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Discreet Charm of the Status Quo in Venezuela

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 12, 2004; 10:30 PM

WASHINGTON -- In Luis Bunuel's 1972 satirical film "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," a wealthy group of friends are frustratingly interrupted by a bizarre series of events -- terrorism attacks, arrests, military operations and death. Nightmares fold within nightmares in a surrealistic mockery of their simple desire to sit around a table for dinner.

It would seem as if Venezuelans are stuck in a similarly frustrating -- and sometimes just as surreal -- sequence of events. Months have folded into years of political infighting, accusations, polarization and unrest that may be about to reach a culminating point. But then again, maybe not.

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It is as if Venezuelans were condemned never to be able to simply enjoy the benefits of a working democracy. They are scheduled to vote Sunday whether to recall President Hugo Chavez or let him finish out the two years left in his term. Most analysts suggest that a narrow margin of victory by either side could trigger violence and instability. But a wide margin by either side may be just as unsettling.

An overwhelming victory for Chavez would most certainly embolden the Venezuelan leader and give a new mandate to his divisive populist revolution. Yet if the opposition were to win by large numbers, a crumbling Chavez government could leave a chaotic void in power.

Amazingly, after months of struggle toward a democratic, constitutional, electoral and peaceful solution to Venezuela's crisis, there are those today who wish that nothing will change. To them, less change means more stability.

A long-sought victory over Chavez "could turn into the worst nightmare," said Pedro M. Burelli, former member of the board of directors of Venezuela's state oil company. In a telephone interview from Caracas, he said a large victory for the opposition could lead to a quick "implosion" in the Chavez government for which opponents would be as ill-prepared to respond as Chavez's supporters to accept.

The Bush administration too may be wishing for little change in Venezuela after Sunday. Over the last few days, Bush officials have been biting their tongues not to publicly antagonize Chavez. For officials who less than three months ago were issuing ultimatums and talking of a "consolidation of a dictatorship" under Chavez, this sudden silence is remarkable.

It may be a sign that they don't want to give Chavez anything he can use to his advantage, but it could also be a calculated response to avoid further instability in the United States' fourth-largest source of oil just weeks before the U.S. presidential election.

For U.S. business interests, particularly in the oil sector, more of Chavez no longer seems to be bad news. Three years after he boosted government royalties to 30 percent and required 51 percent state participation in new projects, oil companies are showing a new enthusiasm for Venezuela. Just last week, ChevronTexaco announced a new $6 billion heavy crude upgrading project in the Andean country, whose crude reserves are the largest in the hemisphere. At nearly $45 a barrel, only chaos would be a real deterrent to foreign investment.

It is no surprise that business interests would favor more of the same, but members of the international community have been saying the same thing. Even some who stepped into the Venezuela crisis months ago and were frustrated by Chavez now seem willing to bet that the country would be in good hands if he wins.

Let's hope they are right. And particularly let's hope the international community will never be called to task for becoming so invested in the referendum effort that it had no option but to go along, despite Chavez's repeated attempts to suppress the process.

Surely the threat of chaos is making many people think twice about the referendum, except for Chavez himself. Nearly three months ago, Chavez wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column that he was looking forward to Sunday's referendum. It is a chance, as he put it, to "once again win the people's mandate." Unfortunately, though, even if no significant questions are raised about the transparency of the process, Chavez seems to have made a sport of getting democratically elected only to play undemocratically.

Despite the wishful thinking of some throughout Latin America, it is likely that Chavez will play the ugly winner. Instead of using the referendum for reconciliation, Chavez will probably continue stifling the opposition and governing on behalf of one group over another. What will be the charm in that?

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


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