Toward A Loyal Opposition

In recent statements and proclamations Venezuela's political opposition declared that President Hugo Chavez has initiated "a reign of terror" against his opponents. It also proclaims that the government is weaker than ever and that the time is ripe for a new round of massive street protests.

In recent statements and proclamations Venezuela's
political opposition declared that President Hugo Chavez has initiated "a reign of
terror" against his opponents. It also proclaims that the government is weaker than
ever and that the time is ripe for a new round of massive street protests.

This opposition narrative, as it has unfolded over the
past two weeks, comes in reaction to a series of centralizing measures and the
persecution of oppositionist officials charged with corruption by the Chavez
government. Venezuela's divided but vitriolic political opposition is
constituted in political parties, the Catholic Church, the universities and the
private media.

It is true that the Opposition frequently resorts to inflammatory
rhetoric. Speaking on the opposition cable station Globovision last October the
newspaper editor of El Nuevo Pais (The New Country), Rafael Poleo, threatened
the president with assassination stating, "Be careful Hugo, you may end up like
your counterpart [Italian Fascist Dictator] Benito Mussolini, hung upside down."[1]

Yet over the past two weeks what has emerged appears
to be an ominous ratcheting up of opposition discourse. This discourse is
punctuated by personal and openly racist attacks on Chavista officials.[2] The
Opposition also utilizes political terminology in reference to the Chavez
administration such as "apartheid,"[3] the "[killing] of innocents"[4] and
phrases usually reserved for the worst forms of dictatorship, yet these critics
do not offer facts to back such accusations and thus rely heavily on rhetoric.

It is worth reiterating this discourse here. For those who do not read the
Venezuelan press these statements may be shocking given the popular notion that
President Chavez imposes censorship on the media. For example, Poleo, the
editor mentioned above, faces no official censure. This also counters the
notion that Chavez holds sole responsibility for the exacerbation of political

The fevered pitch of opposition rhetoric is also portentous. It is indeed the
case that the very few footholds which the Opposition maintains in governmental
positions are being further diminished. In the past when faced with a loss of
power in the political arena the Opposition has resorted to extra legal methods
of destabilizing or toppling the government.

The current discourse reveals that the Opposition has not significantly
modified its political strategy and rhetoric since Chavez took office ten years
ago despite its continued lack of success.

Opposition Missteps

During his first electoral campaign Chavez initially enjoyed widespread
support including among the middle class and the business community. With the
help of the prominent leftist leader Luis Miquilena, he built a broad political
base in the run up to the 1998 election and he met with the then president of
Venezuela's main business federation Francisco Natera and with Maritza
Izaguirre who was then President Rafael Caldera's Minister of Finance.[5] In
1998 Chavez was elected with 56 percent of the vote, the highest attained by
any candidate in Venezuela's democratic history.

It should be noted that the first serious efforts to oust Chavez occurred
before Chavez had seriously encroached on any elite interests. In his first two
years in office there was no redistribution of wealth, no limitations on profit
and no expropriations.[6]

After the political opposition was swept from the
Legislature in the "Mega Elections" of 2000 the Chavez government used its
congressional majority to fill the government with its supporters. The Opposition
was subsequently removed from the Judiciary, the National Electoral Council and
the Ombudsman's Office that same year.

It was only after the Opposition lost its governmental
foothold that it moved to oust Chavez from office by any means necessary. The
passage of 49 controversial laws by executive mandate in November of 2001 which
involved modest state intervention in the economy provided the pretext. The Opposition
subsequently embarked on a disastrous pattern of strategic miscalculations.

This included the coup attempt of 2002, and the
sabotage of the oil industry, which can be understood as a second coup attempt,
later that year. This was followed by the unsubstantiated allegations of fraud
in response to Chavez's victory in the 2004 recall referendum. Then, after
promising the Organization of American States that it would participate in the
electoral process, the Opposition decided to boycott the elections for the
unicameral National Assembly just one week prior to the elections. Pursuing these
actions cost the Opposition even more political ground and also popular

The country seemed to give a collective sigh of relief
when the Opposition announced that it would run Manuel Rosales, then Governor
of the oil-rich Zulia state, as a unity candidate to contest Chavez in the 2006
presidential election. Yet to the very end of the electoral season the
Opposition seemed unable to achieve a unified political line which led the
centrist oppositionist Teodoro Petkoff to famously remark that they were like
"a group of drunks fighting over an empty bottle." Chavez defeated Rosales by
nearly 26 percentage points. Nonetheless, Rosales acknowledged Chavez's victory,
a first up until that point, signaling that perhaps the Opposition was ready to
commit to the electoral game.

Yet the last three years have not seen a reduction in
political polarization. Since the 2006 election, the Chavez government has
foiled at least two assassination plots, first in March of 2007[7] and then in
October of 2008.[8] In September 2008 former Vice-president Jorge Vincente Rangel publicized an
intercepted telephone communication which revealed a coup plot by retired and
active military officials. Even more ominously, the student demonstrations
against the constitutional referendum of December 2007, and the simultaneous
defection from the Chavez coalition of General Raul Baudel, for a moment seemed
to be following the same pattern as the coup which developed in 2002 whereby a
civilian death served as the pretext for a military take-over.

The current rhetoric utilized by the Opposition
reveals that they are still unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of President
Chavez who has been reaffirmed in office four times since assuming the
presidency, all by wide margins. Significantly this extremist discourse also
seems to lean toward yet another miscalculation because it asserts that
Chavez's popular support is waning due to the economic crisis. This is despite
Chavez's victory this past February 15 when Venezuelans voted in a
referendum to remove term limits on all elected officials, including President

The "Reign of Terror" Begins

Speaking on Globovision, opposition student leader Yon
Goicoechea of the Justice First party stated: "The message for the people of
Venezuela is the following: this week begins the new phase of the Bolivarian
Government of President Hugo Chavez: the phase of repression. In the
terminology of the French Revolution, ‘the phase of horror.'"[9]

The vice-president of the Episcopal Confederation of Venezuela,
Monsignor Baltazar Porras, supports this claim. For the Chavez government, says
Porras, "The actual [human] life is worth nothing, it is only an instrument for
the consolidation of a political system. The history of the French Revolution
for this is prolific."[10]

The measures that have brought about the current uproar are as follows: The
Chavez administration recently decided to file corruption charges against several
prominent leaders of the Opposition including Manuel Rosales.

The Attorney General's office presented evidence last
December that Rosales had used public funds to purchase private lands and had
transferred public money into offshore bank accounts in addition to accepting
bribes for public contracts. Until last week Rosales was the Mayor of Zulia's
capital Maracaibo.[11] Rosales subsequently went into hiding to avoid his court
date and is now seeking political asylum in Peru.

According to the Opposition, these measures, portrayed as a political witch
hunt, betray the government's desperation. Due to its adoption of austerity
measures implemented in response to the current economic crisis Chavez is
rapidly losing popular support, the Opposition says. This is evidenced by the
modest opposition gains in regional elections this past November. As Luis
Ugalde, Rector of the private Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB),
explains, "The government has seen that it is deteriorating, say what they will
the opinion polls… The inclination is toward the diminution of its
possibilities for success."[12]

Even more rash, according to the Opposition, is the
decision of the Chavez government, with its majority in the unicameral National
Assembly, to pass laws on certain measures which were proposed as a part of the
constitutional reform referendum that Venezuelans rejected by a narrow margin
on December 2, 2007. These measures involve the creation of new government
leadership posts and the appointment of Chavista officials to these positions.

For example, the Chavez government recently created a
new District Chief for Caracas which reduces the political authority of
Caracas' powerful opposition mayor Antonio Ledezma. According to El Universal,
the new chief will take over nearly 80 percent of the budget which was
previously administered by Ledezma.[13] The government has also moved to
appoint regional vice-presidents who will ostensibly take budgetary control
away from elected governors.

This constitutes nothing short of a "coup d'état," in
the words of Opposition Governor César Pérez Vivas from the southern state of
Tachira, who added that Chavez is seeking to become "a feudal lord, and owner
of the goods of the Republic."[14]

Lastly, the different sectors of the opposition have
also acted nearly unanimously in rejecting the recent judicial sentence against
3 police commissioners and 8 police officers found guilty for their role in the
2002 coup attempt.

Lazaro Forero, one of the police commissioners who received the maximum
sentence of 30 years, was convicted for giving the order to the Metropolitan
Police to fire on Chavez supporters on the Llaguno Bridge on April 11, 2002.
Forero is recorded on a radio communication during the gun battle at the
Llaguno Bridge as saying in reference to the Chavez supporters "the Taliban is
shooting at us!"[15] The court process began on
March 20, 2006. Both the public prosecution and private plaintiffs accused the
11 police. There were 265 expert testimonies, 5,700 photos, 20 videos and 198

To this day key Opposition figures maintain that there
was no coup attempt. This includes the editorial staff of the mass circulation
daily El Nacional, which is controlled by the powerful Otero family, and
General Secretary Enrique Ochoa of the opposition party A New Era (UNT).
According to Ochoa, "The Lieutenant Colonel in his current state of retirement,
Chavez Frias, has chosen the [police] commissioners as victims of his personal
rage and vengeance, procuring not only to falsify history with this sentence
but also to wash his murderous and cowardly face."[17]

Ricardo Sanchez, student leader and president of the
student union at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), Venezuela's largest
university of some 200,000 students, explains that in light of the charges
against the government officials and the Metropolitan Police, "The day after
tomorrow, sir, don't be surprised when they want to take away your children,
don't be surprised when they want to take away the bread and coffee which you
bring to your family every day. Don't be surprised, Mr. Trade Unionist, or
gentlemen of the working class, when you lose your job tomorrow….don't be
surprised, Rectors of the University, when tomorrow we find tanks [lined up] in
front of the Venezuelan university."[18]

Students are one of the most politically active
sectors of the Opposition and frequently utilize violence in order to make
their point. Unlike in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s the Chavez government is yet
to violate the constitutional autonomy of the universities by sending security
forces onto campus, even when students have used this area as a staging ground
for launching armed attacks, as with that which occurred in Merida state on May
27, 2006.[19]

Chavez's recent measures are emblematic of a broader
offensive, explains the Chief Editor of El Universal, Miguel Sanmartin. Chavez
is now modifying laws that will "delegitimize property and eliminate the
private business."[20] It does not appear that any such law is currently being
proposed or debated. For her part, the Editor Ana Julia Jatar of El Nacional, a
former Senior Fellow at the InterAmerican Dialogue and a former CNN talk show
host declares that the National Assembly (AN) is an "illegitimate" body.
Therefore, after summing up the litany of recent measures mentioned above she
concludes that, "It is clear that we are subjugated by a government of
occupation, an army and a government that does not recognize the other half of
the country…One must take to the streets once again and one must be ready to
lay our life on the line because no army of occupation will leave while the occupied
are not ready to die."[21]

Conclusion: Is it Possible to Diminish Conflict?

"The construction of legitimacy is crucial to any
stable democracy," writes Daniel Levine. "Legitimacy in the sense of shared
norms as to criteria of power (ballots or bullets, to use a crude example),
proper methods of political action, and proper arenas for political action."[22]

The current Opposition proclamations reflect that the
establishment of legitimacy under Chavez is an incomplete process. Chavez has
long said that he wants a peaceful revolution that respects private property.
He has taken an incremental approach to political reform, referred to by some
Chavistas as "a war of positions" that gradually empowers the lower classes.[23]
This method however has been stymied by the seeming irreconcilability of
partisan politics and class conflict.

Nonetheless, it seems that two things could happen
that would assuage political tension. They would also be to the benefit of all
Venezuelans, including the Opposition:

1. The Chavez government, while it no doubt enjoys a popular mandate, should
not push through measures either by executive decree or through the National
Assembly that diminishes the authority of democratically elected officials.
Ledezma himself has claimed that he was elected in a free and fair contest
which is eminently reasonable compared to the proclamations of other
out-of-office opposition leaders. If Ledezma is able to enact a referendum on
this controversial law which limits his authority it may be a blow to the
Chavez government. The law also calls into question the status of nearly 35,000
public workers previously employed by Ledezma's Mayor's office.

2. The Opposition is still largely defined by its opposition to the Chavez
government. It should replace political sloganeering with a coherent program.
This program must acknowledge the popularity of Chavez's social uplift
programs. Rosales' 2006 campaign promise to give every Venezuelan a credit card
that drew directly from the nation's oil wealth seemed to be a step in this

Yet the Opposition must also acknowledge that the poor
have become a permanent and protagonist force in politics. Certain
participatory programs, such as the Communal Councils, have afforded autonomous
control over local development projects.[24] The politically active lower
classes will no longer be satisfied with mere handouts (like that which Rosales
was proposing) nor will they be satisfied with "expert advice" from those
outside of their community. (Rosales was the first opposition candidate to
visit the popular sector barrios of Caracas in 2006. In certain areas he
was greeted by jeers and bottles.)[25] The threat to close some mission
programs by opposition Governor Henrique Radonski in the state of Miranda last
November-a move that was reversed after local protest-demonstrates just how out
of touch some opposition politicians can be.

A remarkable recent study on Venezuela's Communal
Councils revealed that when faced with a concrete task, such as how to fix a
local sanitation problem, Venezuelans set aside political differences. The
study by the Caracas-based Gumilla Research Center which investigated 1,200
Communal Councils across Venezuela found that in nearly all of them (80%)
participants hold divergent partisan loyalties, but this does not impede the
accomplishment of local tasks.[26] In other words polarization is largely
provoked by politicians and is not something that follows Venezuelans in all
walks of life.

In the coming month whether or not the Opposition effectively
rallies around Rosales and Ledezma, and the types of political action it
employs will be an indicator for the future stability of political relations.

[1] James Suggett. "Venezuelan Newspaper
Investigated for Inciting President's Assasination." 16 October 2008. Online. Venezuelanalysis.<http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3878>.

[2] El Nacional lashed out with
a racist attack on Chavez's Minister of Justice and the Interior Tarek El
Aissami, who is of Lebanese decent. The lead editorial on April 11, 2009 is
entitled "Creole Terrorists, A Foreigner's Shame," ("vergüenza ajena"). El
Aissami recently criticized certain statements made by the Venezuelan Cardinal
Jorge Urosa. The newspaper responds that with regards to El Aissami, his
criticism of the cardinal "lacks amplitude of criteria because in Venezuela we
don't use kamikazes to eliminate our compatriots who think differently, like
they do in the land of his family members." The editorial also accuses El
Aissami of conducting a "Nazi like" policy and acting like a "fundamentalist
Arab toward the Jewish community." The editorial adds that, "Unlike the
majority of Venezuelans, El Aissami is not even a fervent Catholic…but rather a
descendant who believes that terrorism is the only way to spread values and
religious beliefs." Racism refers to the utilization of someone's race in a
derogatory manner as a method of defamation. El Aissami has no connection to
any so called fundamentalist group nor does he openly proselytize on behalf of
any religion. ("Terroristas
criollos. Vergüenza ajena." El Nacional. 11 April 2009. p 8.)

[3] María Isabel Párraga B. "Sentido de realidad." 13 April 2009. El Universal.
p (1-9).

Whoever remains silence in the face of the injustice perpetrated by the Chavez
government is "complicit in the death of innocents," says Luis Ugalde, Rector
of the Andres Bello Catholic University. (Robert Giusti. "Entrevista Luis Ugalde. El Pilatos más grave se
encuentra en la oposición." El Universal. 12 April 2009. p 1-2.)

[5] Harnecker, Marta. Understanding the
Venezuelan Revolution
. Trans Chesa Boudin. NY: Monthly Review Press 2005.

[6] Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela by
Taking State Power
. London:
Verso 2006.

[7] "Detenidos 2 militares por supuesto plan de
magnicidio". Pico Bolivar. 8 March 2007.

[8] James Suggett. "Zulia Governor is Planning New Coup, Says Venezuelan
President." 14
October 2008. Online. Venezuelanalysis. <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3872

[9] Patricia Rivas. "Convocan a "levantamiento" el 13
de abril: Líderes juveniles de la oposición salen "embraguetados" en
defensa de presuntos ladrones." 3 April 2009. Online. Aporrea. <http://www.aporrea.org/oposicion/n132184.html

[10]  Monsignor Baltazar Porras. "De Llaguno a
Maracay." El Universal. 11 April 2002. p (1-8).

[11] Manuel Rosales of the New
Era Party (UNT) was Governor of Zulia until November 23rd, 2008 when he was
voted into the state capital's Mayor's Office.

Robert Giusti. "Entrevista Luis Ugalde. El Pilatos más grave se encuentra en la
oposición." El Universal. 12 April 2009. p 1-2.

[13] Paulimar Rodriguez and Mirelis Morales Tovar. "Ledesma recurrirá a
voluntarios para que continúe su gestión." El Universal. 11 April 2009. p (3-2).

[14] "Pérez Vivas denuncia un golpe de Estado." El Universal. 12
April 2009. p (1-2).

[15] Edgar López. "Por 10 homicidios frustrados la condena rebasó la pena
máxima." El Nacional. 11 April 2009. p 4.

[16] Tamara Pearson. "Nine
Police Found Guilty of April 2002 Coup Deaths." 6 April 2009. Online. Venezuelanalysis.

[17] Vivian Castillo. "'La Violencia el 11A fue
responsabilidad de Chávez.'" El Universal. 12 April 2009. p 1-4.

[18] Patricia Rivas. "Convocan a
"levantamiento" el 13 de abril: Líderes juveniles de la oposición
salen "embraguetados" en defensa de presuntos ladrones." 3 April 2009. Aporrea. <http://www.aporrea.org/oposicion/n132184.html>

[19] Michael Fox. "Student Riots Continue in Western Venezuela, Government
Blames Provocateurs." 30 May 2006. Venezuelanalysis. <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/1767>

[20] Miguel Sanmartin. "Golpista Eres Tú." El Universal. 11 April 2002. p

[21] Ana Julia Jatar. "¡Abajo
caretas!" El Nacional. 11 April 2009. p 9.

[22] Levine, Daniel. Conflict
and Political Change in Venezuela
. NJ: Princeton University Press 1973. p

[23] Ellner, Steve. "A
‘Revolutionary Process' Unfolds, In the Absence of a Well Defined Plan." Revista.
Harvard Review of Latin America. Fall 2008. David Rockefeller Center for Latin
American Studies, Harvard University. p 14-16.

[24] Machado, Jesus. "A pesar de todo, la participación comunitaria
funciona." SIC. April 2009. No. 713. Foundación Centro Gumilla. Caracas,
Venezuela. p 114- 121.

[25] Medina, Medófilo and
Margarita López Maya. Venezuela: confrontación
y polarización política. Bogotá: Ediciones Aurora 2003.

Machado, Jesus. "A pesar de todo, la participación comunitaria funciona." SIC.
April 2009. No. 713. Fundación Centro Gumilla. Caracas, Venezuela. p 114- 121.

[26] Machado, Jesus. "A pesar de todo, la participación comunitaria
funciona." SIC. April 2009. No. 713. Fundación Centro Gumilla. Caracas,
Venezuela. p 114- 121.