Monday, August 16, 2004

Chavez third chance in office: one year after surviving the Recall Election.
From your correspondent in Caracas, August 15 2005

In a few days Venezuela will hold its third election in one year and there is absolutely no guarantee that this unfortunate country will find any peace.

It has been one year since Hugo Chavez has managed to survive the Recall Election effort. After having won in 1998 and survived the April 2002 coup Chavez was improbably given a third shot at ruling Venezuela on August 15 by fending off a Recall Election effort. His emotional rule and his populist style had allowed him to have the electors overlook many shortcomings to his administration, in particular a high jobless rate and a social division never seen before in this country. The high price of oil since 2002, courtesy of September 11, helping quite a lot.

There was not going to be any honeymoon period this time. The opposition after having tried to demonstrate that the elections had been rigged, could not make their case heard and the OAS and the Carter Center finally exited a country where they had been trapped for too long. Certainly for them the Iraq problem, the high oil prices and the US election had become more important than Venezuela. One just had to look at the welcome given to the Chavez survival by the oil markets.

But any hope of stability were to be quickly dashed.

No one in the opposition accepted the results. Eventually when some verifications were allowed by the Electoral Board it became quickly apparent that the process could not be audited. But observers had left and certainly there was not much that they could do at any rate.

To aggravate things, Chavez victory speech in the wee hours of August 16 had not been promising, and in spite of a more conciliatory attitude in the next few days it became quite clear that he was in a vengeful mode. Benefiting from a slight improvement in his National Assembly position due to the death of a major opponent and to the trauma created by the dubious election, Chavez hurried to complete the packing of the high court with his acolytes, passed a new law of police which ended up the local management of security forces, modified the civil code to ban a few "felonies" such as vocal criticism to public employees, recovered centralized control over healthcare, curtailed financial autonomy of the regions, and worked again on trying to muzzle the media.

But this did not mean much as the opposition quickly bounced back, more united than ever in front of the naked attempt at absolute control from power. In fact, quickly repression had to set in. In Maracaibo on October 5 an electoral rally was confronted by a squad of chavista sympathizer. Unaccountably the Army intervened and left 7 killed and 15 hurt, only 2 of the victims from the chavista side. A few days after a mysterious explosion in a gas line was used as an excuse for the government to impose a curfew in Zulia state while governor Rosales riding very high in the polls was arrested. The Maracaibo massacre would mark a definite turn in the strategies of the opposition.

The December regional elections turned out into a nightmare. The opposition refused to run under the automated system that was used for the Recall Election. The insistence of the chavista majority to use a system that had proven so useful created an impasse when the opposition decided to do an alternate write-in at the polls and refusing to recognize any elected official that would come out of the ballot. The resignation of the 2 CNE member that had become mere wallpaper at the CNE did not help. The opposition actually refused international observers and rejected any talk with the Carter Center that suffered a rather severe embarrassment. With street violence, observers did not come. The result was of course an almost complete sweep of all local authorities, while the curfew on election day did not stop the violence while a couple of dozen more people were killed. The few challenged results were quickly dismissed by the servile high court, or put in the back burners while chavistas were set into office.

Chavez using his abundant resources had been able not only to maintain his expensive and inefficient Misiones, but was able to bankrupt one of the media channel n Venezuela while expanding the reach of the state media. The remaining media, still allowed to criticize a state where there was no way to obtain redress, were forced to conform to a new code that limited in time and schedule talk shows and opinion programs. By early 2005, 2 regional papers closed and one of the main daily in Caracas "was sold" to more favorable Chavez interests.

But 2005 also brought Chavez new problems. The spending rhythm could not be maintained. Not only the growth of spending had continued through the 4th quarter of 2004 in order to win the local election, but it had increased while corruption kept taking an ever larger share. A new decrease of the oil barrel under the still very high 35 USD per barrel was too much for Venezuela where oil production remained hopelessly stuck. On January 4th 2005 the government finally devaluated the currency from 1950 to the USDA to 2480. But it was not enough. Spending had to be cut, oil prices went further down as a slight economic recession started in the world. By April 2005, a new devaluation brought the Venezuelan bolivar to 2985.

The meager recovery of 2004 had only been a relative recovery when compared to the disastrous 2003 performance. The 2005 devaluations increased inflation and dropped the Gross Domestic Product by an incredible 3 % in spite of still reasonable good oil prices, wiping any apparent gain of 2004. Clearly, the only foreign investments remained limited to public work projects and the oil industry, all the rest of the National production remained woefully underfinanced while the government tried all sorts of ad hoc remedies to maintain the food supply. Basically all the extra income was spent on food imports, unproductive social programs destined mainly to declared Chavez supporters and corruption. By June 2005 the per capita income had dropped 4 % from the June 2004 income. With the aggravation that the Misiones were not reaching as many people as in June 2004 and the jobless rate remained stubbornly high.

But the opposition in spite of all the brakes put on it since August 2004 kept active. Two petitions for a referendum on the High Court and on the media laws were simply forbidden as "unconstitutional" and collection of signatures was simply not allowed. This increased the outrage and brought again more violence in the streets as lower classes started feeling the new recession. An incredibly successful mass movement blocked all of Caracas streets in March 28 in spite of the arrest of 3 dozen organizers. Similar movements every week blocked Maracaibo, then Barquisimeto and finally Valencia where Acosta Carles, the contested governor elected under blatant fraud, send in the army while quartering the state police and 21 people were killed with scores injured.

This was too much for the international opinion. If certainly foreign powers were no where near direct intervention, Venezuela had become less crucial for oil and even the recent events had not affected the oil prices. Much more graver were evidence of Venezuelan association with the FARC and leftist group in Bolivia that finally were unmasked without a doubt. Chavez suddenly on the defensive again, again tried to gain time trying to lure the opposition into a National Assembly election with the bait that that way they could revert laws if they won. Surprisingly this time the opposition accepted. The fact was that the loss of local elections had not been dramatic since the new laws of November 2004 had left local authorities with very little else to do but collect garbage.

The opposition this time obtained a ballot voting system as it would have been impossible for Chavez to have such an election recognized if the opposition did not participate. Still Chavez did balk at an outright take over hoping probably to reach final takeover legally as he had been reaching it progressively if chaotically. However, he did manage to change the electoral distribution which allowed him more potential representatives from districts supposedly favorable. After all, used to rule with a 2 vote majority, there was a fair chance that he could maintain such an advantage. But amazingly the opposition celebrated quick and efficient primaries and presented a unique list through the country. Chavismo found itself with an obvious popular weakening after a year of no visible progress. All polls coincided that chavismo might barely get 1/3 of the Assembly to come from the August elections. In spite of all the news control, the low finances, the opposition, perfected its grass roots movement through Internet, small local papers, a return to the public speakers, etc….the opposition finally had a very well honed machinery that was independent of all that Chavez could do or say.

Faced with a possible parliamentary loss Chavez made his move. With yet another set up he managed to close one newspaper and arrest 8 more political leaders running for office, thus running unopposed in 8 districts. The charges were on drug trafficking, already used in the past but this time with success thanks to the servile judiciary. With a new security decree, the government limited the campaigning ability of the opposition. To avoid a new embarrassing rejection, the Carter Center did not offer its services. But surprisingly the European Union almost appointed itself as observer, threatening to cut off Chavez from the international scene in front of a prostrated US, and an OAS totally discredited from its recent failures in Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba were it showed unable to effectuate any pressure with the recent problems there.

Thus in a few days Venezuela will vote again and the National Assembly that will come out of it will either set in stone Chavez authoritarian regime or start its unraveling considering his proven inability at propitiating any sustained economical growth. One thing is certain, more blood will be shed.

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