The populist Venezuela President Hugo Chávez Frias looks likely to win the recall elections on August 15, but the conservative opposition will keep battering away-and with Washington’s help.
In a typically wide-ranging and lengthy press conference August 12–Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galleano, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau each got mentions–Chávez mixed defiant statements about U.S. imperialism and George W. Bush (the “master” of the opposition) with an offer to meet with his rivals after his expected victory.
For their part, the opposition leaders, who later that day drew more than 100,000 to rally across town in the upscale neighborhood of Altamira, whipped up the vote for a “yes” to the recall-and showed little interest in reconciliation with Chávez, who they tried and fail to oust in a coup in 2002.
Financed by virtually all of Venezuelan big business and given all-out support by the corporate electronic media, the opposition may be past its peak but can still muster large numbers. The opposition has taken up the slogan “against jobs, insecurity and disunion” to appeal to the lower middle classes. Many of these people have been downwardly mobile or economically insecure since neoliberal, free-market “structural adjustment” came to Venezuela in 1989, the year a popular uprising against International Monetary Fund austerity measures was put down with 1,500 killed.
The opposition’s appeal to the middle class on economic issues, however, doesn’t square with their earlier attack on Chávez’s social programs, known as “missions.” Taking a page from NGOs, Chávez’s team has bypassed the inefficient and opposition-dominated state bureaucracy to create ten new operations, including medical clinics in shantytowns and villages, staffed by Cuban doctors; technical assistance to farmers; food security for impoverished indigenous groups. (Think about it: in the U.S. people lose their health care every day; in impoverished Venezuela, the system is expanding). A poster seen in the Caracas subway captures the impact of the programs: A Black woman says, “Today I’m a maid; tomorrow, I’ll be a social worker.” Such programs an essential part of what Chávez calls his “Bolívarian revolutionary process”-a populist program of aid to the poor and nationalist insistence on Venezuela’s sovereignty. It’s a charismatic, top-down, leadership-centered “revolution,” however, compared to the mass insurrection that toppled the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979.
Nevertheless missions-funded by high oil prices-have deepened Chávez’s support among the poor, and were key to mobilizing an estimated 1.2 million to a “Vote No” rally August 8. (An opposition rally that day drew well over 100,00 as well, but was nevertheless far smaller than its counterpart). It’s the sight of poor Venezuelans-some 80 percent of the population-politically active and with raised expectations that terrifies the wealthy and upper middle class. To mobilize votes, however, they need to give a populist cover to the opposition. To that end, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV in Spanish), long controlled by the Democratic Action (AD) party, has played a prominent role, as has the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and a Maoist sect, Red Flag. But the brief U.S.-backed seizure of power by Pedro Carmona, head of the business group, FEDECAMARAS from April 11-13 discredited the opposition in the eyes of millions. The failure of the bosses’ “strike” in the oil industry in 2002-2003-which dealt a huge blow to the Venezuelan economy-also cost the opposition support. The aftermath of the oil strike saw the main oil workers unions and others leave the CTV to form the National Union of Workers (UNT), which is in the process of developing its structure and program.
From the point of view of Chávez supporters in the social movements and popular organizations, the referendum shouldn’t be taking place at all. The recall provision is a feature of the constitution written by Chávez supporters and approved in 2000; the opposition used the tactic for want of any other. But the social movement activists see this as unwarranted concession, given irregularities in the petition-gathering process for the vote.
For Gonzalo Gomez, a veteran socialist, writer for the activist Web site Aporrea.org and a nonstop activist, the worry is that “the process” is becoming bureaucratized and bogged down-and that Chávez is seeking legitimacy by allowing the referendum and negotiating with the opposition rather than pressing ahead with further social change. Another leading activist, Fresia Impinza, is worried about a fraud via the privatized state telecommunications company (the U.S. telecom giant SBC is responsible for transmitting the data for the vote). Known for a series of high-profile lawsuits and legal actions against corrupt officials tied to the old governments, Impenza ran a series of daily meetings in the run-up to the vote to mobilize activists to defend key economic and political locations in the event of a coup attempt or provocation. Government spokespeople dismiss such possibilities, but given Venezuela’s recent history, conspiracy theories can’t be dismissed.
Indeed, as most opinion polls showed a likely Chávez victory, the opposition announced that they would declare their own results based on exit polls at 2 p.m.-hours before the voting concludes. If the electronic voting-itself the subject of a huge number of conspiracy theories-later shows a Chávez win, then they will be expected to cry fraud. If a manual count of paper receipts confirms a Chávez win, the opposition may claim that Chavistas in the military stuffed the ballot boxes.
Then there’s the threat of provocations. This would lay the basis for claims that violence marred the elections, rendering them illegitimate-which is where observers like Jimmy Carter and diplomats for the Organization of American States comes in. Moreover, Washington won’t relent in squeezing and destabilizing Chávez if he wins his election and Bush loses his: John Kerry has already gone out of his way to call Venezuela a “threat” to the U.S. (In the event of a recall of Chávez, his vice president would take over, and Chávez could run again in the regular elections in 2006).
For all the intensity, the referendum may be a preview of bigger battles to come. After all, there’s no such thing as revolution from above. The pro- and anti-Chávez rallies reflected the massive polarization in society, one that sooner or later will find an expression of direct confrontation of social classes. The referendum has only postponed such a class.