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Venezuela: Dark Horse Enters Presidential Fray

Stratfor Feb 24, 2004

Summary As some Venezuelan opposition groups -- in hopes of a referendum forcing a new presidential election -- rush to hold open primaries to select a single presidential candidate, the country's electoral authorities could be about to rule against holding a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez at all. Other opposition groups, however, are about to launch Venezuelan economist Gerver Torres as a dark-horse candidate -- referendum or no.


Opposition groups seeking to oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in a recall referendum before August plan to hold open primaries to choose a single candidate to run against Chavez in general elections they hope will follow the referendum. The goal of the primaries is to find a single candidate with sufficient popular appeal to win general elections in which Chavez, or a "chavista" candidate, would likely run.

Opposition leaders hope the primaries will solve two problems. The first is finding a single candidate that all opposition groups could support. This is daunting because the opposition is divided among competing groups and individuals, who are elbowing each other ferociously in an effort to gain the most advantageous position for launching their candidacies. Chavez has been exploiting the internal divisions for months.

The second problem has been the opposition's failure -- until now -- to present the Venezuelan electorate with an alternative vision for future development after Chavez is out of power. Opposition leaders hope the open primaries will solve both problems.

The core problem with this new approach, as Stratfor sees it, is that it assumes the National Electoral Council (CNE) will rule soon on whether Chavez must face a referendum. This is unlikely. Chavez controls a 3-2 majority on the CNE's five-member board of directors, and it is likely the CNE will not allow a referendum if there is any risk that Chavez would lose.

Chavez would like to win a referendum because it would enhance his claim that he is a democratically legitimate president -- and it would open the door for him to continue his socialist Bolivarian Revolution. If he can't be certain of winning a referendum, Chavez is determined to block it.

If Stratfor's assumption about the CNE is correct, it means that it will not matter if the opposition holds open primaries because there will not be a recall referendum -- at least not on a level, democratic playing field. Some opposition sources have told Stratfor they believe the CNE will not allow any referendum that is not rigged to ensure a Chavez victory.

As a result, these sources have developed an alternative plan to field a dark-horse candidate who could compete in open primaries -- if the CNE allows a transparent referendum before August. However, if an electoral solution to Venezuela's crisis is blocked by the CNE, these same sources claim their candidate would be presented to Venezuelan voters and the international community as a viable democratic successor to a Chavez government rendered illegitimate by the CNE's refusal to allow a recall referendum.

Several sources have identified the candidate as Gerver Torres, an economist and former president of the now-defunct state-owned Venezuelan Investment Fund (FIV), which managed investments in state-owned steel, aluminum and other enterprises from the 1970s through the 1990s. According to Stratfor's sources, a shadow government of sorts already has been created around Torres, and a plan is being drafted to start rebuilding Venezuela after Chavez is compelled to leave the presidency.

Stratfor asked several sources how Chavez would be compelled to resign if the CNE blocks the opposition's demands for a recall referendum. The short answer is: The groups backing Torres expect the Organization of American States (OAS), the Carter Center and the Bush administration to issue statements condemning the CNE and Chavez. Our sources believe such condemnations would in effect erase Chavez's democratic legitimacy internationally, isolating Venezuela geopolitically and putting so much pressure on Chavez that he would be forced to resign.

However, Chavez is not likely to be impressed or intimidated by anything the OAS or the Carter Center might say against him. It is also likely that Chavez would dismiss any official criticism of his government from the United States, Spain or other countries.

Moreover, with Chavez apparently in firm control of the armed forces (FAN), it is not clear that international pressures over his alleged departure from democratic norms would be sufficient to force his resignation. This means that for a dark horse like Torres to succeed, some sectors of the FAN would have to turn against Chavez. This likely would be interpreted as a coup -- and even a perceived coup would make it difficult, if not impossible, for foreign governments to recognize a post-Chavez government that attains power by compelling the president to resign without the benefit of a recall referendum or new general elections.

By all accounts, Torres is a competent economist, widely respected by his peers in Venezuela and Washington. Moreover, he is not a member of Venezuela's traditional ruling political or business elite. But it remains to be seen whether Torres would have the charisma and the leadership capability to capture popular support and win over other opposition groups that have their own political agendas.

Groups supporting Torres see him as a viable successor to Chavez and as someone who can neutralize other opposition competitors, who are backed by business groups linked to allegedly corrupt governments in the 1970s and late 1980s. In particular, Torres's backers ambitiously hope to neutralize the candidacy of Miranda state Gov. Enrique Mendoza, whose presidential aspirations are supported by some of Venezuela's largest media and banking groups.

Mendoza has been a charismatic regional leader in Venezuela for years and has compiled a good track record, first as a mayor of one of the Caracas metropolitan area's poorest municipalities, and more recently as the governor of Miranda state. Other aspiring presidential contenders include former Carabobo state Gov. Henrique Salas Romer, newspaper publisher and former socialist party (MAS) leader Teodoro Petkoff and many others. It is also not clear that media groups like daily newspaper El Nacional and television mogul Gustavo Cisneros would support a Torres government.

Most important would be popular perceptions of Torres by Venezuelan voters. Torres is a technocrat, not a politician. He has yet to be tested in the public arena of electoral competition. Even if Torres became president of Venezuela by any means other than open democratic elections, it is possible he would be an effective leader. It is also possible, however, that a Torres government created by any means other than general elections would not have the popular and military support required to stay in power.

Copyright 2004 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.

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