Venezuela: Changes, Everything Changes? Nothing Changes

Changes, everything changes. The main problem for those in charge of official state communications is the fact that the landscape is no longer the same. Right now, everyone is waiting anxiously for the results of President Hugo Chavez’s operation; whilst the opposition currently has a leader backed by a political and strategic apparatus and is arming its electoral machinery. The polls currently show that Chavez is beating his rival significantly, but... speculations are riding high again...

Changes, everything changes. The main problem for those in charge of official state communications is the fact that the landscape is no longer the same. Right now, everyone is waiting anxiously for the results of President Hugo Chavez’s operation; whilst the opposition currently has a leader backed by a political and strategic apparatus and is arming its electoral machinery. The polls currently show that Chavez is beating his rival significantly, but… speculations are riding high again, over his illness, the future of Bolivarianism in the presidential elections on the 7th of October and over who will take his place.

There is a national and international campaign where the media are once again paving the way, talking about an imaginary collective and speculating about the foreign “experts” that will “shed light” on the two candidates. Once again, the Chavista institution has demonstrated its immunity to criticism, with the government press focussing surprisingly on the alleged fraud (the number of votes cast) in the opposition primary elections. It was only the National Electoral Council that came off badly in this.

Those responsible for the government press prefer to deny the truth instead of preparing the people to confront it. They forget that polls are partly manipulation, with the poor in Venezuela having traditionally shown that they do not say what they think. A presidential election isn’t decided by the polls, or by official television programmes, and even less so by the comments made by government officials.

The opposition, which is betting its victory on the health of the president, cannot afford to squander even one single vote, given that Chavez’s strength and charisma present a true handicap to their goals. That’s why on the 12th of February they rolled out the whole set-up, a stage design embellished with plebiscitary trimmings and the characteristics of a referendum (as Marcos Roitman said). That’s why the opposition has taken up its initiative once again, marking out its own political agenda as opposed to, as they were doing just a little while ago, limiting themselves to just reacting to Chavez’s comments and actions.

It’s important to remember that 17,875,000 citizens are on the electoral register, any of whom could have voted. In reality, those who voted made up less than 20% of the registered electorate.

The traditional parties and their mythical ability to mobilise their bases were left behind; the governor of Zulia state, Pablo Perez, with the support of the social-democrats and the Christian-democrats didn’t make it. It was the right that won (although in Venezuela all parties shy away from saying that they are on the right) and the media. We can also add Venezuela’s indefatigable democracy and its institutions to the victory; meaning the work of the National Electoral Council and the armed forces, who acted as the legal guardians of the opposition’s primary elections.

Everything changes. There are sectors of the opposition that know that beating a sick Chavez, with all his difficulties and his physical weakness which are preventing him from fully taking on the presidential campaign, and beating a healthy Chavez, strong, commanding, permanently rousing the people and travelling up and down the length and breadth of Venezuela, are two very different things.

The worst thing that could possibly happen to the opposition would be for a sick and convalescent Chavez to beat them for the umpteenth time. That’s why Capriles Radonski clearly stated that he wished the president “a long life, because I want him to see with his own eyes the changes that are coming”. The opposition know that they cannot overcome the legend of Chavez, which they themselves helped to create, and that’s why they need to demonstrate that he is beatable just like a normal man.

Within the speculation surrounding campaign strategies, Brazilian newspapers are talking about the publicist Joao Santana, who advised Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, who apparently has the difficult task of ensuring that Chavez eliminates all derogatory language from his vocabulary and that he adopts a conciliatory image, similar to that of the Brazilian ex-president.

This is difficult to believe, mostly because polarisation and confrontation has always worked well for the president. Santana, linked to the Brazilian Worker’s Party, also oversaw the presidential campaigns of Salvadoran Mauricio Funes and Pervuvian Ollanta Humala. The surprising thing is that the opposition candidate, Capriles Radonski, has repeatedly spoken of his admiration for Lula, perhaps being advised by a different Brazilian publicist, Renato Pereira, strategic director of the Prole business, in a bid to seduce the “ni-ni” (voters neither aligned with Chavez or the opposition), who currently constitute 30% of the electorate according to the polls.  

There is something surprising in this unusual election campaign – already on its way towards the 7th of October – and that is that the business sectors of the opposition are imitating the Chavista codes, their symbols, ideas and even some of their slogans. Obviously, the imitation is symbolic, because on the inside, and on the outside, their ideas are neo-liberalism, even though they know that it is in crisis – if not destroyed –in most of the world.

The opposition needs the Chavista vote (even though they disguise it as the ni-ni) in order to even be able to dream about a victory. They talk of popular power, because they know that it is something that is now part of the Venezuelan consciousness. They have to convince the Chavistas, or at least to convince them not to vote (which is a way of taking votes away from the Chavista camp). Capriles Radonsky’s strategy doesn’t appear to be centred about winning the Chavista vote, but rather to make the Bolivarian revolution lose votes.  

It appears that a role reversal has taken place: Capriles Radonski has decided not to be confrontational and Chavez has started to be so. Capriles is imitating Chavez in 1998, whilst the president is continuing with the same confrontational line that has been delivering results for him since 2002 until now.

Capriles quite ably talks of peace and says that he represents the future, and is even capable of talking about the “Sixth Republic” to differentiate himself from Chavismo and the Democratic Action and Christian Democrats’ Fourth Republic.

In a surprise for the governing party, the Capriles option also defends the 1999 Constitution, shares some of the government’s social plans and tries to be believable when it presents alternative plans to those of the government.

Obviously, within the work surrounding Capriles Radonski’s strategy is how to hide his previous political militancy with the Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) religious sect, denying his behaviour during the April 2002 coup, when he led a group trying to take over the Cuban embassy; as well as to disguise himself as a progressive and a follower of Lula the “conciliator”. The idea seems to be to transform Venezuela’s election into an ideological debate throughout the continent, to put a break on the social changes of the past decade. In order to do this, he has at his disposition the Venezuelan and Latin American media cartels and the blessing and international support of the transnational hegemonic press.

The middle class has numerous fears that are going to be exploited throughout what remains of the campaign, for example, the fear of losing their property – even when the majority of them do not actually own any property. This worked during the referendum for constitutional reform in 2007 and the MUD strategists also think that it can even work at these heights as well.

On the other hand, there is another fear at play; the fear of losing all the social benefits that they have gained throughout the years of the Bolivarian revolution, bearing in mind that the opposition’s programme is clearly to implement mass privatisations and involves the withdrawal of the state from the economy in general. It means dismantling the whole legal apparatus that sustains state oil company PDVSA, which entails the risk of shortages and a sudden rise in the prices of basic services, like water and electricity.

But there also exists a tremor that the social peace is being threatened by a strong attack against Chavismo.

End of Triumphalism

What happened with the opposition’s primary elections, says Javier Biadeau, allows us to do away with any triumphalist illusions and to move on to a rigorous and stark analysis of the situation; the correlation of electoral and political forces between the Bolivarian camp and the opposition.

Without this analysis, he adds, there is no map for the struggle, for the strategy and tactics which could prompt the recovery and urgent regrouping of the forces involved in the constituent popular process and in the Bolivarian revolution which began in 1998, (not of the official bureaucratic Chavismo which began to solidify after the electoral victory of 2006) and whose potential, although vague, continues to be the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP).

Mercedes Chacin has pointed out that there has been little preparation and little study on the part of Chavismo, transmitted from the same psychological disassociation syndrome which afflicts the opposition. Somehow, due to some divine intervention, almost metaphysical, the 5 million people who voted for the opposition in the parliamentary elections became one million. Where did that conviction come from?

Right now nobody is in any doubt over the seriousness of the president’s illness and that’s why the possibility that this is part of a communicational campaign to “invoke passions and to bring people together in a pity mission” is so dismissed. What is most striking is the fact that in order to have any knowledge of what is really going on, the average Venezuelan has to listen to what the opposition says, because the credibility of official spokespeople (Diosdado Cabello, Andres Izarra) is currently on the floor.

Looking after his health is the only way for Chavez to recover, and lately, say the analysts, Chavez was seen surpassing himself in his institutional and political activities, in his daily routine, as if nothing had happened.

From within the Chavista ranks there is an urgent call to take up the discussion again regarding the indispensability of Hugo Chavez’s leadership, and the mistake that this represents for Bolivarian socialism, given that a socialist process cannot permanently depend on one man, if we really want to talk about a project in the medium and long term.

What is true is that every time the president has any health issues, the revolution wobbles because it gets the feeling that it might be left orphaned, and this is an error for a revolutionary project, says Reinaldo Iturriza.

For the usual political speculators, national and foreign, the reappearance of the cancer raises two questions: Who will end up with the power in the Chavista project – where the armed forces seem to be the true measuring scale – and who will fill the strategic vacuum in the thought and political praxis that will be left by Chavez’s probable incapacitation.

Chavez: Reports and the power vacuum

The government is preparing to confront any adversity, which includes a “commanding group” which will respond in any eventuality (and which will try to avoid any leaks with regards to the president’s health), with the group falling under the responsibility of the Presidential Secretary, Erika Farias.

Meanwhile, the naming of the electoral campaign “the Battle of Carabobo” makes it evident that the government will not allow the opposition to advance whilst Chavez is out of action. The responsibility fell to Mayor of Caracas, Jorge Rodriguez, who due to his experience as the president of the National Electoral Committee will be key to forming the electoral structure for the 7th of October. Whilst sectors of the opposition – perhaps trying to create infighting in the PSUV – are at the Supreme Court Justice insisting that a medical committee be created in order to evaluate the president’s health and to determine whether he is capable of governing, trying to bring forward the elections by 90 days, Chavez didn’t delegate the presidency, denying that there was any power vacuum. In the constitutional line of succession is Vice-president Elias Jaua, the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, although in the speculator’s list there is also Adan Chavez (the president’s older brother), current Chancellor Nicolas Maduro, Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, retired Rear-admiral Orlando Maniglia and the very daughter of the president, María Gabriela Chávez.

“I’m refuting the claims that I have metastases and that I am already dying,” said the Venezuelan leader when he announced that he was to be operated on again in Havana, with the same doctors who operated on him last July and then treated with chemotherapy; rejecting Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva’s invitation to be treated in the Sirio-Lebanese Hospital in Sao Paulo, where both of these presidents were treated, as well as Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo.

The very same Chavez communicated that within the up and coming weeks, he would not be seen with the same vibrancy as usual, because as well as not knowing whether the lesion was cancerous or not, which he considers to be probable given the fact that it has appeared in the same place as the last tumour, but also because in this case he will require radiotherapy.

 After informing the country through an official state television programme of the principal orientations and central characteristics of the campaign (commencing the second Socialist Plan of the Nation, developing the ALBA, continuing with the political organisation of the PSUV and GPP), he sent out a warning; faced with an opposition that always has a hidden agenda, conspirational plans, unscrupulous, and that wouldn’t miss the chance to generate violence. He left everybody mobilised. The landscape is not the same as it was barely 3 weeks ago. In Venezuela, changes, everything changes. Or nothing changes?
Translated by Venezuelanalysis