People Power: The Only Option for Democratization in Venezuela
By Seth Antiles
25.05.05 | The New York Times recently reported that a US proposal to create a committee at the Organization of American States (OAS) to monitor the quality of democracy in Latin America is facing stiff resistance from many Latin American countries. According to the Times, the US proposal is facing difficulties in part because it is being viewed as "an effort to attack Venezuela." In fact, the reluctance of the OAS to hold neighboring governments accountable when they do not govern democratically is consistent with its history of turning the other cheek as several presidents have slid toward authoritarianism.
Several weeks ago, Ecuadorian citizens rose up to topple their president, Lucio Gutierrez, after he had eliminated checks on presidential power by dissolving the Supreme Court and appointing a kangaroo Court. President Ricardo Lagos of Chile called the political upheaval ''grave.'' The Peruvian Ambassador to the OAS, Alberto Borea, stated that supporting Ecuador's way of changing government would send a signal that it is normal to dismiss presidents this manner. Sadly, the OAS and key Latin American leaders did nothing to try to restrain President Gutierrez's authoritarian actions prior to the popular reaction. Latin Americas' continued accommodation of authoritarianism leaves the Latin American "street" as the only hope for democratization in Venezuela.
Venezuela's Frustrated Experience with People Power
History shows there were three possible moments when people power might have succeeded. The first was April 11, 2002 when a million Venezuelans took to the streets to protest Chavez's slide toward authoritarianism. The uprising led to Chavez's ouster after the military refused to repress peaceful protestors. Rather than commit crimes against humanity the military asked for his resignation. But a movement that began as a grass roots democratization drive was hijacked by a small group who attempted to replace one authoritarian regime with another. The military returned Chavez to power rather than allow a small group of political dinosaurs to grab power from what had been a broad based uprising.
The street mobilizations of late 2002 and early 2003 was the second attempt. Unfortunately, a segment of the movement used PDVSA as a weapon against Chavez. When PDVSA workers shut down oil production all Venezuelans suffered, and those with a financial cushion were best able to withstand the assault. The opposition lost potential sympathizers as a consequence. It took many months before the opposition was able to rebuild.
The third opportunity arose in August 16 2004, the day after the referendum against Chavez. Whether or not electoral fraud took place on August 15 will never be known. But all objective observers acknowledge that the referendum result may have been altered by the outrageous abuses of voter rights committed by the electoral authorities in the weeks and months prior to August 15. The day after the referendum society had every right to pour into the streets to protest against the electoral abuses committed by the authorities and tolerated by the OAS and Carter Center. Why did the OAS and Carter Center endorse the result? It is a difficult question to answer, but it is clear that these two organizations had a conflict of interest and should not have acted as both facilitators of the referendum negotiations and as election observers. After working so hard to get the two sides of the conflict to agree to the referendum, it was too difficult for these organizations to state publicly that the electoral body was deeply biased in favor of the government, subsequently walk out of Venezuela, and leave the country in chaos. Whereas in the Ukraine the international community refused to endorse the election result, in Venezuela any hope of mounting a credible people power movement in the name of electoral justice was obliterated by the OAS and Carter Center.
Congressman Bill Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the House International Relations Committee, recently told the New York Times "one cannot get around the fact that Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected president." Delahunt failed to mention that after being elected Chavez eliminated all checks and balances on presidential power by purging all public sector institutions and stacking them with loyalists. He failed to mention that Chavez is working quickly to arm a personalized, parallel military that will surely be trained to follow the orders of their president if he tells them to open fire on peaceful protestors. Chavez was democratically elected, but after his election democracy came to an end in Venezuela.
Over the past few years Venezuelans have demonstrated an incredible ability to mobilize peacefully against authoritarianism. With no hopes for a fair election in 2006, any realistic opposition strategy will almost certainly include a massive people power movement. While Venezuelan citizens are not likely to get much support from most OAS members, it is clear that the United States has finally come to grips with the dangers of Chavez's authoritarianism. In its next battle for democracy Venezuela's people power movement will surely have an ally.
Seth Antiles worked for 8 years as a Director of Latin America research at Citigroup and is currently head of research at an emerging market investment fund.
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