February 27, 2004

Venezuela: Opposition march repressed with tear gas and buckshot

by Ramon Navarro and Laura Weffer
Translated by Francisco Toro, reprinted from El Nacional. Photos from Devil's Poop.

CARACAS-"The order is to resist, resist," said one lady close to 70 years of age to a group of friends who replied: "Today or never, Magdalena, you are right, we have to resist." Around eight women were next to the security cordon placed by the CANTV headquarters on Libertador Avenue in Caracas, while the thick of the opposition march walked euphorically towards Plaza Morelos.

Suddenly, the National Guard responded to the citizen action with tear gas, for no other reason than the arrival of the march on territory that had been permitted by the competent authorities, but was banned turf to the military.

The ladies left at a jog, escaping the effects of the tear gas canisters, that scratched their faces generating an intolerable chaos as people retreated. And yet, they didn't manage altogether to clean up the area, because the people would return to offer resistence, would return with anti-government slogans, would again inflame the patience of the so-called "guards at the service of the regime."

The march, called by the opposition and whose ultimate goal was to reach Plaza Morelos, did not meet its main goal: to get noticed by the foreign ministers and some heads of state from the Group of 15, who were meeting in the Teresa Carreno Theater.

At 8:30 am, people started to arrive at Parque del Este, on the main Francisco de Miranda avenue, starting point for the protest. Copei and MAS representatives were the first to prepare their flags, while Primero Justicia joined in Altamira, Proyecto Venezuela in Chacaito and AD in La Florida.

The spirit of the march was to break through the security barrier and reach the space adjacent to the theater. On that subject organizer Oscar Perez spoke clearly about the legitimate right to reach the space accorded: "We have authorization from the Greater Caracas mayor, and I don't see why they want to stop this peaceful march."

Opposition leaders like Lilieana Hernandez, Henry Ramos Allup, Miranda state governor Enrique Mendoza, Gerardo Blyde, Jesus Mendez Quijada, Carlos Ocariz, among others, went through the rigors of inhaling large doses of tear gas, surprised also by the military show of force, though the soldiers (the "soldiers" are National Guard troops -ft) were also attacked with bottles, sticks, and stones.

Some of the tear gas canisters ended up against the walls of the Lara and Zulia residential buildings, on Libertador Avenue, and others were directed to the parking lot in front of the El Globo newspaper, and others never even came close to the protesters. This shows not just the spotty marksmanship but the real sense of dissuasion of the guarantors of public order.

However, there were also dozens of canisters shot into the heart of the march, whose protagonists started throwing stones at the MVR party building, while one person, unidentified, set fire to the roof of a neighboring car garage.

"If you want to topple Chavez then shit, ignore him! They almost burned my house. People live here, that crap is not on. They burned the roof of my house and they almost burned my truck. In this garage there are flamable materials," said an angry Juan Carlos Calderon, co-owner of the shop, who came out half-naked to yell for help.

In fact, the same people who tried to burn down the place later bashfully helped to put out the fire.

Also in Plaza Venezuela, a man of 60 or so was shot in the leg, "they hit me! they hit me!" and while he asked for help from the metropolitan fire department, a crowd of people in AD flags charged a wooden structure and threw everything out onto the street, including bottles.

Just before that, a rattle of gunfire forced over 300 people in Plaza Venezuela to fall to the ground.

All out
The wall of tear gas didn't allow one to see through to the other side. The green uniforms could be seen tenuously behind the choking white mass. Suddenly, as though in a fiction film, groups of women and men with flags in their hands would expose themselves to the irrepressible effects of the gas.

Regardless of age or gender, people would face down the charges of the guards. At the compressed cry of "pa'lante!" ("onward!") the protesters would push forward, gaining meter by meter terrain from the military men.

But victory was short. In a well rehearsed syncronicity, the uniformed men would fire off canisters and rubber buckshot to anyone they saw defending the tricolor flag. The opposition members would resist a few seconds, minutes at most, but then had to retreat because the gas did not allow them to breathe.

"If you're going to kill us, then kill us" screamed one of the marchers, with bloodshot eyes and sweating buckets. From the loudspeakers, eventually, a voice tried to convince the marchers to walk back, but the will of the people was not seduced by the call.

Beneath the Mariperez overpass, those in the vanguard made a deafening noise. With anything they could get their hands on they would strike the metal bases of the bridge, building a strong echo. An amazing noise.

Aura Morales, 74 years old, refused to walk backwards. She remembered the way she had faced down the national security (the dictatorship era security force in the 50s), in the times of the Perez Jimenez dictatorship "and in that time they had machine guns."

With a discrete cap and a flag in her hand, she refused to answer the call of those calling on her to retreat. "For god's sake! Always go backward!" and with nostalgia she would look on the few meters they had conquered and that again the military were recovering. A bit further on, a small man, some 70 years old, was screaming at the top of his lungs, and with a stone in his hand said he was foreign, but he was going to defend Venezuela because he considered it his fatherland.

At 1:35 pm, the Guardia had already lost all inhibitions and was firing bursts of buckshot, and some of the marchers would fire back with roman candles. With the National anthem in the background, people refused to back down. One of the women who had to be evacuated, passed out, returned later with her flag and walked back into the tear gas.

The dry sound of a hand gun broke with the buckshot chorus, which had already become an auditive routine. From the street in front of the Patria Para Todos headquarters, behind the Main Street in Mariperez, a group of youths was shooting upward, exactly in the direction of the bridge, on Libertador avenue.

The protesters responded with stones, most dropped to the ground in a split-second reaction. Some covered their heads, others stayed totally still. Nobody screamed. In the distance, the figure of a young man could be seen at the door of his house, doing what he could to try to stop the exchange.

A few minutes later, people returned to their struggle. To the skirmishes with the military. Chanting slogans and breathing tear gas. In the mean time, the Disip secret police helicopter flew over the area. The response of those below was to raise their middle finger in the "usual gesture."

By 2:35 pm the uniformed men went back on the offensive. Protected by untold tear gas canisters, they advanced and advanced until they dissolved the last of the rally. Thus, they took the neighboring areas and some spots that had served as opposition regrouping areas. Some ran for the side streets. On Lima Sur street, the protesters took shelter for a while in the student bar, Cordon Bleu. By 3:20 pm what had been a battle field turned into a desolate field for firing tear gas canisters.

Below, on Plaza Venezuela, the Guards had cordoned off the area. Already resting from their attack, they were replenishing themselves eating hot dogs from the "Taliban" stand, and drinking kolitas. They traded stories about the day, laughing, as though it had been just one more victory.


Mugabe lessons well-learned

An afternoon of violence in Caracas today. Massive riots all along the main East-West road - Avenida Libertador - all afternoon. Meanwhile, Chavez and the G15 representatives sit in an air conditioned hall a mile away heartily applauding Robert Mugabe's speech. Sickening.

Pascal Fletcher's report for Reuter's sets the scene well.

I have never seen the National Guard use that much tear gas at once...clouds and clouds of it on Avenida Libertador all afternoon. Nasty.

The climate now is of total destabilization. The opposition is incredibly angry and not very rational at the moment. People want trouble. It's April 9th all over again.

At 5:00 pm there are reports of gunshots on Avenida Libertador. No cassualty count yet.

Today marks a dangerous turning point in the crisis. The opposition has decided to meet the governments provocation strategy with a full-on provocation of its own. People on the opposition side have simply lost all faith in CNE - the reparo process now seems distant. Things will not be the same from tomorrow.

Mugabe makes Chavez look like an amateur

I didn't know that I could despise any political message more than I despise Chavez's, but today, I was proven wrong. Robert Mugabe's speech to the G15 summit was a document of such far reaching criminal cynicism it made JVR look like a grammar school kid, and Chavez himself like an amateur.

To rapturous applause, Mugabe lavished praise on Chavez, and made clear that ALL problems in Venezuela and Zimbabwe are exclusively the fault of the US and the UK, respectively. He hit an emotional high talking in heart-rending terms about how transnational capitalism robs the children of Zimbabwe of their food.

No, Mr. Mugabe, if Human Rights Watch is to be believed, you are the one who makes sure your children go to bed hungry at night, and quite literally.

The Human Rights Watch report is worth quoting in full:

Zimbabwe: Food Used as Political Weapon
Government, Donors Must Halt Discrimination

(New York, October 24, 2003) - Zimbabwean authorities discriminate against perceived political opponents by denying them access to food programs, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Some international relief agencies in Zimbabwe fail to ensure that access to food is based on need alone and is not biased by domestic or international political concerns.

The 51-page report, "Not Eligible: The Politicization of Food in Zimbabwe," documents how food is denied to suspected supporters of Zimbabwe's main opposition party and to residents of former commercial farms resettled under the country's "fast-track" land reform program. The report examines the widespread politicization of the government's subsidized grain program, managed by the Grain Marketing Board, as well as the far less extensive manipulation of international food aid."

According to the report, government authorities and party officials of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) manipulate the supply and distribution of government-subsidized grain and the registration of recipients for international food aid. Though international aid agencies, including the World Food Programme, have gone to great lengths to prevent interference, this kind of manipulation remains a problem. International aid agencies must devote greater resources and attention to preventing the manipulation of recipient lists. The report also examines international community's tacit complicity in preventing food from reaching former commercial farm areas resettled under land reform.

"Select groups of people are being denied access to food," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "This is a human rights violation as serious as arbitrary imprisonment or torture."

Today one-half of Zimbabwe's population of nearly 14 million is considered "food-insecure," living in households that are unable to obtain enough food to meet basic needs. The international community has spent hundreds of millions of dollars pouring food aid into Zimbabwe, yet thousands continue to go hungry.

Any perceived political adversaries of ZANU-PF or the government encounter difficulty gaining access to food. Known members of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are top-most among perceived enemies. This category also encompasses teachers, former commercial farm workers and urban residents-groups generally considered to favor the MDC. In effect, without a ZANU-PF party card, a Zimbabwean cannot register for or receive government-subsidized grain.

Often international relief agencies need to rely on local authorities in some cases to determine beneficiary status, which leads to a certain degree of political manipulation. However, some international aid programs are also politicized. According to insiders of the international aid regime, some international donors are opposed to funding aid for those resettled on the former commercial farms that were redistributed under the "fast-track" land reform program. The international aid agencies universally deny that donors' political opposition to land reform is a factor, explaining that they cannot distribute any relief food in these areas until a comprehensive needs assessment has been completed by the government.

"Politically, it is disadvantageous for the Zimbabwe government to investigate need on the resettled farms," said Takirambudde. "If the farms are not productive and people are hungry, the government's land reform program will look like a failure. It seems that the government is manipulating relief efforts, and that the international community is playing along even though people on the resettled farms need food desperately."

Human Rights Watch asserted that the Zimbabwe government has an obligation under international and domestic law to supply food without reference to race, religion, ethnicity or regional origin, or to residence, sex or political affiliation. The government should instruct authorities in charge of beneficiary lists to abide by the principle of nondiscrimination.

The government should impress upon the leadership of all political parties that it is prohibited under domestic and international law for politicians and party supporters to use food to influence or reward constituents or voters. Punitive action should be taken against those who flout this prohibition.

Human Rights Watch recommended that the international community continue to fight the politicization of relief food through its efforts to maintain tight controls on food distribution and to implement all aspects of relief efforts directly or through local non-governmental organizations.

Human Rights Watch also emphasized that international aid should not be based on any factor other than need. In particular, farmers who were resettled under the "fast-track" land reform program should be eligible to receive food aid from all international sources. Donors that have withdrawn support for humanitarian programs in Zimbabwe should reconsider their duty, under international law, to assist those in need.


What do you think this freedom warrior will do with that replica of Bolivar's sword?

Of course...

Lula and Kirchner are in Caracas as well. And they have eyes.

Chavez, Mugabe, and the Credibility Gap


Chavistas constantly acuse the press of treating their guy unfairly. They're not always wrong. But last night's little sound-bite, when Chavez lavished praise on the stomach-churningly violent dictator of Zimbabwe, confirms what we've known all along: the most damaging of the media "hits" on Chavez are always self-inflicted.

For a quick introduction to the character of the "Freedom Warrior" Robert Mugabe, have a look at:

I could add 20 more links if I spent 20 more minutes on it...Mugabe's Google trail as a mass-scale human rights abuser is long and deep, so I just picked out stories from the last few of months or so.

Reminds you of these:


Though at least Chavez had the good sense not to praise Saddam personally.

For Mugabe, though? The AP write up is worth citing:

CARACAS (AP)--Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praised Zimbabwe's embattled President Robert Mugabe as a "freedom fighter," bestowing the visiting African leader with a replica of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar's sword.

"I give you a replica of liberator Simon Bolivar's sword," Chavez said Thursday after the two leaders signed an energy cooperation agreement.

"For you, who like Bolivar, took up arms to liberate your people. For you, who like Bolivar, are and will always be a true freedom fighter," Chavez said. "He continues, alongside his people, to confront the pretensions of new imperialists."

Notes from my other identity...

As most of you probably know, I moonlight as an economics researcher at the United Nations University's Institute for New Technologies in Maastricht, the Netherlands. On the theory that it will help me concentrate on my schoolwork to blog about my research, I've started a second blog - Maastricht Chronicles - just to write about Innovation Economics topics.

The first essay has just gone up: it's kind of a crash introduction into the branch of economics I'm studying (Schumpeterian heterodoxy.) I have no idea how many of you find that sort of thing at all interesting. But I'd really appreciate feedback from any real economists out there.

Maastricht Chronicles is here.

February 26, 2004

Joint Statement on Venezuela Signature Verification Process: OAS, The Carter Center

Published February 24th on the Carter Center website.

CARACAS, VENEZUELA. The Organization of the American States and The Carter Center have been observing the process of collection, verification, and validation of signatures developed by the National Electoral Council to determine whether current requests for recall referenda will be adequate. This work has been at the invitation of the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the electoral authority and in the framework of the agreement of May 23, 2003, as a result of the Table of Negotiation and Agreements.

The OAS and The Carter Center express once again their gratitude for the confidence shown by the executive power, the electoral authority, and the representatives of the opposition, and we reiterate our commitment and willingness to continue our efforts so that Venezuelans find a constitutional, democratic, peaceful, and electoral solution to their differences, as stated in Resolution 833 of the Permanent Council of the OAS, dated Dec. 16, 2002.

There is at present a concern regarding the validity of the signatures on the so-called "planillas planas," signature forms where the handwriting of the basic data of the persons is similar. The OAS and The Carter Center consider the concern legitimate in that it is necessary to determine whether one person signed for another, clearly violating the rules approved by the CNE and the very personal nature of a person expressing his or her will.

Various methodsexist to determine whether signatures are genuine. Due to the extreme complexity of comparing the fingerprints or the signatures with the data stored in the Department of Identification and Naturalization, the OAS and The Carter Center have presented to the CNE, as an alternative, a technically viable proposal, previously used in several countries and supported by international experts. The proposal consists of drawing a statistically representative random sample from the universe of signatures, and then comparing, one by one, the fingerprints and signatures that appear in the signed petition forms with those newly provided by these signers. The results of this sample would establish whether, in the case of the planillas planas, the signers represent distinct persons that have freely expressed their will, or whether on the contrary, there are unacceptable irregularities. By thus determining the scope of the problem, the CNE could decide the methods for the appeals process -- either to assume the signatures are legitimate unless citizens disavow them, or that there are sufficient doubts to require all the signers to reaffirm their signatures.

The OAS and The Carter Center respect the autonomy of the CNE decisions. We respectfully make this suggestion so that the CNE can fulfill its constitutional functions while starting from the presumption that the citizens acted in good faith as they signed.

Both organizations continue to be concerned about the pressure and the harassment that directors and workers of the CNE face, and we ask once again that all Venezuelans, including the media, the political parties and the actors involved, to permit the CNE to perform its tasks free of such pressure. The OAS and The Carter Center urge the CNE to provide a mechanism of appeal (reparo) that is transparent, agile and simple, with the rules agreed to beforehand, and which presumes the good faith of the signers.

Finally, the OAS and The Carter Center repeat our commitment to continue to assist in this process until its conclusion, including the appeals period.

The measure of my ignorance...

I don't know what is happening inside CNE. I think very few people know. The presumption of bad faith runs so strongly in both directions, it's almost impossible to peel away the truth from the rumors from the wishes from the spin from the slurs. I can't pretend to understand why CNE acts the way it does, not from a distance.

I do know that the climate of opinion that is gripping the country at this moment is obviously conducive to violence, and that all sides need to do what it takes to help defuse the tension as soon as possible.

The opposition has a clear interest in protecting the signatures of those who really did sign and CNE has said it intends to implement a procedure to do just that. The opposition should welcome the chance to prove that its signatures are valid. If they are not, and a million of them really are invalid, CNE needs to demonstrate that publicly in a way no one can argue with.

So long as international observers remain part of the process, it would be best for everyone to avoid maximalist positions and seek workable compromises. The road is long, but it is the road. Cynicism is the enemy, common sense needs to prevail.

(God, I sound like a politico.)

Reconciliation Redux

This is what I was writing in October 2002. Fifteen months have gone by, but nothing has changed.

"...it's critical that Chávez is replaced through an election. Aside from all the valid idealistic reasons for demanding democratic decision-making, the fact is that he does retain the support of a third of the population. Much more relevantly, he maintains the fervent support of about 20% of the electorate, the so-called chavistas duros (hard-core chavistas) who see him more as a mystical figure than a politician. If Chávez is pushed out of office unconstitutionally, by force, these people will never accept the outcome. At best, they'd be a constant thorn on the side of the next government, at worst they could start a civil war. It worries me that the most radicalized opposition figures out there don't seem to realize how much of a problem this is, and continue to push for extra-constitutional means of getting rid of the guy. Making sure that 20% feels included - or at least doesn't feel openly violated - by the transition to the post-chavista era will probably be the most important task of the next government. Let's hope they don't screw it up."

Thanks to Mike for noticing the eerie similarities.

February 25, 2004

Beating Plan Colina III

Today, my inbox is replete with furious/ranting/despondent emails about CNE's decision to put almost 150,000 forms "in the fridge" because they contain "planas".

This Bloomberg article explains why the opposition is so mad, but the reporting is somewhat careless: it blurs the all-important distinction between outright invalidation and what the council actually did. CNE has not invalidated anything, it's important to understand that. All that it has done is open a process to re-confirm the validity of the signatures it has. It's a delaying tactic, not a final decision.

Whatever the details, the opposition as a whole is livid. The decision is widely seen as a naked stab at violating the constitutional rights of those who signed. Even Teodoro is furious, which is always a bad sign.

But I'm going to do the heretical and suggest that there might be some positive aspects to this nasty situation.

As always happens, each side in the confrontation tends to forget the other. Both sides lose sight of the requirements for real, long term reconciliation. It's worth reminding ourselves that the recall is only useful if both sides accept the results.

Think Moises Naim here. Chavez cannot be thrown out by one half of the country, or even by 60% of the country - if the remainder are not convinced of the legitimacy of the procedures. The country needs to vomit Chavez out of its system, the entire country. The only good reason to have a referendum in the first place is to reach a solution both sides can accept as legitimate.

Millions of Venezuelans honestly think the signatures are fake. It's hard for the opposition to accept that, but that's what they genuinely think. With much of the country honestly convinced that there are millions of fake signatures backing the recall petition, proceding with a referendum would not unite the country. In fact, proceeding under those circumstances would risk destabilizing the country further.

Now you and I both know that the only reason millions of people believe the signatures are fake are that the president has pursued an obscene and wide-reanging disinformation campaign. Still, blatantly ill-intentioned though it has been, Chavez has millions of supporters who believe it. We should welcome a process that gives us a chance to prove to them beyond any doubt that the signatures are there.

And hell, who knows, maybe Maria Corina Machado really is some kind of Lara Croftesque CIA operative secretly cranking out millions of fake signatures from bank records, as the government would have us believe. It seems wildly unlikely to me, but still, if it's true, with the reparo process we'll find out.

The situation is incredibly infuriating, because Chavez's game is so blatant, so false, so fantastically irresponsible and dangerous. We still remember how he yelled "megafraude" on the Sunday while the firmazo was still going on - we know this line was agreed well ahead of time, long before they'd had even a look at the signatures or had any conceivable evidential basis for screaming fraud. We know it's a sham. But like it or not, it's a sham millions of people believe. That's the country Venezuela has become, and our job now is to try to stop that country's slide into open conflict.

It's not the opposition who needs convincing the signatures are there, it's the two in five Venezuelans who believe in Chavez and believe Chavez. It's keeping the faith of those people in the process that's important for reconciliation, especially if Chavez eventually loses a recall vote, as I believe he will.

In ten years, nobody will care that it took four or five weeks longer than it would have otherwise to get to the recall, they'll care that the war was averted.

I realize that for many in the opposition this is just the last straw, and it's probably hard to listen to any arguments anymore. Chavez nos tiene locos, sin vaina. But the stakes are too high to give up now.

(But, answer this: what alternative do we have?)

You better think (Think! Think!)
I know that from any reasonable point of view the CNE's decision is wrong, and yes, I realize it's alarming that they are still making up rules as they go along, and yes I've read and re-read articles 22 and 29 of the instructivo again and again and I'm sure it doesn't say what Jorge Rodriguez says it says. I could rant at length about how wrong the decision is, how silly, how contrary to plain old common sense. But I won't. Because fanning the anger everyone is feeling would play right into the government's hands. It's time to stop, breathe deeply and think.

We need to realize that by intensifying the "megafraude" rhetoric and forcing CNE to acknowledge it, Chavez is just doing what he's always done. He's doing what he did in February 1992, and in April 2002 and in December 2002: he's provoking a crisis. He thinks sooner or later one of these crises will finally lead to an actual, old-style social revolution of the kind Venezuela really hasn't had so far. Like all good marxists, he's convinced that the worse things get, the better things get. "Heightening the contradictions," used to be the jargon. In other words, forcing a conflict. That's his only strategy.

We've seen him do this before. We saw it twelve years ago, we saw it twice in 2002 - both during the coup and the strike. Now, we're seeing Plan Colina III. He's running the same old play book all over again. You can tell this is the government's plan by just how often JVR has been acusing US of trying to replay April 2002 (rule one of JVResque psy-war: whatever you're doing, acuse your opponent of doing it.)

Chavez needs push us into despair, he's only hope is to goad us into doing something stupid. His only chance to stay in power is if we over-react, if we do something that will, again, allow him to take over even more institutional and political space.

The opposition's job, now, is to make sure that Plan Colina III blows up in his face. And the way to do it is by doing precisely the opposite of what we did in 2002 - by ignoring the extremists on our side, by processing our (justified) anger intelligently, and by refusing to give him the supreme pleasure of falling into his trap for a third time. A la tercera va la vencida, carajo!

The recall is still our best and - in fact - only strategy. The opposition should seize the offensive and welcome the reparo, despite our justified misgivings, as a chance to strip naked the charade of the mega-fraude charge. It might revolut us, it might make our blood boil, but we have to play ball. The path to the revocatorio is long and hard, but it's the path.

Encouragingly, Enrique Mendoza seems to get it. He quickly pledge to win by remaining within the legal system, which is a positive step. The opposition cannot succomb to the lure of emotional maximalism again.

The chilling fact is that there are only two alternatives to a legitimate, broadly credible recall: open dictatorship and civil war. If 40% of the country believes the referendum was called on bogus signatures, a referendum could well trigger a civil war. The chances of getting out of this mess without violence are - obviously - not great, but the alternatives remain too horrific to consider.

If we fall into his provocation again, we're Haiti.

It's time for cool heads to prevail, folks.

February 24, 2004

One time only!

Can't let a Golden Opportunity like this go by: for once I get to earnestly and unambiguously praise something the government does.

Chavez has dropped the silly, longstanding Venezuelan obstructionism to Guyanese development on the "disputed region" West of the Essequibo river - a region "disputed" on paper only, recognized by everyone and their cousin as Guyanese, and with no chance of ever being returned to Venezuela.

The dispute does nothing for Venezuela and genuinely hurts Guyana. Dropping the objections to development projects in the region is a forward-looking, corageous decision that Venezuela has resisted for too long for non-sensical, knee-jerk nationalist reasons.