No. 451

Council on Hemispheric Affairs
1730 M St. NW, Suite 1010
Washington DC 20036
(202) 216-9261

Memorandum to the Press

For Immediate Release December 20, 2002
Venezuela: Burning Down the House
to Rid It of Its Termites

* The country's anti-Chávez forces are not their nation's loyal
opposition, but a group of anti-constitutional zealots - many of them with
tarnished backgrounds and questionable credentials - who are prepared to
risk the destruction of the country's constitutional system in order to
eliminate a government they happen to despise.
* Venezuela's media doesn't report events, it helps to create them,
with its point of view not limited to the editorial page, but featured in
every column of their papers, in a shocking abnegation of professional
* The opposition is aiming for the jugular no matter how damaging its
tactics may be to the country's democratic fabric and its economic

The End could be Near, with the Nation's Putative Democrats Plunging a Stake
Through Democracy's Heart

A middle class historically better known for its penchant for
venality than its commitment to democracy, and which for decades supported
the corruptocracies alternately fielded by unscrupulous Social Democratic
and Christian Democratic leaders, is now staging its fourth general strike,
aimed not so much at reforming the government or manifesting a point of
view, but rather at bringing it down, as it did for two days last April. Its
latest tactic is to quote a provision in the constitution that, in fact, was
authored by the Chávez government, allowing Venezuelans not to "recognize
any regime, law or authority that contradicts democratic values, principles
and guarantees or impairs human rights." But undermining the opposition's
case is a reality in which there have been no human rights violations under
Chávez and that democratic principles have not been "impaired" by the
authorities. Rather, it has been the opposition's end-justifies-the-means
philosophy and its shifting and soaring appeals and unreasonable, if not
totalitarian demands that the military carry out its "mission" by
overthrowing Chávez, that is threatening the country's democratic

What's at Stake

Unquestionably Chávez has been a controversial, contentious and
confrontational figure, but he has adhered far more closely to the
democratic rules of the game than has the opposition, and his many failings
are more a matter of style than substance. If he is overthrown in the next
few days - which is not unlikely - the tragedy will be far greater for
Venezuela's present and future prospects than for Chávez. For the poor and
genuinely patriotic, Chávez will be remembered as a leader who fought in
their name - not  always wisely, but with the best of intentions - and not
for personal gain. For the opposition, its anti-Chávez battering ram has
gained its thrust from specious and mendacious arguments, meretricious and
self-serving goals, as well as through a deceptive interpretation of the
constitution and an entirely fraudulent range of justifications for its
basically self-serving actions.

A close investigation of the standoff between Chávez and the
opposition would find that it is the latter that is mainly blocking the
negotiations being sponsored by the OAS. It is also the opposition that is
taunting the military to stage a mutiny. It is  the opposition, through its
near-total control of the Venezuelan media, that is issuing patently false
information and a chronically inflammatory and skewed interpretation of
events. It is the opposition and not the government that is jeopardizing the
lives of Venezuelans by staging frenzied confrontations with pro-government
cadres, and it is the opposition that is promoting class warfare and hatred
between the poor and rich.

The Story Behind the Story

What the opposition mainly fears is the passage of legislation that
includes putting into effect a land reform program in which fallow or
excessive holdings could be transferred to small farmers, as well as the
enactment of other pieces of reform-minded measures. As of now, 41 percent
of the arable land is controlled by less than 5% of the population and,
according to the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America, Venezuela has
one of the highest concentrations of wealth levels in the region. Its
population demographics establish that of the nation's more than 23 million
people, 80 percent of them are poor or live below the poverty line. It is
from this stratum that Chávez obtains his support, and it is this segment of
the nation that will not easily give up on a number of modest reforms
enacted under his presidency, that have brought their children milk and
school lunches, the availability of micro-credits and use of the military
for long overdue civic action construction programs in urban centers and the

The opposition claims that Chávez consorts with terrorists, meaning
that the Venezuelan president, like all of his predecessors, has met with
his colleagues from other OPEC-member nations to discuss oil cartel pricing
and production norms. The opposition reiterates the existence of some kind
of Chávez-Castro cabal, but never presents any evidence, nor specifies
charges, or even comes forth with a credible argument to buttress its pure
propaganda. The opposition talks about the corruption surrounding Chávez,
with such charges being made by some of the most controversial and tainted
figures in the Venezuelan business community, trade union movement, and the
media, none of whom ever mentioned that most of the nation's stultifying
bureaucracy was hired by pre-Chávez governments, with the majority of such
personnel now siding with the opposition.

If there is to be a solution to Venezuela's present crisis of governance, it
must come as a result of conformity with the constitution, not one imposed
from the street or as a result of armed confrontation. There are any number
of scenarios that pose a grave danger to Venezuela's organic institutions,
but a solution that doesn't follow a constitutional script undermines its
prospect for peace and stability and the continuance of the nation's
traditional political civility.

There may be a way out for Venezuelans of goodwill. The opposition could
wait until next August when the very constitution that the opposition touts
for its "impairment" of democracy clause, also provides for a process that
would allow for the staging of a referendum midway through a presidential
term on whether Chávez should be allowed to finish his incumbency. The
National Assembly could go through a process that would call for earlier
presidential elections than 2006, or even prior to next August. An
opposition victory could and must come in a lawful manner and not through
political extortion or through manipulating its minority but powerful
financial status and plenary access to a largely fixed media.

Settling matters by threatening to scorch the country's economic and
political institutions reminds one of what happened in Chile in 1973. There,
an imprudent Christian Democratic Party used the military to rid the country
of President Allende, only to bring on not its own expected rule, but 17
years of brutal Pinochet repression.

This analysis was prepared by Larry Birns, Director of the Council on
Hemispheric Affairs.

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