of Thousands Protest Chavez Proposals, Is CIA Fomenting Unrest
To Challenge Referendum?
Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez & James Petras
In Venezuela , tens of thousands of protesters marched through Caracas
Thursday to oppose constitutional changes proposed by President Chavez
that come to a vote on Sunday. Citing a confidential memo, the Venezuelan
government is claiming the CIA is fomenting unrest to challenge the
In Venezuela , tens of thousands of protesters marched through the capital
city of Caracas Thursday to oppose a series of constitutional changes
proposed by President Hugo Chavez.
is coming to a vote on Sunday. Chavez plans to lead rallies in favor
of the reforms today. Venezuelans will vote on sixty-nine proposed changes
to the nation’s constitution that include eliminating presidential
term limits, creating forms of communal property and cutting the workday
from eight hours to six.
demonstration was the biggest show of opposition to the constitutional
overhauls so far. On Wednesday, hundreds of students clashed with police
and the Venezuelan national guard. Most surveys say the outcome of the
December 2nd vote is too close to call.
This week, President Chavez claimed the US government is fomenting unrest
to challenge the referendum. His foreign minister went on television
late Wednesday revealing what he said was a CIA plan to secure a “no”
victory. The confidential memo was reportedly sent from the US embassy
in Caracas and addressed to the director of Central Intelligence, Michael
Welcome, Professor Petras. Can you start off by talking about what exactly
this memo is? Have you actually seen it? What is it reported to say?
Well, I picked it up off the Venezuelan government program. It describes
in some detail what the strategy of the US embassy has been, and most
likely the author, Michael Middleton Steere, who’s listed as US
embassy, may be a CIA operative, because he sends the report to Michael
Hayden, the director of the CIA.
the memo talks about essentially is, first of all, the effectiveness
of their campaign against the constitutional amendments, and it concedes
that the amendment will be approved, but it does mention the fact that
they’ve reduced the margin of victory by six percentage points.
The second part is more interesting. It actually mentions the fact that
the US strategy is what they call a “pincer operation.”
That’s the name of the document itself. It’s—“pincer”
is “tenaza,” and it’s, first of all, to try to undermine
the electoral process, the vote itself, and then secondly, once the
vote goes through, if they are not able to stop the vote, is to engage
in a massive campaign calling fraud and rejecting the outcome that comes
from the election. So, on one hand, they’re calling a no vote,
and on the other hand, they’re denouncing the outcome if they
other part that’s interesting about this document is what it outlines
as the immediate tasks in the last phase. And that includes getting
people out in the street, particularly the students. And interestingly
enough, there is a mixture here of extreme rightists and some social
democrats and even some ex-Maoists and Trotskyists. They mention the
Red Flag, Bandera Roja, and praise them actually for their street-fighting
ability and causing attacks on public institutions like the electoral
interestingly is their efforts to intensify their contacts with military
offices. And what they seem to have on their agenda is to try to seize
either a territorial base or an institutional base around which to rally
discontented citizens and call on the military—and it particularly
mentions the National Guard—to rally in overthrowing the referendum
outcome and the government. So this does include a section on a military
And it complains
about the fact that the groups under its umbrella or its partners are
not all unified on this strategy, and some have abandoned the umbrella
operation and, secondly, that the government intelligence has discovered
some of their storage warehouses of armaments and have even picked up
some of their operatives. And they hope in this that this is not going
to upset their plans.
Well, James Petras, this is obviously a very explosive memo, coming
just a few days before the actual referendum. And while it certainly
sounds like many of the types of tactics that the CIA has used in prior
international adventures, has there been any confirmation whether this
Well, obviously, it’s a memo that the US will denounce. They always
have this clause in their operation that they should be able to have
the Venezuelans are very tolerant of their opposition. The Chavez government
has not expelled the operative here, Michael Middleton Steere. There
have been discussions, I’ve gotten from my sources in Venezuela
, in the foreign office to expel this official, but they haven’t
actually taken that step. And it goes along with this very libertarian
outlook in Venezuelan government. You know, many of the people involved
in the overthrow of the president, the military takeover for forty-eight
hours in 2002, many of them never were put on trial and never were arrested,
and they’re back in action in this referendum. So law enforcement
regarding what would normally be called insurrectionary activity in
the United States—many of these people would have been locked
in Fort Leavenworth and the key thrown away—in Venezuela, the
golpistas, the people involved in coup planning and operations, are
having a second, third chance.
Let me ask you, in this country, the main focus has been, obviously,
in the corporate media on the attempt to do away with term limits for
the president. But this is a very extensive major reform of Venezuela
’s laws or its constitution. Could you talk about the various
other reforms that are involved in this vote on Sunday?
Yes. One of them, and probably one that’s going to turn out the
biggest votes for Chavez, is the universal social security coverage
for many of the street vendors, domestic servants, other people that
are in the so-called informal sector, which covers up to 40% of the
labor force. So this 40% of the labor force will be covered now by universal
social security coverage.
thing is the thirty-six-hour work week.
is the devolution of community funds directly to local neighborhood
organizations and what they call communal councils, which incorporate
several neighborhood councils. They will be directly funded by the federal
government, instead of the money going through municipal and state governors,
where a lot of it is skimmed off the top. So there’s another very
It also will
facilitate the government’s ability to expropriate property, especially
large areas in the countryside that are now fallow and where you have
hundreds of thousands of landless agricultural and small farmers. So
it’s a way of facilitating social change.
It also stipulates
that the economy will continue to be a mixed economy, with private-public,
public-private associations, partnerships, as well as cooperative property.
The cooperative property is largely an employment absorption sector.
It doesn’t contribute that much to the GNP, but is seen as a way
of absorbing the large numbers of people in the unemployment or low-paid
some of the major provisions. The government has argued, with some effectiveness,
that in the parliamentary systems you have indefinite terms of office.
And they mention in the case of England with Tony Blair being reelected
as many times as he wanted. They could have cited the President Howard
of Australia , who was elected innumerable times. And they cite the
Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for the last
fifty years, with different prime ministers, but at least an organization
with an enormous capacity to be reelected. So they don’t see this
as—they don’t describe this as an unusual happening, much
more like a parliamentary system, rather than a presidential system,
though in this case—
Let me ask you, are there also some protections or new sections of the
constitution dealing with racial minorities and also with gender orientation?
There is guarantees, constitutional guarantees, for women and homosexuals
and especially Afro-Venezuelans. Of course, Chavez himself is part-Indian,
part-African and part-white. So, essentially, Chavez has made racial
equality, not only legally, but in substance, a major point on his agenda.
And I would say, in my visits and conversations, that even among his
middle- and upper middle-class opponents, there is definitely a factor
here of race. This is going to be not only a class-polarized referendum,
but the race issue is prominent, and the right has emphasized the fact
that—in a very hostile way—that Chavez is of African descent.
And they have in the past put caricatures in their publications depicting
him as a gorilla. And when Mugabe of Africa, president, visited, they
had Chavez and Mugabe walking as if they were two gorillas. And this
is national newspaper; this isn’t simply yellow-sheet publications.
James Petras, we have to take a break, but we’re going to come
back to this discussion. Professor James Petrus is a Professor Emeritus
of sociology and Latin American studies at Binghamton University in
New York . We’re talking about Venezuela . We’ll also talk
about the latest in Bolivia and Chavez negotiating with the rebels in
Colombia and Uribe, the Colombian president, cutting that off. This
is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
Our guest is Professor Emeritus James Petras—taught at Binghamton
University , Latin American studies, in New York —talking about
what’s happening now in Latin America, particularly focusing on
Venezuela . Juan?
Yeah. Professor Petras, I’d like to ask you, you’re a longtime
respected observer of the developments in Latin America and the left
in Latin America . And I have a question about this, the issue of the
term limits. Many people who support Chavez are still worried about
this attempt to eliminate term limits and create a possible lifetime
presidency, in that it seems to once again focus on the individual,
rather than on building the kinds of organizations and structures that
can, in essence, change a society, transform a society, the emphasis
on the cult of the individual, as opposed to building organizations
and political parties that will carry on after that leader has gone.
Your response to that?
Well, President Chavez has been very supportive of local organizations.
I mentioned these community-based, neighborhood-based organizations.
He has also launched a political party, not a single party state, but
a party, the party of socialists, Venezuelan Socialist Unity. And so,
he’s making big attempts to institutionalize the basis of his
policies, and he’s encouraged new trade unions and also peasant
One of the
serious problems is that when Chavez’s popularity rose, a great
many individuals, politicians, jumped on the bandwagon from very diverse
backgrounds, from conservatives to Christian Democrats, Social Democrats,
Marxists, etc. And this has been a problem for two reasons: one, it
has eroded internal coherence in their ability to carry through and
implement some of the policies that they’ve passed; and second
of all, there is a great many people with a career of corruption that
have entered into the Chavista movement, particularly in administrative
is very aware of this, and he’s aware of the hostility of many
of his rank-and-file supporters to many of the especially elected officials
in the municipal and even state governments. So he’s assumed political
leadership with the support of his mass base in order to counteract
some of these internal problems that they have, and it may have unfavorable
consequences in the future. But in the short run, it allows for at least
some resonance in the executive branch with the popular aspirations.
is a very hot issue now, because the government—not exactly Chavez,
but the ministers have not intervened to end the scarcity of some basic
commodities. There has been a campaign by retailers and commercial outlets
and distributors at hoarding and creating artificial scarcities; despite
the fact the government is importing millions and hundreds of millions
of dollars in foodstuffs, they’re not getting onto the shelves.
Professor Petras, I wanted to ask quickly about Bolivia , the proposed
constitutional changes there. On Wednesday, opposition groups staged
a general strike in six of Bolivia ’s nine provinces against the
government-backed changes. Bolivian President Evo Morales says the plans
will give Bolivia ’s indigenous and poor communities a greater
voice in running the country. The proposals will go before a national
referendum in the coming months. This is President Morales speaking
from the presidential palace in La Paz .
EVO MORALES: [translated] I hope that tomorrow morning these five governors
are here to have a dialogue. I hope that in five or nine of our departments
that we can lay down new social policies together for Bolivia , because
this is a government for all Bolivians, not a government for just one
sector of them, as some of our companions have said.
Professor Petras , Bolivia and Evo Morales, do you see similarities
with what’s happening in Venezuela ?
No, because Morales has adopted a policy of conciliation with the elites,
hoping that he could construct what he calls Andean capitalism, in which
there’d be subsidiary benefits for the Indian communities, largely
creating greater degrees of autonomy. But the autonomy issue has been
taken up by the states, the rightwing states, and it’s become
a trampoline for a secessionist movement. And I think these measures
of autonomy have been reinterpreted by the extreme right, and they have
assumed the leadership in five of the nine provinces. And they’re
heading for a major political and constitutional confrontation.
And let us
be absolutely clear what this is all about. The oil and gas wealth is
precisely in the states that the right controls, and they are in favor
of secession, in which they will control Bolivia ’s wealth, even
though they may be less than a majority of the population. So this is
just like in the United States . This is the equivalent of the Confederates,
and they’ve been running roughshod in their states on opposition.
Let me give
you just one quick example. They have been assaulting the delegates
at a constitutional convention. The government of Morales has not intervened
with the military to protect these people. In fact, they’re holed
up now in a military school, where they’re carrying on their constitutional
deliberations. And we’ve had other cases of assaults on Indian
groups in Santa Cruz , in Beni and other provinces that are associated
with the secessionists. And it’s both a racial issue once again,
as well as an oil and gas issue, and it’s all hung around the
issue of a secession, a white-dominated confederacy in which there will
be no land reform. The wealth will continue to be shared between foreign
corporations and the oligarchy.
James Petras, I want to thank you for being with us, Professor Emeritus
of sociology and Latin American studies at Binghamton University .
Keep up your good work, Amy.
It’s extremely helpful to all of us researchers and scholars and
students of Latin American and world affairs.
Well, thank you for your work, as well, Professor James Petras in Binghamton
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