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Venezuela Recall on August 15 Could Usher in Better Times

As the days count down to this Sunday's recall referendum in Venezuela, the opposition's once adamantly anti-Chavez rhetoric has now been softened to include conciliatory messages.

As the days count down to this Sunday’s recall referendum in Venezuela, the opposition’s once adamantly anti-Chavez rhetoric has now been softened to include conciliatory messages. Moving from their once unabashedly dogmatic belief in anti-welfare, pro-business policies and an unremitting disdain for Chavez, to a message of understanding, unity and inclusion, could be considered uncharacteristic of the opposition. Based upon recent domestic opinion polls, Chavez’ critics now seem to realize that they will be unable to generate the necessary breadth of support to recall the president through slanderous and violent tactics. The president’s position has been strengthened by the oil dividend that has resulted from the per barrel price of oil hitting $44. This economic bonanza has enabled Chavez to allocate almost $2 billion in previously unaffordable social programs advancing health, education and subsidized food initiatives targeted towards his principal constituency, the poor.

By implementing such policies, Chavez has been able to win back much of the support from the country’s impoverished sector that had defected from him due to past failures to fulfill his campaign pledges. Luis Vicente Leon, an opposition pollster, believes that “once the opposition saw Chavez’ popularity grow, they decided the strategy could not be to attack Chavez.” As a result, “they talk about peace, unity, [and] a better future. That’s what the opposition adopts as its central strategy.” This conciliatory campaign format is a last ditch effort to gain electoral credibility and to somehow win the hearts of “Chavistas,” who have not forgotten the decades of opposition rule marked by economic mismanagement and skewed government policies.

Moreover, the opposition’s increasingly softened tone has all but conceded victory to Chavez on August 15. By rapidly revising its historic indifference to welfare policies, the opposition’s new platform is a clear attempt to regroup in the face of its likely defeat in the referendum. As the current government gains popularity, the opposition finds itself weaker, less unified and largely devoid of a clear electoral message. Chavez’ critics’ attempt to popularize their position now appears to be too little, too late as most Venezuelans have already decided how they will vote on August 15. According to Government Minister Aristobulo Isturiz, “For the opposition, things are harder. As we advance, they are in worse shape.” While Chavez’ popularity gains new strength, the opposition’s hope to oust the populist leader seems to be diminishing.

Yet, now is the opportune time for Chavez himself to extend an olive branch to his critics. After the failed April 2002 coup, Chavez told the entire nation that he would seek reconciliation with his political opponents and try to embrace the expectations of all Venezuelans. Unfortunately, relations between the two political factions quickly deteriorated to the tumultuous atmosphere that exists today. What is now needed is a comprehensive ditente to consolidate democracy and raise living standards for all, rather than a flirtation with confrontation and strife.

This analysis was prepared by Mark Scott and Anthony Kolenic, COHA Research Associates

August 10, 2004

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