Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker widely acknowledged as the most important of the major strategic theorists, said that friction is what separates war on paper from war in reality. By friction in war, Clausewitz meant all the uncertainties, small mistakes and unpredictable errors that accumulate and can add up to insurmountable barriers. Clausewitz also spoke of the fog of war, which he described as the uncertainty and incompleteness of the information on which decisions are based.
President Hugo Chavez is not a great military strategist or thinker. He has never led troops in battle. His only offensive military action was the failed coup attempt he led on February 4, 1992, in which he was the first of five coup leaders to seek a negotiated surrender and the only one who failed to achieve any of the strategic objectives he was assigned in Caracas.
Chavez also is not a fearless commander of troops. While he was a cadet at Venezuela’s Military Academy in the early 1970s, Chavez never enjoyed martial arts training imparted, among others, by an old friend of ours, a martial arts expert with 10th degree Dans in Tae Kwan Do and Karate, who is known simply as “Sensei” by hundreds of his former students. Sensei tells us Chavez always flinched when struck.
“Chavez isn’t a warrior. He fears pain, he flinches before his opponents instead of absorbing the strike and counter-striking,” Sensei says.
And Chavez over the years has consistently been disloyal to many of his one-times allies, including all of his former military colelagues who conspired with Chavez, participated in his failed coup in 1992 and served in his regime at various times and capacities.
However, during the ten years Chavez has been in power, he has repeatedly proven more cunning than his political opponents. Most of the opposition’s “leaders” are a hapless bunch, consistently under-estimating Chavez while over-estimating their own capabilities to dislodge him from the presidency democratically.
But Chavez also has been receiving excellent strategic and political advice from his chief mentor, Fidel Castro, and from the Cuban regime’s veteran security, intelligence and strategic planning specialists, hundreds of which are now in Venezuela working quietly with the Chavez government. Castro has been sticking his finger in Washington’s eye for 50 years. The Cuban regime’s best security and intelligence operatives were trained both by the Soviet Union’s KGB and by the former East Germany’s state security service (Stasi), considered one of the best state secret police forces in the world by many western intelligence agencies during the 1960s and 1970s.
The Cuban connection has greatly enriched the Chavez regime’s capacity to design and execute successful political strategies against the opposition. Chavez’s electoral defeats in the December 2007 constitutional reform referendum and the November 2008 gubernatorial and municipal elections were interpreted by many analysts as proof that his grip is finally starting to slip. But we disagree. Chavez firmly controls the state, including the courts and armed forces, he has more guns and institutional tools of repression which he is prepared to apply at the appropriate moment, and many of his fiercest supporters are prepared to kill to “defend” the revolution.
President Chavez has said repeatedly since last November’s regional elections, in which several of his closest supporters lost gubernatorial and mayoral elections in some of the country’s most populous states including Miranda and four out of five mayoral contests in the municipalities which make up the capital city Caracas, that he must rule until 2021 because the Venezuelan people “need” his continued rule. Chavez’s central argument and justification is that, without Chavez essentially as president-for-life, the Venezuelan republic, the Bolivarian revolution and poor people of Venezuela are defenseless.
Chavez currently is leading a battle to hold a popular referendum on a constitutional reform allowing his indefinite re-election, and that of his elected followers. The referendum will be held on February 15, 2009, and Chavez essentially is executing a political campaign like a military operation, combining offensive actions by “conventional forces” (the National Assembly, National Electoral Council and Supreme Court) against his foes, with simultaneous info-war, psy-ops and low-intensity guerrilla tactics meant to confuse, destabilize, harass and intimidate the opposition.
The president is concerned that his master plan to lock-in his perpetual re-election, and that of all his elected followers, will be rejected by a majority of voters in free and transparent elections. In December 2007 a majority of Venezuelans already rejected his proposed constitutional reforms to allow Chavez to seek re-election indefinitely and transform Venezuela into a centralized socialist state with all power concentrated at the highest level of government, meaning Chavez.
The president also confronts a major economic dilemma that could destabilize his regime: the steep plunge in oil prices since mid-July 2008, which has seen the price of Venezuelan oil fall from over $122 per barrel to about $34 per barrel at the start of this week. Petroleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa) has almost run out of cash as a result of plummeting oil prices. But other important factors in the company’s financial crisis include collapsed oil production capacity (Pdvsa has lost some 1.4 million b/d of crude production capacity since 1999), plus Chavez’s decade-long looting of the country’s oil wealth to keep his Bolivarian revolution afloat at home and internationally. By some estimates, Chavez has given away to other countries between $53 billion and $70 billion, depending on what freebies are included in the mix.
Chavez must win the re-election referendum before Venezuela’s economy plunges, in two months or less, into its worst crisis in decades, worse even than the systematic banking crisis of 1994-95. With respectable opinion polls showing a majority of voters oppose amending the constitution to permit his indefinite re-election, Chavez knows the onset of a major crisis – including a likely 5% GDP contraction this year, inflation over 50% and a free market bolivar surging up to Bs.F 10 per dollar before end-2009 will almost certainly erase his already poor chances of winning the referendum.
But Chavez also knows that oil prices will start rising strongly again in the not-distant future, perhaps as soon as fourth quarter 2009 and certainly before the end of 2010. There was already a structural supply/demand imbalance – insufficient production and refining capacity – before the US economy went into meltdown mode (we believe the worst is yet to come in the US, with grim consequences for the rest of the world). However, a steep global recession and sharply lower oil prices have curtailed planned capacity expansions in Opec and Non-Opec countries. By 2012 or latest 2013 the global oil supply crunch will be more acute, and the price of oil will soar again. Chavez needs only to tread water for the coming 12-18 months.
Meanwhile, Chavez is escalating his military offensive against the political opposition as he seeks to achieve his strategic objective: winning the referendum on indefinite presidential re-election. He will not permit anything or anyone to stand in the way of his determination to rule Venezuela until at least 2021. The president is leveraging all of his power on several fronts simultaneously to win the referendum that will be held in less than four weeks. Chavez has announced what he expects to achieve. He will “knock out” his opponents at the polls and in the streets.
All of the state’s branches are working to guarantee a victory for Chavez. The National Assembly approved one question for the referendum which says nothing about the issue of indefinite re-election for the president and all current elected officials. The text is confusing and misleading, deliberately so.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) set a referendum date of February 15 – only 26 calendar days after this analysis was posted. The CNE also ruled that voting stations will stay open until 6 p.m. and the Electoral Registry will not be reopened to register new voters who turned 18. These CNE rulings are illegal and unconstitutional, and are meant to keep the political opposition off-balance, but the Supreme Court won’t rule against the CNE in any lawsuits brought to block the electoral body’s unlawful decisions.
Chavez also has unleashed a massive propaganda barrage in print and broadcast media, on the Internet and in the streets of all cities, urging Venezuelans to vote “yes” in favor of his endless re-election. For example, over 1.5 million Venezuelans who daily ride the Caracas Metro are being bombarded over the train’s loudspeakers, and by groups of chavistas in the cars, with “public service announcements,” songs, chants and activist rants telling the trapped passengers they must vote yes and only yes. Passengers on government-owned or financially supported public transportation vehicles are getting the same propaganda treatment. The Single Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has mobilized “battalions” of chavista activists into hundreds of barrios to proselytize (or threaten) residents to vote for the president’s re-election. Even nominally anti-Chavez Web sites like Noticias24 are now packed with pro-referendum popup ads .
Chavez also has unleashed official repression and organized street violence by armed civilian groups financed by the government. The president’s orders, announced over television last week, are “gas them hard and jail them.” Student protests against the referendum have already started in Caracas and other cities, and the National Guard is responding very aggressively. Armed civilians allied with the revolution, have also started to attack student protests. As student protests escalate over the next three weeks, the numbers of students injured and perhaps killed in those protests also will grow. Chavez’s “gas ‘em hard and jail ‘em all” rant was directed explicitly at university and high-school student protests, but his orders to his followers to repress and intimidate the “enemy” apply to every individual and group opposed to his perpetual re-election.
Since last week, armed civilian groups financed by the government and claiming to defend the “people’s” revolutionary have started to attack individuals and institutions associated with the “fascist opposition” – meaning the majority of Venezuelans who plan to vote NO in the referendum. These armed gunmen also have attacked ordinary civilians in random strikes clearly meant to frighten Venezuelans, hopefully (from Chavez’s view) so many will stay home instead of voting in the referendum on February 15.
Since the end of last week, violent armed groups including one that calls itself “La Piedrita” have hurled tear gas against Globovision, the Catholic Church Nunciatura, Marcel Granier’s home, and university students protesting against the referendum on Chavez’s eternal re-election at Central University and the Attorney General’s office. The tear gas is manufactured by CAVIM, the armed forces’ military arms industry. Numerous shots also were fired at the building on Plaza Bolivar where the offices of Greater Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma are located; and a vehicle owned by Ricardo Sánchez, president of the Central University’s student federation, was set ablaze by red-shirterd thugs on motorcycles.
Chavez also has launched a “friction and fog” campaign to cloud and confuse the political “battlefield” even more, and stoke political tensions even higher. Some of his supporters, including Grima Wormtongue (Jose Vicente Rangel) have accused several leading opposition figures and US diplomats in Caracas, Bogota and Panama of conspiring to defeat the presidential re-election referendum.
On a parallel track, Jorge Rodriguez, who serves both as Libertador District’s elected Mayor and presidentially-appointed chairman of Chavez’s referendum campaign machine, claims that all of the violence of the past several days is being perpetrated by the political opposition. Rodriguez and other chavistas echoing these unfounded accusations are consciously ignoring public threats by leaders of Chavez’s organized street thugs such as Lina Ron and La Piedrita’s chief, Valentín Santana, that anyone opposed to Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution will be crushed by any means including armed physical violence.
The president is force-marching Venezuela to an almost immediate referendum vote because he wants to keep the political opposition off-balance, and achieve his core goal of constitutionally guaranteeing his continuous re-election. He must do this before the government runs out of cash in only a few weeks more, and the country crashes head-on into its worst economic crisis in several decades, including the 1994-1996 systemic bank collapse. Chavez continues to insist the economy is sound and easily able to weather the worst global downturn, but he is knowingly lying.