Not the straight path
THE die is cast. A referendum is to decide whether President Musharraf’s rule is to be extended by another five years or not. Chatham once famously remarked: “I know that I can save this country and that no one else can”. President Musharraf’s exhilaration comes from a similar inner conviction although it has a ring of deja vu about it.
When I heard this announcement, my mind went back to July 6, 1947 when, as a young subordinate judge at Swabi, I presided over that historic referendum held to decide whether the people of the North-West Frontier Province wanted to join Hindustan or Pakistan. Both Mr. Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan apprehended large-scale disturbances and bloodshed. Pandit Nehru thought otherwise and supported the referendum. In order to ensure peaceful conditions, British troops were deployed all over Swabi. At the insistence of the Congress, Governor Sir Olaf Caroe was retired. The conduct of referendum was placed in the hands of Sir Rob Lockhart, the Chief of the Southern Command of the Indian Army. He replaced Caroe as the governor of the NWFP.
The result was a foregone conclusion. The atmosphere of pro-Pakistan frenzy, which had engulfed the rest of Muslim India, now prevailed all over the Frontier. Both Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad believed that the referendum results were a definite indication of the waning of the influence of the Khan brothers in the Frontier province. This was my first direct exposure to the referendum process — one of the most powerful tools in democratic politics.
The question of political legitimacy has plagued the Muslim world since the death of the Holy Prophet in AD 632. The Holy Quran is silent beyond saying that the Muslims should settle their affairs by mutual consultation. The Prophet had abstained from nominating a successor or laying down any rules of political succession. In actual practice, the question of succession was decided by the length of the contender’s sword and the sharpness of its blade. Ex-post facto recognition was always granted by the Caliph in Baghdad — a role now played by the Supreme Court in Pakistan.
President Ayub faced the same dilemma: How was his rule to acquire legitimacy? He resorted to a national referendum. The question he had formulated and put to the members of the electoral college on February 25, 1960 was: “Have you confidence in the President, Field Marshall Muhammad Ayub Khan, Hilal-I-Pakistan, Hilal-I-Jurat”? Like all military dictators, Zia also had a legitimacy problem. He was conscious of the fact that he derived his power, not from the people, but from the barrel of a gun, and was desperately trying to gain public approval for retaining power.
With this in view, he decided to hold a referendum on December 19, 1984. The question put to the voters was: ‘Do you endorse the process initiated by President of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and are you in favour of the continuation and further consolidation of the process and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people’? Every voter was required to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
On December 1, 1984, Zia had said “if the majority of the electorate respond to the question in ‘Yes’ it will be taken to mean that the people of Pakistan have expressed confidence in the present government, have endorsed its policies and have elected General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq as President for the next five years”.
The turn-out for the referendum was embarrassingly low. Accompanied by the Director Intelligence Bureau, I visited a number of polling stations in and around Rawalpindi. They were all deserted. At a ladies polling station in Lalazar, I complimented the presiding officer and her staff on the quick and efficient disposal of voters in record time as I saw no voters waiting to cast their ballot papers.
On hearing this, they all said with one voice that they had not seen a single voter since early morning and had been sitting idle. The fraud practised on the people of Pakistan in both cases fooled nobody and the subterfuge backfired. If Zia thought that the referendum would provide him with a popular mandate for another five years, he was sadly mistaken.
What is a referendum? It is the right of the citizens in a democracy to force a binding vote of the people on legislation passed by the legislators. I prefer to quote Jefferson rather than anybody else on this topic regarding him as the most powerful apostle of democracy that has ever been. “At the dawn of a new nation”, Thomas Jefferson declared, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society, but the people themselves”.
Jefferson was a strong and vocal advocate of the referendum process. Whereas the King of England spoke of the Divine Right of Kings and of his power to govern being decreed from God, Jefferson knew that even those chosen to represent the citizenry were only empowered by the people and exercised delegated authority. Nothing comes closer to this Jeffersonian ideal of “power to the people” than the initiative and referendum (I & R) process, which allows voters to enact new laws that their elected members — for whatever reason — won’t, and to repeal bad laws that run counter to the needs of the people.
For hundred years, Americans of every political stripe have used the initiative and referendum process to foster debate and change the powers and priorities of their governments, and for hundred years the process has been a testament to the strength, intelligence, and passion for freedom, inherent in the American spirit.
Both Madison and Jefferson knew too well the possibility that those chosen to rule can and would, on occasion, become consumed with their power and take actions not consistent with the Constitution — actions that represented their self-interest and not the interest of the people. For this reason, a series of checks and balances were placed in the Constitution in order to right the errors caused when elected representatives chose to rule unconstitutionally or in their own self-interest.
In America and Switzerland, citizens have the ability to adopt laws, or amend the Constitution through the initiative process. They also have the ability through the process of referendum to reject laws or amendments proposed by the legislators. These are tools placed by written Constitutions in democratic countries in the hands of the citizens to rectify the acts of omission and commission of their representatives.
Initiative is the means by which voters can correct legislative sins of omission and referendum is the means of correcting sins of commission. Both are a great complement to the representative government. Not a replacement, but a complement: when representative government fails the people, the I & R process is there to help them. When the I & R process fails the people, a representative government is there to help them. They are perfect complements — each designed to help the people — and both carefully constructed to balance the weaknesses of one with the strengths of the other.
Neither initiative nor referendum can be delinked from the democratic system and have no meaning or relevance and make no sense when the country is under military rule, the Constitution is held in abeyance, and the parliament dissolved. How can a credible referendum be held in such an undemocratic environment? Referendum is not a power placed by the Constitution in the hands of a ruler to legitimize or perpetuate his rule or impose his will on the citizens. It is inconceivable that in any democratic country, the referendum process will ever be used by any ruler to circumvent the provisions of the Constitution in order to get himself elected.
Almost 55 years after I cast my vote for Pakistan, the country is, for the fourth time, under military rule, has no Constitution, no parliament, no elected government. And the quest for a stable political order remains as elusive as ever. The tragedy of Pakistan is that our rulers, like the Bourbons of France, don’t learn from history and are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again in the expectation that it would produce a different result.
We have gone through the valley of the shadows before. Do we have to go through it again? How can such a highly controversial referendum lead to the restoration of a stable, genuinely democratic political order? How can it stop the political pendulum from swinging from one extreme to the other as has been the case throughout our troubled history? How can such a dubious referendum of doubtful value help President Musharraf acquire moral legitimacy? How can we raise a strong, stable, democratic superstructure on such a shaky foundation?
General Musharraf’s first address to the nation was a welcome relief to a people torn apart by corrupt, inept leadership, rising crime, insecurity of person, property and honour. His quiet dignity and lack of pretence provided exactly the stabilizing force that people sought. We thought he was a crusader against high level corruption, a tribune of the people who would bring about an egalitarian social and economic order. We hoped he would help the nation recover its elan vital, lance the poisoned carbuncle, clean the country of its mess, give the country the lift of a driving dream, stitch the country back together and drag the nation to its feet again.
We didn’t think he came to fiddle with the controls. We thought he came to change the direction of the ship, untangle the mess and restore Jinnah’s legacy. He grasped the helm a little less then three years ago, but the country still doesn’t know whether he has an inner compass or a course to steer or a port to seek. An aching sense of disappointment hangs over his presidency today although I would still prefer him to both Benazir and Nawaz Sharif. But that is not saying much.
“Men by their nature”, Jefferson once remarked, “are naturally divided into two camps. Those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all power from them into their hands, and those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them the safest and most honest, if always the wisest repository of the public interest. These two camps exist in every country, and wherever men are free to think, speak and write, they will identify themselves”.
Why not trust the people? Why fear and distrust them? Why not have confidence in them? Why not follow the straight constitutional path back to democracy? Why must President Musharraf follow in the footsteps of his military predecessors? Why follow this tortuous, devious, circuitous road back to the abyss?
Playing tricks with history
THE death anniversary of Prime Minister Z.A Bhutto was observed with great feeling twelve days ago. Someone in Karachi has just published a book about our first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who too met with a gory end. He was killed by an assassin’s bullet, though no one was able to find out why Said Akbar killed him and why police officers on the spot shot Said Akbar dead. One of the great unsolved mysteries of its time.
As in the case of many other top leaders there is controversy about Liaquat Ali Khan’s contribution to the consolidation of democracy, as is there about the performance of say, Messrs Ghulam Muhammad, Suhrawardy, Iskander Mirza and the Field Marshal. But at least their names have not been anathema to anyone. History books for schoolchildren do not distort facts to characterize their times as periods of darkness and evil, as they do in the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Some ten years ago, during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first tenure, a national postage stamps exhibition was held in Quetta. It was officially given out that stamps bearing the portrait of Mr Bhutto shall not be put on display. Like the school history books the exhibition tried to convince the viewers that there had been no such person as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the life of Pakistan.
Did you ever hear anything more childish, more narrow-minded and more stupid? One would have thought that the national stamps exhibition was planned by grown-up, sensible and educated persons having something to do with public life in the country. The decision to exclude the image of ZAB from the exhibition showed that they were grown-up only in years, sensible only to the political wind blowing from Islamabad, and educated only in time- serving hypocrisy. I wish Prof. Mubarak Ali, who is always debunking the romanticizing of history in Dawn, would write about such prejudices.
People like that stamp exhibition organizers remind me of an old film about the North African campaign during World War II called “Hotel Sahara.” In the film Peter Ustinov is the owner of a desert resort hotel in Upper Libya. The town is under Italians of course (as Libya then was) and the hotel’s bar displays a fine big portrait of Benito Mussolini. Then the Italians have to retreat to give place to the advancing British army and Mussolini is confined to the cellar, to cede pride of place to a picture of King George VI.
After some time the British too have to withdraw and yield the honours to the Germans. So King George also withdraws to the cellar and abdicates in favour of Adolf Hitler. In the end the king’s portrait is hurriedly retrieved from the cellar and again adorns the bar after General Montgomery forces General Rommel to give up the town.
What made the whole thing funny was that even before successive invaders reached the hotel, the picture of their national leader was already in place. Not only the portrait in the bar, but the national flag of the newcomers would also be unfurled on the mast to greet them.
Some people who are ready to change loyalties with every new regime are like the hotel-owner in that movie. I don’t blame them, for survival is the first instinct of all those who are beholden to the powers-that-be for sheer bread and butter, or for privileges and undeserved perks. It is the authorities, the regimes, the governments who are bloody-minded and puerile in their attitude to their predecessor (especially if the predecessor was a man like ZAB) and want to erase all thoughts of him from the public mind. Mian Nawaz Sharif is suffering the same kind of treatment nowadays.
Whatever one may think of Mr Bhutto as a man and prime minister, can any Pakistani forget the heady days of the Islamic Summit called by him in Lahore in March 1974? At that time i saw hard-boiled bureaucrats and political cynics literally weeping with emotion at the various scenes that highlighted that memorable occasion presided over by Bhutto.
The sequence in the government documentary film with the crowds going mad with triumph as the limousines passed on The Mall carrying the leaders of the Islamic world to the Badshahi Mosque, and then the scene in the mosque itself — all of it was enough to make one in the crowd faint with the rush of blood to the head.
And yet in the days of General Zia-ul-Haq I have seen the same documentary censored to the extent that while all the kings and presidents and prime ministers of Muslim countries were present in the summit, the prime minister of the host country was nowhere to be seen. It was like playing Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
No great leader ever lost his deserved aura of greatness by his successor running him down, nor did a pigmy become a giant through self-aggrandizement and, worse still, by denigrating his predecessor. The modern media, with all their devastating influence, fail to achieve the impossible.
Again, whatever an individual Pakistani may think of the good and bad in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as prime minister, how can anyone close his eyes to the fact that he lies buried in the hearts of millions of his countrymen — you may call them ignorant and misguided — and nothing mean that anyone says about him is going to dislodge his memory from those hearts. Look at the vote bank of his party in Sindh and to a considerable extent in Punjab and NWFP.
How can you then mutilate history by referring to him as a devil incarnate and his time as a period of darkness? For a test, ask any child who has read those history books what image he or she carries in the mind about the prime minister who was hanged by a tyrant to protect his own skin against a charge of treason to the Constitution.
It is a sure sign of mental retardation and infantile politics to presume that history will be read in the way you want it to be read. Contrived glorification will not make a hero of a non-entity, nor can it strip a hero of his merit and renown through shameful propaganda. And even if you try to consign the memory of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the closet, what are you going to do about his daughter who was elected prime minister twice on the strength of his name and may well become prime minister again?
Powell mission’s failure
US secretary of state Colin Powell’s failure in his mission to arrange a casefire in the Middle East cannot be regarded as a surprise. Washington’s known pro-Israel bias would always have stood in his way. He could not have treated Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as the aggrieved party.
It was not too long ago that President Bush, in a statement, called the Palestinian martyrs of the war with Israel as murderers. The US tends to turn a blind eye on the excesses committed by the Israeli forces upon the Palestinians in the occupied lands and has often blown out of all proportion the odd incident of intifada.
The White House’s reaction to Saturday’s incident when a suicide bomb attack by a Palestinian near Haifa resulted in the death of eight Israelis was excessive. It called upon Yasser Arafat “to denounce the attack and to step up and show leadership.” There has hardly ever been a categorical American condemnation of Israeli army’s onslaught against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
While scores of Palestinians including women and children have been brutally mowed down by the Israeli army’s advancing tanks in Gaza and the West Bank during the past fortnight, the Haifa incident was depicted by the western media as the “explosion” of a mountain, scattering the bodies of the Israeli dead and wounded in the area around a market place. The Israeli leaders refused to accept the ceasefire proposed by Mr Colin Powell. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon appears to treat the US secretary of state’s efforts for peace with contempt, contending that no ceasefire would happen “until the entire (Palestinian) terrorist infrastructure has been crushed.”
In response to Mr Colin Powell’s plea for a ceasefire, Yasser Arafat, not surprisingly, maintained that it could be accepted once the Israeli forces pull out of the West Bank. As one of Arafat’s aides, Nabil Abu Rudeina put it, what was needed was genuine pressure from the US on Israel to end the aggression against the Palestinian people.
The White House has called upon Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to work for a permanent peace settlement. Mr Colin Powell is reportedly planning to visit Syria and Lebanon, hoping to bring about an end to what the US calls the cross-border attacks by Syria-based Hizbollah guerillas on Israeli targets, triggering fears that the situation could escalate into a full-fledged regional war. A section of the American intelligentsia, however, believes that the US should take the lead towards a peace deal.
The Americans are disappointed that Yasser Arafat in his three-hour meeting with Mr Colin Powell on Sunday did not agree to an unconditional ceasefire. They have, however, made no move to get the Israelis lift their siege of Mr Yasser Arafat’s headquarters. According to reports, the Palestinian leader did not come out of his besieged headquarters to talk to the reporters after his meeting with Mr Colin Powell. Reporters who were escorted into the Jenin Palestinian refugee camp, which was recently the scene of some very fierce fighting, found the place littered with decaying bodies of the Palestinian people and rotting bodies inside homes occupied by the Palestinian women and children.
While certain sane elements in the American society have held rallies in cities such as New York and Dallas to express sympathy with Palestine and with Yasser Arafat, the Israeli leader Netanyahu has been on a visit to the US, making vitriolic anti-Palestinian speeches. A great deal of what he has said could only be aimed at undermining the ongoing efforts by Mr Colin Powell for peace in the Middle East.
Addressing a meeting in a Dallas hotel at a dinner for the National Centre for Policy Analysis, he declared that Mr Yasser Arafat could not be trusted and any efforts at negotiating with him would end in futility. He pompously declared: “His word is worthless, his signature is worthless... He cannot be trusted and he will continue to orchestrate the killing of Israelis.”
Mr Colin Powell’s hectic schedule in the Middle East notwithstanding, the Americans cannot be regarded as honest brokers where the dispute between Israel and Palestine in concerned. There has invariably been an element of duplicity and deception in the negotiations taking place under American auspices.
As an astute observer of the Middle Eastern scene, the eminent Arab scholar, Mirwan Bishara, who is a board member of the Washington-based Centre for Policy Analysis and a faculty member of the American University in Paris, has pointed out in a detailed study that the Israelis have always had a hidden agenda while negotiating with the Palestinian leaders in the US.
He has disclosed that following the extensive talks between the Palestinians and the Israeli leaders on the White House lawns on September 13, 1993 there was an informal, undeclared understanding between the Americans and the Israelis which was designed to ensure peace, stability and political and economic well-being for Israel regardless of whatever happened to Palestine.
The “undeclared” principles adopted by the US leaders at the talks were: Israeli arguments about their dispute with Palestine had to be accepted without reservations, Israel would be enabled to maintain military superiority over all other countries in the region, the present military and legal asymmetry between Israel and Palestine had to be perpetuated, and all American initiatives in the course of the peace negotiations had to be coordinated with Israel before they were “out on the table.”
The well-known American foreign policy commentator, William Pfaff, of the International Herald Tribune, maintains that the US has arrived at a ‘defining point’ in its relations with Israel with Ariel Sharon’s appointment of Gen Effi Eitam — “a rising political star of the Jewish religious state” — to his security cabinet. This could have a far-reaching impact on the Middle East situation and the prospects of peace.
According to Pfaff, the appointment is particularly significant because “Sharon’s personal conviction is not only that the Palestinian Authority must be destroyed but that Israel must be extended from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River, with exclusively Jewish citizens in it...” Pfaff maintains Eitam regards himself as his people’s “saviour”, a successor not only to Ben Gurion but also to Moses and David...”
The Jewish settlements in the occupied lands are a major element in Israel’s strategy for perpetuating itself and for expanding its territory. As noted by Bishara, Israel’s real intentions were reflected in drawing up at the very beginning of the Oslo process, the contingency plan “Field of Thorns” — a scenario for reoccupying Gaza and the West Bank — as exposed by Jane’s Intelligence Review. Israel also drew up another plan, “Magic Tune”, aimed at generating “low intensity conflict” by setting up a full scale military mission in the affected areas.
According to estimates, Israel now has 19000 settlers in the West Bank, 5000-7000 in the Gaza strip, and 190,000 in East Jerusalem. The large network of security roads inter-linking the settlements are meant to serve as barriers to the Israeli commitment to return additional land to the Palestinians. According to Bishara, there are some 200 military posts including a hundred military bases in around 20 per cent of the West Bank and 420 acres in Gaza.
Israel’s sinister plans under the guise of the Oslo accords are there for everyone to see. The Arabs will have to use all their clout with the US and other western nations to make Israel accept their plan to vacate all the lands occupied after 1967 in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel.
Security for more Afghans
THE attempted assassination of Afghanistan’s defense minister provided the latest and most dramatic example of the need to expand the international security force to cities outside Kabul, the capital.
The 4,500 troops from Britain, France and other countries have brought relative peace to Kabul, allowing adults to shop and visit and children to walk to reopened schools without fear. Washington originally did not want international peacekeepers in Afghanistan at all, despite their success in enforcing truces in such places as Bosnia and Kosovo, and has not supplied U.S. troops to the force. But eventually the Bush administration agreed to the international soldiers, so long as they came under U.S. Central Command jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon opposes letting the peacekeepers take up posts in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad, where a bomb just killed five people and narrowly missed killing Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim. The regional security troops, untrained and inept, were useless in preventing the attack, helping the injured or getting Fahim and his entourage to safety quickly.
There is no guarantee that NATO soldiers would have prevented the explosion or avoided taking casualties, but their neutrality, combined with superior training and equipment, would give them better odds in such situations.—Los Angeles Times
Close call for a radical experiment
LAST Friday it appeared as if the Venezuelan social revolution engineered by Hugo Chavez was going to bite the dust. His landslide victories in two presidential elections notwithstanding, Chavez — a charismatic former paratrooper who appeared determined to overturn his nation’s political and economic power structures — was taken into custody by the military hierarchy after violence broke out at a rally organized against his government.
The identity of the person chosen to replace him spoke volumes: Pedro Carmona was the head of Venezuela’s largest business confederation. Chavez’s ouster could not have surprised anyone who has been keeping an eye on recent developments in that country, least of all the US state department and the CIA. Whereas most Latin American governments, including those that had been critical of Chavez in the past, decried the “constitutional interruption” in Caracas, the state department and the White House spokesmen, with barely concealed glee, accused the Venezuelan leader of having his own grave.
One can only imagine their dismay when Chavez returned to the Miraflores presidential palace in jubilation less than 48 hours after coup, after spontaneous popular protests at his arrest apparently convinced the army to reverse its gravely mistaken strategy. The situation was still fluid at the time of writing, but the indications were that Chavez would be able, at least for the time being, to go ahead with his radical reform programme.
While no concrete evidence has emerged thus far of US involvement in what was clearly an attempt to restore the status quo ante, there certainly were grounds for suspicion. Contrary to the version of the events publicised by the short-lived interim regime and its uniformed sponsors, the decision to move against Chavez was not prompted by the violence at last Thursday’s demonstration but had been planned months in advance.
It has been suggested that the violence may actually have been orchestrated to provide a trigger for the coup. And The Washington Post has reported that in the weeks before Chavez’s removal, several of the military officers opposed to him visited the US embassy in Caracas — a charge that has neither been confirmed nor denied by the embassy.
It is hardly a secret that the US does not take a kind view of leaders who prefer photo-ops with Fidel Castro rather than with George W. Bush. And there are intriguing parallels between the pattern of opposition to Chavez and the well-organized unrest that preceded Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende nearly 29 years ago.
After Allende had emerged as the leading vote-winner in Chile’s 1970 presidential contest, the Nixon-Kissinger administration of the time, working mainly — but not exclusively — through the US embassy in Santiago, tried its level best to prevent the Chilean parliament from endorsing the popular choice. Failing in that endeavour, it then vigorously strove to encourage a military coup, and persisted in its efforts until a suitably ruthless general could obtain elevation to the top of the ranks. The few archive photographs of Pinochet accompanying Allende are as blood-curdling as those of Zia-ul-Haq standing humbly behind Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
In the meanwhile, to create an atmosphere of uncertainty conducive to a coup, the US was determined, in Richard Nixon’s words, to “make the economy scream”. That is not a particularly hard task when far-reaching reforms are being attempted. Demonstrations by middle-class housewives banging their pots and pans helped to create the impression that the Allende administration had proved to be an economic disaster, and it was hefty CIA bribes that convinced Chilean truck drivers to go on strike. Despite such instances of sabotage, much of the working class and the peasantry kept their faith in Allende, but to little avail.
The banging of pots and pans echoed in the anti-Chavez movement too, and the crunch came when a go-slow by officers in the state-owned oil monopoly — to protest against its restructuring by Chavez — was accompanied by a strike by Venezuela’s primary trade union. This would appear to suggest that it wasn’t just the oil men but also the workers who had turned against the president. However, there’s another way of looking at it: the oil company and the union officials were basically trying to protect their personal interests. Chavez had recently replaced leading personnel in the oil company and is bent upon democratizing Venezuela’s trade unions.
Venezuela is the world’s fourth largest producer of crude oil — the largest outside the Middle East — and a primary supplier to the US. Despite its riches in terms of resources, 80 per cent of Venezuela’s population has been living in poverty. Determined to redress this anomaly, Chavez knew it could not be done within the neo-liberal context that is the Latin American norm (with Pinochet having offered his nation as the laboratory for Milton Friedman’s Chicago school of economists). That is why he has striven to overhaul the country’s political structures as a necessary prelude to far-reaching socio-economic reforms.
A crucial plank in this respect was to obtain a fair price for Venezuela’s most precious resource. In the past, despite having been a leading founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Venezuela had, under US pressure, cheated by producing more than its quota, which helped to keep the price low. Chavez not only wanted to discontinue this practice, he wanted to involve all other OPEC members in agreeing on a less generous production quota that would help to keep oil prices at a reasonable level. His first oil minister, Ali Rodriguez, a one-time Marxist guerrilla, was chosen as the head of the OPEC.
To put forth his point of view ahead of an OPEC summit in Caracas in 2000 — the organization’s first since 1975, the year that another Venezuelan, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (aka Carlos the Jackal). seized 70 hostages at a meeting of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna — Chavez visited the cartel’s member nations, travelling not just to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait but also to Libya and Iraq.
The US state department was less than thrilled, although Baghdad was chuffed at the first visit from an elected head of state since the Gulf War in 1991. “Every now and then,” an Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman said at the time, “the rulers of America receive slaps from representatives of other countries.” Added Venezuelan foreign minister Vicente Rangel: “Nobody can influence our decision. He’s going to arrive, whether it be on a skateboard or on a camel.”
And he did, travelling overland from Iran. During his helmsmanship of OPEC, the international price of crude oil rose from $8 to $27 per barrel. Chavez was keen to stabilize it at around $25 — by no means an unreasonable rate. It was not just Chavez’s visit to Baghdad that bothered Washington but also his ability to influence Riyadh and Kuwait. Added, of course, to his domestic endeavours. Not to mention his close relations with Castro, his apparent ambivalence towards left-wing Colombian guerrillas, his regular tirades against globalization, and his accurate characterization of the US attack on Afghanistan as a futile attempt to “fight terror with terror”.
To his discredit, Chavez first came to prominence when, as an army colonel, he sought to carry out a coup against the government of Carlos Andrez Perez in 1992. The coup was successful everywhere except in Caracas, and Chavez was imprisoned for his troubles. He was granted amnesty two years later, by when Perez, a devoted neo-liberal, had been impeached on grounds of corruption. By 1997 Chavez had formed the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), and at the end of the following year he won nearly 60 per cent of the vote in a presidential contest on an anti-poverty and anti-corruption platform.
Not surprisingly, he is adored by the poor — who recognized last week’s events as an attempt by vested interests to regain the upper hand and successfully mounted resistance.
Chavez’s return to power was also facilitated by divisions among the military, with several strategically important commanders deciding to remain loyal to the elected government. The president has appointed military officers to civilian posts, but he has also involved the army in large public works projects — a sensible move that has caused some ire among the generals who relish their privileges, as well as their traditional ties with the Pentagon.
Until last week, Chavez, despite his autocratic streak, had resisted the temptation to take any serious action against his foes, who include the owners of most private media outlets. Free speech and the freedoms of assembly and association are worth preserving. But he should beware: having failed once, the powerful forces whose toes he has trod upon may well, the next time around, choose for him the tragic fate that awaited Allende on September 11, 1973.
Chavez has vowed to change his ways, without elaborating exactly in what way. Condoleezza Rice responded to his resurrection by saying: “We do hope ... that he takes advantage of this opportunity to right his own ship, which has been moving, frankly, in the wrong direction.” Whether that is intended as gratuitous advice or as a threat, it ought not to unnerve the victim of the shortest-lived coup in Latin American history.