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   "L'affaire Chavez": Larry Birns on How Venezuela Can Avoid Civil War


“L’affaire Chavez”: Larry Birns on How Venezuela Can Avoid Civil War

by Brad Carlton

An interview with Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and one of America’s foremost experts on Latin American politics.

Venezuela is heating up again. Last week, the bodies of four dissident military officials were found murdered by unknown perpetrators. On February 25, the Colombian and Spanish embassies were attacked with explosives, again by an unknown party. Days before, Carlos Fernandez, the head of Venezuela’s big business lobby and leader of the oil strike that shut down Venezuela’s national petroleum industry, was arrested under court order and charged with treason. Approximately eight other court-issued warrants ordering the arrest of leaders of the oil stoppage are pending. Most recently, the U.S. embassy in Caracas closed its doors to the public on February 27 due to what it called a “credible threat to its security,” without elaborating further.

Though President Hugo Chavez managed to overcome the oil shutdown and production is slowly approaching its former level, he has taken a more aggressive stance toward strike leaders in his most recent speeches. “I sheathed my sword and I was wrong, I have been forced to draw it again and this time I will never sheathe it,” Chavez vowed. These statements and the unsolved political violence, for which each side blames the other, have broken down tentative post-strike attempts to ease tensions through dialogue.

Baltimoreans in particular are directly affected by Venezuela’s political turmoil. In addition to the added squeeze at the pump caused by the oil shutdown, Citgo Petroleum Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, operates a refinery in Baltimore. Disruptions in PDVSA’s operations could affect local jobs.

In light of all this, I spoke to Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and one of America’s foremost experts on Latin American politics, for his take on what lies behind the recent developments in Venezuela.

Brad Carlton: A lot has happened in Venezuela over the last two weeks. What do you make of the attacks on the embassy, the murder of the four officers, and the Fernandez situation?

Larry Birns: Of course, a lot of this you could only speculate about, in terms of the murders. They could have been common crimes, as well as political. Each side is coming out with a scenario which will indict the other side.

One of the problems here is—although the violence has been, in terms of a Latin American experience historically, at a relatively low level—it’s very difficult to determine who the perpetrator is of these crimes. In the first of the big killings that took place [last April 11], after the general strike started, a number of pro-Chavez people were killed, as well as middle-class demonstrators. So the identity of those [snipers] who were on the rooftop was never really clearly established. It’s one of those perplexing mysteries that goes along with what’s taking place down there.

From my perception, Venezuela has always been a very special kind of country. I think the phrase one would like to use is, it’s had a kind of political civility. It didn’t have the killings, the insensate violence, the appalling hatred that a Chile under Pinochet had, or Argentina under Videla, or Uruguay under the generals, or Brazil under the military junta.

BC: The caracazo notwithstanding. [Note: The caracazo occurred in 1989 when the administration of Carlos Andres Perez cracked down on a popular uprising, killing at least one thousands civilians. The event precipitated the failed coup against Perez that Chavez led in 1992. Perez was impeached on embezzlement charges shortly afterward.]

LB: Well, the caracazo was a very interesting event.

The thing that I’ve always noticed in my own trips to Caracas and in my knowledge of several Venezuelan presidents whom I dealt with, is that these people don’t subscribe to violence. And the Venezuelan army has always been a grossly incompetent institution, but it has never been randomly cruel like so many South American and Central American militaries are.

So I think this has protected Venezuela. It would have hit bottom in a violent manner and would have produced a kind of maelstrom of killings and vigilante movements and right-wing paramilitaries fighting guerillas—if it didn’t have a different kind of political system. And the system has been: middle-class, selfish beyond description, given over to the insensate pursuit of money; life is considered a failure if you don’t have a Miami condo. Also, that middle class was never cruel to its poor; it just simply never saw them. They weren’t visible people. Even to this day, in letters one gets from middle-class people, they complain how misunderstood they are; also, they have very little pride and a real identity crisis.

That is, the general strike [which began December 2 before grinding to a halt early this month] had an audience of one for it, and that audience was the President of the United States. But the President wasn’t in the theatre. He wasn’t watching the thing. So the opposition kept on escalating the strike, and finally they called in the oil workers, thinking that any threat to the oil supply would bring Uncle Sam down at a rate which the middle class had anticipated they would be coming. But of course, they were dealing with a predictive past rather than an unknown present and future.

I think it was because of the vacuum that existed in the State Department [in the Undersecretary for Latin American Affairs office], the Iraq and North Korea thing, the fact that Colin Powell doesn’t have a clue about Latin America: all this meant you have this rare period in post-WWII history when the United States—this time around, not the original coup, but this time around—did not, to my knowledge interfere with what was taking place in Venezuela. Maybe it was because the U.S. was so embarrassed about prematurely identifying with the coup that it thought was taking place last April [in which Chavez was swept from power and kidnapped before a huge demonstrations demanding his return re-installed him two days later].

But now, the situation would appear to be that President Chavez doesn’t quite get it. His job right now is to administer his country. To see to it that he doesn’t just talk about social justice but provides a little of it to his core constituency, which is hurting, and could easily abandon him—and in fact has abandoned him to some extent. His numbers are significantly down because he hasn’t come across. Of course, the economic damage that was done to the country, the four or five billion dollars that the strike cost, was not due to his direct policies, it was due to the opposition. The opposition wanted to do this in order to bring the United States in and save their skin.

But Chavez now is taking unacceptable risks. If he’s sincere about his Bolivarian Revolution, he will treat it with greater respect and not cater to his instincts, to twit, badger, come forth with these self-indulgent, kind of hateful remarks aimed at the opposition—which in many cases deserve it. But Chavez cannot endure this way because he doesn’t have enough cards in his hand. That is, he will at a certain point alienate Brazil. He’s not taking Castro’s advice, the same advice that Castro gave to Allende during a 1971 visit (I was in Chile at the time with the United Nations.), the advice that Castro gave to Manuel Noriega in 1989, which was to keep your profile low and try to engage in constructive relations with the United States. And don’t invite them on as an enemy. They will undoubtedly come on as an enemy, but you have to make it as difficult as possible for the United States to make you their enemy.

And what [Chavez] is doing now is he’s taking cheap shots. And he’s not disciplined.

BC: I see what you’re saying. It does seem that he’s sending out a lot of Alpha Male signals these days. He made a comment at the World Social Forum, “Don’t be surprised if we start shutting down television stations”; he mentioned he’s unsheathing his sword, this time for good; he gloated over Fernandez’s arrest.

LB: Right!

BC: Could this potentially provoke and set off another round of turmoil, and if so would the U.S. this time around be more likely to intervene?

LB: I fear that that might be the scenario. It seems that the middle-class opposition has run out of steam. They have nothing left but blubber. And they are right now waiting for something to happen. I think that we’re past marches and we’re past demonstrations now.

What I worry about is this: if the mobile, the affluent, the literate, those who have high expectations—in other words, the core of the middle class—if they feel driven beyond the point of desperation, if they feel that they are more or less (those who don’t have green cards to come to the United States) prisoners on Chavez’s island, I think that the possibility of our seeing a Colombia profile is not out of the question. That is, of our seeing vigilantes, the rich hiring killers to pick off people, and then, on the Chavez side, we would have more and more independent civilians responding by forming a militia. And the army, which likes to monopolize power, will be very unhappy to see the populace armed.

Chavez should be thinking about the importance of an experiment which fuses a democratic political system with socialist economics. That was an experiment we were denied in Chile, to see whether it would work or not. Hopefully that will be the situation that we’ll see in Brazil, to see whether those two things can be fused. But what Chavez is doing really....strikes me as being terribly unserious. He has no idea, as was said of Dreyfuss, Chavez has no idea of l’affaire Chavez. So what he does is, he needlessly alienates, and he generates enemies in all directions. And you don’t want to do this, because ultimately, when he stands up there and he says, “Food and medicine and housing for the poor!”—if there’s no food and if there’s no housing and if there’s no medicine that comes afterwards, then you have a population that becomes increasingly cynical of the kind of government they have.

BC: I wonder if a lot of this bluster might be just what his opposition wants. An El Nacional columnist has been saying for months that they’re waiting for Chavez to do something like shut down a TV station. Suddenly he’s talking about potentially doing just that. Given his record, it might be just talk, but in other words the opposition is waiting for something that would make all the “dictator” charges stick, justify more radical action, and at the same time win them more allies. Now obviously Chavez feels he’s justified taking a harder line because the oil shutdown can be seen as economic sabotage, but could this renewed aggressiveness be playing right into his opponents’ hands?

LB: I would think so. You see, I think it was perfectly proper for him to arrest Fernandez. But it wasn’t prudent. Fernandez could have easily been arrested in the United States, and in fact when the fuel strikes occurred, you’ll remember when U.S. Steel did a shutdown, Truman had the chairman of U.S. Steel arrested. And also remember Roosevelt’s famous phrase, “A plague on both your houses,” both the coal miners and the coal mine owners. Chavez has the right to arrest, but he doesn’t have the right to squander his good name by coming forth with these statements hinting that there will be a witch hunt.

He is devoid of dignity. He needs a lot of Lula in him: of discipline, of self-control, of knowing when to say things. I mean, the Chavez phenomenon, it’s marvelous, but it’s self-destructive. And it’s not going to do damage to him so much as it’s going to cheapen the currency of populism throughout Latin America. Chavez may cost us a populist Argentine victory. It could discredit what we’re seeing in Brazil. It could make Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador be more prudent. This is an unnecessary cost.

The problem is, no one can get through to this man. He is so seized with himself, he is so assured, that he doesn’t quite recognize how damaging his bluster is. And what’s at stake here is enormous. The kind of democracy that Latin America has is faux democracy. It’s not real democracy, it’s pretend democracy. It’s free-election-but-not-fair-election democracy. It’s democracy that changes nothing, with the basic statistic of the country, and the concentration of wealth, and the degree of poverty. And Chavez could have been a heroic figure. But he’s on the verge of blowing a wonderful opportunity which could cost him his career if not his life.”

BC: You bring up an interesting point. It sounds like in some ways the portrait of Chavez you paint is something of an egomaniac. Let me put it this way: can a larger-than-life, egotistical figurehead be reconciled with a movement that is meant to be about participatory democracy. Is it impossible to make that fit?

LB: That’s a wonderful question. What may have made Chavez look good up to this point is the opposition. That whining, self-deceptive opposition that would easily turn in a political system if that system didn’t provide them with Technicolor Pepsodent toothpaste.

But there is a huge disparity between what Chavez said we should be like and what he shows himself to be. When he talks about sacrifice, I just don’t think he’s making many sacrifices. Mind you, if I were a citizen of Venezuela, I would vote for him one more time, because my hope is redemption might be near at hand, that at some point things will start clicking. Like after the April coup, he did initiate, briefly, some conciliatory gestures and we thought he was going to realize that it’s not Dr. Win-the-War Now but it’s the Big Reconciliation. But that didn’t last for very long. Because he’s not a lettered Marxist, he’s not a sophisticated thinker. He has some simplistic ideas, which I think are quite good, but as a famous Communist senator in Chile told me right before the coup—at lunch, he was declaiming against the socialists in Allende’s cabinet—and he said, “You can’t have socialism with inflation. Inflation will kill off socialism.

Similarly, Chavez hasn’t sat down and made a decision: what does he have to do to bring on the political system that he says he wants, what kind of sacrifices does he have to make? Surely, preeminently, he will if he sees the polls are going against him and that there have been deep erosions in his core constituency among the poor. It may be that only 15 percent of the population hates Chavez and 15 percent loves him and the vast middle ground is simply indifferent to him, they are living their lives around him. But if he tells them that he is going to be giving free milk to their children, to the children of the poor, and he reneges on that promise, that’s dynamite.

It’s like in Panama in 1989 when I went down there. In the beginning of the protest marches against Noriega, they were all white, from the middle-class sector to Panama City. But soon, as you looked at videos, you would see that they were getting darker and darker. I think that we may be on the verge of witnessing this if Chavez doesn’t introduce some discipline into his terribly self-indulgent manner of doing things.

BC: The flip side of the coin is: if he does go, if he’s forced out somehow, even if he’s partially to blame, will that nonetheless still provoke a civil war? Because you do have a lot of disenfranchised people who have hung all their hopes on this figurehead, and Venezuela does have some history of urban guerilla warfare; there are some radical elements that have been tamed by the hope that the Chavez administration might bring them some justice. So if he’s forced out, what then?

LB: Then I think Plan B will march in, Plan B being the Colombian profile of radicalized elements of the left and right. The casualty will be the civil rectitude, this political civility that really has been a significant element in Venezuelan national life.

Mind you, we’re also talking about a hemispheric-wide problem of record crime waves. In Argentina, Guatemala, in so many countries you cannot go downtown any longer when it’s dark. We’ve lost downtown. This is not totally extraneous to what we’re talking about in Venezuela. That is, the middle class is a very unattractive political stratum in Latin America and has long been that. But there were middle class people who would have continued their support of Chavez if he’d given them the slightest justification to maintain this position. It is as if Chavez purposely and systematically rooted out every constructive road to dialogue and reconciliation. In a sense, you almost have to give a psychological slant to this man who cannot achieve tranquility, but he always has to roil the waters—which is okay, if there’s payoff for the disenfranchised. But if all you’re doing is roiling the water to watch it being roiled, if all that you’re doing is insulting the leadership of the opposition, calling them squalid names, that may be the ultimate grand indulgence.

Then is the situation in Venezuela—that the country, to fall back on an old clichÈ, simply can’t live with Chavez and can’t live without him?

We are hoping that someone, somehow, somewhere will get to Chavez and simply say to him, “Cut it out! Stop arming your enemies with weapons of your own destruction. Act in a responsible manner. Be accountable. Because this is not a one-man show. You are trifling with the destiny of millions of people who have sacrificed every day and every way for you, who listened to you, who believed you, who, when you didn’t deliver, found excuses for that.”

I think at this point, maybe inexorably, Chavez is heading for a self-destructive course. Or: maybe someone will get to him in time so that he can reflectively make decisions about his own destiny.

BC: I want to go back to something you said earlier. When you mentioned the bombings, the killings, you said that people who are inclined to hate Chavez will blame him and people who are inclined to hate the opposition will blame them. Even if the violence has been, in terms of Latin American violence, of relatively low incidence, it’s still all completely a mystery and therefore easy to twist and politicize however you want. Do you feel like there’s any group of people—anybody—who has the wherewithal, the resources, and the credibility to get to the bottom of all these mysteries, which seem to be impeding progress in themselves?

LB: Ultimately, presumably after this situation is resolved, there’s going to be a truth commission. It may be OAS-brokered or church-brokered, but there’s going to be a commission, because there were three or four incidents in which fatalities occurred and we don’t know enough about it. We have to find out about this.

But we also have to find out about the judges, the hundreds of judges who never delivered justice. That is, there is a huge army of criminals occupying roads in Venezuela. Venality is the uncrowned king of the country. So, at this point, there are no ten wise men who could come in and sort of think for the country, come forth with the template which could march the country out of its present dilemma. The generation of [Romulo] Betancourt [who led the overthrow of dictatorship and helped install a democracy in Venezuela] is gone, and it has not been replaced. The political process—the Democratic Party (COPEI) and the adecos, the Social Democrats (AD) [ed. note: this two-party duopoly controlled Venezuelan politics until Chavez’s election]—were both corrupt parties.

So you don’t have a pantheon of great men. In a sense, this set the stage for Chavez, because there was no one then and there’s no one now who are acceptable alternatives to him. I have been getting communiquÈs from various university professors, chairmen of departments, deans—they’ve been sending me e-mails. They have been saying, in a very insulting and unacademic manner, first of all they want to know how much Chavez is paying me. Then they want to know whether I was one of the Big Three: Castro, Chavez, and Birns. What this really says is, these people are not democrats at all. They don’t really understand the democratic dialogue, they don’t understand that you need to tell the truth as you see it in order to come forth with some sort of message that engages the other side, that you can talk to them and come to some sort of agreement point by point.

Right now, the passive solution is a reformed Chavez. The cost of offing Chavez, of disappearing Chavez, is just too great and will leave too huge a scar in the collective memory of that country. But if you look in the [opposition] newspaper editorials, if you listen, if you read the columns, if you listen to the speeches people are making, no one is coming forth with an interesting alternative on what they so tenaciously embrace. They have no tectonic ability to reach out from themselves—they say they’re such great patriots, that no one since Simon BolÃvar has loved Venezuela as they do—but there is no connect between their protestations of love and their willingness to come forward with rational policy that will serve that country well.

Brad Carlton is a contributing editor and global affairs correspondent for The Baltimore Chronicle.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on March 5, 2003.
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