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Chávez, Petroleum, and the USA: Where is Venezuela Headed?

Special Dispatch from Carlos F. Chamorro |

Managua, 24 April 2005 | Eight months after the recall referendum, Chávez has regrouped, while the opposition appears scattered and leaderless. Caracas has always been a city whose territory has been divided by a wide gap between social classes. To these differences, the Bolivarian Revolution, or "Chavismo", as it is called by the members of the opposition, has added a political tinge and set up insurmountable barriers.

It is in the poor neighborhoods which are scattered up, in, and on the hillsides surrounding the city that Chavismo prevails.

Of late, tensions have eased on Plaza Bolívar and Plaza Altamira, the first being a symbol for Chavismo, and the second, a symbol for the opposition (the “escuálidos” as Chávez calls them). People speak calmly in support of, and against, Chávez, and it is even possible to hear voices that are for neither side.

In this polarized setting, one can sense similarities with the process experienced in Nicaragua during the 80´s. But there are two fundamental differences: first, Venezuela is an oil-producing country and the state has at its disposal many resources derived from the high prices for crude, and secondly, confrontation here has never led to an outright armed confrontation.

The Opposition, Petroleum, and the USA

Eight months after its defeat in the recall referendum, the opposition alleges that the government manipulated the electoral polls and committed electronic fraud. They persist in disallowing the results, and, facing upcoming electoral processes, they appear scattered and lacking a unified leadership.

In a politically divided city such as Caracas, one of the few points agreed upon by all analysts is that the Chavez regime’s consolidation is largely a result of the opposition’s shortcomings.

Another key to the consolidation of power for the regime derives from high oil prices, which have generated extraordinary income for the Venezuelan economy. This has allowed the government to easily fund the so-called Missions, a set of emergency social programs which have had a strong political impact among the working class electorate. While petroleum is defined in the budget as being 23 dollars a barrel, crude in fact is being exported at 40 dollars.

How much does Chávez invest in his domestic social programs or in political subsidies abroad? The figure is impossible to calculate. What the government itself admits is that there are two sets of books being kept, which leads to multimillion-dollar discretionary disbursals.

Despite the blessing of oil prices, official statistics indicate that during the six years of government under Chávez, poverty in Venezuela has increased by 10 per cent, but the government maintains that its subsidized health, education and food programs have a compensatory effect because they fight social exclusion.

Political relations between President Hugo Chávez and United States' George Bush could never be worse. Chávez accuses Bush of scheming to assassinate him, while Bush considers Chávez, together with Fidel Castro, to be part of the “axis of evil” in Latin America. Despite the political rhetoric, oil trade between Venezuela and the United States flows smoothly.

Leaders of the opposition group, Coordinadora Democrática, lose no hope of filling the streets with masses of people again, although their immediate bet points to the likelihood that Chávez might end up being the big-time loser in a confrontation with the United States. Nevertheless, the government sees itself as holding up well under pressure from the United States: it enjoys economic resources, widespread popular support, and the backing of the armed forces.

Polarization of the Mass Media

Mid December of last year, the Chavista majority in the Legislative Assembly passed the Law of Radio and Television, which has generated alarm and concern at the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the OAS. The Government calls it the Media Law ("Ley Resorte or Ley de Responsabilidad Social para Radio y Television”), or Law of Social Responsibility, while the opposition dubbed it the Gag Law (“Ley Mordaza”).

The polarization between the Chávez regime and the mass media is aggravated by a peculiar situation in Venezuela, namely, that the collapse of the bipartisan system maintained during 40 years by the Acción Democrática and COPEI (Social Christian) parties, generated an acute leadership vacuum between the opposition and the entities which substituted the political parties.

The culminating moment in the confrontation was the coup d’état of 11 April 2002, when the mass media celebrated Chavez’s fall, but censured news about his return to power.

Now the government justifies its legal offensive against the mass media claiming to be protecting the rights of children, and to those ends establishes selective scheduling for programming. Private broadcast channels claim that between 5 in the morning and 11 at night, the law imposes content regulations which bring about censorship and seriously affect freedom of information.

The total time comprising children's programs, independent productions, increased space for free educational programming, and compulsory official simultaneous broadcasts, adds up to 10 hours a day of programming regulated by the law, which the mass media claim to be a confiscation of broadcasting space.

Some private broadcast channels have already decided to suspend the more confrontational opinion programs, for fear of violating the law. But in addition to the Law of Radio and Television, Chavismo has passed the reform of the Penal Code, which stiffens penalties for felonies of contempt or disobedience and broadens protections for public officials. This is legislation, which according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS, contradicts the trend in modern Latin American legislation and affects the right to freedom of opinion for all citizens.

The direct consequence of this complex legal framework is a climate of self-censorship which is already beginning to dominate Venezuelan journalism.

Translation by W.K.

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