A Fateful Moment for Venezuela

To the Media: Sunday’s Venezuelan Recall Vote On President Chávez’ Continued Tenure

As events unfold in Venezuela leading up the August 15 recall vote that will determine the fate of President Hugo Chávez, the opposition, and the country, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) will be providing timely analyses of developments associated with the event. Over the years, COHA has researched and written extensively on the Chávez presidency and the role of the opposition. In the remaining days before the recall vote, COHA Director Larry Birns and lead scholar on COHA’s Venezuela Desk, Research Associate Mark Scott, will be available by phone and email to answer press inquiries, provide statements, and other information, as well as analysis of events in Venezuela as they happen. To reach Larry Birns over the weekend, please call either 410-873-3202 or 202-215-3473. In addition, you may find our previously published material on Venezuela on our website, www.coha.org.

Venezuela’s fast approaching recall vote is a historic opportunity for the nation’s electorate to soberly decide the future of the oil rich country. Ranked as the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, the country nevertheless has been troubled by deep-seated socio-economic problems that can only be addressed by coherent, non-partisan solutions. Unfortunately, both President Chavez and his middle class opponents have emphasized their own self-interests and political futures, confusing these with the well-being of the Venezuelan population. The outcome of the August 15 referendum could provide a narrow window of opportunity to an often ignored electorate to vocalize its hopes and fears for the country’s future.

The highly controversial Hugo Chavez has caused concern both at home and abroad with his aggressive populist message and his seemingly demagogic style. Lashing out at both his political rivals and their Washington supporters, the Venezuelan leader has overruled congress with wide-ranging presidential decrees, installed political cronies into the Supreme Court and attacked civil organizations that do not condone his Bolivarian vision. Yet, Chavez has always managed to remain within the country’s constitutional framework.

Chavez’ opponents view such actions as manifestations of his anti-democratic tendencies that will gradually undermine Venezuela’s constitutional base. Yet, while this criticism of the government is at times merited, Chavez’ controversial leadership has also been marked by a number of positives. These include a renewed concern for the country’s lower class, which has historically been ignored by corrupt political parties which now oppose Chavez. These groups made certain that the billions of dollars in earnings by the state-owned oil company were not spent on the infrastructural needs of the poor.

Unlike his opponents, Chavez has instituted social programs, ranging from subsidized food to much-needed public-work projects as well as enhanced medical and health services, making good on his campaign pledges to improve the lives of the nation’s poor. “A lot of poor people who have never voted before will come out this Sunday for Chavez because of what he’s delivered,” stated Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan expatriate who has seen the government’s programs in action, in a recent New York Daily News article. Even though his techniques sometimes seem reminiscent of past Latin American dictators, it is likely that President Chavez will win the upcoming recall vote because of his implementation of welfare programs that, under previous governments, were merely unfulfilled campaign pledges offered to placate Venezuela’s lower class majority.

Enough Blame to Go Around
While the opposition has accused Chavez of instituting autocratic and self-interested policies, its own political history illustrates its willingness to place class interests above the nation’s well-being. Chavez’ election to the presidency ended the fourth Venezuelan Republic, during which the country’s two traditional parties, Acción Democrática and the Christian Democratic Party, shamelessly embezzled government funds and promoted an environment of cronyism and nepotism, while concerns for the country’s poor were essentially ignored.

The opposition has been unable to convince the poor that it has left its tarnished past behind as the August 15 referendum approaches. Unlike Chavez’ highly acclaimed welfare “missions,” his opponents have never articulated a clear plan to address the social needs of the lower class. Instead, they have offered a free market economic strategy that would include the “flexibilization” of royalties paid by foreign firms to the Venezuelan government and the auction of several state-owned electric companies. They have also failed to guarantee the continuation of the president’s most successful welfare programs, further alienating themselves from Venezuela’s disadvantaged majority. Although the opposition has criticized Chavez’ confrontational leadership, its own failure to provide a legitimate alternative strategy will likely lead to its defeat on August 15.

Venezuela’s vying political factions have destabilized the country through their often aggressive rhetoric and their failure to promote a conciliatory message. In a country where mainly lip-service has been paid to democratic ideals, Sunday’s plebiscite will provide the Venezuelan population an opportunity to reaffirm its own role within the country’s embattled political system. The recall vote will hopefully provide an answer to Venezuela’s leadership question – but the true answer to the country’s overall developmental problems will only be determined through greater cohesion in what is now a dangerously fractured society.