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Venezuela on the brink of transition

By Pedro M. Burelli

[EL UNIVERSAL] - Over the last four years, Venezuelan society has been ravished by a no-holds-barred political crisis. With efforts to recall President Hugo Chavez entering their critical weeks, Venezuela is poised to go into a transition fraught with risks and challenges. Events upon us will define the extent to which the holder of the largest energy reserves in the Americas can avert civil conflict and resolve its problems democratically.

Venezuela's problems did not begin yesterday. Prior to today's polarization, Venezuela had undergone two decades of decline in every possible quality-of-life measure. Since 1958, and for exactly four decades, a set of implicit and explicit pacts amongst the nation's elites brought about what seemed to be political stability. But, greased with copious income from oil exports, these deals only served to stifle competition in the economy and enshrined neglect and impunity in and out of government.

Nowhere is the "survival-of-the-least-fit" incongruity more evident and destructive than in the political arena. President Hugo Chavez, elected by a hapless blend of uninspired competition and voter despondency, has failed to internalize that he is not so much the redeemer but the embodiment of an immense evolutionary tragedy. If a "modern" society opts for someone so clearly unhinged, one can only infer that umpteen billions of dollars were wasted over decades building what has turned into a Caribbean drenched version of the village at Potemkin.

The ongoing political crisis represents a radical reversal of fortune for Hugo Chávez whose popularity has dwindled from 80 to 35 percent according to most polls. For the opposition movement, as heterogeneous as the country itself, it seems the President's unraveling came about too rapidly. Its molten political infrastructure and discredited leadership have been incapable of morphing its abundant oomph into a desirable or viable governing alternative. If Chávez still commands support, it is because you cannot fill a real gap with a virtual void.

To understand Venezuela, you must appreciate that unchecked access to billions of dollars derived from the state controlled oil industry has granted Mr. Chávez the "right" to ignore the demands of the majority that was once his. Other leaders have not enjoyed this luxury and are forced to either negotiate or leave office when confronted with a significant and sustained challenge from a dejected population or parliament.

The key challenge for Venezuela today is not only to survive the wanton destruction brought about by revolutionary involution, but also to pull itself out of a fatal tailspin with new leadership that reestablishes legitimacy and governability. Only thus, can we face the epic challenge of addressing the disgraceful poverty that has come to describe and indict our country. This stabilization process is easier described than executed given the bizarre leadership struggle under way among those who seek to recall or topple Mr. Chávez.

If the opposition is able to defend the signatures obtained this past weekend, and then garner enough votes, ninety days hence, to recall the now unpopular president, they must then field one or more candidates that are able to offer choices, capture the imagination and buy much needed time from an impatient electorate. Traditional politicians and their conspicuous private sector corrupters will have to listen to a population begging them to quit maneuvering and give others, probably less experienced, but perhaps more virtuous, a chance to present their case and lead. Uncontaminated leadership will be required because putting the Venezuelan Humpty Dumpty back together will involve drawing on the best to deal with: reconciliation among its citizens; reconstruction of a gravely defective Judicial system; re-institutionalization of the fragmented and politicized Armed Forces; redefinition of production strategy and corporate governance in the vital oil sector; modernization of the civil service; decentralization as a means to share responsibility with the states over the delivery of services and execution of public works; mending of traditional international relationships and alliances: and eviction of all foreign armed elements. And, all these tasks after, or simultaneous, with the promethean task of resuscitating a moribund economy.

If on the other hand, by hook or by crook, Mr. Chávez is able to fight off the recall drive at either the petition or voting stage, he too will have to come up with a way to transition from his current style of governance to one more democratic and effective. Of course, there is a risk that Mr. Chávez might assume his unlikely victory as a mandate to corner and liquidate his opponents. If this were the case, the transition of power will inexorably occur through more concerted civil disobedience that has unceremoniously brought down other self appointed saviors and spent tyrants in the recent past such as Alberto Fujimori, Slobodan Milosevic, Joseph Estrada and, most recently, Edward Shevardnadze.

We are on the verge of a complex transition in Venezuela. The international community must be ready to resolutely ensure that the threat of violence is defused under all transition scenarios. The United States has much at stake and cannot afford to err when dealing with one of its most obvious sources of imported energy. The other members of the so called Group of Friends of Venezuela; Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal and Spain, and its key neighbor and trading partner Colombia, must understand that the time for a solution is upon us and this will entail much more that simply observing the process. The world has to be ready to respond expeditiously to requests for political and material assistance from a future "transition" government.

The author is a former Member of the Board of Petróleos de Venezuela


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