When in 1998 former paratrooper Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was elected President on a revolutionary mandate to completely rewire Venezuela’s elite-based ‘democracy’, the opposition lay in shambles. So complete was their defeat that the two traditional parties that had alternated leadership of the country since 1958 did not even field candidates. Six years later, after a failed coup, two devastating but failed general strikes, and an international publicity campaign to paint Chávez as a cruel dictator without support, the Venezuelan opposition to Chávez’ ‘Bolívarian revolution’ has reached the point of no return: a recall referendum–scheduled for this coming August 15th. As a last resort the opposition has thrown its weight behind a constitutional strategy in the hopes that it might accomplish what force and blackmail could not.
Yet it is never so clear-cut with Venezuela’s opposition, and even those who are now sulkily pursuing a peaceful path to recall Chávez are often inseparable from those who have made no such grudging commitment to the constitution. Along with the opposition’s non-violent strategy looms the macabre threat of violence; the presence of Colombian paramilitaries recently discovered in a training camp in Caracas is only the most worrisome example to date.[i]
Opinion polls are coming out on what seems like a daily basis; yet rather than providing insight into public opinion, they are reinforcing both camps of their projected victories. Yet the opposition campaign itself appears to be faltering in the face of unprecedented chavista mobilization, particularly since the launch of their plan for a post-Chávez country was overshadowed by the revelation that it was funded in part by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
In effect, they have painted themselves into a corner. Calling for the referendum since day 01 allowed them to site their democratic commitment when they came under fire for supporting military coups, employer lock-outs, and provocateur street violence, but now that it is actually going to happen they are unprepared, or worse, unsupported.
In the wake of potential defeat, opposition strategy appears to be based more on how to lose as little as possible, than on how to win. Since he was first elected in 1998, Chávez has been dismissed by much of the mainstream international media as just another Latin American populist with authoritarian tendencies. If Chávez wins the referendum this August 15th, that characterization will be difficult to sell. With that in mind, opposition strategy aims to check any potential rise in Chávez’ international stock in the event of his victory at the ballot box.
To do so, they are using the media and influential international bodies to prepare the ground for accusations of fraud if Chávez is not recalled. A Chávez victory on the 15th is most dangerous to US neoliberal plans for the region as an example to other countries, thus, the international media has stepped up attacks on Chávez since the date for the recall was announced last June. Paralleling the media-offensive are increasingly vocal accusations by human rights organizations (and one in particular) against alleged abuses by the Venezuelan government.
As a departure from previous illegal approaches to getting rid of Chávez this strategy has an inherent advantage. The change is essentially one from force–from a more traditional and familiar notion of asserting elite power–to hegemony. This same development changed US strategy in Nicaragua in the 1980s from one centering around the violence of the contras to one that used that violence but that depended more on the media and other segments of civil society.
They use the hegemonic force of democracy to subvert a democratic process. Six years of participatory democracy reduced to one vote–subject to all the subsequent pressures and opportunities to influence the outcome. That is, the opposition is able to appear to be using democratic channels, since they’re comrades-in-arms are the private media and human rights groups. Though these institutions are central to any democracy, their hegemony is used to limit democracy to this cooptable foundation; a foundation that is compatible with neoliberalism and has historically been hostile to an expansion of the terms of representation. Their active complicity in counter-revolution in Chile, Nicaragua, in recent elections in El Salvador, and in Venezuela is only a footnote to their existence. The role of private media and many NGOs in the new imperialism is to facilitate the hegemony of –democracy light’–that form of democracy that works hand-in-hand with neoliberalism. Thus, participatory democracy, as a threat to the hegemony of representative democracy, is also a threat to the privileged social status of the private media and of NGOs–as institutions.
On August 15th they will thus have succeeded in reducing an infinitely complex, multi-dimensional experiment in deepening democracy to an exercise in representative democracy that is fundamentally flawed, for it lends itself to disproportionate influence by these groups. Their words are systemically given more weight than any given citizen, even though these institutions are made up of mere citizens–though almost universally foreign ones. If that is the case, why are they permitted so much influence? Why is the future of a sovereign nation dependent upon the blessing of two US-based organizations–the OAS and the Carter Center? And subject to the reactionary opining of other extra-Venezuelan institutions?
As Chávez put it Thursday morning in a press conference at Miraflores Palace, “the leaders of the opposition have never said that they will respect the results of the referendumâ¤|what they have said is that they will recognize the results once the international observers recognize them…We have welcomed the international observers, but this decision is not in their hands. Here we have an institution, this is no colony, after all…here we are free.”
International Media and the Chain of Disinformation
Opposition to President Chávez has always been dominated by the upper class. Large land-owners, media barons, corrupt labor officials and other Miami-philes were behind the general strikes and coup-attempts that preceded the current recall campaign. Recently however, the old alliance of big business and corporatist labor has been buttressed by the growing anti-chavism of much of Venezuela’s small middle-class. Currency devaluation and economic difficulties have disproportionately affected the middle class, pushing them into the open arms of an opposition that has used their control over private media to gain a near-monopoly on public debate. Though with 80% of Venezuela’s population in poverty, the middle-class represents a small group, they lend legitimacy to an opposition with little moral capital.
Since the collapse of the two traditional political parties AcciÃ3n Democratica and Copei, the opposition to President Chávez has been unable to regain political coherence. The Coordinadora Democratica (CD)–the most recent attempt at lumping together the fractious, chaotic mish-mash of ‘anti-chavists’–has failed to articulate anything resembling a political program. Yet it is only recently that they have even appeared to desire one. Until the current recall campaign put them head-to-head against Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution, the CD appeared content to concentrate their energy and resources on anti-chavism, rather than on offering an alternative.
Criticism consisting largely of the most base and often racist mud-slinging served them well in fostering the impression internationally that Chávez is an inept, closet-communist, who is ruining the economy and funding Colombian guerrillas to boot. With their near-total control over the domestic media, the spread of opposition propaganda has gone completely unchecked. Journalistic integrity has been thrown to the wind with the all too familiar justification that there is a war to win. Discrediting the Electoral Process Much US coverage of Venezuela over the past month has focused on controversy surrounding the use of voting machines for the upcoming referendum. A June 13th Washington Post editorial refers to “the National Electoral Council, controlled by the president’s loyalists”; the opposition’s “acceptance of the rule of law”; and Chavez’s underlying intention to subvert the democratic process, since “the votes would be counted using untried electronic voting machines supplied by a consortium in which the government has a financial stake,”–all in the first paragraph.[ii] The sequence of statements reveals a clear strategy of suggesting that a) the officials in charge of the vote cannot be trusted, b) the opposition is the law-abiding victim of a power-hungry populist, and c) that not only the voting officials, but even the voting infrastructure is stacked in Chávez’ favor.
In keeping with the time-tested journalistic theory that it is the first 50 words of a story that matter, Juan Forrero and John Schwartz of the New York Times waste no time, beginning: “Touch-screen voting machines, which have been plagued by security and reliability concerns in the United States, will be used in the recall vote on President Hugo Chávez, prompting his foes and foreign diplomats to contend that the left-leaning government may use the equipment to manipulate the vote.”[iii]
They continue, quoting an expert–to lend credibility to their transparently politically motivated reportage–“–a fully electronic computer can be programmed to produce whatever outcome the developers – or the people in charge of the developers – want it to.'” But the reality of the voting machines is infinitely more complicated: the voting software is available for public and professional scrutiny, the information will be sent to 7 different locations to ensure that fraud can be located, and there will be a manual count of the receipts printed from the machines. The government too is alleging plans to commit fraud by manipulating the telecommunications infrastructure that allow the machines to send the information instantaneously to a central register. The company in charge is CanTV; company-president Gustavo Roosen was education minister under former-President of Venezuela Carlos Andres Perez, who recently told the Caracas opposition paper El Nacional that the only solution to the –Chávez question’ was to kill him like a dog. Added to the mix are the pollsters commissioned by the opposition to evaluate the political mood of the country. As Diaz Eleazer Rangel, a columnist for Venezuela’s largest circulating daily notes, the only possible explanation for the terrible track-record of polling companies in Venezuela is their political motivation–pollsters who must answer to a particular political party or current adjust their information accordingly.[iv] Beyond merely attempting to please one’s sponsors, many pollsters are also guilty of using polls to directly influence events by suggesting one side has a momentum it may not actually have. Hence, these comments by Datanálisis analyst Luis Leon in a meeting with the foreign press: “Chavez isn’t completely out of the game, but he’s in troubleâ¤|If the vote happens legally, Chavez should lose.”[v]
Human Rights Groups: Recycling Misreportage
One of the most revealing indications that international human rights groups’ coverage is not only biased, but factually inconsistent, is the slew of reports condemning Chávez’ alleged pressures on freedom of expression. This is a country where 90% of the print and television media are actively engaged in calling for the overthrow of the government (only recently by constitutional means); and where not a single journalist has been jailed since Chávez came to power. The only time that news organizations have been shut down was during the coup when the illegal government of Pedro Carmona closed community radio and television stations that remained loyal to Chávez. Despite their active participation in the coup, no newspapers were closed once Chávez was restored to power, and no charges were brought against opposition media.
In an editorial in the Venezuelan evening paper Tal Cual, opposition leader Teodoro Petkoff vents his frustration with the tactics of the opposition of which he is a prominent member, noting:
Speaking of incongruity, doesn’t it seem to this periodical [El Universal] and to their collaborators that there is nothing more “inconsistent”, more “legitimating” for the governmentâ¤|than a newspaper with national circulation and continental fame that spends tons of ink accusing the Chávez government of totalitarian dictatorshipâ¤|and continues circulating as usual?[vi]
Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a report criticizing Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan government of threatening the legal rights of its citizens by attempting to tip the political balance of the country’s judiciary in their favor. And they may have a point–the law in question would allow a slim chavista majority in the National Assembly to pack the court with their nominees. But while politicizing the judiciary could have detrimental effects to citizens’ legal rights, it’s also common practice–most noticeably in the US.[vii]
The fact that Venezuela has been singled out for criticism, the timing of the report, and the tone and content suggest that HRW’s motives may be less than altruistic. An examination of the report reveals a similar strategy to the national and international media coverage–essentially determined to set the stage for post-referendum accusations of fraud.
Step 1. Characterizing Chávez as just another Latin American Caudillo The report makes repeated comparisons between Chávez’ speculated court-packing intentions and the success of Carlos Menem in Argentina, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru in “remaking their judiciaries to serve their own interests.”[viii] Comparing Chávez to Menem or Fujimori is, perhaps, the report’s most transparent partisan moment.
Step 2. Laying Blame for Polarization at Chávez’ Feet “The consensus around judicial reforms has largely dissolved as the country has grown increasingly polarized in response to President Chávez’s policies and style of governance.” This argument is a favorite of the opposition, and as we saw above, is often recycled by the international media. Yet the idea that the country was not polarized on February 27th, 1989 during the Caracazo, for example, when anywhere from 327 (government figure) and 3,000 (independent estimates by journalists) people were killed by the Venezuelan military is extremely offensive to the Venezuelans who lived the tragedy.
Step 3. Drawing the Parallel Between Court-Packing and the Referendum Criticism of the court-packing law is certainly justifiable, but at various points in the report it becomes clear that there is something else at stake. By pointing out that the final judgment on the August 15 referendum on Chávez’ mandate as President rests with Venezuela’s judiciary, the report explicitly suggests that Chávez has the final say over the results. Accordingly, the report argues:
The packing and purging provisions of the new law–which would be objectionable under any circumstances–are particularly troubling given the current political context. The prime target of any packing and purging efforts is likely to be the electoral chamber of the Supreme Court…By appointing two new justices to the chamber, the governing coalition will be able to tip the balance its own way…[ix]
Thus, it is established that Chávez has rigged the judiciary in his favor, that the country is violently divided due to Chávez’ brinkmanship, and that if the referendum doesn’t go his way Chávez is willing to flex his judicial muscle to make sure an unfavorable referendum result gets overturned.
Step 4: Getting Away with it Attempting to defend itself from being characterized as partisan, the report states: It is critically important thatâ¤|the criticisms offered here not be mischaracterized as partisan attack. Human Rights Watch does not take a stand on the political conflict currently underway in Venezuela. When sectors of the opposition launched a coup d’état in April 2002, we denounced their actions forcefully.” |[x] It is difficult to take this plea seriously considering that the report has essentially imagined the –siege’ on the judiciary in time for the referendum, attempting to characterize critical problems with Venezuela’s judiciary as a recent development. But, as Gregory Wilpert has noted, “blaming the Chavez government for problems that pre-date it and not giving credit where it is due are tactics one would expect from a partisan opposition attackâ¤|not from a serious human rights organization.”[xi] Furthermore, HRW’s condemnation of the April 2002 coup that briefly toppled Chávez was somewhat weaker than one have might hoped.
On April 11th, 2002, the head of Venezuela’s chamber of commerce and self-proclaimed president Pedro Carmona Estanga abolished the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman, and every other semblance of democracy. The next day, José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, released an official statement saying:
We call upon the transitional authorities in Venezuela to restore the country’s democratic institutions as soon as possible and to guarantee that the human rights of Venezuelans will not be violated, regardless of their political beliefs or affiliations. (Emphasis added).[xii]
By referring to the illegal government of Pedro Carmona Estanga as “transitional authorities”Vivanco lends them legitimacy, completely ignoring the fact that this was a coup, and that there are no –authorities’. Particularly the word “transitional”suggests that Carmona’s junta was actually –filling a vacuum of power’ as they claimed, rather than creating that –vacuum of power’ through a well-orchestrated coup. Furthermore, requesting that democratic institutions be restored “as soon as possible,”can hardly be characterized as forceful.
Using Democracy to Undermine Democracy
On Sunday, the opposition appeared to show its hand; speaking on behalf of the Coordinadora Democratica on Sunday, Enrique Mendoza declared “we have the technological capacity to know the tendency of the referendum by 2pm on the 15th, a tendency that will be irreversible and one hour after that we will broadcast our first preliminary bulletin.” The only possible reason that the CD would be interested in publicizing preliminary results is to preempt a Chávez victory by claiming that their exit polls give them an opposition victory, which will be the basis of allegations of fraud.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) responded to Mendoza yesterday, threatening harsh sanctions on any party that releases any kind of poll or bulletin on the referendum results until after the release of the official results. In a press conference yesterday, Francisco Diez of the Carter Center’s Caracas office supported the CNE announcement.
In the event of a Chávez victory next Sunday, such support may well prove crucial. Opposition attempts at discrediting the results will be impervious to government denunciation; the only effective response will be clear, strong statements by the OAS and Carter Center supporting the results released by the CNE. Yet the fact that the democratic process in Venezuela rests so precariously on the shoulders of these two institutions presents a problem since their neutrality has been questionable in the past.
The Carter Center’s mandate in monitoring elections is self-limited to the actual electoral process. Thus, in observing the elections in Nicaragua in 1990, or the recent elections in El Salvador–two processes in which the US exerted incredible pressure to secure friendly (anti-FSLN and anti-FMLN, respectively) votes–no mention was made by the Carter Center of the political effect of this pressure.
For its part the OAS has a more open conception of its role in “promoting and consolidating representative democracy,”yet it has also proven unwilling to address flagrant US interventionism in Latin American electoral processes.
Yet the joint-statement made by the OAS and the Carter Center after the signature-collection process in Venezuela last May that triggered the referendum sparked a bitter debate with the National Electoral Committee (CNE), precisely because they had over-stepped their bounds as international observers. According to CNE president Francisco Carrasquero the OAS and Carter Centre violated the agreement they signed with the CNE by publicly interpreting Venezuela’s constitution. Recent statements by both the OAS and the Carter Centre suggest that they will be careful to maintain neutrality, and take precautions against their statements being used in partisan fights in the wake of the referendum. But, the reality is that international perceptions of the authenticity of election results this August 15th will be based almost entirely on OAS and Carter Center statements, and if they bow to US pressure the opposition will be given the carte blanche they need to undermine a Chávez victory.
“There is nothing more neutral than what we are doing here,” noted Valter Pecly Moreira, the head of the OAS delegation in Venezuela during a recent interview. “Both sides have many expectations and we know thatâ¤|our responsibility is enormous. The whole team will be working in a professional and technical manner, without taking sides, as it must be.”[xiii]
During a recent senate hearing on Venezuela Jennifer McCoy, head of the Carter Center mission in Venezuela noted, I personally and an entire team, including an engineer and a statisticianâ¤|went to receive a full presentation of the machines…We were very impressed with the presentation we received, the security measures that were shown to us, and the functioning of the machine that we witnessed. A very important process is having the paper trail, the paper receipt, which are provided by these machines.[xiv]
At one level, the opposition has already succeeded, for they have set the stage to cry foul on the 15th using mostly ‘democratic channels.’ Thus, they have succeeded in limiting the test of Venezuelan democracy to one day, one single election. Six years of creating a more profound democracy that is participatory, moving towards decentralization, that addresses notions of social and economic democracy has been been reduced into the limited terms of representative democracy.
The essence of democracy should be participation,” noted Chávez in a press conference on Thursday, “that is what we believe, not representation. Representative democracy is an elite trap designed to ensnare the hopes of the people, at least that it is how it worked in Venezuela for a long time. We have broken with this paradigm and our democracy is representative, but it goes far beyond representation.”
It is in this respect that no matter how neutral, no matter how professional the OAS and Carter Center may be they are complicit in using a specific, limited hegemonic definition of ‘democracy light’ to undermine a profoundly democratic revolution. It has been a powerful, if largely silent, coup d’état for the opposition to define the terms by which Venezuelan democracy will be decided. It will be decided according to the same criteria upon which they based 40 years of pre-Chávez corruption and cronyism; and for which they were long hailed by the US as the hope of Latin American democracy.
JONAH GINDIN writes for Venezuela Analysis, where this article originally appeared.