Sunday, March 09, 2003
What Real Friends Can Do For Venezuela

Thursday, January 30, 2003; 2:47 PM

In order to understand the crisis in Venezuela, one must live it. There is no
doubt about that.

Last week, representatives of the polarized forces that are ripping that South
American nation apart made their pilgrimage to Washington. Their only shared
intention, it seems, was to act out their drama on a world stage.

If their words were any indication, a solution to the problem is as distant as
ever. Each side has mastered the fine art of pointing the finger at the other.
It is they, one said of the other, who have used a position of privilege to call
for discord, violence and death. Both seemed determined not to make the least
concession to the other, who, after all, was the true enemy of democracy.
Each side, of course, was making an effort to offer its best diagnosis of the
crisis. If the symptoms are not recognized, Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton
explained, how can one prescribe a cure? True.

Yet one was left with the impression that both were spending far more time,
passion and talent revealing the depth of their suffering than seeking a salve
to soothe it.

The two sides seemed to agree most on one complaint: The world fails to
understand their dilemma. No surprise then that they both endorsed, as the first
step of international response to a crisis that could no longer be ignored, the
creation of a Group of Friends to take part in negotiations between the
Venezuelan government and the opposition.

The group might satisfy that desire for international attention. But more
critically, it should make everyone realize that world attention and
understanding does not necessarily translate into adopting wholesale the view of
one side or the other.

Various Washington analysts concurred this week that the group could be
especially helpful in restoring confidence to the discussions and pressing
Venezuelans to alter their apocalyptic rhetoric. It also could exert pressure to
explore compromise solutions and help to reinforce them--although it is hard to
imagine any pressure greater than that imposed in the last two months by the
Venezuelan opposition's devastating national strike.

It is too early to tell how successful the Friends will be. Somewhat
predictably, the initial meeting of its foreign ministers and their deputies
here last week ended with few concrete results.

More importantly, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, speaking on behalf of
the six member states (Brazil, Chile, Spain, Mexico, Portugal and the United
States), sent forth one very essential message: Solutions to the problems in
Venezuela must come from Venezuelans. That message may seem simplistic. Yet the
point here is that the Group of Friends could prove to be useless especially if
its existence becomes yet another excuse for inaction.

During the 1990s, many Colombians looked abroad for solutions. Worn down by an
internal conflict that had spun out of control, many looked especially to the
United States as the only source of hope for a solution. At the end of the day,
however, with Washington unwilling to be the savior and their own internal
crisis worsening, the Colombians seemed to recognize the need to do more for

In situations like the one in Venezuela, self-examination is not easy. It is
easier, even comforting, to look abroad and grab convenient, predictable,
ever-assuring allies. President Hugo Chavez seems to have just such a find in
the Cuban leader Fidel Castro; and, curiously but not surprisingly, the
Venezuelan opposition has found its own version of the same in Castro's
archenemy--the Cuban exile community, especially of Miami.

Castro and the exiles are neither friends in need nor friends in deed. Their
approach to their own country's situation has resulted in a diplomatic impasse
four decades long. Given the level of tension present now, Venezuela needs open
minds on the sidelines, not cheerleaders. Of what value are friends more
interested in pulling apart the two sides than bringing them together?
The intensity of Venezuela's strike appeared to be subsiding this week but this
is no time to declare winners or losers. A true victory won't be something
claimed but something gained. The Group of Friends might help Venezuelans
realize the need for another type of sacrifice--the one that brings them
together instead of tearing them apart.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is
(c) 2003 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

Political Deadlock Bolsters Chavez
Venezuelan Leader Exploits General Strike to Remake Institutions,
Opponents Say

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 20, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- A thriving black market in gasoline has emerged in
Venezuela, which has one of the largest oil reserves outside the Middle
East. Cargo ships pick up groceries for the nation at government expense
in Colombian ports. The state oil company -- once considered well-run, now
largely shuttered -- may face lasting damage if it is not restarted soon.
This is a grim snapshot of a teetering Venezuela 50 days into a general
strike and political standoff that continue to defy a number of seemingly
sensible solutions. Despite growing economic damage and social unrest,
neither President Hugo Chavez nor the organized opposition seeking to
remove him from office has given ground on several proposals that
diplomats here say should, according to normal logic, bring agreement
within reach, arrest the economic decline and head off fresh violence.
A number of diplomats, political analysts and opposition members say the
central reason for the stalemate is simple, if misunderstood by outsiders,
particularly in the United States.

Chavez, they say, believes Venezuela's public and private institutions
must be broken down for his revolution to take root. Throughout his
divisive four years in office, Chavez has viewed moments of political
strife, some of his own design, as opportunities to remake institutions
opposed to his political program. Indeed, he has described the current
standoff, during which five people have died in street violence, as a
natural part of the revolutionary process.

But his "Bolivarian revolution," a potent brand of populist nationalism
named for the 19th-century liberation hero, Simon Bolivar, has bumped up
against an equally powerful nostalgia among some opposition leaders for
the hermetic two-party system that dominated Venezuelan politics before
Chavez's election in 1998. As a result, the opposition appears unable to
embrace any solution that would not take the nation back to those days,
when power alternated between the Democratic Action Party, a Social
Democratic group, and Copei, its Christian Democratic counterpart.
The clashing visions have deadlocked negotiations supervised by Cesar
Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, to end
a crisis that has consumed Venezuela for a year. As Chavez recently told a
cheering crowd, "The revolution cannot be negotiated."

In coming weeks, the United States will join negotiations to end the
crisis as part of a six-country advisory group designed to strengthen
Gaviria's hand. The U.S. participation comes as Venezuela's pre-strike
delivery of 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the United States -- about
15 percent of U.S. oil imports -- has slowed to a trickle, as concerns
mount that a possible war in Iraq would reduce Middle East oil shipments.
At the same time, frustrated opposition leaders have increasingly singled
out the United States for aggravating the situation by failing to come
down hard immediately on Chavez, who as an army lieutenant colonel in 1992
led an unsuccessful coup against the elected government of Carlos Andres
Perez. In their view, the United States failed to understand that Chavez
from the beginning had ambitions to alter Venezuela fundamentally in ways
hostile to U.S. -- and their -- interests.

Since his election on a pledge to help Venezuela's poor -- a majority in
the nation of 23 million people -- Chavez has looked and sounded like a
Cold War-era revolutionary. He has favored military fatigues over business
suits, delivered marathon speeches he ordered to be carried on private
television channels and expressed admiration for Cuba's President Fidel
Castro. Chavez called the rich "rancid oligarchs," labeled the Catholic
Church a "tumor" on Venezuelan society and warned opposition media owners
to tell the truth.

The initial U.S. approach to Chavez, formulated by then-Ambassador John F.
Maisto, now on the National Security Council staff, was to judge him by
actions, not words. That changed in October 2001, after Chavez criticized
the U.S. war in Afghanistan and decreed a series of populist reforms that
appeared to exceed his authority. In addition, he had organized several
successful referendums that gave the country a new constitution tailored
to his rule and was reelected in 2000 with a higher percentage of support.
Last April, when Chavez was ousted in a military-led coup d'etat, the
White House quickly endorsed an interim government installed by the coup
leaders. But the coup collapsed two days later and Chavez returned in
triumph to the presidential palace. He then purged the military's upper
ranks, and the troops have so far remained solidly behind him throughout
the current crisis.

"The United States made a giant mistake adopting a pragmatic attitude
toward Chavez, something they did ironically to guarantee a stable oil
supply," said Alberto Garrido, a political analyst who has written several
books on the roots of Chavez's political program. "Here, there is a clash
of systems, something that neither Gaviria nor the United States
understands. For this reason, no negotiation is possible."

Believing he is defeating his opponents, this view holds, Chavez has
little incentive to end a standoff that appears to be accomplishing what
many politicians and analysts here say are his long-term goals.
Venezuela's private sector, long the source of resistance to his program,
is withering under the weight of the strike. The National Institute for
the Development of Small and Medium Size Industry warned Thursday that
10,000 small and medium-size businesses, 50 percent of such enterprises,
are in danger of collapse.

"Fidel had to fight the bourgeoisie to defeat them," said Pastor Heydra, a
congressman from the opposition Democratic Action Party. "Here, the
bourgeoisie is killing itself."

At Petroleos de Venezuela, the state oil company that provides the
government with nearly half of its $20 billion budget, Chavez has used the
strike to fire 2,000 dissident employees. The likely result, said
diplomats and oil analysts here, will be a company as politically pliable
as the Venezuelan military since the president's post-April purge.
"They've handed themselves to Chavez on a platter," one foreign diplomat
here said. "One of the things driving this strike is a sense of
desperation that in Chavez's Venezuela there will be no place for the
professional people of [the state oil company] or anyone else like them."
In recent weeks, Gaviria has placed much of the blame on the government
for refusing to accept an agreement on an early presidential election;
under the constitution, presidential elections are scheduled for 2006.
Chavez has also refused to accept a nonbinding referendum on his
administration set for Feb. 2, calling it unconstitutional. Venezuela's
high court has yet to rule on the issue. He sent National Guard troops
into a bottling plant affiliated with the Coca-Cola Co. on Friday to make
sure soft drinks were distributed despite the strike.

Allowing a clean vote on Feb. 2 might be enough for the opposition to lift
the strike, people close to the talks have said, but Chavez has refused to
consider the idea. He said only a binding referendum on his
administration, which could be held as early as Aug. 19, would be

"They don't want any elections," said Rafael Alfonzo, an opposition
negotiator. "If he loses in conflict, rather than elections, he will
always be seen as a hero by his people."

But the opposition has failed to present an alternative political program,
while misreading foreign governments that seem reluctant to challenge the
legitimacy of a twice-elected president. Before the strike, many
opposition leaders said they believed the United States and the OAS would
weigh in against Chavez, whom they accuse of weakening essential state
institutions to the extent that there are now no checks on his power. No
such support has materialized.

Hoping to convince U.S. officials of their claim that they are battling a
dictator disguised as a democrat, opposition leaders traveled to
Washington and New York last week. They have also been informally
consulting with James Carville, a Democratic strategist, for ideas to
better explain their cause abroad.

"It seems like no one wants to end this for the good of the country," said
a person close to the negotiations. "No one on either side."

(c) 2003 The Washington Post Company

Bush Administration Stumbles Again in Venezuela

Special to
Thursday, December 19, 2002; 4:01 PM

WASHINGTON--With so many in the Bush administration able to speak Spanish, the
phrase "No aprende ni a palos"should have a familiar ring. If not, one need only
examine the White House's recent actions regarding Venezuela to understand that
the words refer to someone who never learns--just doesn't seem to get it--even
when hit upside the head with a stick.

How else to explain why for the second time in eight months, the administration
recklessly threw its weight behind the political opposition in that very
volatile country at a moment when choosing sides threatened to trigger an
explosive reaction.

By forcefully calling on Friday for early--and therefore unconstitutional-presidential elections, the administration jeopardized the delicate balance developing in Caracas after weeks of negotiations between President Hugo Chavez's government and its democratic opponents. Facilitated by Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, the talks have been the best hope for a peaceful solution to a long-simmering crisis.

Within 72 hours the Bush administration modified its stance, calling for a
referendum, something the constitution does allow. By then, however, Washington
had cast again doubt on its commitment to uncensored democracy in the region.
The United States behaved similarly and with apparent impunity in April, when it
prematurely recognized a short-lived government that ousted Chavez in a coup
d'etat. This reprise was unnecesary and not helpful.

Latin America would be better off if Washington could learn from its mistakes.
The region needs the leader of the free world to be more patient and less
willing to publicly air his likes and dislikes. It needs a White House that
better understands that in situations like the one in Venezuela, its actions--or
lack thereof--send signals to either or both sides in the dispute.

Now, more than ever, such patience with evolving democracies is essential. Newly
elected leaders in countries like Brazil or Ecuador need assurances that the
United States will stand up for democracy regardless of ideological differences.
That clearly has not been the case with Venezuela, where a striking lack of
diplomatic finesse at a critical moment could have darkened the storm clouds
still gathering over the presidential palace at Miraflores.

The call for early elections took many by surprise, including some at the State
Department, where one official said the White House had gotten a "little in
front of the curve." That was understandable, however, the official said, a case
of human error. Nothing more.

Another State Department official said the action was deliberate, a conscious
"refinement" of the U.S. position that was warranted by a "heightened state of
crisis" in Venezuela that Chavez persistently dismisses as "normal." Washington,
according to this line of thought, was simply expressing what so many others in
the hemisphere were thinking but were reluctant to say. Perhaps.

The White House statement, issued Friday and shamelessly revised on Monday, came
just hours before representatives of the 34 OAS member states met to consider
Chavez's request for full support. That coincidence prompted some diplomats here
to conclude that Washington was throwing its weight around, a scare tactic
designed to pre-emptively quash pro-Chavez sentiments. If such was the intent,
it is unclear how effective the strategy was.

Late Monday night, after nearly 30 hours of debate, the OAS issued a resolution
backing Chavez only by inference. It called for supporting democracy in
Venezuela, "whose government is headed by ... Chavez." With that oblique
endorsement of Chavez as the coincidental status quo, the organization seemed to
be hoping that neither side in Venezuela would interpret the resolution as a
victory and use it against the other. Indeed, the risks were so high that for
some time during the deliberations, some advocated that the organization say
nothing rather than something it later would regret.

At the end of the debate, Washington advised Venezuela to look to others in the
region for guidance. The exact reference was unmentioned but obvious: Argentina.
Faced earlier this year with the prospect of an increasingly violent situation
getting completely out of hand, Argentinian President Eduardo Duhalde turned to
an electoral solution. That move, perfectly legal under Argentina's constitution, helped reduce tension in that financially, politically and socially strapped nation, many here this week said.

There is a key difference in these two cases. Duhalde's call in Argentina came
from someone who had no direct stake in the election outcome, since he is not a
candidate. The U.S. call echoed the position of Chavez's opponents, whose open
agenda is to oust him. The Bush administration was harshly criticized for a
nearly identical mistake eight months ago. Sometimes even the mighty fail to
learn from the stick.

(c) 2002 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

The New York Times, December 2, 2002 [Op Ed]

Power to the Privileged

A general strike in Venezuela, the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the United States, has contributed to a rise in oil prices in the last month. But the strike, which began on Dec. 2 and has resulted in a drastic decline in the country's oil production, was not initiated by left-wing labor unions, as many Americans may think. In fact, it was instigated by Venezuela's wealthy business elite.

Underlying this crisis lies a central paradox of globalization, and of United States foreign policy: the combination of laissez-faire capitalism and free elections can create political and economic instability.

Venezuela is only the most recent illustration. President Hugo Chavez was democratically elected in 1998 in a landslide victory, a result reconfirmed in a vote in 2000. Since taking office, however, Mr. Chavez has presided over an increasingly chaotic economy - a chaos not always, though sometimes, of his own making. The strikes currently crippling Venezuela's economy, for example, are largely the work of business interests that are intensely opposed to Mr. Chavez because of his threats of nationalization and his attempts to seize control of the oil sector.

There is also an ethnic dimension to Venezuela's crisis. Along with roughly 80 percent of Venezuela's population, Mr. Chavez is a "pardo" - a term with both class and ethnic overtones that refers loosely to brown-skinned people of Amerindian or African ancestry. But Venezuela's economy has always been controlled by a tiny minority of cosmopolitan whites, or "mantuanos," the Venezuelan term for persons with European features and pretensions. Not surprisingly, foreign investors deal almost exclusively with members of the well-educated, English-speaking mantuano class.

Venezuela's problems are part of a much larger global phenomenon - pervasive outside the West yet almost never acknowledged - of market-dominant minorities: ethnic minorities who, for widely varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically the indigenous majorities around them. (Chinese in Indonesia, whites in Zimbabwe and Indians in Kenya are other examples.)

Market-dominant minorities are the Achilles' heel of free-market democracy. In countries with a market-dominant minority, markets and democracy favor not just different people, or different classes, but different ethnic groups. Markets - even if marginally lifting all boats - concentrate wealth in the hands of the market-dominant minority, while democracy increases the political power of the impoverished majority. Under such circumstances, the pursuit of free-market democracy often becomes an engine of ethnic nationalism, pitting a frustrated indigenous majority, easily aroused by demagogic politicians, against a resented, wealthy ethnic minority.

This confrontation is playing out in Venezuela today. In 1998, Mr. Chavez swept to electoral victory by attacking Venezuela's "rotten" white elites, calling himself "the Indian from Barinas" and arousing into impassioned political consciousness Venezuela's impoverished pardos.

After taking power, Mr. Chavez disbanded the "worm-eaten" mantuano-dominated Congress and Supreme Court. He suspended privatization, vowed to dismantle Venezuela's plantation system, and decreed scores of laws intended to soften what he called "savage capitalism." Predictably, all this had a devastating effect on Venezuela's economy.

The coup against Mr. Chavez last April was a classic effort by a market-dominant minority to retaliate against a democratically elected (if also blundering) government threatening its wealth and power. The interim president, Pedro Carmona Estanga, was a wealthy white businessman. Union representatives were excluded from positions of authority. To the dismay of the United States government, which initially hailed the coup as a victory for democracy, the high-handed actions of the Carmona regime, combined with Mr. Chavez's still-strong support among Venezuela's poor majority, returned Mr. Chavez to power with stunning speed.

What should the United States do now about Venezuela? Candor would be a good start. If we genuinely support democracy in developing countries, we cannot endorse coups, even pro-capitalist ones, against democratically elected presidents. Moreover, if global markets are to be sustainable, ways must be found to spread their benefits beyond a handful of market-dominant minorities and their foreign investor partners. Otherwise, markets and democracy will continue to clash, destabilizing economies and exacerbating ethnic conflict throughout the world.

Amy Chua, professor of law at Yale, is author of "World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.''