least allow President Chávez to campaign to remain in office, while the latter put the stress on demanding his “immediate resignation.” Thankfully, so far, the officers and civilians have managed to avoid an open rift, and both have repeatedly and loudly rejected the notion of a violent solution to the crisis.
Many have noted that it’s not exactly clear how the takeover of Plaza Altamira gets the country any closer to the end of the Chávez government. Certainly, street pressure can do little to move a government that remains locked in a private reality. As VenEconomy has reported several times, President Chávez fits the clinical description for Narcissist Personality Disorder with disconcerting exactness. Narcissists have an especially difficult time confronting any kind of criticism, which they see as proof that nefarious forces are arrayed against them. Pathologically unable to handle any view that contradicts his understanding of reality, the president has systematically surrounded himself with yes-men, cutting himself off from contact with anyone who might provide an assessment of the political reality around him that in any way contradicts his increasingly warped mental universe.

For obvious reasons, it’s exceedingly difficult to negotiate with a narcissist. OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria was reportedly shocked at Chávez’ furious refusal to even discuss the possibility of an electoral solution to the crisis. For anyone who has seen the president confronted by a hostile journalistic line of questioning, it’s easy to imagine the debacle that the meeting with Gaviria apparently turned into. Watching Chávez’ face contort at the mention of a topic that makes him so deeply uncomfortable, Gaviria understood right away that it would be impossible to draw the president into frank negotiations with the opposition.

The Coordinadora Democrática might be disappointed by the failure of the secretary-general’s mission, but it couldn’t have been surprised by it. A peaceful, civilized solution to the crisis must and will be found, whether or not the president agrees. Through his pathological inability to engage with views other than his own, the president is merely marginalizing himself from the substantive negotiations on the nation’s political future.

The civilian opposition has reached a consensus that the only democratic, inclusive and peaceful solution to the crisis is to hold a non-binding referendum on Chávez’ continuation in power. Opposition groups have already collected close to enough signatures to force such a referendum. Through the efforts of Súmate, an opposition NGO, the antichavista movement is putting together a signature-gathering drive of unprecedented sophistication. Súmate’s small army of Internet-based volunteers are digitizing and checking every signature against the CNE’s electoral rolls, discarding those of people who signed more than ones, and consolidating all the information in a centralized database held in an offshore computer. This setup will allow Súmate to have an exact, pre-audited count of the valid signatures the opposition has gathered. They will be handed to the CNE in numbered, ordered and bound volumes, along with the digital database.

It’s an unprecedented effort, which will make it exceedingly difficult for CNE to delay a referendum on a technicality. In any event, snubbing such a massive and carefully organized show of force would put the government in a politically untenable position, leaving it well beyond the hemisphere’s democratic pale.

Significantly, key parts of Chávez’ congressional coalition have reached the same conclusion. Statements by two Lara state chavista Assembly members, along with those of several Podemos (former MAS-Más) assemblymen, make it clear that there is now a legislative majority to call a referendum. And while Rafael Simón Jiménez (of Podemos) is reluctant to take the plunge unless a large majority is guaranteed for the proposal, the street pressure (and the Súmate pressure) for a solution is becoming unbearable. With any luck, the Assembly’s chavista majority will read the writing on the wall, buck the pressures coming out of Miraflores, and back some kind of referendum by a unanimous (or near-unanimous) vote. If it refuses to do so, it will merely follow the president into total irrelevance.

Aggression! Violence! Fascism!

It was really heart rending hearing J.V. Rangel’s speech yesterday. The passion in his words, the anger in his eyes, the humanist zeal! In a tone of high moral righteousness, the Vicepresident complained bitterly about the abhorrent treatment meted out to General Eugenio Gutiérrez, the chavista head of the National Guard, on his Sunday night outing to the Lee Hamilton Steak House, that bastion of the east-side bourgeoisie. It appears that Gutiérrez was hanging out peaceably eating his steak when, the fascist shock troops from Plaza Altamira somehow heard he was there and showed up armed to the teeth to intimidate him. The aggression! The violation of basic human rights! And these people call themselves democrats!

Of course, Rangel had to obviate a few inconvenient details for this account. He had to skip over, for instance, the fact that the fascist shock troops were basically middle class housewives and the arms were just pots and pans. Sure, they were angry, and sure they beat their pots mightily, and granted, they were joined by some fairly scary, belligerent men who would love to beat the bejeezis out of Gutiérrez, but they were never allowed in the restaurant, so none of them even got close to Gutiérrez. Was he stranded there for three hours? Well, yes. Is this the end of the world? You tell me.

Now, obviating the question of what the hell this dude is thinking going to a casual dinner at the Lee Hamilton, not three blocks from the permaprotest, and ignoring the burning question of where the hell J.V. Rangel gets the idea that eating meat in silence is a basic constitutional right, there’s the fact that he was eventually bailed out by the opposition mayor of Chacao, Leopoldo López, who showed up past midnight and urged the crowd to let the guy out. Which they did. No one laid a finger on Gutiérrez. Still. Fasicsm! Aggression! Violence! The rhetoric Rangel used to describe the incident suggests a blood bath…when what we saw was a mildly quirky political protest. Hell, López bailed him out! When was the last time we saw Freddy Bernal lift a damn finger to bail out an opposition member on Puente Llaguno?

The thing that really riles you up about this is the blatant double standard. Ten days ago, when chavistas shot their guns into Metropolitan Police lines we heard nary a peep out of the VP. When two sets of chavista thugs ambushed two different groups of opposition demonstrators heading for Caracas on October 10th, the government not only didn’t move against him: every indication is that the National Guard actually protected the gunmen, at least on the Central Regional highway. In August, when chavista thugs started shooting against the PM in Catia, the government blamed the PM!

We’re talking guns, real bullets, plomo as they say here. Six people (including three Carabobo state police officers) took gunshot wounds in the Central Highway, a bystander was killed in Guárico. Several PMs were hit in August. This, apparently, is perfectly acceptable to the government. Didn’t merit even a press release. But a loyalist army general forced to hear the sounds of pots and pans being struck with ladels over dinner?! Fascism!

How do you negotiate with people who think this way? Honestly…

October 28, 2002

“This is the protest that never ends…

…it just goes on and on like this…”

What to even say about the last 150 hours on Plaza Altamira? What started as a postmodern military antirebellion has slowly transmogrified into a strange new breed of political expression: the neverending-political-protest-cum-party. At this point we’re on the sixth day of around-the-clock protesting. The crowds wax and wane, but never disappear completely. A small group of hard-core outdoor types pitched their tents in the Plaza and have been spending their nights there. At 6 o’clock each morning an old lady takes the microphone and prays the rosary with a small band of early morning protesters/churchgoers. The crowds build throughout the day, but especially after 5 or 6 pm as people get out of work and stream to the plaza. At least 15,000 or 20,000 people go there every night to blow whistles, wave flags, listen to speeches, sing the national anthem, display banners, or just dance. I finally got to spend some quality time there last night and was struck by the huge numbers of high school and college kids who are treating this basically as a large, politically tinged outdoor party. It’s not just kids out having fun, of course, there are plenty of middle-aged people and older folks and lots of whole families out for a protest stroll. But the 16-22 year old demographic definitely was the largest. Kids beating drums. Dancing. Waving huge flags. Watching street performers. Lots of dancing.

One interesting fact is that this is far from the middle-class-only protest Chávez has tried to portray. The full social/racial spectrum was there, sharing the space with a minimum of class tension, dancing and playing together in a way you really rarely see here. As far as I can tell, the protest can just go on indefinitely…certainly there was no sign of people getting tired of it last night. Why would they stop? There’s a really good vibe to the place: it’s a huge, free street party that never ends. People are having a great old time there. Why would they stop?

I don’t know what the government is going to do about this. I don’t know what it can do. As Maria Isabel Párraga writes in her El Universal column today, “How can you repress something as radically innocuous as a fiesta?” Chávez’s line in Aló, presidente yesterday, that everyone in that plaza is a fascist, is so fantastically far removed from reality it’s hard to know what to even say about it. Except that, unless we’ve been seriously misled, fascists were never particularly notable for their disposition to dance exuberantly, joyfully, passionately way late into the night. In fact, it’s difficult for me to think of any political action further removed from the spirit of fascism than the scene on Plaza Altamira last night. It's pretty great.