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Venezuela at a cross roads

By Daniel Duquenal

Wednesday 16, March 2004 - This is an attempt at evaluating what is really going on. It is probably going to be a futile exercise as things keep changing at a breathtaking pace.

First, the driving force.

Chavez cannot, will not go to a Recall Election. If he loses it, his international career is over. He might still have some future in Venezuela but he can forget about becoming Castro's heir.

His people cannot let him go to an election that he might lose, because without Chavez they are nothing. After 5 years, perhaps the most amazing thing in chavismo is that it has produced no one with a shred of leadership, except, wits will say, for Lina Ron.

We are not talking politics here, and even less ideology or sense of mission. We are talking about a group of people that made off with power, and privilege, and as any good Mafia or street gang, they are not going to let go.

It is really quite simple. Everything else are mere words of justification.

Second, the governmental trap.

Once they realized that they could not stop the development of a Recall Election process, all of chavismo energies were spent in finding ways to slow it down, to bog it down, to kill it.

They tried all sorts of things but to no avail, a signature collection had to take place. I think that they came up with the final trap rather late. It was going to be the "assisted" signatures form. That was the only way to annul massive amounts of signatures, namely 800 thousand (plus a few more on other technicalities). Then they invented a system of signature "repair" or "verification" too cumbersome to have any chance of success. That would have proved the famous charge of megafraud hurled by Chavez even before all of the signatures were inked. After all, besides a handful of unconvincing pseudo forgeries, that would have been expected in any third world electoral system, they had nothing to show after months of "verification".

The expected result was that the opposition would cave in, try to amend at least 80 % of the signatures in an impossible short span of time. If by any chance they made it, Chavez would have countered with lawsuits and at the very least he would have gotten the referendum AFTER the fateful date of August 20. Then, if worse came to worse, he would have resigned before the recall, let his vice president run the show for two years and try to come back in 2006. We would have had to wait until 2006 to measure his real popularity. And two years are a life time in politics, all can change and does.

This, and it must be stressed, was the worst case scenario for Chavez.

Third, the trap unravels

Chavismo is not very competent or efficient, due to its own nature as all must be referred to high above. The Electoral Board set up quickly showed its true nature, its partiality to delay all for Chavez sake. This was so obvious that by the time they decided to put 800 thousand signatures under "observation" and annul outright a few more hundred thousand, international observers had had enough and said so. Ever so diplomatically of course, but it was clear to all.

I think that that was the first error of Chavez. After repeating for months that he was the sole victim of the April 2002 events, I think he and his people started to really believe it, and believe that the whole world was going to buy that forever. But suddenly they realized that a fraud from their part on that scale was going to have consequences.

Quickly they moved on a plan B of sorts which was nothing less that create a state terrorism of sorts. We had the brutal repression of February 27 and following days. And a series of constant provocation such as unnecessary National Guard attacks, to more cadenas, to judicial abuse and even threats to the banking system. The subliminal message was that removing Chavez from office would create chaos in the country. The immedaite objective was that while the opposition went around screaming, chavismo would win time to come up with additional moves, legal ones if only in appearance.

February 27 was a key moment as the regime officially unmasked itself in front of the whole world, and that was the second mistake. Nothing would be the same after February 27. The regime had officially stepped on the slippery slope of open violence, and legal disregard.

But such a display of force was obviously a sign of deep weakness and insecurity. After all, the 1.8 million signatures collected, at the price of surrendering the right of voter secrecy and becoming listed as an adversary of the regime, was a hefty 15% of the voting population. In a country with 40 to 50% abstention, this was a lot!

But things got worse quickly. When the Electoral Board started showing their survey results it became clear that they had done a sloppy job, a job that was wide open to law suits. Facing a public humiliation of "their" Electoral Board, chavismo political players started to move within the High Court to block any adverse decision. Something went really wrong. Perhaps it was on purpose to set yet a new unknown trap. Perhaps it was sheer incompetence. Perhaps it was actually some justices way to say that they were leaving a sinking HMS Chavez. Some day we will know. But the fact of the matter is that they played their hand without keeping some of their cards close to the chest. Within a single week end, duly warned, three justices from the Electoral High Court section surprised the Constitutional Court and sent crashing down the trap set up since August 2003!

Picking up the pieces? Or heading into uncharted territory?

Right now it has been 48 hours and the government and his supporters in the high court have made no move. There is talk of appeals, a mushrooming of insults, and all that goes along such an situations. How come? In such an important matter, in a few hours a well crafted appeal should have been published. Is this a way of recognizing that the Electoral High Court decision is indeed final? Or do they just need more time to play their last card? Because that is where we are now, the last card from both sides.

Indeed the situation is very grave. Playing the judicial card of one High Court section against another high court section implies a constitutional crisis of major proportion. The Venezuelan High Court system is formed of six courts with specific attributes, and only in some cases the 20 justices sit down together. Hearing chavista lawyers this morning on television was listening to arguments as to why the 5 Constitutional Court members could actually rule over the 20 justices. That is, they would have the Constitutional Court take over the Venezuelan judicial system. I have read the constitutional articles tonight, and though not a lawyer I could clearly sense that objective and the irreversible bending of the constitution.

Any support that any of the other branches of the government would bring to such a scheme would make them partners in constitutional violation, and aggravate the crisis.

I think that we are reaching the end of the rope. The Chavez administration is engaged in a constitutional violation path. Whether it will get away with it is another matter, but the consequences for both sides are tremendous. They could range from the establishment of a "legal" authoritarian regime Peru's Fujimori style, to pure and simple dictatorship. If Chavez prevails. And if Chavez fails, the resulting crisis could go from voiding of the constitution requiring again another lengthy constitutional process to just plain civil war.

Chavez has demonstrated time and again that a few violations of the constitution did not take from his sleep. This is the big one he has been preparing himself for, since late 2001 when he decided politically that he had to liquidate any vestige of the old political order, regardless of its faults or virtues. I am convinced that he is ready and willing. He is a soldier. Whoever opposes him is an enemy.

The only question left for him is how many people are going to accompany him.

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