Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The coming Venezuelan campaign

With the start of Teodoro Petkoff’s campaign it seems fair to review the political situation of Venezuela at this time, on some more realistic grounds as I did earlier. When last February I set up to write a blue print for the opposition strategy, I was writing a very theoretical concept of what could be done, establishing that there was still time to put in place a significant campaign that could achieve the ousting of Chavez through democratic ways. But I knew better and very little has been undertaken and the clock runs. Still, this is such an atypical electoral period that who is to say if the opposition is in fact playing its cards as bad as it seems to be playing them. The answer will come soon enough.

The good news for this weary eyed blogger is that the series of articles he posted last February are valid up to a point. A simple update and summary will suffice at this time. Let’s start with the chavista side.

Chavez runs strong but…

Chavez has had the strange benefit of not having a single serious political opponent since August 2004. That has allowed him to concentrate all the power of state, and dig into public coffers to run his campaign as he pleases.

Thus he should be a shoo in. Right? Maybe not. This hegemony at the top is starting to bite him in the rear sooner than expected. The impressive collection of mediocre non entities that he has placed at the helm of the different state organizations is coming home to roost, from collapsing bridges to a scandalous violent murder rate. It is obvious for the objective observer that Venezuela is not a country properly run, from the collapse of the communication system, to the growing deep poverty that no social program seems able to reach. The thin glue that seems to hold everything are the high price of oils, even as the Venezuelan oil production persistently fails to improve its numbers. There is enough oil money to go around and distribute pacifiers here and there.

But even that abundance of money is starting to hurt Chavez as the corruption it promotes is apparently out of control. These scandals are becoming more frequent, and even more damaging the fact that nobody with real guilt has gone to jail yet. The real players are out free, counting their bank accounts. More than ever the Chavez support is built on the premise that “surely something will be reaching me”. But the enthusiasm of the 1999-2000 years is gone for good. We have pragmatic revolutionaries now, still in the revolution because they are cashing in, or because that they think they are about too.

Thus it is no surprise to see Chavez caracoling above 50% of voting intentions, though he has definitely dropped from his sky high, and hardly credible 70+% of one year ago. These numbers would seem a dream for any politicians after 7 years in office but the fact of the matter is that they are that good in part for accidental circumstances: no opposition, no alternative visible, lots of stipends to the people. Chavismo cannot hide its anguish anymore: the 20% electoral participation of December 2005 meant exactly that if 60% Venezuelans sort of like Chavez, only 20% like him enough to trek to the voting station no matter how much begging does Chavez. And the December begging was quite something to behold!

Mind you, Chavez has formidable advantages still: a ruthless personality, a sense of déjà vu that reassures part of his electorate, money by the gazillions, power like no one else since Gomez. Many women have married uncouth men for less aprodisia than that. But he is a troubled man, more vulgar than ever, more desperate than ever to push through a revolution that few still understand besides the “trust me, I like the people” he asks his followers to swallow no questions asked. As it is the case in such unsupervised regimes, errors become more frequent, negative attitudes are preserved such as buying foreign goodwill. A colossus with clay feet? Too early to tell.

The opposition runs weak but….

If Chavez has some problems, these pale when compared to the ones in the opposition. This one is penniless, divided, bereft of novelty. Only in the recent weeks some stirring, some message seems to appear, a phenomenon that one hopes will garner strength as Petkoff hits the trails, and if his campaign lasts long enough to make a difference.

The main problem of the opposition is its utter division between those who want to play politics and those who do not want to, a.k.a. the abstention party. The abstention party thinks it has scored big in December. Maybe, but it has done nothing to take advantage of this “victory”. It is not only entrapped in its monologue, but destructive enough to damage those who want to work out some electoral solution. The basic failure of the abstentionists is that they do not realize that voting or not voting does not exempt you from running a campaign, from presenting ideas, from putting real pressure on the abusive power. Chavez laughs at abstention. He picked up 100% of the National Assembly and see if he cares! Pursuing abstention strictly on moral grounds is a sure way to allow Chavez to remain in office ‘til kingdom comes. In other words abstention is a very powerful weapon ONLY if it is a real threat, not as an established fact. By failing to realize this, abstentionist not only are threatened by ridicule but are going to become the guilty party in the near future.

Meanwhile a few brave souls try to turn the tide. The commendable efforts of Borges, Schmit and Ojeda are not enough to turn the tide. In particular as they do not wish to confront the abstention party. The entry of Petkoff and perhaps Rosales might, just might change this some. These two are stronger candidates: one because of his sharp tongue and the other because he is a known organizer and electoral manager who disposes of the Zulia vote and money, albeit to a much lesser extent that Chavez does shamelessly with the public treasury. Things are bound to move, even if Petkoff or Rosales eventually peter off.

Another interesting aspect is that a primary, be it by voting, be it by opinion polls, will offer several positive opportunities for the opposition that will compensate in part for the lack of money the electoral teams dispose off. There will be a lot of free coverage by all the media of the “primary” process, and the less VTV talks of it, the more chavistas will go to Globovision and pollute their brains with opposition programs. The trick here is to make sure the primary is going to follow a gentleman agreement situation as the objective is to oust Chavez first. The winner will have at least one vice presidential reward post to offer, and probably the support in main governorships such as Miranda for Borges if Borges were not to win the primary: he’ll survive fine as Miranda governor now that the shine of present governor Cabello is dampening fast. Today, we got the first evidence of such a gentleman’s agreement happening. In Mararacaibo Rosales was the host of Borges and Petkoff. Rosales is not quite in the race but he has come together with his guest to state that all support a unique opposition candidate and all will work for a smooth selection and a strong support for whomever is the candidate (1).

The fact is that the opposition has a trump card: everybody in Venezuela knows who is who and no matter how hard the campaign is the ultimate question for 70% of Venezuelans is “what is in it for me? I know Chavez sucks, that he and his pals are looting the country, but will I get more with the other side?” Even a simple “maybe” reply could be enough to unseat Chavez. It is for the eventual opposition candidate to find the words, and a few weeks with the right words is enough no matter how much Chavez gives around: EVERYONE KNOWS in Venezuela that the electoral bounty will not last one day past the December election. Call us cynics, but we have seen it always since 1958. For example the CAP largesse and populism did not stop Herrera Campins to win in 1978.

And the opposition could pull out another trump card: honest primaries, in a civil atmosphere with gracious concession speeches from the losers and MORE voters than in December 205 could be a devastating PR blow to chavismo, here and overseas. Worth at least 20 million USD of campaign money that the opposition will be unable to raise.

Because, to conclude, this is a major opposition problem: electoral money. The 1999 forbade the state to finance electoral campaigns, a prohibition that Chavez tramples on daily (see for example the public building decorations). If this were not bad enough, Chavez has brought the Tascon/Maisanta lists which basically have done away with the voting secret, creating a political class of McCarthy pariahs. Imagine now for a second that you want to give 10 000 USD for Rosales campaign. Imagine that chavistas learn that you have given money to his opponent. After the Tascon list it is easy to imagine the consequences after a Chavez victory: the day after, all state institutions will be going after at the very least all the top donors, be it by sending the repressive SENIAT squads, to refuse USD at the control exchange system CADIVI and what not. The result of such stupid law is that political parties are going to need to receive their electoral money in cash as no record can exist of who gives what. And Chavez is of course going to use political parties audits to nail them on any excuse: drug money, laundering, etc…. This is something that the opposition should point out to international observers AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

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1) Curiously, it is today when Rosales receives all the major opposition candidates in a show of electoral fairness that the ignoble General Prosecutor of the Regime, Isaias Rodriguez, announces that he has enough evidence to bring Rosales to trial on April 2002 events. Yes, that is right, it took Isaias 4 years, FOUR, to gather the evidence and announce it just when Rosales wants launch its candidature. And who will bring Isaias on trial for utmost incompetence? Just when you thought that Isaias could not sink any further, he demonstrates that some chavistas can always get further on the path to moral abjection.

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