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A few thoughts on how to unseat Hugo Chávez

By Gustavo Coronel

23.08.05 | Hugo Chávez has caused so much destruction, sown so much hate and pilfered so much money in Venezuela that he cannot be labeled as "one more bad president" and treated in the same tolerant manner we treated Luis Herrera CampinsJaime Lusinchi and the other inept and/or corrupt presidents we had during the last 50 years. Chávez is a major national disaster, not just a bad president and he has to be unseated. He cannot be allowed to stay in power. How to go about it?

The magnitude of the problem

First of all, let us consider the magnitude of the problem. (1) Chávez is a dictator. He controls personally the money generated by the Venezuelan oil industry and uses it directly, without accountability or transparency, in open and uncontested violation of our laws. (2) He has control of all institutions that theoretically should act as checks and balances to his power: the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the National Assembly, the National Electoral Council and the so-called Moral Power, made up of the Comptroller General office, the Attorney General office and the Ombudsman office. In all of these institutions he has placed his henchmen who report to him and obey his orders. (3) He essentially controls the Venezuelan military, through the giving of significant material handouts to the top ranking officers and by placing them in bureaucratic positions where they can exercise power and obtain benefits. At the same time he is creating a sizeable paramilitary force made up of ill-trained civilians, who will eventually be armed and responds to him directly, not to the armed forces. (4) He has the support in intelligence, police, identification, education, health and military matters of Cuban personnel sent by Fidel Castro. An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Cubans are in place in Venezuela, a formidable invasion force allowed by Chávez at the expense of significant loss of Venezuelan sovereignty. (5) He has instituted a strategy of massive handouts to the Venezuelan poor, extensive to some of the weaker states in the region, that has created a temporary illusion of prosperity among recipients. As a result, he has cemented his popularity among a portion of the Venezuelan population and among some of the traditionally deprived Latin American poor. He is perceived by many as a new Perón or a new Velasco Alvarado, a father figure courageous enough to stand up to the all powerful colossus of the north. (6) The increasing prices of oil, expected to remain in an upward trend for the foreseeable future, provides him with great amounts of money, so that his pockets can be predicted to be full for the medium term (3-5 years). (7) The Venezuelan opposition is weak, made up of small and medium sized fragments, without an unifying strategy. There is no one big name that could be accepted as undisputed leader, at least until now.

There is a strong temptation to roll over and play dead

These and other less important components add up to give Hugo Chávez what appears to be a very solid grasp on political power in Venezuela. This power appears so formidable that many Venezuelans who oppose and despise him feel tempted to roll over and play dead. It has to be remembered that Venezuela, before becoming a strong democracy for 50 years or so, suffered long spells of dictatorship. A rustic hillbilly from the Venezuelan Andes, Juan Vicente Gómez dominated the country for 27 years, from 1908 to 1935 after displacing from power another, equally rustic dictator (Cipriano Castro). A colorless military man, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, was a dictator for ten years, from 1948 to 1958. During these long periods many Venezuelans came to accept their situation and many cooperated with the dictatorships, just as it is starting to happen today. In a scale of 1 to 10, Venezuelan society is probably at the level of 6 to 7 in its tendency to accept rather passively the developing dictatorship of Hugo Chávez. It would seem that there is no internal capability to generate political self-cleansing and that the country might be on its way to becoming another Cuba or Zimbabwe.

But, wait just a minute

It would be probably logical but erroneous to reach this conclusion. It would be logical if we only consider the elements described above. However, there are other elements that tend to balance the picture. Consider the following: (1) Absolute control of all Venezuelan political institutions is not serving Chávez well. His "government" is in chaos. Either by design or ignorance, he has surrounded himself with a group of very mediocre and/or corrupt collaborators. He has been much more successful at obtaining political power than at governing, because of his inability to create a decent government team. His high level collaborators include former male stripper Eliécer Otaiza, former kidnapper Carlos Lanz, former guerrilla Alí Rodríguez, corny poets Isaías Rodríguez and Tarek William Saab, and corrupt political opportunists like Jose Vicente Rangel, just to name a few.  Even the Venezuelans who voted for Chávez now openly blame this inept bunch for their sorrows. In fact, in a grotesque recent development, Chávez has taken to national TV and radio to denounce this group as unfit to serve, as in the recent tirades against Minister of Housing Julio Montes for his failures or against mayor of Caracas Juan Barreto, for the immense amounts of garbage that remain uncollected. It seems just a matter of time, therefore, before poor Venezuelans start to place the blame for their tragedy where it belongs: on the head of Chávez. (2) The Chávez camp, either due to monetary or political greed, or a combination of both, is becoming less and less cohesive. Regional disputes are erupting among local chieftains fighting over the spoils. Chávez is losing trust in most of his immediate supporters. This is a process typical of political movements that lack a solid long-term vision. (3) Chávez's control over the Venezuelan institutions and over the military is not based on honest convictions on the part of those who are "loyal," but essentially based on monetary handouts. Although oil money is very abundant, the greed and expectations that Chávez has awakened among his flock are so great that more money is always being required. In addition to his immense oil income, he has managed to double Venezuelan national debt and a new "law" passed by his complacent National Assembly has given him the right to raid the international monetary reserves, to spend as he sees fit. Money demands by Chávez somehow remain one step ahead of his income. (4) The alignment of Chávez with Fidel Castro has been a personal decision for which he is starting to pay a heavy price. Many Venezuelans who might have been neutral or even sympathetic to Chávez now openly despise him because of what they perceive as a national humiliation. Cubans sent by Castro staged an armed invasion of Venezuela in the 1960's but were thrown back. Today Chávez has opened the doors to the failed invaders of the past, giving Castro enormous subsidies and privileges which will probably be defined by history as an act of treason. (5) Massive handouts have not prevented the increase of poverty in the Venezuela of Chávez. Handouts have a short-term "hygienic" effect among the population but they do not solve the structural Venezuelan problems of poverty and ignorance. In fact, they accentuate them. Handouts do not make for a permanently happy society but, at best, they serve to delay unhappiness and protests for one more day. The same applies to the countries that are apparently enjoying Chávez's largesse. These countries accept all that Chávez might give them but resent his vulgarity and attitudes of "new rich." All over the world, Chávez is increasingly becoming an object of ridicule. Many governments will play along with him and milk him for as much as they can, while only offering him vague promises in return. (6) Oil income is very significant but not enough to satisfy Chávez's insatiable appetite for money. It will tend to decrease because oil production will decrease (production has declined by 600,000 barrels per day in the last 4 years), due to the ineptness and corruption of the petroleum industry management and to the deviation of huge amounts of monies to other uses than those required to maintain oil production. As oil income decreases and Chávez's money requirements become greater, his political power will weaken. (7) The opposition is not organized and lacks credible leadership but the base is intact, waiting to be jump-started. New leaders are slowly but clearly emerging and the time seems increasingly ripe for a meeting of the minds.

What can be done to unseat Chávez and turn the country around?

I visualize a strategy in four steps:

(1) An initial convention of Civil Society should take place. This initial convention has to be facilitated by two or three world-class experts in the field, so that it could fulfill what I would consider to be its three main objectives: (a) To establish a ten-point strategy to turn Venezuela around, (b) the outline of a concerted strategy to unseat Chávez and (c) the selection of a single leader for the opposition.

This convention should include all the twenty or so civil society organizations that have a legitimate record of opposition against Chávez. The main emerging leaders should be present. Who are the emerging leaders? The ones that have proven to have the most acceptance among the opposition. They are relatively few: Petkoff, Borges, Ledezma, Alvarez Paz, Rosales, Salas Feo, Machado.

(2) This meeting should serve to select one single leader for the opposition, one having the total support of all the others. Is this impossible to do? I do not think so. The experience of recent years has already shown the opposition that without a unified strategy and leadership there is no way to unseat Chávez.

(3) A ten-point strategy to turn Venezuela around in the mid-term should be outlined during the convention. A plan for action does not have to be bulky or written in arcane language. The crisper and more direct the better. What Venezuela requires is very well known by now. If the Ten Commandments can fit into less than a page, there is no reason why a plan of action for Venezuela, endorsed by the unified opposition, could not be put in a few pages for the knowledge of all citizens.

(4) A grass-roots campaign to show the country the magnitude of the tragedy under Chávez, to document the disasters in the oil industry, in education, in finances, in foreign affairs, in housing, in health. This is a campaign that has to be executed from door to door, in the ground. The opposition has been doing much preaching to the converted. We find comfort in reading what other adversaries of Chávez are writing, wondering why not everyone would see the light. The reason could well be that we are not bringing the light to everyone. This campaign will not have immediate results. It has to be systematic and relentless to yield results in the months ahead. TV, radio, the print media should be used but it should primarily be a one on one campaign.

Possible results of this strategy

Under the most favorable scenario this strategy could lead to the unseating of Chávez in the presidential elections of 2006. We must remember that the worst enemy of Hugo Chávez is . . . Hugo Chávez. As he goes on opening new fronts, challenging big and the small foes alike, his grasp on power weakens. As his collaborators go from blunder to blunder (the latest one by Jorge Rodríguez, head of the National Electoral Council, was colossal, since the official report just published by this institution showed that the votes to unseat Chávez in the August 2004 presidential recall referendum were in the majority, as we strongly suspected!), his popularity declines. As he cements his perverted relationship with Castro he becomes perceived, more and more, as a political freak. It could be argued that, if the opposition did nothing, Chávez would eventually implode. But there is no need to wait more than absolutely necessary for this to happen. The deterioration of the Chávez regime should be accelerated through the efforts of a unified opposition.

Under a less favorable scenario, even if Chávez wins again the presidency in 2006, the unified opposition front, having a plan and a clear strategy, would help to curb Chávez's grotesque dreams of a continental revolution, forcing him to dedicate much of his efforts to domestic political survival.

How can international pressures help?

It is true that the unseating of Chávez fundamentally requires the efforts of an organic domestic opposition but it would be greatly helped by concerted international pressures on, at least, two areas: (1), the promotion of transparency in Venezuelan elections and, (2), the progressive isolation of the Chávez regime in the group of the world's democratic nations. The first area requires urgent attention. As long as the existing mechanisms and people are in place in the Venezuelan National Electoral Council, the opposition has no chances of winning an election. The irregularities and organizational ineptness, which have characterized the recent elections in Venezuela and the abuses of power of the members of the Council, have been amply documented and are resented even by Chávez's own supporters. No one trusts this organization. The second area is very complex and it touches upon considerations of national security for several of the countries in the hemisphere and of national sovereignty for Venezuela. It suffices to say that the creation of the close political and military ties now existing between Castro and Chávez is already a matter of great hemispheric political and military security concerns and could conceivably generate a major regional crisis before long.

Above all: action, please.

Words cannot replace action. Venezuela is ripe for political change if a critical mass of democratic political entrepreneurs decides to roll back their sleeves and start working towards this change. The country certainly needs it and there is little doubt that the region also needs a more democratic and predictable government in our country.

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