Venezuela’s Recall Show-Down

Analyzing the opposition's chances of getting Chavez out of office

With the passing of the three-year anniversary of Hugo Chávez’ year 2000 election as president of Venezuela; several milestones have been reached more or less simultaneously in the recent history of Latin America’s most controversial president. First, the three-year anniversary marks the half-way point of Chávez’ term in office and is thus the point after which Venezuelans who want to revoke the president’s mandate may begin petitioning for a recall referendum. Second, it is the point at which the Chávez government has launched a campaign to showcase the achievements of its administration. And third, coincidentally, it is the same week in which the country’s fifth power, the National Electoral Council, has finally been named, thus making recall referenda and other elections possible. I will examine each of these milestones in turn and will then take a look as to what the future might bring for Venezuela.

At Midnight of August 19th, 2003, the opposition finally celebrated Christmas, reported the pro-government website www.aporrea.org. That is, after having canceled Christmas in support of the December “general strike” and oil industry shut-down, opposition supporters finally used their Christmas fireworks (a tradition in Venezuela) for the celebration of the half-way point of Chávez’ term in office because this marked the point at which a recall referendum could be petitioned. The fireworks were a noisy display, which the oppositional media amplified by broadcasting it non-stop and in “cadena,” that is, on all four major commercially owned television networks. The next morning, at 7am, several trucks surreptitiously pulled up at the headquarters of the National Electoral Council, to deliver 3.2 million signatures, which were collected six months earlier, to petition for the recall referendum against President Hugo Chávez. Later that day, the opposition held a major demonstration, which attracted anywhere between 50,000 and 150,000 participants.

Not to be outdone, Chávez and his supporters organized a pro-government demonstration a few days later, on August 23rd, which appeared to be larger, attracting between 100,000 and 300,000 demonstrators. The occasion for the demonstration was the celebration of Chávez’ third year in office since his second election, in August 2000. As part of this celebration, the government has engaged in a quasi-electoral campaign highlighting the achievements of these three years in office.


In the political sphere, the Chávez government has had a major achievement, which is the democratization of Venezuelan society. The introduction of a more democratic constitution provides for numerous opportunities for citizens to become directly involved in politics. Aside from the possibility of introducing referenda upon citizen initiative, the constitution assures civil society the right to participate in the selection of officials for the judiciary, the citizen power (attorney general, human rights ombudsman, and comptroller general), and the national electoral commission. The new constitution also introduced many new social, economic, and political rights, especially for Venezuela’s small indigenous population and for women. The creation of local participatory planning councils allows for individual citizen participation in the budget and planning procedures of their communities. Also, a new media law has enabled the creation of many new community radio and television outlets, giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to participate in the dissemination of entertainment and information.

In the economic sphere the achievements are mostly in the area of rights, rather than in a booming economy. That is, three massive blows to the economy made an economic boom practically impossible. First, there was the natural disaster of 1999, whose mudslides caused anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 deaths, well over 100,000 homeless, and over $3.2 billion of damage. Then, in April 2002, the coup attempt against the Chávez government caused substantial capital flight and further significant economic losses. Third, from early December 2002 to late January 2003, the opposition managed to temporarily shut-down the country’s primary industry, the oil industry, which constitutes 80% of the country’s export earnings. The total damages caused by this shutdown are estimated to be between $7 and $10 billion, leading to a nearly 30% contraction of economic activity (GNP) in the first quarter of 2003 and one of the country’s most serious recessions on record.

Despite these serious blows to the economy, the government has managed to increase social spending, to reverse a steady slide in Venezuela’s Human Development Index (as measured by the UNDP), and to provide hope to millions of Venezuela’s poor through a large-scale micro-credit program and the redistribution of rural and urban land titles. Also on the economic front, the government launched a program to create a solidaristic economy, mainly through the creation of thousands of production cooperatives throughout the country.

In the social sphere the government has recently started a major literacy campaign, which is currently benefiting about one million illiterate Venezuelans, and a health care campaign, which provides doctors to the remotest poor neighborhoods that previously had received no medical attention at all. Also, the large investments in pre-natal care, vaccinations, and free surgery for congenital heart disease have lowered Venezuela’s infant mortality rate from 21 per thousand live births to 17 per thousand live births. Large investments in Venezuela’s educational system, which include the construction and rehabilitation of over 3,000 schools, the elimination of all matriculation fees, and the free provision of breakfast and lunch at school, have led to the matriculation of over one million pupils who were previously excluded from the school system.

Finally, in the international sphere, Venezuela has led the way to reconsolidate OPEC, to challenge the policies of the IMF and of neo-liberal economics, to question U.S. foreign policy, and to unify Latin America economically and politically.

Of course, Venezuela’s opposition scoffs at these achievements, arguing instead that these are inflated or insignificant. Rather, the opposition argues that the country’s economic and political crisis is entirely Chávez’ fault and that he has led the country towards a “castro-communist” dictatorship. Exactly what these claims are based on is not clear, since there is complete freedom (often an abuse of freedom, when false and misleading stories are presented) of the press, no nationalizations of private industry, complete freedom of assembly, and no political prisoners. More moderate members of the opposition focus on the troubled economy and the apparent pro-Chávez dominance in the Supreme Court and the National Assembly. However, the economy, while definitely in trouble now, would probably be doing quite well, given the high price of oil, if it had not been for the aforementioned three shocks, two of which were caused by the opposition. As for pro-Chávez dominance on the Supreme Court and National Assembly, this has in practice not been any different than the pro-Bush sentiment on the U.S. Supreme Court or in the U.S. Congress.

National Electoral Council

However, despite the somewhat weak arguments of the opposition, but with the help of a rabidly oppositional media and the large-scale funding (from undisclosed sources) of oppositional sectors of civil society, it has managed to collect over 3 million signatures to petition for a recall referendum against the president. The only way this referendum could happen, though, is if there is a National Electoral Council that both sides trust. After months of wrangling in the National Assembly, the Supreme Court took up the task and named the five members on Monday, August 25th, just in time for its self-imposed deadline. Both sides, opposition and government, have expressed confidence that the selection is fair and say they will ratify the decision soon.

The issue of the National Electoral Council has become so important because many electoral problems remain to be solved before Venezuela can have fair and transparent elections. Perhaps one of the most burning issues is whether the recall petition signatures are valid. Government supporters have argued that not only can the referendum not be held before the half-way point of an elected official’s term in office, but the signatures cannot be collected before then either. Otherwise, one could theoretically collect signatures during the entire first half of an official’s term, only to present them at a convenient time during the second half, at which point many of those who signed might have changed their minds about the referendum. Also, the signatures need to be verified and many government supporters claim that many signatures are illegal because two banks supposedly supplied their customer data to the recall petition. Three other important tasks ahead for the electoral commission are the purification of the voter registry, which contains thousands of deceased Venezuelans, the setting of detailed procedures for a recall referendum, and the scheduling of about fifty smaller recall referenda for governors and mayors.

All in all, the task ahead for the new National Electoral Council is enormous. As a result, it is not clear at all whether the presidential recall referendum will take place this year (if the signatures are declared valid, it would legally have to take place within three months of the submission of the petition, thus by November 20th). More likely, the signatures will be declared invalid, thus leading to a new petition drive, more time for the electoral council to resolve outstanding issues, and a recall referendum sometime in early 2004.

Opinion Polls and Popularity

The media, both national and international, love to present the latest polling data on Venezuela, which claims that Chávez would suffer a massive loss in a recall referendum, with as much as two-thirds of the electorate voting against him. First of all, assuming that turn-out is about the same as it was when Chávez was first elected, at least 60% of the population actually has to vote against the president in order for his mandate to be revoked (an equal or greater number must vote in favor of a recall as first voted in favor of the president). So, according to the polls, this would be possible, especially if voter turn-out is higher than during the last presidential election. However, there are good reasons to believe that the polls are inaccurate, particularly among the poorest sectors of the population. One piece of polling data that could point to the polls’ inaccuracy among the poor is that according to one of these (conducted by the U.S. polling firm GQR), a vast majority reject the program of sending doctors (mostly Cuban, since Venezuelan doctors tend to be unwilling) into poor communities. Even a cursory and informal conversation with just about anyone from the poor communities would tell anyone who cares to find out that this policy is immensely popular. This implies that the poll probably did not question as many poor Venezuelans as it claims.

Another interesting piece of polling data is that in another recent poll (by the U.S. consulting firm Keller Associates), when asked whether or not people trust Chávez and whether or not they trust the opposition, the amount of distrust is about the same, around 60% for both. That is, even if the polls are accurate, or even if they mostly reflect the opinions of the less poor segments of the population, a rejection of Chávez does not necessarily mean an acceptance of the opposition. Besides, if accurate, a popularity rate of 35-40% is actually quite good for a president who has been in office for four years, is in the midst of a serious recession, and has to withstand the constant onslaught of an oppositional private mass media. In Peru, where there is no recession and no one-sided oppositional media, President Toledo has only 11% approval ratings and the population does not have the recourse of a recall referendum.

Ultimately, whether or not Chávez remains in office will depend on how the economy is doing when the actual referendum takes place. There is a good chance that the economy will have recovered significantly by early next year, with unemployment possibly dropping back to the 15% range, which is high, but significantly lower than the 20% it was in April of this year. Also, traditional Christmas bonuses, which in Venezuela can be as much as three month’s salary, will tend to put people in a better mood towards the government, at least among those active in the formal economy. Those in the informal economy will still struggle, but they too benefit from increased consumer spending during the Christmas season. In any case, it seems that a fair estimate of Venezuela’s electorate would find that roughly one third are die-hard Chavistas, one third are die-hard oppositionals, and one third are in the middle and influence-able by either side. Thus, it is this third group that the outcome of any election will depend upon. And which way they will go is impossible to tell for now.

Gregory Wilpert is a sociologist and free-lance journalist living in Caracas, Venezuela. He is also co-editor of the website, www.venezuelanalysis.com, which presents news and in-depth analysis from and about Venezuela.