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Venezuela's situation report

By Enrique ter Horst, sixthrepublic.com

Caracas, 18 July 2004 - Chavez and his government continue to make unrestricted and illegal use of the privileges and resources that come with political power, not only channeling oil money that should be deposited with the Central Bank directly into its populist social programs (some US $ 2 billion, by admission of the Minister of Energy and Mines), but, also, openly violating the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) rules on electoral propaganda by making excessive use of his prerogative to address the nation through the private radio and TV networks. So much so, that government-friendly Francisco Carrasquero, the President of the National Electoral Council, publicly warned Chavez that he might be “punished” by the Council, should he continue to violate these rules. The Carter Center is now to monitor their compliance by both sides.

Most opinion polls now show the YES and NO options at the same levels of preference. But, as previous experiences in Nicaragua and Peru have shown, polls must be taken with a grain of salt in authoritarian regimes, as many voters often do not reveal their true intentions for fear of possible reprisals. The percentage of those likely to abstain has shrunk from 35% to 25%, a tendency that is likely to continue as the date of the RR nears, benefiting mainly the opposition.

Chavez, a formidable campaigner, has taken again to playing the role of the conciliating, gentle democrat, especially towards the middle class, the same role he played immediately after the failed Carmona coup. He has liberalized the allocation of dollars, particularly for travelers, and has reduced the value added tax from 16 to 15%. Simultaneously, he continues to use military language in haranguing his followers. The electoral campaign has thus become the “Battle of Santa Ines”, which must be “won”. The military parade commemorating Independence Day on 5 July was used to reenact the battle, clearly with a partisan intention, causing an uproar in the media.

Aided by the mass issuance of national identity cards to newly nationalized foreigners by the Government - with mobile units using abridged and rather unorthodox methods, as described in a previous letter - the number of voters has been increased from less than 12 million three months ago, to slightly more than 14 million on 10 July, the date when the electoral registry was closed. The invitations to the Carter Center has now been finally extended, along with invitations to a number of Nobel Peace Prize winners, such as Mandela, Gorbachov, Perez Esquivel and Menchu, as well as to some international organizations. Former Argentinian Presidents Alfonsin and Duhalde have confirmed their participation. The invitation to the OAS is still outstanding.

Chavez’ improving chances of winning the RR have made the CNE somewhat more forthcoming, but a number of decisions continue to point to a non-transparent and openly partisan attitude by the government friendly majority of three that controls the CNE. There remains more than uneasiness about the use of touch screen equipment and, particularly, of fingerprint detection machines during the RR (supposedly to avoid that people vote twice), for fear that the voting process will be significantly slowed down and that the secrecy of the vote could be jeopardized. The CNE and the government have shown no inclination to dispel this apprehension. Reliable sources inform that the CNE has established a second computing center outside its headquarters, not subject to international observation, and CNE staff not loyal to the government continues to be pressured into resigning or taking a long vacation. The Carter Center has stated that, with minor adjustments, it can work with the restrictive rules for international observers issued by the CNE.

The National Assembly, having approved in June the new law on the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (designed to ensure government control of the administration of justice, particularly useful in case of a contested RR result, as also described in a previous letter), has now initiated the process of interviewing candidates for the twelve new positions of Justice to be appointed by Parliament. One prominent candidate is Dr. Francisco Carrasquero, the President of the CNE himself. The new Justices, to be appointed by simple majority, (not by a qualified majority of two thirds, as in the abrogated law) should be sitting in their chairs by 8 August, just in time to ensure that the government prevails in case of a close and contested result at the RR.

Stirred into action by these developments, the opposition has made a half-hearted effort to publicize its rather general political, economic and social plan to turn the country around and ensure its governance by democratic means. Called Consenso Pais, the plan recognizes the need for a determined effort to reduce poverty, but does not provide specific, quantified objectives, nor a detailed, coherent formula by which progress in its implementation could be measured. It is therefore of little use in neutralizing Chavez’ strategy of discrediting the opposition by trying to portray it as a return to the ineffective and corrupt 20-year period preceding his election.

The opposition has not yet agreed on how to elect or select the candidate it would field in the presidential elections that would follow within 30 days of Chavez’ recall. It better be a good one, one that can take a good chunk of the chavista vote, as Chavez, according to Dr. Ivan Rincon, the President of the TSJ, will be able to stand as a candidate in those elections. Attending last week the MERCOSUR summit in Argentina, Chavez himself said that he would be a candidate in the presidential elections that could be held sometime in September. The opposition intends to choose its presidential candidate immediately after the RR, in order keep it as an event deciding on a choice of society and avoid giving Chavez the chance of turning it into a contest between two candidates.

Everything appears to indicate that the referendum will be held as scheduled, mainly due to Chavez’ good showing in the polls, and that national and international scrutiny will make fraudulent behavior by the government very difficult, but certainly not impossible. Ensuring stability after the RR will be a major challenge, as the government and the opposition still are not talking to each other. The wise and determined mediation of former US President Carter, the one personality that has built and maintained the necessary political capital with both sides, will continue to be essential.



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