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VENEZUELA
Recall or re-affirmation?
Mike Ceaser
6/17/2004
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Both sides optimistic on Aug.

Opponents of President Hugo Chávez crowded a central Caracas avenue recently, drinking beer, dancing and listening to rousing speeches celebrating their success in triggering a recall referendum on the president’s rule.

"It’s a done deal," rejoiced Luis Díaz, 48, a casual laborer who was singing ‘He’s going! He’s going!’ "Even with tricks (Chávez) won’t stay in power."

The National Electoral Council announced on June 3 that Chávez’s opponents had gathered the required 2.4 million signatures to qualify for a recall vote on the president’s rule.

At the rally, some speakers seemed to think that Chávez, whom they accuse of corruption, damaging the Venezuela’s economy and steering the nation toward communism, was already moving out of the presidential palace.

The cards in Chavez´s hand

But the opposition still faces major hurdles before it can unseat Chávez, who has alienated Venezuela’s upper classes, but remains revered by many in the poor majority.

In addition, Chávez has repeatedly proven himself a political survivor. A charismatic campaigner elected by a landslide in 1998 and reelected in 2000 on a promise that the poor would share in the oil riches of the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, he has already withstood a coup and a devastating petroleum industry strike.

After the electoral council’s announcement Chávez, whose term ends in early 2007, went on national television and warned his opponents not to celebrate prematurely.

"I haven’t yet begun to fight," he said. "Now is when the game begins."

In fact, one April poll projected that Chávez would win a referendum with 51 percent support. In addition to gaining an anti-Chávez majority, his opponents must also obtain more votes than the 3.76 million Chávez obtained in his 2000 reelection. There are about 11 million registered voters.

And if he loses a referendum, Chávez is not barred from competing in the general election to follow. With a committed following of between 30 and 40 percent of Venezuelans, Chávez might defeat an opposition split amongst several candidates.

Immediately after the electoral council’s announcement, Chavistas and opponents began fighting over the referendum’s details. The opposition wanted the vote scheduled for Aug. 8, a date the two sides had tentatively negotiated. However, the council scheduled the vote for Aug. 15.

The two sides also argued over whether the risk of fraud can be minimized by a mechanized vote count, as the government wants, or a manual count, as the opposition demands.

The two sides also fought over the ‘Yes’ on the ballot. The opposition wants the ballot to ask whether Venezuelans want Chávez’s mandate revoked, while the government, which calls the vote a ‘reaffirmation referendum,’ wants the ballot to ask whether voters want Chávez’s mandate reaffirmed.

Although Chávez began his presidency with a strong mandate from Venezuelans weary of decades of corrupt rule, economic stagnation and persistent poverty amid great oil wealth, the nation has since become bitterly divided over his rule. Chávez has created popular medical and educational programs in poor neighborhoods, but also alienated the middle class and wealthy by his diatribes against ‘oligarchs’ and the Catholic Church and his friendship with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Chávez has also antagonized Washington, which he accuses of financing his opponents’ efforts to undermine his rule. The White House has not hidden its displeasure at Chávez’s criticisms of U.S.-backed free trade agreements and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chávez’s opponents briefly ousted him in an April 2002 military-led coup, which collapsed after two days, and the next year they tried forcing him out with a devastating petroleum industry strike. Both times, Chávez emerged strengthened.

Democracy enters the game

For many, the clearest victor in the referendum decision is Venezuelan democracy.

Chávez, a former paratrooper who led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, has been accused of weakening the democratic separation of powers and ruling in an authoritarian style. For his part, Chávez has frequently charged his opponents with plotting new coup attempts against him.

Both the Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS), which monitored the petition drive, praised Venezuelans’ respect for democracy. Jorge Valero, Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, said the referendum decision raised the Chávez government’s international stature.

"We are carrying forward a revolutionary process, but not deviating from democracy or the Constitution," he told Radio Caracas radio. "Venezuela is the most democratic nation in America."

And many Venezuelans still hope democracy will keep Chávez in power. A block up the hill from the anti-Chávez rally, the blue-collar Santa Rosa barrio appeared to be mostly pro-Chávez.

Barrio resident Juan Sandoval said that thanks to government assistance he and others have created a cooperative business manufacturing disposable gowns for hospitals. "(Chávez) has been the only president who has really worked for change," Sandoval said. Sandoval recalled opposition leaders’ promises to help the poor. "Why didn’t they ever do it before?" he asked.


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