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Last Updated: 03/15/2006(Not) Learning from the Past
Imagine a country with a lot of oil and a lot of poverty, where one political party has control over every public institution. That party is led by a former military man who was once jailed for staging a military coup. He has swept to power by condemning the political establishment and promising to clean up corruption.
This military man weekly appears on television to give rambling, 4-hour speeches denouncing the plots being hatched against him and outlining his plans for the future. He has noted that he may need to stay in power for many more years in order to complete those plans.
Meanwhile, citing external threats, this military man is using his country’s oil revenues to build up his country’s military, buying small arms, helicopters, aircraft, and patrol boats. In addition to building up the regular army, this military man has declared the formation of a parallel reserve force of which he would have direct control. This reserve force, to be the largest on the continent, will take the form of local militias made up of civilians trained in the art of guerilla warfare.
There is talk of making membership in these militias mandatory for public employees and those who benefit from social programs.
It’s an old story, practically a cliché, and one that repeated itself countless times during the 20th century. You can probably finish it yourself. Popular support erodes, rebellion arises, desperation sets in, totalitarian tendencies come out, the military is put to use on the people who paid for it, and 20 years later academicians are still trying to figure out how to stop the cycle of violence.
The easiest way, some of them always conclude, would be to stop it before it starts. Would that foresight were also 20-20, but at least now the world has the historical knowledge to recognize that countries following the above pattern are headed for disaster.
The question is if the world can ever bring itself to act before it’s too late.
The country now in question is, of course, Venezuela, and the military man described above is its president, Hugo Chávez. Among the socially conscious of the world, that name is generally associated with much-trumpeted social initiatives and alleviation of poverty - Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. But put all that aside for the moment. Certain facts tell a different story, one that seems to be leading down a well-known path toward serious long-term conflict.
Fact one is that Hugo Chávez is not a civilian politician but a military man, an ex-paratrooper. Although he is fond of associating his opposition with a 2002 coup attempt against him, he himself led a failed coup in 1992, and the date of that attempt - Feb. 4 - is now a national holiday.
Fact two is that Chávez the military man is buying weapons. Last year he purchased 100,000 AK-47s from Russia, along with an agreement for purchasing another 300,000. He is also in the market for MiG-29s and attack helicopters, as well as a billion or so dollars worth of airplanes and patrol boats from Spain (he was also recently turned down by France when he sought to buy two diesel submarines for a cool billion). Along with his weapons spending spree, he is developing a reserve force that he says will be 2 million strong - larger, even, than that of the US.
Fact three is that Chávez thrives on conflict, and when there is none he creates it himself. Last year he started a name-calling contest with Mexico which ended with both countries withdrawing ambassadors, and recently he had some hot words with Peruvian leaders as well. His acrimony towards the US knows no bounds, and he regularly accuses the CIA of being behind everything from assassination plots to Human Rights Watch reports to tabloid rumors of his affair with a former Miss Venezuela. Venezuelan intelligence once supposedly uncovered a secret US plot to invade Venezuela called “Operation Balboa” (although since that revelation, details have been scarce).
Fact four is that he has changed the constitutional term limits, and will do it again. After being elected in 1999, he changed the constitution in 2000, “resetting” his presidential term. He is up for reelection again this year, and, facing a boycott of the elections, he has threatened to eliminate term limits altogether. In the past, he has repeatedly indicated that he may need to stay in power until 2030, just to make sure the Bolivarian Revolution is firmly in place.
The facts of Venezuela’s political situation in general are rather grim. Chavez supporters have total control of all levels of government, including the Supreme Court and the National Elections Committee, effectively eliminating the checks and balances that are supposed to come with democracy. Also, French NGO Reporters sans Frontières has noted that incidents of media harassment and intimidation have increased, and a new law on the books provides punishment for those who "advocate undermining public order."
The situation described above should certainly be worrying to the rest of the world - especially those who study peace and conflict - and could very well come to a head within the next year or two. A conflict could easily be touched off internally by the violent actions of an opposition that feels increasingly shut out of the democratic process. On the other hand, erosion of popular support could push Chávez to trump up an external conflict in order to rally his troops - a time-honored tactic of military leaders everywhere.
The point is that it’s time for the world to take notice of a bad situation before it gets worse. No, Venezuela’s situation is not yet critical, but that’s just the point - wielding it’s much-lauded soft power, the international community should start encouraging Venezuela away from the path of conflict and political oppression. And it should start now.
Soon enough, it may be too late.
Peter Krupa is the editor of the Peace & Conflict Monitor