Contingency and Counter-Contingency in Venezuela
Anyone paying attention to the Venezuelan press in recent weeks will not be able to ignore a shift in the tenor of the electoral campaign. Weeks and months of straightforward campaign rhetoric and poll results has given way to a more sinister tone, as the discussion has shifted away from the voting process on December 3rd and toward what will be done on December 4th. This shift originates in the rhetoric of an increasingly-desperate opposition which hopes to have its cake and eat it too, that is, to simultaneously contest elections and discredit the process. But this rhetoric has found its echo of resistance in similar plans for "the day after" by different sectors of the Bolivarian Revolution: efforts to organize themselves on the local level to defend against attacks on Venezuelan sovereignty.
After much uncertainty, it now seems that-despite running consistently 20-30% behind Chávez in the polls-opposition candidate Manuel Rosales will not be pulling out of the election. And this despite the fact that sectors of the opposition like the Acción Democrática Party (AD) and Antonio Ledezma’s Alianza Bravo Pueblo have still refused to support the process and are calling for abstention. While the Rosales campaign has not denied the claims of such groups, and while he can be heard to echo the claims of abstentionists that the "electoral conditions are insufficient," and that the fingerprint machines used in the voting process have "no function except to frighten the electorate," Rosales has not been sufficiently consistent with this theme to justify withdrawing from the elections. Given his rhetoric, quite simply, withdrawing would be not be a credible decision: it’s too late for that.
But unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the opposition will be passively accepting their electoral defeat on December 3rd. Instead, rather than complaining of electoral conditions beforehand and talking the abstentionist talk, the opposition is rallying around the slogan of "defend the vote." This vague slogan has some clear consequences, as became clear when opposition ideologue Rafael Poleo appeared recently on Globovisión. Poleo, who has links to the Bush clan and the CIA, who was thoroughly implicated in the April 2002 coup, and whose daughter has been directly implicated in the assassination of Danilo Anderson, the judge whose job it was to collect evidence against the coup-plotters, laid out the strategy of the radical opposition in the clearest of terms on November 6th: "On the 3rd, it is up to the citizens to align themselves with the opposition, they need to go and vote. On the 4th, it’s up to Manuel Rosales to lead the protests against the fraud that has been set up. And on the 5th, it’s up to the Armed Forces to decide if it will continue forcing those in the Venezuelan opposition to put up with a shameful regime."
According to Poleo, Rosales could be the most important Venezuelan of the 21st century "if he does what he needs to do." The Electoral Committee (CNE) "will announce the victory of Hugo Chávez, regardless of what the numbers say," and "at 6am on the 4th, the streets will fill with people decrying fraud, and then we will see the true size of Rosales." Revealingly, Poleo declares that "that day after, the 4th, will be even more important than December 3rdOn the 4th, it’s up to the people to do what the Ukranians did, to carry out an ‘Orange Revolution,’ to hurl themselves onto the streets, because the fraud has already been arranged, they already have the numbers ready." The Chavistas will not abandon power for the simple reason that "they are Nazis." A coup attempt is in the works, and it has been publicly announced beforehand (all claims of a lack of press freedom in Venezuela thereby proven false).
While Poleo seems uncertain about which path Rosales will choose, the ground is already being laid for his participation in this coup attempt. Hence, Rosales has been clearly evasive when faced with questions about his recognition of the election results: when Chávez publicly agreed to respect the results of the election and challenged his opponent to do the same, the response from Rosales echoing the "democratic" doublespeak of the Northern superpower. Rosales made the very question sound silly: Venezuela is, according to Rosales, the "only country on earth" in which there would even exist a doubt regarding the recognition of elections, but despite this the opposition candidate would not agree to accept these results without the significant caveat that said results must be fair. In terms of the second step of the plan-appeals to the military-Rosales even beat Poleo to the punch, openly calling on November 5th for a meeting with the military high command, a request which was flatly denied by Minster of Defense General Raúl Baduel on the basis that such a meeting would constitute an unconstitutional intervention of the military into the electoral process.
In addition, Nestor González González, the baldheaded military leader of the April 2002 coup, has crawled out of his hole to release an audiotape calling for the same sequence of events. While the opposition press wouldn’t touch this tape with a ten-foot pole, the rhetoric is the same as that of Poleo: defending the vote, and thereby defending "civil society." As Mario Silva, the fiery host of Chavista evening program La Hojilla makes clear, talk of civil society operates here as a subsititute for talk of the pueblo, the people, for the simple reason that "they don’t have a people." Silva’s response: "They shall not pass," and if the opposition attempts to spread destabilization and violent blockades known as guarimbas outward from their wealthy refuge, "they won’t get out of the Eastern part of the capital."
This entire strategy, moreover, has been developing slowly through the political interventions of certain polling agencies whose fidelity to the opposition is clear, and whose polls range from the bad to the worse to the patently made-up. The now-infamous American firm Penn, Schoen, and Berland-most famous for its coup-mongering through polling in Venezuela and Serbia-has stepped into the fray as expected. Perhaps wary of repeating their exaggerated performance in the 2004 recall election, Penn and Schoen have released polls showing Chávez with a slender 6-point lead, but here’s the kicker: due to some dubious claims about how the undecideds (the "ni-ni," or "neither-nor" as they are called here) will eventually vote, the results have been deemed "a technical tie."
Moreover, the "Hannah Arendt Center" has nominally interrogated but subtly reinforced another alibi of the opposition by relasing a poll under the patently politicized slogan of the "Survey Without Fear." Respondents were allegedly given different colored pencils bearing either Chavista or opposition slogans, or no slogan at all, and the fact that their responses shifted according to the pencil used allegedly "proves" that fear is present.
The pollsters don’t see fit to explain how this fear operates, why it is that the "Chavista" pencil doesn’t merely operate as a reminder of the accomplishments of the revolutionary government, or most importantly why it is that the fact that the opposition pencil yields more support for Rosales isn’t also a result of "fear" of the opposition. But to ask such questions of these polls is to take them too seriously: as Mario Silva reveals, again on La Hojilla, the so-called "Hannah Arendt Center" is directly linked to the head of the Rosales campaign team. Such polls constitute little more than direct interventions in support of this three-step plan laid out by Poleo.
In response to this chatter from the opposition press, Chávez has made very clear how he would respond to an attack on the constitutional order after the elections are held. In a speech on November 4th, Chávez preempted the opposition by announcing that any "Plan B" would represent yet another attempt by the United States to topple his regime and replace it with something friendlier (to foreign capital). Since resistance to Chavismo is fundamentally international, according to Chávez, so too should be the response, and he therefore announced plans to unilaterally terminate petroleum shipments to the United States if "actions similar to those of 2002 were to occur." This is, in his words, the "Plan CH" to the opposition’s "Plan B" (unfortunately, translation loses the fact that, when pronounced, "ch" sounds strikingly like the name of an Argentine revolutionary that some might have heard of): "We will give them a knockout at the polls, but if they activate their Plan B of violence, electoral guarimbas, and the rejection of the results, if they attempt to sabotage oil installations or attempt a coup d’etat, we will give them a double knockout with Plan CH."
In terms of a specific response to the predictable tactics of the opposition, Vice President José Vicente Rangel made clear on November 13th that the goal of the opposition is to provoke a violent response through guarimbas. According to Rangel, such plans won’t work, since "we aren’t going to give them the pleasure because we can control problems of public order with the word, with the voice, with the example." Order, however, will be maintained: "aside from the soldiers who will go out to defend the Chávez government, it will be the people who immediately hit the streets without any need for us to call upon them, as happened on April 13th 2002." As has often been said by the President, "if they come at us like the 11th (of April), we’ll give them the 13th."
Chávez himself has echoed this sentiment more recently in a speech on November 17th, in which he asks of the opposition: "don’t force me to take drastic measures to safeguard the sovereignty and the stability of the country." Attempts at destabilization would be met with firmness, since "that permissive Chávez was left behind that night in 2002." Chávez concludes: "We won’t allow Venezuela to be filled with bloodshed again."
As suggested by the Vice President, Plan C (or "CH") isn’t as important as Plan D: the autonomous organization of Chavistas to defend their revolution. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the most radical sectors of Chavismo are also making plans. Specifically, several armed self-defense organizations rooted in the Tupamaro movement and largely-defunct Bolivarian Circles, which claim a particularly powerful following in the barrios of western Caracas, are preparing plans for the defense of Chavista neighborhoods.
Such plans are centered in the historically revolutionary neighborhood of 23 de Enero (January 23rd), in the climbing foothills in western Caracas. 23 de Enero has long represented the organizational "brain" of radical Caracas, as opposed to the "heart" of revolt represented by the slums of Petare, that powderkeg standing far to the east of the city which gave rise to the epic 1989 Caracazo riots. The spirit of revolt has often been sparked in the utter destitution of Petare, the largest and most dangerous of Caracas’ slums, but the organizational structure which fans the flames can generally be found in 23. In the short lived April 2002 coup against Chávez, several ministers were spirited away for safe keeping in the "bunker" of 23 de Enero, only to reemerge and participate in the efforts to recover the president.
Given this role as radical safe haven, the many radical armed groups populating the neighborhood-from the Carapaica, who made their plans public in local newspapers, to Cepa Cartolini, to the Colectivo Alexis Vive (most of these groups descended from the earlier Coordinador Simón Bolívar and later Tupamaros)-think first of protecting the "bunker": a source close to sectors of the Tupamaros tells me that "the general line is that, in the event of trouble, if it’s a confrontation with lead, they’ll guard 23 de Enero, keep in contact with other organizations, and mobilize resistance." Specifically, I am told, most organizations have adopted a bifurcated approach to resisting the "Plan B" of the opposition: half of their forces will be devoted to rearguard defense of the bunkers, while half will form "mobilization groups" traveling throughout the city.
It should be pointed out that, while the Metropolitan Mayor’s office has "fulfilled a necessary support role" by providing logistical support to radical neighborhoods (cellphones, motorcycles), this role is precisely that: support. That is to say, these neighborhood organizations are best considered as "base movements" engaged in a revolutionary process of local administration. In the words of one participant, the resistance to threats from the opposition has led these groups to "create new forms for organizing the local self-defense of sovereignty." These new forms are not limited to urban areas, either: from the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front-several thousand of whom marched through the city in military formation on November 20th-to the much more shadowy rural resistance army deemed the "Bolivarian Liberation Front," grassroots resistance to any efforts to put the brakes on the revolutionary process is ubiquitous.
What history has in store for December 4th is difficult to predict. Chávez will win the election, this much seems clear, but beyond that several scenarios could play out. The strength of the revolutionary regime is more consolidated than it was during the coup and the oil strike of 2002, and so on the surface we might have little reason to worry. But what is difficult to predict, and indeed decisive, is not how these contingency plans are formulated, but how they collide with one another in practice. Of most interest, then, are the points of contact between the opposition "Plan B" and the "Plan D" of radical Chavistas.
It now seems that this confrontation may not wait until the election after all. The opposition, I am told, is "totally infiltrated by Chavistas," and this infiltration has yielded some results: evidently, there exist plans to mount guarimbas, or violent disruptions, throughout the city on the weekend of November 25th-26th. Lina Ron claims that these plans hope to provoke a Sacudón Político (a political "shock" or "crash") under the title "Plan Hemoglobin" or "Operation Red Dawn." There are reports that an opposition march scheduled for November 25th will be diverted to Fuerte Tiuna-a sprawling military base in southern Caracas and home of the military high command-in the hopes of encouraging soldiers to abandon their commander-in-chief in the days and weeks to come. Additionally, Aporrea.org reports that a far right Cuban-American website has issued instructions aimed at the Venezuelan opposition explaining both the constitution of armed cells and the construction and planting of explosive devices in Caracas.
History tells us that this collision will occur-whether before the election or in its aftermath-around the seat of political power in the old city center which geographically divides western barrios from the wealthy east of the city, thereby inevitably drawing in some components of "Plan C." What happens then is anyone’s guess.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D Candidate in Political Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at: email@example.com