Venezuela’s Chávez, Holding Fast

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez speaks with reporters after the Summit of the Americas, Jan. 13, 2004 (Photo: Carolina Cubra/AFP-Getty Images).

During this season in Venezuela, Christmas shopping has replaced last year’s general strike and demonstrations, and already there is a feeling of optimism. There is an agreement to move beyond the crisis through constitutional and peaceful means, and the country now awaits decisions that could clean up the political landscape.

However, it is also true that, as has been the case since the end of 2002, an amorphous but unyielding opposition movement continues in its struggle to get President Hugo Chávez out of the Palacio de Miraflores [the official residence of the president in Caracas], whatever it takes, while the president remains ready to do almost anything to keep himself from being ushered out.

What has changed over the course of 2003 are the strategic positions. Chávez has gotten his own way in many respects. For instance, he fired the leadership and hundreds of employees of Petróleos de Venezuela who joined in the strike, and now he is the lord and master of the huge state petroleum company that has sole control of 70 percent of the country’s economic activity. With the money machine running at US$30 a barrel, today his coffers are full. Its reserves, which amount to $21 billion, give him the capacity to bestow favors and, above all, to defend his “Bolivarian Revolution” at all costs.

The crisis unleashed by the national strike—promoted by the opposition to force him to resign—gave the Venezuelan president the opportunity to establish a foreign-exchange control that would have been unthinkable in normal times. This allowed him to devalue the bolivar and successfully attack the problem of the country’s internal indebtedness.

Although unemployment and bankruptcy figures continue to be alarming, the macroeconomic figures are showing some signs that are certainly favorable. The drop in the economy in 2003 was 12 percent, but it did not reach the cataclysmic rate of 25 percent that some were predicting. Now, the forecasts for 2004 put Venezuela in first place for economic growth on the subcontinent, at a rate near 7 percent.

In other words, while events were going in favor of the opposition at the end of 2002, now it is the reverse. The more time goes by, the more the former leader of a coup d’etat [in 1992, Chávez led a failed coup when he was a military officer; he was subsequently pardoned by President Rafael Calderas—WPR] is firmly bolted in place in the Palacio de Miraflores.

The opposition, in contrast, lost ground in 2003. Striking members of the opposition were defeated when they lifted the strike on Feb. 2, 2003, and their highest-ranking representatives, union leaders Carlos Fernández and Carlos Ortega, ended up in exile, accused of crimes such as treason and sabotage for promoting a movement that caused losses estimated between $10-70 billion, depending on whom you ask. Also in February, they lost in their effort to gather thousands of signatures to hold a purely consultative referendum [on whether to oust the president] of questionable validity, a whim they cling to like impatient children.

But the remaining leaders seem to have learned their lesson when they signed on to the democratic agreement sponsored by the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, César Gaviria, with the support of the Carter Center and the United Nations Development Program. They thereby opened the way for a recall referendum, and this time, they collected their signatures carefully. Now they expect to hold an unchallengeable contest to revoke the president’s mandate and those of the 29 representatives in the National Assembly that remain committed to him. More important, this referendum would adhere to the letter of the national constitution.

But the situation remains unclear because, in November, one week before the opposition was poised to make its comeback, sectors close to Chávez organized their own collection of signatures for a referendum to remove 38 representatives of the opposition from the National Assembly.

This scenario of votes and counter-votes is an ominous sign that 2004 will be at least as turbulent as the year that is drawing to a close. If the regulations are enforced, for the recall referendum against the president to be held, some 2.4 million signatures are required. To achieve a recall, however, requires a total of votes greater than the number the officeholder won in the original election. This means that if the opposition has 3.6 million signatures, as it claims [and the same number of people voted to recall Chávez], it would fall just short—by about 100,000—of the number of votes needed to remove Chávez from office.

What are people expecting Chávez to do to avoid being toppled for the umpteenth time? The government has launched an intense campaign to
discredit the referendum, and some accusations have already been leveled concerning double signatures, the inclusion of deceased voters, and all kinds of other flaws. However, the accusations seem implausible because the signature-gathering process has been closely monitored by the international community and has observed the strict rules laid down by the National Electoral Council.

Some opposition representatives have gone on the counterattack, claiming that the government infiltrated the collection of signatures to sprinkle in irregularities. But the maneuvers may buy Chávez some time and allow a year with a full slate of regional and local elections to move forward, and to complicate the picture even more.

Given the uncertainty, analysts are floating all kinds of theories about what strategy the former paratrooper will use. One theory heard over and over is that he will propose a constitutional amendment to move up the elections and seek a way that would allow him to run, but that would require popular approval. Another is that he might resign and use this tactic to the same end, since he considers that any scenario in which he faces off against the fragmented opposition would work to his benefit.

These options would depend on a decision of the constitutional division of the Supreme Court, which has not yet made a ruling. Some fear that Chávez may succeed in manipulating the National Assembly in January to authorize an increase in the number of judges in order to be able to influence their decisions more easily. It would not be the first time the ruler has ordered institutions to be tailored to fit his needs.

The other outcome, which many consider unlikely because of the possibility he might be defeated, is that the president will submit to the recall referendum. But even then, he would not be defenseless. One tactic being mentioned is that the government might launch an intense campaign urging a boycott of the referendum. This would make anyone who voted fall under suspicion of supporting the opposition, which is something many people—particularly government employees—would not be willing to do.

Moreover, the huge amount of money that the government has available provides a lot of maneuvering capability to win back part of the popularity it has lost. The president’s friends point to at least two specific programs. One is “Barrio Adentro” (“Getting inside the [poor] neighborhoods”), in which disadvantaged people are being treated by physicians for the first time in their lives—except that, to the opposition’s horror, the volunteers are Cuban and said to be indoctrinating their patients. The other program is a set of plans intended to broaden the coverage of the educational system.

Also, nobody in the opposition rules out an outcome through force, by means of a campaign of repression orchestrated by the armed forces, which, after the purge carried out following the attempted coup in April 2000, would now be totally loyal to the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chávez. The most optimistic say that, if the members of the military respect their tradition of upholding civilian rule, the Bolivarian militias would take care of doing the dirty work. As one opposition leader said, “We have to remove by democratic means a government that is not democratic.”

Apart from his growing problems in international relations, it can be said that Chávez has won the year hands down and has crowned himself with the title “hard to knock down.” The coming year finds him firmly in power and manipulating the levers of government as he has always done: walking the thin line of legality, between democracy and authoritarianism.

No one knows what the outcome will be, but it is certain that it will be a fight to the death. Because, as the organization mounted to collect signatures for the referendum seems to have shown this time, those in the opposition are not going to let their arms be twisted.