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Can't Live With Chavez, Can't Live Without Him

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
June 2, 2002
Los Angeles Times

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Starvation in Guatemala. War in Colombia. Economic collapse in Argentina. Political paralysis in Peru. Instability in Ecuador, Haiti and Paraguay. With Latin America vulnerable to upheaval, the Bush administration's latest hemispheric Achilles' heel, Venezuela, is ready to blow again. And the consequences would jeopardize the already precarious democracies in the region and further damage U.S. credibility.

Since the failed April 11 coup against President Hugo Chavez, intransigence within and between the opposition and government has polarized Venezuela. The risk of a second coup, and possibly of a full-blown civil war, grows daily. While Washington blames Chavez for the nation's deep divide, his departure from the scene, whether through constitutional referendum, coup, resignation or assassination, would only strengthen the Chavista forces. Chavez is already becoming a living martyr for his unwavering defense of the poor. In the eyes of approximately 45% of Venezuelans, Chavez has tried to benefit las clases populares with promises of spoils from oil revenue. He has begun to distribute resources to poor communities and, more provocatively, to look the other way as social networks, "Bolivarian circles," accumulate arms. Though critics note that his Bolivarian revolution has yet to bear economic fruit, his supporters are unwilling to relinquish their new powers to the old guard. Chavismo, with or without Chavez, is now a permanent part of the Venezuelan political landscape.

The anti-Chavez civilian opposition is an eclectic mix of Venezuelan society, including labor, business and the media, as well as new and old political parties. It realizes that its support for the failed coup produced the passionate, sometimes violent, reaction of Chavez's supporters. Chavez's subsequent 10-point surge in opinion polls is evidence that future battles are inevitable. The opposition's legal strategy is to shave off the president's five-vote majority in the National Assembly to set the stage for a vote on a two-stage referendum to end his term before its 2006 expiration.

Of more significance are the near-daily promotions and demotions in the armed forces, now deeply divided among pro- and anti-Chavez officers and those eager to stay out of politics altogether. Chavez's commitment to give up his fatigues and red beret, coupled with the appointment of Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon as defense minister, the man who helped briefly end Chavez's rule, in the early morning hours of April 12, testifies to the military's political muscle. While dozens of officers are under investigation for complicity in the April coup, some junior officers have threatened to move against their pro-Chavez superiors if loyalty to the president, rather than professional merit, guides the annual promotions slated for next month.

Many in the coalition that drove the coup continue to believe that removing Chavez, by force or civil war, is the only option. Some even hope to gain Washington's and the Organization of American States' support for such a move if a second crisis leads to a bloodbath and an intolerable humanitarian toll. Mindful of this perverse logic, veteran Chavista insider Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel recently described Venezuela's choice as one of "civil war or national dialogue."

Neither the U.S. nor the OAS has sufficient credibility to help Venezuela avert a civil war or sponsor a dialogue within it. After the initial sigh of relief at Chavez's apparent departure, with some notable exceptions, the OAS, in a special session, condemned the "alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela" but did not demand the return of the democratically elected leader. After a fact-finding mission in Venezuela, Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria noted the grave polarization in the country, and the OAS passed a resolution calling for Venezuela to invite outside mediators to participate in a national dialogue. But Venezuela's foreign minister rejected the idea, citing sovereignty concerns. As important, he was acutely aware that the United States and other member states had been all too eager to accept as fait accompli the ouster of Chavez.

The Bush administration, in also pressing the Venezuelan government to accept outside mediation, is continuing, for the most part, to send Chavez's foes the wrong message. Rather than act the part of the loyal opposition in the government-convened national dialogue, most anti-Chavistas hope that OAS mediation, or the government's refusal to accept it, will further isolate Chavez, hobble his ability to govern and accelerate his departure.

Washington's antipathy toward Chavez may be more ideological than substantive. Under Chavez, Venezuela has moved forward in ways one would expect Washington to welcome. He has never directly threatened cutting off Venezuelan oil, which accounts for about 14% of U.S. oil imports. He has privatized the state telephone company and devalued the currency. His government wants to work with the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral lending institutions and continues to cooperate on drug-war strategies and other intelligence matters. And the head of the U.S. Southern Command recently noted that there is no evidence of Venezuelan support for Colombia's largest rebel group.

Yet, if Chavez's provocations boil down to ideology and rhetoric, why do Washington and his neighbors hate him so much?

One reason is that Chavez stirs up class conflict, which causes a visceral reaction in establishment circles and fear that his appeal will spread among the poor in the region. Moreover, his in-your-face style plays right into the Bush administration's preoccupation with Chavez as the sole reason for Venezuela's current crisis.

Justly or not, the U.S. will take the blame if Chavez falls for good. With so much of Latin America on the brink of social and political upheaval, the Bush administration must continue to back off its policy of diplomatically isolating the Chavez government and to convince all Venezuelan players to play with the constitutional deck of cards each has been dealt. Neither the U.S. nor the governments of Latin America can afford otherwise.


Julia E. Sweig, a senior fellow and deputy director of, the Latin America Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the, author of Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban, Underground. Michael Marx McCarthy is a research associate at the Council.

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