Chávez Hits a Home Run

Venezuela’s embattled president calls his own shot by winning the recall election

Steve Ellner

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez addresses supporters in Caracas during a demonstration December 6 celebrating his five years in power.

Caracas — Just minutes after the official results of Venezuela’s August 15 presidential recall election were announced at 4 a.m., a gathering of Hugo Chávez’s supporters outside the presidential palace chanted home run.” Days before, President Chávez predicted he would hit a home run that soared over Cuba and landed on the White House. 

Speaking to the crowd from the balcony that morning, Chávez directed his words at Washington: This election did not decide whether a man stays in power. Rather it was a triumph of a political model that is confronting savage neoliberalism.” Chávez, who favors a strong government role in the economy and is an ardent critic of the Bush-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), is clearly at odds with U.S. policy for Latin America on a wide range of issues.

Indeed, the 58 percent vote for the Venezuelan president is as much a defeat for Bush as it is a victory for Chávez. The pro-Chávez campaign largely centered on the contributions made to the Venezuelan opposition by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is financed by the U.S. Congress. A number of the top leaders of organizations that received NED funding signed the proclamation decree of the short-lived government that overthrew Chávez in April 2002. Chávez even accused the NED of bankrolling the National Consensus Plan that opposition leaders presented just weeks before the recall election in reaction to criticism that they lacked common goals. Chávez called the plan Consensus for Bush.”

During a February 29 rally, Chávez, incited by mounting evidence of NED interference in Venezuela’s elections, accused the organization of direct involvement in the April 2002 coup and announced his government’s initiation of an anti-imperialist” stage. But Chávez’s anti-imperialism is a far cry from that of Lenin. Rather than lashing out at foreign capital, Chávez has concentrated his fire on Bush. Chávez is particularly sensitive to remarks from the White House holding him responsible for all decisions, even those made by the national electoral commission and the courts.

Both the opposition and the Bush administration view Chávez’s statements as empty rhetoric. One week before the recall election, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roger Noriega defended the NED contributions as a good investment” and the recipient organizations as pillars of democracy.” He added: The Venezuelan authorities’ criticisms represent nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from the problems facing the nation.”

The August 15 results are just the latest in a series of political triumphs since Chávez’s presidential election in December 1998. After scoring victories in five electoral contests in 1999-2000, Chávez managed to return to power following the April 2002 coup, and then survived a 10-week general strike” that was more of a lockout than a work stoppage. In February of this year, his government was unshaken by a week of urban resistance, including violence committed by the opposition (see Chávez Escapes Recall,” April 12, 2004). In May, the government avoided a bloodbath when it discovered a 120-man Colombian paramilitary unit poised on the outskirts of Caracas, which Chávez claimed was brought in by the opposition’s radical fringe.

Recent oil price hikes also have been a godsend for Chávez. The extra revenue has financed makeshift education programs that provide the poor with elementary school, high school and college degrees. Polls give the programs a 68 percent approval rating and credit them with boosting Chávez’s popularity.

The recall vote also was a slap in the face for the country’s biased media. Perhaps never in history has the media so aggressively and consistently attacked an elected government. Just two weeks before the elections, El Nacional, formerly the nation’s premier newspaper, interviewed ex-President Carlos Andrés Pérez from his Miami home. Pérez suggested that the recall would be ineffective because it does not accord with the Latin American style.” Instead he called for violent struggle to oust the government and said Chávez must die like a dog.”

Chávez not only defeated the opposition at the polls, but on the streets. The opposition may have burnt itself out after calling daily marches at the time of the coup and general strike in 2002. The Sunday before the recall election, the Chavistas participated in an immense, lengthy and festival-like Great Victory March in Caracas and then held large rallies in nearly all states on August 13, the last day of the campaign.

Even in middle-class neighborhoods, formerly the preserve of the opposition, Chávez’s followers made inroads, overcoming intimidation similar to what the opposition faces in slum areas. Some of Chávez’s middle-class supporters wore pins reading I’m a Chavista! And so what?”

The opposition’s reaction to the official election results, even after they were corroborated by Jimmy Carter and Organization of American States ex-president César Gaviria, was to cry electoral fraud. This attitude indicates that Venezuela’s social and political polarization may continue unabated.

But a best-case scenario also is possible. With the recall election out of the way, Chávez’s supporters have, for the first time, some breathing room to define their goals beyond a rough sketch. The opposition, which spent the last three years doing nothing but opposing everything Chávez did, also needs to engage in self-criticism and come up with novel formulas, particularly in the area of economic policy. Its National Consensus Plan said nothing opposition leaders were not saying 10 years ago. Indeed, the plan’s support for the virtual privatization of social security was attempted months before Chávez’s assumption of power.

Venezuela’s future also will be defined by what happens in November’s U.S. general election. A victory by the Democrats may ease relations between the two nations, in spite of John Kerry’s harsh words that Chávez has sowed instability in the region.” In contrast, Chávez has expressed hope that Kerry’s election may open a new stage in relations with Venezuela.” With a less hostile government in Washington and a less aggressive opposition at home, Chávez may be put to the test as a leader who claims to represent an alternative for Latin America.

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Steve Ellner, who began teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela in 1977, is currently an adjunct professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s. His latest book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chavez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner Publishers).
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