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Is Venezuela's Chavez Hanging by a Thread?

By Seth Antiles

Many analysts assume that President Chavez's control is complete and he has full capacity to either block or delay the recall referendum (RR) indefinitely. Several recent developments suggest that such a conclusion may be correct.

First, the pro-government faction of the CNE has indicated that it will ignore the ruling by the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court that stated that the questionable signatures (the so called planas) should be considered valid until the pro-Chavez dominated Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court issues its own ruling.

Second, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and member of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, Ivan Rincon, has made it clear that the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court will do everything in its power to block the ruling of the Electoral Chamber.

Third, the "Moral Council "comprised of the attorney general, the public defender, and the controller general (all Chavez loyalists) have opened an investigation to determine if the members of the Electoral Chamber should be removed from the Supreme Court for ruling that the "planas" should be considered valid signatures. In fact, these developments only represent additional evidence that President Chavez will do everything in his power to block the RR. But his desire to block the RR has never been in doubt. What remains questionable is whether or not he has the power to block the RR. Another way of framing the question is whether or not Chavez has sufficient control over individuals in key institutions to block the RR and still maintain power.

The reality is that Chavez's control over institutions hangs on a thread an individual here and there and not much more. He holds a three to two majority in the CNE. He holds a three to two majority in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. As was demonstrated this week he does not hold a majority in the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court. According to most estimates the Sala is either split or the opposition could potentially gain a majority. The continual struggles within the institutions are not consistent with a president with an iron grip on the institutions. Instead, the continual state of conflict suggests that he is engaged in an ever-present, intense battle to maintain control, but always just a step away from losing it.

As Chavez battles to maintain control, he has turned increasingly to authoritarian tactics aimed at harassment and intimidation. In recent days, human rights organizations have expressed concerns about reports of torture, excessive use of military force against protestors, and the breakdown of the rule of law. The government has issued arrest warrants for a few politicians, and telephone lines of prominent opposition figures have been illegally tapped. In fact, the government has become so shameless in its tactics, that it has even played several of Teodoro Petkoff's private telephone conversations on the state owned television channel.

There are hints, though nothing firm, that Chavez' s plunge into authoritarianism may lead to a wave of desertions in key institutions from the Chavez camp. If a swing in the balance of power in key institutions materializes in the coming days or weeks it would be a major development. If there is no wave of desertion, Chavez appears willing to descend into an outright dictator. He seems to care less and less about outside appearances, gaining confidence that the international community will bark but never bite. Understanding Popular Sentiment and the Chavista View of the World.

But it would be irresponsible of the opposition to simply wait and hope that the abuses of the Chavez regime will trigger a wave of desertion from the Chavista ranks. The opposition must proactively reach out to the many Chavez supporters who might embrace a viable political alternative that represented their interests.

The days of hope and optimism that swept Chavez to power vanished long ago. Today, few believe Chavez offers the potential for a better Venezuela for everyone. So why is it that despite the blatant abuses of power, society remains polarized with close to 40% of the population supporting Chavez? How can professionals who occupy prestigious institutions turn a blind eye to the turn toward authoritarianism? How can the armed forces either sit back and watch or actively participate in the application of excessive use of force against civilians?

The answer is that those who support Chavez and those who are too afraid to oppose him see Venezuelan politics as a zero sum game. Most regime supporters have discovered that with Chavez they have the promise of access to power and money that they never had before. If power is lost, Chavez's supporters believe that public resources will be monopolized by the opposition for distribution among their supporters.

For those who hold public office, political power is a meal ticket, and allegiance to Chavez guarantees benefits that would be lost and turned over to others offers more than the alternative. In an economy that offers little opportunity in the private sphere, the promise of crumbs is a powerful inducement, especially if you are convinced that you will lose this access if an alternative government comes to power. So many Chavez supporters see politics and control of public office as a fight to the death.

Requirements for a Smooth Transition

The skepticism and distrust of Chavez supporters is profound, and it pervades Venezuelan society and Venezuelan institutions. If the opposition is to win over Chavez supporters in society and in some of the key institutions and open a path toward a recall referendum, it must confront this distrust and skepticism head on. If the opposition fails to win over Chavez supporters the country is at serious risk of descending into a harsh period of authoritarianism period, followed by a period of violence as regime supporters and opponents battle for their own concept of justice in the streets. The ultimate political outcome of such an adventure would be uncertain.

But a smooth political transition is possible. As skeptical as the Chavistas are today, many if not most are desperate to believe in an alternative. The main similarity between today and when Chavez was elected in 1998 is that Venezuelans are desperate to hear a convincing message. The main difference between today and 1998 is that nobody is delivering that message. What message are Venezuelans and Chavistas thirsting to hear? The simple truth.

First, Venezuelans want to hear the truth, in straightforward, simple, and honest language. The truth is that the current crisis is only in part due to Chavez, but more importantly it is due to popular rage that results from years of abuse, mismanagement, corruption, and bad policies that benefited the few and excluded the many under the old political system. All Venezuelans know, understand, and feel this truth in a profound sense. If this truth is not recognized and embraced wholeheartedly by the opposition, then the opposition will continue to be perceived as dishonest and non-credible. Up until now, few in the opposition have made this case publicly, though it is wholeheartedly accepted in private. The majority of the opposition has internalized this truth, now it needs to be communicated to the public.

Second, in simple, straightforward, honest language the opposition must condemn the old politics of Venezuela. The opposition must make clear that the old political system is morally bankrupt, and anyone who attempts to bring back traditional politics has no future in Venezuela. The opposition must make clear again, and again, and again that it represents something new, with ideas and policies never before seen in Venezuela. The opposition must pledge to usher in a new kind of politics that is inclusive, that targets those who had been left out for decades, a politics that emphasizes programs for the poor. The opposition must make it clear that Venezuela has tremendous resources, that when properly and competently managed will deliver growth, job creation, and ultimately personal security, and justice. You must uplift the country, offer Venezuelan citizens hope, and make them smile when they think about the future. You must make people believe that something better is not only possible, but also probable.

It has been said before, but it should be stated again. Criticizing Chavez is a complete waste of time, and worse, it is counterproductive. When the opposition criticizes Chavez, it only reinforces what is in the mindset of his supporters the belief that Venezuelan politics is a zero sum game. We have seen many people desert Chavez, but to trigger the next wave of deserters, which is essential not only to avoid disaster but also to bring democracy to Venezuela, Chavez supporters must believe that politics is not a zero sum game. They must believe that they have something to gain in a world without Chavez.

Finally, I would like to point out an important difference between Chile and Haiti that helps illustrate the main point of this article. In Chile, after years of poor organization, when it finally came to crunch time, the opposition to Pinochet delivered an incredibly uplifting, positive message for all Chileans. Consequently, regime supporters felt safe letting go of the reins of power. In contrast, the opposition to Aristide never offered a message of hope to the country. Its main message was to denounce Aristide. As a result of its inability to raise the hopes of most Haitians, even though Aristide was a despicable authoritarian with horrendous performance, regime supporters to this day see politics as a zero sum game and are willing to kill and be killed for political power.

Seth Antiles is a PhD in economics and political science from Columbia University in New York. He is a Director of Economic and Political analysis at an international financial institution.

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