Hugo Chavez’s victory in the Feb. 15 referendum that allows him to serve as president of Venezuela for as long as he is elected to six year terms, is remarkable for a number of reasons: The “Yes” vote in favor of the constitutional change removing term limits outnumbered the “No” vote by virtually the same percentage as in the Nov. 7 state and local elections, 55 percent and 45 percent in both elections, not considering fractional differences.
Last Sunday’s vote denotes a decreasing margin between Chavista forces and the opposition; a difference that stood at almost 17 percent in 1998, increased to almost 26 percent in 2006, but slumped to slightly more than 8 percent this past Sunday.
An exceptionally high 70 percent of registered voters cast ballots, roughly 6 million voting “Yes” and 5 million, “No” - the highest number of opposition votes cast in 15 elections during the 10 years since Mr. Chavez was first elected.
The election followed months of governmental preparations, including.
• Adding hundreds of new polling places, which made it impossible for opposition poll watchers to cover a large number of voting sites.
• Using paper ballots at many of the new sites, making it relatively easy to “lose” or otherwise dispose of significant numbers of presumed “No” votes.
• Registering thousands of Colombian and other illegal immigrants after giving them coveted residence visas and ID cards.
• Disallowing registration of thousands of 18 year old first-time-eligible voters.
• Demanding all government employees and contractors vote, virtually sure their ballots would favor the proposal and thus their employment longevity.
• Spending millions in government funds for advertising, demonstrations and voter “reward”programs.
Net: Though Mr. Chavez won, his victory was fatefully marred, very possibly secured by fraud. That said, it remains clear that about 50 percent of the Venezuelan electorate has been duped into democratically authorizing dictatorship. The reasons are twofold: Hugo Chavez and his opponents.
Venezuela‘s president has performed the remarkable feat of retaining roughly 50 percent approval ratings, despite popular disgust with his government’s policies. While programs ranging from nationalizations of private corporations to funding sympathetic regimes from Argentina and Bolivia to Honduras and Nicaragua are opposed by as many as 80 percent of Venezuelans, the mercurial, charismatic leader has maintained the support of half the population.
As for the opposition, it remains in major disarray, with one of the few bright sides being the remarkably successful involvement of students in getting out the vote. Indeed, the recordbreaking “No” vote strongly underscored the popular dismay, no matter the multiple opposition inadequacies, including:
(1) No common policy platform that enunciates a positive plan for Venezuela.
(2) At best very limited communication among different opposition groups - students, former military, intellectuals, private businessmen, politicians.
(3) No leader - in or out of office - with the stature to compete for popular approval against Hugo Chavez.
(4) No consistent, ongoing campaign to enumerate the president’s errors and the opposition’s (so far nonexistent) counterproposals.
There has been a series of largely uncoordinated, at times competitive, activities in this most recent and previous elections. In fact, the emphasis opposition players give electoral events underscores a near total lack of developmental work between elections, work so vital to winning elections.
For far too long the attitude of many people fervently opposed to Hugo Chavez and his policies has been “Wait for the legislative elections in 2010,” followed by “And when the opposition gains a significant number of seats in the National Assembly, we will have the basis to defeat Chavez in the presidential polls in 2012.”
Sadly, this attitude ignores two fundamental factors. First, whatever chance the opposition has in 2010 and 2012 will not be sufficient for victory unless Mr. Chavez’s opponents come together and take strong, consistent action as outlined above.
Second, the president and his allies - domestic and foreign - are doing everything possible to tighten their grip on every lever of power, and are gaining power, day by day. Consider the Chavista reaction to losing the greater Caracas mayor’s office last November.
Within hours, Mr. Chavez had placed several key city agencies - importantly including the police - under federal government control, and his thugs had occupied the mayor’s office and three key city government buildings. Countless records and files were removed or destroyed, and vehicles, furniture and equipment were stolen. The buildings were vandalized and today remain occupied by pro-Chavez thugs preventing their takeover and repair by the new administration.
And where does this leave the elected mayor of metropolitan Caracas, Antonio Ledesma? Sitting in rented office space, issuing proclamations that have limited impact, to say the least. Variations on this theme of blatant Chavista obstructionism have occurred in Miranda and Tachira states, where opposition governors were elected.
In short, Hugo Chavez progressively presents the profile and programs of a fascist dictator. While he touts - at times sings - the advantages of democracy; he practices a mixture of Argentina’s Juan Domingo Peron and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, at home and regionally.
Mr. Chavez is expending untold millions working to elect the ultra-leftist FMLN candidate in El Salvador’s March presidential elections. Throughout the region, he has manifestly contributed to the successful subversion of the democratic process in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, narrowly losing only in Peru.
The almost total neglect shown in Washington and other capitals to the progressive subversion of democracy in Venezuela and Latin America places a particular chill on the ominously clear pre-election words of Fidel Castro: “Our future is inseparable from what happens next Sunday. … The fate of the peoples of ‘Our America’ will largely depend on that victory … which will influence the rest of the planet.”
The economic situation in Venezuela is steadily deteriorating and it can be hoped this will cause further erosion in President Chavez’s popularity. However, unless the Venezuelan opposition takes comprehensive, cohesive and consistent action, it is possible to imagine Hugo Chavez emulating Fidel Castro’s longevity, in a Venezuela and a region that reflects all too closely despotic, bedraggled Cuba.
John R. Thomson is a journalist and former U.S. diplomat. Norman Pino is a former Venezuelan senior diplomat.