On August 16 2004 the country woke up with the stunning result that Chavez had won the Recall Election against him by a 59 to 41 vote when all seemed to indicate that at best he would squeak in. Immediately doubt set in the result considering the conditions in which the campaign had been held and how the vote took place. But the meltdown that the opposition experienced never allowed for a complete investigation of the Referendum irregularities, and even less for action. This inability of the opposition to seize the moment, to react, is the explanation of almost all that has happened in the two years that followed.
In the wee hours of August 16 some screamed fraud. Some of these same ones within a few days decided to run again in the local election scheduled for October 31 2004, as if nothing. Some kept screaming fraud but took no action anyway. Eventually over the months that followed enough evidence to deserve a sustained investigation of the electoral result of 2004 came forth. But it seemed that a catatonic opposition did not want to force the issue. In fact those who investigated the fraud were left abandoned to the wrath of Chavez and the CNE, abandoned by all.
This by itself would not have been so bad if the opposition would have come forth and recognize that after all Chavez did win in August 2004. But this never happened, the opposition could never manage a consistent attitude. The result was the spectacular growth of the abstention voter as the opposition elector decided that it was useless to vote since Chavez would win anyway through cheating while the meek opposition leadership would not fight for its voters.
This brought the opposition form disaster to disaster. The first one was on October 31 of 2004 where the opposition could only manage to get two state houses out of 22. But worse than that, the knee jerk abstention of the opposition voter could be pointed as being the main culprit of the loss of many cities such as the Sucre district of Caracas or Miranda State.
Through 2005 the opposition to Chavez started a bitter bickering as to “whom lost the Recall Election” which showed even more its incompetence at forcing the government to respect the opposition rights. This could be seen at the National assembly were a slim governmental majority was able to pass a series of laws that seriously compromised the future liberty of Venezuelans: “gag law”, packing of the High Court with justices devoted to Chavez, inability to demand accounting from government expenditures, fast and fat growth of uncontrolled social programs, “misiones” of dubious value (with the expected corruption that comes when there is no control).
The result of course was less involvement of the opposition elector, no more outrage, no outcry, a slow descent in resigned apathy. The opposition leadership was unable (unwilling?) to rally street demonstration to protest governmental abuses as it did in 2001 and 2002 on such matters as freedom of education. Meanwhile chavismo was extending control over more and more of society, and keeping up the purchase of the co-dependent Venezuelan voter.
It was unavoidable that the opposition weakness appeared in the election for communal districts of August 2005, though even pro Chavez abstention started to show up. This surprising turn of events allowed for the opposition its only success in the period: the National Assembly election of December 2005. When the secret of the vote was justly questioned, the opposition decided to boycott the election. Chavismo run anyway and got 100% of the seats but with a dismal 15% of voter participation! For the first time chavismo showed that it could not rally automatically its bases, that enthusiasm was starting to lack in the pseudo Bolivarian revolution, that Chavez could be defeated.
But the opposition would soon prove unable to exploit its success. It would have required for the opposition to gather together, and make a show of strength in the streets, calling for a referendum, or some other activity, at the very least taking to the streets to protest the unfairness of the electoral board. Even a possible strategy of not recognizing the National Assembly was not explored. Instead the opposition splintered even further in a sterile and futile battle as to vote or not to vote, not realizing that renegade regimes such as Chavez thrive on the lack of participation form opposition forces.
The election of 2006 would be very difficult for the opposition. Chavismo controlling everything from state money to the law making system and the judicial system knew that it could get away with pretty much any electoral abuse. Recommendations of the Carter Center, the OAS and the EU observers went mostly unheeded by the CNE, now a plain electoral ministry of chavismo. The only thing that forced some very counted corrections was the fact that Chavez needed a sparing partner for December 2006 to gain a legitimate mandate. Chavez would benefit from huge resources to wage his campaign, so much so that one could say he would be in a position to buy the election. And that is what happened through 2006, Chavez offered so many benefits since 2003 that the chavista abstention would be scared into coming back to vote for Chavez in the idea that without Chavez it would lose all the handouts it had been receiving. Never mind that crime kept its steady rise, that the private sector was unable to create stable employment: the lower classes of Venezuela saw their only hope in some stipend from a government awash in oil money and spending it recklessly.
However there were two complications to the chavista scheme. First, Chavez trusting that his reelection was a given, embarked on an ambitious foreign policy whose objective was to become the heir of ailing Fidel Castro. No means were spared, no present too small to buy the good will of foreign potentates. In an ultimate spasm of hubris, Chavez decided to buy himself a seat at the security council where he could berate against the US at will. This turned out to be a costly mistake, an humiliation that forced Chavez home in a hurry to retake the campaign trail.
This return of Chavez had been made urgent since against all prognostics the opposition belatedly managed to find a unity candidate. Apparently chavismo had counted on a divided opposition, facilitating the job of Chavez to the point of barely having to campaign in Venezuela so instead he could campaign outside for his glory. It was not really a question of Chavez losing the election. At no time any serious pollster gave Chavez below the opposition: only the margin of victory was a question, the opposition candidate, brave and forceful Rosales never hoping more than a squeak in victory.
However Chavez was forced to campaign again because he needed for his future plan a smashing victory, better if possible than the Recall Election. He needed that because he needed to justify to the foreign opinion that all his abuses in Venezuela were accepted by the people, that his model was a successful model, and thus that it was normal that Chavez became an international jet set star telling other countries what they should do.
The campaign that followed these conditions was perhaps the oddest one on Venezuelan history. The opposition candidate had the biggest crowds, the biggest enthusiasm, the better slogans, the only ideas. Rosales kept the limelight most of the time and set the campaign agenda most of the time. Chavez was some distant campaigner, far from the rather small crowds he attracted to his infrequent rallies. But out of sight his machinery worked efficiently cowing into submission public employees, misiones recipients, social beneficiaries and their large yet untouched relatives who were hoping one day to pass at the chavista cash register. Thus the outrageous pressure, the unfairness of the election (again noticed by international observers) would have made the election proceeding unacceptable in any civilized country. But it was accepted for Venezuela because, see, the world needs its oil and if Venezuelans are stupid enough to vote for such an inefficient and abusive government, well, that is their problem. The result was even accepted by Rosales even though the chicaneries of the chavista machinery might have padded up by a million votes the Chavez total. But fraud or not, it seemed that Chavez had bought the election and won. And with that victory he regained his political virginity, all abuses from the past now forgiven, all the power of the state now into his hand with the explicit consent of the stunned masses.
But the opposition has also to accept the blame for the present situation. In front of Chavez millions of dollars and empty promises it was absolutely unable to develop a coherent message. Rosales did try a decent message, perhaps populist and simplistic but at least realistic for the Venezuelan situation. But Rosales never got the time to try to have his message sink into the population, to make people understand that there was another way to happiness than to accept governmental briberies.
The opposition petty rivalries, silly battles for a handful of listless voters made the unity candidacy of Rosales happen only in August of 2006, for a brief campaign against the mammoth chavista machinery. In December 2005 the opposition was surprisingly able to inflict a severe political setback to Chavez. But it wasted the next 6 months pondering the imponderable. There were two ways for the opposition on January 1 2006: either announce that it would not run anymore in any election unless the CNE put its house in order (electoral rolls, voting system) or decide for a quick unitary front and take advantage of a relative weakness of Chavez to start a 6 months presidential campaign. For that the opposition would have required to have a program and a unique candidate no latter than June 1st 2006. On June 2 we did not even know if we were going to see primaries inside the opposition, get a united front or even a program or a campaign. Only some hapless candidates were trying on their own to stir some interests. When we consider these huge faults of the opposition it is almost a small miracle that in three months Rosales managed to motivate 37% to find the road to the ballot box again.
Could Rosales have won with 3 more months of campaign? Probably not, but the result would have certainly been closer and Chavez today would be in a much more precarious position to impose his will. Because this is the real drama of Venezuela. All the way until 2004 a case could have been made that all social sectors of Venezuela supported more or less Chavez or the opposition. But the unfolding of events since 2004 have completed the division of Venezuela into two groups. One group has decided (or has always thought?) that all salvation comes from the state and thus from Chavez. This group is willing to surrender their liberties if needed for a job, a handout or a kind word from a loquacious Chavez. The other group, the minority group, was put in evidence by the short campaign since only educated and politically conscious folks do get motivated in a short notice when there is no major crisis in a country as oil dollars roll in. This is a group that will never accept anything from Chavez, never believe a word from him, that will always see Chavez for what he really is, a snake potion salesman, a pathological liar whose only goal is personal power for ever and ever. It is also a group that thinks that its future resides in its own wits and efforts and not in the state. This group will find dialogue difficult with the other group, and might resist understanding the needs of this group must be addressed convincingly before the former group regains a taste for democracy and free choice.
Thus the cycle started in 2004 ended in December 2006. Nobody knows what is ahead, except for the new principles that will underlay the new struggle.
On one hand there is a president who is crazed by absolute power and still seeks more social control over the country. He is supported languidly by a large mass that will stay with him as long as the benefits keep coming and which has accepted to give him all what he wants as long as they think they will cash in or keep cashing in.
This social decantation is now complete as in front of Chavez the large majority of people who are self reliant and who think that individual choices and responsibilities hold still some meaning in Venezuela are in absolute opposition to Chavez. Never in Venezuelan history has the country split into such two, clearly identified blocks. The future cannot be hopeful and the drama only heightened as Chavez and his supporters need the skills and expertise of those who oppose them to dig out of poverty by real means besides the temporal hand outs made available by high oil prices.