Venezuela’s political opposition has begun to put aside its long tradition of in-fighting to unite behind its shared economic values and its intense hatred for Hugo Chávez’ confrontational regime, which it hopes to uproot through the August 15 recall referendum. Dr. Julia Buxton, a Venezuelan elections expert at London’s Kingston University, believes that the president’s critics “need to channel their negative feelings for Chávez into positive support for the opposition,” a feat that they have yet to achieve in sufficient numbers. The opposition’s tactical alignment with the Bush administration, coupled with its aggressive privatization plans and cuts in social programs, has brought on a deep seeded alienation among the impoverished classes. They have not forgotten decades of economic mismanagement and policies targeted at using the country’s oil wealth almost exclusively to benefit the middle class while all but ignoring the interests and needs of the indigenous poor. Due to these popular concerns, Chávez’ foes have been unable to muster and maintain the necessary political capital to compensate for their limited numbers and their heritage of affluence, in order to be able to strip the left-wing populist of the nation’s highest office.
Opposition’s Soiled Hands
The opposition can hardly claim to be the socio-economic champion of Venezuela’s poverty-stricken majority. After a long history of ignoring the poor, its leaders have recently proposed a post-Chávez strategy which blatantly contradicts their recently proclaimed concern for the country’s destitute citizens. In a maneuver that would completely privatize Venezuela’s energy industry, the opposition has called for the “flexibilization” of the nation’s current Hydrocarbons Law, something that would warm the hearts of U.S. big business interests. The plan would slash the 20 percent royalties now paid by multinational oil companies to the Venezuelan government for oil and gas extraction. Before Chávez, the royalty rate on crude oil was scarcely one percent. Chávez’ political foes also plan to auction off several of the state electric companies, highlighting the opposition’s willingness to privatize those state installations that are of the greatest public service to the highest bidder, rather than have them remain in the hands of the citizenry. By plotting to resurrect the sometimes free-swinging open market policies that dominated the pre-Chávez era, his critics once again plan to ignore Venezuela’s poor by attempting to roll back the clock.
Chávez’ widely lauded social programs to feed and aid the poor have also come under attack from the pro-business opposition. The estimated $1.7 billion worth of social spending, now funded by the unanticipated windfall deriving from the country’s vast oil riches flowing from the Iraqi war, would likely be curtailed if the traditional political parties were restored to power. “Our president is giving me a chance to make my dream a reality,” said Miguel Antonio Castillo, a 60 year-old laborer who is receiving education and monthly payments from the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela. The opposition’s close ties to private energy firms account for its unwillingness to guarantee the continuation of Chávez’ proposed “social transformation” to “redistribute [the] national income.”
The Manipulation of Venezuela’s Democracy
Although the opposition claims that Chávez has undermined the constitution, it has been quick to overlook its own anti-democratic transgressions. Chávez, in fact, has bolstered Venezuela’s Constitution through the addition of Articles 333 and 350, which outline legitimate methods to legally oppose any would-be autocratic regimes striving to hold power. The president’s enemies are currently using these precise provisions to stage the August 15 recall referendum. While currently manipulating these amendments for their own political ends, some of Chávez’ critics have announced plans to excise them if they are victorious. This somewhat cynical plan to overturn the constitutional right of legitimate protest and recall suggests that the opposition appears unwilling to allow others to benefit from the liberties of which they are now taking advantage, but insist should not exist. “Recall referenda must be eliminated because it brings too much instability,” said anti-Chávez leader Henry Ramos Allup. If such claims are widely held, the opposition’s motives for instigating the referendum must be called into question.
Carlos Andrés Pérez, the country’s infamous kleptocratic former president who was forced from office due to financial scandals, has further discredited the opposition’s democratic objectives. Holding a personal vendetta against Chávez, who led the failed 1992 coup against him, he bellowed, “I am working to remove Chávez [from power]. Violence will allow us to remove him. That’s the only way we have.” This familiar call to arms from the aggressive opposition leader highlights his lack of faith in Venezuela’s democratic process and his utter hatred for the country’s elected leader who “must die like a dog, because he deserves it.”
Chávez’ Electoral Support
Elected initially with an overwhelming majority, Chávez has been slow to fulfill his lofty promises to the poor. Plans for wealth redistribution, education initiatives and agricultural reform in retrospect appeared to be little better than campaign pledges until his opponents acquired sufficient backing to force the August 15 recall referendum. Facing growing hostility towards his command leadership, Chávez is now courting electoral support by finally implementing long-overdue social programs which the country’s treasury previously could not afford. He has also naturalized 1.2 million poor immigrants to further his political base. The timing of this vast migration is somewhat questionable as it provides Chávez with a greater lower-class constituency.
To construct a judicial safety net, the Venezuelan president has padded the Supreme Court with an additional 12 undoubtedly loyal judges, who will help decide Chávez’ eligibility for immediate re-election if he is unfortunate enough to lose the recall referendum. Long before Chávez appeared on the scene, however, the Venezuelan bench had always been a deeply politicized and venal institution which almost prided itself on maintaining the status-quo to the detriment of the country’s largely underprivileged majority.
Dr. Buxton states that “the success of Chávez has been based on creating community organizations, avenues for participation in the economy and politics, which admittedly do not translate into statistical advances, but have created a sense of [social] inclusion.” The opposition, however, has continuously slandered such organizations as communist or state-dominated, failing to grasp their importance to a people who have historically been excluded from any segment of the nation’s wealth. The government’s critics must agree that they are willing to work with “Chávistas” if they gain power, acknowledging that the most capable officials may not automatically be found in middle class, middle aged and pro-business ranks. Until the opposition recognizes its past errors and class bias, it will remain disconnected from the issues that most contribute to Venezuela’s pro-Chávez majority.
In addition to Chávez’ broad backing from the masses, his support is also concentrated within the military, whose suffrage the opposition is threatening to abolish if it gains power after the upcoming referendum. By disenfranchising Venezuela’s armed forces, the president’s opponents are determined to silence the voices of almost 88,000 of their fellow countrymen who may not share their anti-Chávez convictions.
Washington is no Friend of Chávez
Relations between Venezuela and the United States have been strained since Chávez came to power in 1999 with a progressive agenda contrary to Washington’s oil-based geopolitical interests. Furthermore, the populist leader’s Bolivarian tendencies have aligned him with Washington’s arch enemy, Fidel Castro, furthering the tensions between the Chávez administration and its northern neighbor. His highly publicized meetings with Saddam Hussein have also raised eyebrows in Washington. The Bush administration has continued, largely as a pretext, to warn Caracas against its fraternization with nations considered to be terrorist states. As rhetoric from both sides heightened political tensions, U.S. opposition towards Chávez’ allegedly rogue leadership escalated from idle criticism to aggressive threats.
Uncle Sam’s Interference in Venezuela
These warnings were made manifest in 2002, when a U.S.-aided coup led by the middle-class opposition and quarterbacked by the State Department briefly deposed Chávez. Washington had spent $4 million in the days and weeks before the coup, helping to coach the brazenly anti-democratic golpe de estado to topple the Venezuelan leader. From the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala to the U.S.’ blatant support of last February’s unconstitutional ousting of Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide, U.S. interventionism has been predictable and widespread throughout the Latin American region. Regarding Venezuela, senior members of the Bush administration, led by then-acting Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, met with opposition leaders prior to the April 2002 coup, tacitly endorsing their plans to remove Chávez from office, which they sanctioned with embarrassing speed once they thought the coup had achieved success. After his reinstatement, the Venezuelan president lashed out at the U.S., asserting that “the government of Washington is using the money of its people to support, not only opposition activities, but acts of conspiracy.” This U.S.-sanctioned scheme was spearheaded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an underhanded organization whose cover is its professed non-partisanship nature, but which has continuously undermined democratic processes in the developing world by assisting rightwing political parties to engage in illicit practices. This task has largely been carried out by the International Republican Institute and other dubious NED-funded operations.
The Center for Dissemination of Economic Information, an opposition-run organization headed by staunchly anti-Chávez advocate Rocio Guijarro, obtained a $300,000 grant from NED for what is known to be a suspicious program entitled, “Project Consensus to Build a National Agenda.” The proposal outlines specific strategies to fix “the ongoing political tension in Venezuela [that] has been brought about by the failure of the Hugo Chávez government to improve the failing Venezuelan economy while demonstrating an alarming pattern of undermining democratic institutions in the country.” In other words, these modest funds were to be used to pay the incidental expenses to facilitate the forcible, if necessary, removal of Chávez. The contradictory rhetoric used by those who led the 2002 coup highlights their indifference to Venezuela’s democratic processes when they happened to experience setbacks carrying out their plans.
In their 48 hours of rule in April 2002, the opposition showed its true colors by dissolving Venezuela’s Congress and other democratic institutions. Although Chávez has frequently come out with distorted interpretations in order to use constitutional processes for his own benefit, he has refrained from dismantling the country’s legitimate political institutions. Interestingly, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned Chávez, not the coup leaders, to “respect constitutional processes” after the democratic leader was reinstated through popular protest. Washington’s implied accusation that it was Chávez who had undermined the country’s constitutional process was yet another example of its questionable rhetoric, since sponsoring a failed coup attempt would appear to be the antithesis of respect for Venezuela’s Constitution.
Venezuela’s Difficult Decision
The outcome of the upcoming recall referendum may conceivably be the last bout between the country’s two political factions until the 2007 presidential elections. President Chávez, an increasingly confrontational leader who has consistently lashed out at the Bush administration’s numerous incidents of interventionism, has maintained a lead in recent polls due to his reinvigorated populist agenda and the legions of recently nationalized immigrants who see him as their political savior. In the other corner of the democratic ring stands the often fractured, but presently relatively united opposition, which views the upcoming referendum as a battle of survival by regaining electoral office, cementing its close relationship with Washington and promoting its free-market economic policies. Although Chávez is hardly a martyr of Venezuelan democracy, the opposition has consistently shown its willingness to play the role of Judas, placing its own sectoral interests above the well-being of the entire nation.