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Summary on Venezuela

By Enrique ter Horst

13.03.06 | Venezuela will hold presidential elections on 3 December. If they are held in conditions that would allow them to be qualified as free and fair, and if such elections were to lead to a candidate of the opposition being elected to the Presidency, Venezuela could return to a situation of social peace and to the rebuilding of democratic institutions and values. However, if conditions for holding free and fair elections are not reestablished Chavez could end up running alone, or elections might not be held at all if the government came to the conclusion that it had little chance of winning them. But the electoral campaign has already started, at least for Chavez, while his opponents have not yet been able to articulate a coherent strategy to unseat him. There is a growing recognition that a change of government will only be possible if the opposition is able to field a single candidate and of agreeing on a common governance platform, both of which must also appeal to the large and growing pool of uncommitted voters. However, personal ambitions have up to now stood in the way of achieving such an objective.

Since winning his recall referendum on 15 August 2004, Chavez has pursued a reckless strategy of intensifying confrontation with the US while garnering support for his government in the rest of the world. He has, to this end, used strategic alliances cemented with large government-to-government contracts (particularly arms, with Russia, France, Brazil and Spain), privileged access to oil supplies, sizable and highly visible international donations (some $ 20 billion by some calculations, out of an oil income of some 250 billion in the last 7 years), as well as promoting friendly presidential candidates in Latin America. Accusing the US of the intention of toppling his government and assassinating him, confrontation with the US has moved from verbal abuse, often of great vulgarity, to the expulsion of the US naval attaché under the accusation of espionage. Chavez has threatened to halt oil exports to the US in case the alleged intentions of destabilizing his government were to materialize.

Internally, Chavez has done away with most institutional checks and balances and has brought all state branches and agencies under his control, from the Central Bank and the national oil company to Parliament, which he completely dominates after the opposition refused en bloc to participate in last December’s elections. His reach also includes the Armed Forces, the Electoral Council and the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. Its 32 magistrates recently caricaturized its subservience to the President when, in full garb, they received him for the formal ceremony marking the beginning of the judicial year chanting his supporters’ favorite chorus since the failed April 2002 coup attempt (“Uh, ah, Chavez no se va!”), something like stop dreaming, Chavez is not leaving.

Chavez has come to incarnate the State, in addition to incarnating his regime, but the task of establishing a power system that would survive him has not been completed yet. By tolerating widespread corruption, however, the resulting regime of accomplices, together with the penalties it inflicts on “traitors” and those who signed the recall referendum petition, has been able, in the absence of an organized opposition, to decisively exercise power in an almost uncontested manner. The effort to construe the United States and George Bush personally as a threat to Venezuelan sovereignty must be seen as part of the effort to consolidate power, and is also used to discredit political opponents by association with mixed results as anti-US sentiment has never been strong in Venezuela.

A host of social programs, mainly in health and education, has provided the government with considerable support among the poor, and Chavez’ extraordinary communication skills, although starting to wear thin, continue to fascinate a great many. Chavez is however his own worst enemy. His radical and divisive discourse has reduced private investment to a trickle, while his appeal to the poor has created expectations impossible to satisfy. Many get by with government hand-outs, but very few have decent, well-paying jobs, and the beneficiaries are increasingly becoming aware of the difference.

Opinion surveys on personal attitudes show that almost 80% reject a Cuban-type political system and that practically all hope to own their dwellings and see their children become successful professionals. The persistently high number of jobless, Chavez’ lavish personal life-style, widespread corruption by government officials of all levels, the large amounts of money donated abroad, and the use of the Prosecutor General’s office and of the judiciary to persecute political opponents, have damaged Chavez’ standing in opinion polls. Although still ahead of all other possible candidates, there is a growing perception that Chavez is beatable in December, if transparent elections are held. This perception is strongly supported by the over 80% abstention in last December’s parliamentary elections, in which the opposition did not participate. According to the OAS and the EU, the two accredited international observers, the main reason probably was the lack of confidence in the electoral authority’s impartiality.

The increasingly radical turn that Chavez is giving his revolution does not bode well for the survival of democracy and peace in Venezuela. His announcement on 5 March to promote the establishment of Communal Councils empowered to design and run projects at the local level, financed, after being approved directly by the Presidency of the Republic, by Communal Banks that in turn shall receive their funding from the central government, is the clearest step yet towards the establishment of a centrally planned economy. Internationally, the Venezuelan vote, together with Cuba and Syria, against the IAEA resolution referring Iran to the Security Council, has set off alarm bells everywhere, not only in Washington. The establishment ten days later of a 200 million fund to finance an enhanced Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation program that includes the peaceful use of nuclear energy is cause for even greater concern.

The next Summary, will deal mainly with the credibility of the Electoral Council and efforts to restore it, as well as with developments relating to the choice of a candidate of the opposition.

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