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Tens of Thousands Protest Chavez Proposals, Is CIA Fomenting Unrest to Challenge Referendum?

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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 referendum. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: 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.

The referendum 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.

Thursday’s 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.

AMY GOODMAN: 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 Hayden.

James Petras is a former professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Binghamton University. He is author of a number of books, including Social Movements and State Power. His exclusive article in “Counterpunch” is called “CIA Venezuela Destabilization Memo Surfaces.” Professor Petras joins us now from Binghamton, New York.

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?

JAMES PETRAS: 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.

Now, what 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 lose.

Now, the 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 tribunal.

But more 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 uprising.

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.

JUAN GONZALEZ: 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 memo is —-

JAMES PETRAS: 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 an out.

Secondly, 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.

JUAN GONZALEZ: 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?

JAMES PETRAS: 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.

The second thing is the thirty-six-hour work week.

The third 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 positive factor.

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 sector.

These are 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 —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, are there also some protections or new sections of the constitution dealing with racial minorities and also with gender orientation?

JAMES PETRAS: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: 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.


AMY GOODMAN: 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?

JUAN GONZALEZ: 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?

JAMES PETRAS: 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 organizations.

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 posts.

And Chavez 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.

And this 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.

AMY GOODMAN: 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.

    PRESIDENT 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Petras, Bolivia and Evo Morales, do you see similarities with what’s happening in Venezuela?

JAMES PETRAS: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: James Petras, I want to thank you for being with us, Professor Emeritus of sociology and Latin American studies at Binghamton University.

JAMES PETRAS: Keep up your good work, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks very —

JAMES PETRAS: It’s extremely helpful to all of us researchers and scholars and students of Latin American and world affairs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for your work, as well, Professor James Petras in Binghamton.

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