Once again, Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, is showing two faces. One face is that of the opposition, many of whom are almost ecstatic at having the opportunity to put their name down in favor of a recall referendum against President Chavez and his legislators in the National Assembly. This face one can see mostly in the wealthier middle and upper middle class neighborhoods of Caracas, in the east and south of the city, where they are lining up to sign in lines that can last as much as 40 minutes (which is not much for a city known for its long lines in Banks and in government offices).
|Working-class neighborhood of Petare, Caracas.|
Photo Credit: Gregory Wilpert
The other face of Caracas is dominated by Chavistas, who reside mostly in the poorer neighborhoods, in the barrios, as they are known. This face of Caracas is visible primarily at the nearly empty signature collections locations in the city’s west (with the exception of Petare, which is one of the city’s largest barrios, is located in the East, and was also practically empty – see picture). These citizens could mostly be seen during last week’s “firmazo” (signature collection drive), when signatures were being collected to revoke the mandates of opposition legislators.
Both sides, Chavistas and anti-Chavistas, are, of course, claiming victory. The oppositional newspapers and private TV channels are saying that the opposition’s signature collections process is a total success. The headline of one of the main papers, El Nacional, for example, said, “The First Day of the ‘Reafirmazo’ Exceeded All Expectations.” The other main newspaper, El Universal, even gave tacit recognition to the two faces of Caracas when it headlined its article on the process with “Total ‘Reafirmazo’ in the East.” (In contrast, El Nacional, in an effort to disprove the notion that the recall would only be strong in the east, placed a front page image of a full signature collection locale in the city’s West.)
Chavistas, such as pro-government legislators Luis Tascon and Ismael Garcia, are saying that the opposition collected fewer signatures during its first day than Chavistas collected during the first day of its petition drive last week. Tascon pointed out that since the opposition must collect much more signatures than Chavistas did in order to have a presidential recall referendum, the lower turn-out means that the opposition will probably not reach its goal.
Meanwhile, Chavez supporters are saying that the opposition’s petition drive is marred by many irregularities, mostly having to do with private employers pressuring employees to provide proof of having signed the opposition’s petition against Chavez. (It should be noted that last week the opposition charged government officials with pressuring state employees to sign the petition against the opposition.) Other, perhaps more minor incidents include the lack of credentials for organizers of signature collection locations. Other complaints included the use of computers at signature collection locations, which were used to verify signers’ voter registration data and which were subsequently declared illegal by the National Electoral Council (CNE).
|In El Recreo, Caracas, accross from a ritzy mall.|
Photo Credit: Gregory Wilpert
The greatest danger at this point, when the process still seems to be operating relatively smoothly and calmly, is that the opposition might attempt to resort to fraud or the Chavistas might try to annul the vote on the basis of fraud claims. As soon as fraud becomes involved, serious or less serious, real or imagined, the whole process becomes muddied and could provide an excuse for anyone who is interested to disqualifq the entire prokess. If the opposition does not collect enough signatures, it will almost definitely be members of the opposition who will be tempted to muddy the process, so as to avoid facing its possible defeat – perhaps even if unsuccessful, so that the failed petition drive can be blamed on the government. On the other hand, if they do collect enough signatures, it is entirely possible that some Chavistas will be tempted to disqualify the petition process as a whole. In either case, the political climate in Venezuela will heat up and will become dangerous and confrontational once again.Most likely, only a complete success or a complete failure of the opposition’s petition drive will avoid the above scenario of fraud charges and escalation. Unfortunately, all indications are that the numbers of signatures will be close, meaning that the charge and incidence of fraud will be more likely and more serious. If this is the way things will go, then the president, opposition leaders, and international observers must raise their profile and use their influence to lower the incidence of frivolous fraud charges and of actual fraud efforts. Anything else will lead to the continuation of Venezuela’s ruinous political conflict.