Barry C. Lynn: Dissatisfaction and Disorder

Is there hope for unity in Venezuela, and can Hugo Chávez hold onto power?


Mother Jones: Given the recent escalation of the situation in Venezuela and the severity of the national strikes, do you think that Hugo Chávez will be able to hold onto power?

Barry C. Lynn: I think it’s very hard to say whether he will be able to hold on. I think that he seems to be holding onto his support among the poor, and they are, in some ways, the people who would be hurt the worst by these strikes because they don’t have pantries full of food, and they don’t have money — cash under their mattresses. And their support for Chávez has remained very strong, pretty much right at the 35 percent level, and that’s according to some polls that are somewhat questionable, but they’re at least holding. So, I think that that’s a good sign for him, but at this point, it could go in any different direction. And there’s definitely a group within the opposition that would seek a more violent outcome, and there are some people within the opposition that are getting quite desperate and that’s one of the things you’re seeing now. Because [Chávez] has not resigned, because he has not agreed to early elections, they’re pushing a little bit harder. And that could end up creating violence. If that happens, there’s no telling what will follow.

MJ: Do you imagine that the military will continue to support Chávez?

BL: Since the April coup attempt, he has definitely solidified his support within the military. He has moved out all of the people involved in that coup; even though they’re not in jail, they’ve all been cashiered. The people who were of questionable loyalty during the coup, a lot of them have either been moved to non-central roles or pushed out. But, you never know with the military. Just the other day in the newspaper, one of the generals was talking about the financial offers that he has received to oppose Chávez; so you never know what could affect an individual or even a group with the military, but right now I think he’s in a much better position with the military than he was in April.

MJ: And, in your opinion, how large is the opposition against Chávez? Is it really split down the middle, as business leaders suggest? Or is it, rather, a small and vocal minority?

BL: There are a lot of people that oppose Chávez. It would be foolhardy to deny the fact that there’s a good half of the population that right now says that they want him out. They have real grievances — they certainly think they have real grievances: the economy’s lousy, he’s been somewhat of an aggressive president vis-à-vis the rich and the upper-middle class, and he hasn’t always offered a space in the middle for people to cooperate. But there is still a group that is pushing the much more confrontational approach — and that’s a pretty small group — but that’s the group with the most to gain, either financially or in terms of power and a new government.

MJ: Do you believe that the strikes have been engineered by the business owners and managers alone, or have the workers themselves been a part of this process?

BL: There are definitely some workers who oppose Chávez. There are also small-business owners, entrepreneurs. But, in many ways, this is more of a lock-out than it is a strike: the people that own the factories have shut the factories; the people that own the stores have shut the stores; the workers who work at the factories and work at the stores are told to stay home. [The hope among the opposition leaders] is that, for the [workers] who are poor, as their resources decrease, so will their support for Chávez.

MJ: How effective a tool has the opposition’s control of media been in its battle against Chávez?

BL: I think that’s been their most effective tool up until the strike. It has to be emphasized that all the major newspapers in the country are owned by opponents to Chávez; all the independent TV stations are owned by opponents to Chávez. The government has control of one television station, which is really its only link to its supporters. When you’re down there, you don’t see a single article in the paper, a single comment on TV that is in any way pro-Chávez, or even neutral. That has really affected the perceptions of Chávez by a huge part of the people. I think that, if a lot of the people who consider themselves anti-Chávez received more [varied] news, and if journalists were allowed to deliver a more nuanced, complex view, many anti-Chávez [Venezuelans would be less extreme in their opposition].

MJ: So, when you say in your article that Chávez has allowed freedom of speech, and that his police haven’t attempted to suppress opposition, even among those who are aggressively advocating rebellion, it really seems that Chávez doesn’t have the option to do otherwise, considering his lack of ability to influence how these events play out in the national media.

BL: Absolutely. He would have the option to do it, but he’s restricted by two factors. One is that his government is very weak, and, until recently, he really wasn’t that sure — and maybe isn’t so sure today — whether the military would follow him into a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis the opposition. There have been a couple of times in which he’s tried to arrest people (generals calling for open rebellion within the military and those who had supported the coup in April) and the neighbors of the generals came and chased away the officers who had come to arrest them. So there’s real weakness, and it would be a big bet on his part if he decided to take a more aggressive stance. The other side is that he really understands — whether this is something inherent to him or whether it’s just some political calculation on his part — he understands that right now, internationally, he will receive much more support by taking a very passive stance. He allows those to continue to have voices who, in almost any other country, would be in jail. The fact is that this really underscores that this is not by any means an authoritarian government. In almost any other country, military officers who took part in a coup in April would probably still be in jail in December. Not only aren’t they in jail in Venezuela, but they’re on the street, calling for a rebellion by the soldiers that used to serve under them.

MJ: Is there any way to find compromise now and reconcile the two sides?

BL: There is, but it’s really up to the opposition — or, rather, the people who follow the opposition leaders. Venezuela is a democracy. The opposition has total control over all the media. There’s no problem of freedom of expression. There’s no problem with their ability to express themselves. The challenge is to actually allow the people who support Chávez to express themselves. They’ve been locked out of the media for the most part. The opposition has control over the newspapers and television. They have a functioning legislature — as much as legislatures function in Latin America. Within the judiciary, there are a lot of judges that are anti-Chávez and some that are pro-Chávez. There are many municipalities and state governments within Venezuela that are held by the opposition parties’ politicians. There is a real vibrancy to the democracy in Venezuela, and people are able to affect the outcome of votes. They can affect the outcome of policy. What the opposition has essentially done, however, is to say that, “we don’t really want to compete within the democratic battleground, we want to overthrow this government, if not through force, then simply by making them quit.” And I think it’s fundamentally because they understand that they’re really not a majority. And they understand that in a real, one-on-one election, they would probably end up losing to Chávez.

MJ: So, you think that, even if they did succeed in getting a referendum or new elections, they might not accept a losing outcome?

BL: Yes. The key thing to understand is — Americans think that new elections equal more democracy and that ‘s better. But, within democracies, if a large, vocal minority could take to the streets at any time and demand elections now, that would essentially make democracies unable to function. This would effectively prohibit any government from doing anything.

MJ: Well, it sounds as though the only way for the situation to change there, short of ousting Chávez, would be for grassroots support to be more politicized and empowered, with a stronger voice.

BL: Within the [Venezuelan] constitution, there’s a provision that allows for there to be a popular referendum on the president’s rule — actually I think it’s on any politician’s rule — at the half-way point. The half-way point is in August of this coming year. So, the opposition could wait until that point and organize — I actually think they would win a referendum that asked, “Do you like Chávez or do you not like Chávez?” I think they could win that. I think they’d get lots of “no’s.” Then that sets the stage for having early elections. But, one of the things is that the opposition is not organized in any way. They don’t have a unified message; they don’t have unified leadership. The only thing that unifies them is that “Chávez must go now.” And, one of the reasons that they don’t want to get into this issue of real elections is that they know that they would probably fragment themselves and be unable to win.

MJ: So what is your best guess at what will happen in the next few months?

BL: At this point, my guess is that Chávez is kind of just standing there taking a bunch of punches — I don’t know if you remember Mohammed Ali’s rope-a-dope. He’s kind of just standing there, with his arms over his head taking these punches. And, these are pretty hard punches, but it’s a matter of — as Ali used to do — just wearing out your opponent. They punch and punch and punch, and you stand there, and eventually they get tired, and I think that ‘s what he’s doing. And it’s starting to work, perhaps. You’re seeing that the strike — the lock-out — is starting to fall apart. A lot of stores are starting to reopen. Restaurants are starting to reopen… The one exception is the oil industry, which is a very complicated thing.

It’s very hard to run. So, on one hand, the strike is starting to fall apart, but then if the government is really unable to [resolve the oil problem], and if Caracas really starts to run out of food, then we could have a very bad situation. There could be very bad riots. But, I think that if the situation doesn’t explode — because of food shortages or if Chávez is knocked out violently — I think that slowly the opposition will calm down and we’ll move towards a pacific, democratic solution to the problem.