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Venezuela: So Misunderstood

By Mafalda Maier, reprinted from Venezuela Today

July 1, 2004 - While we are not surprised that Venezuelan citizens succeeded in repairing a sufficient number of signatures to trigger the recall referendum on Hugo Chávez, we do think that the success of the opposition may be a pivotal event that has the potential to transform Venezuelan politics.

To understand Venezuela one must begin by understanding Venezuelans. Most analysis has been overly swayed by Venezuelan pessimism. Most Venezuelans are exhausted, frustrated and intimidated. Venezuelans are consumed by Chávez's schemes to manipulate the electoral process, and bend rules and regulations to his benefit that pervades analyst reports. Reflecting this pessimism is certainly part of the story, but there is a more important story that is taking place in Venezuela that has the potential to transform the country. Venezuelans are tireless and refuse to quit in their struggle for democracy. They give their signatures repeatedly. If they feel it necessary, they take to the streets. They refuse to back down in the face of what they believe is an authoritarian regime. There will unquestionably be rough times ahead. If the experience of other Latin American transitions to democracy is any guide, the small majorities that Chávez maintains in some key institutions will not be enough to hold off the groundswell of support for democracy the country will witness in the drive toward the Recall Referendum (RR).

The skepticism among New York analysts and investors continues to run deep. We attempt to offer an alternative perspective that more accurately reflects the bigger story in Venezuela, by providing answers to some of the doubts investors raise:

Can Chávez win the RR?

We think it is very unlikely. The numbers are overwhelmingly against him, and he knows it, which is precisely the reason why he tried so desperately to impede the signature repair process. According to the latest poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, out of likely voters, 63% would vote to oust Chávez and 32% would vote to keep him, giving the opposition a comfortable margin of victory. The concerns about the impact of higher spending on his popularity are overblown. Since his increase in spending began late last year, his popularity has actually declined from over 40%. Furthermore, with only two months before the RR, expenditure increases are not likely to have much further impact.

Doesn't Chávez have total control of the institutions with many instruments at his disposal to derail the referendum?

Chávez used everything he had to block the signatures from being repaired, but he failed. When the signatures were gathered in March, the international community underestimated Chávez. When it came to the signature repair process, the international community was far more prepared and Chávez could not manipulate the results without getting caught. More importantly, what most analysts have missed is that Venezuelans care about world opinion. So often we have been asked, "so what is the US actually going to do if Chávez cheats, send in troops?" Any time you meet with a member of the governing coalition, they will tell you that Chávez is the most democratic president in the world. They tell you this because they care what you think about them. Venezuela is not Iraq. It is a country with a serious democratic history, and key people in the Chávez regime, perhaps even Chávez himself, do not want the government to be viewed as a dictatorship by the majority of the democratic world. The Chávez government also probably believes that it cannot get away with imposing a dictatorship. That is why, despite the threats, Chávez has never shut down the free press, private television, the right to protest, and the right of opposition parties to function.

Doesn't Chávez have more ways to undermine the referendum?

Of course he does. But he used all the means he could muster to derail the signature repair process. It will only get more difficult to use such means. A key component of any authoritarian regime is the perception among supporters that their leader is invincible. If regime supporters believe their leader is invincible, then his supporters will be more willing to commit abuses to benefit him. But once the mask of invincibility is stripped away, regime supporters must be more careful because they could easily be held accountable for their actions at some point in the near future. So, Chávez's capacity to control has probably suffered a serious blow. More likely, regime supporters are going to begin to look after their own self-interests and hedge their bets.

Won't the military help Chávez block the RR?

If the military assisted in blocking the RR, it would put itself in a position of being forced to use violence to suppress masses of angry citizens. The military does not have a history of engaging in human rights abuses of this kind. Chávez cannot ask them to use severe violence to suppress dissent. While many analysts argue that Chávez controls the armed forces, and certainly there is evidence that he controls some groups in the military as evidenced by the rare cases when the armed forces prevented people from repairing their signatures, the overwhelming majority of the armed forces has enabled and even contributed to the smooth electoral processes that have occurred this year (the signature collection and the signature repairs).

Isn't the opposition a disaster and incapable of turning out the vote?

Quite the contrary. The opposition has transformed itself into a competent group with skills and strategies that would leave many political movements in Latin America envious. The proof is in their success so far. The opposition has to be fairly competent to overcome all of the hurdles Chávez has thrown in front of them. There is still a long tough battle ahead, but if the opposition delivers a strong and uplifting campaign, and offers hope that all Venezuelans can thrive under a new government, as we expect, it will be difficult for Chávez to contain the groundswell of enthusiasm. The opposition is likely to gain a tremendous confidence boost from their recent success. The sentiment of frustration and intimidation that has prevailed in Venezuela is likely to give way to a sentiment of hope that anything is possible. The opposition movement and Venezuelan citizens will become even more motivated! Many Venezuelans who had been fearful or hopeless are likely to come out in large numbers to cast a secret vote.

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