February 2, 2003

4,400,000 oligarchs...

It was a day to make saps out of all of us. The depression we'd felt after the Supreme Tribunal's inexcusable decision to scuttle the referendum that should've taken place today was wiped away entirely by what must have been the largest single-day signature gathering drive ever. (Somebody check Guiness.) The preliminary reports from the organizers, leaked to Venevisión, are that 4.4 million people went out to sign petitions today - that's about 700,000 more than voted for Chávez at his high-water mark. No Venezuelan politician has ever gotten this many votes in an election, even Carlos Andrés Pérez old record of 3.9 million votes in '88 was dwarfed by today's drive.

What's exciting is that the entire event was put together in very little time by a small army of volunteers, in the face of heavy intimidation from the government. In the event, the day was relatively peaceful, with only minor disturbances scattered across the country. Once again, despite government bluster, people weren't the slightest bit intimidated and went out to vote...um, sign...in force.

Boy did Chávez get it wrong if he thought he could avoid the embarrassment of getting drubbed in a consultative referendum by ordering his Supreme Tribunal cronies to kill it. In many ways, this is worse, much worse: we proved not just that an unprecedented majority of Venezuelans is against him, but also that we're mobilized enough to organize an act of mass-rejection on our own, without any state money, military oversight, logistics help, entirely by ourselves.

Chávez's oft-repeated lie that the opposition boils down to a small club of rich people has been a visible sham for a long time. But never had the depths of the lie's bankrupcy been exposed as thoroughly as today, when over four million of us thumbed our noses at the threats from his supporters to line up for hours to register our revulsion at his regime openly. Never had Chávez's hysterical denunciations of his opponents as fascists, terrorists and coupsters looked more pathetically out of touch with reality. Maybe I'm missing something, but I never did see Mussolini, clipboard in hand, out collecting signatures to ask for elections to institute a fascist state.

But then, what can you expect from Chávez at this point? Contradiction has become a kind of guiding principle for this guy, the cornerstone of his rhetoric. In today's Aló, presidente he went from furiously condemning the opposition as a giant coup-plotting conspiracy to speaking fondly about the actual coup-attempt he staged 11 years ago, and announcing plans to celebrate the anniversary, which will be this Tuesday, February 4th. A-OK, then! So when people who disagree with you gather signatures, they're fascist coup-plotters, but when you personally lead an armed uprising against a democratically elected government, that makes you what? A freedom fighter, of course! Narcissism, anyone?

But then such criticisms have been levelled so often here, they barely register anymore. Chávez's discourse is so detatched from reality these days it's beside the point: what we're seeing is pure power-politics, a desperate attempt to hang on to power without any regards to principle or the general good. And the only way the government can win that game is by fighting tooth and nail to stop us from voting, not just now or in August, but ever again.

What's clear, is that the government's claim to represent the will of the downtrodden majority of Venezuelans has been dealt a fatal blow today. It's no longer a matter of polls or conjectures, it's now a mathematical certainty: most people in this country are willing to do whatever it takes, within the bounds of what's peaceful, to rid themselves of this crazed government. No regime can hold out against that kind of pressure for long.