of occasional commentaries on important
policy issues affecting Latin
America and the Caribbean.
January 24, 2003
the OAS Up to the Venezuelan Crisis?
Dr. James Ferrer, Jr. and Eduardo Segatore1
a recent interview with TV Globo News of Brazil, President Chávez admitted
that his country is in a virtual state of war. After a little more
than four years in power, Chávez is under increasing pressure as the
opposition demands early elections or his resignation.
In late 1998, the former army paratrooper Coronel Hugo
Chávez, who in 1992 gained notoriety as the leader of a failed military coup,
won the presidential election with an overwhelming majority. He took office promising
to reform the corrupt political system and to bring prosperity to the nation.
In 2000, the Chávez government held a referendum which readily approved a series
of political reforms and constitutional changes, including the lengthening of
the president’s term. Chávez’s popularity and authority appeared secure.
Now, only two years later, the President and his “Bolivarian
Revolution” face serious problems. Opposition has grown to the administration’s
actions that, at times, have appeared rather autocratic. For instance, in 2001
Chavez announced 49 presidential decrees to tighten state control over various
industries and to give the government the power to confiscate “unused” property.
In addition, the economic situation has not been improving as promised. In fact,
unemployment hovers around 20 percent and some 60 percent of the people live
at or below the poverty line (compared to 27 percent in the 1980s). On April
12, 2002, after a series of intense public demonstrations and general strikes
marked by violence and several deaths, the military forced President Chávez to
resign. However, interim President Carmona (former head of the business federation
Fedecamaras) failed to quickly stabilize the chaotic situation and Chávez returned
to power after only a 36-hour absence. The tension in the country diminished
but certainly did not disappear, as demonstrations against and for the government
continued. In fact, passions have been rising sharply, and notably so after Chavez’s
decision to order the National Guard to take control of the Caracas Metropolitan
police on November 16.
The current general strike against the government has been
dragging on since December 2, 2002. Initial preparations for this strike apparently
began early in November even though the opposition Democratic Coordinator group,
on November 4, submitted to the National Electoral Council (CNE) a petition asking
for a nation-wide, non-binding referendum on whether President Chávez should
call early elections or leave office. The opposition claimed that the president
had the support of less than 30 percent of the population and that the referendum
would oblige Chávez to resign. On November 28, the five-member CNE decided, by
a 3-1 vote, that the referendum would be held on February 3, 2003. The Supreme
Court overturned the CNE’s vote, stating that at least a four-vote majority is
needed to approve a referendum. The CNE voted again and a fourth vote was obtained
on December 3. However, on January 22, 2003, the Supreme Court handed down an
injunction ordering the CNE to “abstain” from organizing a referendum. The injunction
disqualifies Leonardo Pizzani (whose role on the CNE has been challenged by the
government and whose vote for the referendum was decisive) from being a member
of the CNE and declares null and void any decision made during his tenure.
The strike that began on December 2 initially attracted little
participation and, therefore, had little economic impact. This situation changed
radically when the workers of the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela,
S.A. (PDVSA), joined the strike. Venezuela’s oil production dropped precipitously
and its petroleum exports essentially ceased. The PDVSA strike is especially
important because the oil industry provides approximately 80 percent of Venezuela’s
exports and about half of the government revenues. In early January, the Minister
of Energy and Mines claimed that the oil strike had cost Venezuela $4 billion.
The strike’s economic consequences for the already impoverished country are enormous.
By mid-January, some foodstuffs and other necessities were becoming difficult
to find in the stores.
The international community, in part because Venezuela is the
world’s fifth-largest exporter of oil and the fourth-largest supplier to the
United States, has become increasingly concerned and involved in the Venezuela
situation. The role of the Secretary General of the Organization of American
States (OAS), Dr. César Gaviria, has been especially important. The OAS has urged
a peaceful, constitutional and democratic resolution of the crisis, and Dr. Gaviria
has actively sought to promote negotiations between the government and the opposition
political forces. Former President Jimmy Carter also has sought to play a role
in the negotiations, meeting with the opposition as well as with President Chávez.
The formation of the Friends of Venezuela Group of Countries, which includes
Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, and the United States, seems like a promising
step toward a negotiated solution. The Group met on Friday, January 24, at the
OAS headquarters in Washington and decided to dispatch a team to Caracas.
The situation in Venezuela borders on the catastrophic. Reports
are that GDP contracted by almost 8 percent in 2002 and, if the strike is not
resolved soon, could easily fall by 10 to 15 percent in 2003. The country’s crisis
is sparking a sharp decline in the exchange rate, a rise in bankruptcies and
an upsurge in unemployment. Opposition to the Chavez government’s increasingly
oppressive tone and actions is becoming more strident. For its part, the government
is unwilling to budge from its stated willingness to schedule the referendum
The Organization of American States, firmly supported by all
its members and especially the Friends of Venezuela Group, must press forcefully
for a quick and constitutional resolution to this crisis. It should present a
viable solution and then convince both the government and the opposition to accept
it. Above all, the OAS must remain deeply engaged until the issues are fully
resolved. It must strive to avoid a total breakdown of democratic processes,
the installation of authoritarian rule, or the implementation of a solution that
leaves Venezuela severely divided. The Venezuela crisis has become the first
major test of the OAS and of its Democratic Charter. Hopefully the organization
(and its member states) will pass the test with flying colors.
views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily
reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Issues or The George