Monday, March 10, 2003

Sunday 9, March 2003

It has been more than 10 days since I posted last. I suppose that I was a little bit burnt out and really needed to take a break for a few days, to try to regain a sense of perspective and not lose too much objectivity. Objectivity, a commodity in very short supply these days.

Newspapers are abuzz with continuous violations of the rule of law by Chavez; or they think that Chavez is recovering the upper hand; or civil war is just around the corner. What is really going on is that nobody, on either side, really knows what is going on. Yes, goals are clear now, but it does not seem that either side as a clear idea on how to get there, nor are they able to evaluate their real strengths and weaknesses. To re-start the thread, I will give today a brief evaluation, score card fashion, of where we are now.

Chavez wins some.

The end of the strike was for Chavez a Pyrrhic victory. That is, the strike did not manage to dislodge him and thus he can claim a victory of sorts. Yet, he inherits an economical situation that borders chaos. But good soldier that he is, he is not wasting any time trying to capitalize on his perceived victory. The opposition being demoralized and bankrupt seems an easier target these days. So, with several compliant judges, sectors of the police and army that will do any of his bidding, Chavez has taken up a vengeful tone (see New York Times editorial of February). He has managed to jail briefly the leader of the business union, the less charismatic of the leaders of the opposition, and he has on the run a few other ones. And threats rain right and left.

Chavez has been able to simplify his message, and now he does not bother to convince the other side to regain some of his earlier support. Now is the time of “you are with me or you will die when I am through with the opposition”. A little bit too earlier to see if this will bring any success, but there are signs that a sector of the population is afraid enough to pretend to buckle under. After all, people need to eat and probably see no arm in faking support for a while. Venezuelan culture likes winners and will follow them no matter what. Albeit ditching them at the first sign of weakness. It is thus anyone’s guess if Chavez will be able to bring his numbers back up to the mid 30% in polls, the only way he would have a chance at surviving an eventual recall election. The real victory here for Chavez is that he has coalesced his troops better. No more dissent is heard, wishy-washy politicos have been chased, and the military seems at least safe. This might be due to fear perhaps, but at least it gives him a freer hand to attack the opposition.

Chavez loses some.

I will put in this field what might appear the big Chavez victory: total control of the state oil company, PDVSA. As I am writing it seems that the government has reached the incredible figure of more than 16 thousand fired. Out of 33 thousand, we are talking 50% of the personnel. There is no way that a company can take such a blow and run smoothly. Without independent audit there is no way to determine if the numbers offered by the government are true. From what can be gathered on the business pages, it seems that PDVSA is still far from generating adequate revenue. And “rumors” are growing stronger and stronger that people put in place by Chavez are generally incompetent and are operating what might be the biggest plunder of a state company in history. In other words, Chavez is about to turn a decently run state company into a wasteful patronage machine. Maybe that is not was he intending, but PDVSA is heading that way.

Other “rumors” with a clear likelihood are that the “new patriotic PDVSA” is over pumping oil in the easy fields risking severe damage to these wells. An oil well must be pumped at a certain rate to allow oil to fill back the emptied space. Failure to respect this can bring underground collapse (sinkholes) that can clog the well and render it useless. This is likely happening since some extensive oil fields are still not operating and yet exports have got back above the 60% pre-strike according even to striking employees. Chavez is killing the golden egg geese. When it is dead he will have no money to run his show.

Other losses are of course the opposition wins

The opposition wins some

The real victory of the opposition is to have uncovered Chavez. In Venezuela and outside it is clear that Chavez is a wanna-be dictator. The mystery is really how come he has not been able to finish up the job. There is not lack of trying, but these days becoming a dictator seems more difficult than in the 1960ies… These pesky media are in the way, for one. There are all sorts of international agreements that cannot just be ignored without consequences. The only allies left for Chavez are Fidel Castro, and some in the Arab world, allies that Chavez does not dare to call to the rescue this days. After all Chavez is the only democratically elected head of state to have visited Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War. This is not a good thing to have on your resume these days.

In South America, even the new leftist governments of Brazil and Ecuador are lukewarm to Chavez. Actually Lula Da Silva seems even to have changed his initial opinion toward Chavez. The example of the economic collapse of Venezuela is not a good way to gather friends. Or to reassure your opposition if you preside a left wing government.

It is difficult to overrate this victory. Newspapers in general were neutral or pro Chavez early in December. Now, most are at least mildly critical of Chavez when they are not downright calling him a quasi tyrant. Governments (US, Spain, Colombia) that in April got scalded by congratulating themselves a little too fast over Chavez ouster had become quite diffident. Now they are again taking position. This is not going to send the marines to Venezuela, but it does greatly complicate Chavez take over of the country. After all, the opposition only request is that fair elections take place. Now there are plenty of people willing to come and observe any electoral process that might take place in Venezuela this year. In order to make sure it is fair and that it will remove Chavez without much pain.

The opposition can claim another victory. The show of civism during these terrible two months of strike has become the stuff of what legends are made of. There is a sense that even if we did not kick out Chavez, we have at least shown our temple and moral fiber. If Chavez might be able to regain some ground, there is now a core opposition that will make his life difficult. That opposition barely existed a year ago. After El Firmazo, any election in the next few months is sure to be a defeat for Chavez. Only the extension gap in the vote count is in question.

The trick of course is to reach an election.

The opposition loses some

The strike was led by business who was willing to foot the bill. The bill is huge and the country is teetering on the verge of financial chaos. The economic collapse hurts more the opposition than Chavez who at least for the time being gets some money from oil and has no problem to pocket it for its own interests. He fails notably to pay the states the money that is their due creating significant hardship in the provinces. Of course this leaves the opposition with less economic muscle to oppose Chavez effectively.

Something more worrying is the rather dispirited state of the people. After two months of marches, hard ships, missed holidays, it is difficult to accept that no clear cut result did come from it. The realization that the country is in the hands of a rogue that has no qualms bankrupting it for his selfish interests is hard to accept. How can you deal with that? What sacrifices is one to be going to be called upon to kick the rascal out? The task of the Coordinadora Democratica (CD) is difficult. It needs to keep people motivated. It needs to bring them regularly to the streets to demonstrate that Chavez is not back on the saddle the way he would like people to think so. Most importantly, the CD must find a message. Obviously, it is not enough to demonstrate that your opponent is bad. You need to establish that you are better. A first step towards this has been taken.


The chess game continues.

The CD has started a process of reorganization and re-evaluation of strategies, creation of a message to nail down support. The goal now is to reach August and go for the recall election vote. The signatures are in. The observers are ready, even to help finance the election. 5 full months might seem long, but it is the price to pay if we want to avoid a civil war. The opposition hold the high ground, the good will from the exterior, and paid off the April mistakes. The opposition also has a group of people that is not afraid of violence and is only too willing to fight Chavez with violence. It needs to muzzle them if it is not to meet again the post April 2002 fate.

Chavez knows better. In spite of all the attacks and propaganda eventually the chickens are going to come back to roost. He will not be able to put all the blame of the economical collapse on the opposition. This only gives him some time while he finds a legal strategy to block the recall election. One bet is to create an atmosphere of violence that will make it impossible to hold elections. He knows that if he is going to have to face an election he needs more that 5 months to recover and organize. He has for him his lack of scruples, a large group of sycophants willing to go along, and a sizable chunk of the people that still believes in him.

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