Thursday, March 11, 2004

Chávez Says U.S. Is Fueling His Enemies

Published: March 11, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela, March 10 — Under United States pressure to allow a recall referendum against his rule, President Hugo Chávez has in recent days counterattacked, charging that the Bush administration is trying to oust him by aiding his adversaries, including those who briefly overthrew him in a 2002 coup.

Mr. Chávez has seized on the information in reams of United States government documents, made public by a pro-Chávez group in New York that show Washington is trying to strengthen political parties and other antigovernment groups that want to remove the populist firebrand through a recall.

Aid to opposition groups by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit agency financed by the United States Congress, is not new. Nor is the $1 million spent here last year excessively high for an organization that spends $40 million a year to finance hundreds of organizations in 81 countries.

But the unearthing of 2,000 pages of documents has provided details of how the Bush administration considers the rehabilitation of Venezuela's battered political parties the best way to counter a leader Washington views as erratic and authoritarian.

"The future of Venezuelan democracy depends on the rebuilding of healthy and responsive political parties that can effectively channel citizen demands," says one memo.

Mr. Chávez has lashed out in three recent speeches, telling Washington to "get its hands off Venezuela" and charging that the Bush administration is "financing this mad opposition." He has even gone so far as to threaten to cut off oil exports if Washington gets the "idea of trying to blockade Venezuela, or, even worse, of invading Venezuela."

Relations between the two countries are at their worst since the April 11, 2002, coup, when the White House blamed Mr. Chávez for his own downfall. Bush administration officials were embarrassed when Mr. Chávez was swept back into power in an uprising two days later.

Anti-Chávez groups have abandoned a strategy of general strikes and are focusing on a referendum.

On March 2, the National Electoral Council temporarily disqualified hundreds of thousands of signatures the opposition needed to allow a vote. But opposition groups and diplomats who monitored the signature-gathering say that more than a million signatures were arbitrarily disallowed.

For the United States, which is dependent on Venezuelan oil supplies and has close economic ties to the country, the possibility that the referendum could be scrapped would be a serious blow to a carefully calibrated policy aimed at building feasible political alternatives to Mr. Chávez.

The endowment documents say that "strengthening political parties remains a critical part of any long-term solution" and that the "battered political party system is the only institution capable of restoring democracy by generating solidly democratic leaders and generating sound policies."

Endowment aid had fallen to $257,000 in 2000, as political parties and other beneficiaries in Venezuela were left crippled after Mr. Chávez's sweeping victories in elections. Assistance more than tripled to $877,000 in 2001 as political parties reorganized to counter the president. In 2002, aid rose again, to $1.1 million.

Chris Sabatini, the endowment's director for Latin America, said the agency's goal was to promote democracy. In a phone interview from Washington, he said the endowment had worked in Venezuela with civic groups without political ties, including conflict resolution teams and organizations defending human and civil rights. The endowment's aid to political groups is aimed at strengthening them "to build political space" and calm the shrill political debate in this deeply divided country, he said.

The documents, obtained by a freelance reporter, Jeremy Bigwood, and posted on the Web site of the Venezuela Solidarity Committee, show that much of the aid benefits political parties and groups leading the recall effort. Those benefiting from assistance include Sumate, a group that has staged signature gatherings for a referendum. It received $53,400 last September.

Financing does not go directly to political parties. The endowment channeled nearly $350,000 to the international wings of the Republican and Democratic parties, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and the foreign policy arm of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. Those organizations ran workshops and training sessions and offered advice to three political parties — Democratic Action, Copei and First Justice — as well as the Venezuelan Workers Confederation.

The leaders of all these organizations have been at the forefront of the anti-Chávez movement.

Mr. Chávez has been suspicious of the endowment's intentions since it was revealed soon after the coup that opposition groups had been receiving funding.

Though the State Department put $1 million in endowment aid on hold in the aftermath, an internal investigation found the groups carried out programs "adhering to U.S. laws and policies," and assistance resumed.

"The government believes it is unacceptable for the United States to be involved in the affairs of Venezuela," said Andres Izarra, a spokesman for the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington.

The Venezuelan parties and the workers confederation that are beneficiaries of aid are important components of the Democratic Coordinator, an anti-Chávez umbrella organization led by politicians, labor leaders, former managers at the state oil company and media executives.

Some groups that receive aid, like the Center for International Private Enterprise, which has ties to the United States Chamber of Commerce, do not hide their loathing of Mr. Chávez.

The enterprise, in explaining its role here, says the "current political crisis in Venezuela has been brought about by the deplorable performance of the Chávez government, which has demonstrated both militaristic and Marxist tendencies." The center received $203,000 last year.

Mr. Sabatini explained that the endowment has helped organizations that are not outwardly political like international private enterprise group, which is monitoring public spending, a journalists' group and conflict resolution organizations. When they conduct programs, it is not an opposition question, Mr. Sabatini said.

Assistance is open to groups allied with Mr. Chávez, he said, and even the governing party received technical assistance from the Republican and Democratic institutes. Independent groups like the N.E.D. have an obligation to support and give a lending hand, Mr. Sabatini said.

From Chavez, Divisive Rhetoric
Embattled Venezuelan's Bluntness Is Fuel for Recall Effort
By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 11, 2004; Page A23

CARACAS, Venezuela -- When he addresses the nation, President Hugo Chavez sometimes breaks into song. He sermonizes his supporters and taunts his foes. In January he called Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, "a real illiterate." And last month, he used a profanity to describe President Bush, alleging Bush supported a campaign by Venezuela's political opposition to remove him. Then he issued a challenge.

"We're going to make a bet to see who lasts longer, Mr. George Bush -- you in the White House or Hugo Chavez here in Miraflores," he said, referring to Venezuela's presidential residence. He added that he would make the bet in Venezuelan currency "or in dollars, as you wish."

Chavez's policies, Venezuela's faltering economy and allegations of creeping authoritarianism are ostensibly driving the violent street protests here and the growing efforts to oust the president.

But language also divides this country. Supporters and critics of Chavez have said that the president's salty, earthy and even profane speeches are anything but presidential. While Venezuela's poor, and its black and indigenous minorities, often find Chavez's use of blunt language appealing, wealthy and middle-class Venezuelans find it boorish and embarrassing.

"When Chavez talks, it is like he is one of us," said Pablo Rosales, 53, a black cab driver here. "He is the first president I've seen who talks to the poor and not just the high class. He includes us when he talks."

Said Adriana Ruggiero, 45, a dentist: "He uses such profanity. That is not how a world leader should present himself. He is like a cave man. He makes all Venezuelans look bad."

Class is the principal fault line in Venezuelans' fractured opinion of Chavez. Recent polls indicate that Venezuela's poor, who are nearly 80 percent of the country's 25 million people, are almost evenly split on Chavez. About 41 percent of Venezuelans support Chavez, the vast majority of them poor, said Luis Vicente Leon, executive director of the national polling firm Datanalisis.

But the 59 percent of Venezuelans who disapprove of Chavez include virtually all of the country's most prosperous residents, Leon said.

"There's no doubt that Chavez's strongest support comes from those sectors of Venezuelan society who have typically been the most excluded: blacks, indigenous people and the poor," Leon said.

The son of rural teachers, Chavez has said that he has more support than the polls reflect because researchers avoid the shantytowns and poor neighborhoods where the bulk of his supporters live.

His weekly broadcast program, "Hello President," has a preacher's cadence and is peppered with slang. When the actor Danny Glover visited last month and attended a ceremony to name an elementary school for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., televised news accounts showed Chavez pointing to his curly hair and broad nose and saying that he, like Glover, was of African heritage.

"He speaks the language of the excluded," said Maximilien Arvelaiz, a Chavez adviser. "He doesn't just speak about the poor. He speaks to the poor."

After returning from a state visit abroad, for example, Chavez has spoken on television using a map and pointer. "He will say this is where I was and it takes X number of hours to travel there by plane from Caracas," Arvelaiz said. "For the rich and the middle class, this is all quite boring because of course they know where Spain is on the map. They think it is stupid. But poor people love this. No one has ever taken the time to explain this to them."

Julio Borges, a spokesman for the campaign to recall Chavez, acknowledges that the president has considerable charisma. But Borges said there had not been any substantial improvements in the lives of the poor since Chavez took office five years ago. Inflation is rising, the economy has lost jobs and crime in urban centers has increased, he said. "He's a demagogue," Borges said.

Elections officials last week validated only 1.8 million of the more than 3 million signatures collected by Borges and other opposition leaders in support of a referendum to recall Chavez. Constitutional provisions require that 2.4 million signatures, representing 20 percent of eligible voters, be validated.

Monitors from the Organization of American States and the Atlanta-based Carter Center said they did not see widespread fraud in the referendum process. But the National Electoral Council ruled that many of the forms were improperly completed and that signatures did not match identification numbers. Chavez said many names were of dead people.

On Wednesday, his opponents condemned the electoral council's action, saying that Chavez's allies on the panel were blocking the referendum with a complex and unfair review process, the Reuters news agency reported. The opponents, a coalition of political parties, labor leaders and civic groups, said their analysis showed that they have enough signatures to force a vote.

Venezuelans Get Sacrificed in Blame Game

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, January 9, 2004; 7:26 AM

It is human nature -- not to mention just plain easier -- to blame others for actions that don't make us particularly proud. Politicians have elevated this weakness to an all-too common and unfortunate public practice. And nowhere is this art of pointing the finger in every other possible direction to avoid responsibility grown so old and tired as in Venezuela.

Take President Hugo Chavez. He took office blaming corrupt oligarchs who had long dominated Venezuelan political life for maintaining a system that relegated one-third of the population in an oil-rich land to life on less than $2 a day. Five years into his "Bolivarian revolution," poverty levels today are higher than in 1990. Still, he blames others.

Take the opposition and its allies in the Bush administration. They blame Chavez for everything under the sun, and then some. They accuse him of purposely wanting to increase the number of the poor in Venezuela in order to justify the need for his "Marxist" revolution. Yet the national strike the opposition launched a year ago helped devastate an already weak economy.

Enough is enough. Play the blame-game -- with its accompanying conspiracy theories of murder plots and imperialistic ambitions -- and necessary, rational discussion of Venezuala's problems is lost. In a polarized and troubled nation, finger-pointing not only gets in the way of real solutions, it gets in the way of smart politics as well.

Venezuela's Electoral Council has now begun to verify the signatures collected in two separate drives to recall either Chavez or 37 lawmakers who oppose him. The government claims it collected nearly 4.3 million signatures for recalling the lawmakers, while the opposition says it has 3.4 million in favor of recalling Chavez -- far more than the 2.4 million, or 20 percent of the electorate, needed to force a referendum.

No matter what the council decides, the signature drives make one thing clear: Millions of Venezuelans are disgusted and want something they are not getting today. How deep is their dismay? Nearly one-third of Venezuelans polled by a Washington-based research firm just before signatures were gathered said they would sign both petitions.

And yet who is tapping into this disgust? No one in any creative way. In a country that has been talking about an electoral exit from the current crisis for more than a year, leaders on both sides would rather fuel the discontent than harness it in a way that would drive a political solution.

This is mostly a challenge for the opposition that hasn't quite digested the fact that even if Chavez is recalled, Venezuelans would still be more inclined to vote for a candidate that is more like him and less like his predecessors. Furthermore, the opposition has yet to capture the hearts and minds of those who perceive that their priorities are still better addressed by Chavez, even if his efforts fall short.

Any alternative to Chavez should keep in the forefront the social priorities of the poor. Chavez continues to speak for them, visits their neighborhoods and has launched what are now popular educational and health programs they had never seen. The opposition so far has managed only to criticize those programs for involving Cuban doctors or Cuban educational strategies.

This does not mean, of course, governing on behalf of one group over another. One of Chavez's major mistakes has been his naive belief that he alone could bring about his revolution, even if in the process he alienated other traditional centers of power such as media owners, the church and industrialists.

A more inclusive, conciliatory leadership would be a better match for the country's own peaceful culture, which has shown considerable resilience during Chavez's divisive tenure. Such leadership would appeal to Venezuelans' pride and nationalism without antagonizing nearly the entire international community. The opposition certainly has greater cachet with powers abroad, but its decidedly anti- Castro posturing makes it appear more a Washington puppet and less a conciliatory Venezuelan movement.

To his credit, Chavez was not afraid to push for reforms, in fact he was elected because he promised fundamental changes. He erred, however, in thinking that reform by fiat would not make matters worse. No amount of blame could hide the failure of such a strategy and the damage it has done to democratic institutions.

It is unlikely that Chavez will point to himself anytime soon and utter a Spanish version of Harry Truman's famous line, "the buck stops here.'" Until then, the opposition has the unprecedented opportunity of ending both the blame game and the divisiveness that now cripples Venezuela.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is