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Opinion and Analysis: Politics

Discourse and Division in Venezuela

Both sides of the Venezuelan political spectrum are well known for their inflammatory rhetoric. Before the United Nations President Chávez labelled Bush a devil and could still smell the sulphur. Domestically his rhetoric has also reached what appeared to foreigners and some Venezuelans alike to be incredible heights for the chief executive of a democratic state, with opposition members labelled "squalid", "American stooges", and even "fascists". This is matched by the opposition which has labelled Chávez a "dictator", and warned "be careful, Hugo. Don't end up like your counterpart Benito Mussolini, hung upside down", though such opposition outbursts of course are rarely reported internationally.

Given this context it would be tempting to view current declarations of an intention to construct a more consensual politics with optimism. Leader of Homeland For All (PPT being the Spanish acronym) José Albornoz declared the need to "search for that which unifies us to advance, and not that which differentiates to divide." He continued explaining, "We have to understand that the opposition is a legitimate part of the political spectrum." Creation of such conciliatory politics he argued is a difficulty that "must be solved by all," government and opposition sectors alike.

Subsequently President Chávez declared to the opposition, "Abandon the cloud of fascism and dress yourselves in humility, demonstrating it with facts, not speeches, and subordinate yourselves not to me, but to the Bolivarian Constitution...right here is the door through which I'll receive you."

In tandem with these calls to dialogue issued by the leaders of the Bolivarian movement came similarly pointed calls from the opposition. Luis Ignacio Planas, President of COPEI, announced the need to "re-establish the social pact lost here in the last ten years," in the face of the world financial crisis and fall in oil prices Planas declared, "We have to enter a dialog, over what this (crisis) will bring." More impressively, in terms of demonstrating its commitment to a more consensual democratic politics, the opposition did not call fraud in the recent referendum on term limits. This commentary may sound deeply partial, but such a call was to be expected given the declaration of fraud during the 2008 regional elections, deemed "exemplary" by international observers, because some voting centres, obeying Venezuelan law which tells them not to shut until there are no queues of people waiting to vote, stayed open beyond the scheduled 6pm finish.

Even the Catholic Church, notable for its vehement opposition to Chávez, seems to have turned over a new leaf. Cardinal Jorge Sabino declaring, "We Venezuelans have to see each other as brothers. We aren't adversaries but members of the same people."

How substantive are these calls for bridge building? Do they usher in a new age of consensual Venezuelan political debate? Have Venezuela's opposed political forces peered again over the abyss of violent conflict and this time stepped back? A sceptic might suggest that the deeds Chávez calls for may be slow appearing on both sides. Yet then, looking at the aftermath of the Regional elections, one might conclude otherwise. There were no calls to consensus, in fact rhetoric escalated dramatically in the amendment campaigns.

The reality however appears somewhat different. In the run up to an electoral event escalatory rhetoric seems the clear choice of tactic on both sides. The reasons for this are complex, yet an obvious and significant cause is the 5,669,305 members of the PSUV, about 400,000 people more than the opposition has ever garnered in a Venezuelan election. The core Chavista message of anti-imperialism, inclusion in democracy and social provision, and increasingly socialism, is presumed to resonate powerfully with the huge party membership and so, as with the PSUV, "turning out the base" is generally sufficient to win an election all by itself, (despite Venezuela's impressively high voter turnout) emphasizing this core message through rhetoric which focuses on the links of the opposition to Washington is therefore considered an effective electoral strategy.

The opposition meets fire with fire. They repeatedly frame their struggle as against the authoritarian project of the President, which may of course strike some as ironic coming from signatories to the Carmona decree, which, in the 24 hours for which Chávez was displaced in the 2002 coup, attempted to dissolve the Supreme Court (which would subsequently absolve the coup plotters), the National Assembly, and suspended the Constitution. As with the government, this escalatory language seems an effective mobiliser of the approximately 40% of the population who oppose the Bolivarian process and for this reason it has been repeatedly used in the run up to recent electoral events.

The reality is that there were no calls to consensus after the regional elections precisely because an even more intense electoral battle was so obviously just around the corner, for which both sides would need their tried and tested aggressive frames of the contest.

As the electoral choice of discourse is strategically determined so, largely, is the post contest rhetoric. Both sides stand to gain by appearing "reasonable", doing so allows each to portray the other side as the dangerous force polarising Venezuelan politics. Yet while the change of rhetorical tack fits neatly with the opposition's self definition as the force for liberal democracy it is less easily used by Chávez's supporters.

A major post referendum debate has opened up among supporters of the President between the supposedly competing paths of reformism and revolution. Radical leftists label conciliation reformism, which shies away from the truly revolutionary policies needed, but that will inevitably generate conflict. In a meeting of local leftists I attended last night reformism was labelled a defence mechanism of capitalism, and reformists labelled enemies. This view, of conflict as inevitable along a truly revolutionary path makes the use of conciliatory rhetoric dangerous in a party which declares itself revolutionary.

This analysis may appear unduly cynical, yet the continuing decentralised clashes between PSUV and opposition elements of the state, in the wake of 2008's mixed regional election results testifies to the hollowness of the conciliatory discourse coming from both sides. Representatives of the opposition governor of Miranda state for example, on the 20th of February tried to expel 25 Cuban doctors from a local public health clinic to create office space. In Merida, Lester Rodriguez, the COPEI mayor Merida, having told me of his hopes "for the best relations, ones of respect, institutional relations without politicisation" with the PSUV dominated Local Council for Public Planning tried to sack the secretarial staff within one week of assuming office, violating the law on such councils which declares that their staff must be approved by the council itself.

Likewise Jorge Rodriguez, Mayor of Municipality Libertador in Caracas is refusing to cooperate with other opposition mayors and the opposition metropolitan mayor in much needed efforts to combat the city's severe traffic problems. He is refusing to enforce a policy that bans certain number license plates, on a daily rotation, from entering the city, claiming it a violation of the rights of people sporting those number plates.

Reconciliation of the debate between reformism and revolution within the PSUV may enable Chávez to pursue the genuinely more conciliatory policies that would really throw the gauntlet down to the opposition, to practice what it preaches. Yet this debate is as old as revolutionary movements themselves. Likewise, though Planas is right in declaring the need for unity to confront the effects of the financial crisis, these effects will most definitely be a force for division. Reduced government income will force it increasingly to choose between maintaining the impressive current social provision and closing many of the privileges it still offers to private business, which maintains its uneasy truce with FEDECAMARAS, the main business association.

As such, observers should remain sceptical regarding the rhetorical olive branches offered by both sides; they are unconvincing and are likely to be withdrawn all too soon. The recent history of the tone of Venezuelan debate belies the conciliatory discourse's apparent sincerity, and considerations of the frames used by both blocks reveals their different dispositions regarding the language of consensual politics.