The August 15, 2004 recall election in Venezuela may have introduced a new chapter in Venezuelan political history. After repeated attempts at overthrowing duly elected President Hugo Chavez, most notably through the April 2002 coup and the December 2002-January 2003 lockout, the Opposition thought that they had gained what they wanted: a chance to get rid of President Chavez. Instead, it backfired and President Chavez secured a substantial mandate. Although sections sectors? of the Opposition, and the US-based publication, The Wall Street Journal seem unable to accept the verdict of the election, the rest of the world, irrespective of their position(s) on President Chavez, appears to have come to grips with the situation.
In order to put this potential new chapter into context, it is worth considering conditions on the ground in Venezuela. A January 2004 TransAfrica Forum-sponsored delegation to Venezuela was able to observe elements of what has been underway in Venezuela and some of the challenges that the Chavez government and its allies face in the coming period.
In late 2003, TransAfrica Forum was invited to send a delegation to Venezuela as part of the efforts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Separately, TransAfrica Forum had been interested for some time in getting a better and more accurate sense of the workings of the social experiment known as the “Bolivarian Revolution” transpiring under the leadership of President Chavez. We have, additionally, been interested in developing closer ties with Afro-Venezuelan organizations and networks as part of our on-going work to strengthen relationships with the African Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere. The delegation, experts in the area of labor, human rights, economics, crime, and culture, were James Early; Director of Cultural Heritage at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution; Bill Fletcher, Jr., President, TransAfrica Forum; Patricia A. Ford, Executive Vice President, Service Employees International Union; Danny Glover, Actor/International Human Rights Activist; Sylvia Hill, Chair Department of Urban Affairs, University of the District of Columbia; Julianne Malveaux, Economist and Syndicated Columnist; and Selena Mendy Singleton, Executive Vice President, TransAfrica Forum.
While one week was not a very long time, the visit itself was very intense and filled with meetings with government officials, members of the opposition, as well as leaders from so-called civil society. Through these meetings our delegation came to certain conclusions about a variety of issues facing the people of Venezuela. We also walked away with many questions and issues upon which research and reflection will be necessary. In either case, we made it clear to the government and people of Venezuela that we were not visiting in order to pass judgment on the pluses or minuses of either the government or opposition. While we do have opinions, we have held from the beginning that it is entirely up to the people of Venezuela to decide upon their own future.
…was like walking through the looking glass. On one side of the glass, that is, in the United States, the mainstream media has provided an almost exclusively negative portrayal of the Hugo Chavez administration. Not only is the portrayal negative, but the assumptions raised in most of the US media regarding the alleged intentions of the Chavez government are aimed at leading the observer to believe that there is a move on his part toward authoritarianism. On the other side of the looking glass, however, being on the ground in Venezuela one gets an entirely different view of Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution.”
What are important are not so much the conclusions that one draws about the score card of the Chavez administration, but rather the role of the US in attempting to influence the internal affairs of Venezuela where a democratically elected government is in power. The record of the Bush administration on this question is not so much checkered, but extremely negative, producing a backlash against the US throughout Latin America.
In early January of 2004, both Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice apparently concluded that it is their right and duty to tell the government of Venezuela how it should have responded to the call for a referendum on President Chavez’s presidency. The intrusive comments by representatives of the Bush administration provoked an outraged response by President Chavez who asserted that the US was once again attempting to tell the people of Venezuela how to manage its own affairs. While Powell’s and Rice’s comments were applauded by elements of the Venezuelan Opposition, the anger among Chavez supporters was as evident as the sun rising in the morning.
The comments, however, have gone beyond simply telling the Venezuelans what to do in the referendum. For quite some time, the Bush administration has been engaging in what can only be described as the politics of innuendo. In the autumn of 2003, leaks, allegedly from the Bush administration, were floated to the effect that the Chavez administration was supporting the rebel movements in Colombia. One did not need to be an Einstein to know that such allegations, should they gain traction, could soon lead to calls from within the USA among political conservatives for ‘regime change.’ Fairly quickly, interestingly enough, these charges were dismissed by the Pentagon’s own U.S. Southern Command, which held that there was no evidence of such support.
Again in January 2004 rumors floated in the press that an allegedly pro-Chavez paramilitary organization planned armed actions against several foreign embassies in Venezuela, including the embassy of the United States. These charges, which the Venezuelan government committed to investigating as an internal security matter, were linked to subtle (and not so subtle) suggestions that the Chavez government has either become a rogue regime or is no longer in control of the internal situation in the country.
Indeed, following our visit and in the lead up to the referendum, there were continued attacks on the Chavez administration and its alleged inability to guarantee a genuine, democratic election. While this allegation has largely been squashed by the actual practice of August 15th and the subsequent audit, one cannot assume that the destabilizing strategy of the Bush administration is at end.
On-going Bush hostility toward Venezuela
In April 2002, Washington found itself internationally isolated when it supported a military coup in Venezuela. It was the first time in more than 25 years that the US government had openly supported a military coup against a democratically elected government in Latin America.
The Bush Administration quickly reversed itself after the coup-installed leader immediately dissolved Venezuela’s congress and Supreme Court, and abolished the constitution. But the initial support for the coup was damaging to our foreign policy, and questions were raised as to whether Washington had a role in the coup itself. Senator Christopher Dodd, then chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked the State Department for an investigation.
The State Department’s internal investigation concluded that “the Department and (the U.S.) Embassy Caracas played no role” in the overthrow of Chavez. But it also found that Washington failed to adequately warn the opposition that a coup government would be met with “concrete punitive actions.”
The Administration’s statements and actions since the coup have contributed to political instability in Venezuela. The Venezuelan Opposition continued to use extra-legal means to topple the government, including an oil strike that plunged the economy into chaos. The White House appeared to be supportive of these actions, at one point endorsing the Opposition’s unconstitutional demand for early elections.
After the oil strike and business lockout failed to dislodge the government, leaders of the Venezuelan Opposition signed an agreement with the government in May 2003 in which they pledged to abide by the country’s constitution and use electoral means to achieve their goal of ousting President Chavez. In an unusual move that was sure to anger the Venezuelan government, the Bush Administration endorsed a recall election, even though it had remained neutral on the same question in California.
In light of the refutations of Bush administration claims as to the actions and intentions of the Chavez administration, and most importantly, in light of the mandate President Chavez received in the August 15the referendum, it seems clear that there needs to be a de-escalation of all confrontation rhetoric by the Bush team. The Venezuelan Opposition’s continued, almost maniacal stance on the elections, does not need further fueling.
“There is no racism in Venezuela…”
Prior to the TransAfrica Forum visit to Venezuela, during the visit, and subsequent to the visit we heard this statement—in one form or another—from many Venezuelans. In fact, many of the opponents of President Chavez were completely incensed that we would even pose the question as to whether racism could exist in their society. After all, we were instructed, Venezuelans are a very diverse population with a high degree of inter-mixing.
Racism plays itself out differently in Latin America than it does in the USA. It is, however, just as real. In most Latin America societies, the further up the ladder one goes, the lighter (or whiter, depending on your point of view) it gets. (The notable exception to this being the trade union movement.) In the media there is very sparse attention given to Latinos of Indigenous or African background. In fact, in television programs, just as one often sees in Latin-oriented television in the USA, the characters look more like they came from the streets of Madrid, Spain, than from the streets of Caracas, Venezuela, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, or, for that matter, Los Angeles, USA.
In Latin America, and much of the Caribbean, the large numbers of African and Indigenous descendants (and those mixed) presented a tremendous problem for the colonial powers in the 16th through 19th centuries. In order to guarantee that the privileged European minority could and did remain in control, it had to create a system of divide and rule. In Latin America, therefore, various gradations in skin color became very important. This contrasted with the USA, where one need only have 1/16 African blood and one was automatically considered Black. While skin color has been a major source of tension within Black America (USA), for White America (USA) the various hues of skin color among Black Americans have mattered less (though it is clearly the case that lighter- skinned Black Americans have had greater advantages than darker skinned Black Americans). We are generally dumped into the same basket.
Racism, Politics and the Future
This difference in how racism has played itself out in Latin America compared with the USA has led to both misunderstanding and myths. We, from the USA, cannot go to Latin America expecting to see racism existing in the same manner with which we are familiar. At the same time, it was striking to encounter it so blatantly in our visit to Venezuela. The opposition to President Chavez, for instance, has attacked him using racist language and imagery which would be totally unacceptable in public discourse in the USA. President Chavez, it should be noted, openly proclaims both his African and Indigenous background. This seems to drive sectors of the Opposition crazy. Our delegation, due to receiving the invitation from the Venezuelan government, came immediately under the scrutiny of and a barrage of attacks from the opposition. In the Opposition-oriented media, racist language and imagery were also used to characterize, if not caricaturize, our visit. This included the use of ambiguous language to describe us and our purpose in being in Venezuela, the use of racist cartoons, as well as the comparing of TransAfrica Forum Board chairman Danny Glover to a Black figure familiar to many in the Caracas carnival celebrations, a comparison that was not flattering.
Even among Chavez supporters, however, there was an inconsistent, though certainly non-hostile, approach to understanding race and racism. Harkening back to the words of Venezuelan hero, Simon Bolivar (“The Great Liberator”), many Chavistas proclaim that all Venezuelans have some African blood; therefore there is not a special question of the plight of the Afro-Venezuelans. While it would be a tremendous advance in the USA for there to be a common recognition—already shared by most scientists—that humans are all African in origin, this does not help us get to the contemporary question of racism as a political system of oppression and suppression. Nor does it help us understand the social, political and economic steps necessary to address remedying the present effects of past racist oppression.
Within Venezuela there are networks of Afro-Venezuelans active and raising these issues. They are not doing this to divide Venezuela. Rather they are recognizing that Venezuela is already divided and that a process of healing can only take place given an accurate awareness of the scope of the problem. This view has potential to gain in strength within the Venezuelan government. Advanced by individuals such as President Chavez, the recognition of the on-going reality of racism, and the struggles against it by the African descendant and Indigenous populations, could have a momentous impact on the politics and future of Latin America, let alone the entire Western Hemisphere.
African Americans in the USA need to be part of this process. Our visit to Venezuela opened our eyes to hemispheric possibilities to learn from and unify with other parts of the Diaspora that find themselves involved in the struggles against racist and national oppression in the context of neo-liberal globalization.
Transforming the role of Women in Venezuela
During our visit we met with several women at the Instituto Nacional de la Mujer (the Women’s National Institute or “Institute”) in the heart of Caracas. Created in 1993, the Institute is an autonomous governmental agency. Administered by the Ministry of Health and Social Development, its permanent bodies are responsible for “designing, executing, directing, co-coordinating, supervising and evaluating policies and matters related to the status of women”.
Maria Leon Alvaro, Vice President of the Institute, chaired the meeting. About twenty women joined us to share concerns which confront women of Venezuela. The women, high-ranking professionals in the areas of law, communications, finance, and history, as well as wives and mothers, spoke of their individual and collective struggles for equality where they and their families live, work, learn, and play.
Issues concerning gender-inequality and poverty were paramount issues of the discourse. The women, of middle class and less economically privileged backgrounds, focused (1) particularly on the need to recognize housework as work, and (2) domestic violence-issues.
Determined to change the old constitution, their concerns moved from their heads and hearts to the preamble and body of the constitution. As a result they fought for the inclusion of gender-balanced language in the constitution and the rights of women. The constitution includes the rights of homemakers; housework is now recognized as an activity which produces value. The document further acknowledges that it is women who are called upon to balance childcare.
The group agreed that this was of particular concern to women of African descent. When asked about negative images in the media, the women acknowledged that such images perpetuate damaging racial and sexual stereotypes and related myths. They urged that it was important to address and remove the images deeply rooted in culture. The group also noted that women are increasingly being arrested for crimes, and juveniles are being arrested at younger and younger ages. Drug-related crimes were the stated reason for the imprisonment of many women.
While proud of the number of women now in elected office, 12%, they seek to achieve 50% participation.
Finally, the group applauded the creation of the Bolivarian schools, which, born of common life experiences, has the vastly improved the world of mothers.
Political polarization and reconciliation? A look at labor
The years of the Chavez administration have demonstrated the extent and depth of the political polarization of Venezuela. This plays itself out in all fields of life. The vehemence of the hatred by sections of the Opposition for President Chavez almost defies explanation, except when one looks at the realities of Venezuelan society.
The wealthy 20% of Venezuela has been the dominating force of the country throughout much of its history. In some respects they look upon the poorer 80% as another society. This division can be seen, sadly, within the Venezuelan labor movement.
One of the most complicated aspects of the Chavez years has been the relationship between the Chavez administration and its supporters on the one hand, and the official labor movement, led by the Confederacion Trabajadores de Venezuela (The Worker’s Confederation of Venezuela or CTV) on the other. There are many sources of the tension—and presently antagonism—that exists between these two forces. By way of summary, the CTV is, in many respects, part of the legacy of the old regime. It had a very close relationship with both of the established political parties, Action Democratica (Democratic Action) and the COPEI (Comite de Organizacion Politica Electoral Independiente, The Social Christian Party), most especially the former. As such it was unprepared to adjust to the current that emerged with the development of the Chavista movement and the election of President Chavez.
The hostility between the Chavista movement and the CTV unfolded from the beginning of the administration. One matter referenced to our delegation by the CTV was a referendum held early on concerning the manner in which the CTV was led and organized. The criticism—and this criticism has also been voiced by the AFL-CIO—focuses on non-union individuals deciding on the future of the trade union movement. At first glance, this may seem to have been a terrible intervention in the affairs of the union movement. Upon investigation it actually seems a bit more complicated. In that regard it may be useful to review two relevant articles from the Bolivarian Constitution:
Article 95: Workers, without distinction of any kind and without need for authorization in advance, have the right freely to establish such union organizations as they may deem appropriate for the optimum protection of their rights and interests, as well as the right to join or not to join the same, in accordance with law. These organizations are not subject to administrative dissolution, suspension or intervention. Workers are protected against any act of discrimination or interference contrary to the exercise of this right. The promoters and the members of the board of directors of the union enjoy immunity from dismissal from their employment for the period and on the terms required to enable them to carry out their functions. For purposes of the exercise of union democracy, the bylaws and regulations of union organizations, shall provide for the replacement of boards of directors and representatives by universal, direct and secret suffrage. Any union leaders and representatives who abuse the benefits deriving from union freedom for their personal gain or benefit shall be punished in accordance with law. Boards of directors members of union organizations shall be required to file a sworn statement of assets.
Article 96: All employees in both public and the private sector have the right to voluntary collective bargaining and to enter into collective bargaining agreements, subject only to such restrictions as may be established by law. The State guarantees this process, and shall establish appropriate provisions to encourage collective relations and the resolution of labor conflicts. Collective bargaining agreements cover all workers who are active as of the time they are signed, and those hired thereafter. (Quoted from the English translation of the “Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”)
As one will note in reviewing the two articles of the Constitution cited above, Article 95 calls for a specific manner of electing leadership of unions. The referendum that was held was a non-binding but broadly inclusive referendum on this question. Despite the criticisms that were raised of this, such a referendum does not appear to have been qualitatively different from labor legislation that has been passed in the United States concerning the basic rights of union members. It does appear that for some Chavistas, their motive in moving the referendum was to abolish the CTV and put in its place a new and unified trade union confederation. Such objectives, irrespective of intent, placed the two sides on a collision course.
Whether this particular observation is correct or not, it does seem clear that the Chavez government could have handled this situation very differently. The meeting that representatives of our delegation held with the CTV leadership indicated that there had been pro-Chavez leaders who became alienated from the administration, believing that the administration was on a de facto search and destroy mission vis-á-vis the CTV.
Whether that alienation was due to errors on the part of the Administration, animus or due to a difference of opinion, we are not sure. What was clear was that the two sides view the Venezuelan context in vastly different terms. This included, as in our meeting with the official opposition, a refusal to refer to the April 2002 coup as a coup. It was also noteworthy that in the CTV meeting, the representatives of the confederation were particularly infuriated by the terminations of approximately 20,000 oil workers who had participated in the December 2002/January 2003 lockouts. What was unclear to us was why the CTV should have expected anything else to happen given that the objective of the lockout was the removal of the elected president of the country.
The meeting held with the National Union of Workers (UNT) and the Central Union of Venezuelan Workers (CUTV) was quite different from the interchange with the CTV. While the CTV was extremely cordial and forthcoming, it was noteworthy that no women were participating in the presentations that were offered (note: there was no time for questions and answers from either Bill Fletcher, Jr. or Patricia Ford). In contrast the meeting with representatives from the UNT and CUTV, pro-Chavista labor formations, included approximately one third women and was more an exchange, including the allocation of significant time for questions on our part. It was evident from both these meetings that there is a major wall between the two sections of the Venezuelan labor movement.
The entire Venezuelan trade union movement faces certain monumental challenges. In addition to the split that exists between the pro-Chavista and the anti-Chavista sections, the trade union movement as a whole represents approximately 12% of the entire workforce (roughly the same percentage as in the USA). There is a growing informal sector that is largely being ignored by the trade union movement as a whole. Second, while the trade union movement is enmeshed in political struggles, the dimensions of the struggles themselves end up making these formations more aspects of the political struggle than aspects of both the political and the economic struggle.
This may be inevitable in light of the polarization of Venezuelan society. A final point: the political polarization of Venezuela makes it increasingly difficult to have measured discussions concerning trade union autonomy. Unions, as defensive organizations of workers, need to have sufficient autonomy from the government and political parties in order to guarantee that they can advance the interests of the workers, even when that may mean clashing with otherwise allies. In the current situation, where lines have been drawn in the sand, this seems less and less feasible. Our hope is that forces on both sides will rise to the occasion, recognizing that some disputes will have to be resolved or put aside in the interests of the workers.
Polarization and the aftermath of the referendum
“…I have a message for you to deliver to the people of the United States…”
These words were spoken in English at the outer edge of a crowd that had come to observe our visit to a barrio (a poor neighborhood) on the outskirts of Caracas. I turned and saw a young Black man, about 6 foot tall, smiling. His English was better than my Spanish, but we both ended up turning to my translator to help with the interaction.
This individual proceeded to politely lecture me on the situation in Venezuela. I have no idea who he was, other than being a resident of the barrio. His analysis was very straight forward. In Spanish he presented a point of view that could be summarized as follows: “We are carrying out a revolution here. This revolution is about changing our society so that it benefits the bottom 80%. We are trying to change our own society. We do not want the United States to get involved.”
My first real lesson in Venezuelan politics was contained in this exchange. What was striking was not only that this individual had a very sophisticated analysis of what was underway in his country, but that he wanted to make sure that people in the USA understood that this movement was about far more than the personality of one Hugo Chavez. What was even more striking was that the comments from this individual were not an isolated case. Politics, and more than elections, was on the tongue of each Venezuelan we encountered. Whether one was a Chavista; a member of the official Opposition; or from somewhere in the middle, it was clear that politics in Venezuela is about more than who happens to be the president. It concerns an analysis of Venezuelan society and what direction should be charted into the future. On this there are and have been sharp divisions.
The “Bolivarian Revolution” and the Opposition
The politics of Venezuela have been dominated since the late 1950s by the rivalry between two, essentially, pro-establishment parties: Accion Democratica and COPEI. Disenchantment with this political regime unfolded shortly after the end of the dictatorship. A guerrilla movement erupted in the mid-1960s, but came to an end by the early 1970s. When oil, the major export of Venezuela, was at its financial peak, many of Venezuela’s social fault lines were obscured. With the end of the oil boom by the early 1990s, fissures erupted.
The 1992 coup attempt by Lt. Colonel Hugo Chavez represented another movement to address the gross socio-economic disparities in Venezuelan society. Though the coup failed, Chavez soon found himself a hero to millions of the impoverished of Venezuela. Subsequently he decided to accept the challenge of entering the electoral arena. The 1998 Chavez victory at the polls startled commentators across the political spectrum, expressing very clearly the disenchantment of much of the population with the status quo. This victory, it should be added, also signaled a fundamental crisis for the established political parties.
President Chavez has faced hostility since first taking office. It is difficult to evaluate the sum total of mistakes compared with successes on the part of his administration, but it is clear that his very vocal stance in favor of the bottom 80% of Venezuelan society immediately resulted in the elite taking a stand against him.
In our January 2004 visit there were striking examples of the scope of today’s Venezuelan politics. These include: the Bolivarian constitution; the attitude of the Opposition media; the mix of race and politics; the forms of mass involvement; and the approach of the official Opposition. Each of these points shall be addressed separately.
The Bolivarian Constitution:
At President Chavez’s initiative, the constitution was rewritten and voted upon in 1999. What is important about this was not only the outcome, but the process itself. A constituent assembly was convened and tasked with rewriting the constitution. The changes were often dramatic, including recognizing housework as legitimate work; recognizing the distinct and legitimate rights of the indigenous population; and a clear, democratic process of political recall. Upon the completion of the work of the Assembly, the draft constitution was put up for public adoption through a vote. The new constitution was adopted with a healthy majority.
Yet it is the following anecdote that is useful in understanding the process. Wherever our delegation went we saw little blue books. These books, which can go in one’s shirt pocket, have a symbolism that is unique. In regular discussions with grassroots activists and individuals, the Bolivarian Constitution, more than anything else, symbolized the sort of society that Chavistas hope to build. In this sense the Constitution is not viewed as simply a source of ‘rights’ in the manner in which we in the USA are use to thinking. Rather the Constitution is more like a mission statement or vision document. Indeed, the approach of the Venezuelan poor to their Constitution probably accounts for their massive turnout in the referendum to determine President Chavez’s future.
The Opposition Media:
The private media is overwhelmingly anti-Chavez. There appear to be few restrictions on their ability to use the means at their possession in order to propagandize for their views. This was very evident in the situation leading up to the April 2002 coup. Gross inaccuracies were propagated by the media in the name of truth. (Note: see the film “The Revolution Will Not be Televised”)
While our delegation was visiting, we were treated to stories that included allegations that we had been paid off by the Chavez government to visit Venezuela, and subsequent to our visit, one Opposition writer alleged that he had attempted to meet with us and that we had refused (which was not the case. In fact we have no knowledge of such an approach on his part).
What these and other examples point to is the highly polarized nature of Venezuelan politics. The response by the Chavez administration has included holding nationally televised addresses, as well as the creation of his own weekly program, Alo, Presidente, a phenomenon that combines the features of a mass rally with that of a late-night talk show.
The mix of race and politics:
As noted earlier, the Opposition media, for instance, has used disparaging racial caricatures against President Chavez, essentially mocking the fact that he is of both Indigenous and African descent. Such an attack was also used against our delegation in ways that we found nothing short of astounding.
Race and politics mix in other ways as well, though far more subtly. Although the opposition likes to dismiss this, there was a distinction in the crowds that demonstrated for and against President Chavez both in the days surrounding the April 2002 coup, as well as during the December 2002/January 2003 lockout. The Chavistas, as a rule, appeared to be far more diverse than was the opposition. This speaks, at least in part, to something to be discussed later regarding race and class in Venezuela.
Among the Chavistas, race plays an even more complicated role. The upholding of the rights of the Indigenous by the Chavistas and the new Bolivarian Constitution is a major breakthrough in the Western Hemisphere. The question of African descendents, however, is a matter that—as we will discuss below—is often ignored. In fact, in a meeting with former members of the Constituent Assembly, an individual from President Chavez’s party (the 5th Republic Movement) dismissed race as a significant problem in Venezuela.
This point became a subject of a very constructive debate in our dialogue. At the same time, President Chavez himself has called greater attention to the race question over the last year or so, a fact that has subjected him to additional attack by the opposition who see him as instigating divisions where such divisions were allegedly not to be found.
Forms of mass involvement:
A conscious decision was made by the Chavez government to build what it sees as “participatory democracy” alongside representative, or formal democracy. The results, as far as we could tell, are at present mixed, and perhaps at a very early stage. Within barrios (neighborhoods) there are various sorts of committees, including but not limited to committees on health, cooperative stores, and education. What is unclear is how these initiatives will be sustained over the long term. Chavez is obviously a very charismatic figure, and his energy is infectious, but this does not replace the process of institutionalization so necessary to ensure that changes are lasting.
As noted above, these forms of involvement are alongside the established forms of representative government. There were no obvious signs of an attempt to weaken the institutions of representative democracy. Additionally, there have been steps taken by branches of government, for example, the Court, which have been antithetical to the objectives of the Chavez administration, though nevertheless respected.
The approach of the Opposition:
We had two formal opportunities to meet with representatives of the official opposition (in addition to meeting with the media through two press conferences and an assortment of interviews). The first meeting was with the Coordinatora Democratica (Democratic Coordinator). The second meeting was with the CTV, which has staked out a position in open opposition to the government.
The Opposition is extremely diverse, running from some groups and individuals that consider themselves Marxist-Leninist, to groups that could probably be described as crypto-fascist. The formal meeting we held with representatives of the Coordinatora Democratica was very polite and informative, but left us with more questions than answers. Despite several attempts to clarify the programmatic and long-term objectives of the Opposition, it soon became clear that what held them together was their hatred of Chavez; nothing more bound them together. When asked what a post-Chavez society would look like, the answers that we received were vague to the point of unhelpful (though not impolite). Such ideas included a society free of corruption; greater job creation; and, a de-escalation of political tensions. Clearly such views are not ones with which anyone can take issue. A similar sense was gained by us in the meeting with the CTV.
The approach of the Opposition had some particularly disconcerting elements. The most memorable was the manner in which they characterized the April 2002 coup. No member of the Opposition with whom we spoke, or their supporters in the media would refer to the coup as a coup. Rather euphemistic terms such as “April events,” or “April developments” were used.
When pressed about why such a designation—in the face of international recognition that a coup did take place—various responses are given, the most important being their contention that President Chavez ordered killings to take place and that President Chavez resigned, therefore there was a power vacuum. Such contentions seemed, to the delegation, to lack much in the way of credibility.
In putting together observations and conclusions from our visit to Venezuela, as well as developments surrounding and following the August 15th referendum, one can deduce several key challenges. These include, but are not necessarily limited to:
- Process: The Opposition, after having failed with a coup and the lockout, insisted on a referendum. They lost. The question that now haunts Venezuela is whether the Opposition will ultimately accept this loss and then proceed to function as a political opposition rather than a nascent insurgency. One of the fears when looking at Venezuela post-referendum, is that with this loss, the Opposition may return to illegal and paramilitary methods of struggle rather than preparing to run alternative candidates in the next election.
- US-imposed isolation: The Bush administration has been hostile toward the Chavez administration from the beginning. President Chavez has been shrewdly attempting to build alliances with other Latin American countries. Interestingly, during the April 2002 coup, Latin American countries refused to recognize the coup leaders, irrespective of their political differences or agreements with President Chavez. This sent an important signal to Washington. Not only the Bush administration, but key sections of the US political establishment went out of their way to encourage the Opposition to move against the Chavez administration. Since the results of the referendum were announced, the majority of the US political establishment appears to have, at least formally, accepted the results. Irrespective of who wins the US Presidential elections in November 2004, the question remains as to whether the US will attempt to develop a constructive relationship with the Chavez administration or whether it will continue the practice of demonization.
- Expanding the ruling coalition: This is perhaps the single most important task of the Chavez administration. This is not simply about including other political parties, but more a matter of greater outreach to either neutralize or actually win over more sectors of the population. Defections from the Chavez coalition in the past seem to have reflected a range of problems, including personality differences, political mistakes on the part of the Chavez supporters, as well as policy differences. There is not one reason or source. The de-escalation of political tensions can only come through an active effort at rapprochement with some current political opponents. While it is clear that the opposition is very heterogeneous, and, as a result, has no coherent vision for the future, this does not guarantee that the situation will become any more stable on its own. It is also worth adding that despite the Chavez victory in the referendum, this does not settle the divisions in the country and having 42% of the electorate in opposition remains an uncomfortably high figure. Thus, the question of whether President Chavez can pursue a policy of increasing the size and scope of the ruling coalition may determine the ability to build stability on a new foundation.
First published in 2004 by TransAfrica Forum, 1426 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. 202-223-1960 (ph); 202-223-1966 (fax); [email protected]; www.transafricaforum.org. © October 2004 by TransAfrica Forum. All rights reserved.
TransAfrica Forum Mission Statement: The work of TransAfrica Forum is summarized by the words from a section of the declaration of the 5th Pan-African Congress (1945), which reads in part: “We believe the success of Afro-Americans is bound up with the emancipation of all African peoples and also other dependent peoples and laboring classes everywhere.” As such, the organization serves as a major research, educational, and organizing institution for the African-American community offering constructive analyses of issues concerning U.S. policy as it affects Africa and the Diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America. A center for activism focusing on conditions in the African World, we sponsor seminars, conferences, community awareness projects and training programs.
Publication date: October 5, 2004.