(posted 04.11.02 | 10:04pm EST) VENEZUELA WENT ALL TO HELL TODAY. The photos started coming in an hour or two ago, riots and reports of shooting. Six people killed, then ten, and more than 80 wounded. Pictures of 300,000 protestors in the streets of Caracas, then t.v. frame grabs of president Hugo Chavez making a live broadcast to the nation, his arms frozen in what seem like flailing gestures, eyes closed, with both hands at his temples, then waving a little blue book (update: his 1999 constitution, it turns out) at the camera - stills from some kind of hysterical puppet show. A couple of pictures of protests in front of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, then mayhem; national guardsmen in fatigues, police in black riot gear, smoke grenades and the kind of shots a photographer takes on the run, the angles skewed, the compositions erratic and wild. There's something compelling about these hurried, artless shots, and I choose one for the cover: an old man, kneeling on the broad pavement of some central boulevard, his arms wide in an exaggerated gesture of surrender or despair. Behind him, three men stand with their mouths open, looking south past the old man and the photographer; one of the men is holding an umbrella on what's obviously a bright, cloudless day. Behind them, drifting smoke, running figures, the odd flash of the nation's flag, a red, blue and yellow tricolour.
"The biggest problem we have right now is the media," Chavez tells the people, before shutting down four private t.v. stations (the Guardian is saying five) for "abusing freedom of expression". They continue broadcasting by satellite.
Bodies on the ground. The body of "a young man", barely covered by what looks like a printed flannel sheet, the kind you'd put on a child's bed. He's lying on the brick pavement of a public square, a long stream of blood drawing a series of lines between his head and the photographer, flowing in the spaces between the bricks. Spectators walk by drawing a deep glimpse for memory's sake as they hurry past; in the middle distance, what look like landscaped mounds of yucca plants, behind that, the backsides of cheap-looking apartment buildings.
Another t.v. frame grab, a line of men in camo. In the centre, "general and chief of the military Lucas Rincon", calling for the country to "remain calm" More shots of police with guns, than a blurry frame grab of "snipers" - a group of men on the roof of a building firing over the edge with pistols. Then another line of men in various military uniforms, gathered stiffly behind "Venezuelan Navy Chief of Staff, Vice Adm. Hector Rafael Ramirez Perez", announcing that they "no longer recognized Hugo Chavez as president." "The Constitution obliges us to maintain internal order and avoid more spilling of blood and the destruction of our brave people and their institutions," they state in a communique. A military coup. It sounds so quaint, like something in a movie. In this age of suicide bombers and hijacked missiles and they're still doing coup d'etats? Amazing.
(posted 04.11.02 | 10:41pm EST) WE SHOULD HAVE SEEN IT COMING, I'm sure, but let's be honest - we were distracted. If anything south of the Panama Canal had held our attention lately, it was Argentina's long, horrible collapse into bankruptcy, or the war with FARC rebels in Colombia. In the last week, there had been a series of car bombs, fatalities and all, but for some reason no one was saying anything about terrorism. Well, perhaps they were but, hell, we were all looking elsewhere.
There are twelve dead now, according to an Australian news source, though Reuters has kept the tally at ten. The military coup has said that he was imposing "a Castro/Communist regime" on the country. More familiar imagery. Is it at all possible that the a CIA might be involved? If we were following the old scripts, it would be a given.
It all apparently has to do with oil. Two days ago, oil workers went on strike, and triggered a general strike in sympathy. There's apparently a $21 billion backlog of unpaid wages and pensions. There was another general strike in December. Venezuela is, as nearly every article points out, America's number three oil supplier.
I'm ashamed that I don't know more. Venezuela, like much of South America and virtually all of Africa, is a kind of geopolitical terra incognita for me. Time to pull out that stack of Economist back issues and read the articles I've ignored for months. Who knows - maybe in a month or two, if the situation degenerates any further, people will be talking about the PDVSA and Fedecamaras with the same avid familiarity they've discovered with Tora Bora and Jalalabad, Pashtuns and Hazari.
Another photo of a dead young man, his head and chest draped with a tricolour flag, lying at the feet of a crowd. Edged in close, young people in jeans and t-shirts and baseball caps. They could be a crowd in Queens, or East L.A. CNN Asia is confirming twelve dead.
(posted 04.11.02 | 11:01pm EST) A HALF HOUR AGO only ten military officers had apparently declared themselves against Chavez. The Guardian is now reporting 41 members in the coup d'etat. Chavez is out; the army is in control. The news editor left sometime in the last half hour or so - I didn't see him go. Glen, the front page editor, will have to keep up with the latest updates until the front page is sent off in an hour or so. We're not back in here till Sunday. God knows what will have happened by then. I'll be away from my Reuters desktop and ISDN connection all weekend, but I'll try to keep this up until I'm back behind my desk.
National Guard Gen. Alberto Camacho Kairuz has announced that Chavez's government has "abandoned its functions"; the former president's whereabouts are unknown, but Camacho has called for the armoured cars surrounding the Miraflores palace to withdraw. Colin Powell has arrived in Israel. I'm on my way home.
(posted 04.12.02 | 01:22am EST) CONAN O'BRIEN'S ON LARRY KING and there's barely a mention of Venezuela on any of the news programs or channels. So I guess we won't be boning up on Venezuelan oil and labour politics or casually dropping General Camacho Kairuz' name in conversation. It's amazing how urgent something can seem in the glow of the Reuters desktop.
On the subway home I read a N.Y. Times story I printed just before I left, an AP report full of repetitions, obviously amended but not edited before it was sent. It puts the number of demonstrators at 150,000 - half the number of early reports - and suggests that Chavez might have already fled the country by executive jet. A new player is added: army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, who ordered his officers to join the coup against Chavez.
The men with the pistols firing from the rooftops are apparently pro-Chavez armed supporters known as "Bolivarian Circles", a kind of Tonton Macoutes informal paramilitary group. From what I can decipher from the cursory recap of the last few months, the strike was started by oil executives angry at Chavez for placing cronies in key positions at the state oil company, PDVSA. They were joined by labour and business organizations who were unhappy with the president's economic policies. The "Bolivarian Circles" are, apparently, "patriotic" organizations of poor Venezuelans who apparently would have benefitted from Chavez' promises, if they were actually fulfilled. Which seems to be the problem. One of the marchers, a delivery man named Carolos Montoya, voted for Chavez. "Enough is enough," he told a reporter. "All Chavez does is talk."
I learn this all on the subway riding down to Queen Street. It already seems like a mess: on the surface, it's the middle classes versus the lower classes. Digging a bit deeper, it's more like people with steady jobs versus people on the economic margin. I'm sure I'm getting it completely wrong, though. Who knows what I'll learn by the time I'm back at work?
(posted 04.12.02 | 11:31am EST) THE COVER OF THIS MORNING'S Globe was devoted to Israeli soldiers accused of looting in the West Bank, and the controversy over the Canadian government's covert purchase of two luxury executive jets for their private use while our military helicopter fleet ages and falls apart. Venezuela made page A14: "Chavez Under Pressure to Resign", an AP story. According to radio news, thirteen people died yesterday.
I blew off a press screening this morning, a Manoel de Oliveira film with Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich. There's another screening on Monday. I just don't think I have the energy for de Oliveira today. On the radio, CBC's news station has been devoted to something called "The Lone Superpower", with panels in Toronto, New York and Europe, including the publisher of Harper's and Christopher Hitchens. I'm really not paying attention. Every now and then I hear a strident, French-accented voice dripping with vituperation as it dismisses U.S. foreign policy, answered by Hitchens' rather cool, sarcastic qualifications. It doesn't really matter what they're saying - the tone of voice tells the whole story.
(posted 04.12.02 | 12.10pm EST) I ALMOST MISSED IT. Another female suicide bomber, at a bus stop in Jerusalem. Six dead, apparently. Al-Aqsa have taken credit. Powell is probably furious; I wouldn't want to be Arafat today. Then again, he's brazened out worse situations before. The man is a true political cockroach.
(posted 04.12.02 | 01.10pm EST) ARI FLEISCHER HAS GIVEN THE official U.S. government line: Chavez has brought this on himself by ordering that the demonstrators be fired upon. A bit of research in the Economist back issues says that Chavez was pursuing an agrarian land reform policy, expropriating land from ranchers to parcel out to peasant farmers, basically the same thing Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe. The catch is that many of the farmers weren't farmers at all, but cabdrivers and other urban poor from the shanty towns that Chavez had promised an escape from poverty. Which would explain the vaguely Peronist "Bolivarian Circles". And the difference between Venezuela and Zimbabwe is that there's a large enough urban middle class in Venezuela to find the idea of the government seizing property with alarm.
(posted 04.12.02 | 04:30pm EST) I'M ON MY OWN TONIGHT - K.'s swamped with work, and called to tell me that I'll have to eat alone. The life of a working couple; she's off to Ottawa for two days of meeting this Sunday. In the meantime, payday doesn't come till Monday for both of us and we're both broke. Well, it looks like roti and water for me.
(posted 04.13.02 | 12:55am EST) DAMN BUT I LOVE ABFAB. The last episode of season three was on tonight - "The End", where Edina and Patsy are last seen twenty-five years in the future, a couple of raucus old hags, still a blight on Saffy's life. Never mind that there would be a two part "farewell" special a year afterward, and a season four five years after that. I never get tired of AbFab - it's as funny today as when K. first got me watching it four years ago. I'm definitely picking up the DVDs as soon as the bank account is back in the cruising zone. The show is proof of my theory of comedy: Nice people aren't funny, and good comedy doesn't have a gentle bone in its body. (Except for Jacques Tati. And Chaplin. Okay, there are exceptions.) Nobody on AbFab is nice, not even Saffy, but Edina and Patsy are truly horrid, screeching, selfish nightmares, and I don't think funnier characters have been written for t.v. - ever. I remember my buddy Scott admitting that he hated AbFab: "They're such horrible people." Well, yes - that's the point! A comedy series about nice people in the fashion and p.r. industries? My God, it would be as dull as it would be false.
(posted 04.13.02 | 11:10am EST) TODAY'S PAPERS SAY 13 dead in Argentina, and two hundred wounded, but I've already heard people online and on the news refer to it as "bloodless" coup. I had evidence to the contrary on my Reuters desktop, but inasmuch as the new government is in power and they're celebrating on the streets in Caracas, I suppose it's all relative, but try telling that to the parents of the corpses I was looking at Thursday night.
So if Chavez is Allende, then Pedro Carmona Estanga is Pinochet. Well, that doesn't work at all; Estanga is a businessman - I've heard him referred to as an "economist" on the t.v. news; I suppose that sounds even more confidence-inspiring - who led a petroleum company. I'm sure that sounds sinister to some people, but he's no scowling general in shades, his arms crossed, watching his praetorian guard goose-step past.
Venezuela's neighbours are justly uncomfortable with the coup; imagine how you'd feel if your neighbour's house was suddenly taken over by their son, or a boarder, after a night of screaming and shooting and fires in the kitchen. It does nothing for the property values, at least until they clean up the mess. In Cuba, Castro is crestfallen, since Chavez was his greatest ally in the region - apparently Chavez asked for, and was denied, permission to go into exile in Cuba. He's being held in an army barracks outside the capitol, pending charges. Castro calls the coup a plot by the "subversive rich". The U.S. is pleased, not surprisingly, though I'm wondering how long it'll be before we hear hints of covert action, actual or fantastic. The precedents are there, or course, though it may be possible that this was truly a popular movement, with a critical mass of Venezuelan citizens unwilling to pursue Chavez' "reforms".
The test will be whether the new government stops at repealing those reforms - they've already dismantled his 1999 constitution, dissolved the congress, Supreme Court, Attorney-General's and comptroller's offices, and intend to return to a bicameral legislation that takes the concentration of power away from the president. (The following sentence was cribbed from a story in the Globe, which was in turn drawn from AP and Reuters sources - the news as a whispering game.) If there are roundups of Chavez supporters, beyond just charging those responsible for firing on demonstrators, then we'll really be seeing an awful old script back in production.
(posted 04.13.02 | 04:11pm EST) TRAWLING THROUGH THE BLOGS isn't as easy at home, with only a 28.8 modem and spotty dial-up access thanks to the nice people at Inter.net Canada. (Sprint has promised us high-speed access by June. They'd better come through pronto - I don't want to switch back to Bell.) Came across something interesting on little green footballs, a warblog that concentrates on the middle east. The author - Charles Johnson, a web designer, as far as I can tell - links to a Steven den Beste (USS Clueless) post (ah, the incestuous nature of the warblog) on American international strategy, where den Beste suspects that the U.S. is essentially counting on Powell's peace mission to fail, much as their ultimatums to the Taliban last fall were never meant to be accepted. They want to bring Arafat's untrustworthiness and the intransigence of the Palestinian Authority in bold relief, so that a more aggressive policy can be pursued against them, and in the mideast in general. The LGF guy muses aloud that he hopes den Beste is right:
There have been a lot of strange, even fascinating cultural phenomena in the air since last September. The first was the (short-lived) assumption that 3000 people died so that American popular culture could slough off its frivolous, trashy nature and become serious, mature, and ennobling. The second was that by postponing the release of any film or t.v. series about airline crashes or terrorism, you could somehow prevent future airline crashes or stifle the existence of terrorism, the equivalent of covering your eyes and shouting "you can't see me!"
Another, and the most troubling, is the assumption that anyone who even hints that U.S. foreign policy might have played some part in the rise of bin Laden, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the spread of a global anti-Americanism that's as confused as it is manifold, is somehow "blaming the victim", trivializing the deaths of everyone who died on 9/11, and supporting "our enemies" and the "forces of evil". This assumption is usually twinned with an abashed revelation that George W. Bush has done a Prince Hal and taken on a seriousness that even his supporters didn't suspect existed, and a parallel article of faith that even hinting that the 2000 election was flawed or fraudulent is somehow akin to treason in a time of war.
Self-appointed (and well-compensated) strawman Michael Moore seems to be taking most of the heat these days, but there have been others, some eminently worthy of our scorn, others dragooned into service by willful misreadings or an excess of rhetoric. Frankly, I've always thought suspicion was the sanest stance to take when regarding politicians, businessmen, brokers, bureaucrats and anyone else trying to sell you something.
Is it so outrageous to believe that the men prosecuting the "war on terrorism" might be the ones least qualified to do so, inasmuch as too many of them have been in office during the years when fundamentalist organizations were first underestimated, then funded, not targeted, that Iraq was a "friend" and the Saudis unquestionable allies, and intelligence agencies allowed to turn into overfunded backwaters of careerists and technocrats? Is it so unthinkable to suspect that oil and pipeline company executives and shareholders in fraudulent companies, never mind politicians who rely on corporate money, might actually be favouring self-interest and partisan outcomes, having convinced themselves long ago that corporate interests are synonymous with Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? They've certainly had enough help in the last few years from business writers, think-tank ideologues and economists-for-hire.
I think there might be a lot of people who were happy to see the Taliban erased from the political map, while suspecting that awesome and sophisticated military power might not be quite able to put Afghanistan right again, never mind finish the job. I might not believe a lot of what George W. Bush says, but I did believe him when he said that he - and America under his presidency - doesn't have an appetite for nation-building. The only thing that can save Afghanistan in the end is the will of its people to stop living in a nightmare - and several billion dollars in aid.
And I'd love to see the House of Saud reduced to mere landless playboys, of little consequence outside of the party, villa, three Michelin star and boutique hotel circuit that runs from Neiman-Marcus and Claridges through Gstaad to the south of France. It would be altogether desirable, except that I'm doubtful that they'd be replaced by anything stable or viable in the long run.
And while I agree that the French can be sophists and habitual schemers and wholly disreputable, both politically and militarily, I'm not sure that regarding every cautious, pacifist, querulous or alarmed statement coming from European governments or media as de facto proof of perfidy, moral degeneracy, "the sin of Munich" and implicit anti-Americanism. It's as if 9/11 made America - and especially educated, opinionated, otherwise reasonable Americans like most of the warbloggers - the sole authority on threats to statehood, the democratic state and its interests abroad.
Europe has a long history of war, terror, economic mismanagement and persecution, and it's the reason why a lot of North Americans live where they do, and not in Cork, Calabria, or Krakow. Europeans have lived with domestic terrorism for decades, and while they can sound like pewling milkbabies from time to time, they tend to have a longer view of history, and a sense of caution that comes from living a bit closer to the world's bad neighbourhoods.
Let's get rid of Arafat and his vision of statehood achieved through slaughter, and if we can rescind his Nobel Peace Prize, let's do it - it's like the Sierra Club giving Pol Pot an award for his devotion to rural, agrarian life. But let's make sure Palestinians are guaranteed a right that we take for granted almost anywhere else - to live in the place where your parents and grandparents lived, without the fear of being evicted or shot, and your home bulldozed, just because a neighbour might know someone who knew someone who worked for Arafat. Sure - let's do all these things and more; while we're at it, how about a just distribution of wealth, real economic globalism, and not the kind that's hedged with politically expedient tariffs and industry subsidies, and a computer that doesn't crash? Coming right up, sir - and would you like fries with that?
More confusion, more trouble, more misery and grief: now that's a prediction I can make with reasonable certainty.
(posted 04.14.02 | 12:55pm EST) K. LEAVES FOR OTTAWA in a few minutes. She's nervous - it's her first business conference, or rather, the first she's ever organized and hosted, rather than just passively attending. Low level panic; palpable anxiety. She'll be fine, I know, but it's a hard sell convincing her. I'll be stag till Tuesday, no great treat since I'll be working or at screenings - or asleep - pretty much the whole time.
We went out last night with Scott & Christiane to see Michael Powell's The Thief of Baghdad, all 1940 Technicolor in pink and blue, children's storybook style stuff - it was a gas. Dinner afterward at John's Italian on Baldwin, cheap and cheerful, S & C's treat since we're momentarily so skint. We get out so rarely these days, see friends so seldom that it's a wonder we still have any.
(posted 04.14.02 | 03:55pm EST) AND JUST LIKE THAT, Chavez is back. I didn't hear a thing yesterday, but when I walked into the office a half-hour ago, Glen the front page editor smiled broadly and said "I told you they wouldn't get rid of Chavez that easily. There's a headline in my news summary today - I haven't read it yet, but it just reads 'Chavez is back'. Didn't I say he was a tough bastard?"
I'm stunned - it can't be possible. But it is. "Massive protests and loyalist troops" toppled the new government after one day. The editorial meeting is in five minutes. I'll have to wait till later tonight to find out just what happened, but there's a string of photos of Chavez looking quite pleased with himself, holding up a silver crucifix and praying before holding a televised address. Castro must be overjoyed.
Reuters counts fifteen dead after last Thursday's protest.
(posted 04.14.02 | 04:55pm EST) ACCORDING TO REUTERS, Chavez can count Saddam Hussein among his friends. Toward the bottom of today's shots, I find a photo of Saddam mouthpiece and deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, in fatigues next to a poster of Hussein. The Iraqi leader is certain the coup was American-led. "Aziz said the United States would 'fail not only in Venezuela but in all parts of the world,' in a reference to U.S. attempts to overthrow Saddam." I tend to think that if the coup was American-led, Chavez wouldn't be back in power today.
I ask Fermin, the world editor, to explain what he thinks happened. "Venezuela is an oil country," he tells me. "And in oil countries - Venezuela, Nigeria - all bets are off."
(posted 04.14.02 | 05:30pm EST) TWO PHOTOS OF LOOTERS stealing meat from a Caracas market just popped up on my Reuters desktop, followed by a shot of military police patrolling the streets. The looters look like they've done well for themselves - they're carrying away what look like thick slabs of pork in big plastic garbage cans and oversized milk crates.
Nine people died in yesterday's pro-Chavez riots. Pedro Carmona is under house arrest, along with several military officers.
(posted 04.14.02 | 10:10pm EST) CASTRO HAS CALLED CHAVEZ' defeat of the coup a "revolutionary victory" over a "fascist and reactionary counterrevolutionary coup." (Thank you, Reuters.) Chavez has some really unfortunate friends, it would seem. All he needs now is a balloon-o-gram from Robert Mugabe and a postcard from Qadaffi.
A bit of research reveals that, relative to the recent past, Venezuela has gotten off lightly with this bumpy patch. A hundred and twenty people died in two attempted coups in 1992, and riots in 1989 killed somewhere between three hundred and two thousand people. (You've got to wonder how they can be so unsure - surely someone was keeping count?)
(posted 04.14.02 | 10:50pm EST) IT SEEMS A LOT OF PEOPLE are backpedalling now that Chavez is back. Dennis MacShane of Britain's Foreign Office compared Chavez to Mussolini just yesterday, in an article published in the Saturday Times. On the same day, reacting to breaking news, he stated on the Foreign Office's website that "in my talks with President Chavez last week he spoke of his admiration for the European model." Chavez just might have been talking about Carla Bruni or Eva Herzigova, but MacShane is optimistic now in a way he wasn't late last week, when he described Chavez as a "ranting populist demagogue".
To be fair, Chavez provided MacShane with ample opportunity to view him in any kind of light. "He sounded positively Thatcherite in his desire to slim down the bloated Venezuelan oil industry", but later showed up on t.v. in his red paratrooper's beret and fatigues "waving his arms up and down like Mussolini". Just at the moment, MacShane hints that Chavez might have stepped down to prevent bloodshed, fully intending to return. If it's true, then Chavez is a political genius without living peer.
The U.S. government, which had welcomed the coup two days ago, is now hoping that Mr. Chavez has learned his lesson. "We hope that Hugo Chavez takes the message that his people sent him, that his own policies are not working for the Venezuelan people, that he's dealt with them in a high-handed fashion," Condoleezza Rice told Meet the Press, today.
On a street in Caracas, while pro-Chavez demonstrations turned into looting, someone painted on a wall: "Yankees, game over.Yours lost." At this point, I doubt if anyone knows who lost.
(posted 04.14.02 | 11:05pm EST) WHAT ELSE CAME THROUGH the Reuters desktop today? Well, there were elections in East Timor, and a car bomb that almost killed Colombian presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe. Tiger Woods won the Masters, and there were riots in India. As far as I can tell, there's nothing left of Jenin, and Powell finally met with Arafat. The pope beatified six people, and vandals spray-painted swastikas on headstones in a Jewish cemetery in France. Dust storms in Mongolia and another member of Milosevic's government indicted for war crimes killed himself. I'm overdue to get out of here, but I'm only going back to an empty house, so there's no rush, really, is there?
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