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Hugo Chávez’s unexpected juncture: from checkmate to hara-kiri?

By Pedro Mario Burelli | PMBComments

03.12.05 | If the game were chess, the Chávez government would have to admit that surprisingly it has been checkmated. Through a series of fortuitous developments – not necessarily of their own making - the opposition leadership has seen its awful predicament miraculously reversed in less than a week. Now Hugo Chávez and his arbitrary cronies have but hours to decide between the following three unpalatable moves:

1. Recognize they have indeed been cornered and have no option but to agree to a last minute postponement of the election.

2. Go ahead, nonchalantly, and play electoral solitaire.

3. Kick the board and say you never intended to play chess because the rules were concocted by domestic and external enemies of the Bolivarian Revolution.

The implications of each course could not be worse, and that explains the title of this commentary:

1. Postponing and fixing a new election date is not a scheduling issue. It implies a complex negotiation which must certainly include, first and foremost, the naming of a new, and neutral, CNE. The problem is that Hugo Chávez has never exhibited much aptitude for conciliation. He seems to be binary in his approach to negotiation. For him fate is black or white: glorious victory or ignominious defeat. Mr. Chávez certainly understands how hard it would be to ensure success in an election run by an impartial arbiter that would effectively check his predilection for electoral shenanigans and wholesale intimidation. This is a capitulate-today-and-very-probably-lose-tomorrow situation.

2. Insisting on holding the election as scheduled will no doubt turn it into a de facto referendum on Mr. Chávez’s rule. With turnout projected to be very low when it was a two-sided contest, the opposition can now rightfully claim that every eligible vote not cast is an opposition vote. On Sunday night Mr. Chávez might find his claims of popularity obliterated, and his legitimacy completely undermined, hence the reference to harakiri.

3. Kicking the board implies shedding the vestments of democracy with which Mr. Chávez has sought to conceal his increasingly authoritarian tendencies. He will certainly attempt to blame others – already has – for his predicament. He might very well try to stage, or temp, events that morph him from villain to victim. He will exploit his histrionic talents to holler in defense of “democracy” and the “revolution”. But in the end, he will have to face the world as a buck naked emperor with an entirely new, and much less pleasant, tale to sell. Those who have been all to glad to serve as his courtesans and apologists might find the task insufferable and not without consequences. Millions of Venezuelans will have to opt between freedom and oppression with no other stage but the street and no other weapon but their valor. While it is hard to predict the timing, or the looming risks, the memories of Manila, Belgrade, Bucharest, Prague, Tbilisi, Kiev and Lima reverberate.

So what will Mr. Chávez do in the next 24 hours? With the Castro regime as both guide and inspiration, it is impossible to predict, but you can be sure that the imminent, resounding and democratic triumph some trumpeted so stridently, and for so long, is no longer in the cards. That prediction always failed to account for the fact that the vast majority of Venezuelans had long ago checked out of a devilishly crooked electoral sting. The only thing that happened this week was that the hapless leadership of the discredited opposition opted to follow the best instinct of those who at the end should always call the shots in a truly democratic society.

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