“Reafirmazo” and “Revocalos” (Re-sign/Re-affirm and Revoke ‘em)

Venezuela is entering another dangerous phase with the petition drive against President Chavez. Is the calm atmosphere now just the calm before the storm or has Venezuela's opposition accomodated itself to playing the democratic game?

November 24 was the last day of the “Revocalos” petition drive, as the petition against opposition legislators is known. Of the 38 legislators against whom the Chavistas were collecting signatures, 37 will probably have to face recall referenda in April, according to the highly respected editor of the newspaper Últimas Noticias, Eleazer Diaz Rangel. Beginning on Friday, November 28, begins the “Reafirmazo,” as the opposition’s recall petition drive against President Chavez and 30 of his legislators is known.

Meanwhile, civilized political behavior seems to have returned to Venezuela. After a meeting with the media, Chavez promised to tone down his verbal attacks against the media and the media, in turn, have promised to reciprocate (see: “Venezuela’s Commercial and State Media”). The first fruits of this promise appeared when Chavez agreed to be interviewed by two of his most strident critics from the private mass media. Also, Chavez said that he could imagine that the opposition would collect the necessary signatures in order to call for a recall referendum against his presidency. As for the oppositional media, they, for the first time, provided extensive news coverage of pro-Chavez activity during their petition drive for recall referenda against opposition legislators.

The big question for everyone who knows of the ups and downs of Venezuelan politics is, how long will this peace last? In the weeks leading up to the petition drives, Chavez and other politicians of the governing coalition presented evidence that suggested that some more radical members of the opposition were planning to cause disturbances during the recall referendum, in the form of bomb attacks against signature collection locales, which would then be blamed on Chavistas.

Specifically, pro-Chavez legislators Nicolas Maduro, Juan Baretto, and Roger Rondon presented recorded phone conversations in which opposition leaders mentioned plans to destabilize the government. One conversation took place between the former president of the country’s conservative union federation CTV, Carlos Ortega, now in self-imposed exile in Costa Rica, and the federation’s current president, Manuel Cova (see: “Opposition Leaders Prepare ‘Civil Rebellion’”). In the conversation, Cova and Ortega talk about when and how Ortega should return to Venezuela and that when he arrives there would be a “civil rebellion” and that, roughly, all hell will break lose. Exactly how or why this would happen they do not say.

Maduro, Barreto, and Rondon surmised that the opposition was planning bombings at signature collection places, which would then be blamed on Chavistas. The ensuing chaos and outrage would then be used to organize a general strike, in the hopes of provoking Chavez into calling a state of emergency and a further escalation of Venezuela’s political conflict. The ultimate purpose of the escalation would be to provoke both the international community and the military into taking action against Chavez.

Further evidence for such an opposition plan emerged when the three legislators presented their second recording (see: “Legislators Present New Evidence”), this time between an advisor to the CTV and Carlos Fernandez, the former president of the Chamber of Commerce, Fedecamaras, which had led the April 2002 coup attempt and the shut-down of Venezuela’s oil industry in late 2002. In the course of the conversation they mention the need to talk to the CIA and to various branches of industry, such as transportation, presumably to convince them to participate in a general strike.

Another piece of evidence of a possible destabilization campaign emerged when Venezuela’s national police seized arsenals of weapons, munitions and grenades (see: “Police Seized Arsenals”). The seizure of the arsenals were said to be based on the observation of opposition groups.

It could very well be that the sudden calm on Venezuela’s streets is merely the calm before the storm. However, it could also be that the exposure of the possible destabilization plots, by Maduro, Barreto, and Rondon, made it practically impossible for the more radical groups in Venezuela’s opposition to hatch their plans. A less likely possibility is that these plans were never real in the first place.

It is likely that these plans were real because the evidence seems compelling. First, the phone conversations, in which such plans are implied, sound like the voices of the people they are attributed to. While it is possible to edit such conversations, they sound awfully real and natural. Second, there are elements in Venezuela’s opposition, such as the so-called Bloque Democratico (“Democratic Block”) and the Militares Democraticos (“Democratic Military Officers”) of Plaza Altamira who are calling for a “civil-military rebellion” and for Chavez’ ouster before the end of the year. The only way they can achieve such a goal would be via undemocratic means.

It would be nice if one could put off the pronouncements of these radical groups as the ravings of a fringe group. However, the supposedly mainstream opposition coalition, the Democratic Coordinator and the groups they represent, have so far not sufficiently denounced the activities of the more radical elements, thus giving the impression that they are not completely opposed to them. Only the complete isolation of such undemocratic organizations (which try to disguise their undemocratic nature with names signifying the opposite of what they represent) can assure Venezuela a peaceful future.

It is thus of utmost importance that the world pay careful attention to what happens in Venezuela between November 28 and December 1, when the opposition is collecting signatures in favor of a recall referendum against President Chavez. They will have to collect over 2.4 million signatures in just four days, a task which, if successful, will probably represent a milestone in the history of petition drives. If the radical opposition has its way and manages to create disturbances and to convince a large part of Venezuela’s opposition to go along with its plans, it will probably disguise its real coup-oriented activity very well with the help of a supportive private mass media. It will be up to the alternative media and to independent observers who are immune to the manipulations of Venezuela’s private media to tell the world what is really happening, just as was the case during the coup attempt a year and a half ago.