BY GUSTAVO A. CISNEROS
Following the events of April 2002, during which I made an effort to contribute to a dialogue and peace among Venezuelans, a systematic campaign was launched by the President of the Republic against me, my assets and the companies I head. The attacks were so concerted that I had no alternative but to file suit against President Chávez for defamation and slander, a suit that was filed with the Supreme Court of Justice on January 21, 2003, with the Presiding Judge of the Court, the Hon. Iván Rincón Urdaneta, being present.
I WAS BORN IN VENEZUELA AND THEY
WANT TO STRIP ME OF MY CITIZENSHIP
In conjunction with these attacks, in May 2004 there were two raids on properties owned by our family: our family ranch called “Carabobo,” in Miranda State, and my fishing camp on the Orinoco River. Both operations, carried out with a vast deployment of weapons, took place for unfounded reasons and with no thought for the people who were there. On Thursday, the 13th of the same month, Deputy Iris Varela, representative of Movimiento Quinta República (MVR), submitted a resolution to the National Assembly, resolution that was put to a vote, to strip me of my Venezuelan citizenship, even though I am Venezuelan by birth.
For all the employees of Venevisión, and of course for me, the most alarming attack occurred on Friday, June 11, 2004, when the Dirección de los Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención (DISIP), the political police, invaded our facilities in another police operation.During this operation weapons were found that were in disuse and did not work and had been locked in a safety deposit box. Although it was later proven in court that they were non-operational, the damage had already been done.
CARTER OFFERS TO FACILITATE THE MEETING
President Carter was aware of what was happening in Venezuela,and with his constant determination to strengthen the democratic foundations in my country he offered to broker a meeting between President Chávez and diverse national figures as part of his role of facilitator, invited by the government and the Coordinadora Democrática. This was part of his program that had been promoting dialogue between the media and the government for two years, making use of the assistance provided by William Ury, the internationally renowned professional mediator from the United States.
President Carter also thought that with reference to my specific case it would be useful to hear directly from President Chávez the reasonfor his grievances. He explained that a meeting between myself and President Chávez in President Carter’s presence would allow me to set straight any misunderstandings and clarify the false accusations, if such were the case.
My principal objective for that meeting suggested by President Carter was to try to ensure that we would peacefully arrive at the recall referendum, and to get underway an attempt at reconciliation that would unite all the sectors of Venezuela in a common effort to develop the country, preserving coexistence of the government with the media. The meeting would allow me to determine the presence or absence of a capacity for tolerance and spirit of harmony on the part of President Chávez; fundamental variables for a future dialogue. President Carter had advised me to channel the conversation in that direction.
THE MEETING IS ARRANGED
In the first quarter of 2003, President Carter went to work on setting up a meeting but it was not until the signature gathering period for the referendum that the meeting was arranged.
While preparing for the encounter, I felt that the best way to go about this meeting would be to find common points of view in anticipation of a dialogue between the government and the media, to thus ensure the proper functioning of democracy in Venezuela. The only window available to us was to create an opportunity for dialogue – between both President Chávez and me – to ensure that the recall referendum would take place.
In my notes I thought I had a piece of very valuable information to take with me as a premise. This information comes from the Commission of the United Nations Development Programme and is its definition of democratic dialogue: “the ideal means for addressing complex crises that involve social and political problems is by urging participants to listen to each other, in order to build the fundamental signs of trust that will make it possible to generate minimum consensus for peaceful coexistence."
The meeting’s logistics and security arrangements were organized with absolute discretion by the Venezuelan government's presidential military detail, as well as by President Carter's security team and my own team.
The date was set for Tuesday, June 8, 2004. Days later President Chávez postponed the meeting, setting a new date of Friday, June 18, 2004, as that was the earliest date on which President Carter would be available. The meeting would be held on the island of La Orchila.
On Thursday, June 17, 2004, I received a call from my office informing me that the head of President Chávez’ military detail, General Carlos Mata Figueroa, had called to inform that the site of the meeting had been changed from the island of La Orchila to the Fort Tiuna military base. This message was also conveyed to President Carter. President Carter approved the change and plans were put in place to fly to Venezuela the next morning.
PRELIMINARY MEETING: CHAVEZ AND CARTER
When President Carter and I landed at the Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetía, Vargas State, at 10:45 in the morning on Friday, June 18, 2004, we proceeded to the corporate helicopter that was waiting to take off for the Fort Tiuna military base.
At the time, President Chávez was attending the annual awards ceremony for military personnel. Upon our arrival at the airport we were surprised to find out from General Mata Figueroa that we would have to fly in a military helicopter instead of the corporate helicopter as had been previously agreed. He also told us that only President Carter and I would be allowed on the helicopter, without his Secret Service team. President Carter insisted that he be accompanied at least by his chief of security, Alex Parker.
The meeting took place in the official residence of the Defense Minister, Jorge Luis García Carneiro, inside Fort Tiuna, although the minister himself was not present. Upon our arrival at the official residence at about 11:20 in the morning, President Chávez came to greet us and explained that there had been a serious military confrontation on the Colombian border that required his immediate attention. President Chávez apologized and left us in a waiting room together with General Mata Figueroa and his aides-de-camp from the military detail.
President Carter was the first to go in to speak with President Chávez some forty-five minutes after arriving at Fort Tiuna, at approximately noon.
Forty-five minutes into the meeting between President Carter and President Chávez, I joined them at approximately 12:50 in the afternoon.
From that moment on, I steered my conversation as I had planned, based on the documents and notes I had used to prepare and which I had saved.
We began the meeting by talking about the polarization in Venezuela and how it had affected the country from an economic and social standpoint. I voiced my opinion by saying that Venezuelan polarization had interrupted the democratic dialogue among Venezuelans.
President Chávez maintained that to date he had not confiscated properties, that the greatest potential for violence had been controlled, and that the opposition had shut down the oil industry, but that he had reestablished it.
I mentioned to President Chávez that the new Constitution guaranteed Venezuelans a series of rights that should be respected and that the President’s leadership was essential to promote reconciliation and to eradicate all violence or aggressive behavior, as well as the language of hatred that had deepened social polarization.
In my opinion, it was indispensable to prevent the use of the legal framework as a punitive instrument, as was the case in the proposal to modify the Penal Code. That was one of the reasons why I suggested that he call for a national dialogue among representatives of the Church, labor unions, political parties, the business community and other organizations from civil society.
President Chávez examined his record to date, admitting to what he had done right and his excesses in rhetoric, and summarized his performance. He talked about his hope for a better life for the poor, adding that for the moment at least psychologically he had achieved some progress for society. President Chávez also reminded us that former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., had done the same in the thirties, as John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist, points out in his book from 1992, “The Culture of Contentment”.
I spoke to them of the importance of establishing the necessary conditions so that the constitutional referendum on Sunday, August 15, 2004 could take place peacefully, strictly in observance of what had been approved by both the National Elections Council and the country’s different political players.
President Carter suggested to President Chávez that he accept the mediation effort scheduled to begin three days later, led by William Ury, between the government and the private media. President Carter also proposed that President Chávez meet with William Ury and that he designate a well-known government representative. President Carter suggested that any agreement between the government and media should be made known, so that international observers would be able to enforce the commitments made by the media of providing fair and equitable coverage, as well as of broadcasting campaign commercials.
We spoke of the importance of living according to constitutional precepts and of respecting the democratic legitimacy of all political leaders elected in free and transparent elections.
I told him that, in my opinion, the situation then prevailing in the country was detrimental for any head of state who aspired to consolidate his democratic leadership and guarantee economic growth and social progress. I suggested to him that he and all the principal national leaders should consider adopting a set of rules to promote dialogue and democratic participation.
We talked about the media. In my opinion, the prevailing climate in Venezuela was one marked by violence and attacks against reporters and media owners.
President Chávez explained that the only television channel that had been silenced during the events of April 2002 was Channel 8, which had been shut down by his opponents while he was imprisoned.
WE DID NOT NEGOTIATE
I mentioned that the climate of attacks and violence predominating at the time had undermined freedom of expression and constructive dialogue among Venezuelans. I added that the building of trust among all citizens demanded the implementation of a series of steps: to cease verbal attacks and to discourage violent acts against reporters and media owners, in order to cultivate a climate of understanding that would allow the media to do its work; to provide media companies with fair access to foreign currency upon their having complied with all the requirements established by law; to reduce the government’s use of the airways to broadcast its message, so as not to negatively impact the right to entertainment; to have absolute respect for freedom of speech; and to urgently study the possibility of opening up a dialogue between the government and the media, with William Ury as mediator.
I explained to President Chávez that I could only speak on my own behalf, since I was not representing any other media company at the meeting. What we then discussed can under no circumstances be interpreted as a negotiation. It was solely a gesture of good will.
President Chávez acknowledged that I did not represent the other media and understood that I only spoke on my own behalf, but he stated his hope that Venevisión and the other private media could show more objectivity if he lowered the level of the rhetoric.
Subsequent events showed that the window of opportunity we saw opening would later close.
We spoke at length about the problem of poverty in Venezuela.
President Chávez and I agreed that the issue of poverty ought to unite the country, especially in light of the marked increase in households that were falling below the poverty line. For my part, I insisted that once the referendum process had been completed, national dialogue should focus on finding solutions to the aforementioned problem. I said that Venezuelans should direct their efforts at improving education and stimulating national business capabilities so as to thus successfully compete in global markets.
President Carter remarked that President Chávez had already issued an important call in Venezuela and Latin America through his militant campaign in favor of the poor. President Carter added that President Chávez was not the only person promoting this project, since other companies and foundations, such as the Cisneros Foundation, had attained significant and successful achievements in improving the life of Venezuelans through several initiatives.
We confirmed the importance of moving ahead with the social agenda by calling for a national dialogue --always with the support of the international community-- to address the problem of poverty in Venezuela.
I insisted that I am a businessman by vocation whose work would stimulate economic development and social prosperity.
At the end of the meeting, President Carter repeated his advice to President Chávez that he should publicly sponsor and support a national dialogue between the government and the opposition. That dialogue could be led by President Carter, the President of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Antonio Fernández Reyna, known to be a friend of President Chávez, or any other person he trusted acting as an agent of mediation or good offices.
THERE WAS NO DEAL
President Carter and President Chávez then discussed many other topics. They mainly talked about politics and current events in Venezuela, the U.S., Latin America and the world in general.
It is important to stress that the meeting had no purpose other than what already has been explained. No agreement was reached. President Chávez made a remark to this effect in his “Aló Presidente” broadcast #194, on Sunday, June 20, 2004: “There was no pact of honor with anyone. My only pact of honor is with the people.”
The Carter Center affirmed on Saturday, June 19, 2004 that: “There was a mutual commitment to honor constitutional processes and support future conversations between the government of Venezuela and the social communications media, in order to ensure the most appropriate climate for the constitutional referendum process.”
The Cisneros Organization also issued a Press Release on Tuesday, June 22, 2004, in which it affirmed that: “I attended a meeting sponsored by someone who has been a friend of Venezuela for many decades and who has honored me with his personal friendship throughout a good portion of my life. I of course am referring to the ex-President of the United States, Jimmy Carter… For President Carter, the meeting, without any agenda or negotiating points was a means of bringing about the reinstatement of one of the essential attributes of all democracies: dialogue”.
For me, the purpose of the meeting was to talk about Venezuela and its democracy, and specifically about what has already been stated in this document, nothing more.
I would like to stress, to refresh the facts, that at that time, Venevisión -- together with the other private media and many other sectors of the country -- was looking for a way to guarantee that the referendum would take place. I recall that there was a great deal of uncertainty and we all feared that the referendum would never take place. I repeat, the dialogue I had with President Chávez and President Carter did not lead to any agreement whatsoever, either in the medium or long term. However, the meeting with Presidents Chávez and Carter temporarily opened the door to mutual respect between the media and the government, which in turn facilitated the work of the media leading to the recall referendum. It is public knowledge that William Ury acted as mediator between the government and the media during the days prior to the referendum. At least in the short term, the mediation by William Ury succeeded in getting the government and the public and private media to arrive at a consensus in support of a transparent and balanced campaign for the referendum.
THE ATTACKS HAVEN’T STOPPED
The meeting among Presidents Chávez, Carter and myself ended at approximately 4:00 in the afternoon, and after saying our goodbyes to President Chávez, we were taken back to Maiquetía. There President Carter and I boarded the corporate jet and took off from Caracas at 4:37 in the afternoon headed to the Southern Field Airport, in Americus, Georgia, U.S.A.
During the flight, President Carter prepared his own report of the meeting, and I did likewise. We both were optimistic, but we understood full well the enormous difficulties that would be faced in trying to keep open that window of opportunity that we saw for dialogue. I am sorry that the subsequent events, known to all Venezuelans, did not live up to the expectations that had been generated.
After three hours and fifty-five minutes of flying, at 7:32 in the evening, we left President Carter and his team in Georgia, and by 8:00 that evening I was en route to the Teterboro Airport, in New Jersey, U.S.A. and later returned to Venezuela.
At President Carter’s suggestion, we agreed to issue only one press release in the name of the three parties that were at the meeting. The Carter Center would be the one to issue and disseminate the notice in its name on Saturday, June 19, 2004. The major points to be highlighted in the issued press release would be the following: “There was a mutual commitment to honor constitutional processes and to support further discussions between the government of Venezuela and the country's news media to ensure the most appropriate climate for this constitutional process. Participants discussed other issues, including the need for a national dialogue after August 15.”
The personal attacks against me not only have not stopped but have continued and on occasion increased, all counter to the spirit of dialogue and reconciliation that the three participants in the meeting herein described advocated in June 2004.
This situation, the aggression and attacks along with their different consequences, must be examined and interpreted within the framework of the political polarization that continues to plague Venezuela and that in one way or another also affects millions of Venezuelans.
We should also examine and interpret within this framework the different business decisions made by Venevisión, which have sought to conform to the current legal requirements, while ensuring the television station remains an independent means of communication for the present and future, offering entertainment and a balanced view of a complex reality.
Personally and in conclusion, I cannot but reaffirm my complete adherence to democratic principles, as well as my faith and trust in the strength of freedom as an essential human value. (..)
Gustavo Cisneros is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Cisneros Group. This column is based on an excerpt of the testimony from Cisneros distributed to Latin Business Chronicle and other media.