Venezuela's Worsening Political Crisis - Foreign Affairs Jan-Feb 2003

Ralph Johansen michele at
Wed Jan 29 14:20:35 MST 2003

This from Foreign Affairs, about as close to the current administration in
analysis as any media source, I'm told.


Author's Postscript, January 2003
Venezuela's Worsening Political Crisis
by Kurt Weyland

Over the last fifteen months, Venezuela has suffered from tremendous
political turbulence. As I argued in the November/December 2001 issue of
Foreign Affairs, the deficient performance of Hugo Chavez's populist
government undermined its popularity. The opposition, comprised of political
parties, powerful business groups, trade unions, and other sectors of civil
society, therefore put increasing pressure on the president through a series
of protests. When one of these mass demonstrations provoked a violent
response from the president's followers in April 2002, factions within the
military tried to force Chavez to resign. But the political blunders of the
coup plotters and the unexpected resilience of Chavez's hard-core followers
among the poor and elsewhere in the military quickly allowed the president
to return to office. This unforeseen resurrection embarrassed the Bush
government, which had seemingly condoned the coup.

Chastened by this political near-death experience, Chavez initially promised
to pursue reconciliation. But radical sectors among his followers and
intransigent groups in the opposition posed insurmountable obstacles to any
such effort, and Chavez's penchant for fiery rhetoric soon overwhelmed his
good intentions--if they were ever sincere. Also, the deteriorating economy,
shaken by a large-scale devaluation in early 2002 and rocked by the
political turmoil, exacerbated disaffection among the business community and
the rest of the citizenry. In polls, a majority of the population favored
the president's resignation. Only a limited, but increasingly organized and
armed group of fervent followers continued to support the president.

Political tensions again escalated in the second half of 2002. In December,
business and labor organizations declared a general strike designed to bring
down the government and lead to new elections. When most workers of the
state oil company, PDVSA--which produces three quarters of Venezuela's
exports and supplies the state with approximately half of its tax
revenues--joined the stoppage and brought petroleum production and shipments
almost to a halt, the president's days seemed numbered. But once again,
Chavez proved to have unexpected political resilience. He has been "sitting
out" the strike, insisting on completing his constitutionally guaranteed
mandate and hoping that the costly strike would collapse. The Venezuelan
economy has suffered tremendous damage from this irresponsible war of
attrition; it will take weeks to increase oil production once the strike

Reeling from the costs of the strike and facing an obstinate adversary, the
opposition has searched for an exit from the cul-de-sac and has therefore
seized on the mediation efforts of Jimmy Carter. It will probably have to
accept Chavez's proposal to hold a "recall referendum" on his presidency in
August 2003. This mechanism, introduced by Chavez's tailor-made 1999
constitution, allows the citizenry to remove an office holder in the second
half of his or her term. But since a recall requires a larger number of
votes than the office-holder garnered in the initial election, the
opposition is likely to lose in August because discontent with the
government often boosts abstention--which will help Chavez.

Thus, Chavez may well survive these new attempts to oust him. Yet this
political continuity comes at the cost of severe economic blood-letting and
grave political polarization. Thus, however long Chavez's populist
experiment may end up lasting, it will take the country many years to
recover from this disastrous experience.

Read the full text of Weyland's article "Will Chavez Lose His Luster?"

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