Hugo Chávez Frías’s presidency in Venezuela has caused an opposition coalition to form that, uniquely in Venezuela’s history, breaks all class distinctions: middle-class professionals and mid-level military and police officers; unionized workers and business associations; the Catholic Church and virtually all the normally competitive media, have come together.
This poses a major problem for the United States. Chávez is elected freely, and democracy—or at least free elections—has been a sacred cow of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America for decades. But most of Chávez’ policies are distinctly anti-democratic, often unconstitutional and usually anti-American and pro-Castro. Furthermore, Venezuela is a major supplier of oil and oil byproducts to the United States, and the civil conflict there has reduced those supplies from 3 million barrels per day (bpd) to less than 200,000.
Chavez was first elected in 1998 and again in 2000. Since then, a number of populist/leftist South American presidents have been elected, including most recently Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil (inaugurated 1/01/03) and Lucio Gutiérrez (inaugurated 1/15/03) in Ecuador. All have contempt for free markets, are distinctly anti-American and pro-Castro, albeit they operate under different constraints and in distinct national political and economic environments.
To begin with, Chávez’s own democratic credentials are dubious. He first gained notoriety in 1992 when, as a paratroop lieutenant colonel , he staged a failed coup against the democratically-elected president Carlos Andrés Perez. Arrested and jailed, he was released by Perez’ successor. Taking advantage of the profound popular discontent with the Venezuela’s decaying two-party system, Chávez ran in 1998 on an anti-corruption, nationalist and populist program, strongly supported at the time by all the numerous and disparate leftist groups and mini-parties. He blamed the country’s structural problems on one cause—elite corruption, avoiding the more profound national corruption, decades of which had accustomed the entire population to little work and unsustainable social services, all excused by the myth of infinite oil revenues.
Ideologically, Chávez is a wooly rethread of the quasi-Marxist, demagogic populists who have ruined Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s. His declared hero is Simón Bolívar, the father of South American independence two centuries ago, and indeed Chávez has changed the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. His "Bolivarian" ideology includes nationalism, "solidarity" and, last but not least, anti-Americanism.
His first visits abroad were to Baghdad, Tripoli, and Teheran. His friendship with Castro is both personal and concrete: in accordance with a 2000 agreement, Venezuela provides 50 percent of Cuba’s oil imports, some 53,000 bpd, with 25 percent of the cost payable over 15 years and a two-year grace period—all of which amounts to a vital lifeline to Cuba’s dismal economy. Castro has paid a long visit to Venezuela (reminiscent of his three-week visit to Allende’s Chile) and provides doctors (which Venezuela does not need) and experts on internal security (which the Chávez regime does need), including some involved in the formation of the "Bolivarian circles," a local copy of Cuba’s infamous Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Like the CDRs, the Bolivarian circles are basically mobs of the unemployed, unemployable and social misfits paid and armed by the government.
To make his ideological allegiances and the threat he poses to regional stability clearer, Chávez’ security services are actively cooperating with the Colombian Marxist-Leninist terrorists/narcotrafficantes of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército Popular (FARC-EP), including providing arms, safe havens and transit facilities—at least according to the Colombian government and high-ranking defectors from the Venezuelan military.
All of this raises a crucial issue regarding the Chávez regime’s chances of surviving: the loyalty of the armed forces. Indeed, with his popularity in the 20-percent range among all social and economic sectors of the population, including the poor and disadvantaged he is supposedly championing, it is becoming clearer by the day that Chávez’ ability to stay in office, just as Allende’s before him, is almost completely dependent on the military.
The problem is that the Venezuelan military has a dislike of Castro and Castroism that goes back to the early 1960s, when Fidel and his sidekick Che Guevara prepared and led a failed insurgency against the recently established democratic government in Caracas. And although in April 2002 segments of the military briefly removed Chávez from power, only to have others bring him back, the country’s almost total militarization in recent months—the armed forces have taken over the oil fields, ports, and police armories in Caracas, the transportation and distribution sectors, etc.—increases the stress on an institution that has had no decisive political role since the 1950s. Chávez’ habit of appearing in public ceremonies with the generals in his lieutenant colonel uniform, rather than as the civilian supreme commander he is supposed to be by the Constitution, does not help with the military’s institutional pride—or speak well for his political judgment.
Since December 2, 2002, the usually disorganized and divided opposition has engaged in a general strike which, so far, resulted in the collapse of the oil industry, currency and financial system, causing some $3 billion in economic loses so far. Chávez’ answer has been to fire the entire management and thousands of workers of the national oil company (PDVSA, which provides half the government’s budget), and to try to split the company in two. He knows he has a problem (no alternative workers, managers or administrators), so he is now asking Lula to provide them. This is a very unrealistic idea is based on fluffy sentiments of solidarity rather than serious considerations, since Brazilian union workers are refusing to do this and in all events Lula has no surplus of workers. And this is one area where Castro cannot help.
In the short term, Chávez just may survive the "fascist" and "terrorist" challenge of the general strike (never mind that the "fascists" are a majority of the people, from taxi drivers to bankers and bishops to union leaders, and the "terrorists" are all those who do not like him), albeit at an enormous cost to his country. His Bolivarian and Popular Organizations have written him demanding the nationalization of all media (or at least the anti-Chávez outlets) and the financial sector and that oppositionists be tried for "sabotage." Does all this sound like Stalin or Castro? Yes, because the ideology behind such claims is the same.
Meanwhile, Washington is at a loss how to deal with the situation. Not surprisingly, a group of 18 leftist Democrats in the U.S. House—John Conyers (D-MI), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), etc. —joined by that body’s sole Socialist (Bernie Sanders, I-VT) took sides (for Chávez, naturally) and decided that "it is against the best interests of Venezuela and its people" to accept the opposition’s (66%) demands for new elections.
A "friends of Venezuela" group of governments is suggested as a mediator, but since Chávez has managed to transform Venezuela’s consensus-based politics into a zero-sum game, that idea seems to be a loser, as demonstrated by the failed attempts by the Organization of American States’ president to mediate between Chávez and his opponents. Ultimately—back to Allende—the civil strife in Caracas will be resolved by the least democratic but still most effective institution: the military. The tragedy is that the longer Chávez stays, the more devastating the economic impact on the country and, equally important, the bloodier the outcome.