Q & A WITH LARRY BIRNS:
Can Venezuela Avoid Civil War?
Baltimoreans in particular are directly affected by the political controversy swirling around Venezuela. Citgo Petroleum Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, operates a refinery here. Further disruptions in PDVSA’s operations could affect local jobs.
Venezuela is heating up again. This summer the oil-rich nation is due to hold a midterm referendum to decide whether President Hugo Chávez Frias should complete his term. While shoestring-budget Venezuelan groups, such as Citizens for the Defense of the Constitution, are forming well-organized get-out-the-vote drives for Chávez, the deeper pockets of government opposition groups have lured James Carville, Bill Clinton’s former campaign manager, to help them craft a strategy to defeat Chávez, who has never lost an election or a referendum.
So far, Chávez has survived the attempted coup of April 11, 2002, as well last winter’s opposition-engineered shutdown of the national oil industry, intended to force him out through economic pressure.
The shutdown, which caused international oil and gas prices to soar and crippled Venezuela’s economy, was accompanied by a so-called “general strike,” supported mainly by multinational companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, FedEx, BP, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, and Subway. Ford sent 1,300 of its workers in Venezuela home “on vacation” beginning the second day of the shutdown.
Shortly afterward, a Venezuela court ordered Carlos Fernandez, the head of Venezuela’s big business lobby and a chief architect of the oil stoppage, to be put under house arrest. Since then, scattered acts of apparently politically-motivated violence have been cropping up, all by unknown perpetrators.
Four dissident military officials were murdered, the Colombian and Spanish embassies were attacked with explosives, and a member of a government labor union was shot during a rally held by an opposition party in a poor and largely pro-Chávez section of Caracas.
After the oil strike crumbled, Chávez’s first reaction was to toughen up his already blunt and often provocative rhetoric. “I sheathed my sword and I was wrong. I have been forced to draw it again and this time I will never sheathe it,” he vowed.
However, his tone has been more conciliatory as the referendum approaches. “After the coup attempt we did not fall into provocations and instead convoked a dialogue,” Chávez said last week. “It would have been a mistake to initiate a drive against the coupsters and to have adopted a tough stance.... It would have led to further violence.”
The dialogue between the government and opposition negotiators has indeed resumed (after intermittent breakdowns over the past few months), and an agreement, centered on the form the upcoming referendum will take, is expected within days.
Chávez is such a polarizing figure largely because of Venezuela’s intense class struggle, born of its extreme concentration of wealth. 85 percent of the population lives in poverty, while Venezuela’s elite society, according to Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, are “selfish beyond description, given over to the insensate pursuit of money. Life is considered a failure if you don’t have a Miami condo.”
Indeed, there are basically two types of neighborhoods in Caracas: slums and gated communities.
Enter Chávez. Since his election in 1998 he has pushed through a land reform program, microcredit initiatives, a new Constitution that stresses workers’ rights, and a variety of social programs that have endeared him to poor and mestizo Venezuelans who were politically marginalized under previous administrations. However, the (mostly white) upper and middle classes feel that Chávez’s verbal attacks against them and his government policies constitute class warfare and will ultimately “Cubanize” Venezuela if unstopped.
In their obsession with getting rid of Chávez, the opposition has found common cause with government and big business interests in the United States, where Chávez is perceived as an obstacle to the passage of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a kind of hemisphere-wide extension of NAFTA.
Chávez routinely rails against “savage neoliberalism” and has proposed, in place of the FTAA, a “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” (ALBA) to allow Latin American nations to form an economic cooperative and become less dependent on imports from richer nations.
That may be why, when Chávez was briefly removed from power during the April 11 coup, the Bush administration, the IMF, and the editorial pages of the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Newsday all welcomed the leaders of the junta and characterized the overthrow as a pro-democracy move. Most recently, Steve Forbes wrote in the May 26 edition of Forbes magazine that the Venezuelan military should overthrow Chávez and the U.S. should embargo Venezuela’s oil until it does.
Baltimoreans in particular are directly affected by the political controversy swirling around Venezuela. Citgo Petroleum Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, operates a refinery in Baltimore. Further disruptions in PDVSA’s operations could affect local jobs. In light of all this, the Baltimore Chronicle interviewed Birns, one of America’s foremost experts on Latin American politics, for his insight into “the Chávez phenomenon” and recent developments in Venezuela.
Brad Carlton [BC]: Where does the Chávez administration stand now that the oil stoppage is over and the referendum is imminent?
Larry Birns [LB]: The situation would appear to be that President Chávez 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 Chávez 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.
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 prisoners on Chávez’s island, I think 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 Chávez 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.
BC: I wonder if a lot of Chávez’s bluster might be just what his opposition wants. Given his tendency to make empty threats, it might all be just talk, but it seems the opposition may want him to make good on some of those threats, which would make all the “dictator” charges stick, justify more radical action, and at the same time win them more allies. Could Chávez’s 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. Chávez 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. 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.
BC: It sounds like in some ways the portrait of Chavez you paint is something of an egomaniac. Can a larger-than-life, egotistical figurehead be reconciled with a movement that is meant to be about participatory democracy?
LB: 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. But 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. 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.
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’ve hung all their hopes on this figurehead. And Venezuela has a history of urban guerrilla warfare: some of these radical elements have been tamed by the hope that the Chávez 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.
BC: Then is the situation in Venezuela that the country simply can’t live with Chavez and can’t live without him?
LB: We are hoping that someone, somehow, somewhere will get to Chávez 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, Chávez 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: What about the embassy bombings, the killings on April 11, the dead military officers, and so forth? It’s still a mystery who’s responsible, and therefore it’s easy to twist and politicize the violence however you want. The sector of society that hates Chávez has blamed him and the people who hate the opposition have blamed them. Do you feel like there’s any group of people out there who have 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 that we don’t know enough about. We have to find out about this. But 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. 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 is an acceptable alternative to him.
Right now, the passive solution is a reformed Chávez. The cost of offing Chávez, of disappearing Chávez, is just too great and will leave too huge a scar in the collective memory of that country.
Brad Carlton is a contributing editor and global affairs correspondent for The Baltimore Chronicle. This interview has been abridged for print publication. To read the full interview, visit “L’affaire Chavez”;: Larry Birns on How Venezuela Can Avoid Civil War.
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This story was published on June 4, 2003.