Venezuela’s Most Challenging Moment Is Here

The coming days involving a possible recall referendum will test the democratic credentials of all parties to Venezuela’s political conflict, not the least a Bush administration that has not particularly distinguished itself to this point.

• Recall validation petition ends today as country heads for a count-down over whether a referendum vote will be announced on June 4.

• Venezuelan authorities continue to explore the role of Colombian right-wing paramilitary forces who Chávez claimed were training to overthrow him, and were in league with the middle-class anti-Chávez opposition.

• Chávez is close to finding out if avoiding the opposition-led recall referendum time bomb is within his reach to diffuse, and if he can stamp out the initiative along with critics’ charges that the alleged Colombian raid was a stunt to divert attention from the recall.

• The Venezuelan president claims that the U.S. had prior knowledge and involvement in the plotted attack from Colombia, which is in keeping with his pattern of coming forth with anti-U.S. allegations as well as Washington’s pattern of giving him sufficient reason to make such accusations.

• Increasingly bold anti-American rhetoric on Chávez’s part may backfire and provoke an already aggressive White House to explore more devious efforts to destabilize the Chavez regime. Roger Noriega’s interventionist threats deserve to be taken very seriously due to the U.S. official’s rabidly rightwing credentials.

• Those desiring to oust Chávez, especially among Venezuela’s middle class, risk releasing an undertow of festering resentment against them among Chávez’s popular base, which could generate even worse socio-economic repercussions and class tensions than now exist.

• State Department’s Powell and Noriega get tough on allegedly saving democracy in Venezuela, but suffered from fatigue when they had little to show but hypocrisy in the case of Haiti’s constitutionally-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called the “repair” process now taking place in Venezuela a “defining moment” for the country’s democracy and urged Chávez’s government to allow a “fair and credible” verification without violence, fear or intimidation. Corroborating, but carrying the Secretary of State’s language much further, Powell’s deputy, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, warned Chávez that Venezuela could be suspended from the OAS if he hinders the referendum process. At the same time, much of the international community believes that the U.S. is trying to force a referendum on Chávez whether it is warranted or not, and that Powell’s and Noriega’s deep concern for the fate of democracy in Venezuela was not focused on when it came to Haiti, when both U.S. officials insisted that they would not allow the constitutional president of the country to be overthrown by a “gang of thugs,” which was precisely what they had in mind for the beleaguered Haitian leader. Consequently, Venezuela said that it would no longer consider the U.S. as one of the six-nation “group of friends.” There is no question that the threats coming out of Washington can only contribute to the hyper-ventilation of the political environment now being witnessed in Caracas.

Walking the Tightrope
Heating up the atmosphere, the May 9 arrest of a mixed-lot of anti-Chávez forces hailing from Colombia included several alleged members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), that country’s dreaded right wing paramilitary vigilantes. Presumably, they had crossed the poorly patrolled border with Venezuela and then traveled hundreds of miles until reaching Caracas’ suburbs. Venezuelan authorities have now detained over 100 would be insurgents, some of whom insisted that they had no idea why they were in the country. If the middle-class opposition, or for that matter Hugo Chávez, helped to script what may turn out to be no more than a comedy of errors, their participation could be rationalized, given the high stakes of the sharpening confrontation now taking place in Venezuela. On the other hand, even if the plot was little more than some tropical opera bouffe, it should provide one more example of the tinderbox venue that currently exists in Chávez’s Bolivarian Republic

Upon assuming the presidency in 1999, Hugo Chávez was almost immediately assailed by the country’s middle-class opposition, in response to his leftist inclinations. Among other charges, Chávez accused it of being prepared to utilize everything up to violence, in order to rid itself of his constitutionally-elected, but unabashed radical administration. Several weeks ago, Chávez came forth with his explosive charge that Venezuelan security forces had apprehended what turned out to be a large number of Colombian nationals on a ranch in a Caracas suburb. In a series of later public appearances, Chávez and other government officials filled in the alleged details of the incident by roundly attacking with mocking imprecations, the purported sponsors of the “invasion,” including Miami Cuban and Venezuelan exiles, the local middle-class opposition, some disaffected members of the country’s military, U.S. sources and the rightist AUC personnel.

According to Chávez, the exercise was aimed at overthrowing his government by seizing the national palace and nearby military barracks, while, if need be, assassinating the president. But if this account of the Colombian vigilantes’ incursion is accurate (and this appears increasingly to be the case), this would represent a dangerous escalation of political tensions in the country. Soldiers raided a Caracas-area ranch owned by wealthy ultraconservative Cuban exile, Robert Alonso, which ostensibly was being used as a training compound by the mercenaries. Confusion reigned there as the government insisted that no shots had been fired, while an eye-witness insisted that one or more of the invaders had been gunned down. Skepticism flared after the authorities reported that only one pistol and a large number of fresh military uniforms turned up.

Alonso, who appears to know far more than he has yet disclosed, remains tight-lipped concerning why Colombian paramilitaries were found on his premises. Several of Chávez’s more skeptical critics claim that the detention of the Colombians was a stunt he concocted to discredit the present presidential recall effort. The recall effort entered a critical stage yesterday. An announcement will be made on June 4 by the National Electoral Council (CNE) to declare whether sufficient authenticated signatures – 2.4 million – have been filed or have now been “repaired” after hundreds of thousands of signatures were invalidated. This process will potentially trigger a recall vote on Chávez’s continued tenure, which would tentatively be held on August 8.

The Blame Game
President Chávez claims that the Colombian paramilitary-led deployment was proof that a full-dress raid was being planned, with the participation of a number of Venezuelan ex-military and serving officers. Washington huffily denied that it played any role in the incident, as did the AUC high command.

Venezuelan Vice-President José Vicente Rangel anticipated that a more extensive investigation would uncover further anti-government paramilitary plotting, which could prompt a new string of arrests of known Chávez opponents. Thus far, part of the predicted equation has rung true, starting with the detention of at least 12 active and former Venezuelan officers on the charge of military rebellion.

Whether the so-called Colombian invasion was Chávez’s hapless vending of Bolivarian snake oil or was a bona fide threat to the Venezuelan president is no minor matter. Up to this point, the face-off between Chávez and the opposition had been a matter of seething rhetoric – which all told, though grim, has cost far fewer lives than those lost in one or two U.S. encounters with dissident Iraqi militia. The remarkable degree of civility which has long characterized Venezuela’s civic life and which had helped to protect the country’s basic institutions from emulating the murderous military juntas that dominated other sister Latin American states in the 1970’s and 80’s, may now be wearing thin and could collapse, opening the country to bloody street warfare.

Support and Criticism
Undeniably, Chávez’s track record as president has been one of tumult and strife. Although historically he has practiced, with some exceptions, democratization at home, he has also preached it to the rest of the hemisphere. His support within his own military has proven to be surprisingly firm as well as critical to his survival. Those senior officers who were sympathetic to the middle-class opposition have either already tendered their resignations because they were denied promotion or were fired on ideological grounds.

Chávez’s other source of support comes from among the 85 percent of Venezuela’s nearly 25 million impoverished. Their original faith in him is now being gradually restored after a collapsed economy forced him to renege on his initial pledge to improve the lives of the poor. In recent months, the economy has improved, allowing Chávez to allocate additional resources to this essential constituency. Previously, access to such resources was once almost exclusively the provenance of the middle-class. Such services going to the poor in the areas of health, education and agrarian reform, along with subsidized food supplies for the disadvantaged, have made all the difference in helping Chávez gain back the allegiance of many who previously had defected.

In the next number of hours, Chávez’s opponents will have to validate some 500,000 of the 1.19 million signatures on anti-Chávez recall petitions that have been disputed by the CNE, in order to tally up the 2.4 million signatures required to hold a referendum on his presidency. Current opinion polls show Chávez as having climbed back to a 40 percent approval rating with the possible upcoming referendum providing a definitive test of whether he has been able to win back a sufficient number of those who defected when the economy hit bottom last year. But before that August 8 vote is held, Chávez and the opposition will both be hostage to the June 4 CNE assessment report of disputed petitions, which will determine whether enough of them have been “repaired” to warrant a recall balloting.

It is obvious that Chávez has been struggling to gain more time to win back converts by permitting the country’s economy to gain strength and by accelerating the rate at which new resources are being distributed to the poor. He now seems within striking distance of being able to ward off the middle-class challenge – at least on the referendum – while each minute of each day incrementally adds to his prospects. If this trend concerning the “repair” process can be maintained and intensified in the next number of hours, and if the electoral process, if required, is carried out in an ethical fashion, Chávez’s future could be determined in a photo finish.

Greasing the Treads
All along, Chávez’s middle-class opponents have bitterly accused him of shifting the country toward a Castro-style dictatorship. As a demoralized private sector shrinks due as much to a disastrous general strike in early 2003 as from the president’s lasting ill-will, Chávez’s foes have been searching for a battle plan. Meanwhile, Chávez-introduced legislation has continued to move the economy to the left, in terms of a more equitable distribution of national wealth. When much of the management and support staff of the state-owned oil conglomerate, PDVSA, joined in last year’s general strike, Chávez didn’t flinch. Eventually, a court order allowed the President to end the oil production stoppage (which had held a knife to the nation’s economy) on his own terms by firing 18,000 of its striking personnel and hiring a much smaller number as a replacement staff. A surge in the level of production, together with a reduced work force saved the company a small fortune, which, added to the record revenue flowing in from OPEC’s pricing strategy, has significantly boosted Venezuela’s national income.

Washington Sees No Evil
State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher contemptuously dismissed Chávez’s claim of U.S. involvement in the recent border incursion by the Colombian paramilitary, seeing the charge as “baseless and irresponsible.” But is Mr. Boucher equally prepared to disavow any number of now indisputable black box operations authored by the U.S. against perceived Latin American foes – Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada, Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, El Salvador and Cuba – that did not involve a major CIA role? Aside from Boucher’s staged indignation, the rift between the U.S. and Chávez has been widening ever since the former paratrooper first took office in 1999. The split has been exacerbated by Bogotá’s enthusiastic alignment with Washington in the latter’s anti-drug and anti-guerrilla phases of Plan Colombia.

To make matters worse, on May 12, Chávez ratcheted up the tension between himself and the Bush administration by accusing the head of the U.S. Southern Command of having prior knowledge of the alleged predatory mission of the Colombian insurgent force that had been launched against Venezuela. Chávez’s increasing boldness regarding Washington’s alleged role to topple his rule may be enough to tempt the White House off the ledge, and prompt it to decide that the time has come to authorize a CIA action, which would transform Chávez’s accusations into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such a strategy could be risky since it might cause an interruption in Venezuela’s crude oil deliveries to the U.S and incite a civil war, as well as further contribute to the deterioration of U.S.-Latin American relations.

Washington professes that Latin American democratization governs its relations with the hemisphere, yet it is surprising that State Department spinman Boucher finds Chávez’s charges against the U.S. inexplicable, given that Washington spent between 3 and 4 million dollars to further the prospects of the April 2002 failed coup against him, and that the administration’s two leading extremist voices on regional affairs – Roger Noriega and Otto Reich – have accused Chávez of aligning with Castro to destabilize the rest of Latin America. That the Venezuelan leader may harbor some skepticism over the White House’s goodwill toward a leftist agitator should not strain the State Department’s credulity. It was only several weeks ago that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, uttered a seemingly principled statement regarding Haiti: “We cannot buy into a proposition that an elected president can be forced from office by thugs.” While these words were in reference to the uprising against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian president would be doing Chávez a service by suggesting that he accepts Powell’s reassuring words not as scripture, but as a warning.

Chávez and the Opposition
Chávez has without question contributed to the polarization of a nation which already was highly stratified. Rather than be particularly selective of who would be his foe-of-the-month, Chávez has confrontationally lumped them all together, be they the Church, trade unions, the business sector, or professionals. He attacked the opposition for its selfish behavior, for its monopolization of the country’s wealth and its traditional indifference to the plight of the poor. His opponents shouted, “class warfare,” while his followers chanted “justicia social.”

Chávez is hardly the prototypical Latin American caudillo; while he has perfected a somewhat tortured ability to interpret constitutional clauses to his liking, he dutifully has abided by the letter of the law. Yet he has chosen not to champion the vigorous investigation of a score of questionable deaths of anti-government demonstrators as well as not pursue a good faith inquiry into isolated charges of torture at the hands of his security forces. Due to his narrow legislative majority, Chávez was able to largely shape the nation’s political and judicial institutions in support of his cause.

For their part, Chávez’s political foes are to be criticized for having too narrowly framed the political and economic risks to their country, seeing issues through their narrow class lenses rather than weighing the potential damage to common national interests. How would the opposition heal the already gaping wounds dividing a prospective middle-class-driven government from a hugely distrusting popular base whose immense size could engulf its opponents on any political battlefield? Ousting Chávez would scarcely represent a clean-cut victory for Venezuela’s well-to-do in either economic or political terms. Rather the country’s major societal lesions, born out of decades of neglect and abuse at the hands of the traditional middle-class and corrupted dominant political parties – the Social and Christian Democrats – would resume their selfish and self-serving policies.

Potentially Strained Relations
Last week, Venezuelan electoral authorities had a public falling out with overseas observers over the procedures to be followed during the upcoming signature validation period. The CNE has since reconciled their procedural disputes with observers from the Carter Center and the OAS. Nonetheless, to prevent Venezuela from becoming internationally isolated, Chávez needs to make clear to the independent CNE that he strongly supports the international observers and would frown on their expulsion.

A week before the alleged paramilitary fighters were discovered, Defense Minister Jorge García asked the U.S. embassy’s military attaché to vacate office space it shares on various Venezuelan military bases. The Defense Ministry insists it needs the office space to carry out new social programs, and has nothing to do with recent political events or new hostilities. Even if the removal of U.S. personnel is a coincidence, it is a very awkward one for both the White House and Miraflores Palace.

Whatever the hard facts are regarding the Colombian paramilitary fighters found in Venezuela, the incident demonstrates the tension that pervades the country’s political climate. Considering its full plate, the coming days involving a possible recall referendum will test the democratic credentials of all parties to Venezuela’s political conflict, not the least a Bush administration that has not particularly distinguished itself to this point.

This analysis was prepared by Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Anthony Kolenic, COHA Research Associate

May 31, 2004

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email [email protected].