Upheaval in Venezuela
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RAY SUAREZ: Venezuela’s top military brass began its ouster of President Hugo Chavez late yesterday.
Before dawn this morning, Chavez was taken from the presidential palace to an army base in Caracas.
PEDRO CARMONA, Interim President, Venezuela (Translated): I announce to the nation that Hugo Chavez has handed over his resignation as president of the republic.
And therefore, in light of this fact, it has been decided that the armed forces maintain in custody the outgoing President Mr. Chavez, and it has been decided that a transitional government will be formed.
RAY SUAREZ: It is this same man, Pedro Carmona, who will take over as transitional president. The head of a national business organization, Carmona also instigated the strikes that brought Chavez down.
The resignation came just hours after at least a dozen people were killed and more than 250 were wounded on the third day of demonstrations against the Chavez government.
Yesterday, Chavez ordered National Guard troops and civilian gunmen to fire on the nearly 200,000 protesters to stop them from reaching his palace. That bloodshed provoked yesterday’s military intervention.
But, opposition to Chavez’s increasingly autocratic three-year rule had been growing both at home and abroad.
The 47-year-old former army paratrooper took office in 1999 after a landslide victory, and six years after staging an unsuccessful military coup and being sent to prison.
Chavez’s promises to fight for the poor and against corruption and the nation’s elite, made him widely popular. But, recently his attacks on news media, the Roman Catholic Church, and business leaders caused his approval ratings to plummet.
The massive demonstrations this week followed Chavez’s decision earlier this year to replace top executives at the state-owned oil monopoly with his supporters.
Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere and is the third largest oil supplier to the U.S.. Protests by thousands of oil company employees shut down refineries and halted some petroleum shipments.
Chavez’s foreign policy has generated criticism in the United States. He forged close ties with Cuba, Libya, and Iraq. The Venezuelan president also spoke out against the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
RAY SUAREZ: The transitional government has announced it’s dissolving the Venezuelan Congress and Supreme Court, has promised elections by the end of the year, and has also promised that acting President Carmona will not be a candidate.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the ousting of President Hugo Chavez, we turn to Fernando Coronil, associate professor of anthropology and history at the University of Michigan. He was born in Venezuela and is now a U.S. citizen. And Michael Shifter, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor of Latin America Studies at Georgetown University.
Gentlemen, let’s start telling the story of the end of Hugo Chavez’s presidency by looking back to the beginning.
Fernando Coronil, how did a man imprisoned for leading a coup end up being elected president of the country?
FERNANDO CORONIL: I should clarify that I’m not a U.S. Citizen I still remain a Venezuelan citizen.
RAY SUAREZ: Okay.
FERNANDO CORONIL: And you’re asking me how a person who led a coup ended up being a president of Venezuela?
RAY SUAREZ: And elected by a wide margin.
FERNANDO CORONIL: I think the explanation lies in the tremendous frustration of the people of Venezuela with 40 years of democratic rule, which promised the people basic well-being and an improvement in the living conditions.
The coup was a coup against President Perez who was President of Venezuela for a second time. The first time around was, as you might remember, during the oil boom of the 1970s in which people expected great prosperity and the country ended up deeply in debt.
The second time around when President Perez was elected in 1989 he also promised the people that he would bring prosperity to Venezuela.
And, instead he instituted an austerity program which led to the most — in February of 1989 — which led to the most violent and the most massive popular protests against IMF policies in Latin America with results that the state ended up repressing the popular sectors and leading to several hundred people being killed.
Chavez’s coup against Perez has to be seen in that kind of context, in the context of a country in which the people have expected improvement in the living conditions for many years, tremendous frustration and then he gave the coup — he gave the coup against a government who had lost significant legitimacy.
In fact, he was very popular as a result of the coup. A carnival followed the coup and the most popular costume for children in Venezuela was chavitos — young children with red berets.
RAY SUAREZ: So he was still a hero when it came time to run in the election?
FERNANDO CORONIL: When President Perez was impeached in 1993 and then President Caldera was elected president, he was elected president with a mandate to reverse the Perez policies.
And, in fact, Caldera in 1996 recognized that he could not do that, somehow that he had to face reality and he… you know, he acknowledged that he had to implement neoliberal policies in Venezuela.
I think Chavez’s popularity, then, has to be seen in that context because he promised — in the electoral campaign of 1998 — a return to a protectionist state, to a state that would use Venezuela’s immense oil resources for the benefit of the population, and he based his campaign on a critique of an elite that had benefited from that kind of wealth.
So, I think that’s what led to his popularity, that kind of… he managed to embody a popular discourse that had been established in Venezuela since the late 1930s against Gomez, our first dictator who benefited personally from oil resources.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael Shifter, he comes to office with a tremendous personal mandate and a Congress right behind him. He remained popular in the beginning of his term, didn’t he?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Absolutely. I think what sustained him were oil prices, which helps a lot in terms of the economy and his critique, his indictment of the old political order which, I think was discredited.
The country had two lost decades in the 1980s and 1990s. The only country in Latin America that lost 40 percent of its income, and he benefited from that. He was the product of that.
But that’s also the reason why he ran into trouble because ultimately all he can do is destroy and attack the old order and that reaches a limit very, very quickly. You have to deliver at some point. You have to deal, address the problems that people face of high unemployment, of crime, it’s a tremendously poor country.
And, it’s one thing to promise and one thing to attack the oligarchs and the corrupt and the mismanaged country, but you really have to produce at some point. And people, I think, tolerated a period because they hoped that something would come, but it didn’t.
And Chavez didn’t put in place a coherent economic policy of any kind. I don’t think it was in drift for three years, and ultimately it became ungovernable, he was confrontational against key sectors of society and I think it was inevitable what happened yesterday.
RAY SUAREZ: You’ve both mentioned that Venezuelans are generally pretty poor.
Why hasn’t that tremendous oil income at least pulled up the middle, created a broad middle, created a national infrastructure that helps pull up the quality of life?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think first of all the perception of most Venezuelans is that they’re a very, very rich country and there may be a difference objectively of how much wealth they have and what the perception is. That explains the political problem.
It’s been too dependent I think on the oil sector. The state oil company is 50 percent of all government revenues, and so that has created some distortions and some problems in the country.
And I think it’s also fair to say that there was a high level of mismanagement and corruption — the themes that Chavez really identified and that really helped him become elected and sustained him and particularly made him popular among the poorest Venezuelans, who thought they were being robbed of their rightful share of the country’s wealth.
So I think it’s a combination of problem of perception, problem that the economy wasn’t as diversified as it could be, and also elements of mismanagement and corruption.
RAY SUAREZ: Fernando Coronil, we saw pictures of the president embracing Fidel Castro, shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.
Was this a foreign policy that won him friends at home? Were the masses who made him president still cheering for him when he was celebrated in foreign capitals?
FERNANDO CORONIL: I don’t think that was fundamentally important for his domestic policy.
I think that was mostly for international kind of connections, and obviously that alienated people in the United States.
But I think in part that was part of his rhetorical revolution — showing through those actions that he was independent from the U.S. And that is important and that has some kind of domestic purchase.
And also, of course, some of that had to do with his genuine desire to have an independent foreign policy. Part of it had to do with oil prices. That was important.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what happens now?
Is this a day that friends outside Venezuela looking with good will toward the country should be celebrating, worried about, worried about the country’s future now?
An elected president overthrown by the army when we thought that was part of South America’s past?
FERNANDO CORONIL: If you… you know, the newspaper clippings indicate that most people celebrated; some people are very, very happy with what’s happening.
But I think there is reason to be concerned. And one of the reasons to be concerned is that you say it’s inevitable, but, you know, Chavez’s regime was a democratically elected regime and it was a regime that was confirmed through six elections and that is very important in the Latin American context.
So the fact that the democratic continuity and the legality of the system has been ruptured, that’s very important.
I think there were alternatives to this. I agree with some of your assessment about incompetence of the regime, the lack of having a coherent economic program and all of that, but yet the constitution that he established and the political system allow for a reelection, even in midterm, possibly forcing him to resign, and if that’s the case, there will be a vice president. There’s a legal system in place.
So to have a coup at this point, it’s something very disturbing.
RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, Michael Shifter, are generals watching this in other countries in Latin America?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Oh, absolutely. I think there is a to potential of a contagion effect and I think that’s why it has to be responded to well by the United States and the Organization of American States, the international community.
I think there are some very, very particular circumstances in the Venezuelan case that could explain what happened.
I think the country became ungovernable and was paralyzed and crippled. And so I think one has to take the whole context, but I think one should really send a message to other Latin American countries.
This is the fourth leader who was elected who didn’t finish his term in Latin America since January 2000 in Latin America. So it’s important, I think, to be sure that militaries throughout the region know that the democratic principles are still going to be protected and that people are still going to respond and defend democracy.
FERNANDO CORONIL: It’s very hard to do that if democratic principles are violated.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Gentlemen, I’m going to leave it there. Fernando Coronil, Michael Shifter, thank you both.