Potential Hot Spots: March 1, 2004


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is making the case for a crackdown on his pro-democracy opposition in the media prior to the referendum on his presidency. Latest reports indicate that two-thirds of the population would vote to remove Chavez from office. The United States would not mind this development, since Chavez has been providing support to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and has close ties to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Chavez does not wish to be removed from power. Exile, probably to Cuba, is perhaps the best he could hope for in such an event.

Chavez, intends to remain in power, and it appears he will do so by either canceling the referendum (probably by invalidating a large percentage of the 3.4 million signatures or by refusing to abide by the results. Which course he takes is unknown, but the groundwork for some sort of extra-constitutional action (either a declaration of martial law or a coup after the referendum) is being laid by his claims that the United States is backing his opposition to gain control of Venezuelas oil supply. He even went so far as to lay responsibility for the deaths 
and injuries suffered in the political violence leading to the April, 2002 coup on the doorstep of President Bush. It is an old script in a new venue distract people from problems at home by blaming the United States.

This has already had an effect. One of the best ways to prevent Chavez from stopping or overturning the referendum via force would be to launch a coup. Already, one major media outlet in the United States has editorialized against removal of Chavez by any means other than the referendum. This has the effect of helping to mobilize politicians on Chavezs side. That buys Chavez time to find out who is and is not loyal to him. At present, he has a force of about 42,000 men a mixture of advisors from Cuba, loyal Venezuelan soldiers, and chavista militia.

Thats not enough to guarantee Chavez will come out the winner in a civil war. So, Chavez is buying time delaying the final decision on the referendum while he tries to find more loyal soldiers. By preparing the media, he does that, and he also will poison the well for a succeeding government. Because at this point, he can rely on the media and certain politicians to make trouble for the new government, sometimes with the help of human rights groups.

This combination has worked before the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, were listed as a terrorist organization by Secretary of State Colin Powell on September 10, 2001. This listing placed the AUC in the company of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and FARC. This was in spite of the fact that the AUCs operations have primarily been directed against FARC, and also came despite the role that AUC founder Carlos Castano had 
in the hunt for Pablo Escobar.

The dynamic has also worked in favor of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994 after a 1991 forced him into exile. American politicians who supported Aristide mounted enough pressure that the 82nd Airborne was sent to restore him to power. Conflict was narrowly averted when Powell, former President Jimmy Carter, and Senator Sam Nunn convinced the military dictatorship to hand over power. This time around, Aristide has not been able to prepare the media, and as a result it looks as if he is headed out of power for the second time.

Preparing the battlefield has taken on a new meaning in the 21st Century. Often, it is done with press conferences and speeches before the first shots are fired, and no longer is limited to positioning forces and bombardment. Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])


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