Venezuela: Democracy Under Threat
Chávez will only gain from
the US-backed opposition's ploy to undermine elections
by Richard Gott
Mother Jones magazine, December
Originally published in the London
The people of Venezuela have gone to the
polls 11 times in seven years. Almost a superfluity of democracy,
some might think, and signs of electoral fatigue could be detected
in Sunday's elections for the National Assembly when only 30%
of the electorate bothered to vote. The rest perceived the result
as a foregone conclusion since in earlier elections President
Hugo Chávez, or the candidates he backed, had stacked up
substantial majorities. Sunday's poll followed the trend, and
the Chávez list wiped the board.
This time, however, the once vocal opposition
was strangely absent. Four of the small opposition parties decided
to withdraw at the last minute, in a cynical manoeuvre designed
to upset the hard-won stability achieved since the recall referendum
in August 2004 (engineered by the opposition to try to secure
the president's resignation). Handsomely won by Chávez
with a margin of 59 to 41, the referendum was certified as free
and fair by observers from the Organisation of American States
(OAS) and the Carter Centre, but some of the opposition parties
refused to accept the result. Their rejection did little to enhance
their authority or popularity and when they withdrew from Sunday's
poll they knew that they faced defeat and humiliation.
Their action irritated the mission sent
by the OAS which believed it had negotiated a settlement over
opposition complaints about the new automated voting system. The
opposition then turned turtle and announced its withdrawal. It
was not acting alone. In the background, at private meetings on
the island of Aruba in the Dutch Antilles and in public declarations
by Thomas Shannon, the US secretary of state for Latin American
affairs, the opposition had been elaborating a strategy to overthrow
Chávez. Its plan was to make people believe that "democracy
in Venezuela is in grave peril", as Shannon put it to a Washington
subcommittee two weeks ago.
It is indeed in peril, threatened by a
tiny ragbag of opposition groups given disproportionate international
influence through the support of the US. By their irresponsible
electoral abstention, they hoped to undermine the credibility
of the parliamentary system.
The US-backed strategy is to use apparently
neutral non-governmental organisations to tell the world that
the elections are not free and fair, that press freedom is under
threat, and that human rights are not respected. These allegations
are then exaggerated and amplified in Washington.
The complaints are nonsense. The opposition
still owns most of the newspapers and television stations. The
judiciary has been comprehensively reformed after the scandals
of the previous decade when half the judges were found to be corrupt
or incompetent. Elections have been endlessly vetted and human
rights have been extended to the great mass of the people.
Washington continues to perceive the Chávez
government, in Shannon's words, as "a threat to regional
stability". The Americans dislike his revolutionary rhetoric,
his friendship with Fidel Castro, his outspoken hostility to neo-liberal
economics, his decision to buy weapons from a non-US supplier
such as Spain and his support for radical movements in Latin America,
such as the Movement Toward Socialism of Evo Morales, expected
to win the presidential election in Bolivia later this month.
Yet the US has few allies in the continent today, and the most
important countries - Argentina, Brazil, and even Chile - are
enlisted in the Chávez camp. Its alliance with the discredited
Venezuelan opposition will gain it few new friends.
Almost everyone in Venezuela - including
Chávez - recognises that the government would benefit from
an intelligent and constructive opposition, and some within that
opposition were once anxious to provide the electorate with a
choice. Others, now in a majority, look towards an insurrectionary
or violent outcome.
Yet Chávez is not a dictator as
the Americans claim. He is a democratic revolutionary who has
always had a magical capacity to turn the political mistakes of
others to his own advantage. Now with an overwhelming majority
in the new assembly, he will be able to adjust those clauses in
the rapidly drafted ,yet generally admirable, constitution of
1999 that have been found inadequate (including the one that would
prevent him from standing for a third term). There is every sign
that he will win the presidential election next year and, who
knows, the one in December 2012. The foolish action of the opposition
will have been of immense assistance in that task.
Richard Gott's Hugo Chávez and
the Bolivarian Revolution is published in paperback by Verso.