|On Tuesday, April 13,
we spent the day touring the city of Caracas,|
visiting the National Assembly, where we were regaled with some personal
stories by a couple of Chavista members of Parliament, given a tour of the
building, and gifted with hardbound copies of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution.
In the evening, we attended the celebratory speech on the second anniversary
of the counter-coup by President Hugo Chávez in the streets in front of Miraflores
National Assembly Building, Caracas
The festive atmosphere in the streets that evening was warm and joyous, and there was no indication of any negative disturbance, even though the avenue was swollen with thousands of people. The Chavistas, as during our entire trip, took us "under their wing" and ushered us to the front of the crowd where we could get the best view. Four members of our group were ushered to the press box atop a high scaffolding for access to better photographing opportunity.
Translation of the President's speech became impossible, but his opening remarks included a welcome to the people of all countries, and particularly noting a differentiation between the citizens of the United States and their government. We love the people of the United States, he said, but your government is a problem. I could make out from time to time in the speech the name of George W. Bush, and the negative tone was unmistakable.
When Chávez speaks, it is nothing like the usual presidential speech we are treated to in the U.S. It's full of passion and apparent sincerity, without any formal stiffness, as though he knows exactly what he wants to convey and has no need for speech-makers to say it, which I suspect is precisely what occurs. Not being able to understand the language, I can only judge the intelligence and thoughtfulness of his speech by reading transcripts of interviews and other speeches he has given. And I am impressed by this man whose parents were school teachers and who rose to his position through service in the armed forces. (He is a fine singer, as well. He led the crowd, all of whom seemed to be participating, in the national anthem before speaking - every verse, which turned out to be quite a lengthy tribute to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.)
A special treasure that I brought home with me is a red T-shirt one of the Chavistas at that gathering spontaneously offered as a gift. It is emblazoned on the front with the name of Chávez' vice-president at the time of the coup - Diosdado Cabello - and on the back with the words "Rio Crescido" - the river is overflowing.
as temporary president during the absence of Hugo Chávez
after the counter-coup April 13, 2002 (Photo:AP)
Wednesday April 14 was the first day of the Second International Conference in Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution. Several events were taking place across Caracas with delegations from various other countries, mostly Latin American it seemed. We went to a meeting hall downtown where union leaders were holding talks, and in the evening, we were given a presentation by Oscar Pérez, an Opposition MP (Member of Parliament).
At the union meeting, we were given seats on the front row at the delegations' tables and provided earphones to receive the transmission of simultaneous translations. Unfortunately, the front row seats were directly beneath the refrigeration fans that never shut off, and while the back of the hall may have been comfortably cool, the front was freezing. People who had been there before obviously knew what to expect, and most were wearing jackets. We were unprepared, and frankly, it was difficult to listen while trying to keep my circulation going. I didn't get all the names of the speakers, and we didn't stay to hear them all, but I will provide what notes I did get, and provide names where I managed to get them.
The role of Venezuela's unions in the Bolivarian Revolution
Chávez: "Poverty is different from marginality."
Some measures of progress since Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela:
A new constitution was passed with 70% of the vote.
New houses were built in the barrios.
People with special medical needs are sent to Cuba for free health care.
Women's banks were created.
NOTES from the opening speeches:
(Speaker #1): Unions should take up political issues, as well as work issues. Workers are not only good for producing. In the oil sabotage, some were not willing to risk their jobs, but workers have only one weapon, and that is politics. The government Constituent Assembly has not produced a connection with the workers.
Franklin Randon (Public Sector union president): Workers are not getting enough satisfaction from the government. People's eyes are opening. The working classes acquired better lifestyles and increased salaries, but there must be political unionism. In the past, this has been undermined by government and political parties. Workers are not consulted regarding the national debt that continues to grow. Unions should take strict positions on Venezuela's external debt.
Len Tsou photos
Union meeting, 2d International Bolivarian Revolution Solidarity Conference
Caracas - April 14, 2004
The Opposition view
There is no shortage of political parties in Venezuela (most are minor ones), and Mr. Pérez named the one with which he is affiliated, but I didn't catch it. What I did understand was that he is a former attorney who works with a coalition of about 40 non-governmental organizations and parties that support the Opposition.
NOTES from the presentation:
Hugo Chávez uses a U.S. lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, to create his image.
Chávez participated in, but was not the leader of, a 1992 coup attempt on the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. All the other military commanders succeeded in their objectives, but Chávez did not get control of Caracas, the area for which he was responsible, because he broke with the plan. He surrendered the coup in front of international cameras, even though the others had all succeeded. In 1994, then president Rafael Caldera released Chávez, who recovered his citizenship rights, according to Venezuelan law. All who participated in the coup were jailed, and upon release, 80% of them rejoined "democratic life". (My note: I wanted to pursue this claim of Chávez having betrayed the 1992 coup plan, and about him not being the leader but when we got to ask questions, there were so many that we ran out of time before I could get to that point. Pérez said he didn't know who the leader was - but it wasn't Chávez - which makes the statement highly suspect, I think. But at some point, out of curiosity, I would like to follow up on the claim.)
By the 1998 elections, Venezuela's middle class had become disinterested in politics, so the race was essentially between the poor and the oligarchs. Chávez won on a platform calling for the formation of a constituent assembly which would create a new constitution that would benefit the poor. And, when it was formed, the Opposition only managed to win four constituencies in the assembly. (Mrs. Chávez was a member of the assembly.)
The act of changing the name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela set the new government off on the wrong foot with the Opposition who, at the time, were still relatively few. The new constitution took away the power from mayors and others who had been elected officials, dissolved the national congress and regional parliaments. The government revised international accords and treaties, and the U.S. became Satan. Senators became deputies in the National Assembly (the same as Cuba). Changes were made under Chávez' premise that justice did not serve the poor - his entire thrust is to bring justice to the poor. (My note: this is how it was translated, and I'm wondering if the word "equality" or some other sense of the word "equitable" might have been closer to the meaning of the Spanish at least in the second half of the statement.)
Oscar Pérez (the speaker) was sacked from his position and was unemployed for four months.
On the same day as the disastrous mudslides in 1999, Chávez pushed the referendum for the constitution, so that the terrible disaster was exploited for his benefit. He called elections to refill the National Assembly with a new method of calculating votes that insured he would get Chavistas. He appointed left wing politicians to high positions. An MVR party leader was appointed as chief prosecutor. This contravenes the 1999 constitution itself.
Unemployment has increased under Chávez, and they have the highest rate of school absenteeism ever.
Chávez fired oil executives over the air on his radio program, Álo Presidente. After that, the Opposition called a march for April 11, 2002. A general stoppage had been called for April 9. More than 700,000 people were marching in opposition to Chávez on April 11. The Opposition claim the April 11 murders as their loss - at least two of the ten dead were Opposition members - and they refer to it as the Massacre of 11 April.
After Chávez returned to power, another march was held on May 1, and another on May 11. More than one million people marched on the 10th of October last year to hand in signatures for the referendum to recall President Chávez as provided for in the constitution, and these people were attacked with gas.
On November 19 the Opposition marched in support of the Metropolitan Police, who have been taken over by Chávez on the charge of having weapons of war. (My note: recall my explanation of who controls the Metropolitan police in the previous section -page 5.)
A march in silence for the people who were killed at Alta Mira Plaza was held on December 6. There were Opposition marches on December 14, 17, 23, 29, and 31.
In the recall referendum drive, the government has only recognized 1.8 million signatures out of the 3 million that were submitted. The CNE (election council) has been trying to exclude the OAS and Carter Center from monitoring the process. Approximately one million signatures were rejected because of the use of assistance in filling out petition information, when that wasn't originally part of the rules. The Electoral chamber of the Supreme Court says that those signatures are valid, but the government doesn't recognize them. (My note: This is a very convoluted issue concerning which branch of the Supreme Court has what authority over these things, and that issue is still in contention. Here's a current - May 2004 - article explaining it: Venezuela: Institutions, Indecision and Referendum Turmoil)
It is true that there are names of dead people on the peititions, but the Chavistas put them there to sabotage the effort. (My note: Now, that's the first time I've heard that outrageous claim, but I've read lots of articles about this referendum issue, and for each argument that Mr. Pérez makes, there is a counter. It's quite a mess, but in fact the Carter Center and the OAS are monitoring, and there have been inuendos, but no charges that the CNE has acted contrary to Venezuelan law. An interesting point that gets missed in the claims and counterclaims is that even if there are enough signatures to get a recall vote, Chávez has to lose by more votes than he won the election by. And that is almost certainly not possible, which even Mr. Pérez admits, so the whole exercise seems something of a waste of everybody's time, energy, and money, not to mention the violence that erupts in Opposition quarters over the issue from time to time.)
Today, April 14, will decide the fate of this government. Chávez' closest collaborators have turned against him. (My note: We never got an explanation for that ominous pronouncement.)
Sixty-five percent of the population rejects Hugo Chávez. (My note: I have no idea where he got that highly unlikely figure.)
The 1999 Constitution is utopian; parts are impossible to make reality. It allows absolute power to be held by one person.
The Opposition is working on Project National Consensus to decide what they all want, aiming for continuity of the "good things" from the Chávez government, which include the barrio plan and primary health care.
There are unemployed Venezuelan doctors while Chávez brings in Cuban doctors, and many of them are not doctors at all, but probably spies. Not all of them are documented, so it's impossible to know. They don't come in by regular channels, but by a presidential entrance via a naval base. Some have been jailed as they weren't fulfilling their stated objectives. For instance, they would claim that they treated thousands of people when in fact they only treat forty. The opposition has no problem with Cuban doctors who want to come and work through proper channels.
There is no state policy on unemployment.
The Misión Robinson literacy plan is nothing new for Venezuela; however, it would be continued in some way. Misión Ribas (getting teens to finish high school) would be continued. He is not in favor of Misión Sucre, which provides college level education.
The de facto government that replaced Chávez when he resigned from office on April 12, 2002 (there was no coup, he says) took power in the wrong manner dissolving the National Assembly and taking prisoners, behaving like Chávez himself. In fact, that de facto government was not even a government, and those people should go to jail. There was a power vacuum created when Chávez resigned. The people believed he resigned and were therefore in favor of Pedro Carmona taking power. (My note: This use of "the people" is meant to be the Opposition. Carmona is the man who was installed as president following the coup. He fled to Colombia when Chávez was restored to power, and I'm not sure what his status is at this writing. Also, Chávez most definitely did not resign.)
Chávez has a vested interest in the poor classes, because if they weren't poor, they wouldn't vote for him. He has on his side the Chief Prosecutor, the CNE, Ombudsman, Treasury, National Assembly, Armed Forces, half of the Supreme Court (the Constitutional Chamber), and the urban violence barrio guards. Despite this control, he is denying Supreme Court rulings.
He sells cheap oil to Castro, who then resells it. In fact, Venezuela doesn't even get paid for it.
The Opposition has a great ally in the United States for oil and trade. (My note: I think he said they would privatize the oil, but I'm not sure about that.) The USA has never funded Opposition groups. Congress has equally funded Chavistas and Opposition. (My note: There's obviously a problem with those two statements, and I don't know whether it was in the translation or whether Mr. Pérez actually contradicted himself.) The US should be a mediator in the current political situation in Venezuela.
The InterAmerican Charter, which Venezuela signed on to, was drawn up to avoid the possibility of a dictatorship in South American countries, and it is becoming a common concern that this is what is happening in Venezuela with Chávez, who has threatened to leave the Organization of American States (OAS). Yesterday (April 13, 2004), Colombia approved the use of the charter in connection with Venezuela, and if two more countries join in agreement, then the OAS will have to debate whether to intervene in Venezuela.
It would not be considered a coup if the armed forces remove a president for contravening the constitution.
Mr. Pérez claimed that he has been kidnapped twice and his house broken into two times. He didn't explain, but the implication was that Chávez is responsible. And another interesting note: sitting in the back of the small hotel conference room where only the Global Exchange group of about 20 people were in attendance for this private speaking session, were two "assistants", recognized by one of the Venezuelan tour guides as plainclothes Metropolitan Police.
Note 08/23/04: I encountered recently an article at VHeadline.com which states that Mr. Pérez is now claiming fraud in the recall referendum (which has handily reaffirmed Chávez' position as president). Since I wasn't positively certain that this was the same Oscar Pérez, I set out to confirm it so as not to accuse him of saying something that someone else had said. My communication with the people at VHeadline.com revealed some interesting information about Pérez and some of the statements he made to us in April. You can read it on my blog site in this post.