The petition drive to recall Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was stopped short March 2 when the Electoral Commission (CNE) invalidated more than 876,000 signatures. The commission accepted more than 1.8 million signatures collected in late November (see “Recall Fever Spreads South,” January 19), but the petition ended up 603,590 short of the 20 percent of registered voters required for recall.
The CNE granted the opportunity to revalidate the signatures, but spokesmen for the opposition argued that any procedures violated were minor in nature and did not imply organized manipulation.
Even before the CNE decision, opposition leaders initiated the “Guarimba Plan,” in which small groups blocked traffic and burned trash on key avenues in Caracas and other cities. Street damage in Caracas alone, according to Infrastructure Ministry estimates, reached $1 million in the first week. In addition, armed bands of opposition organizations, including the ex-leftist guerrilla Red Flag, hurled Molotov cocktails and attacked the National Guard—violence that police in areas controlled by opposition parties refused to stop. Henrique Capriles Randonski, mayor of a wealthy Caracas suburb and opposition party leader, said police were right not to interfere because protestors were doing “nothing less than exercising their legal right to protest.”
In an ironic twist, because the disruptions mainly occurred in affluent urban areas, those opposed to Chávez have been inconvenienced most. Gas stations in Caracas’ wealthy zones, for instance, were closed because of risk in delivering fuel. But the possibility of escalation leading to a business-decreed civic strike looms large. Shortly before the CNE announcement, pro-Chávez trade unionists met in Caracas and threatened to put into practice the slogan it raised at the time of the general strike: “A closed company is a company taken over.”
The current showdown is the third in two years. In April 2002 a two-day coup ousted Chávez, and that December the opposition spearheaded a 10-week general strike. Chávez has confronted opposition parties, the business organization FEDECMARAS, labor leaders, the Church hierarchy and, more recently, the United States. Chávez has prioritized the poorer classes both in his rhetoric and actions. Last year he initiated a series of Missions that established literacy, grade school and university programs in the poor communities. These programs, attacked as “populist,” increased Chávez’s popularity among the poor. According to pollsters Consultores-21 and Datos, Chávez’s support tops 40 percent, although his backers claim an even higher rating.
Members of the opposition have alleged human rights violations during the conflict. On March 4, they marched in Caracas to protest 300 illegal arrests and called on the Organization of American States and the Carter Center, who are observing the electoral process, to condemn the state’s repressive actions.
Since the open confrontations between government supporters and opposition began three years ago, both sides were able to count on roughly the same number of followers on the streets. But following the defeat of the general strike in early 2003, the situation changed and more recently the Chavistas called two marches of an estimated 400,000, which were unmatched by the opposition.
The second of the two recent Chavista marches was held February 29 to protest U.S. intervention in Venezuelan affairs. In his speech, Chávez denounced the generous funding of opposition groups by the notorious National Endowment for Democracy. Close to the podium a papier-mâché piranha represented the United States; nearby was a small fish representing Venezuela.
Some observers, including Miami Herald journalist Andres Oppenheimer, interpreted Chávez’s speech as a provocation against Washington in order to deflect attention from the recall and to justify further radicalization.
Chávez went on to deny that he was a Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti. Indeed, the Venezuelan armed forces solidly backs the government, as disloyal members have left or have been forced out as a result of the April coup and the subsequent general strike.
Members of the opposition are convinced that what is happening demonstrates Chávez’s hostility toward democracy, just as the Chavistas are certain that the opposition attempted to commit “electoral megafraud.” In this atmosphere of mutual distrust, a middle ground among national leaders is completely lacking. The situation is aggravated by a private media that has converted itself into propaganda organs of the opposition, just as the state TV channel defends everything the government says and does. In such a setting, it is hard to imagine peace and stability in the months ahead.