Sunday, July 16, was a significant day in Venezuela’s political history. The right-wing opposition MUD, backed by the United States, threw all its weight behind a “consultation” that they hoped would show that their coup attempts had a formidable public backing and trigger the “zero hour” of a new phase that would lead to the removal of the Bolivarian government. In the end the stunt backfired, leaving the opposition more or less stranded. The real surprise was the show of force from chavismo, which went out on the streets to rebuke the opposition’s stunt and take part in a dry-run for the July 30 Constituent Assembly elections.
The opposition “plebiscite”, or “referendum”, which in reality was nothing more than a non-binding “consultation” without any legal status, was predicted as a major political earthquake that would instantly change the country’s landscape. Maria Corina Machado, one of the most extreme opposition leaders, likened it to the destruction of the Berlin wall, Mandela being elected or the toppling of Saddam Hussein (no subtlety there!).
The process would have been laughed into oblivion had it taken place anywhere else. No electoral records were used, expired documents were accepted and there was nothing stopping people from voting more than once. There was no monitoring and in the end all the evidence was burned, so no audit was possible. As for the ballot, it had 3 questions to be answered yes/no: whether people rejected the upcoming Constituent Assembly, whether they called the armed forces to intervene (i.e. a coup) and whether all public powers should be renewed, free and fair elections held, and a national unity government formed to restore order. (1)
The final result of 7,186,170 votes falls short of the opposition’s total in the 2015 legislative elections, and unlike what Henrique Capriles says, it would not be enough to recall Maduro, who received 7,587,579 votes in the 2013 presidential election, even with all the manipulation of figures (2). It also fell way short of not-so-wise predictions of 11M (Capriles) or even 14M votes (AD leader Negal Morales)!
And it is worth mentioning that with 2000 voting centres and 14000 booths, this vote total would imply that every centre was full for 9 straight hours with a new vote roughly every 65 seconds. Given that the process implies walking up to the booth, showing ID, writing the name down on the electoral register, receiving the ballot, going to the booth and filling it, folding it, putting it in the box and walking away, this number raises a few eyebrows. And that is excluding people like Lilian Tintori who had to make a little speech before voting!
It is hard to understand the over-the-top statements of opposition officials and media. The turnout, while significant, was smaller than in previous elections, way smaller than the outlandish predictions, and that is giving a pass to all the dubious number manipulations. The demands have been heard for weeks and were echoed by leading figures even before the “results” were tallied. The entire show was irrelevant because “victory” had been pre-announced, and the corresponding massive chavista participation in an electoral dry-run (see below) was surely not expected. Jorge Martín summarised the current crossroads for the Venezuelan opposition:
“We can therefore say that the opposition “referendum” backfired. At the time of writing, the opposition leaders have not yet come out to say what are the next steps they intend to take. Their rhetoric before July 16 was fiery. The consultation was to be the “zero hour” for a national uprising and the removal of the government before the July 30 Constituent Assembly elections. They might still try that, but now it looks less likely that they will achieve any such thing. Of course they will not stop trying. Both Spain and the US are already mulling over the idea of sanctions against Venezuela (perhaps targeted at selected officials) “if the Constituent Assembly goes ahead.”
At a press conference on Monday the opposition announced a “civic strike” for Thursday, and that they would be nominating new supreme court justices on Friday, whatever that means. This is a far cry from the premonitions that the end of the “dictatorship” was near, and we will have to wait and see how the opposition intends to escalate further.
The Cubans are coming
A common theme amongst the Venezuelan upper classes and plain idiots (these two groups overlap very often) is this idea that chavismo’s ultimate goal is to turn the country into their hell-on-earth propaganda version of Cuba, or even that it is the Cubans who are running the show. Opposition leader Julio Borges said that “We don’t want to be Cuba”, while “patriot” (3) Oscar Perez said that holding the Constituent Assembly means handing the country over to the Cubans.
It must have taken all the opposition’s collective common sense to omit “Cuba” from the ballot. The media often tries to omit the more embarrassing aspects of the Venezuelan opposition, but the waving of the Cuban bogeyman is quite prevalent for the right-wing in Venezuela, and Latin America in general.
Several right-wing former leaders came to Venezuela for the occasion, as “observers”. People like Andres Pastrana and Jorge Quiroga, with enviable resumes of corruption and human rights abuses, flew down to lecture others on democracy. The most memorable moment was undoubtedly this tweet by former Mexican president Vicente Fox:
Diosdao Cabello, Yow’r the one behind Dictator Maduro, You’r the killer, you torture, your hands’r full blood, You’ll meet Halle Court. Prepare
One can only wonder why he is addressing Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the PSUV, in English. And it is anybody’s guess what a “Halle Court” is. If Fox wants to showcase his multilingual usefulness to his imperial masters he should install a spell-checker on his phone.
Staggeringly dishonest media
The coverage of Sunday’s events in the mainstream press had all the usual bias and dishonesty. Rather than report the event for what it was: a non-binding consultation with no records, no monitors and no control on people voting more than once, the media just ran with the line that this was a big show of support that shook the government and refer to the event like it was a legitimate electoral process.
More than that, they resorted to their usual tactic of “Maduro said” to try and discredit the other point of view. So instead of this being a popular consultation with no verification or binding status, it was a poll that “Maduro said was meaningless”. This is akin to, for example, the US Food and Drug Administration finding something wrong with Burger King and the company making a “Trump does not like our burgers” publicity stunt.
As always, nobody can quite compete with the New York Times when it comes to dishonest reporting. The NYT starts by announcing that “Venezuelans Rebuke Their President by a Staggering Margin”. Imagine that… Anti-government supporters go to an anti-government initiative and, believe it or not, they “vote” against the government! Next they will be asking about the right of return of Palestinian refugees at a Zionist convention and be surprised at the staggering results.
The NYT follows this with a litany of falsehoods and distortions that would merit an entire article on their own. It says that the 1999 constitution has a provision authorising this kind of consultation (it does not), that the Constituent Assembly will do away with elections (it will not) and that Maduro will “appoint” “handpicked” members to it (they will be elected). The article also mentions that the government has postponed every election since the December 2015 legislative elections, but in fact only one poll was scheduled since then. That was the regional/governor elections that were due to take place last year and were postponed because they conflicted with the opposition recall referendum process, being finally set for December 2017. The NYT also misleads its readers by saying that the third question on the opposition consultation was about “free elections to pick a new “national unity government””, when in fact the question mentions a “national unity government” now, to “restore constitutional order”, and free elections later. The key is in the name. “National unity” governments are usually not elected…
Simultaneous to the opposition consultation, the Venezuelan electoral authorities ran a dry-run for the July 30th Constituent Assembly elections, to test the process and help voters familiarise themselves with the voting machines. This turned out to be a chavista show of force, with queues forming from early morning and the voting deadline extended in a few places. Photo galleries attest to this large mobilisation (see here, here or here).
The mainstream mostly ignored or downplayed the pro-government mobilisation, but some outlets stumbled on the pitfalls of their one-sided coverage. Spain’s El País published photos of people who were clearly chavistas, with the caption “chavistas were queuing to vote in the opposition consultation”. This was beyond ridiculous because people had banners supporting the Constituent Assembly, so the inconvenient photos were deleted and the blame assigned to EFE Agency.
Even with all the hardships and months of opposition political violence, the chavista bases have made it clear time and again that they are not going to sleepwalk into an opposition coup and have seized the Constituent Assembly as an opportunity to strengthen the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution and radicalise even further. Whether these impulses will be able to overcome the more conciliatory sectors of chavismo and the concessions to “patriotic businessmen” remains to be seen.
What is clear is that the opposition is not where it hoped it would be by now. With the exception of a rogue state’s attorney and a handful of opportunist former chavista officials, trying to position themselves as a “third way”, the opposition’s campaign has failed to cause breaks inside chavismo. Despite the constant appeals for a military coup, they have also not caused any movement inside the armed forces. And most importantly, they have not made significant inroads in getting the popular classes on their side, not even in getting them to demobilise (4). The upcoming Constituent Assembly is therefore a golden opportunity to strike a serious blow to the coup-plotters and their imperial backers.
(1) In retrospect, the opposition might also have tried to frame this consultation as a vote for their “national unity” government, assuming they could ever agree on one. The US, its allies and the media might have started referring to it as the “legitimate representative of the Venezuelan people”, like they did with Syria. A few dozen puppets, nominated by the backers of the Syrian war (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, etc), living in Turkey, chose a “government” which was referred to as the “legitimate representative…” for a while, before it became clear that nobody cared about it.
(2) Perhaps aware of Maduro’s total, the opposition claimed the 7.1M corresponded to 95% of total ballots, and later came out with the total convenient figure of 7.6M. One wonders how a total can be updated after the ballots are burned. However, given that they claimed that 98.4% voted “Yes”, because 100% would not be as respectable, this brings the total of “Yes” votes to 7.48M, again below Maduro’s 2013 total!
(2b) On Monday night, PSUV leader and mayor of Libertador Jorge Rodríguez revealed a phone conversation between two opposition leaders in Aragua who openly talked about cooking the numbers and adding 50.000 to the total for the state. He also claimed, but did not provide evidence, that the 7M+ VOTES did not correspond to the same number of VOTERS, but that the opposition was counting every voter 3 times, since the ballot had 3 questions. So the event would have had only around 2.5M voters and the opposition revealed the total number of “Yes” votes.
(3) On June 27 Oscar Perez stole a police helicopter, fired weapons and threw grenades at government buildings, and yet the Guardian referred to him as a “patriot” or a “government plant”!
(4) It is hard to convince the poor and working-class that you have their best interests at heart when your foot-soldiers are setting people on fire because they look chavista.
This article originally appeared in Investig’action.