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.

January 10, 2003

Friendly nations? Friendly to whom?

PDVSA’s strikers probably never set out to internationalize the Venezuelan conflict, but it looks like that’s exactly what they’ve done. The Washington Post reports today that the U.S. is about to launch a major diplomatic initiative to try to break the political deadlock here. The subtext is none-too-subtle here: there’s a war scheduled for next month, and the US can’t have major disruptions to its oil supply during a middle east conflict. So results, quick results, are of the essence.

As reported in the Post, the proposal is sneaky as hell, taking a Chávez proposal and transforming it subtly but decisively into the polar opposite of what he’d envisioned. Ten days ago, at Lula’s inauguration in Brazil, Chávez called for the creation of a “group of friendly nations” to help Venezuela overcome the crisis. Given Chávez’s psychopathological inability to differentiate between “Venezuela” and “me”, the proposal amounted to a plea issued at other left-wing or anti-U.S. governments to help Chávez break the oil strike. The “friendly nations” he had in mind were Cuba, Brazil, and soon-to-be-ruled-by-a-lefty Ecuador, along with Iran and Algeria – countries with some ideological affinities and some of the know-how needed to help get the oil industry crackin’ again.

At the same time, the proposal was meant to undermine the negotiations now being brokered by César Gaviria, who heads the Organization of American States. The Gaviria talks, centered as they are in seeking an “electoral solution” that Chávez looks highly unlikely to survive, have become a huge albatross around the president’s neck. His negotiators have been stalling and blocking negotiations for months now, while every government in the region throws its weight behind the initiative. Part of the idea, then, was to shift the focus of debate from the OAS to a group of “friendly (to Chávez) nations.”

Governments around the region were immediately suspicious of the plan – even Lula seemed cautious about it. Earlier this week Mexico’s foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda – who moonlights as one of my favorite writers – made a first statement about it, urging caution about taking steps that might be interpreted as hostile by the Venezuelan opposition. Very few hemispheric leaders wanted to be seen as taking sides with a leader as tone-deaf on democracy as Chávez

But then Washington seems to have devised an altogether better plan – rather than poo-pooing the Friendly Nations proposal, why not co-opt it? After all, where does it say that Hugo Chávez gets to decide which countries are friendly to Venezuela, and how those countries should behave? Riding this wave of inspiration, the U.S. will couch its diplomatic initiative in the language of Friendly Nations, except those nations will now include the U.S., Mexico, Chile and Spain, instead of Cuba and Iran. What’s more, rather than an alternative to the OAS talks, US diplomats are talking about it as “trying to put a little more ooomph behind what Gaviria is doing.”

Sneaky bastards these gringos…

Now, whether this is all going to fly is still very much open to debate. Washington’s main goal is to get the oil flowing again in the shortest time possible, and there’s no reasonably quick way of doing that other than allowing the striking oil managers to take control of the company again. This would be a catastrophic humiliation to a president who’s been slamming those guys as coup-loving terrorist coup-plotting sabouteur traitor coupsters for weeks now. And it’s not particularly clear why Chávez would back any of the solutions on offer at the OAS talks – solutions he’s been openly disdainful of for months.

Still, the initiative puts the crisis here on an international footing, and the higher priority the crisis has the more the world will scrutinize the government, and the harder it’ll be for the government to get away with any of the tin-pot autocratic delirium that passes for governing here. The more scrutiny we get here, the better.

The opposition must be thrilled about this, who can doubt it? The absence of any sort of movement in the last couple of weeks of the crisis has been driving them crazy – they need some sort of sense that they’re moving forward, that something is happening, that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. And they – no, not they, the country – is desperately in need of some sort of face-saving way to lift this strike, which risks unleashing a fiscal, financial and economic crisis of Argentine proportions.

So yes, God yes, let us have a bit of neo-imperialist gringo meddling here. We desperately need it.

January 7, 2003

Dark hours for journalism

It’s tough being a journalist in this country, especially if, like me, you’re trying to juggle roles as a critic in the local press and a beat reporter for a U.S. newspaper. Trying to play both roles – and trying to mediate between the sides – takes its toll. It’s the reason, in any event, for the new and regrettable need to password-protect this blog: one of my US editors was very uncomfortable with having one of his reporters taking such openly political stances on a public website.

The Venezuelan media and the foreign press corps are caught in a spiral of mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. The foreign press is horrified by the openly partisan nature of almost all reporting here, where the private press spends 95% of its time ruthlessly attacking the government and the public media spends 100% of its time defending it. Venezuelan reporters (well, opposition reporters) are just as appalled at the foreign papers’ insistence on treating Chávez as a more-or-less normal president, entitled to a fair hearing and to having the things he says reported at face value, as though they have any sort of connection with reality. Each is convinced the other is presenting a massively distorted story here to its audience. It’s not easy at all to juggle the two roles.

Fact is, neither the Venezuelans nor the gringos are giving their readers what they need to form an accurate picture of reality. Venezuelan readers have been exposed to four years of presidential lunacy; the last thing they need is yet another rant vilifying Chávez. What they could really use, though, is some dispassionately reported information to help them make sense of an increasingly volatile and dangerous situation, and they’re not getting it.

But U.S. readers, most of whom probably couldn’t pick Venezuela apart from Namibia on a map, are not well-served by “neutral” reporting that takes a he-said/she-said approach to covering the government’s disputes with the opposition. U.S. readers don’t have the background knowledge that they need to tell truth apart from falsehood here, and U.S. papers too often report giant, stinking, howling chavista lies without giving their readers the guidance they would need to recognize them as giant, stinking, howling chavista lies.

In general, U.S. papers have two ways of dealing with information from abroad. Normal countries with sane rulers are covered one way, abnormal countries with pathological rulers are treated in another way. Nobody would accuse the U.S. press of bias for basically dismissing statements from a Mohammar Khadafi, or a Robert Mugabe or an Slobodan Milosevic. These people have clearly crossed all sorts of red lines that put them well beyond the pale, so U.S. papers don’t feel the need to observe basic standards of journalistic politesse towards them.

At this point, Chávez is clearly getting sane-ruler treatment in the U.S. press, and that’s driving opposition-minded Venezuelans half mad. The Venezuelan press, including the magazine I write for, long ago decided that Chávez had screwed up so much that they’re allowed to play rough with him. For better or for worse, they’ve concluded that this government is incompatible with ongoing democracy, and that the imperative to fight the enemies of democracy overrides the standard dictates of journalistic ethics. So the private media here barely pay lip service to notions like journalistic balance anymore. Their raison d’etre is to undermine the government. To the extent that informing the public fits in with that, they’ll inform the public. But in cases where it doesn’t, they won’t.

The resulting stream of viscerally antichavista pap on the TV and in the newspapers is far from the kind of journalism I want to practice…even if, substantively, I agree with many of the criticisms levelled. The problem is that what the local press is producing is not really journalism at all, it’s propaganda disguised as journalism. Who knows? Maybe they’re right to act that way. Maybe when faced with a government as dangerous to democracy as this one, one’s duty as a citizen overwhelms one’s duty as a journalist. That’s a philosophical question; I’m not sure what the answer is. Clearly, TV stations are private businesses, and if their owners want to use them as propaganda mills that’s their prerogative.

What bugs me, though, and what I don’t accept, is the way the propaganda-making mascarades as something it’s not, how it uses journalists and the stylistic conventions of journalism to try to lay claim to journalism’s aura of credibility. If Channels 2, 4, 10 and 33 have decided that their sacred duty is to attack a dangerous government rather than to practice journalism, they should take the newscast logos off the screens, send their journalists on vacation and put opposition politicians in front of the cameras 24 hours a day (sad fact is, the content wouldn’t change much.)

Most antichavistas I say that to look at me like I’m smoking crack. They've gotten used to living in an atmosphered suffused with partisan propagandizing and they're seething with visceral (if well-deserved) anger at the government. They can’t for the life of them understand why the foreign press insists on covering the differences between chavistas and antichavistas more or less the way they might cover the differences between Tony Blair and the British Tories. They tend to assume that the foreigners must just be ignorant, that if they really knew what the government gets up to, they’d cover the news differently.

As a result, foreign correspondents here are constantly getting backed into these long, tediously didactic rants by opposition activists. Sometimes they’re not much more than cathartic gripe sessions where chavista outrages are piled one on top of the other for hours on end. Too often, though, they’re models of condescension, treating these fancy WashPost or L.A. Times journalists like they’re more or less mentally retarded. It’s painful to watch.

But, of course, the strategy is silly because, appalling as these journalists might find Chávez’s antics, they don’t rise anywhere near the threshold needed for a good old fashioned campaign of international villification. This is really, really hard for opposition-minded Venezuelans to understand, much less accept. But Milosevic had to start three separate wars before he got the full baddie treatment from the foreign press. Mugabe didn’t get it until he explicitly shifted the entire rationale of his government to racial hatred. Saddam Hussein had to start two wars and nerve gas his own civilians before the western press decided he’d forefeited his claim to journalistic politesse. The rap on Chávez, on the other hand, is that he appointed a bunch of cronies as Attorney General and Supreme Courth magistrates and such, and that there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that he probably had something to do with the deaths of 19 people in April. It’s not that those are nice things to do – these are horrible things to do – it’s just that from a foreign editor’s point of view, they doen’t even come close as a rationale for demonizing him.

The problem is that the Chávez experiment amounts to a weird hybrid, a half-authoritarianism. Normally when someone describes a leader as authoritarian, s/he means that he’s both autocratic and repressive. Autocratic meaning that he intends to make every decision by himself, allowing no other person, institution or publication to have any effective say over how the country is governed, and trying to extend his control to every institution in the country, even nominally independent ones like Supreme Courts and labor unions and so on. Repressive meaning that he intends to use however much violence it takes to suppress any person, institution or publication that tries to get in his way.

Your average despot intuitively understands that these things go together, that to govern like an autocrat you need to be ruthless in repressing your critics. But Chávez doesn’t seem to get it. While he’s clearly an autocrat, his attempts at “repression” have been a wet firecracker, a series of half-baked attempts at intimidation that have intimidated no one. There’s so much evidence that the government’s repressive streak is a dud it barely seems worth it to elaborate. Think of the giant marches against the government several times a week in Caracas think of the hours and hours Napoleón Bravo gets to rant on national television every day.

That doesn’t mean that Chávez doesn’t intend to rule as an autocrat: he does. But he’s not willing to use violence on the scale he would have to use it in order to gain total control of the nation’s institutions. What small-scale, circulo bolivariano-led violence he is willing to deploy is pointless, or worse, counterproducting - earning him constant angry denunciations in the press without in any way silencing his critics or demobilizing his opponents. It's the worst of both worlds: the appearance of repression without any of the substantive "benefits" of repression. And it explains why the nation is as unstable as it is. Normally, authoritarian regimes have many, many problems, but stability is not one of them. But half-authoritarianism seems to me like a formula for systematic instability.

Not surprisingly, the foreign papers don’t quite know how to deal with this complex reality…they’re like the first guy who ever tried to eat a lobster, they just have no idea how to go at it. And while it’s probably naïve to expect them to give Chávez the full Mugabe treatment, he’s obviously getting off way too easy at present. Your average International Herald Tribune reader probably thinks Chávez is a pretty clumsy and slightly weird politician, or a fairly exotic species from the exhuberant political zoo that is Latin America, or maybe just a leftist with a taste for overstatement cursed with a particularly stubborn opposition…but no more than that. I don’t think s/he’s been told enough to really understand how serious the threat to democracy has become in Venezuela. And I think the tone of US reporters’ coverage of the crisis is to blame for that.

What’s for sure is that truth is a slippery notion in Venezuela these days, that questions of journalistic ethics that would seem fairly obscure or pedantic in a normal situation acquire particular urgency here, and that it’s very, very hard to find the right balance given the supercharged polarization here.