Acute observers of the Venezuelan situation, a group where this blogger occupies the humblest ranks, have known long ago, or at least since the 1999 constitution was drafted, that Chavez had all intentions to remain in office as long as he could get away with it. For too long his speeches were peppered with allusions to leaving dates such as 2021 or 2030. Chavez supporters were quick in saying that Chavez meant his movement to stay in power until then, or some other lame excuse. But the fact of the matter is that as a president who has gone out of his way to ensure absolute control on as much as the state apparatus as he could reach, Chavez did not do all of that to surrender it to the winner of an election that would not be himself.
Just plain logic. Chavez is not a democrat and uses democracy only as long as it works for him, as a transition period of sorts.
So, I was wondering about the strange need that pushed him to announce Friday that he would call himself for a Recall Election in 2010, when his second term reaches the half way mark. Why would he do such a thing? To refurbish his image as a democrat as he arrives from Syria? To soften his now established authoritarian image? No, that would be too easy.
The part of him calling for a recall election is easy to get: after the Tascon list no one will ever dare to call for a Recall Election in Venezuela. This constitutional novelty has been pretty much killed in 2004. As far as I can see it will be used only by chavistas to kick out of office opposition figures or chavistas that need to get disposed of (such as Barreto?).
Thus we are left to try to figure out why Chavez made this single announcement. In fact, we must ponder this as it is, so far, the core offering of his reelection campaign. That is right, the rest of the speech were platitudes and pseudo-philosophical musings. The only concrete thing was that recall election promise.
I was thus wondering through the day why did Chavez offered such a wild idea. That he would call at the same time for a referendum to lift the two terms limit is not the issue: he could call that referendum tomorrow if he wanted to. That he would link such a referendum and a recall election is a gimmick of little significance. Thus, why?
I am pretty sure that there are many possible explanations, including Chavez being on drugs after yet another long and exhausting trip. But I came out with one that has a certain logic. The first thing is to review some recent changes in the political situation, and remember some facts.
Chavez does not have a good record to run on. The bloom of social programs has worn off. Some people did get benefits, many perhaps, but the tale now is that if you want to have access to them you better wear a red shirt. A new elite has appeared and people do not like it much. Social programs arguable success notwithstanding, inflation and lack of real jobs have remained a social curse, even increasing, with no reply coming from the government. The implication of a rising crime situation has become true: Venezuela has now top crime rates in the world, with a week end dead roll that competes with the one in Iraq, for example. And the major construction programs announced seem to be rather incomplete, and definitively too late to affect voter sentiment, long used to last minute inaugurations.
Thus running on record along is not enough for Chavez as his government approval rating is in the doldrums whereas his remain unaccountably good!
To this we can add the major political shift of August: the opposition unified against all odds. And not only that, but the unification was convincing, and Rosales had a good campaign start. Chavismo who was counting on a weak and divided opposition is obviously not ready for the sudden challenge ahead. Not that it is in great danger: chavismo holds too many cards still. But the fact of the matter is that chavismo has to suddenly devise a battle plan, a program, an organization, a voter outreach. We are all surprised at how little chavismo is ready when we were expecting a steam roller! This one might exist but it obviously having some ignition problems.
And that is how I got one possible explanation for Chavez “promise”. The translation of his promise is: “listen guys, I think that I did not do as much as you hoped me to do. I can understand that you are pissed at me. But that is OK, fear not, just give me three more years and you will see how great everything turns out to be. If you still do not like it, no problem, THEN we will have the real election to replace me. But this time forget about the other guy, just give me three years. Trust me, I am such a good democrat”.
Besides this proposal being yet another chavista con job, it is a surprising show of weakness from a candidate who 2 months ago seemed totally invincible. In politics fortunes can change dramatically. I still think it is an uphill battle for Rosales, but now he is facing a hill and not mountain range.