Zak McGregor on Mon, 15 Apr 2002 21:39:38 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Fw: More Wilpert on Venezuela

For a different perspective on Venezuela to Ricardo's.

Message----- Original Message -----
From: Gregory Wilpert
Sent: Monday, April 15, 2002 9:05 AM
Subject: Venezuela: Not Another Banana-Oil Republic

Dear Friends, here is my latest analysis of the recent events in
Venezuela. Anyone who has a website or a print publication is welcome to
reprint this article. Apologies to Spanish-speakers, as I have not had a
chance to translate this.
In Solidarity,

Venezuela: Not a Banana-Oil Republic after All

By Gregory Wilpert

The Counter-Coup

It looks like Venezuela is not just another banana-oil republic after all.
Many here feared that with the April 11 coup attempt against President
Hugo Chavez, Venezuela was being degraded to being just another country
that is forced to bend to the powerful will of the United States. The
successful counter-coup of April 14, though, which reinstated Chavez,
proved that Venezuela is a tougher cookie than the coup planners thought.

The coup leaders against President Chavez made two fundamental
miscalculations. First, they started having delusions of grandeur,
believing that the support for their coup was so complete that they could
simply ignore the other members of their coup coalition and place only
their own in the new government. The labor union federation CTV, which saw
itself as one of the main actors of the opposition movement to President
Chavez, and nearly all moderate opposition parties were excluded from the
new "democratic unity" cabinet. The new transition cabinet ended up
including only the most conservative elements of Venezuelan society. They
then proceeded to dissolve the legislature, the Supreme Court, the
attorney general's office, the national electoral commission, and the
state governorships, among others. Next, they decreed that the 1999
constitution, which had been written by a constitutional assembly and
ratified by vote, following the procedures outlined in the pervious
constitution, w

This first miscalculation led to several generals' protest against the new
regime, perhaps under pressure from the excluded sectors of the
opposition, or perhaps out of a genuine sense of remorse, and resulted in
their call for changes to the sweeping "democratic transition" decree,
lest they withdraw their support from the new government. Transition
President Pedro Carmona, the chair of Venezuela's largest chamber of
commerce, immediately agreed to reinstate the Assembly and to the rest of
the generals' demands.

The second miscalculation was the belief that Chavez was hopelessly
unpopular in the population and among the military and that no one except
Cuba and Colombia's guerilla, the FARC, would regret Chavez' departure.
Following the initial shock and demoralization which the coup caused among
Chavez-supporters, this second miscalculation led to major upheavals and
riots in Caracas' sprawling slums, which make up nearly half of the city.
In practically all of the "barrios" of Caracas spontaneous demonstrations
and "cacerolazos"(pot-banging) broke out on April 13 and 14. The police
immediately rushed-in to suppress these expressions of discontent and
somewhere between 10 and 40 people were killed in these clashes with the
police. Then, in the early afternoon, purely by word-of-mouth and the use
of cell phones (Venezuela has one of the highest per capita rates of cell
phone use in the world), a demonstration in support of Chavez was called
at the Miraflores presidential palace. B

Eventually the support for the transition regime evaporated among the
military, so that transition president Carmona resigned in the name of
preventing bloodshed. As the boldness of Chavez-supporters grew, they
began taking over several television stations, which had not reported a
single word about the uprisings and the demonstrations. Finally, late at
night, around midnight of April 14, it was announced that Chavez was set
free and that he would take over as president again. The crowds outside of
Miraflores were ecstatic. No one believed that the coup could or would be
reversed so rapidly. When Chavez appeared on national TV around 4 AM, he
too joked that he knew he would be back, but he never imagined it would
happen so fast. He did not even have time to rest and write some poetry,
as he had hoped to do.

So how could this be? How could such an impeccably planned and smoothly
executed coup fall apart in almost exactly 48 hours? Aside from the two
miscalculations mentioned above, it appears that the military's hearts
were not fully into the coup project. Once it became obvious that the coup
was being hijacked by the extreme right and that Chavez enjoyed much more
support than was imagined, large parts of the military decided to reject
the coup, which then had a snowball-effect of changing military
allegiances. Also, by announcing that one of the main reasons for the coup
was to avoid bloodshed and by stating that the Venezuelan military would
never turn its weapons against its own people, Chavez supporters became
more courageous to go out and to protest against the coup without fear of

Very important, though, was that the coup planners seem to have believed
their own propaganda: that Chavez was an extremely unpopular leader. What
they seem to have forgotten is that Chavez was not a fluke, a phenomenon
that appeared in Venezuela as a result of political chaos, as some
analysts seem to believe. Rather, Chavez' movement has its roots in a long
history of Venezuelan community and leftist organizing. Also, it seems
quite likely that although many people were unhappy with Chavez' lack of
rapid progress in implementing the reforms he promised, he was still the
most popular politician in the country.

The media and the opposition movement tried to create the impression that
Chavez was completely isolated and that no one supported him any longer.
They did this by organizing massive demonstrations, with the extensive
help of the television stations, which regularly broadcast reports of the
anti-Chavez protests, but consistently ignored the pro-Chavez protests,
which, by all fair accounts, tended to be just as large. The television
channels claimed that they did not cover pro-Chavez demonstrations because
protestors threatened their lives. While this seems unlikely since the
demonstrators usually unequivocally want their demonstrations covered by
the media, they could have gotten protection, if they had cared to.

The Media

Nearly the entire media is owned and operated by Venezuela's oligarchy.
There is only one neutral newspaper, which is not an explicitly
anti-Chavez newspaper and one state-run television station. During the
coup, the state-run station was taken off the air completely and all of
the other media kept repeating the coup organizer's lies without question.
These lies included the claim that Chavez had resigned and had dismissed
his cabinet, that all of the demonstration's dead were "martyrs of civil
society" (i.e., of the opposition, since the media does not consider
Chavez supporters as part of civil society), and that Chavez had ordered
his supporters to shoot into the unarmed crowd of anti-Chavez

The media never addressed the repeated doubts that members of Chavez'
cabinet raised about his resignation. Also, the media did not release the
names of those who were shot, probably because this would have shown that
most of the dead were pro-Chavez demonstrators. Finally, the media edited
the video footage of the shootings in such a way as to avoid showing where
the Chavez supporters were shooting-namely, as eyewitnesses reported, at
police and individuals who were shooting back while hidden in doorways.
Also, they did not show the pro-Chavez crowd repeatedly pointing at the
snipers who were firing at them from the rooftop of a nearby building.

These media distortions in the aftermath of the coup drove home the point
just how powerful the media is at creating an alternate reality. Those
Chavez supporters who were at the demonstration and witnessed the events
realized more than ever that power needs a medium and that those who
control the media have much more power than they let on. This is why the
television stations became a key target in the hours leading up to Chavez'
reinstatement. The take-over of four of the eight stations was essential
to Chavez' comeback because it showed the rest of the military and the
rest of Venezuela that Chavez still had strong support among the
population and that if the people really wanted to, they could fight for
what was right and win.

Quo Vadis Chavez?

An aspect of the rise of Chavez to power that is often forgotten in
Venezuela is that as far as Venezuelan presidents are concerned, Chavez
has actually been among the least dictatorial. True, Chavez is a deeply
flawed president with many shortcomings, among which one of the most
important is his autocratic style. However, earlier presidencies, such as
that of Carlos Andres Perez(1989-1993), the killing of demonstrators were
nearly a monthly occurrence. Also, the outright censorship of newspapers
was quite common during the Perez presidency. None of this has happened
during the Chavez presidency.

President Hugo Chavez is an individual who raises the passions of people,
pro or con, unlike anyone else. It almost seems that Venezuelans either
love him or hate him. A more balanced picture of the president, however,
would show, first, that he is someone who deeply believes in working for
social justice, for improving democracy, and believes in international
solidarity. Also, he is a gifted and charismatic speaker, which makes him
a natural choice as a leader.

However, one has to recognize that he has some very serious shortcomings.
Among the most important is that while he truly believes in participatory
democracy, as is evidenced in his efforts to democratize the Venezuelan
constitution, his instincts are that of an autocrat. This has led to a
serious neglect of his natural base, which is the progressive and
grassroots civil society. Instead, he has tried to control this civil
society by organizing "Bolivarian Circles" which are neighborhood groups
that are to help organize communities and at the same time to defend the
revolution. The opposition easily stigmatized these circles, however, as
being nothing other than a kind of SS for Chavez' political party. Another
crucial flaw has been his relatively poor personnel choices. Many of the
ministries and agencies suffer from mismanagement.

Finally and perhaps the most often mentioned flaw, is his tendency for
inflammatory rhetoric. Accusations that Chavez divided Venezuelan society
with his constant talk about the rich and the poor are ridiculous, since
Venezuelan society was divided along these lines long before Chavez came
to power. However, by trying to belittle his opponents by calling them
names, such as "escualidos" (squalids), he made it virtually impossible
for real dialogue to take place between himself and his opponents.

The crucial question that Chavez-supporters and opponents alike are now
asking is whether Chavez has grown through the experience of this coup. In
his initial statement after being freed from his military captors, was, "I
too have to reflect on many things. And I have done that in these hours. .
I am here and I am prepared to rectify, wherever I have to rectify." Right
now, however, it is too early to see if he really is going to change his
ways, so that he becomes more productive in achieving the goals he has set
for Venezuela.

While Chavez' many progressive achievements should not be forgotten,
neither should his failures be overlooked, most of which have important
lessons for progressives everywhere. The first lesson is to keep the eyes
on the prize. Chavez has become so bogged-down with small day-to-day
conflicts that many people are no longer sure if he remembers his original
platform, which was to abolish corruption and to make Venezuelan society
more egalitarian. While greater social equality is extremely difficult to
achieve in a capitalist society, it is fair to say that Chavez' plans have
not had enough time to bear fruit. He has a six-year social and economic
development plan for 2001-2007, of which only a small fraction has so far
been implemented. However, on the corruption front, he has fallen
seriously behind.

The second lesson is that the neglect of one's social base, which provides
the cultural underpinnings for desired changes, will provide an opening
for opponents to redefine the situation and to make policy implementation
nearly impossible. By not involving his natural base, the progressive and
grassroots civil society, Chavez allowed the conservative civil society,
the conservative unions, the business sector, the church, and the media to
determine the discourse as to what the "Bolivarian revolution" was really
all about.

The third lesson is that a good program alone is not good enough if one
does not have the skillful means for implementing it. Chavez has some
terrific plans, but through his incendiary rhetoric he manages to draw all
attention away from his actual proposals and focuses attention on how he
presents them or how he cuts his critics down to size.

Finally, while it is tempting to streamline policy-implementation by
working only with individuals who will not criticize the program, creates
a dangerous ideological monoculture, which will not be able to resist the
diverse challenges even the best plans eventually have to face. Chavez has
consistently dismissed from his inner circle those who criticized him,
making his leadership base, which used to be quite broad, smaller and
smaller. Such a narrow leadership base made it much easier for the
opposition to challenge Chavez and to mount the coup.

Whether Chavez and his opposition have learned these lessons remains to be
seen. Venezuelan society is still deeply divided. One has to recognize
that, at heart, this conflict is also a class conflict. While there
certainly are many Chavez opponents who come from the lower classes and
numerous supporters from the upper classes, the division between Chavez
supporters who come from the lower light-skinned classes and the opponents
who come from the higher dark-skinned classes cannot be denied. What
Venezuela needs, if social peace is to be preserved, is a class
compromise, where social peace is maintained at the expense of a more just
distribution of Venezuela's immense wealth. However, today's globalized
world makes such a compromise increasingly difficult to achieve because
free market competition militates against local solutions to this
increasingly global problem. But perhaps Venezuela is a special case
because of its oil wealth, which might allow it to be an exception. Such
an exception,

Gregory Wilpert lives in Caracas, is a former U.S. Fulbright scholar in
Venezuela, and is currently doing independent research on the sociology of
development. He can be reached at:

Gregory Wilpert, Ph.D.
Central University of Venezuela, Caracas
New School University, New York

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