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Recall Referendum and Democracy in Venezuela

By Aleksander Boyd

London 04 June 2004 – The great leader spoke last night, without qualms he accepted that the opposition might have collected the signatures needed to trigger the recall. With respect to the victorious sentiment that has pervaded the public opinion he advised, very wisely indeed, for extreme caution; “I haven’t played yet… They (the opposition) have been playing on their own… Now the game commences…” If such words had been uttered by Enrique Mendoza not a worry would have crossed my mind, alas one would be best advised to take them in the appropriate context, and more, taking into account the treacherous and chameleonic nature of Hugo Chavez.

The weekend before last government supporters ‘flock’ to repair centres to ratify intentions to recall opposition assemblymen; in spite of the former group allegedly being majority they could manage to gather enough signatures to revoke the mandate of only 9 opposition assemblymen. Here is where things start to get interesting. The voting, and counting, for the assemblymen recall process will be manual; conversely that for the presidential recall will be done by the untested “touch screen” electronic system operated by Consortium SBC (Smartmatic, Bizta and CANTV) of which the regime controls 30% of the shares. On a related note it appears that the assemblymen recall will take place on August 8th and the presidential one on August 15th, dangerously close to the deadline for the recall to have any effect on the permanency of Hugo Chavez in power (August 19th).

What are the chances of succeeding?

If my opinion is to be given any weight, rather slim for the following reasons:

1) Hugo Chavez controls PDVSA; hence his got plenty of money to ‘convince’ the people about the necessity of keeping him in power. In that sense one could analyse the already rolled out campaign whose catch phrase is “defendamos las misiones” i.e. let us defend the missions, implemented by this administration (subsidised food, education, health, land distribution, etc) that have somehow ‘alleviated’ the problems of the poor. The government make believe story is that, should the opposition win the recall, they will surely eliminate said mechanisms affecting the lives of the downtrodden.

2) Hugo Chavez controls the CNE; rumours are circulating about a reshuffle of the electoral board. Directors Sobella Mejias and Ezequiel Zamora are perceived by chavismo as opposition puppets.

3) Hugo Chavez controls the National Assembly; his party MVR has got a slim majority in the house which nowadays is all that is needed to pass or amend any law.

4) Hugo Chavez, i.e. the government, has a 30% stake in the company responsible for the voting machines and electronic accounting of the presidential recall. It would be stupid to believe that he will not make the most of his shareholder powers to manipulate the results.

5) Hugo Chavez has the incredible luck of presiding with unexpectedly high oil prices. Much ink has been spilled about PDVSA’s reasons to not augment production, that lay, ultimately, unrelated to the energy policies of this government vis-ŕ-vis the OPEC’s request but rather to an output incapacity of meeting its quotas (old and new). The OPEC's proposal to increase production to counteract the hike in oil prices will fail to affect the market for, at best, another quarter. That is to say well after the recall is done and dusted.

6) Hugo Chavez continues to be the politician with the greatest support. Polls show that his approval levels swing between 25% and 40%. In any case that is more than what any of the opposition leaders count on individually.

7) The opposition has yet to show its intentions to unify behind one candidate. Therefore the possibility of Chavez’ resignation to run in subsequent elections is ever present. If such were to be the case it will be fascinating to see how the egos of Henrique Salas Romer and Enrique Mendoza are going to be tranquilised. There is a clear rupture between the Democratic Coordinator, lead by Mendoza, and the Democratic Block which is commanded by Salas Romer. Primaries would be ideal however opposition politicos have not shown a clear disposition towards that end.

8) Abstention continues to cast its shadow over the process. It is extremely worrying indeed that after two years of political struggle the opposition scarcely managed to get some 130.000 signatures more than the minimum required.

9) The State remains as the main employer in the country. As such new and inventive ways of blackmail will be put in place to arrest political participation of civil servants. Without a doubt the million plus strong workforce will find themselves between a rock and a hard place, subject to all sorts of retaliatory tactics.

10) Terrorism. Never dismiss the political shrewdness and antics of Fidel Castro for he will be the greatest loser should Chavez be recalled. The presence of the G2 Cuban forces in Venezuela can work wonders in maintaining, through terror, the establishment. Colombian drug lords and guerrillas are also a factor that should not be ruled out. Tupamaros and Bolivarian Circles may instigate violence and if it erupts the regime will profit from it.

International Isolation?

PDVSA is meant to be selling 2.6 MBD of which, at least 1 MBD, are produced by strategic partnerships, that is to say foreign companies. As long as that amount of oil, or any other, continues uninterruptedly flowing north no “international or hemispheric diplomatic actions” against the regime will materialize. Let us remember that Chavez bought very many OAS’ votes, via the Caracas Accord, by selling oil in very advantageous conditions to the poor nations of Central America and the Caribbean. None of them will vote for a motion to apply the Democratic Chart to Venezuela for obvious reasons, whatever US officials say in that respect.

More than ever Venezuelans have the solution in their hands. Only agglutinating and closing ranks formidably behind one opposition figure will democracy be rescued.

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