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DATE=9/11/1999 TYPE=ON THE LINE TITLE=ON THE LINE: VENEZUELA AT THE CROSSROADS NUMBER=1-00776 EDITOR=OFFICE OF POLICY - 619-0037 CONTENT= ACTUALITIES AVAILABLE IN POLICY OFFICE THEME: UP, HOLD UNDER AND FADE Anncr: On the Line - a discussion of United States policy and contemporary issues. This week, "Venezuela at the Crossroads." Here is your host, Robert Reilly. Host: Hello and welcome to On the Line. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez came to power last December in a landslide election. He promised a "peaceful social revolution" to a country tired of corruption and widespread poverty. A constituent assembly was elected in July with the task of drafting a new constitution. The assembly, controlled by a large majority of Chavez supporters, has stripped the judicial and legislative branches of the Venezuelan government of much of their power. The opposition-controlled congress is calling the action an unconstitutional power grab. And observers are wondering just how far President Chavez will go in remaking Venezuela's political institutions. Joining me to discuss the crisis in Venezuela are three experts. Constantine Menges is director of the program on transitions to democracy at the George Washington University. Gerardo Le Chevallier is director for Latin America at the national Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a congressionally supported Democratic Party foundation whose aim is the spread of democratic institutions. And Jack Sweeney is a Latin American policy expert who has worked in Venezuela for seventeen years. Welcome to the program. Constantine Menges, are we seeing reform or revolution in Venezuela? Menges: In my view, we are seeing the establishment of a dictatorship, a radical left dictatorship by Mr. Chavez under the guise of constitutional methods. He said when he took the oath of office that he was taking the oath on a moribund, meaning dead, constitution. He said, in fact, before his inauguration in February of 1999 that he would do what he is doing, which is that he would essentially remake the institutions of Venezuela. The problem is that he is doing it using anti-constitutional means, including the functions he has given to the military, which are prohibited by the constitution. Host: Such as? Menges: Appointing officers to powerful positions in the government contrary to permission from the congress, establishing military committees all over the country to which elected governors and mayors are supposed to report for their clearance as to whether they are or are not corrupt, a whole series of things. You mentioned that he was elected in a landslide. I think it is worth recalling that in the November 1998 congressional elections, Chavez and his group only received about thirty-five percent of the seats. And in the presidential election his vote was fifty-six to fifty-seven percent, and the opposing unity candidate of the democratic groups, Governor Salas Romer, received forty percent. So in fact, the reason the constituent assembly is so overwhelmingly filled with supporters of Chavez is because the democratic political groups in Venezuela made a significant tactical mistake. They did not contest those elections in a coherent and effective way in order to get their own groups in. Host: Let me ask if Mr. Le Chevallier agrees with that analysis, since this constituent assembly of one hundred and thirty-one delegates is overwhelmingly pro-Chavez. Le Chevallier: Certainly so. More than ninety- seven percent of the candidates elected were pro- Chavez. But I think the important part here is to evaluate their behavior, rather than where they come from, and what they are doing rather than what they are saying. We are concerned about what is happening in Venezuela, but we also have to understand that this country needs radical change and some of the excesses that are being committed now can be justified by the excesses committed in the past in the wrong direction. Host: Such as? Le Chevallier: For example, corruption, the refusal of the parties to adapt themselves, to listen to their constituencies. Accountability did not exist. Unions were also in the hands of the political parties. Civil society was not organized. So many of those who are now being charged with what happened are certainly guilty of what happened. Of course, the reaction of Chavez is not necessarily to be justified by that past, but we also understand that some of the action that has to be taken has to be a little bit radical too. And that is what the Venezuelans voted for. Host: Jack Sweeney, first of all, the election of this constituent assembly was constitutional, was it not? Sweeney: Yes, it was constitutional. Host: It was empowered for a period of six months to rewrite the constitution? Sweeney: It was empowered for a period of one hundred and eighty days to draft a new constitution, which would than be presented to the people of Venezuela for a vote on whether it is approved or disapproved. Since it convened on the third of August, however, the national constituent assembly, with the tacit encouragement of President Chavez, has assumed supranational powers over the other institutions of government, creating the constitutional crisis that Constantine was talking about. In terms of how this was all put together and structured legally and constitutionally, the 1961 constitution remains in effect, which means that the separation of powers under the 1961 constitution -- the judicial, legislative and executive branches -- should remain intact. We can argue about whether semantically there has been or not a constitutional coup, but the fact is that, since August third, all power has become concentrated in the hands of the constituent assembly and President Chavez. And they are increasingly going in directions that are quite frightening to people who know Venezuela's tradition for democracy. Host: A leader of the eight members of this constituent assembly who are not pro-Chavez made the statement the other day, and I quote him -- this from Jorge Olavarria: "Now there is no constitution, there is no Supreme Court and there is no Congress." Is that an accurate view of what has happened, that the tripartite government has been now collapsed into the executive? Sweeney: Let me add something here. And it is in effect that the traditional system as it existed has collapsed. The two traditional parties that dominated politics there for forty years are no longer viable parties. There is a huge power vacuum into which Chavez has moved. He has been elected with a messianic kind of fervor by the people who are, in fact, pushing for change while voting for a past that has failed them again and again. Menges: The answer to your question is yes, that is true. It is true that these institutions exist, but the constituent assembly illegally and anti- constitutionally, with the full support of President Chavez, is acting as if they don't exist. And that is why the members of Congress, very bravely in recent days, insisted that they are still the Congress of Venezuela, they have the authority under the constitution, and they will take their seats. Chavez is using many of the techniques that Hitler used in the Gleichschaltung period of establishing his dictatorship in Germany after winning a small plurality in 1932, of mob action, of mob coercion. And Chavez has used coercion against Supreme Court justices to get the Supreme Court to agree that somehow this constituent assembly suddenly could review judicial performance. That was not at all part of the vote, and so forth. So in fact, the institutions of the Venezuelan constitution still exist, as Jack said. The Venezuelan constitution exits; the Congress exists; the Supreme Court exists; the presidency exists. But it is President Chavez who is trying to use the constituent assembly illegally, anti-constitutionally, anti- democratically, to bring all power to himself and to his mobs. Le Chevallier: At some point the Supreme Court said that that was correct. Menges: No, no, it only said that about one thing. It only, by a small vote, said that judicial review was allowed. It did not say that about the Congress. Sweeney: Both the Supreme Court and Congress basically surrendered to Chavez and now are trying to recoup from that surrender, particularly the Congress. I don't see that what they did was brave. I think it was very late because, when they walked away from their role and responsibility, when a constituent assembly was elected, they even vacated the premises of the Congress and let the constituent assembly occupy it. Menges: But that wasn't, however, with the intention that the constituent assembly would take their powers. And when they saw that that was what the constituent assembly illegally and anti- constitutionally was trying to do, they then had the courage to go back and try to occupy the building, and then ran into Chavez's mobs and his military police apparatus, which he has established with his old associates who staged the violent coup against the elected government of Venezuela in 1992. Let's remember his past. Le Chevallier: The important thing is to keep this process on track. I want to refer to what happened in Paraguay just in March with the same kind of show of violence, with the same kind of projections, with the same kind of intentions. The government was thrown out and now it has been replaced by a constitutional kind of parliamentary regime, a transition to a democratic system. I think, in Venezuela, we have seen the pendulum moving from one side to another, but so far it stays in the middle as an average. And what is going on in Venezuela, at some point, is a lesson for the rest of Latin America, as well as a lesson for Venezuelans themselves, who have to learn, especially in that Chavez sector, to play the game of democracy. And that I don't think is necessarily bad. Host: But what track is it on? What do you think is going to happen next, once this power has been consolidated in the executive? Le Chevallier: Apparently the strategy that seems in place is the Chavez threatens to do much more than what he does, and what he does is like ten percent of what he says he will do. Sweeney: I would disagree. I would say that Mr. Chavez is on the verge of eclipsing even Fidel Castro in terms of imposing an authoritarian regime. He has done it democratically, or he is doing it democratically. I think that what is happening in Venezuela is highly dangerous. I do not think Mr. Chavez will succeed once his constitution comes out, and the people see that it is not going to solve their hunger. Eighty percent of the population is poor. They are going to turn against him. And that means that there will be more violence and conflict in Venezuela, because who might succeed Chavez is anybody's guess. But the people will turn against him like they turned against the ones who came before, because he is going to repeat the same mistakes. That is what has to be understood. He is going to repeat the same mistakes as past governments, but from a more extremist, left-wing position. Host: Why couldn't he wait. Constantine Menges mentioned that in the congressional elections Chavez only won about a third of the seats, but congressional elections are coming up early next year. Why was it necessary for this constituent assembly to make this grab for legislative power when, if he is as popular as everyone says Chavez is, even in these recent actions, he could have gotten control of Congress through more normal means? Menges: I believe it's because he has intended from the time of running for the presidency of Venezuela to establish a dictatorship with himself as the dictator and the sole authority. I think he has made it rather clear that he would do this in the words that he has said, and he has made it clear in his action. I totally disagree with Mr. Le Chevallier, whom I respect very much, that Chavez is in the middle. Chavez has actually moved in an anti-constitutional way, step by step, to take over the organizations that have coercive power: the military, the intelligence service and so forth. He put his own military, co-coup plotters from 1992 in command positions to assure that he has the monopoly of force in the state. And then he has moved anti- constitutionally against the long-established, hopeful and inspiring democracy of Venezuela that has had its problems, where reform was needed, indeed, but he has moved against the institutions, not for reform but to establish a dictatorship. Sweeney: Venezuela has historically been a socialist regime with a capitalist umbrella over it. And Chavez is getting away with what he is doing because the system has collapsed. He is riding on a wave of popular support that is going to carry him for a while longer and which gives him the power to intimidate and coerce, as you were mentioning. But I think one of the things you have to look at in these national constituent assemblies is what I am seeing as the beginning of factionalism emerging inside the bloc of parties that backed Chavez. The glue that held this bloc together was the common desire to get rid of Action Democratica and COPEI [Social Christian Party]. That has been largely accomplished. Those parities are de facto dead. And the glue now is dissolving, and we are seeing the emergence of factionalism, both on the right of Chavez and the left of Chavez. And much of the recent turmoil we have seen out of the national constituent assembly has come at the leadership and promotion of people who are identified for the past twenty-five years with Communist revolution, Marxism, socialism. And these are some of the people who are seizing attribution for the constituent assembly that were not contemplated. And it is causing divisions internally. As you know, Jorge Olavarria, a member of the constituent assembly and a former big supporter of Chavez, is now one of his most bitter foes. Host: And why did he turn against him? Sweeney: Because he realized that a Pandora's box was opened. And instead of a savior who could resolve Venezuela and fix Venezuela's problems, what they elected was a tin pot dictator who is going to use the military in a left-wing, Marxist kind of regime to put himself in power and stay there. And the only result of his program, of his Bolivarian revolution, is going to be the globalization of poverty in Venezuela, as has occurred in other countries where this sort of regime has been imposed. Host: Do we know what President Chavez's ideological groundings are? He is associated, whether fairly or unfairly, with the thought and writings of this Argentine, Norberto Ceresole, who has some rather extraordinary and unsavory ideas. Constantine Menges, have you studied that? Menges: One of Chavez's former military commanders for twenty years said this is a man of the radical left. He is close to Castro, to Castro's ideology, Marxist-Leninist, as Jack just said. This man, Norberto Ceresole from Argentina, has long been an ideologue for the Marxist- Leninist guerillas there. His view, by the way, of the world, which is something I think we may see Chavez trying to do, is that the United States, Europe and Israel are the dominant powers in the world that must be opposed by radical military, one-person regimes in Latin America, combining with Islamic fundamentalists and the People's Republic of China in a broad coalition. And I think we will be seeing very, very negative international consequences, first in Colombia, of the Chavez dictatorship. He has already opened the borders. Colombian Communist guerrillas supported by the narco-traffickers there are able to resupply through Venezuela. We will see the Orinoco River basin more and more used to bring more weapons and supplies into them. Chavez has clearly showed his partiality toward the Communist guerillas in Colombia and I think he is going to be involved in trying to bring about a false political settlement there, a power-sharing kind of arrangement, as Castro tried to achieve in El Salvador some years ago, which fortunately did not work. But I think they will try that for Colombia. And I think Chavez will stir up revolution and violence throughout Latin America. The longer he is in power, the more he can use the oil wells of Venezuela to do so. Host: Let me get Mr. Le Chevallier's reaction. Le Chevallier: I am surprised how Jack and Constantine are negative about what is going on in Venezuela. Henrique Salas Romer was with us at the National Democratic Institute a week ago and he was not as radical as you are now in denouncing what is happening in Venezuela. Sweeney: I thought he was when I met with him in a group. Le Chevallier: Well, in his public presentation -- he is not a Chavista, obviously -- but he was presenting himself in a way as a constructive opposition. Host: Let me ask, Mr. Le Chevallier, President Chavez is saying to everyone to be patient. Let the constituent assembly do its work, write the constitution, finish it by December, have a vote on the constitution, and then elect the new Congress early in the new year, and we will then have accomplished our political reform, and we can proceed. Will that happen? Le Chevallier: That is the idea, I understand. Host: But is it his idea? Do you believe him? Le Chevallier: Well, I cannot speak for Chavez, but I understand that Venezuela is going though structural change, change that was demanded by the people. It is essential to Venezuela. Even Salas Romer supports that kind of structural reform. So it is taking place. I understand that we do not necessarily agree with the way Chavez is presenting himself and obviously we have to take, and the Venezuelans certainly have to take the lead in that, to take some kind of precautions. And we have to be watching what is going on and be supportive of what has to be supported, and critical of what needs to be criticized. Sweeney: I think you are making a point, but people who are watching Venezuela from outside have got to take care to not confuse the form with the substance. The form from outside looks like it is democratic. The people do want a change. The institutions are discredited. The parties and old interests have ruined the country and have ruined the democracy. But the substance of what is taking shape in Venezuela slowly, this is not a movement toward a new democratic republic. It is, in many respects, an historical throwback to the kind of caudillismo that prevailed in Venezuela in the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. It is not something new. It is more of the same, but worse. And regrettably, at this moment, the Venezuelan people think he is their messiah and they are going to continue to support him. But somewhere down the road we, who out here say, give the guy a chance, he was democratically elected -- and I'm one of those -- but we are going to see that he is going in the wrong direction. Host: What should the United States be saying to Venezuela now? Menges: I think the United States should be telling the truth as it is, and saying what Chavez is doing is anti-democratic and unconstitutional. And it should, I think, be working with other democratic leaders from the Organization of American States and invoking the Defense of Democracy resolution of the Organization of American States from the early 1990s, which said that, if any leader in any place seeks to establish a dictatorship, all the members of the O-A-S will isolate that country politically and will seek to use their good offices to help the people in that country defend their democracy and reestablish the democratic institutions. Le Chevallier: I think we have to be supportive of the process as such. And I am not sure that so far, even those Venezuelans who are criticizing Chavez will be supportive of something that radical. Maybe that's going to change in the next two or three days or the next two or three weeks. That's why I think we have to be watching carefully what goes on there. Sweeney: Venezuela is going to work out for itself what's going to happen. There is very little, in a practical sense, that we can do to reverse trends or change the situation in Venezuela. Venezuela is going to fail or succeed with Mr. Chavez based on its own merits or lack thereof. And we are just going to be standby observers, but I do not think that the outcome will be positive. Host: I'm afraid that's all time we have this week. I'd like to thank our guests - Constantine Menges from the George Washington University; Gerardo Le Chevallier from the National Democratic institute for International Affairs; and Latin American policy expert Jack Sweeney - for joining me to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. This is Robert Reilly for On the Line. 10-Sep-1999 10:22 AM EDT (10-Sep-1999 1422 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .





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