A little scrutiny of a recent Associated Press report about Venezuela provides a lesson in how the English-language press often gets the story wrong. Take the first sentence: "President Hugo Chavez said Saturday that Venezuelan voters should have the chance to decide whether he should govern the country for the next 25 years."
No, such a referendum would not be about "whether he should govern the country for the next 25 years." A referendum would be about whether Chavez would be permitted to run every six years and --in the event that he were to continue winning elections-- serve multiple presidential terms. The AP report's opening sentence makes it sound as if such a referendum would do away with elections in Venezuela, as if its intent would be to grant Chavez a new 25-year term in office! The website of The Calgary Sun even titles the wire report "Chavez seeking 25-year term"!!
This is obviously an extremely poor piece of reporting. Chavez made it clear that, if the opposition committed to participating in the upcoming presidential election, he would not convoke a referendum to end presidential term limits. He explained that the intent of his threat to convoke such a referendum was not to perpetuate himself in power but rather to defend the Bolivarian Revolution.
Fortunately, Agence France Press (AFP) got the story right. The opening sentence of AFP's Spanish-language report reads, "Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez claimed Saturday that, if the opposition decides not to run candidates in the December presidential election, he could decree a referendum to permit his reelection for multiple terms until 2031."
So the choice for the opposition is simple. If they don't want a referendum that would end presidential term limits, they shouldn't pull out of the upcoming presidential election. As far as I'm concerned, the threat of a referendum is a perfectly reasonable (and democratic) way to dissuade the opposition from trying to delegitimize Venezuela's electoral process.
When Venezuela's opposition knows it's going to lose an election, it has a tendency to try to delegitimize the electoral process. Instead of facing up to the fact that it is unpopular, the business-led opposition tries to shift the blame for its electoral misfortunes to the National Electoral Council (CNE). The opposition claims that the CNE could commit "fraud" and that the vote might not be secret. Opposition conspiracy theories of this nature are legion. Never mind that there have been international observers on hand that have testified to the fairness of Venezuela's elections. Never mind that even the opposition's own polls show that Chavez is much more popular than they are.
In other words, many members of the opposition aren't really interested in trying to win elections because they know that they lack popular support. Many in the opposition prefer, instead, to try to create the impression internationally that Venezuela's electoral process is illegitimate.
One has to understand that, given the combination of the opposition's economic interests and political incompetence, it is very desperate. Since it is unable to attract popular support domestically, the opposition resorts to attempts to draw more U.S. hostility toward Chavez in hopes that such hostility might somehow weaken or destroy his presidency. Electoral boycotts are part and parcel of this strategy. The opposition wants to create the (false) impression internationally that Venezuela is another Ukraine and that Chavez wins elections by "fraud," etc. etc. That's what Chavez is up against.
OAS General Secretary Jose Miguel Insulza effectively summed up the problem that Chavez faces when he said the following about the opposition's boycott of legislative elections last December:
"We had a problem with the Venezuelan opposition, which assured us that they would not withdraw from the [electoral] process if certain conditions were met. These were met and, despite this, they withdrew."Insulza continued, "if the path of abstention is chosen, then one cannot complain that the entire parliament is in the hands of one's political adversary."