On Venezuela and Democracy
Part I: Overview of the Conflict
By Ron Smith
October 2, 2002
In Caracas, Venezuela today there is a major conflict, from the rhetoric, one would believe that it was a battle between an authoritarian government and a grassroots democracy movement. What will be described here is the white (or red, or green) washing of an anti-democratic movement, orchestrated to appear as a genuine grassroots opposition movement by the most powerful forces in this country.
First, a little background. Hugo Chavez Frias is the current president of Venezuela, he came to power in a landslide electoral victory in 1998, buoyed by his claims to oppose all of the traditional power sectors in Venezuelan society, to create a revolution of the political system which he calls Venezuela´s 5th republic, and his anti-neoliberal platform. He and his now moribund party, the MVR, Movimiento V Republica, have won several elections and referendums including a total revamp of the Venezuelan constitution and a an electoral sweep of sympathetic deputies into the national assembly. Chavez`s government seen several changes of positions, as some of the leading personalities have left the MVR to join the opposition.
Chavez`s main successes have not been radical changes to the Economic or social situation here in Venezuela. One theme on which seemingly everyone can agree is the heightened level of public participation in the political processes of Venezuela. In every café, at every Metro station, in every street, you can hear people talking about the political situation in Venezuela. His other major changes include the introduction of “La Ley de Tierras,” a liberal land reform law, and “La Ley de Pescas,” a major change to the fishing regulations designed to prioritize small scale local fishing over large-scale industrial export fishing. Probably the most dramatic change has been the legalization of small independent television and radio stations, previously called “pirate” stations. It’s fascinating to notice that no station is called pirate anymore, there has been a complete legalization (without any noticeable deterioration of signal prophesied by groups like the NAB in the US, deterioration of content is a different matter.)
Who are the opposition?
I can tell you a little bit about the Coordinadora Democratica. It’s a coalition of all of the opposition, from COPEI, the traditional conservative political party, to Bandera Roja, a somewhat unrealistic Marxist Leninist party. The Coordinadora also includes two of the most powerful forces in the country, FEDECAMARAS, the association of business owners and CTV, possibly the most reactionary and corrupt federation of unions on this continent. Whatever the CD looked like at the beginning, it’s since been completely hijacked by the extreme right.
I have attended two rallies of the extreme right in the past 10 days, the first on Friday, October 20th, the second on Thursday, September 26th. The first was a micro rally in the upscale neighborhood of Altamira in the Chacao district of Venezuela. The rally was dominated by a van plastered with anti-Chavez posters and equipped with an extremely powerful sound system. Various speakers arrived and shouted reasons that the crowd should despise and overthrow Chavez. The speeches were accompanied by frenzied flag waving and cheers. I milled through the mostly upper- and middle class crowd to get some interviews. When I approached various protestors, they said “We want an end to castrocommunism”, and the like, but no details. When I asked a student if Pedro Carmona Estanga, the short lived president of the last coup attempt, would be better than Chavez, after some hesitation the answer was “Anyone but Chavez”. One thing you can be sure of is that if there is a successful coup, it won’t be for press freedom or democracy, one of Carmona’s first acts was to close canal 8, the state-run television channel, and the only channel that did not openly support the coup.
The fact is that there a numerous complaints that can be made about Chavez’s government, including the lack of backbone in terms of neoliberal reforms and the new trend in the government to make deals with the US government, including allowing the previously denied US drug overflights to Colombia. The biggest problem with the opposition movement is that the individual members have allowed the CD to become a monolithic anti-Chavez machine. Any moderate or left leaning opposition is lost in a fury of extreme right-wing propaganda. This is largely the fault of the most powerful members of the opposition, but it also can be attributed to numerous smaller political groups who have latched on to the CD as an easy way of appearing more powerful. An independent opposition from the left and from popular organizers would probably do this country some good, but the fact is that at this point in Venezuelan history, there are two positions you can take in regards to Chavez, you´re either ‘fer it or agin it.’ If you are agin it, you voice is lost in the maelstrom of rightist anti-Chavez propaganda.
What Happened on April 11th?
or, when a ‘power vacuum’ is really just a coup.
This is a large part of the controversy that has played a major role in forming the political situation here in Caracas. On April 9th, strikes were called by the CTV, the Central de Trabajadores Venezolanos, at the behest of FEDECAMARAS, the association of business owners. It may seem somewhat odd that a union would call a strike after being asked by the representatives of the most powerful industries here in Venezuela, but the corruption of the CTV runs to its core. On April 11th, there was a major protest against the Chavez government, with most sane estimates placing the size of the protest at around 250,000 people. What is certain is that there was a confrontation under a bridge a block away from the presidential palace, and the result was 19 deaths and a great number of injuries. This is where the propaganda machines really get into gear. According to the Venezuelan press, Chavez´s goons, the Guardia Nacional, started firing indiscriminately into the crowd to enforce their dictatorial duties to suppress dissent. The television stations in Caracas continually showed images of corpses and people firing weapons. The Chavez government and its supporters claim that the opposition forces began the shooting, and that the GN was acting entirely in self-defense. At this point, it’s extremely difficult to know what really happened, although numerous human rights groups are working on reports of what happened in the conflict, and the Defensoria of Human Rights of the Chavez government has released a preliminary report with another forthcoming. The problem with the mainstream media’s story is that at least 9 of the dead were Chavez supporters. Little facts like this don’t really affect the mainstream media’s reporting of the issue. In the afternoon of April 11th, El Nacional released a special edition prophesying the end of the Chavez regime.
On the evening of April 11th, the media reported that Hugo Chavez had resigned his position in the government because of his guilt about the murders of the innocent protestors, and the head of FEDECAMARAS did his duty to fill the ‘power vacuum’ and took over the presidency. Never mind that nowhere in the constitution does it mention the right of the head of the corporate association to take over the presidency. Pedro Carmona Estanga took power and created a ‘government of transition’ where he assumed absolute power and pledged to hold new elections in one year. His regime was marked by closures of public broadcasting facilities, dissolution of the legislative bodies of the state, and a fierce campaign against the reforms passed by Chavez since his entry into office. Democracy was declared, photos of police dragging people into police cars were accompanied by captions describing justice being served to pro-Chavez assassins, everything seemed to be going quite well for the golpistas. The problem was that in reality, it was a coup d’etat, and the supposed document proving the renunciation of the presidency by Chavez was never produced. Massive protests broke out all over the country, most sources agree that over 1 million participants flooded the street to demand an end to the Carmona regime and a return to El Processo of Chavez. By the morning of the 14th, Chavez was back in power and Carmona fled to Colombia in exile.
This history is constantly being denied in the Venezuelan papers and television stations. “There was no coup, it was democracy”. “We’ll always remember April 11th”. This revisionist view of history is denied even by CNN who at the time called the situation a Coup d’etat, as did the vast majority of the world community, with the exception of some remarkable comments by our own president, the result of a similar act of “democracy”.
Every day since I arrived in Venezuela, there has been a huge media campaign to fire up the public imagination about a Venezuela without Chavez. Many right wing protesters asked me why CNN wanted a Soviet Republic in Venezuela, and why the US wanted a new Castro Cuba in all of South America. This is related to the fact that CNN actually called the coup a coup, instead of the usual “Government of Transition” or “Power Vacuum” that is always mentioned in the local press.
Democracy and Freedom of Speech
The Chavez government has been condemned every day by the mainstream press here and by the CTV and FEDECAMARAS for its alleged crackdown on press freedoms here. A recent delegation by the Inter-American Press Association (SIP, in its Spanish initials), an international press organization, revealed their position on the state of affairs in Venezuela. “Chavez is a Fascist, says Faschetto,” screamed the headlines. Jorge Faschetto, the Argentinian member of the delegation released this statement before arriving in Venezuela. Robert Cox, the other delegation member and Faschetto appeared at a press conference at the CTV building and declared that “Closing of television stations is next!”. If such an important international press organization would condemn Chavez so openly, there must really be an oppressive regime here. What begins to make one feel as though they’ve stepped into “Bizarro World” is that every day, the television stations accuse the Chavez government of oppressing freedom of speech. Every news program includes denunciations of the Chavez’s oppression of speech, and the lack of freedom of speech is blasted across the headlines of the major papers. These denunciations are interspersed with the other denunciations of the “castrocommunist” regime. A very grim future is constantly predicted, and the television stations advertise major anti-government rallies a week before they happen, and demand that people come out to support democracy. This does not look like any abrogation of the freedom of speech that I’ve ever seen.
I’ve interviewed people from many sides in the media industry and I can say that freedom of speech is indeed threatened, but not by the government. Venezuelan media today is an extreme example of self-censorship. The major press organizations are all in concert to oppose Chavez, any writer who makes a statement opposing the opposition risks immediate firing. As the SIP (Robert Cox and Jorge Faschetto) claimed that the Chavez government is threatening press freedom, I asked an independent-minded reporter at el Nacional, Vanessa Davies, if there was any truth to these claims, she laughed. There have been no actions what so ever by the Chavez government to close the press, or to openly oppose their freedom of speech. If not for the rule passed by Chavez recently that large companies can’t fire their workers for a period, my journalist friend would have lost her job a long time ago.
El Nacional Reporter Vanessa Davies:
Threats to Press Freedom Come from
the Commercial Media, not the State
I asked the editor of Tal Cual an opposition paper, and the Executive President of El Nacional what threats to press freedom Chavez presented. I also asked a right-leaning human rights organization that represents mainstream journalists what the threats were from Chavez. The answer in all three cases was that Chavez has threatened members of the press and incited the pro-Chavez forces to violence against the press. When I asked for a concrete example, the reply was “He said the press was full of shit”. Not exactly a concerted oppressive campaign in my book. There has been some violence against reporters’ equipment and cars by angry crowds in various locations around the country, each incident discussed for hours on the television stations. When I arrived, the car of a crew of Globovision, the worst offender in terms of anti-Chavez propaganda, was apparently beaten up by an angry mob. The camera gear was apparently stolen and then returned by a member of the crowd. The police and the National Guard did little or nothing to stop the crowd. While the press claimed that this showed the government’s lack of respect for freedom of speech, Globovision has been openly calling for the overthrow of the Chavez government every day, not exactly the way to get sympathy from the same government. The fact is that Chavez has opened up the possibilities for independent media freedom, including legalizing pirate radio and television stations. Independent producers are respected by national guardsmen and get all of the government access privileges that are accorded to the mainstream press. More about this in part 2.
There is another general work stoppage being planned by FEDECAMARAS and CTV for the 10th of October. A point of interest is that the strikes that are being called here in Venezuela are not at all called by the unions, corrupt as they may be, they´re called by FEDECAMARAS, the organization of companies. The CTV, the biggest confederation of unions, take their orders from FEDECAMARAS. Last week, CTV said, when asked if there will be a new work stoppage, that it depends on the will of FEDECAMARAS. I attended a press conference of CTV, where Carlos Ortega, the head of CTV said ¨vamos por la guerra¨ (we are going to war). When I attended said press conference, I was invited to a back room to meet the executive committee of CTV, and who would be in the room but 3 admirals who assisted in the coup in April. This is especially troubling because the coup in April started with a “general work stoppage” (not a strike) on April 9th. The fact is that the government here is much better prepared now for an attempted coup, but the fact is the Middle and Upper classes are trying to form a united front in the Coordinadora Democratica (CD).
There is always a possibility of a golpe de estado (coup d’etat) here in Venezuela. The media are complete protagonists in the conflict, and they want to create the appearance of a massive popular movement to overthrow Chavez. The fact is that at this point, the golpistas are still unpopular with the majority of the people, but that could change by the 10th if the media campaign continues, which it most certainly will. The mainstream media blatantly lies about the Chavez government and the popular support of a coup. I attended a right-wing golpista rally on thursday, September 26th, and when it started, the plaza was empty, but after a couple hours of complete media saturation , the plaza filled with about 10,000 people, at most. El Nacional published a photo the next day saying the plaza was filled will over 200,000 protesters. I’ve seen 80,000 protesters in Seattle, and to say that the miniscule Plaza of Meritocracy in Chacao was filled with 200,000 people is only possible if you believe that you could fit 100 people per square meter.
I’d say that a coup attempt is very likely, a successful coup attempt is very much less likely, but still a possibility. One thing that may affect the coup plotters is that the US ambassador Shapiro indicated, although very gently, that he would prefer that the anti-Chavez groupings work through constitutional means, which most people here interpret as opposition to a coup. Talk is cheap, but people here are very conscious of the US preoccupation with Iraq, and their inability to devote a large amount of attention and support to a possible coup.
Ron Smith is an independent Journalist and Filmmaker who lives in Mill Valley California when not gallivanting around Latin America documenting popular movements. Ron Smith has created several documentary shorts, including the film Resistance as Democracy, an analysis of the state of the grassroots labor and anti-globalization movements in El Salvador. He is currently working on a documentary about US military aid to Colombia.
To read Part II, click here
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