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Venezuelans Get Sacrificed in Blame Game

By Marcela Sanchez, special to washingtonpost.com

(Friday, January 9, 2004) It is human nature -- not to mention just plain easier -- to blame others for actions that don't make us particularly proud. Politicians have elevated this weakness to an all-too common and unfortunate public practice. And nowhere is this art of pointing the finger in every other possible direction to avoid responsibility grown so old and tired as in Venezuela.

Take President Hugo Chavez. He took office blaming corrupt oligarchs who had long dominated Venezuelan political life for maintaining a system that relegated one-third of the population in an oil-rich land to life on less than $2 a day. Five years into his "Bolivarian revolution," poverty levels today are higher than in 1990. Still, he blames others.

Take the opposition and its allies in the Bush administration. They blame Chavez for everything under the sun, and then some. They accuse him of purposely wanting to increase the number of the poor in Venezuela in order to justify the need for his "Marxist" revolution. Yet the national strike the opposition launched a year ago helped devastate an already weak economy.

Enough is enough. Play the blame-game -- with its accompanying conspiracy theories of murder plots and imperialistic ambitions -- and necessary, rational discussion of Venezuela’s problems is lost. In a polarized and troubled nation, finger-pointing not only gets in the way of real solutions, it gets in the way of smart politics as well.

Venezuela's Electoral Council has now begun to verify the signatures collected in two separate drives to recall either Chavez or 37 lawmakers who oppose him. The government claims it collected nearly 4.3 million signatures for recalling the lawmakers, while the opposition says it has 3.4 million in favor of recalling Chavez -- far more than the 2.4 million, or 20 percent of the electorate, needed to force a referendum.

No matter what the council decides, the signature drives make one thing clear: Millions of Venezuelans are disgusted and want something they are not getting today. How deep is their dismay? Nearly one-third of Venezuelans polled by a Washington-based research firm just before signatures were gathered said they would sign both petitions.

And yet who is tapping into this disgust? No one in any creative way. In a country that has been talking about an electoral exit from the current crisis for more than a year, leaders on both sides would rather fuel the discontent than harness it in a way that would drive a political solution.

This is mostly a challenge for the opposition that hasn't quite digested the fact that even if Chavez is recalled, Venezuelans would still be more inclined to vote for a candidate that is more like him and less like his predecessors. Furthermore, the opposition has yet to capture the hearts and minds of those who perceive that their priorities are still better addressed by Chavez, even if his efforts fall short.

Any alternative to Chavez should keep in the forefront the social priorities of the poor. Chavez continues to speak for them, visits their neighborhoods and has launched what are now popular educational and health programs they had never seen. The opposition so far has managed only to criticize those programs for involving Cuban doctors or Cuban educational strategies.

This does not mean, of course, governing on behalf of one group over another. One of Chavez's major mistakes has been his naive belief that he alone could bring about his revolution, even if in the process he alienated other traditional centers of power such as media owners, the church and industrialists.

A more inclusive, conciliatory leadership would be a better match for the country's own peaceful culture, which has shown considerable resilience during Chavez's divisive tenure. Such leadership would appeal to Venezuelans' pride and nationalism without antagonizing nearly the entire international community. The opposition certainly has greater cachet with powers abroad, but its decidedly anti- Castro posturing makes it appear more a Washington puppet and less a conciliatory Venezuelan movement.

To his credit, Chavez was not afraid to push for reforms, in fact he was elected because he promised fundamental changes. He erred, however, in thinking that reform by fiat would not make matters worse. No amount of blame could hide the failure of such a strategy and the damage it has done to democratic institutions.

It is unlikely that Chavez will point to himself anytime soon and utter a Spanish version of Harry Truman's famous line, "the buck stops here.'" Until then, the opposition has the unprecedented opportunity of ending both the blame game and the divisiveness that now cripples Venezuela.



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