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Summary on Venezuela, part 3

By Enrique ter Horst

Caracas, 5 May 2006 | The new fully government-controlled National Assembly elected the new National Electoral Council (CNE) last Friday 27 May, right on schedule and formally following all constitutional and legal steps. The previous CNE had been appointed on a provisional basis by the also government-controlled Supreme Tribunal of Justice, as the required 2/3 majority could not be mustered in the old parliament. Jorge Rodriguez, the outgoing President, received warm praise from Chávez, and responded in kind with a militant, revolutionary farewell speech. In its almost four years of existence the last CNE provided the regime with an opaque electoral system that allows traceless manipulation, complete with the required legal cover and the electronic and administrative infrastructure.

The new CNE, having been elected in due form, will be around for a much longer time, some of its members having been elected for seven years and others for four. Its allegiance to the government is beyond question, with only one of its five principal directors close to the opposition. Its leeway for introducing change being extraordinarily limited, not much is expected of it in accepting demands for more transparency, unless pressure by the opposition and the international community becomes difficult to resist. With the exception of its new President, Ms. Tibisay Lucena (the only surviving member of the previous team and a close associate of Rodriguez), the remaining four principal members and 15 deputies are unknown to the public.

Reactions from the opposition have been unanimous in agreeing that an opportunity to reestablish confidence has been wasted. Teodoro Petkoff, now formally a candidate, stated in a strongly worded declaration that if this was to be the government’s approach to ensuring a free and fair presidential election, Chávez could risk running alone in December, turning the election into a plebiscite on his rule (See Summary 2 on Chávez’ stance in this regard).

Two further important developments have taken place in the opposition camp since the last Summary: the launching of Teodoro Petkoff’s candidacy to the Presidency on 20 April, and the emergence of a sort of Steering Committee of the opposition made up of the three front runners against Chávez, candidates Petkoff, Rosales and Borges. These three, meeting at Rosales’ Governor’s Residence in Maracaibo, agreed to endorse the one of them that would have the best chance of unseating Chávez in December, including to this end, if necessary, the holding of a primary to select the “unitary” (as opposed to “only”) opposition candidate.

The statesman-like approach of the three candidates has generated much hope in the ranks of the opposition, as it not only establishes a new, credible leadership that fills the void left by the old, discredited Coordinadora Democratica, but (should this approach hold), would provide a more solid basis from which to face the extremely difficult governance situation that would arise from a Chávez defeat in December. The full control the government exercises over the State, including the Judiciary and the Armed Forces, could lead to a situation similar to that of Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega has, due to his control of these two institutions, a de facto veto power over the decisions of the elected Presidents.

Teodoro Petkoff has made the rejection of fear the centerpiece of his campaign, also presenting at the launching of his candidature a precise government program. A first in this campaign, it centers on policies designed to generate employment by mainly developing tourism, agriculture and the metalmecanic industry. It also establishes as priorities the downstream addition of value to oil and improving the quality of public services.

The program furthermore squarely addresses the issue of a more just distribution of the oil income, contemplating to this end the allocation of bonds convertible into money (called Cesta-Ticket petroleros) or direct deposits into bank accounts of poor households headed by women. This proposal is of direct interest to the chavista electorate, as Chávez implicitly recognized when he derided the idea in his last Sunday talk-show. Even if still low in the polls, the candidature of Petkoff is developing a momentum that might be difficult for other candidates to follow.

Chávez clearly continues to be the candidate to beat, but a growing number of corruption scandals and the recent killing of the three kidnapped adolescent Faddoul brothers and of a high ranking catholic priest has brought people again into the streets, outraged by the participation of officers of the Caracas Metropolitan police in the first killings, and by the vulgar innuendo by the Interior and Justice Minister and the Prosecutor General in the second one, in a clear attempt to discredit the Catholic Church. It is doubtful, however, that Chávez would leave office if he were to be defeated in December, as he has already stated that he would not relinquish power “ni por las buenas ni por las malas” (no matter what).

Regionally, doubts about Evo Morales’ allegiance appear to have been dispelled in light of the establishment of the “Free Trade Area of the Peoples” recently agreed to by Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia, as well as by the nationalization of Bolivia’s gas assets and reserves five days ago, which affects Brazilian and Argentinean oil companies and could jeopardize both countries access to what they expected would be growing exports of natural gas. On the other hand, Brazil and Argentina are Bolivia’s only markets for its natural gas.

Chávez’ almost patronizing attitude, appearing in La Paz to congratulate Morales and then taking him, playing the great mediator, in his $ 80 million Airbus to Argentina for a summit with Lula and Kirchner risks antagonizing all three, particularly as it comes on the heels of Lulas’ and Kirchner’s publicly voiced displeasure over a recent summit less than two weeks ago with the heads of state of Paraguay and Uruguay, in which Chávez criticized some Mercosur policies towards its smaller members and, adding insult to injury, speculated about Mercosur’s early disappearance. Venezuelans have been exposed for already some time to their leader’s symptoms of power inebriation, but there is little doubt that his regional influence is on the rise.

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