Sunday, March 09, 2003

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