Chavez Hits a Home Run
Venezuela's embattled president
calls his own shot by winning the recall election.
by Steve Elmer
In These Times magazine, September
Just minutes after the results of Venezuela's
August 15 presidential recall election were announced at 4 am.,
a gathering of Hugo Chavez's supporters outside the presidential
palace chanted "home run." Days before, President Chavez
predicted he would hit a home run that soared over Cuba and landed
on the White House.
Speaking to the crowd from the balcony
that morning, Chavez directed his words at Washington: "This
election did not decide whether a man stays in power. Rather it
was a triumph of a political model that is confronting savage
neoliberalism." Chavez, who favors a strong government role
in the economy and is an ardent critic of the Bush-promoted Free
Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), is clearly at odds with US.
policy for Latin America on a wide range of issues.
Indeed, the 58 percent vote for the Venezuelan
president is as much a defeat for Bush as it is a victory for
Chavez. The pro-Chavez campaign largely centered on the contributions
made to the Venezuelan opposition by the National Endowment for
Democracy (NED), which is financed by the U.S. Congress. A number
of the top leaders of organizations that received NED funding
signed the proclamation decree of the short-lived government that
overthrew Chavez in April 2002. Chavez even accused the NED of
bankrolling the National Consensus Plan that opposition leaders
presented just weeks before the recall election in reaction to
criticism that they lacked common goals. Chavez called the plan
"Consensus for Bush."
During a February 29 rally, Chavez, incited
by mounting evidence of NED interference in Venezuela's elections,
accused the organization of direct involvement in the April 2002
coup and announced his government's initiation of an "anti-imperialist"
stage. But Chavez's anti-imperialism is a far cry from that of
Lenin. Rather than lashing out at foreign capital, Chavez has
concentrated his fire on Bush. Chavez is particularly sensitive
to remarks from the White House holding him responsible for all
decisions, even those made by the national electoral commission
and the courts.
Both the opposition and the Bush administration
view Chavez's statements as empty rhetoric. One week before the
recall election, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric
Affairs Roger Noriega defended the NED contributions as a "good
investment" and the recipient organizations as "pillars
of democracy' He added: "The Venezuelan authorities' criticisms
represent nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from
the problems facing the nation:'
The August 15 results are just the latest
in a series of political triumphs since Chavez's presidential
election in December 1998. After scoring victories in five electoral
contests in 1999-2000, Chavez managed to return to power following
the April 2002 coup, and then survived a lo-week "general
strike" that was more of a lockout than a work stoppage.
In February of this year, his government was unshaken by a week
of urban resistance, including violence committed by the opposition
(see "Chavez Escapes Recall' April 12, 2004). In May, the
government avoided a bloodbath when it discovered a 120-man Colombian
paramilitary unit poised on the outskirts of Caracas, which Chavez
claimed was brought in by the opposition's radical fringe.
Recent oil price hikes also have been
a godsend for Chavez. The extra revenue has financed makeshift
education programs that provide the poor with elementary school,
high school and college degrees. Polls give the programs a 68
percent approval rating and credit them with boosting Chavez's
The recall vote also was a slap in the
face for the country's biased media. Perhaps never in history
has the media so aggressively and consistently attacked an elected
government. Just two weeks before the elections, El Nacional,
formerly the nation's premier newspaper, interviewed ex-President
Carlos Andrés Perez from his Miami home. Perez suggested
that the recall would be ineffective because "it does not
accord with the Latin American style?' Instead he called for violent
struggle to oust the government and said "Chavez must die
like a dog."
Chavez not only defeated the opposition
at the polls, but on the streets. The opposition may have burnt
itself out after calling daily marches at the time of the coup
and general strike in 2002. The Sunday before the recall election,
the Chavistas participated in an immense, lengthy and festival-like
Great Victory March in Caracas and then held large rallies in
nearly all states on August 13, the last day of the campaign.
Even in middle-class neighborhoods, formerly
the preserve of the opposition, Chavez's followers made inroads,
overcoming intimidation similar to what the opposition faces in
slum areas. Some of Chavez's middle-class supporters wore pins
reading "I'm a Chavista! And so what?"
The opposition's reaction to the official
election results, even after they were corroborated by Jimmy Carter
and Organization of American States ex-president César
Gaviria, was to cry electoral fraud. This attitude indicates that
Venezuela's social and political polarization may continue unabated.
But a best-case scenario also is possible.
With the recall election out of the way, Chavez's supporters have,
for the first time, some breathing room to define their goals
beyond a rough sketch. The opposition, which spent the last three
years doing nothing but opposing everything Chavez did, also needs
to engage in self-criticism and come up with novel formulas, particularly
in the area of economic policy. Its National Consensus Plan said
nothing opposition leaders were not saying lo years ago. Indeed,
the plan's support for the virtual privatization of social security
was attempted months before Chavez's assumption of power.
Venezuela's future also will be defined
by what happens in November's US. general election. A victory
by the Democrats may ease relations between the two nations, in
spite of John Kerry's harsh words that Chavez has "sowed
instability in the region:' In contrast, Chavez has expressed
hope that Kerry's election "may open a new stage in relations
with Venezuela:' With a less hostile government in Washington
and a less aggressive opposition at home, Chavez may be put to
the test as a leader who claims to represent an alternative for
STEVE ELLNER is co-editor of Venezuelan
Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict,
recently released in paperback by Lynne Rienner Publishers.