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The Morning After

By Charles Hardy
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One day a U.S. college student asked if the
Venezuelan programs giving subsidized food, decent housing, free eye
operations and better all-round medical care, were not just a ploy by
Chávez to win elections.

Greg Wilpert of Venezuelanalysis asked in reply if that wasn't what all good governments should be doing.

On February 15 Venezuelans approved, in a national referendum, an
amendment to the constitution that will permit elected officials to
remain in office as long as the electorate wants them there.  As soon
as the results were made known, opposition figures accepted the results
but also added almost unanimously that they were at an unfair
disadvantage because the government had more resources to use than they
had.

They were right in some ways.  Government employees were asked to
contribute to a fund promoting the approval of the amendment.  If I
were a government employee, I am sure I would have contributed
something so as to help assure the continuance of my job.

On the other hand, no one knows how much money those opposed to the
amendment received from their sources: for example, foreign
governments.  One of the snappiest handouts that I received against the
amendment was from a group called Sinergia. It was in full-color and
very professionally designed. I have documents showing that for years
organizations affiliated with Sinergia have been receiving money from
the U.S. government.

Today it is impossible to find out exactly how the U.S. is investing
its money in Venezuelan organizations but groups like those that make
up Sinergia continue to receive U.S. taxpayers' money.  Therefore the
reality is that, without my consent, I have contributed to the
opposition's war fund.  I am in an even worse situation than Venezuelan
government employees.

I remember being with a group of U.S. citizens visiting a Venezuelan
opposition "non-governmental organization" that had received funds from
the U.S.  At the end of the meeting we were all given free t-shirts
with their logo on them.  One member of the group whispered to another:
"Take one, you paid for it."

And so the question of who had more money to finance the campaigns for
the referendum and where it came from is not an easy one to answer.

But going back to the question of the U.S. college student that we
presented at the beginning of this column, the opposition was
definitely at a disadvantage because of government actions.  And these
would include all that the government has done since 1999 to improve
the lives of the people here.  The opposition still hasn't noticed this
reality and their main task in this campaign was to convince others
that Chávez hasn't done a good job the past ten years and that life
would be better without him at the helm.  To some extent they were
successful.  They passed the five million mark, something they had
never achieved in former elections.

On the other hand, government supporters won more votes in three states
where they lost in the referendum of 2007, winning in a total of 19 of
the 24 states (including the federal district as a state).  The margin
was 54.3% to 45.63% with 94% of the votes counted.

Credit for the advance of the opposition has to be given to the
university student movements.  The old time politicians often speak at
the events the young people have organized, but it is the youth that
are truly in charge of the opposition movement at this moment. 
Composed almost entirely of young people from middle and upper-middle
class families, mostly fair skinned, they do not have solid memories of
the years before Chávez.

There is a lot of youthful enthusiasm in this group, but it is still
hard to tell what direction it will go.  When the results were
announced, I was sad to listen to a student leader, David Smolansky,
shouting that the students believe in "peace and reconciliation."  The
words were nice, but my impression was that his voice was full of anger.

This movement had a strange beginning.  It crystallized around the
support for Venezuelan millionaire, Marcel Granier, when the license of
his television station was not renewed in May 2007.  It is hard for me
to imagine university students in any other part of the world marching
on behalf of the rights of one of the richest persons in the country to
control a part of the public airwaves.  Again, where the movement will
go now?  Who knows?

There is also a student movement among young people supporting the
government, but it comes mostly from the students in the newer
Bolivarian Universities and with lower family incomes.  When I visit
these universities, I also notice a different type of student.  There
is a heavy presence of older students-even people reaching retirement
age-who never had the opportunity to pursue a university career
before.  Therefore I wonder what shape movements from these
universities will take in the long term.  A student movement of young,
middle-aged, and senior citizens could be an interesting phenomenon.

Could such happen?  Anything can happen in the Bolivarian Republic of
Venezuela as the search goes on to find a socialism for the 21st
Century.  With the passage of the amendment, the possibility of finding
such a socialism has increased.

by Charles Hardy © 

Charles Hardy is author of ­Cowboy in Caracas:  A North American's Memoir of Venezuela's Democratic Revolution,  published by Curbstone Press.  Other essays by Hardy can be found on his personal blog Cowboyincaracas.com.  You may write him at [email protected].