Venezuela Enters Normality (Sort Of)

This campaign year showed that Venezuelan politics appears to have matured in this eight year of Chavez’s presidency, where politics is fought in peoples’ hearts and minds and not in street battles and in coup attempts. Unfortunately, significant sectors of the opposition still cannot accept or believe that they are in the minority.

Finally, a year of anticipation about Venezuela’s 2006 presidential election is about to come to an end. For Chavez supporters the campaign included some surprises, while for many anti-Chavistas it will probably end as was to be expected. In all, though, despite the uncertainties about how the opposition will react to the final result, this campaign year showed that Venezuelan politics appears to have matured in this eight year of Chavez’s presidency, where politics is fought in peoples’ hearts and minds and not in street battles and in coup attempts. Unfortunately, significant sectors of the opposition still cannot accept or believe that they are in the minority and thus are still convinced that Chavez is an illegitimate president and will continue to be so even if international observers ratify this Sunday’s election.

The Chavez Campaign

Chavez’s reelection campaign was effective, but disappointing. That is, his campaign was very dependent on him campaigning, usually by riding on the top of a truck in various parts of the country, though crowds of cheering supporters. As such, it did not seem to have too much to do with the original plan of mobilizing grassroots supporters in an organized fashion, where each supporter was supposed to convince at least ten others to vote for Chavez on December 3rd.

The other crucial component of Chavez’s reelection campaign was the almost daily inauguration of new programs, public works, or the celebration of anniversaries of existing programs. Officially, of course, such activities are not supposed to be considered part of his reelection campaign, but “official government activity.” However, it is obvious to everyone that even for Chavez’s standards of nearly constant public events, this was an unusually high number.

Unfortunately, Venezuela has no restrictions on the number of inaugurations or the amount of money the government may spend on publicizing itself. This is in contrast to many other Latin American countries, which strictly limit such activity, precisely because Presidents, if given the opportunity, tend to pull out all the stops and take full advantage of their position when running for reelection. This, however, is only the second time in Venezuelan history (the other being in 2000) that a Venezuela President is running for reelection, which explains why there are no laws in place that prevent this kind of taking of advantage of the office of the presidency.

Chavez’s campaign speeches were typical for their high level of energy and the devotion with which supporters rallied to cheer on their president, despite their length over two hours or more. Chavez often focused on how the opposition represented the interests of U.S. imperialism and how they were responsible for the April 2002 coup and the December 2002 shutdown of the oil industry. Chavez never mentioned his main opponent by name, but made fun of how he is accused of populism when his opponent is proposing the “non-plus-ultra” populist proposal, which is the debit card “Mi Negra” (“my black one”).[1] As such, though, his speeches and his campaign were directed only to his followers and did not appear to be directed towards the estimated 20% or more of the population that was undecided. If anything, it is the numerous inaugurations that were perhaps supposed to convince the undecided to vote for Chavez. However, Chavez did not address the two main concrete criticisms Rosales made of him, which probably resonate very well with the undecided vote, that crime under Chavez has increased dramatically and that Chavez was spending too much money and too much time abroad.

Chavez’s last and perhaps most important campaign event was an unprecedented interview he conducted jointly, Thursday night before the election, with one journalist each from two private TV stations Venevision (owned by Gustavo Cisneros) and Televen and one journalist each from two public TV stations, VTV and Telesur. The interview lasted 3 hrs. and 20 min. and ranged over all issues, from Venezuela’s supposed “cubanization” to regrets Chavez has about not being able to lead a normal life. The interview presented a very intimate and human picture of Chavez, who is always able to both to make jokes and to answer difficult and important topics in a serious and thoughtful manner. Chavez’s charisma, which is often mentioned with regard to his public appearances thus also came across very strongly in this more intimate context.

The Rosales Campaign

The candidate “of national unity,” as the opposition has tried to name him, Manuel Rosales ran a fairly intelligent campaign, despite his nearly complete lack of charisma. As mentioned earlier, Rosales targeted two of Chavez’s weakest points, crime and Chavez’s time and money spent abroad. Plus, rather than attacking Chavez for being a populist, as has become a favorite pastime among his critics in the North, Rosales played the populist card to the hilt with his Mi Negra proposal, which would supposedly give all poor Venezuelans 20% of the government’s oil revenues, which would come to about $350 per month. In effect, Rosales was saying, “If you vote for me, I will give you cash.” As such, the proposal makes a mockery of the opposition’s criticism that Chavez is a demagogic populist and that he has not sufficiently invested the country’s oil wealth in the people. It is doubtful that poor people would invest badly needed money rather than spend it. Chavez, instead, has indeed invested the money in education, by giving scholarships to people who go back to school (Mission Ribas and Sucre), and in health, by providing a community health program (Mission Barrio Adentro), among many other things. Even his expenditures abroad, are almost all investments and not give-aways, as Rosales claims.

But it seems as if actual arguments about the respective political campaigns don’t matter anyway. Chavez refused to debate Rosales and Rosales has packaged his candidacy as if it were the latest detergent. Atrevete! Dare to! is his campaign slogan, which jingled between his every other sentence in his final campaign speech. His “town hall meeting” with ordinary Venezuelans appeared to be staged by the same people who organize these types of events for Bush or Clinton in the U.S. The meeting acquired an even more surreal atmosphere because of the piped-in background music, which was reminiscent of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” that artificially heightens the tension every time an audience member asked a question. You could almost hear the moderator ask, “Is that your final answer?” before moving on to the next question (even the audience was arranged in a circle similar to the one in “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” a program that is just as popular in Venezuela as it is in the U.S.).

Part of Rosales’s packaging was an extreme anti-communism. It is ironic that one of the main criticisms the opposition uses against Chavez is the government’s supposed McCarthyite blacklisting of opposition supporters, via the so-called “Tascon list.”[2] While the list indeed appears to have been illegally used to check current and potential government employees’ loyalties, such a practice is understandable to some extent, since sabotage by opposition sympathizing government employees within the public administration has been very common (of which the oil industry shutdown was merely the most blatant example).

However, Rosales’s anti-communist rants against Chavez would have made McCarthy proud. Rosales rarely missed an opportunity to rail against the impending “Castro-communism” that Chavez would impose in his next term, should he win it. Never mind that Chavez has repeatedly stated that he has no plans to do so and if he wanted this for Venezuela, he could have done so long ago and that Venezuela currently is no closer to “Castro-communism” than it was eight years ago.

Opinion Polls

The scare tactic of warning against Chavez’s communist tendencies might work with his hard-core supporters, but it is unlikely to convince undecided voters to vote for him. Rather, undecided voters are more likely turned off by this type of talk because it reminds them of the scare tactics and triumphalism of the old opposition, who led their followers into one disastrous failure after the other: the coup attempt, the oil industry shutdown, the “guarimba” street blockades, the recall referendum, and the boycott of the National Assembly elections.

Opinion polls following the August 2004 recall referendum showed this alienation of opposition supporters quite clearly. Whereas prior to the referendum the opposition could count on up to 35% of the population that identified itself with the opposition, following the referendum this figure dropped down to around 15%. The opposition’s boycott of the December 2005 National Assembly elections was a reflection of this dramatic loss of support. They knew that they would lose a significant number of seats in the legislature and thus concluded that it would make more sense to use a boycott to try to delegitimize Chavez internationally.

The opposition was finally able to reverse this dramatic loss of popular support only once it started to play along with the rules of the democratic game by unifying behind a candidate, presenting a political program (of sorts), and promising to participate in the presidential campaign until election day. It is this newly found respect for the political process, among other things, that has allowed Rosales to climb from 5% support to around 30% support in the past six months. Of course, it also helped to have a campaign that focused not just on fear-mongering about communism, but also focused on some real problems, such as crime and unemployment.

Still, Rosales was not able to lower Chavez’s nearly insurmountable support of around 60%. That is, he had to spend all his time winning disaffected “ni-ni” voters (undecided or those who reject both camps) and in the end had no opportunity or ability to win over Chavez’s supporters. This is why practically all serious polls predict that Chavez will win with around 60% of the vote this Sunday.

Undaunted by these opinion polls, opposition supporters claim that the polls are biased because voters are supposedly afraid of telling pollsters the truth about how they intend to vote. While it does seem likely that most undecided voters will vote for Rosales on Sunday, the reason they did not tell pollsters this is not because they were afraid, but because their support for Rosales is lukewarm. As mentioned earlier, most undecided voters used to be opposition supporters and, if pushed, they will probably support the opposition again, even if they don’t particularly like the idea.

Fairness of the Vote

It is true, though, according to some polls, that many opposition voters don’t trust the voting process. Why is that and is this distrust justified? First, if one examines the voting process closely, there is no reason voters should be concerned about the transparency or fairness of the vote. Not only have earlier international observer missions repeatedly ratified the fairness and transparency of the vote, but the procedures are extremely scrupulous, far more so than in the U.S. (which is an admittedly low standard) and “The security and transparency measures introduced in the automated voting process are in line with the most advanced international practice.” (EU Electoral Observer Mission, about the 2005 National Assembly elections)

To give a brief run-down of the procedure, the voting machine software is open and is audited by witnesses from all parties. This software then generates a unique software “signature” (like a fingerprint), which assures that the software will not be tampered with. If the signature does not match, then the machine stops functioning. Also, to operate the machines (including modifying their software), a three-part password is required, which is shared between three different parties. So, for someone to tamper with the machine, they would need the agreement of opposing parties to do so.

Another crucial security feature are the paper ballots that the machines print, which voters can check before dropping these into the ballot box. Later, a random sample of voting machines is selected, to make sure that the paper ballots match the electronic vote count. In previous elections the sample was a small fraction of the machines used. This time, though, to increase confidence in the vote, the CNE has agreed to a sample of 54% of the ballot boxes.

Despite the assurances of international observers, die-hard opposition supporters still believe that fraud will be committed. The reason they believe this is because it is convenient for their leadership to convince their supporters of this, even if they know better (since they can participate in the auditing procedures). Last year’s EU Electoral Observer Mission even admitted as much, suggesting that the lack of confidence in the voting system had nothing to do with the CNE, but had everything to do with the opposition’s campaign against the CNE.

After the Vote

Given the lack of trust that still reigns and the opposition leadership’s efforts to generate such lack of trust, the big question will be what will happen after the vote on Sunday, when, in all likelihood, Chavez is declared the winner. Will the opposition accept the vote or will it cry “fraud!” once again, just as they did in December 2005 and in August 2004, even though they did not have a shred of evidence?

There are plenty of rumors going around, both among Chavistas and opposition supporters that disturbances will occur. Even the U.S. embassy in Venezuela has joined the rumor mill by suggesting to its citizens that they stockpile food for the post-vote period. Saturday Venezuela’s armed forces discovered a stash of posters (Spanish link) with Rosales’ campaign picture and logo and an announcement for a “Great Avalanche against Fraud.” According to the poster, a demonstration would take place on Tuesday, December 5, to protest against the fraud that would supposedly have been committed on the previous Sunday.

There is no doubt that there are sectors of the opposition that are desperate enough to try another anti-democratic adventure. The big question is whether the more moderate sectors of the opposition will play along or if the radical opposition can go it alone. Previously, the hard-line opposition was almost always able to determine the course of the entire opposition, which is why they all engaged in so much anti-democratic activity. But this time it seems things might be different. Many people in the opposition seem to have learned that the course of destabilization has given them nothing but bitter defeats. This is why the more moderate sectors of the opposition seem to be setting the tune now, with their participation in the presidential election, against earlier predictions.

This doesn’t mean that the radical opposition won’t try to engage in riots, street blockades, etc. What it does mean is that if they do, they will fail even more miserably than they did in their previous attempts. The more moderate opposition will probably not play along this time and the radical opposition will be completely isolated and perhaps even incarcerated, as a result of their violent activity.

Such a failure of the radical opposition would hopefully then mean that politics in Venezuela will take yet another step towards normality and maturity. That is, it will continue on a stronger path in the direction of competing for hearts and minds instead of taking the path of outright violence, as was the case in its relatively recent past.

[1] This term has a triple meaning in Venezuela, referring to oil, a black or dark skinned woman, and as a term of endearment for a woman. Many have criticized the racist implications of the term in this context, since a black women is advertising the card for the Rosales campaign.

[2] This list consisted of those who signed the petition for a recall referendum against the President. National Assembly member Luis Tascon posted it on his personal website, so that Chavez supporters could make sure that their name had not been added to the referendum against their will. Later, opposition supporters charged that the list was being used to blacklist them in their efforts to get jobs in the public administration.