The Center for Latin American Issues


Whither Venezuela?

A symposium on the current situation in Venezuela
and the country’s future prospects

April 19, 2002

Ambassador Luis Herrera Marcano
Embassy of Venezuela,
Washington, D.C.
Mr. Brian Naranjo
Country Officer for Venezuela,
U.S. Department of State
BG Boris Saavedra
Executive Advisor,
Inter-American Defense College
Mr. Paulo Sotero
O Estado de São Paulo

The April 11 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez was a manifestation of political problems that have festered for decades. This, according to Luis Herrera Marcano, Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S. In the last ten years especially, the disparity between Venezuela’s haves and have-nots has become more pronounced. Nothing has been done to bring about reform, and the country’s poor grow increasingly disenfranchised and skeptical about democracy. The resulting discontent led to the collapse of Venezuela’s traditional ruling class in 1998, when the masses turned to Chavez, electing him president in a landslide victory. Since then, however, the country has experienced growing confrontation and polarization due, at least in part, to Chavez’s excessively combative style.

Symposium participants: Mr. Paulo Sotero, BG Boris Saavedra, Mr. Brian Naranjo, and Amb. Luis Herrera. (seated, left to right) Ambassador Luis Herrera Marcano addresses the audience.

The good news is that the massive protests in the wake of April 11, and the military’s refusal to suppress them, demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans – and a preponderance of the military – rejected the unconstitutional imposition of Carmona’s government and its summary dissolution of the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. Democracy has prevailed in Venezuela.
Now that Chavez is back in power, what’s next? Marcano hopes that all segments of Venezuelan society will respond to Chavez’s call for national reconciliation. He hopes also that the April 18 meeting of the Federal Council was a first step in the process, that old attitudes of denial have been overcome, and that both sides have realized that neither can suppress the other. But one thing is sure: There’s no going back to the old status quo, with the elites alone enjoying all the benefits. Each party must seize this opportunity for dialogue and for reform.
Brian Naranjo, Country Officer for Venezuela at the U.S. Department of State, explained the U.S. position on, and response to, the crisis. He noted, as did Amb. Marcano earlier, that April 11 had antecedents in Chavez’s polarizing personality and confrontations with many segments of Venezuelan society: business, labor, the Catholic Church. Naranjo dismissed out of hand the unfounded allegations of U.S. complicity in Chavez’s ouster, stressing that the Bush Administration in no way supported, encouraged, or approved of any rupturing of the constitutional process in Venezuela. Rather, the U.S. opposed the coup in no uncertain terms, engaged actively in the Organization of American States session to consider the situation, and supported Secretary Gaviria’s mission to Venezuela.
The U.S. government recognizes Chavez as the legitimate, democratically-elected President of Venezuela. The U.S. recognizes also, however, that the Venezuelan problem won’t be solved until Chavez addresses the country’s polarization and the underlying causes of the conflict. Moreover, the international community, and particularly the OAS, must become actively involved in resolving the Venezuelan situation.
Boris Saavedra, Executive Advisor at the Inter-American Defense College, and retired Brigadier General in the Venezuelan Air Force, analyzed Venezuela’s crisis from the perspective of civil-military relations. Under Chavez, civil-military relations have deteriorated: a demise of lawful civilian control over the Armed Forces; a reorganization of military command to ensure Chavez’s personal control over it; and new domestic missions for the military which, without civilian oversight, provide temptations for corruption, particularly by officers occupying civilian government positions. Society’s resentment of the military is increasing, especially after the failed coup attempt.
Chavez’s imposition of a left-wing political ideology on the Armed Forces has created three competing factions within the military: one small group supports Chavez, another small group opposes him and, in the middle, the vast majority rejects any military involvement in the political arena. This apolitical preponderance in the military made it impossible for the April 11 coup to succeed.
Saavedra maintains that the role Chavez envisions for the military ensures extensive military intervention in domestic politics. This attitude will serve only to alienate more members of the Armed Forces, who are already increasingly discontent with their lack of modern equipment and training, with the corruption of senior commanders appointed by Chavez, and with their low salaries. The President has become hostage to a small faction in the military upon which he must rely.
Saavedra’s bottom line is that the crisis in civil-military relations reflects and reinforces Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis. A balance in civil-military relations is necessary for democratic stability. But civil-military relations are unlikely to improve under Chavez, a palpable threat to Venezuelan democracy. Who but an authoritarian could say, as Chavez did on June 30 last year, “Who is the Congress to tell me what I ought to do as commander-in-chief of the armed forces?”

Mr. Brian Naranjo, Country Officer for Venezuela, explains the U.S. position regarding recent events in Venezuela. BG Boris Saavedra, Inter-American Defense College, discusses civil/military relations in the Venezuelan context.

Paulo Sotero, Brazilian correspondent with O Estado de São Paulo, discussed the Venezuelan situation from a journalist’s perspective. Sotero was openly critical of his colleagues’ performance throughout the crisis; they’ve made many mistakes. Although admittedly the media work under extreme pressure, especially during a crisis, Sotero finds no excuse for circulating unfounded rumors, such as occurred recently in a front-page Washington Post story suggesting U.S. complicity in Chavez’s overthrow. The Venezuelan press also has failed the people. Currently there is a virtual news blackout in Venezuela which, Sotero suspects, is the result of media owners not wanting to report on the popular support for Chavez.
Sotero is critical also of the United States. He’s puzzled over why the U.S. was so slow in recognizing that a coup had indeed taken place, noting that all the signs were there: Chavez submitted no resignation letter to the National Assembly, and the Carmona government’s first act was to dissolve the county’s constitutional institutions. For Sotero, the misperceptions of the U.S., such as the aforementioned Washington Post article, are the result of the Administration’s lack of consultation with Latin American leaders. According to Sotero, by failing to condemn the coup immediately and to consult sufficiently with Latin American leaders, the U.S. has damaged its credibility in the region.

Mr. Paulo Sotero, a journalist with "O Estado de São Paulo," discusses the implications of President Chavez’s return for the press and civil society. Panelists answer questions from the audience.

The organizers thank Delta Air Lines for its generous sponsorship of this event.