Friday, January 17, 2003

Today's editorial in the Stabroek News is a careful analysis of the situation in Venezuela (no link, because Stabroek has no permanent archive; I'll quote extensively instead):

The very least that can be said about the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Venezuela is that both sides have behaved with total irresponsibility. Absolute right lies with neither, and the language being employed is of such a rabid order (Guyana's political exchanges sound quite gentlemanly in comparison), that it makes it difficult to create any space for genuine debate, let alone compromise. Neither side can "win" in the long term, and even if there is a victory in the immediate term, it will be Pyrrhic in nature, as the underlying tensions will remain unresolved and will simply flare up again in more virulent form somewhere down the road.

From a constitutional point of view, President Chávez stands on somewhat ambiguous ground. The leader of an abortive coup in 1992, he not only never repudiated his past, but actively sought to celebrate it by organizing a huge procession last year on the tenth anniversary of the failed putsch. More important, he attempted to give it some patina of constitutionality by having inserted in the constitution a provision allowing Venezuelans to refuse any "authority that contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees, or impairs human rights."

In an ironic twist, it is this very clause which the opposition has seized on now to justify its actions. It too, of course, has a failed coup in its recent past, which leaves everyone standing on more-or-less the same moral plane, politically speaking.

Whatever the opposition says to the contrary, in a general sense, President Chávez has operated constitutionally. It is true that the constitution by which he is guided has not been hallowed by time, and was explicitly tailored to suit his needs. Congress was abolished, for example, and in its place came a single-chamber assembly which was dominated by Chávez sympathisers. Chávez people were also put in key public posts, including the Supreme Court and the elections council. That notwithstanding, neither of the two last-named institutions has consistently handed down decisions in his favour during the current crisis. The only two entities which he did not manage to bring under his direct control were the Caracas Metropolitan Police, and the oil company, PdVSA.

While President Chávez is technically in compliance with the framework of the state ... he has sought ways around the rules. The most problematical of these is the arming of the Bolivarian Circles, his hardline supporters who are thought responsible for many of the deaths and injuries during the demonstration which preceded the April coup, and who have attacked opposition marchers since that time, most recently last weekend. They have also been responsible for physical attacks on private media-houses, which are uniformly hostile to the regime....

The opposition has accused the President of being a dictator, and while he is clearly more comfortable with an authoritarian approach than a democratic one, he has not in practice been able to exercise dictatorial powers as such. His closeness to Presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba, Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, has certainly made his middle-class opponents nervous; however, even that is not a primary issue. Class antagonism apart, one of the major fault-lines separating the opposition from those who support the Government is quite simply, economic policy.

President Chávez is a kind of romantic socialist by sentiment, and his favoured policies hark back to a discredited economic era when the distribution of goods rather than their production was the main concern of governments in the developing world. It is no accident that the hard-core of Mr Chávez' support is among the poor — the majority — and while his commitment to them cannot be faulted, his uncertain grasp of economic principles and his apparent lack of understanding of how systems and institutions work, have meant that there has been little overall improvement in their lot. When the opposition alleges that he has destroyed the economy, therefore, they may be a little premature in their judgments, but that is the direction in which he seems to be headed.

Even if a case could be made out for the current strike, the opposition which has organised it is far from being above reproach. It contains among its leadership, for example, elements from the discredited, corrupt oligarchy which governed before Mr Chávez was propelled into the Miraflores Palace. It is a rag-bag of groups, which has no coherent political programme, no agreed leader and is united only in its hatred of the President. Furthermore, unlike the President, it has displayed a disinclination to abide by Supreme Court rulings when not in its favour....

While they have rightly accused the President of dividing the society with his unalloyed aggression towards the business, professional and upper classes, they too are doing nothing to heal the rift. If Venezuela went to the polls tomorrow, as they would like, President Chávez would almost certainly win again because they are in such disarray. But even if they could win, the thirty per cent of the population which believes that Mr Chávez is their only salvation, would not let them govern in peace. In other words, an election will solve nothing unless the winner can articulate a vision for the whole of Venezuela, and not for any particular class-interest.

The poll figures I've seen — coming out of the Venezuelan media, & hence suspect — suggest that the majority of the populace want Chávez out; but his success or failure in fresh presidential elections would of course depend on who the other candidates were. The Stabroek editorial's clearest insight is in recognising the opposition's crucial flaw: the lack of a credible leader to offer as an alternative to Chávez.

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