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Venezuela: Headed Toward Civil War?

Latin America Briefing by International Crisis Group

10 May 2004 - Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and wealthiest member of the Community of Andean Nations (CAN), is in deep political crisis, with high risk that its democratic institutions could collapse, and some possibility of civil war.

During the first months of 2004, tension between the government of President Hugo Chavez and the political opposition, organized under the umbrella Democratic Coordinating Instance (Coordinadora Democratica, CD),[1] approached a breaking point. The Chavez administration's apparent determination to do everything in its power to block a recall referendum has angered growing sectors of society.

Between 27 February and 4 March, clashes between the national guard (GN) and opposition protesters left at least fourteen dead and close to 300 wounded. Torture, arbitrary detention and excessive use of force were reported.[2] There is a clear trend of increasing and unpunished human rights violations since President Chavez was inaugurated in 1999.[3] While the press has not been openly restricted, and several leading journals are vitriolic in their criticism, the government exerts multiple pressures on reporters, journalists and TV stations. Several opposition politicians who exercised their constitutional right to sign a petition for the president's recall have been arrested, and public employees reportedly were threatened with dismissal.[4]

Following the collection of recall signatures, the government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) entered into direct confrontation with the electoral chamber of the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, TSJ), which had declared the signatures valid and ordered the CNE to schedule the referendum.

The confrontation over the recall referendum is only the tip of the iceberg. The 1958 Punto Fijo accord[5] established what was viewed as one of the most solid democracies in Latin America. Since its rupture in l989 and the demise of the oil-financed social welfare state and the associated spread of poverty, Venezuela has been in a downward spiral of economic and political polarisation.

President Chavez and his "Bolivarian Revolution" are no accident. In 1998 and 1999, despite a prior conviction for seeking to overthrow an elected government, Chavez won sweeping electoral victories. He promised the poor and dispossessed majority that he would found the republic anew and, with the active support of his followers, end corruption and the staggering social inequality. The result has been drastically sharpened political divisions, a deterioration of living standards and personal security, restrictions on rights and increased likelihood of violence.

The country is at a crossroads. The democratic opposition has gambled, asking nearly 1 million supporters to reconfirm their signatures on presidential recall petitions during a three-day "signature repair" (reparo) period at the end of May 2004 that has been agreed with the government Despite many observers' strong belief that the government is still manoeuvring to avoid a recall election, the opposition, with difficulty, accepted international pleas not to resort to violence. If the government does not allow the recall process to move forward -- and there are a range of legalistic tactics it can still employ -- the opposition and the international community will face difficult choices.

Some in the opposition will urge taking to the streets. If that view prevails, the potential for violence is high. The other choice would be to regroup and focus on local and gubernatorial elections scheduled for late September 2004 and a subsequent presidential vote. That option would need a complementary strategy that could bring the government to respect Venezuela's historical adherence to democratic elections. A weakness in the opposition's campaign has been failure to develop and unite behind a viable democratic platform that responds to the unmet demands of a population that has moved from 25 per cent poverty in the late l970s to 75 per cent today, most of whom voted for Chavez five years ago. Ending the crisis requires the democratic opposition to concentrate on building a political platform and program capable of challenging Chavez in the next presidential election, whether that is 30 days after a successful recall referendum, a snap vote called by him, or in 2006, as constitutionally scheduled.

The international community and particularly members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) will have to decide whether the Inter-American Democratic Charter,[6] which demands respect for elections, the rule of law and constitutional procedures, has any teeth when violated. The OAS secretary general and his mission along with the Carter Center have been in Venezuela with a mandate to observe these procedures and to help negotiate a solution to the political crisis.[7] The recent whiff of authoritarianism -- violence against protestors in February, actions that jeopardise judicial independence[8] and serious distortions in managing the recall process -- deserves sharp international rebuke.

At the same time, the international community also has to convince Chavez that it is not who wins the recall or the election that is at issue, but rather whether the process is transparent and free and democratic norms are respected. If the OAS mission report following the reparo finds fraud and gross violations of democratic norms by a member government, the regional body's capacity for response will be tested along with the political will of its governments.

Despite the reparo agreement, no one should be sanguine that the political crisis has been resolved. The opposition has good reason to distrust the Chavez government, which has shown considerable astuteness in not quite obliterating the line between adherence to the law and manoeuvres within the law, confronting the CD with one institutional hurdle after the other and employing initimidating force only in relatively small doses.[9] Despite its seeming single-minded determination to rid the country of Chavez, the opposition fortunately has turned away from unconstitutional actions such as the coup attempt of April 2002.

Given the extreme polarisation within the country and the importance of avoiding institutional implosion and large-scale bloodshed, democrats on both sides ought to pursue the recall referendum option as the one constitutional avenue for measuring public antipathy during the life of the government. Regional institutions and the international community have a joint responsibility to ensure that such a process is fairly run.

The Organization of American States (OAS), the Carter Center and UNDP should continue to support this endeavour. The Group of Friends -- established in early 2003 and led by Brazil, with Chile, Mexico, Spain, Portugal and the U.S. -- should play an even more active role in helping to resolve the crisis. At the very least, the international community should monitor every one of the 2,700 sites around the country during the reparo process. But it also must be prepared to determine whether the government, as called for by the Inter-American Charter, respects democratic norms. If Venezuela implodes, the consequences for the Andean region and for democracy in the Americas would be devastating.[10]

Quito/Brussels, 10 May 2004

[for full report click here pdf]

[1] The CD is a loose and heterogeneous alliance of diverse political forces, not a unified political bloc. It is composed of 25 political parties, the trade union and employer organizations CTV and FEDECAMARAS, and 21 civic organisations. Among the first are Accion Democratica (AD), La Causa R, Partido Socialcristiano (COPEI), Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Primero Justicia, Proyecto Venezuela and Union. The country's two traditional parties, AD and COPEI, which for years alternated as its dominant political force, and the business community and labor organisations are the core elements. Also important politically is the MAS, which initially was with Chavez but switched even though its former presidential candidate, Jose Vicente Rangel, is Chavez's appointed Vice President. CD is coordinated by a five-member executive committee, which includes Enrique Mendoza (governor of Miranda federal state), Julio Borges (head of the Justice First party), Juan Fernandez (head of the civil association Oil People), Enrique Salas Roemer (head of the Project Venezuela party) and Henry Ramos Allup (head of AD). The CD claims that President Chavez has made a concerted effort to restrict pluralistic democracy and has violated the principle of separation of powers. It alleges violations of labor and property rights, harassment including violence against journalists, placement of active and retired military in civilian government agencies, partisan use of state resources and intimidation against business opponents.

[2] A recent report of the Venezuelan Ombudsman's Office stated that nine persons died in the clashes. Defensoria del Pueblo, "Informe Preliminar Derechos Humanos 27 de febrero al 05 de marzo", Caracas, March 2004.

[3] PROVEA, "Situacion de los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela, octubre 2003-septiembe 2003", Caracas, 2003. Also report of the OAS InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, December.2003, at, and "Letter to President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias", Human Rights Watch, 9 April 2004, at

[4] See section IV. below.

[5] On 31 October 1958, representatives of Venezuela's social democratic, conservative and liberal political parties (Accion Democratica, COPEI and Union Republicana Democratica) signed the Punto Fijo agreement (named after the house of Rafael Caldera, leader of COPEI). The agreement followed the ousting of Dictator Marco Perez Jimenez (1952-1958) and established the basis for a steady cycle of democratic elections and alternating AD and COPEI governments until 1989.

[6] Inter-American Democratic Charter, Organization of American States, adopted 11 September 2001, at

[7] CP/RES. 833 (1349/02) corr. 1, "Support for the Democratic Institutional Structure in Venezuela and the Facilitation Efforts of the OAS Secretary General", adopted 16 December 2002 by the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States.

[8] The Chavez government was charged with packing the Supreme Court, evenly divided ten-ten between government supporters and opposition, by promoting legislation adopted 30 April 2004 to add twelve new members and permit impeachment of justices by a simple majority of the legislature. "Storm Over Venezuela Court Reform", at

[9] A recent example of informative, but biased, reporting on the situation is the article "La batalla del referendo" by Maurice Lemoine in Le Monde diplomatique, April 2004. The author is prepared to give the Chavez government the benefit of the doubt but never poses, let alone answers, the question whether the opposition's quest for a recall referendum has some legitimacy.

[10] A forthcoming ICG report will examine relations, and especially border problems, between Colombia and Venezuela and Ecuador.

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