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Realpolitik in Venezuela: the case of Orlando Bustamante, the soldier who died from its burns

By Daniel Duquenal

Tuesday 6, April 2004 - And a liberation (perhaps to change the newspaper headlines?) In the wake of the resignation of the Information Minister, Jesse Chacon, the affair of the soldier that died from his fire injuries at Fort Mara, is far from over. To begin with the opposition through its spokesperson has dismissed the resignation as a cover up since "we all know that he will get an embassy" as a clear reference on how embassy assignation has become a way to place ex-ministers instead of articulating a real foreign policy.

But this was not strong enough. Liliana Hernandez stressed that Jesse Chacon is only the fall guy since on the infamous "Alo, Presidente" of last Sunday, the defense minister, Garcia Carneiro, was in attendance. This is doubly significant because;

1) he is the one that is responsible for ANY information that comes from the army barracks to reach the president or the press, and not the resigned Mr. Chacon, and

2) why did he not say anything that Sunday? Ignorance? Deception? At any rate it should be the defense minister that should be picking up an available embassy instead of Mr. Chacon.

All sorts of stories and details are coming out to light, reported in particular by Tal Cual that has made a speciality on reporting from military abuse since it took as a banner the task of monitoring that Lieutenant Sicat be brought to justice from a similar affair three years ago. Some details are troubling. The Army tried to transfer the injured soldiers to the military hospital of Caracas, without the consent of the family. One family had to literally stand in the way to keep their relative from being transferred to Caracas (he is in Maracaibo still). In Caracas it was impossible to access the injured soldiers. The army commanders refuse to declare beside the cigarette butt explanation. They also refuse to let civil justice investigate even though the constitution allows military justice only for military matters and not when there is a "normal" accident or possible human rights violations. Both the chief of staff Baduel and defense minister Garcia Carneiro have to come out with a reasonable statement on the affair. Etc...

But it seems that the ripple effect of the Sunday words from Chavez might already be having some effect.

The CNE suddenly today seemed more amenable as to the repair process, all but announcing an imminent deal. The opposition is not denying it, acknowledging that indeed some progress has been made.

And an hour ago Carlos Melo, the most famous political prisoner of the February 27 days has just been released as the charges could not be founded by the prosecution! Even though they made up the arrest with weapons and all! As shown on the state TV only, by the way... Actually Carlos Melo has announced that he will not only sue the prosecutors for fabricating evidence, but he will consider actively entering the mayoral contest for the West district of Caracas, where he does have a chance to unseat the unpalatable Bernal, the head of the violent assault groups that haunt that area. After the media exposure that Melo has benefited he could become indeed a strong candidate (his candidacy has been registered even though he was in jail). If the right arm of the opposition unites behind him, Melo would be tough bone for Bernal. This is quite possible as the other main candidate, Liliana Hernandez, could be better used than in a town hall, and she is a prime defender of unity at all costs. She could make a highly visible withdrawal in favor of Melo and thus force some murky negotiations to be solved, such as for the Caracas Metropolitan Area mayor.

Maybe I am a cynic but something tells me that the Chavez administration wants people to talk about something else. It also does not hurt that to escape international scrutiny on political prisoners, the best bet is to release them, no? Some real politics are taking place within chavismo side, pressed to concede some points while it regroups for the only thing that really matters, to avoid the recall election at all costs, or at least not before August 19. Throwing out a minister and releasing a few people could gain a few days of political grace.

Meanwhile the familiy of Orlando Bustamante grieves.

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