Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Venezuela in July 2005: a political portrait

Whether we like it, or see any pertinence to it, we are again at election time in Venezuela. August and December will see the completion of the realignment of forces that started in August 2004 and thus will close, for better or worse, a cycle in Venezuelan history. If I write "pertinence" it is because the result is pretty much known in advance. In the present political situation it is simply impossible, least some spectacular new development, that chavismo will lose these elections, for which it does not even need to use outright fraud if it wanted to get, say, an 80% of the seats at stake.


The situation is at the same time very complex and daringly simple. But so is all of Venezuelan history since some time in the early 80ies when the populist bubble burst. In this perspective, the Chavez administration is at the last one of the failed administrations that have besotted us since "el viernes negro" (1). It is also the first one of the times of troubles where the fabric of Venezuelan society has been mercilessly rent with consequences yet unforeseeable, but for which there is very little optimism to be offered.


Yet we must keep observing, commenting, anticipating when possible.  Thus I am writing this long "portrait" with interactive links to the different sections, hoping that it will be useful as a reference for following the political developments in the next months, just as I dutifully wrote for the previous electoral events of 2003 and 2004.
(Note: best seen on Internet Expolorer! Firefox has problems with table viewing!)




The electoral system
The coming elections
How we elect representatives
Double voting
Multiple voting
The built in electoral fraud
Conclusion 1

Polls and more polls
Conclusion 2

Economical perspectives
Conclusion 3

The opposition disarray

The original sin
Venial sins?
Present situation
The December deadline
The SUMATE factor
Conclusion 4

The chavismo hubris
Chavez, El Supremo
The appeal of Chavez at home, and its consequences
Chavismo today
Conclusion 5

Venezuela's prospects

Bibliography




The electoral system

The coming elections


Early August we will be electing the town hall councils.  Since 1998 Venezuela has started acquiring a more complex system which has required to move from a single election once every 5 years to now a series of elections to elect the different bodies.  This in a way is a democratic progress, but due to the towering figure of Chavez and the nature of the regime, it has turned out perversely as the way for the regime to consolidate its hold to public offices while not necessarily granting it true legitimacy.


As of the 2000 elections the town hall councils elections have been further separated, resulting now in that the new mayors elected on October 2004 will finally get a new city council mid August, 10 months later!!!   And the future mayors will inherit an old town hall for the first full year of their term in 2008.  The absurdity of it all does not seem to bother the political class.  After all, real power is in Miraflores, the rest is just mechanical organization for the transmission of orders.


Supposedly in December we will be electing a new National Assembly.  The electoral separation there makes more sense since we are in a strong presidential system where it is hoped for a National Assembly would provide some balance.  Still, one would question why a new assembly is elected just one year before a presidential election.  In the future we will have a president probably saddled for 2 or 3 years with an adverse assembly.  True, in the 1999 constitution there is a way to call for early assembly elections, but the conditions are so cumbersome that major conflict are sure to result from such a mechanism. 


Indeed, the 1999 constitution was a hack affair, only written with Chavez power in mind. (return)


How we elect representatives


This is where we really start observing problems.  Traditionally since 1947 the electoral system in Venezuela was based on a proportional distribution of the seats according to the share of the votes.  Since we had a state structure and many states had no more than a few seats allotted, there was an extra amount of seats spread as a "quotient", seats usually going to parties that got a significant amount of votes but not enough to elect a representative in a small state.  In other words, the system provided for any political party that reached nationally 2-3 % to have at least one seat.  The drawback from the system is that it was a list voting and thus political parties controlled who was elected.


This was changed already for the elections of 1998, but aggravated through the 1999 constitution.  With the necessary step of linking more directly representatives with the elector, the National Assembly now was elected according to two modalities.  A little bit over half of the representatives are now voted in through district votes while about 40% of representatives are elected according to state lists.


If the intention was right, as it usually happens when electoral systems are tampered with, on the fast, for political expediency, the result is a much worse electoral system than we used to have as now the majority group can get largely over represented.  We went from the dispersed chambers of pre 1998 to a possible monolithic one next year (2). (return)


Double voting


The perversion of the system was clearly demonstrated when governor Eduardo Lapi of Yaracuy invented the system of "las morochas" (the twins) for the 2000 election.  He simply created a purely electoral party to take advantage of the major fault of the system: the double voting of the elector.  Indeed, when in Venezuela you vote for a legislative body, you vote for a representative at the district level (a portion of the state or town hall) and for a representative at the entity level (state or municipal district at large).  Normally the same political party runs in both circuits and the entity at large votes are allocated in a percentile fashion in such a way as to account for minorities (largest median per representative).  Thus if a political party gets ALL of the single district seats it will obtain few, if any, of the entity seats.


But of course, if you run under one party at the district level and as another party at the entity level, you can get almost all the seats to be allocated.  A fictitious example will illustrate the point. 


Let's assume an entity with 100 voters, divided in three districts of 31, 32 and 37 voters each.  And three political tendencies but divided into 4 parties, one tendency running under two names (same color code).  5 representatives to be elected, 3 by district and 2 at large.



Electoral Division Political Parties Votes Gained
Seats allocated
 
District 1United Left
13
win 
31 voters United Center 7  
 United Right 11  
District 2United Left 13win 
32 votersUnited Center 9  
 United Right 10  
District 3United Left 14win 
37 votersUnited Center 12 
United Right 11   
     
Entity (district at large)Supremo Party39win
100 votersUnited Center 25  
2 seatsUnited Right 36win
    
Correlations  Percentage Seats Percentage seats
Total double vote left 7939.5%480%
Total double vote center 5326.5%00%
Total double vote right 6834.0%120%
     

Had Supremo Party run as the United Left the result would have been

Total double vote left 7939.5%360%
Total double vote center 5326.5%120%
Total double vote right 6834.0%120%

Even accounting for a different electoral behavior at the district level (easier for the voter to meet the candidate, to know him/her) than at the entity level, the unfairness of the system, when the electoral trick is applied, is obvious.  The left gets 80% of the seats with not even 40% of the votes.  Clearly, if an electoral law would be passed to force all to run under the same name at every level we would still see a victory of the left with an overrepresentation of this one (39.5% of the votes and 60% of the seats) but at least the center with 26.5% of the vote, a very significant minority would not be cheated of its representation.


But of course, chavismo, who has started using this trick in October to great success, is certainly not going to propose such a corrective and fair law. (return)


Multiple voting


But there is yet another level at which the present electoral system robs the people of true representation: the multi districts that happen in big cities.  Where it is rather difficult to mark separated districts, such as in metropolitan areas, the legislator has resorted to multiple districts, that is districts that elect more than one representative.  In those districts the elector MUST vote as many times as there are representatives to provide.  This system is usually applied when a majority tries to hold down a minority.  A famous example was in many US Southern States during segregation time where gerrymandering of districts at the state assembly level managed to create multiple representative districts with 60% white to 40% black and districts with 80% black and 20% white.  As a consequence, until desegregation and voting rights came, many Southern States had almost lily white congress even though they had 30, 40% of black voters.


A much simpler table illustrates this electoral perversion.  Let's imagine a multiple district with 3 seats.  Every elector gets to vote up to three times, each time of course for a different candidate that supposedly would represent the interest of the district.  But in a polarized climate, with electors that vote according to a line or even a single time for the head of the list we could have the following result.  In this table we imagine a district with 100 electors who elect 3 representatives and thus there will be 300 votes cast (only three political parties and no abstention, to simplify):



  votes per candidate seats won average percentage votes percentage seats
left 1 33 0    
left 2 37 034.3%0%
left 3 33 0 
center 1 25 0  
center 2 22 025.7%0%
center 3 30 0  
right 1 42win  
right 2 40win40.0%100%
right 3 38win  

The unfairness of the system is, again, obvious.  So why is such a system retained, in spite of all the talk of "democracia participativa" that the regime markets around?  In all fairness the regime inherited the system.  But it is definitely guilty of having made it worse.  The reason behind everything is that the political parties, or El Supremo, cannot trust the elector.  Also they need to be sure as to who are the candidates to rum.


There are many ways to correct the unfairness of this system.  One is to grant only one vote but to open lists.  That is, if you like the left list, you vote only once but for which ever one of list you relate best.  That way, if one list gets enough votes to elect more than one candidate, the order is decided by the voter, not the party.  But that, of course, gives too much power to the elector and it is well known that politicians, in Venezuela or elsewhere, do not trust the electors...


Meanwhile we are saddled with a very deficient, very unfair system, which is amply benefiting Chavez, not only for his personal appeal, but also the inability of the opposition to come with a serious electoral strategy, amen of a political program. (return)


The built in electoral fraud


As if the unfairness of the system were not enough, there are serious problems with the way the electoral mechanism for voting is organized.  This controversy comes from September 2003 when the Electoral Board, CNE, was named provisionally as the National Assembly failed in its constitutional duty to name the 5 rectors by a 2/3 majority.  Since then, things got worse.


The controversy around a possible outright fraud at the Recall Election of August 15 has never been quite settled.  However even the organizations that recognized Chavez victory, namely the OAS and the Carter Center, have since recognized that there are serious problems as to how the voting act by itself progresses, from important irregularities in the electoral rolls (remember that even noted terrorist Granda got to vote in August 15) to a general system that made voting difficult and questionable as to its safety and privacy.


Another very perturbing factor is that after the Recall Election the CNE was again revamped, again without due process.  The pro-Chavez majority went from a 3 to 5 to a 4 out of 5.  But the 5th one, Sobella Mejias, who used to be a frequent dissenting voice before August 15, has been stripped or real influence and has become deadly silent, apparently letting the other 4 guys do as they please.  For all practical purpose, it would be the same as if she had become pro-Chavez.  Naturally, the arrogance of the new president, Jorge Rodriguez, has reached new heights.  Basically, negotiations with the CNE for opposition parties have become near impossible as the CNE is creating new rules, violating established rules, creating new requirements that simply could make away with the secret and privacy of the vote.  In other words, the opposition has lost any faith in the CNE, not that it had much before.


Now, this should not be taken to mean that the elections are hopelessly rigged and that the opposition even if it gets more votes than the government will lose anyway (though one is allowed to entertain that possibility).  What it means is that the large gerrymandering of the electoral rolls and the distrust from the opposition voters ("why vote?  They are going to steal my vote!") add a bonus to the chavista vote.  And we will not enter into the fact that the CNE does not even pretend to control the excesses and abuses of the official campaign whose ample funding from public coffers is not questioned whatsoever. 


In other words, for the opposition to win it would require that not only it beats Chavez, but by a margin sufficiently elevated that the inherent fraud, and the possible fraud of outright data modification, cannot be played out or manipulated.


SUMATE, the NGO that is the main electoral advisor of the opposition and perhaps the most efficiently run group in the whole country, has listed clearly which are the 5 points that must be met to have a clean election in Venezuela, to have results that will be accepted, to obtain an electoral system that will reestablish trust of all into the act of voting.


1-Trusworthy electoral roll. Right now, with even Granda voting, and the unwillingness to release the roll to political parties to allow them to organize their campaign (a legal requirement that the CNE refuses to comply with), there is no way to know if the registered electors are indeed legal electors or in which district they are actually located.


2-Complete Audit.  Any electoral process must be audited, and not only after the voting.  The CNE is stalling any attempt at external audit from its inner workings to its electoral rolls, and amen of counting the vote.


3-Vote secret.  A new device has been introduced: electronic voting registry.  That is, when you will go and vote a computer will check your registration, instead of the printed books used until now.  Obviously, there can be any unknown "virus" that can follow the sequence of the verification steps and match it with the sequence of the voting machine.  Thus it is technically possible to figure out who voted for whom.


4-Manual counting. Considering all the controversy that has surrounded elections since 2000, it would be a good idea to perhaps emit the result a few hours after the vote but allowed for a few days to count all the votes manually.  Only that could assuage once and for all the mistrust into the electoral system as it stands now.  As far as the present CNE stands, only the ballot boxes to be audited will be counted (3).


5-Real observation. After the fiasco of the OAS and Carter Center in 2004, and the refusal for the EU to come, this has become a real problem.  We should not doubt the good intentions of the previous observers even if some might have been favoring chavismo.  The fact is that the CNE did not allow them to do their job right and yet they accepted their observer role.  This simply means that unless observers are not allowed to do their job properly, according to acceptable practices, then we might as well forget about the election, at least the national ones as local elections are rarely observed since supposedly the community does that...


As any rational reader should agree, the requirements of SUMATE are quite reasonable (in PDF here).  What is not reasonable is the arrogance of the CNE that refuses even to meet these requests half way.  No wonder abstention can only keep growing in Venezuela, no matter how fast the CNE inflates the rolls (and the votes?).  The last word will be when international arbitration will come, if it comes.  One expects from recent declarations that the Carter center as well as the OAS have learned something from the August debacle, in case they dare to return. (return)


Conclusion 1


Some apologists of the Chavez regime say that since he won elections X times, he is a democrat and Venezuela is a democracy.  This "elections are enough" litmus test obviously fails when one sees all the problems exposed above with the Venezuelan electoral system.  On the electoral front, Venezuela qualifies now as a dubious democracy at the very best, and as most charitable qualification one can give it.


Indeed, I, for one, am willing to accept that the electoral results so far do reflect the general will of the country to see Chavez in Miraflores.  However, there is no guarantee, the way things are, that this will remain the case.  And one thing is already certain, the results of any local election are not going to reflect the social composition and political wishes of the individual districts. We have entered what is called a plebiscitary regime, one where the only elections that count are the one for the executive and any plebiscite that this one may wish to hold.  Other elections are simply ways to legalize the command lines through the regions. (return)


Polls and more polls


One way to evaluate the situation of a country is to make polls.  This seems to have become useless in Venezuela.  Many reasons for that.  To begin with, there is an undeniable effect of the Chavez popularity which is not translatable to the reality of everyday life.  That is, polls, no matter where they come from always give high numbers to president Chavez while governmental institutions, ministers, program and more find themselves trailing behind sometimes by not even half of the numbers of Chavez.  Probably there is a phenomenon here that polling institutions have not been able to account for, to correct, a phenomenon which if it gives good numbers to Chavez probably also reflect an inherent vulnerability as every day more and more people seem to pin their hope on Chavez and Chavez only. Risking of course to turn him down suddenly some day.


Three polls came to hit the news lately: Datanalisis, Consultores 21 and CECA (no links alive).  It is not the objective to discuss which one of them might be the most reliable, all seems to suffer from that basic non concordance of results. 


For example Datanalisis gives more than 60% favorable ratings to Chavez but in specific questions upon which such favor should be built, none passed the 55% (e.g. are you happy with the political or economical situation of the country?)


Another example is contrasting Consultores (published by pro Chavez newspaper Panorama) and CECA (paid by opposition sectors).  Consultores estimate abstention to coming elections at 27% whereas CECA predicts 86%!  Consultores places unemployment as the main concern for 37% and corruption to be important for only 2% whereas CECA gives 41 and 20% respectively!


One of the most interesting and curious results comes from Consultores which states that 59% think that the (current?) country problems are not Chavez fault (but his administration, the past, whatever).  Yet, one of the biggest opponents of Chavez, the Catholic Church, garners 70% favor in Consultores (And equally high numbers in Datanalisis).  And the media, main opponents too, are second only to the Church in receiving the favors of the polled folks.


Finally, a very telling result in Consultores is that if 57% like Chavez (and this for pro-Chavez Panorama), 60% of polled people express the desire of a new leadership coming from the opposition!


Conclusion 2


Trying to find a common thread is rather difficult.  Perhaps the complexity of the times?  Perhaps the reluctance of people to reply frankly since confidentiality seems every day more and more impaired?  However one thing seems certain: no matter how we analyze the different poll results, there seems to be a hard core pro Chavez support that is between 30 and 35% (even seen in a nice pie chart!).  And the hard core opposition seems stuck at 30%.  Thus there is a floating 40% that seems to have loosely set on Chavez for the time being, thankful for the social programs but perhaps not as grateful as this one would like.


There is also another explanation: Chavez is like Reagan in a certain Teflon like quality, nothing sticking to him. (return)


Economical perspectives


If Chavez keeps holding to good numbers it is not only because of his undeniable charisma toward the low classes.  After all that charisma did not save him from the April 2002 disaster when only small groups of people in popular districts, some of them more interested in the looting that usually accompanies violent changes of regime, protested for his return.  If such a coup where to happen today, it is more likely that genuine crowds would hit the streets, and not only in Caracas.


What happened?  Some think that Chavez realized that he was not hitting the targets right and after April 2002 needed to get better advice.  It escapes no one notice that the Cuban presence in Venezuela boomed after April 2002, be it a the level of the presidential security or to the thousands of Cuban medic that came for Barrio Adentro, the flagship "mision".  Thus, with continuously rising oil prices, Chavez embarked in the most populist program ever experienced in Venezuela.  The windfall was invested mostly on programs that successfully shored up the presidential image that had been going down steadily since the constitutional battles of 1999.  Eventually it allowed Chavez to battle successfully the Recall Election challenges, gain the regional election battle and reach early 2005 an improbable 70% in one poll.


Of course that windfall of petrodollars had an effect in the economy.  The recovery from the disastrous oil and general strike of 2002-2003 was spectacular.  But it was only that, a recovery.  Only these days Venezuela is finally reaching a GNP comparable to the 1998 GNP, which means that the per capita income in real terms has fallen even if social programs create the illusion of some relative wellbeing in popular sectors.  The sad fact is that massive public spending touches only some sectors of the productive apparatus, such as food production.  And even that sector has been hurt by uncontrolled food importation by the state and subsidized food distribution through "mision Mercal".  These measures taken to try to control inflation (as Giordani recovered his old economy management seat lost in 2002) failed as this one persistently remains in the double digits, always threatening to spin out of control.  The Venezuelan currency remains weak as local investments remain weak and people try to shift as many dollars outside of the country as possible considering the restrictive currency exchange controls.


Only some sectors with heavy state investments (oil, of course, propelled by 50 + USD barrels; state industrial investment; some public works) show some significant growth.  Unfortunately these sectors are inherently delicate as they depend on oil prices and production.  Production numbers in particular have been questioned recently.  The private sector, the one that can effectively create the jobs required for a real and sustained recovery, is not growing as fast as wanted.  2005 will be the year where we finally will see if the massive populist spending on populist programs will be enough to reactivate the generating jobs pump.


One factor that does not help confidence to be restored, in addition of the now chronic judicial security now that chavismo has a firm control of the judicial apparatus, is the lack of accurate statistics from the government.  Most calculation systems, from the bank reserves to the jobless rates, have been modified, tainted, in order to make the government look better in its macroeconomic results.  For example IESA, the top business school in Venezuela, and El Nacional have looked at unemployment rates.  They have found that this one has started including the beneficiaries of some "misiones" into the fully employed (militia forming, "vuelvan caras").  This of course is dangerous as those are not real jobs, and most of them are not even paid at the minimum wage rate and certainly do not benefit of the labor laws advantages that are the rights of gainfully employed workers.


Finally, tales of corruption and evidence of more and more "nouveaux riches" do not help in creating confidence in legal and normal investment from the private sector.  Not to mention that some recent fiscal battles with some foreign oil investors (Sincor, e.g.) are certainly going to create new and unwanted mistrust with foreign investors in general, investors willing to risk money in Venezuela because of its oil potential.  Only those that hold technologies that the government cannot control are willing to do large investments in Venezuela (the purchase of Telcel by Movistar, for example). (return)


Conclusion 3


Indeed, the petrodollar windfall is felt and there is an impression of economic growth as commercial activity has restarted and as, without question, the lowest income sectors of the population have benefited from the social programs developed since early 2003.  It is possible that eventually this will translate in real solid economic growth but so far the signs are not encouraging.  Venezuela seems intent on, again, increase the portion of the public sector, already huge, at the expense of the private sector.  This has never worked anywhere.


Perhaps aware of this, the Chavez administration seems to want to attract large multinational investment even if this one will kill some of the Venezuelan economic sectors.  In the so vaunted "XXI century socialism" perhaps what is meant is that capitalism will exist only at two levels: anonymous and non political global companies on one side, and on the other small Venezuelan business and cooperatives and such which cannot, hopefully for Chavez, present a political challenge such as the one he experienced in 2002 and 2003.  As little as possible Venezuelan own concerns is the goal, unless controlled by pro Chavez business folks.


We will see in the future if the bet of chavismo will succeed in bringing prosperity or if we will fall further behind in Latin America as even countries as Dominican Republic have now a significantly higher GNP per capita than Venezuela. (return)


The opposition disarray


We have surveyed the different conditions that are facing the political parties today, July 5, our 194th anniversary of the declaration of Venezuelan independence.  We will start now with the examination of the opposition very own problems and how this one is reacting to the new political and economical panorama of the country.


Considering the stubbornness of the polls since mid 2004 and the dismal perspective offered at the ballot box, assuming that the polls would improve, one can understand the opposition political parties disarray.  But why is the opposition so catatonic except for the occasional exception? 


The original sin


In his recent book, Dos Izquierdas, Teodoro Petkoff has a very interesting chapter that summarizes some of the problems that the Venezuelan opposition is facing, some of the problems that have already been addressed in these pages over the last year.  One I call the "original sin" since the opposition leadership seems unable to come to grip with it.


In the fateful night of August 15 to 16, as in the wee hours the government gave the unexpected result of 59% for Chavez, some of the opposition leaders came out to scream "fraud!".  And then a few days later, the Accion Democratica leadership announced that it would run for the regional elections, and that was that.  Some pursued the fraud theory.  But those that did not pursue it made the cardinal sin of not accepting officially that Chavez had won, that is, no "graceful" concession speech.


The result was that the opposition electorate, a strong 40% by the CNE possibly fraudulent count, was left adrift, not knowing whether Chavez had won, not knowing whether fraud had really taken place.  At this point discussing the fraud theories that were later announced is rather aimless: Chavez had won a political victory and even if he had indeed lost the vote, the inability of the opposition to claim it black is equal to giving him victory.


This was a major mistake from the opposition leadership.  Not recognizing the lousy campaign for the Recall election or refusing to fight tooth and nail for a recount, as it was shown it could be done in Ukraine is what has sunk the chances of the opposition more than anything else.  Why the opposition ensnarled itself is a mystery.  Perhaps a confession of bad leadership would have forced them to profound reorganization?  Perhaps they are really that incompetent? But if the opposition lacked the guts to fight, then recognizing defeat was the indispensable requirement to rebuild the political parties and take the road to an eventual victory in the future. 


This is the root of high abstention intentions detected in polls and the October 31 2004 vote: the opposition electorate does not believe in the vote because it does not believe in its leaders.  Paradoxically chavismo is probably as skeptic of elections as anti-chavismo but does not care about it since they have their guy in office.  In addition, strong abstention in an electoral result is always bad news for a country on the long run.


And since then the paralysis has not ceded and the opposition is about to experience two major defeats because simply it is fighting with a hand tied in their back, a hand that has been tied there by themselves. (return)


Venial sins?


But the opposition has made other mistakes.  Some voices did appear in the following days of the Recall Election to point out that for example in the Caracas Metropolitan area chavismo had lost the referendum, and thus there was a possibility for the opposition to improve its positions there.  Petkoff is one of the main voices that wrote on that matter. And this very site offered a reasonable numerical analysis of these results showing that indeed some Metropolitan areas were appropriate fields for future electoral battles.


Other voices urged the opposition to entertain the thought that maybe Chavez had won and it would be good to examine why, and fast.  Already on August 12 Milagros Socorro was wondering about the effect of the "misiones" on the evolving voting intentions.  And already on August 19 she was wondering about whether the result was indeed possible, questioning it perhaps but clearly willing to accept the thought that it was a real result.


But the opposition not only did not pull out its act together, but faced the October election in disarray as Accion Democratica and Primero Justicia decided to square off to see who would become the leader of the opposition instead of fighting Chavez outright.  Now, if this is perhaps a normal reflex in a normal political system, in September 2004 it should have been a priority to save the political spaces still owned by the opposition, in particular the main states such as Carabobo and Miranda, the best blockades to an authoritarian system.


The abstention induced by the lack of openness and lethargy of the opposition leadership had the expected result, on October 31 the opposition lost much more than what it should have lost when in fact it could have even improved its positions. In November it woke up with not even a third of town halls and only two states out of 22.  A disaster worse than August 15. And this without even solving the struggle between AD and PJ, a struggle still going on [complete summary of results and interpretations here, as you will not find it anywhere else]. (return)


Present situation


With not very motivating elections coming up, the opposition is doing what it can.


Local alliances.  At the municipal level it seems that a significant number of agreements have been reached.  After all, Tip O'Neill, famed House Speaker of the US Congress was fond to say that all politics is local.  The opposition certainly need to leave Caracas TV stations and go back "local" it it wants to rebuild.  However the perspective of the largest abstention in our history, and all the electoral obstacles make one wonder what is on store at the ballot box on August 7.


Stirring the crowds.  Julio Borges, the main leader of Primero Justicia, is the one that has come the closest to admit defeat in August.  Close but no cigar.  So he has decided to run for president even if there was still 1.5 years for the 2006 when he announced.  However at least it gives him some exposure as he is starting to hit the streets and ask for votes.  It is too early to see if this will give any positive result.  But at least the fact of running will force PJ to come up with a government program to offer to the elector, something sorely missing from the opposition side.


Sleeping with he enemy.  Accion Democratica seems to have decided to accept Chavez rule for the coming years.  After all it does share the same electorate of Chavez as chavista electros were not the result of spontaneous generation: chavistas used to vote for AD or Copei in the past, contrary to a certain virginal image that these would like to project.  In fact there seems to be strong tensions within AD as some might want to make a deal with chavismo while some would like a stronger line against Chavez.  The bellwether is Sobella Mejias, the lone rector of the CNE, of AD origin and sympathies who suddenly has become dreadfully silent since last August, naturally contributing to suspicions as to the  real intentions of AD. (4)


Saving what can be saved of the left. I read somewhere that Cesar Miguel Rondon would have said "When will Chavez leave office so we can be again from the left?".  Si non e vero e ben trovato. Indeed, Chavez autocratic style is giving the left a bad name.  Chavismo has unloaded itself from all the thinking and democratic left.  Only the archaic left, la izquierda borbonica, is what is left with him, the left that looks at Cuba for inspiration and not the successful social democracies of Europe or even Latin America.  But the voters have not followed.  Thus a galaxy of leftists parties came to near nothing are trying to unite with escapees from chavismo and intellectuals to put together some united left front. But parties who have been fighting each other for decades until Chavez came with his tidal wave are necessarily having a hard time of it.


Small potatoes.  There are still some local movements who might reach the hour of truth this year. 


Proyecto Venezuela is trying to save what it still holds in Carabobo.  The gross style of the new burping governor, Acosta Carles, might either help or do them in once and for all.  His election seem to have been fraudulent, the most challenged of all the ones of October 31, and the one that the CNE stonewalled and maneuvered in an obscene way.  Carabobo was the best administered state in Venezuela and at least Acosta Carles has had the intelligence, surprising everybody, to limit itself to painting all in red across the state but sort of maintaining running what was running. 


In Zulia it seems that Rosales, the only surviving governor, has decided to weather the post referendum syndrome and is not openly seeking a political future in his last term as governor.  Thus he seems to be like AD from he originally comes, to try to weather the storm until better days come.  Will he maintain his Zulia position?  At other local levels, even in Yaracuy, it seems that all are on the verge of falling completely on the chavista side.  In Yaracuy, his ex-governor is tempting a timid return after a long post electoral absence, but it is probably too little and too late.


All in all, nothing bright. (return)


The December deadline


Unfortunately these most important elections suffer from two factors: the irrelevance where the National Assembly has fallen.  Its willingness to become a rubber stamp parliament has torn any respect that it might have.  Even the opposition shares part of the blame as many representatives have ceased any active resistance to the chavista steam roller.  Many opposition attempts at mounting small filibusters fail just because too many assemblymen just do not show up.  Even the leader of AD in the National Assembly was reported last September to discretely try to negotiate with he chavista leadership better retirement terms, an implicit acknowledgment that the political career of Ramos Allup was at an end.


This election which should be the foremost concern of the opposition has taken a back seat as the opposition seems to have preferred to see what are the results of August 7 local municipal runs to decide what type of alliances to do.  This is a very dangerous strategy as the deadline to register candidates falls barely a couple of weeks after the August vote.  Any problem at vote counting, facilitated by the pro Chavez CNE, can easily block significant electoral alliance making within the opposition.


It is to be noted that if chavismo has not presented its candidates either, the short list probably exists already and it will be launched full barely days after August 7, if not even before.  Cilia Flores has announced on July 4 that the candidates will be chose by "consultations and polls with the base, based on their work and commitment to the revolution", or such type of talk.  Clearly, chavismo is not going to take any chance with the nomination process: candidates will be blessed by Chavez or will not be candidates.  This unity will be compared with the riot that the opposition nomination process will be after August 7, unfavorably for the opposition.


The lack of "official" candidates has not stopped chavismo to sort of campaign for the National Assembly elections whereas the opposition has not started.  This is very dangerous for the opposition as National Assembly elections cannot be run on a short campaign as the Municipal elections.  There are less than 200 assemblymen to be elected, that is each one has to reach at least 50 000 electors within a couple of months.  No time left to do the good all faithful door to door visits whereas Chavez himself will be a formidable TV campaigner... (return)


The SUMATE factor


There is only one possible bright light in the opposition panorama, and that is the return to the front scene of SUMATE.  In all fairness
SUMATE never quite left the front scene, courageously and lonely insisted on some clear aspects of the fraudulent system of the CNE, and kept its leaders exposed to chavista vindictiveness.  Its crime? To have accepted funds from the NED.  Its REAL crime? To have efficiently organized the Recall Election signature drive and have beaten back Chavez dirty tactics, via CNE.


It has been now more than a year that chavismo is trying to nail penal charges on the main directors of SUMATE.  But the delay comes from probably two reasons: one, it would be difficult to really hold a case as chavismo itself would be susceptible in international courts of the same crime, of receiving electoral founds from foreigners (Case Banco Bilbao Viscaya Argenteria); and two, not reaching trial allows for chavismo to hurl all sorts of improprieties and false charges at SUMATE for cheap political purposes.


But SUMATE has demonstrated how political opposition is done, at least at the technical level. It has also overcome its mistakes and underestimations of the Recall Election process.  Semi distanced during the elections of October 31, it is clear that the political opposition does not have the nerve or the technique to face the tricks of the CNE and thus SUMATE is becoming the unavoidable assessor.


This new reality of SUMATE has been stupendously brought forward by the recent reception of its president, Maria Corina Machado, at the Oval Office for a surprisingly long meeting with President Bush.  This is the first time in years that anyone from Venezuela has been received as a political visitor by the White House.  Regardless of the ethical charges, the betrayal accusations and other rather useless comments, the visit of Maria Corina Machado was a political visit and should be judged as so.  The US has shown that it has lost patience with both the opposition and Chavez and that it wants serious people, who do serious work as interlocutors.  And right now SUMATE is the one.


It is difficult to speculate on the long term implications of the visit, but it certainly was received as a lightening bolt by the opposition parties, who are still stunned. More than with October 31 set back, the Machado reception has  demonstrated how out of place the present opposition leadership is, how badly it needs some renewal, even if Ms. Machado is a most inadequate political candidate.  but as a political operator she is now beating of all them hands down. (return)


Conclusion 4


The opposition seems on the verge of two more major electoral defeats.  Unfortunately this time it will have only itself to blame as Chavez will not even need to cheat electorally and thus will get the final validation from the dubious August 15 result.


Can the opposition still do something?  At this late point no.  Any major agreement should have been reached at least 2 or 3 months earlier to give it a chance of some momentum.  At least we can hope that August 7 will witness the end of a few people within the opposition that are just dead weight, the painful emergence of some new leadership, and the realization that organization and programs are the only way out.  People like the folks at SUMATE, editors like Petkoff,  NGO organizing neighborhoods (asambleas de ciudadanos) are what it will take to perhaps one day remove Chavez from office before the country becomes once and for all some freaky construct that depends on the humor of the supreme leader depending on what he has had for breakfast. (return)


The chavismo hubris


Fortunately the chavismo situation is easier to describe, though not really less anxiety ridden than the opposition situation.  Its main problem is that with Chavez they are all, without Chavez they are nothing.  Thus the need to describe how Chaves as a public figure has evolved since August 2004.


Chavez, El Supremo


Since August 15 Chavez, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, is on a big time ego trip.  He controls all the essential mechanisms of power: the judicial system, the electoral system, the legislative branches, the armed forces, 80% of the local power, the purse strings through PDVSA, soon the Central Bank, 90% of the patronage system, etc, etc...


No president of Venezuela has had as much power as Hugo Chavez, since, perhaps, Gomez.  And so little to show considering the power he holds.


Of course, this does not help him.  Not having political enemies of any concern at home left, he has had to turn to all sorts of foreign ventures, basically aimed at nagging the US (while dutifully shipping as much oil as possible over there).  If the US is irritated at Chavez, there has been no smoking gun of any serious attempt at ousting Chavez, besides a few meetings and encouragements to opposition groups.  Though of course chavismo claims that Bush and Rice spend their days and nights, possibly trying to have him assassinated.  Dozens of accusations have been made but still have to yield a serious enough charge that could actually put a suspect in jail.


Propaganda wars, that is all.


A more perturbing development is the closer and closer relation between Castro's Cuba and Chavez.  Cuban advisors are now numbered in Venezuela in the ten of thousands.  Since April 2002 sometimes it seems that Cuba has taken over the basic policies of Venezuela.  More than ever Chavez demonstrates his puerile admiration and fixation with the senile dictator of the island.


With no more brakes at home for Chavez, and adulatory attitudes from so many people overseas seeking Venezuelan contracts (read: money), then one can justifiably worry about the fate of Venezuela and how much will this adventure cost us in the long run. (return)


The appeal of Chavez at home, and its consequences


Two articles in El Universal of this last Sunday come right on hand for this section.


Luis Vicente Leon of Datanalisis has held for quite a while the image of "Yusleibis", some imaginary female dweller of the marginal areas of the cities.  For him, Chavez language reaches her because he speaks of her problems, and even if he does not bring really any long term solution, the fact that he pretends to care about her plight is enough for her.  At least "por ahora". In this Sunday installment of sorts, he also offers an explanation as to why interest in politics has dropped, even for Yusleibis. Maybe.  But what is real is that Chavez appeal is stronger now in some of those sections than it ever was.  It is due in part to the fact that some goodies are finally reaching since 2003.  It is probably due also to the fact that after so many years of speeches, Yusleibis and her family got used to the familiar voice and since nothing else is coming, they have grown to care about that voice, in the way families will defend their members, just because s/he is family.


In this aspect Chavez has exploited very well that tribal tendency of the Venezuelan, that desire to belong somewhere, that semi religious need for a towering political/paternal figure that tells them what to think.  And that he looks like them has helped along.  Chavez has taught them to relate to him, even if in some other scenarios Chavez has grown to be quite polished and away of his pseudo popular origins (he looks very prosperous now, well tailored and all, whereas Castro still retains as much as possible his olive garb).


The other Sunday article shows the perversion of the system, what people are so willing to forgive Chavez just because he semi-religiously fills their souls.  Namely, Manuel Caballero describes the nepotism that Chavez has used to settle up his relatives, in all sorts of positions where money flows through, or flows in.  The sad implication is that it suggests an explanation as to what is fast becoming a major nightmare of Venezuela and perhaps chavismo itself: the fast increasing corruption, exposed from PDVSA accusations to the sudden prosperity of some people not known for their business acumen. 


For all his brash talk, since 1999 we are waiting for a single corrupt public servant to hit the jail bench, even from the pre Chavez corrupt years.  Perhaps a reason why AD has been rather indulgent?  The mystery is how come people are so willing to put up with such favoritism, corruption and concomitant administrative inefficiency.  How long can charisma alone carry the day? (return)


Chavismo today


It is certain that the accrued powers of Chavez have affected how his movement and followers are dealing with power since last August.  Before August 2004 there was still occasional talk of a chavismo without Chavez. But this is all over now as chavismo has understood that they all depend on the good will of the "lider maximo del proceso" (the maximum leader of the process, in revolutionary techno-gab).


The first consequence might be the stillborn attempt at making the chavista vehicle, MVR, into a durable party.  Internal elections for the Regional election candidatures and the municipal election have generated enough disturbances, enough challenges that measures to control that are being taken, such as ruling out primaries for the National Assembly candidacies.


In fact there is more and more evidence that Chavez is impatient with the civilian component of the MVR and there are signs that he wants to impose a large quote of candidatures for retired military that support his regime.  Thus the continuous militarization of the country continues as now the "army party" is the faction that controls the largest part of ministries and relevant administrative posts (and 9 state houses!).  The army seems to have managed to reach power in Venezuela without having had to effect a military coup.  It was just handed down to them by Chavez who is basically anti civilian, a simple barrack soldier unable to outgrow that stage of his life.


As a result chavismo has purged itself so much that there is almost no talent left inside.  The rare exceptions are at the local level where people like Diosdado Cabello in Miranda wait for better days while they build their own support base, to challenge Chavez or a post Chavez administration as the case might be.  The public administration has become dramatically inefficient as no minister tries to take major initiatives on its own as all must be approved by Miraflores palace, be conceived for the maximum glory of the beloved leader, and certainly not burnish the star of the pseudo public servant.  There is no more continuity except to promote the revolution.


Obviously the list of candidates and the platform of any election gravitate uniquely around Chavez.  One day a price will have to be paid for it, but right now, all realize that their only chance to reach the loot is to be more chavista than Chavez.  And they all act accordingly. (return)


Conclusion 5


Chavismo has two big advantages over the opposition as elections near.  One is that it has a unified front and a unified line of command.  If this can only be a negative on the long run, for the time being it serves admirably the purposes of those who seek to retain office at all cost.  The other advantage, and a terribly unfair one, is that chavismo disposes of all of the back up of the state at the electoral level and at the financial level for a campaign.  Never in Venezuelan history people in office had benefited from such an outlandish advantage.


The drawback, in addition to the immortality of the system, is that chavismo could become such a predictable and uninteresting entity that its followers could get tired of it and not defend it if it is duly challenged.  In particular if they lose their advantages or privileges no matter who wins the challenge, or if they feel assured to keep these benefits if the other side wins.  It has happened before, it will happen again.  So is human nature and the nature of personal political systems.


Meanwhile, the coming elections will look more like an additional patronage opportunity for more job hand outs than an election, at least from the chavista perspective. (return)


Venezuela's prospects


There is no point in speculating on Venezuela's long term prospects.  It can be great or a disaster, the later one most likely if Chavez does not learn the skills of delegation, trust and efficiency.  Otherwise people will keep trying to take advantage of Venezuelan monies by flattering its leader.


Short and mid term prospects?  We are discussing the December 2006 horizon, at best.


For the end of 2005, barring some last minute events, we are likely to see the final gasp of the Venezuelan political opposition as it exists now.  Only the media, up to a point, some NGO and some isolated local authorities will remain to stop the establishment of an authoritarian regime, which is now without a doubt the drift of Chavez political project.


January 2006 will probably see chavismo with a 2/3 majority in the National Assembly even if the opposition manages to retain its 40% vote participation.  That 2/3 majority will include enough ex military to account for perhaps as much as 20% of the parliament.  This will add a new meaning to rubber stamp parliament.


Through 2006 Chavez will have the leisure to correct the "unconstitutional" measures that he has had to take over 2003 and 2004 to ensure his hold on power.  It will start by the constitutional nomination of the CNE where maybe the opposition will get a lame 5th rector.  He might even order a constitutional revision of the High Court law that will this time be voted by a 2/3 constitutional majority even if it takes buying off someone in the opposition by offering them a token couple of seats out of the 32 it now includes.  Thus for the overseas gaze, all the legal appearances will be kept, with the necessary make up corrections, that could even include freeing a few token opponents such as Carlos Ortega, to create a false image of reconciliation.


Thus, legally free of trouble and now unchallenged in his disposition of the national treasury, a well targeted social offensive starting sometime in spring 2006 should ensure that he wins a third term in December 2006.  Soon, a constitutional referendum should remove the constitutional provision that bars Chavez from a 4th term in 2012.  And the perfectly legal authoritarian regime would have been installed, with no overseas challenge.


Are there any stones on the road that could trip the project?


The media seems about the only one as the price of oil is certain to remain high enough for Chavez needs until 2007 even if Venezuela fails to increase its production.  The media in spite for restrictive laws that are now been applied, and more to come, has been able to put enough pressure on occasion to bring doubt in Chavez real strength, even slightly dropping his poll numbers.  For example the obvious mismanagement and corruption of PDVSA is now a constant stone in Chavez shoes probably forcing him at some point to concede partial defeat and even rehiring a few of the fired workers of 2003.  But this would fail on the swamp of corruption that now pervades every nook and cranny of PDVSA.  The latest scandal, for example, is the continued use of unnecessary traders of Venezuelan oil, something that was not only not needed in the past, but expressively forbidden.


By exposing constantly such practices that can only be explained by someone cashing some financial reward along the line, the media will remain a thorn in Chavez side, maintaining enough dissatisfaction in the country that he will be forced to crack down on the press.  That is when international pressure might become a factor.


Other problems loom on the horizon though more likely for a post 2006 scenario.  His constant meddling in other countries affairs, even if only by out of place reactions will eventually create a backlash.  The death of Castro would create a major challenge that he might not be able to face.  His economic "recovery" might eventually fail on the harsh laws of market and human nature.


It is just sad that the destiny of Venezuela has become so entangled with the destiny and whims of a single man.  Nothing promising in our future, unfortunately. (return)




Bibliography


To understand what has been happening to Venezuela these past few years, the reader has now many interesting books at his/her disposition.  I only list those that I have read recently but there are many more books such as the ones from Garrido narrating the evolution of the "bolivarian" project.


Dos Izquierdas: Teodoro Petkoff, Alfadil, ISBN 980-354-170-6 (A series of Assays by Tal Cual editor as to the fate of the left)


Venezuela en llamas: Armando Duran, Debate, ISBN 980-293-278-7 (Best recount of 2002 to 2004 so far)


Diccionario de Historia de Venezuela, Fundacion Polar, ISBN 980-6397-38-I (4 volumes)(THE reference book on Venezuelan History)


Detras de la Pobreza: Ugalde, España, Lacruz, De Viana, Gonzalez, Luengo, Ponce, UCAB 2004, ISBN 980-244-389-1 (Myths buster study about the reality of poverty in Venezuela, its origins and composition; fantastic collection of dramatic pictures)


El Acertijo de Abril: La Fuente, Meza, Debate, ISBN 980-293-255-8 (best summary of April 2002 events)



 




Notes


(1) "viernes negro" is the black Friday of 1983 when the Venezuelan currency, long pegged to the US dollar at 4.5, experienced its first devaluation in decades.  The never ending slide has brought us today to 2600 to the USD, that is a 577 fold depreciation. (return)


(2) the election of the Constituent Assembly of 1999 was particularly perverse in this regard as chavismo with about 60% votes got 97% of the seats.  Thus a national debate was impossible as the constituent assembly caved in to most any wishes of Chavez, the worst one of all his exacerbated desire to start the year 2000 with a new millennial constitution when the assembly had until January 31 2000 to finish debate.  This almost two months of debate and work missing explain some of the glaring problems seen today.  An unfinished constitution. (return)


(3) This blogger has attended the electoral counting at the voting center across his house on October 31.  I can assure you that an average center can emit all the results at say 10 PM and count all the ballots and emit that additional result no later than 1 or 2 AM.  If the argument of tired voting workers is advanced, well, the boxes can be sealed at midnight and be reopened in the presence of the workers after verification sometime in the next day, with the final and true results emitted no later than in the early afternoon. Even a large center should be able to count all ballots within 24 hours.  After all, major democracies still hand count all of their ballots in a no more than 3-4 hours after polls close. (return)


(4) This blogger, for one, thinks that AD is a double agent.  Though he does understand the reasons of AD, he is willing to predict that its strategy will fail and AD will finally fall into oblivion, to the great relief of everyone. (return)

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