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Venezuela: A Better Alternative

By Colin Forbes, April 9, 2004

I was talking to my friend over the Christmas holidays and he basically told me a couple of things. First of all, he said, there will be no recall referendum (RR) this year; and second of all, the opposition will be defeated in state and local elections. On his first prediction, the jury is still out; on the second one, however, he may be extremely accurate. The reason for this (and the great number of opposition candidates for August’s elections will not help change this) is that a great deal of Venezuelans feel disenfranchised or have very little confidence in the opposition. It is needless to say highly embarrassing, that faced with an extremely incompetent government, the opposition has still not managed to attract an overwhelming majority. According to the latest polls, the opposition enjoys the support of 32% of the voters compared to a 25% support enjoyed by the government [1]. In addition, the poll found that support for the opposition has been steadily decreasing since July of last year when the opposition enjoyed the support of 42.2%. Of greater importance, however, is that the poll found that the majority of Venezuelans (38%) consider themselves as ‘neutral’ [2]. In other words, they consider themselves neither government nor opposition supporters. It is imperative for the opposition to critically analyze the reasons behind this discontent in order to offer the Venezuelan public a clear and viable alternative to the present regime. In this respect, I believe that the events of April 11, 2002 teach us valuable lessons of what the country expects from us.

A great number of Venezuelans were ecstatic of images of Chávez being carried off to Fort Tiuna (a Caracas military base) to be placed under custody. Our hearts, however, sank when he heard the decree issued by then interim President Pedro Carmona Estanga. This decree basically gave Carmona Estanga unlimited powers during the time it took to organize new Presidential elections [3]. In a period of 24 hours, the country had moved from a legally disguised leftist dictatorship to an open right wing dictatorship. In fairness to Carmona, the decree did state that under no circumstances would the transition regime last for more than a year. Nevertheless, this decree marked the beginning of the end for Carmona’s regime. Within hours, a great deal of Venezuelans, marched on the street demanding the return of the deposed President. These massive demonstrations, along with the support of the majority of lower ranked military officers, eventually proved sufficient to reinstate Chávez into power. Many Venezuelans, along with international observers, could only shake their heads in disbelief at the events which transpired in those 48 hours.

One of the most important lessons to be learned from Carmona’s brief time in office is that Venezuelans do not want a return to the ways of the ‘Fourth Republic.’ It is important to remember that Chávez was elected by an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans who were tired of the incompetence and mismanagement of previous governments. His mass appeal lay in the fact that he vowed to reduce the country’s high levels of poverty and social inequality. At that moment in time, given the choice, a large number of citizens preferred to continue with Chávez rather than to return to old ways, which is what many perceived Carmona to represent. It has often been said that the massive protests staged in favour of Chávez were ‘artificial’ and they were simply the result of the President’s sleek and well oiled political machinery. Although I believe there is some truth to these statements, I also believe that a large part of the demonstrators truly believed that Chávez was a better alternative. If the opposition hopes to win the upcoming elections it must convince these people that it is truly concerned about their welfare. It must create an economic plan that fosters economic growth, but at the same time is still sensitive to social needs. In doing so, it will distance itself from some of the more radical free market policies pursued by the governments of Carlos Andrés Pérez and Rafael Caldera.

The second important lesson to be learned from the events of April 11 is the need for conciliation. During Carmona’s de facto regime, all government power was to be in the hands of the President along with his Council of Advisors. Although the decree stated that the President’s Council of Advisors would be composed of representatives of the different sectors of Venezuelan society, the interim government’s conduct during their brief time in power made it clear that anyone associated with Chávez’s regime would not be welcomed. One of the first acts of the interim government was to vengefully pursue many of the key figures under Chávez’s regime [4]. In its brief time in power, the Carmona government ordered over a 100 arrests and conducted over a 1000 searches [5]. Particularly worrisome was the fact that the government offered these people little guarantee of a fair trial. This was a mistake the opposition would be wise to keep in mind as they prepare for elections. The Venezuelan public is simply exhausted after five years of intense political struggle. Rather than blindly seeking retribution for past mistakes, the public wants a leader who will be able to bring both sides together and try to build unity in the country. This does not mean that immunity should be granted to all those who committed wrongdoings during Chávez’s regime. It does mean, however, that these people should be granted a fair trial by impartial tribunals.

Considering the grave consequences of losing the upcoming municipal and state elections and a possible recall referendum, it is fundamental for the opposition to win over those ‘neutral’ votes. To do so, the opposition has to abandon previous radical positions and try to find a more moderate approach. In finding this more moderate approach, the opposition would be wise to remember the events from April 11, 2002. A careful analysis of these events shows that the Venezuelan public demands a government which is committed to fighting the high poverty levels and bringing unity to the country. If the opposition is able deliver on both of these fronts, they should have little problems winning the upcoming elections.

1. T. de Vincenzo, “Los “ni-ni” son los que deciden” El Universal (6 Abril 2004)

2. Ibid.

3. Acta de Constitución del Gobierno de Transición Democrática y Unidad Nacional (12 Abril 2002) Venezuela Analítica

4. M.A. Hernández Arvelo, ¿Qué paso en Venezuela? Correo de la Verdad (Edición 14)É

5. Ibid.

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