Venezuela: Long Road to the Referendum

Venezuelan children participate in a rally calling for a referendum on Chavez's rule
Children call for a referendum on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's rule at a Nov. 1 demonstration in Caracas (Photo: Andrew Alvarez/AFP-Getty Images).

The Venezuelan opposition alliance committed to the early removal of President Hugo Chávez from office at last appears on track to secure a national recall referendum in the first half of 2004. But resurgent political tensions and violence have led press commentators to caution that the nation’s democratic institutions will come under extraordinary strain in the months leading up to the recall.

“Chávez maintained throughout 2002, and with particular emphasis during the general strike (in early 2003), that he led a democratic government respectful of the constitution and that, therefore, he could not permit a resolution of the crisis that was not consistent with the law,” observed El Universal in an editorial (Oct. 6). “That thesis, supported by the international organizations that intervened as mediators, served as the basis for the May [2003] accord that turned the focus of opposition actions toward a popular establish whether Chávez and his program have the support of the majority to continue in power,” the paper continued.

Yet the recall effort has encountered official “obstructionism” from the outset, El Universal argued, because “Chávez is not interested in being accountable and...will do everything within the law to avoid [a referendum] and implement covert strategies to impede it.” The result has been an escalation in regulatory and police harassment of businesses and individuals linked to the opposition movement, El Universal said, coupled with unexplained armed forces maneuvers and a series of bombings “of unknown authorship” near government sites that have fostered “an ominous and unpropitious climate for open civic action of the type required for conduct of an election.”

One sign of the resurgent tensions between the government and recall proponents was the surprise move on Oct. 3 by the telecoms regulatory agency CONATEL to seize microwave equipment owned by the privately owned television company Globovisión, which has given extensive coverage to the recall drive and opposition leaders critical of Chávez. “What happened at Globovisión is the beginning of an attack against the mass media in anticipation of the imminent presidential recall referendum,” Diario 2001 wrote in an editorial (Oct. 7). “Globovisión received the first blow, and others will follow...because the regime needs to keep society blind, deaf, and dumb. But it will not be that easy, because there are solidarity and determination among the popular majority.”

Mounting political tensions have roused alarm in Colombia, whose relations with the Chávez regime remain strained by allegations of covert Venezuelan support to leftist Colombian guerrillas. “The Venezuelan president is tightening the screws on his critics...without need to resort to force, since he has the entire state apparatus at his service,” commented Cali’s El País (Oct. 6).

The National Electoral Council’s release in late September of new regulations comprising more than 60 articles governing organization, conduct, and monitoring of recall referendums gave “the impression in initial reactions that the government obtained the upper hand, because numerous controls were established...and a time frame was fixed that will make it impossible for realization of the referendum this year,” reported Página 12 of Buenos Aires (Sept. 27).

The new rules permit collection of signatures only within specified four-day periods and at specified sites authorized by the electoral council. El Universal (Oct. 6) reported that the pro-government Movement of the Fifth Republic had further muddled the scenario by seeking council approval to schedule recall petitions for dozens of opposition mayors and deputies, including the mayor of Caracas.

The confusion surrounding the competing recall efforts, the legal issues concerning verification of petition signatures, and the prolonged timetable for the referendum—set back until the end of February 2004 at the earliest—have raised concern that the government’s delaying tactics may yet succeed in derailing the recall altogether.

Elías Pino Iturrieta, writing in El Universal (Oct. 6), lamented that the opposition risks squandering the popular impetus for a recall by focusing more on the shortcomings of the Chávez regime than on a positive message for reform. “Do not the speeches of the opposition require a bit of sifting?” the columnist asked, noting that the flat and often academic rhetoric of opposition leaders fails “to offer a plausible solution to the urgent needs of the country.”

Asdrúbal Aguiar, also a columnist in El Universal (Oct. 7), reached a more optimistic conclusion, arguing that the opposition will succeed provided it carries out the recall campaign “with firmness but also serenity and imagination.”