"The Referendum is not the Solution". Interview with Arturo Sosa

A leading figure of the Jesuits in Venezuela, and opponent of Chavez, defends the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and TV, and says that the opposition offers no credible alternatives to Chavez.

By Osvaldo Leon - Latin American information Agency
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Political Science professor Arturo Sosa, a leading figure of the Jesuits in Venezuela, and an opponent of Chavez, defends the proposed Law of Social Responsibility on Radio and TV, and argues that the opposition offers no credible alternatives to Chavez.
Interview conducted by Osvaldo Leon, Director of the Latin American information Agency (ALAI)
Translated and reprinted with permission from Question, September, 2003

OL: One has the impression that in Venezuela the scenario of an open confrontation that previously existed has changed and that therefore traumatic ruptures such as those of the 11th of April of 2002 can be discounted.

AS: It is necessary to keep in mind that in the second half of the 20th century a political culture has emerged, whose greatest legacy is to have left strong democracies. The experience of the party system left this good inheritance, achieving not only a high level of social mobilization, but of organization of people and implanted attitudes, I would say, and democratic political hopes.

But was this not about a form of organization that was so fundamentally corporatized, that it closed down spaces for civil society?

I am not referring to spaces, because these have been overturned completely, but to the acquired attitudes. And this is why the Venezuela that will emerge from this process is not the one of traditional political parties, nor the one of “chavismo.” I consider “chavismo” as a distinct expression, but with similar characteristics as the parties; a movement that is profoundly mobilizing, populist, personalist, and statist.

However, I do not have the impression that the tense atmosphere has diminished, perhaps it has not had any serious episodes recently, but it continues just the same. After the national oil strike of December and January, now there is a discussion of who benefited from the strike. Until the now we could say that that one who has been able to take the most advantage from it is Chávez, his leadership and the government. Somehow he finds in the strike the justification for policies that are the responsibility of the government anyway and which he has so far not been able to implement in the form of social reforms and increases in the standard of living. In addition, he weakened many of the leaders of the opposition, economically as well as politically. For that reason, at this moment, the referendum is seen as the next confrontational episode, if it happens.

In spite of the positive effort of the negotiations, with the presence and facilitation of the O.A.S., the UNDP, and the Carter Center, who helped ensure that the confrontation was defused, the climate of confrontation has not really changed, that is, neither of the two sides have lowered their guard, both continue looking for a confrontation that eliminates the other. If Chávez wins the referendum he would essentially squash the opposition. Of course, the opposition also considers it as an opportunity to squash Chávez. The referendum is not being used as a democratic mechanism to ask the opinion of the people about what they really think of the government, but as a mechanism for each to squash to the other.

In that sense, can one make a prediction yet of who will win the referendum?

No, because the present image of the situation, of a completely polarized society, is false. It is true that there are two poles in Venezuela, but both represent a minority; otherwise the confrontation would have resulted in a winner already, but both are very even: both have the solid support of between the 25 and 30% of the population, with a certain variation. Let us suppose that they are 30 and 30, which together equals 60. And the remaining 40%, where are they? Everything depends on the moment. Just before the strike, most were in favor of the opposition, after the strike most were against the opposition because of the effects and the way the strategy of the strike was deployed. This 40% is a variable percentage, but one which decides if the things go in one direction or another and, of course, the fight on both sides is how to attract this sector, and here enter all the social sectors, whether middle-class or popular class [the poor].

The problem of the referendum for the opposition is that it does not present alternatives; it is only an anti-Chávez referendum and, considering that there is a good part of the 40% that, although it does not like the Chávez government, will not vote against it until it knows what is going to happen afterwards. If no alternative is presented, the known good is worth more than the unknown good. At least, we know at this moment that there is a certain leadership capacity in Chávez, which keeps society in order. Right now, and at times it seems silly, we have in Venezuela very strong anarchical tendencies and the fundamental factor that keeps them under control is the Chávez government.

Then, a good part of the people who would vote in a referendum ask themselves what is going to happen after Chávez leaves power? Since the opposition hasn’t presented any credible proposals, nor does it have a language that resonates with the popular [poor] sectors, nor does it have a clear leadership, it is evidently in a position of great weakness, even if it wins the referendum.

And what happens with that 40% that is in the sandwich? Is there some perspective of leadership, of program?

There is none; and this is one of the most critical results of the process we are talking about. We are harvesting now what we earlier referred to as a lack of space for the growth of civil society during the period of dominance of the political parties. Civil society cannot be improvised; it is a process that requires maturation. There has neither been the time, nor the political strategy to form a civil society, because neither emerges automatically. Every civil society requires a very explicit process of formation, a very consistent and very massive strategy and with a clear direction and constant work, none of which is being done, neither on the part of the chavistas nor on the part of the opposition.

Chavistas do political work that is very directed towards solidifying their 30% of support. The political message of President Chávez is to fortify the solid part of his support, because he supposes that with the solid part of his support and with the Armed Forces, he is practically unbeatable, because the others are so disorganized. And although in the Armed Forces there are institutionalist officers, the institution is dominated by Chávez, therefore it is not likely that there would be a split. There is more, I believe it is very difficult for the opposition to achieve a military coup; it would not have sufficient support. A military coup, from whatever direction it comes, will not have support of more than 5% of the population. There would have to have to be a social insurrection, and the Armed Forces would have to unite, either for repressing or for attempting to rearrange a situation of social anarchy; but that would not be a solution, on the contrary, it would aggravate even more the problems of the country. Thus, those are the strengths of Chávez: leadership with a great capacity to connect with the poor. The way he communicates with them allows him to maintain very close ties to the aspirations of the people, which excuse the errors of the government: because they do not let him govern, because of the sabotage that there was with the strike. Thus, one sees much less the inefficiencies and contradictions of the government.

If it were not for these circumstances, what would be clear with respect to the Chávez administration?

The great historical weakness of the Chávez government is the enormous distance between its words and its deeds. One can have affinity with what Chávez says, but the distance between that which is said, is done, and how it is done is very great. An example is the oil question: the government says it acts in the name of nationalism and at the same time it is opening the oil industry to the big transnational corporations. Today Venezuela is producing more than two million barrels per day, a little less than half of which are being produced by transnational corporation and three years ago the state oil company PDVSA produced nearly all of this with much smaller associations. The law of Social Security, one of the great transformations that Chávez announced in his electoral campaign, has not been approved in four years; which means that it is worse now than it was then.

What are the cards of the opposition?

The problem is that this 30% of solid opposition to Chávez is neither proactive nor does it weigh the costs of Chávez’ departure. It has neither managed to generate an attractive proposal nor one that resonates with the aspirations of the poor majority. They consist of frustrated people, and in that 30% solid opposition against Chávez there also are left radicals, people who think that Chávez has betrayed the true revolution, people for whom, when it is time to develop a proposal, it is very difficult to reach an agreement that goes beyond the overthrow of Chávez. This is their great weakness and so that it becomes a strength, it is not improvised upon. At this moment the referendum does not guarantee a democratic solution.

Then, what solution you would propose?

If things are thought through a little bit more sensibly, if there were a real political capacity in Venezuela, the first step one would have to make is the formulation of a basic program for country, because the aggravation of the social situation is truly alarming; in 2000 there was a fall of the GNP of 9% and in the first quarter of this year of 29%. Due to the serious unemployment and the reduction of buying capacity, poverty increased scandalously. Public services have deteriorated barbarically and this from those who in some sense defend the quality of life of the poor. The political crisis continues to be very serious—most serious is the social crisis which has accelerated the impoverishment process. It would be necessary to develop a consensus program of the most varied forces in order to stop this process and to propose some elementary public policy measures to reactivate the economy, so that there is employment, so that the process is reversed.

Secondly, according to the program proposed here, one could arrive at a transition government which would begin this program. This way, while the political world prepares general elections, a transition government would concentrate its attention on the social and economic crisis, with a group of people who would not compete electorally. That is, we are speaking of two to three years, because it is not just about Chávez, but the political forces have to be recomposed. General elections would be necessary that reflect the real correlation of forces in the country. But this is something very difficult, because the society, unlike what most people think, is very depoliticized, it is more visceral than political. This makes it much more difficult for any type of negotiation or agreement. Practically, the people who are in the hard poles of confrontation do not make policy, they wage war; they have not resorted to arms, but what they are doing is to develop a strategy for how they can squash their enemy. We are not in a space where everybody can coexist.

In this sense, and keeping in mind the death of cardinal Velasco, who was directly involved in the coup of the 11th of April, could the Church play a proactive role?

I have the impression that the institutional hierarchy of the Church does not have the capacity for convoking nor for mediation. It was seen as being very involved in the confrontations of the past with very important figures – such as you have mentioned, like the Cardinal – and it is internally very divided. At this moment, the Episcopal Conference does not have the authority to call for a national dialogue, although it can very well participate. To the extent that the Church concentrates its forces on the social crisis, it can recover its role and its authority, so as to summon other sectors. But the confrontational poles do everything possible to asphyxiate it with their struggles. Just as the pole opposed to Chávez has its greatest force in mass media, then a word from a priest or bishop, insignificant from the point of view of what the Church is as a whole, becomes the voice of the Church. Then he is perceived by the other side as taking an opposing view.

Speaking of the media, what is your opinion of the controversial Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television?

This law gathers an aspiration of the Church of the past 30 years. What the Church has been saying on the subject of mass media and how they must be regulated, is put into that law. That is, the Church, like other social sectors, has tried to make sure that the mass media is not just propaganda marketing. The real discussion on the law is about to whom those regulations apply.

In a less confrontational situation, the application of those regulations would have to be of the more or less independent civil society. At this moment the law gives much power to an institution of the State which is of the government, which then becomes a threat. But from the point of view of social aspirations, there is a social control here on the subject of communication. Many years ago a debate occurred and the media reacted by implementing a Code of Ethics which more or less incorporated the things that are this law. They did not follow it, and the media themselves recognize that they do not follow it. If there is no possibility of self-regulation, then there must be social regulation. In a non-confrontational situation, this law would be absolutely positive, but in a conflict situation it becomes a battle horse. Evidently, the government is not stupid, if it has a law it is going to use it to favor itself, because it is also useful for the confrontation.

How you see the relations with the U.S.?

The policy of the U.S. is extremely ambiguous because it is signaling in two different directions at the same time. I do not believe that they like Chávez much, but neither do they like the opposition much. With Chávez they have ensured a lot of things, until now, fundamentally, the provision of oil, the regular payment of the foreign debt and a continuous commercial flow. But, simultaneously Chávez represents a political obstacle, because he is opposed to Plan Colombia, because he does not toe the line with regard to Free Trade, because he has a political program to support to government of Fidel Castro, or Qadafi with an ambiguous situation; that annoys, but does not cause them to take action against him. Simultaneously, the North American government has given very clear messages that it will not support a military coup.