Thinking Outside the Referendum Ballot Box to Spare the Nation Additional Travail

It has been a rough year for both Chávez and his opposition.Larry Birns, Director of the Washington DC based Council on Hemispheric Affairs provides a thorough analysis of Venezuela's current political situation.

By Larry Birns, Manuel Rueda, Jill Shelly - COHA
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  • Time may be running out for the country as tensions mount and Washington’s quartet of rightwing ideologues work overtime.
  • The opposition has a referendum strategy, but seems to be otherwise bereft of a coherent program or leader, as it puts its eggs into one basket-- a referendum on the Chávez presidency.
  • Chávez’s numerous personal excesses are equaled by the opposition’s opportunism and negative instincts.
  • The opposition’s operating standard appears not to be whether a policy is good for the country, but whether it is bad for Chávez.
  • Chávez must act like a disciplined leader rather than a querulous graduate student.  It is also time for the opposition to stop indulging in arrant sectarianism and conform to Venezuela’s tradition of civic virtue.
  • Chávez is often provocative, undignified and undisciplined, although he has proved to be a much more faithful steward of the country’s constitutional traditions.
  • Petitions are being stamped as the national electoral council (CNE) prepares to count them to establish whether the opposition qualifies with the necessary minimum.
  • Paucity of good ideas on how to reconcile the nation plagues its future.
  • If Chávez is recalled, he must step down; if the opposition doesn’t meet the petition test, it must abide by the law and halt its assaults on him.
  • Venezuelan media must begin to act responsibly and honor the profession.

Perilous Days Ahead

Venezuela’s middle class-led political opposition continues to push forward with its efforts to purge the country of President Hugo Chávez’s presence.  On the weekend of November 30, it organized a four-day petitioning drive in order to trigger a recall referendum on the incumbent.  Venezuela’s constitution permits such a procedure to take place once an office holder has served at least half of his or her term in office.  Chávez became vulnerable to the implementation of this provision last August when he reached the halfway point of his second term, which began in 2000.

The opposition first claimed that more than 3.6 million individuals, or approximately 30% of the electorate, had endorsed the petition during the 4-day signing period several weeks ago, but after closely examining the signatures, it lowered its estimate to 3.4 million, which still would be about a million more than the required minimum of 2.4 million.  The National Electoral Commission (CNE) is scheduled to review the petitions after the Christmas and New Year’s break, using approximately 1,100 employees working around the clock in three different shifts to enter the names and national ID card numbers of the signers into computers.  In order for his opponents to finally resolve Chávez’s status, which should be accomplished by the end of January, the council would have to certify that approximately two-thirds of the collected signatures are bona fide.  Meanwhile, the government held its own petition drive in an attempt to set the stage to recall 32 opposition legislators from their seats in the national assembly.  The opposition has had a similar strategy in seeking to collect a sufficient number of petitions to replace its now somewhat reduced target number of 26 pro-Chávez lawmakers.

Although the Chávez administration has amassed scattered pieces of evidence that the petition drive involved instances of fraud, the nation will have to await the CNE finding in order to validate such charges, although both the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center have provisioned and validated the fairness of the vote.  Nor has the evidence that government officials have presented up to this point has been very compelling.

Chávez himself expressed predictable, if similar self-serving views, insisting that, “I have no doubt that the attempt at fraud was of great magnitude.”  He claimed that many of the individuals who signed the petitions did so at least twice, using different names printed on false identification cards.  He also berated the opposition for its hesitation to present their petitions to the appropriate CNE officials in a timely fashion.  On December 19, this was finally done, when officials of the Coordinadora Democratica (CD) handed over several hundred cartons of petitions to the CNE.  Shortly before this transaction, Chávez observed that, “I know what they are trying to do.  They are trying to fix the witch’s brew.  It can’t be fixed.  What you should do, gentlemen, is say ‘Look we’ve failed.’  Tell the truth.”

Jesus Torrealba, a CD leader, responded differently.  Shortly before the petitions were turned in one week before Christmas, he explained the delay by saying, “We’re doing an even more exhaustive verification than the CNE council plans to do.  That’s what’s going to allow us to know…if any objections have technical criteria or political motives.”  Meanwhile, Chávez, at one point declared that he would not recognize the validity of the petition for a referendum, even if the CNE upheld its legitimacy. 

Washington Waiting to Pounce

As viewed from Washington, the referendum presents an excellent opportunity for the Bush administration to rid itself of that noisy nuisance in Caracas.  With Secretary of State Colin Powell all-but ignoring the region, Washington’s lesser lights are very much at work.   Presidential Envoy Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Roger Noriega and his deputy, Sen. Jesse Helms’ alumnus Dan Fisk, along with fellow rabid ideologue Dep. Secretary of State John Bolton, are joined in a committed effort to undo Chávez because of his unforgivable close relationship with Fidel Castro.  These political gunslingers see Castro as nurturing a grand design to form a regional-wide leftist populist bloc, including Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, that is ready and willing to take on the U.S. in matters of trade, U.N. policy and restraining the administration in its efforts to globally expand the definition of “terrorism.”  According to Juan Tamayo of the Miami Herald, a split has now developed between the aforementioned and State Department moderates such as Charles Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, and John Maisto, who presently serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the OAS.  Both of them believe that Chávez has not been taking a particularly anti-U.S. stand that threatens U.S. security interests in the region. 

It is unlikely that the current stand-off between Venezuela’s two domestic foes can be postponed indefinitely.  Right now the country is alternatively being assailed by the “fear factor” as well as “fatigue.”  Depending upon differing circumstances, “fear” takes various forms in the country.  Against Chávez, it centers around the belief that the Venezuelan strongman means to reproduce a Cuban-style regime in Venezuela, flooding the country with Cuban medicine, sports, and administrative specialists, as well as to institutionalize state socialism which will mean, from their perspective, the death of free enterprise in the country, as well as aligning Venezuela with a worldwide putative anti-U.S. conspiracy.  Chavistas, for their part, see the acquisitive middle class threatening to push back the social program formulated by Chávez that has, for the first time in modern Venezuelan history, given the poor majority of the nation a stake in the system.  Many of the poor defend Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution because they share his scorn for the endemic corruption and longstanding greed that have helped define Venezuela’s post World War II history, in which democracy only existed in form and not substance, and where the poor were entirely invisible in the eyes of the middle class.

The Fatigue Factor

If the “fear factor” poses such a mortal menace to Venezuela’s future stability, so does the phenomenon of “fatigue.”  Fatigue invokes the notion that Venezuelan institutions, already under great stress, could break down with the country reverting to the law of the jungle.  Fatigue is already present in many of the most basic components of Venezuelan life.  Army support for Chávez may shatter if the military begins to feel that backing the president has dangerously isolated it from the rest of Venezuelan society.  Church denunciation of Chávez may cause deep division between the hierarchy and diocesan priests.  The present alliance between the CTV and the business association could be further frayed as class interests once again reassert themselves.  The country’s already largely discredited media could continue to lose its audience as the belief widens that the nation’s newspapers and television are not credible in their content.

Today’s scenario of posing Chávez against his mainly middle class-led opposition allows for no precautions to be taken, nor does the referendum strategy in which the anti-Chávez forces have placed so much faith.  That is why both the government and opposition are presently taking such perilous risks.  What is at stake here is the preservation of Venezuela’s now deeply threatened, but once legendary capacity for civic rectitude that has made the country immune against the kind of vicious civic strife which was experienced throughout Central America during the 1980’s.

The recall vote provides yet another opportunity for the nation to divide perhaps fatally along ideological grounds, with each side exaggerating the magnitude of the ideological threat posed by the other.  In this respect, the petition drive differed from last year’s 10-week general strike also led by the nation’s middle class which mainly brought ruin down upon itself.  In truth, the only formula that can now spare Venezuela the kind of societal explosion which has been experienced by so many other Latin American countries is for all sides to enter into a self-conscious social and economic compact which will spell out the rules of the game, in which all factions will be called upon to make massive concessions.  In this regard, it will mean that specific rules of the game would guarantee that the opposition would accept Chávez’s continued tenure in office for a specific duration if he survives a recall vote, and that he would step down if he doesn’t.  But the emphasis would be on a negotiated settlement rather than technocratic language surrounding a recall vote that demonstrably could bring greater injury- win or lose- than it cures.   

The intense contest now unfolding on the issue of the petitions may seem worthwhile if it facilitates Venezuela’s to possibly exit from its present superheated impasse, but it is only a small step if one considers that what the country really needs is massive economic reforms and a stable political environment, if millions of Venezuelans are to be lifted out of poverty.  The achievement of such an enormous task by government and opposition leaders at this stage seems well beyond possibility because they look upon each other more as mortal foes incapable of engaging in any form of reconciliation, rather than potential discussants in a conversation aimed at easing the nation’s travail.

Referendum Tests Democracy

Chávez is by no means the only official whose job is at risk.  Government and opposition parties have unleashed a wave of petition campaigns to recall their political opponents in other elected offices. Currently 65 of Venezuela’s 165 national assembly seats are being contested, (a reduced list of them belonging to opposition parties), having been placed by their colleagues on the “recallable” list.  The rampant use of this constitutional right has fueled the level of enmity in the national assembly, where consensus building today seems to be a rare event.

But is such extravagant electoral jousting justifiable in the midst of the present crisis that is engulfing the nation?   If one considers popular demand as the main propellant for undertaking the steps of a potential recall, the case for a referendum on the Chávez presidency is particularly strong, given the rabid hatred of him by the middle class.  A poll conducted in July by a well-regarded American public opinion firm found that 70% of Venezuelans supported challenging the president’s mandate at the ballot box, while 68% believed that if a referendum on Chávez was aborted, the country would suffer from political violence and social unrest.  Almost 60% of respondents thought that the referendum on the president should precede attempts to recall governors and mayors.  At the same time, some independent observers maintain that it would be wise to drop referendum strategy altogether and focus on campaigning for the next year’s local elections, for which Chávez is already selecting candidates.

Seeking a Resolution

While the mainstream middle class opposition as well as Chávez’s confederates appeal to their respective constituents to join the referendum furor, a new if still small current of civil society is criticizing politicians on both sides for what is sees as an incapacity to formulate constructive policies which will serve all Venezuelans. One such critic is Artuto Sosa, leader of Venezuela’s Jesuit community.  A Chávez critic, Sosa argues that a possible referendum on the president will far from solve the country’s political crisis, because the opposition has “neither managed to generate an attractive proposal nor one that resonates with the poor majority.”  When asked what solution he would propose to bring that about, he speaks about the formulation of a basic program to advance the country’s development. 

Some opposition groups, such as the center-left Primero Justicia, have brought their own “country proposals” to the table (but rather timidly), even though they are aligning the heft of their political activity with the CD’s referendum advocacy. As for Chávez’s governing style, Sosa is not the only opposition leader who sees it as “a movement that is profoundly mobilizing, populist, personalist and statist,” but at the same time, he is one of the few who acknowledges that Venezuela’s traditional parties, Acción Democratica and Copei ruled the country in very similar terms for almost fifty years.  Today, AD is arguably the second strongest party in the country, right behind President Chávez’s MVR in its national assembly seats, as well as possessing a number of governorships and mayorships. 

Following their Predecessor’s Path?

Chávez supporters assert that, in fact, it is the current administration which is successfully steering Venezuela away from its statist and authoritarian past.  They refer to the introduction of the new constitution at the beginning of Chávez’s term, which provides numerous opportunities for citizens to become directly involved in participatory politics, including making provisions for the current recall drive. Civil society groups can, for example, participate indirectly in the selection of judicial officials as well for as the national electoral commission.  Furthermore, Chávez’s standing with his own people seems to be improving, which reflects an economy which once again shows promises.  Even though the middle-class led last year end’s strike cost the economy $10 billion, unemployment has slowly dropped to 15%.  The Bloomberg News Service credits the Venezuela Stock Exchange with one of the two best performances of the 59 exchanges it monitors worldwide.  With Chávez’s personal popularity, he has climbed back to 40% after dipping to 30% a number of months ago.

But recent events suggest there is a gap between the theory and practice involving the possibility of a political opening. At the present time, the MVR delegates to the national assembly, with Chávez’s endorsement, are seeking to pass a controversial judicial reform law.  The measure would increase the number of justices to 32 and give the national assembly the power to elect and remove them through a simple majority vote. To the opposition, this sounds like nothing less than a ploy by the pro-government party to use its narrow parliamentary majority to permanently paint the judiciary with the MVR’s colors.  The government party defends the move, however, as a way of democratizing the judiciary by making it more accountable to elected legislators, who, after all, are the peoples’ tribunes. 

The government’s commitment to transparency is being put into question by other developments regarding the judiciary.  In March, the Supreme Court’s “plenary assembly,” suspended the five-year old system used to appoint judges, without providing a clear explanation for the basis of this decision. 

At the present time, 85 percent of Venezuela’s judges have been offered temporary appointments by the selection process, without having to formally compete for their posts.  The resulting job insecurity makes them more vulnerable to political leverage as a result of patronage coming from within or outside the institution.  According to Fernando Rodriguez, one of the supervisors of the judicial contest system, its suspension indicates “the return to the system of judicial tribes,” an old informal scenario where judges sought after cases and made their decisions based mainly on party loyalties.

A recent request by Chávez to have the judiciary’s administrative body remove particular judges from the First Court of Appeal has further exacerbated the struggle to control the courts.  The pretext to remove these judges is that there was evidence of widespread corruption on that bench, but it is hard to ignore the fact that this was the very same court that ruled in favor of the anti-governing oil workers participating in the national strike, and whose actions prevented the government’s prosecutors from disbanding their union.  This struggle over a balanced judicial system reflects the often shrouded interconnected nature of Venezuela’s institutions, which historically have been heavily influenced by the given ruling party of the day. 

Charting a new Path

Aside from the courts, tensions between government forces and the opposition are making it difficult for those Venezuelans who little care for sterile partisan politics, to chart a new and revitalized path for the country’s development.  The long-running struggle over media control, for example, has recently flared up due to a controversial decision by CONATEL, Venezuela’s telecommunications’ regulating body.  In this case, it fined Globovision, a 24-hour domestic news network, and confiscated its microwave broadcasting equipment on grounds that it hadn’t obtained a permit for tapping into the country’s micro-wave system.  Microwave frequencies are used to broadcast live events occurring outside the studio; the suspension therefore, prevents Globovision from transmitting street interviews or such political events as demonstrations.

President Chávez had strongly supported CONATEL’s action against one of his harshest critics, arguing that the regulatory body is merely enforcing existing laws that long have been ignored.  Although Venezuela’s telecommunications regulations gives CONATEL the right to demand a microwave broadcasting license from Globovision, the company maintains that it can only confiscate equipment when “reasons of urgency merit” such action, and then only provisionally.  Thus far, CONATEL has not made an effort to explain why it was so urgent to hamper Globovision’s broadcasting capabilities in a country where all TV stations have had unregulated access to micro-waves for years, and where most continue to have it.   

A Nation in Trouble

No single court decision is likely to soothe the overall polarized and confrontational atmosphere now seizing the nation.  Political tensions are not likely to be eased if both the government and opposition leaders do not fully realize the dangers, and then act decisively to alter the combative rhetoric in which they now advance their case to the citizens concerning the country’s future to the citizenry. Up to now, this process has featured a simplistic dialogue focusing on whether Chávez should remain or be removed from office.  The opposition-backed media, which controls the lion’s share of the information market, continues to attack the government through blatantly propagandistic anti-Chávez programming that peddles fear rather than hope about the country's future, while making little effort to search for the roots of the country’s social and economic ills and how to mend them.  Chávez himself has contributed to the “fear factor” by repeatedly alarming Venezuelans about current plots and far-fetched conspiracies, most recently inspired by an alleged CIA plot to remove him from office, while at the same time vowing to do away with the “oligarchic” opposition, which often translates into only meaning those opposed to him.  

Fortunately, there are some positive developments amidst the polemical storms, such as a recent proposal to create a Venezuelan version of C-SPAN, which will transmit all national assembly debates. Most encouragingly, this is a bipartisan initiative which has been proposed by members of the Boston Group, a coalition of legislators from both the opposition and the government sides who are trying to build a national consensus with the aid of a number of members of the U.S. congress.  Such initiatives could broaden the political horizons of the Venezuelan public, whose sources of information are presently narrow and predictably highly partisan.

Civil Society’s Response

While the government and opposition media networks provide at best, highly ideological space and time which is crowded by tendentious and inflammatory dialogue, some of Venezuela’s more pluralized civil society groups struggle to voice a more constructive point of view. Their attempt to do so can only be therapeutic for Venezuela’s presently highly polarized democracy.  These relative freebooters who, while opposing Chávez and vigorously, but peacefully, still hitting the campaign trail along with the traditional political parties in order to collect referendum petitions, are still peddling a far less incendiary life.  Cyber space websites, representing both sides of the political spectrum, have undergone a boom as well.  

The present rise of community-driven media is also indicative of civil society’s drive to open up more constructive political dialogue.  Over the past three years, dozens of low powered non-commercial community-based radio and television stations have been established in some of the country’s more impoverished neighborhoods.  This boom in neighborhood broadcasting can be partly attributed to the reform in media licensing laws that began taking place at the beginning of President Chávez’s term.  However, senior executives from some of Venezuela’s largest commercial media outfits are warning that the pro-government media is increasingly serving as a personal propaganda machine for Chávez.  While the neighborhood media generally does side with the government, its source of funding is somewhat cloudy. If it manages to remain independent from government influence, community media could evolve into being a welcome addition to Venezuela’s still dubious democratic spectrum, as it will be in a good position to voice the interests of the under-represented poor.

In the arena of organized labor, shifts are beginning to occur that could have important implications for Venezuelan civil society, such as empowering certain parts of it (namely newly unionized workers) to demand new socio-economic rights and the ability to put forth a different vision for the country.  The increasingly shopworn Confederación de Trabajadores Venezolanos (CTV), Venezuela’s largest union umbrella group, is now being challenged by the rise of a new body, the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT).  Since its inception in April, the UNT has declared itself as an independent body that is supportive of President Chávez’s policies. 

The UNT, which claims to represent over a million workers, has been described as a “farce, stacked with government officials” by its rival, CTV’s former secretary general, Carlos Navarro.  The new trade union was created in response to what some unions saw as the CTV’s corrupt, double-dealing machinations, and its perceived betrayal of the workers it was supposed to serve, particularly after it joined with the employer’s federation to organize last year’s 10-week national strike.  The government has expressed its approval of the UNT, but has been careful not to overly meddle in its affairs, perhaps signaling a backing away from its previous attempts to interfere in union politics by attempting to undermine what it saw as unfriendly union leaders. On Labor Day for example, government officials refrained from playing a role at several UNT demonstrations, unlike the opposition’s main private-sector political figures who regularly speak at CTV events. 

History suggests there could be a reason to worry about possible collusions between Chávez and the UNT.  Unions in Venezuela traditionally have served as little more than government affiliates, whose bosses collected generous government pay-offs in compensation for providing political support for the nation’s political leadership in return for restraining the wage demands of their union members.

Economic Choice Decreases

But in any event, unions will not be able to do much for the fastest growing sector of the Venezuelan labor force, which toils away in the informal economy.  The only safety net protecting members of this sector seems to mainly rely upon episodic government handouts.  As of late, Chávez is trying to alleviate their suffering and win political support by increasing spending on hastily organized social programs.  One controversial project involves sending hundreds of Cuban doctors into Venezuela’s poor communities, despite a surplus of local doctors whom the government sees as being unsuitable for practicing community-oriented medicine.  Such programs form part of a broader ensemble of government-backed social initiatives which conservative commentators have labeled as an old and tested ploy to buy political support.  The British publication, The Economist, was particularly vehement on this point, accusing Chávez of clientelism in an article entitled, “if you can’t beat them, buy them,” published in October.

Laying aside the question of whether Chávez’s various welfare programs are formulated to curry political support, or are aimed at easing social ills, the truth is that their modus operandi is not particularly novel.  For decades, Venezuela’s presidents have used the country’s oil revenues to provide disposable social benefits to a population that has grown accustomed to such government handouts.  Twenty years ago, for instance, President Lusinchi (from the now-opposition party AD), like Chávez years later, supported subsidized marketplaces which he called a “system of family baskets.”  Again following in his predecessor’s footsteps, Chávez is increasing fiscal expenditures, while claiming that his government wishes to reduce the country’s bloated bureaucracy.  However, history has shown that Lusinchi’s paternalistic social plans did little to provide lasting employment for Venezuela’s poor, who largely remain in unstable and inefficient jobs in the informal economy sector.

A socio-economic program that breaks with the past would tackle how to move from oil dependency (which generates 80% of Venezuela’s export earnings and 50% of all government revenues, but employs only 1% of the labor force) in order to enable the private sector to generate jobs for the largely underemployed poor.  The hoped for growth of formal enterprises is particularly important because slightly more than half of the labor force currently works in the less rewarding and far more unstable informal sector.  But up to now, there is little evidence that the country’s economic policies are nudging it in that direction. 

Venezuela’s private sector, which employs about 86% of the nation’s labor force, is in an anemic state.  Some of this is attributable to its own mistakes, namely last year’s turn-of-the-year economically-crippling national strike sponsored by business leaders in conjunction with CTV trade union officials.  However, the government-imposed exchange controls are now grievously punishing small and medium-sized businesses that may rely on imported components, while high interest rates fend off potential foreign investors.  President Chávez’s anti-business rhetoric, though not entirely to blame for Venezuela’s lack of global economic competitiveness, does little to welcome investors to take a gamble on what has to be seen as a politically unstable country.

To be fair, there have been some positive developments in Venezuela’s economy.  According to Juan Francisco Clerico, president of Venezuela’s construction industry federation, the infrastructure sector of the economy is expected to generate 100,000 jobs next year, largely due to the infrastructure ministry’s plans to let contracts for new capital projects.  And in the following weeks, the state owned oil company, PDVSA, is expected to complete a deal with Royal-Dutch Shell that could lead to the sale of 4.7 million tons of natural gas per-year to the United States.  Meanwhile, the state-owned oil company is taking steps to sell of its holdings in a German petroleum consortium, which could then be used for domestic investment, including projects which could improve social justice.  Ironically, these developments arise from conventional approaches by the left and right, involving the exploitation of natural resources and enhanced public spending.

            Nevertheless, faced with dire economic prospects and scant political openings, it appears that Venezuelans must negotiate or brace for tough times ahead.  The referendum, portrayed by some opposition leaders as the key solution, may pump some life into the country’s limp democracy if enough signatures are on the petitions to clearly meet the constitutional threshold for staging such a vote.  However, Venezuelans will have to do much more soul searching and honest negotiation to chart a path out of the country’s political and economic wilderness, if chaos and disruption are to be countered.  In this respect, Venezuela’s referendum tactic will likely prove to be fool’s gold rather than a guaranteed way out of what is now a national dilemma. 

This analysis was prepared by Larry Birns, COHA Director, Manuel Rueda, COHA Research Fellow, and Jill Shelly, COHA Research Associate.

Issued 31 December 2003

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