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Hugo Chavez: The Electoral Phenomenon

By Alek Boyd

Introduction

No book about contemporary politics of Venezuela can negate the fact that Hugo Chavez is an electoral phenomenon. Having won every electoral process in which he, his parties or candidates have participated since his first victory in 1998, Chavez embodies the exception to the rule that has that incumbents tend to suffer a decline in support as time elapses. In his case the contrary has actually happened, which may suggest that either Chavez is the most successful politico the modern world has seen or that his electoral victories are direct consequence of a power-hoarding model of governance similar to those encountered in dictatorships. It is my intention to unravel which of the two premises is closer to Venezuela ’s current political reality.

The Political Landscape

The 1998 presidential race: Hugo Chavez first democratic victory came about in December 1998; however his career in politics started well before that in the army. After more than 10 years of conspiration Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez launched with a number of military companions a coup d’etat against a democratically elected administration on 4 February 1992 . Rampant corruption and purported neoliberal policies implemented by then president Carlos Andres Perez have been cited by Hugo Chavez as the reasons for his attempt. One policy had caused slum dwellers to react violently; an increase in gasoline prices, which caused transport fares to surge overnight. The many deaths –exact figure unknown until this day- caused by the implementation of a military contingency plan (Plan Avila) to placate the rioting mobs in Caracas on 27 February 1989 was the trigger for the putschists to accelerate the bid to gain power by unlawful means. A poorly designed plan coupled with utterly inefficient leaders in charge of perpetrating it resulted in a fiasco. But despite his failure Chavez’s political persona was catapulted to stardom thanks to the media; his brief televised address to the nation, negotiated upon betrayal of his companions while hiding in Caracas ’ Museo Militar from where he was conducting the coup, turned him instantly into an icon. At the time there was consensus on the need to change the establishment, and Venezuelans for the most part, being only too prone for quick fixes, thought that the military adventure spearheaded by Chavez was not only commendable but a realistic solution to the country’s many social and political problems.

Jailed and pardoned at a latter date without having gone through trial by Carlos Andres Perez’s successor Rafael Caldera, upon regaining freedom Chavez made his first trip to Cuba in December 1994. Dictator Fidel Castro saw in him a window of opportunity. After the fall of his communist patrons in the Soviet Union an impoverished and abated Castro found himself resource less, the umbilical cord that maintained his communist revolution financially and militarily had been cut. However there he was, a young, charismatic, gullible soldier from the province, eager to implement in Venezuela a replica of Castro’s Animal Farm, something that the Cuban had not been able to achieve in its heyday. The dictator received his would-be apprentice like a hero and carefully laid the foundations of what would become a paternal sort of relationship. The prospect of controlling Venezuela ’s vast resources via a proxy was just what the dictator needed to oxygenate his failed revolution.

Chavez’s active involvement in politics started in earnest in 1995. Convinced of the dysfunctional status of the Venezuelan State he advocated for abstention, for a conscious effort of withdrawing support and citizen participation in electoral processes whose victors did not have the interests and needs of the population at heart. In many quarters of society his was a respected position. Politicians that had never been in positions of power in Venezuela jumped in the popular bandwagon, the goal being to tame Chavez and turn him into an obedient colleague, part of the crooked crew as it were. Similarly powerful businessmen and media tycoons could not help themselves and boarded the train, supporting the coupster. It is a known fact for instance that Chavez lived in Miguel Henrique Otero’s house [owner of daily El Nacional] and traveled around the country in a plane lent by Henry Boulton [owner of extinct Avensa & Servivensa], which exemplifies the sort of appeal that Chavez had once upon a time, even among individuals whose democratic credentials were beyond question. The ménage a trois between Chavez, the powers that were and a large chunk of society came to its climax in 1998, when he was elected to the presidency. It is to be noted that in spite of being at what some considered his highest ever peak of popularity Chavez did not manage to get in 1998 as many votes as Carlos Andres Perez got a decade earlier. On a similar note, his then political mentor Luis Miquilena negotiated with Spanish bank BBVA a $1.5 million donation – $525.586 received December 1998 and $1 million July 1999 - the second disbursement of which Chavez readily accepted after having been sworn in legislation forbidding such acts notwithstanding.

But Chavez had great plans in mind. His winning ticket was generally speaking one of anti-corruption/crime/unemployment/poverty, although he also promised to eradicate the pest –represented by political parties’ (sic), to fry the heads of corrupt politicians (sic), to change his name had he fail to rescue streets children, to do away with all elected powers and dismantle institutions, to rewrite the constitution, to convene a National Constituent Assembly, etc. At the time Venezuelans heard only the bits they wanted to hear, the sheer disgust and discontentment towards the status quo was so generalized that the common stance could be defined as “anything but traditional politicos.” Venezuelans wanted desperately to get over the worse decade of its incipient democratic history.

In the late 80ies and early 90ies the country was rocked by unprecedented events. Starting with the infamous Caracazo in 89, coups d’etat (4 Feb and 27 Nov) in 92, impeachment and destitution of Carlos Andres Perez in 93 due to misuse of funds, an economy in tatters after the banking crisis in 1994, during Caldera’s second term (93-98) detrimental bond tender offers justified by an irresponsible director of Banco Central de Venezuela who candidly admitted “in 10 years time none of us will be around here” (sic), an utterly corrupt and inefficient administration from 93 onwards, in sum the majority thought that nothing could be worse and so they thrust support on Chavez who was seen as the great white hope.

Referenda processes and the National Constituent Assembly: With a fresh mandate and riding the popularity wave Chavez proposed a novel concept; that of referenda. At the time the body of laws was built upon the constitution of 1961, which, needs be stressed, did not contain any provision, article or mandate allowing the use of such supraconstitutional mechanism nor did it exist any legislation to that effect. But that did not stop Chavez. Ever the gifted communicator he convinced the people that under the circumstances he could not rule: his line of reasoning could be summarized as “the State and its institutions must be refound. Originary power resides in the people, as such I propose a referendum so that the people can vote on whether or not to convene a National Constituent Assembly that will rewrite the constitution and lay the foundations of a new State.” The actual question presented on referendum to voters on 25 April 1999 was “¿Convoca usted una Asamblea Nacional Constituyente con el propósito de transformar el Estado y crear un nuevo ordenamiento jurídico que permita el funcionamiento efectivo de una Democracia Social y Participativa?”

Neither him, nor the people, were bothered by the fact that convening a National Constituent Assembly was unconstitutional; with polls indicating 80% support he did not give a second thought about alienated parties. 3,630,666 votes, or 33% of registered voters, signed the blank check and approved the experiment of transforming the State, creating a new judicial order that would allow an effective functioning of a participative and social democracy. Selection of members of the Constituent Assembly followed and cronies of Chavez managed to get 124 out of the 131 seats. But an impatient Chavez rushed them to finish and requested for the new constitution to be written in 3 months instead of 6 as initially planned. His request was fulfilled with diligence and then came the approval of the new constitution, which was basically dictated by Chavez. In the new document of 350 articles rights to recall elected officials via referenda and to rebellion were enshrined. The State was to have five branches instead of the traditional three; Citizen and Moral powers were added to Judiciary, Legislative and Executive and the selection and appointment of officials to these posts were to follow strict rules to ensure independence. On 15 December 1999 3,301,475 Venezuelans voted in favour of adopting the new constitution (30% of roll). Worth mentioning that there existed a discrepancy between total number of registered voters between the convening of the National Constituent Assembly on 25 April and the approval of the new constitution on 15 December; the roll decreased by 127,457 voters. So Chavez got his bespoke constitution and on 22 December 1999 the Constituent Assembly, a week before the new constitution was enacted, decreed a ‘transition regime,’ which ceased the functioning of Congress -permanently dissolving the Senate- legislative assemblies and all other public powers. Then, arguing that the new constitution had yet to take effect (it had been approved already a week earlier) it created a National Legislative Committee, appointed the new members of the Supreme Court, the people's Defender, the Attorney General, the National Electoral Commission and the Comptroller. In none of these cases were the procedures established by the new constitution followed.

For the second instance Chavez showed his true colors for none of these acts were improvised, but were implementation via ‘democratic means’ of measures devised and prepared well before 1992; in fact the first democratic coup in Venezuela’s history. In order to minimize criticism another stroke of genius; early into his presidency he invited Jose Vicente Rangel and Alfredo Peña to join the government, arguably two of the most dreaded journalists/critics in the country.

Enabling bill, street protests, strikes and the coup: In November 2000 Congress approved an Enabling bill to confer extraordinary powers to Chavez, who was to decree legislation in predetermined areas. Nearly a year to the day the Enabling bill was passed Chavez launched 49 laws. Ranging from land management passing through maritime rights to more mundane administrative issues the new bills prompted intense criticism in opposition quarters. To his credit most of them had to do with aspects related to his ‘socialist’ revolution, such as regulation of grants and credits to Small and Medium Enterprises. A Macro Stabilization Fund (FIEM in Spanish) was also created with the purpose of balancing budgets with extraordinary income deposited during windfall. Predictably most of the +$7 billion deposited with FIEM went missing, as Chavez irresponsibly disposed of the monies as he saw fit. But the strongest bone of contention was the Land bill, which introduced the concept of “idle land.” The idleness of the land was to be determined in subjective fashion by civil servants who, often, would use their discretionary powers as a mechanism to blackmail land owners, to settle political problems or simply to get parcels of land in sought after places.

All the while the opposition was sort of gathering momentum. Throughout 2001 and 2002 Venezuela ’s cities saw the biggest demonstrations ever recorded. The head of the country’s largest union –Carlos Ortega- joined forces with the chair of the business chamber –Carlos Fernandez- something unheard of previously, and ganged up against the regime. Together they organized massive protests, the goal being to halt the country’s economy. During this period Chavez fired Petroleos de Venezuela’s CEO and appointed in its stead an ignorant crony, which added more to the fire. Oil workers protested the decision for it did away with the meritocratic concept whereby promotions to higher positions in the company always came from the pool of talent within. The situation was deteriorating rapidly to which Chavez reacted with even more dismissals; one good day in the middle of one of his televised Sunday talkathons (known as “Alo Presidente”) he started naming PDVSA board members and after blowing a whistle he would say “you’re fired!” It was considered to be the ultimate insult, up until that point PDVSA directors were the untouchables, no government official or public servant had dared dismiss a company director in such gross and disrespectful manner. However it was just another example that Chavez was not cut from the same cloth. The reaction was swift; a string of harsh statements leveling criticism ensued. The house of one PDVSA director was raided; that prompted a protest in a PDVSA building that was dispersed brutally by the military. Things heated up, by now Juan Fernandez, whose house was raided, joined forces with the pair of irreverent bosses.

The opposition had built enough momentum, or so its leadership thought, but little did it know what the future held. Disgruntled high ranking members of the army took their grief to the cameras, stating that the president had become authoritarian and that his behavior violated constitutional and democratic tenets. An ill prepared, loose coalition of natural born enemies decided that time was ripe to meet forces with Chavez’s monolithic regime. On 11 April 2002 some of the leaders of the opposition, intoxicated with the spectacle of the sight, decided to deviate hundreds of thousands of protesters that had gathered in front of Cubo Negro (adjacent to a PDVSA building) to Miraflores, Venezuela’s presidential palace. The human tide obeyed and marched towards the palace, but Chavistas (as Chavez’s supporters are known) were prep and ready –meaning armed and located in strategic positions- for the agitation and chaos that was to ensue. At that point the forces that had been irresponsibly unleashed were, quite naturally, out of control. A rain of bullets met the protesters and, to this day, no one can claim knowledge as to which side started the shooting. Sharp shooters were seen in roof tops that were meant to be under Chavez’s personal security apparatus control (Casa Militar). Additionally members of Congress supportive of Chavez were bearing arms in Puente Llaguno, a sort of overpass above the avenue where the protesters were, and were filmed shooting against the advancing crowd that was shielded by officers from the Metropolitan Police. Confrontation did not last long, nonetheless 19 people were killed and about a hundred were wounded. The chain of events that followed are shrouded in mystery, current versions ranging from the whole thing being a US led coup to other versions that maintain that it was Chavez’s own machinations, seeking to purge the army of disloyal officers, that led to it. What is certain about it is that depending on the political tendency of he/she who recounts the episode any version pretty much goes for Chavez and his lackeys simply were not interested in determining who did what, torpedoing any meaningful investigations aimed at identifying those responsible. To the contrary, at a latter stage Chavez would bestow honors upon those congressmen seen shooting from Puente Llaguno, celebrating their zeal and defining them as “revolutionary heroes.”

What is known is that a group of high ranking officers, politicians and businessmen were plotting to oust Chavez. Just before the shooting began something that resembled an address from the Joint Chiefs of Staff appeared on TV withdrawing allegiance to the president. Chavez was addressing the nation while less than a mile from where he was mayhem was taking place. As mandatory the speeches of the president have to be broadcast jointly by all media, however some TV networks decided to split the screen; on one side Chavez was giving his usual dose of humbug on the other people were being killed on live television. The country was taken aback by the scenes in downtown Caracas . Fearing that the situation had gotten out of hand Chavez ordered the implementation of a military contingency plan known as Plan Avila. The plan had been designed to counter militarily massive riots, lootings or any other event that would overwhelm Caracas ’ police forces. Tellingly the implementation by Carlos Andres Perez of this very same plan caused many deaths in Caracas in 1989 and was still fresh in many people’s minds. It could have been precisely because of that that the general in charge of implementing it (General Manuel Rosendo) disobeyed Chavez’s orders, expressing that he was not going to order tanks and troops out to counter a demonstration. So Rosendo’s subaltern General Luis Garcia Carneiro decided to act upon the president’s orders and sent some tanks to Miraflores, which, needs be said, never engaged in action. By this time the anger towards the president was generalized within the higher echelons of the army. Gathered in Fuerte Tiuna, Caracas’ military base, they found themselves debating what would the next step be, what would they do with Chavez, perceived as responsible for the bloodbath. Consensus was difficult to achieve as some insisted in imprisoning Chavez while others wanted to send him packing chez his Cuban mentor, as already requested by Chavez. But somewhere else in the city one Pedro Carmona, new leader of the business chamber (Fedecamaras) was having thoughts of his own. [To be continued...]

The Electoral Conditions

2006 Presidential Elections: whereas lack of transparency and fairness characterized electoral processes in the run up to the presidential race, this one was, despite some participating actors attesting to the contrary, more of the same. Chavez had by then completed his castling, appointing another staunch ally –Tibisay Lucena- to chair the electoral board. This move somewhat tranquilized opposition forces that felt that another election with Jorge Rodriguez at the helm would amount to no more than a sham. However the partisan structure of the CNE remained intact with a balance of power of 4 out of 5 board directors clearly identified with officialdom. The gamesmanship became evident early when leading academics of the three most important universities in the country (Universidad Central de Venezuela or UCV, Universidad Catolica Andres Bello or UCAB and Universidad Simon Bolivar or USB) proposed to audit the roll thoroughly for it was the bone of strongest contention between government and opposition. It was a known fact that the electoral roll had been artificially inflated in the millions through irresponsible registry mechanisms, unchecked identification processes, flawed methodology, lax ID-documents requirements were all part of the massive increase in the number of voters. Notorious examples abound: the Gonzalez family with more than 2.000 members all born the same date and registered in the same house; or the +39.000 voters over 100 hundred years of age -a statistical impossibility given the country's population; or the entries of unidentified voters called XX; in sum these corollary of fabricated voters -created to re-elect Chavez- cast many doubts on the overall transparency of the process. According to current legislation (art. 93 of the Organic Law of Suffrage and Political Participation) the CNE is obliged to release to political parties and interested groups that so require copies of each list of voters published by the Office of Electoral Register. Furthermore the director of said office shall certify a) that such lists are exact copies of the roll and b) whether the released copies represent partial or total content of the electoral roll. But the CNE had of course different mandates to fulfill. Never stating clearly that auditing under strict academic standards was not to be permitted another proposal was put forward: the audit was to be conducted by a joint panel formed by experts of UCV, UCAB, USB and unknown academics lacking credentials from six other universities and one scientific research institute (IVIC). The added institutions were either created by Chavez or controlled by supporters: incredibly out of the seven additions only one institution (IVIC) had reputable statisticians actively engaged in research but they were explicitly forbidden by CNE from taking part in the audit in any way. Furthermore the CNE saw fit to negotiate and impose the most appropriate method to conduct the audit in clear violation to the law.

The impression that Venezuela had a thriving democracy needed to be maintained at all costs. Ergo the next step to be taken was to file a considerable number of candidates, though everyone sort of knew that it was going to be a two horse race. Once these hurdles were overcome came the revelation for this was far from being a typical presidential campaign as understood and known in Western countries. For Manuel Rosales did not just confront Hugo Chavez but the Venezuelan State. Chavez did not relinquish his powers and ominous control over all institutions, nor did he show any restraints in using public funds for campaigning purposes. The ratio of TV-time of the two candidates was 22 to 1 in favor of Chavez; the budget of his campaign unknown, aggravated by the fact that no institution would dare take any members of cabinet –many of whom were assigned responsibilities within the official campaign team- or the president into account. Airports were closed to prevent Rosales’s plane from landing; access roads to Caracas were shut to block access to Rosales’s rallies; governors and mayors supportive of Chavez in the hinterlands would use public resources to organize violent anti-Rosales protests that coincided with his rallies; electricity was cut in many rallies around the country to impede Rosales’s message to be heard in popular gatherings; intelligence police kept filming and photographing Rosales’s campaign team members as they got off planes and cars in order to intimidate them; TV crews from official media were dispatched to cover Rosales’s events while journalist from privately owned media were forbidden to attend Chavez’s meetings; public funds were used to hire thousands of buses to transport chavistas to meetings; millions were spent on paying chavistas to get them to attend rallies of the official candidate; official vehicles and buildings were covered with propaganda; in sum this was anything but a normal race. International observers present in the country expressed utter dismay at the abuse of public resources by the Chavez camp; the CNE board however did not find any of it out of the ordinary or illegal. Under such conditions a favorable result for the opposition was impossible to achieve. [To be continued...]

Question to readers: is it worth continuing? Please send a YES or NO message to alek.boyd at gmail.com. Messages from potential publishers -if any- are also welcomed.



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