Venezuela will be the next Haiti, or at least that’s the hope of the desperate Venezuelan opposition, whose “leaders” and media try to draw the analogy. Their fury is nominally based around signatures for a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez. In the 1999 constitution, product of the constituent assembly fostered by Chavez, there is an unprecedented measure allowing for a recall vote on any elected official after half their term of office has expired, if it is petitioned by 20% of the electorate. Half of the Chavez’s six year term ended last August 19, 2003.
The controversy is based around the decisions of the National Election Committee (CNE) on signatures collected for the referendum. The commission has five members, two from the Chavez side, and two from the opposition, but it took months to find a consensus candidate choice for the president, who would have the deciding vote.. Finally the nod was given to Chavez sympathizer Francisco Carrasquero, a grey haired law professor of indigenous heritage with a reputation for impeccable integrity.
The petition drives for the recall elections were held at the end of November 2003. In the first round the Chavez supporters collected about six million signatures to recall some 37 opposition Congressional deputies. Then, from Nov 28 to Dec. 1, the opposition claimed to have collected the required 20% signatures for about 2/3 of the 30 deputies they tried to recall, and 3.4 million signatures against Chavez, more than the 2.4 million, or 20% of the electorate needed to solicit the recall vote.
The Chavez supporters, who had observers at every petition table to tally the signatures, alleged that the opposition had only collected 1.9 million signatures, and that the remaining 1.5 million were the result of a “megafraud”. Recently obtained FOIA documents have documented that SUMATE, the main opposition group organizing their collection of signatures, received tens of thousands of dollars from the Republican Institute and the Endowment for Democracy.
The CNE was originally to announce the preliminary results on February 13, but the work of verifying the total of over 10 million signatures and compare them to the electoral rolls, termed a “superhuman” effort by the Jimmy Carter Center, could not be completed until Feb 28. Announcement of the preliminary results were then delayed to consult with both sides, in the presence of representatives of the Carter Center and the OAS as facilitators.
On March 2, the CNE finally reported the preliminary results. It turned out that there were only slightly more than three million possibly valid signatures delivered, of which 143,000 were declared invalid because the supposed signers were either dead, under age, foreign born or otherwise ineligible. The main debate, however, is over some 876,000 signatures on sheets where the signers’ data, except for the signatures, are filled out in the same handwriting. The instructions for filling out the forms, agreed upon by the CNE, and disseminated in the information provided by the CNE and the opposition SUMATE, stated that each person had to fill out their own data, unless physically incapable of doing so. The opposition claims that these were done to save time, and all must be accepted as signatures in “good faith.”
After much debate the CNE, in a 3 to 2 vote, decided not to invalidate these signatures, but rather to have a 5 day period of “repair”, when those with questioned signatures would reaffirm their intentions in any of the 2700 centers to be set up around the country for this purpose. The “repair” process, publishing the identity card numbers of all those who signed and allowing for corrections was always planned so that the electors could confirm that they did or did not sign, and thus prevent mistakes or fraud. A total of about one million signatures will be subject to revalidation in the repair process, and if the just over 600,000 people confirm their signatures, the referendum will go forward. This appears to be feasible, as the all the centers used to collect signatures during the original petition drive will also be used for the repair process, and the CNE appears to be willing to accommodate suggestions from the opposition on how to improve the process.
The indignant opposition has insisted that all the signatures on the forms with the same handwriting must be accepted, and claims that Chavez is simply dictating to the members of the CNE in order to avoid the referendum. For the several weeks the radio, TV and newspapers, almost all controlled by radical elements of the opposition, have been full of quotes to the effect that there will either be a referendum or a rebellion, and that they would create chaos and anarchy and make the country ungovernable unless the recall referendum was approved.
The threat was realized on Friday, February 27. The opposition called a march to protest the biased decisions of the electoral commission and planned to go to the site where the G-15 group was meeting to deliver a protest letter. As the meeting included the presidents or prime ministers of Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Iran, Jamaica and 10 other high-level delegations, the government told the opposition that the march could get no closer than about 1000 yards from the site of the meeting. The opposition insisted that they were going to march to where the G-15 was meeting. When they got to the point where the large contingent of National Guard had put up barriers, they began to throw stones, bottles, fireworks and homemade rockets, and sling-shot marbles at the Guard, and some fired guns. One guardsman is still alive because his helmet partially stopped a bullet. The battle raged for hours, with the National Guard firing clouds of teargas and buckshot to keep the stone and bottle throwers away, but they kept advancing. Some opposition leaders were on TV egging on their protesters, while others were seen in the thick of the conflict, later boasting of the rocks they’d thrown. Another was seen leading the destruction of house belonging to a Chavez supporting political party. After the events the opposition leaders praised their valiant heroes and the private media, in unison, condemned and repudiated the actions of the National Guard. Some 30 people were injured, and many more were treated for teargas inhalation. One 65 year old protester was shot and killed far from the site of the battle by a bullet from an unknown gun, but not the type used by the National Guard. There were several other gunshot wounds, but these were not caused by the National Guard, who are armed only with teargas and rubber buckshot.
This six hour battle on Friday afternoon initiated the opposition’s strategy of urban guerilla disruptions. Small opposition groups, generally 5- 25 people, set up barricades of burning tires and garbage in the streets, blocking traffic in their own upper middle class neighborhoods. . Cars not respecting the blockades can be scraped, fired upon, or have bricks thrown through their windows. Most of these disturbances are occurring in the middle class neighborhoods, where the mayors belong to the opposition. Their police forces do nothing to impede the barricades, and even protect the protesters. There are reports that they also distribute the tires and gasoline. Some kids detained admitted that they were imported from the poorer barrios and paid to make trouble.
On Saturday night, February 28, trucks were stopped on the main highway through Caracas, their drivers held by heavily armed opposition bands, and their tires slashed. In a few areas somewhat larger groups have running battles with the National Guard, who try to keep traffic moving. They throw bottles, stones, and Molotovs, burn cars, trucks and buses, and increasingly, fire high powered weapons at the Guard. They also frequently have shooters in adjacent buildings. The tendency of the opposition now seems to be towards the use of guns. When opposition leaders or adherents are detained with high powered weapons, the media discredits the arrest and repeats reports that the guns were planted. The media, maintains a live coverage of the skirmishes, and at the same time criticizes the government for their violent repression and detention of the peaceful protestors. They repeatedly show footage of the national guard manhandling the demonstrators or shooting, but never show what the demonstrators did, or who what’s in the building they are shooting at. Their news tries to present two contradictory elements: 1) that the whole country is in violent rebellion against the government, and 2) that the government is showing its brutal totalitarian and repressive nature by abusing the human rights of the populace to peacefully protest. As shown in the movie on the April 2002 coup, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” deceptions, manipulations and outright lies are no problem for the Venezuelan media. The opposition leaders urge their faithful to increase the resistance to a full-scaled rebellion, and the most virulent commentators insult the military for not staging a coup, something that seems very unlikely. This week many streets and neighborhoods were blocked, children couldn’t go to school, and businesses were closed. The middle class of Caracas is held captive in their neighborhoods by the barricades of these small violent groups, and there have been deaths when people couldn’t get to a hospital
The opposition has good reason to be desperate. If it can be shown that they didn’t obtain enough valid signatures for the referendum, they’ll have no constitutional way to get rid of Chavez until 2006. Further, if their own deputies are revoked, which is likely, the Chavistas will have much more than their current slim majority in the National Assembly. The opposition could also lose several of their most prominent governors and mayors in the upcoming July and August elections. From recent polls, and the number of petition signatures obtained support for the opposition appears at less than 25%, and six months from now they could be considerably weakened as an effective political grouping, so this may be their last best chance.
The real problem for the opposition is that they’ve been losing support, partly because they have yet to propose any serious plans, except that that by simply ousting Chavez they will somehow fulfill their promises of full employment and the elimination of poverty. The marches they call have been drawing less and less people. The march on February 27 that started the violence had less than 30,000 participants. A supposedly megamarch two weeks earlier, extensively promoted by their media was clocked by international media at about 30,000, a figure confirmed by local observers, yet the organizers said they had 264,000, and one, claimed there were over 500,000. The all-news, all-opposition TV station, Globovision, showed supposedly live coverage of a massive march, which unfortunately appears to have been footage from a big demonstration that occurred over a year ago, before the strike, when the opposition really had popular support. Their two month strike in December 2002 through 2003 turned out to be a political disaster as they bankrupt many of their supporters, and got their 18,000 striking oil company employees fired. The oil company is now much more efficient after eliminating a bloated managerial class, and is producing and expanding. Besides, the price of oil is up, and therefore the economy, which, owing to the strike, contracted severely in the first semester of 2003, grew at a rate of greater than 9% in the last quarter. A recent report from First Boston/Credit Suisse predicted a 9.8% growth rate in 2004. In 2003 the Chavez government also began an extensive series of social programs directed at developing the 80% of the population that live in poverty: campaigns to eradicate illiteracy, get people studying for high school diplomas, new and urgently needed public universities, and paying thousands of Cuban doctors to live and serve in the poor barrios. It is also giving out many micro-credits, especially to increase agricultural production. Unemployment has gone down, and most sectors of the economy, except private construction are growing. There are many public construction works in progress though, including several rail lines connecting strategic commercial points in the country, and ambitious new railroads that will connect Caracas with relatively distant surrounding poorer bedroom communities. Venezuela may already have built the best sports facilities in South America. This vigorous attempt, after 40 years of corrupt, incompetent and squalid governments, to confront Venezuela’s problems has even earned the begrudging and cautious respect of many former opposition supporters.
The strategy of the Chavez government in dealing with this “urban guerilla” seems to be to use the National Guard very cautiously to keep the main traffic routes open, arresting only those carrying guns or being especially obstructive, and just keep things under control and wait for the tire burners and stone throwers to exhaust themselves. People caught on camera in illegal acts or inciting violence, including opposition leaders, may be prosecuted. However, there is an increasing tendency of all kinds of guns being used against the National Guard who only teargas and buckshot. . Two police from the Caracas borough controlled by an opposition mayor were arrested at the Friday demonstration carrying guns and the gun powder on their hands showed they were recently fired. Because most of the barricades are in upper middle class neighborhoods, where opposition mayors have instructed their police forces to do nothing, the people are essentially held captive, and will likely take out their frustrations on their mayors in upcoming elections. An overnight poll by a US firm found that 89% of the people in these neighborhoods were opposed to the barriers, and 56% were in favor of the armed forces forcibly removing them. The violent groups are small, and with a word from Chavez, the armed multitudes from the barrios could sweep down and have done with the rebellion, but unlike in Haiti, the Venezuelan masses are politically mature, and Chavez appears to have forbade violent responses of any kind from his people. Chavez has, besides the armed forces and all that petroleum, the support of about 50% of the populace, a large part of whom are politicized, organized and disciplined. On Sunday, Feb 29, the Chavistas had a march with the theme “Venezuela is to be respected.” Although none of the private TV stations gave it much attention, and it didn’t make the front page of the major dailies on Monday, it was likely one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the Americas. Hundreds of thousands, three million by some estimates, were singing and marching for peace and sovereignty, and the chance to develop the country. Not a single disturbance occurred. In his fiery speech Chavez openly called for opposition to US intervention, and extensively quoted Simon Bolivar admonitions on the same topic. Other leaders linked the Bush administration to the local “rebellion.” Chavez also challenged Bush to a bet to see who would remain in the presidency longer. The radical opposition news station Globovision didn’t bother to put a camera on this massive demonstration, but for a few minutes on Sunday afternoon they showed coverage from the cameras of the government TV station, over the caption, “Hellow Sheeps.”
The opposition threatened that if the CNE announced anything but approval of the recall referendum, the real rebellion would begin, but after the announcement on March 2, with the extensive process to permit the reconfirmation of the signatures, some opposition leaders instead stated that they never instigated the violence, and were only for peaceful and democratic means of removing Chavez.. A few foci of disturbances remain, and some blockades may be there for a few days, but at this point it appears that the rebellion will be controlled. However, there has been a national university student strike called for this week, and the government talks of paid instigators, including foreign mercenaries and Colombian paramilitaries. If the opposition will now mobilize for the reconfirmation process, what was the need for all the violence, or do they have a two sided strategy? One interpretation could be that the opposition leaders thought they could use the referendum and the recent events in Haiti to mobilize all the opposition that supported them before the strike into a generalized revolt, in which everyone would follow their foci into the streets. This would be much easier if they could get some decent martyrs, even if they have to kill some of their own supporters if it could be blamed on the Chavistas, or provoke a more vigorous repressive response from the government. It is still possible that with some strategic deaths and the increasing campaign by the media, the revolt could grow. One problem, however, is that they didn’t dare do anything in the Chavista poorer barrios, so had no choice but to set up their blockades and skirmishes in the middle class neighborhoods, which only alienated most of their potential base. This has further discredited them so that they now only have the support the most violent, radical elements of the opposition, and are unlikely to be supported by more than 20 – 25% of the population. The opposition may yet get enough signatures for referendum, but there is every indication that Chavez would survive the vote. This may not really matter, as the people in the streets, who don’t stop screaming that Chavez is antidemocratic, apparently don’t respect the democracy that brought Chavez to power. It is also possible that the opposition will try to convince the populace that, even though they don’t like the opposition leaders, the violence will continue until Chavez leaves, which would make it similar to Haiti. The opposition leaders currently in front of the cameras seem simply disposable flunkies. The real power of the opposition is the media, especially the tv. The leaders for the post-Chavez phase are being kept out of the current fray so they won’t be discredited for their later roles. The problem for the Chavez government is how to react to neutralize the media and the violent foci without drawing criticism for censorship and repression.
The current coup attempt began on February 27, the fifteen anniversary of the Caracas uprising in 1989 against IMF measures instituted by President Carlos Andres Perez of the Democratic Action party, recently elected with a platform that specifically rejected the same measures. For two days there was a spontaneous and general uprising of the poor in the country against the increase in the price of gasoline and public transport. After ignoring it for the first day, Perez sent out the troops, who killed hundreds as they violently suppressed the riots and looting. Chavez tells of how affected he was by the armed forces firing on their own people, and that this was a big impetus to organize the 1992 coup attempt, and the subsequent political project. Although opposition commentators have tried to say that the current uprising is of the same character, they fail to mention that the alignment of forces is the same, but the Democratic Action party and the elite and the neoliberals are now the ones rebelling against Chavez and great majority of this rich but impoverished country, who are in power, democratically elected, with a progressive constitution, and torrents of energy to develop the country for all its citizens, including those in the opposition.
The author would like to thank his dear neighbors sympathetic to the opposition. Were it not for their blocking the entrance to his development with burning tires, and preventing his going to work, this article would not have been possible.
ALAN CISCO is an America living and working in Caracas.