Saturday, December 15, 2001

Dec 15/01 - PMB Op-Ed: Venezuela needs Mediation with an Attitude

Venezuela needs Mediation with an Attitude

Pedro M. Burelli

Reports are circulating that various governments are organizing, among other hurried initiatives, a “Friends of Venezuela” group to mediate the political crisis that has engulfed this key South American country. Before anyone else gets involved in this mess to try to find the political middle ground that has eluded OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, they should realize that what they will find are two highly entrenched and irreconcilable positions.

On one side, there is a heterogeneous opposition that agrees on little more than the names of the small group of persons that represents it at the negotiating table, and the elementary logistics of the daily and massive acts of disobedience or protest. On the so-called government side, there are representatives that show up with lame excuses or insufferable attitude, when they do show up at all. And in the middle, for the past 70 plus days, there has been a “facilitator” that inspires little confidence and seems to have landed in Caracas with neither a map nor destination as to how to defuse the crisis. If he remains on site is because most in the opposition and international community recognize that things would actually be worse yet without what he represents.

Any new mediation initiative, or mediator, must understand that, while there may be two sides to the conflict, what Venezuela is missing is a government -- and all that a civil, democratic and constitutional government embodies. Consequently, treating one side as ‘the’ government and not as a political faction of reckless and destructive pretenders will drive any new negotiations to suffer the same failure that has afflicted the OAS facilitation. A government does not have the right to wantonly destroy its own country as a reaction to its citizens taking up their constitutional right to free expression.

The arbitrary dismantling and subversion of state institutions is not permitted of any leader, not even ones that are democratically elected. To the extent that Chávez wanted to change the institutional arrangement in Venezuela, he had his chance and the result was his very own 1999 Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela. He even gave the country a new name – an unlikely priority for a country that has just a few more important social and economic concerns to deal with.

What Chávez has since done with the various branches in which power was divided in Venezuela has rendered the legislative, judicial, electoral, and prosecutorial process null and void. The dismantling of the armed forces is a grave mistake and we have not yet seen or suffered all the consequences.

But, it is his obsession with Venezuela’s petroleum giant, PDVSA, which has shaken the world to attention. The interruption of Venezuela’s oil exports is now affecting all; even those who appeased him under the false belief that Chávez would never affect oil flows. The appeasers of Chávez overlooked the fact that a country is much more than a government and the people of Venezuela – in their month-long strike – chose to close the oil spigots; even at enormous cost to their own wellbeing and livelihoods. Now Chavez is seeking to force the reopening of PDVSA by tearing it apart.

Hugo Chavez cannot have it both ways. He cannot hide behind the mantle of a democratic election at the same time he is using authoritarian controls to subvert the country’s democratic institutions, its armed forces and the lifeblood of its economy. Elections do not give a leader carte blanche to capriciously and recklessly destroy the principal political and economic institutions of a country.

Its important to remember that this is the region which, on the fateful 11th of September 2001, one-upped the rest of the world, when OAS member countries signed a Democratic Charter that defines what democracy entails and how it should be exercised. This is not a checklist that one has to fully violate before it can be invoked. Once signed, the States, governments and citizens agreed that democratic legitimacy no longer depended solely on the formal outcome of one or more acts of suffrage, but rather on the ongoing strengthening of democratic institutions and freedoms. What they signed was hailed then as a giant step forward in cementing democracy in the minds and hearts of people and governments throughout the continent.

Today, most observers are dumbfounded at Chavez’ obstinacy in refusing to find a way out of a conflict with what pollster Alfredo Keller recently defined as, 90 percent of the country’s population. But, a few leaders in our region fear the “precedent” of a successful popular and peaceful revolt against a president who won at the polls, but whose anti-democratic acts while in power have made him illegitimate. Notwithstanding repetitive violations of the OAS’ Democratic Charter, those fearful few believe that Hugo Chávez has to be kept in power at whatever cost to Venezuelans.

The good and bad thing about the crisis in Venezuela is that there is limited room for international mediation. Leaders in other countries would not have withstood the civic fury of so many law-abiding citizens from all walks of life. Yet, in Venezuela, Chavez remains in power because of the particular nature of our economy and the absurd amount of state power. In Venezuela, the State is able to manipulate the income from our vast natural wealth. The hard work of many decades to build the world’s most respected state oil company has been corrupted throughout this administration and obliterated in the last six weeks. He may yet hold on to power by further distributing oil spoils, but do not mistake that for legitimacy or popularity.

It should be obvious to all Venezuelans that rigorous institutional rebuilding, and the negotiation of the appropriate mechanisms through which we have to travel to return to peaceful coexistence, require informed guidance and some sort of buttressing from the Inter-American system, its member states, and even the UN. This is hardly debatable if we, as a nation, are to stay on a constitutional track and move at the speed required by the circumstances, and the trampled labor and dreams of millions.

But, the international community must collectively understand that a solution that defies gravity will not float. The majority of Venezuelans have no interest in international mediation that ends up providing Chavez’ tragically failed mandate with the legitimacy it lost in the streets of our nation and in the hearts of its spirited and democratic people.

Mr. Burelli, is a former Member of the Board of Directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA)