December 3, 2003

Email exchange with a doomsday prophet

I will post only one of several emails received in this general vein, especially because my correspondent is a very distinguished observer of Venezuelan politics.

On Tue, 2 Dec 2003 17:43:59 -0400, "Alan" said:
> Francisco, a few questions for you and your readers:
> What happens when the CNE announces that out of 3.8 million (let's say)
> signatures, only 2.3 have been certified as authentic/valid, and the rest
> have been decertfied?
> Let's hope the rowdier elements in the opposition don't exhort their
> political bedfellows "que salgan a la calle!" Because if they do, and
> people pour out into the streets and somebody has the bright idea to
> march on Miraflores, then there will be a massacre; a useless, futile
> exercise in self-destruction.
> I hope Henry Ramos and Enrique Mendoza and Américo Mart?n and Alberto
> Quir?s and Primero Justicia are sitting down right now and thinking and
> talking about Plan B: What to do when the CNE announces the opposition
> did not get the required amount of signatures to have a recall election.
> And Chavez crows victory.
> Because if they don't have a clear strategy and can't keep their followers in
> tow, Chavez can use the ensuing violence as "proof" that the opposition
> was golpista all the time, that the opposition, and S?mate, did engage in
> vote fraud (which was subsequently uncovered by the CNE -- "su palabra es
> santa"), and now, in desperation, are following the strategy they were
> always going to use: employ violence and overthrow the
> democratically-elected government of Hugo Chavez by force.
> That's all his generals need to make sure the troops follow their script:
> go out into the streets and defend the constitutionally-elected
> government from politically-motivated mobs.....and use force, if
> necessary. After all, that's what they're there for.
> What will the rest of the world make of this?
> Those who only read the headlines and/or saw "The revolution will not be
> televised", and are already predisposed to suppport or, at least, give
> the benefit of the doubt to this cleverest of authoritarian regimes,
> these people will follow the dots and conclude that the opposition was
> always more hot air than substance, didn't manage to get the votes, and
> followed their basest, racist/classist/oligarchical/ideological (take
> your pick) instincts, and decided to overthrow the government...just like
> they tried to do on 11.4.02.
> Those who should know better, the presidents of all the Latin American
> countries, Gaviria, and those who know beyond a shadow of a doubt that
> Chavez is an extremely cunning, desperate and thus dangerous man, will
> understand the play. And they'll wonder "How could the opposition do such
> a stupid thing? They've permanently disqualified themselves as democrats,
> and have set Venezuelan history back another ten years, if not more."
> I think that this is the most likely scenario we're going to face a month
> down the line.
> What to do? First, exhaust all the institutional channels of resolution.
> The opposition has to line up its ducks, put feelers out to the supreme
> court, and write the briefs ahead of time that ensure a swift,
> transparent review of the supposedly invalid signatures to determine once
> and for all who is behind the fraud. It's vox populi by now that possibly
> one out of ten names in the Electoral Register (possibly more) have birthdates
> officially ascribed to them that have nothing to do with their real
> birthdates. Well, let's see if that's true, then people have to move
> fast, institutionally, and show where thre real fraud is. There will be
> an immense political/institutional tug of war on to see who can twist the
> supreme court's arm the hardest. Chances are good Chavez will win. But
> it's a crucial step the opposition has to take.
> Marcos took years to oust, and so did Jaruzelski, long after they'd
> openly abandoned all pretense of legitimate governance, and lost all
> political legitimacy. Chavez still hasn't lost political legitimacy, he's
> just teetering on the tightrope. If he shows what I think are his true
> colors and opts for rogue state status instead of international
> recognition, then the opposition has to nudge him off the tightrope
> without pulling itself down in the process.
> Alan

I should start by saying that Alan actually has a lot more experience than me in Venezuelan politics, so you might be well advised to accept his analysis. But experience, shmexperience: I think you're flat wrong on this one, pal. You don't understand the new role of CNE at all!

Only part of the feverish excitement on Sunday and Monday came from the sheer numbers on the streets. Another important element was the realization that the nation's democratic institutions are, miraculously, on the mend.

Again and again I heard people say that amazingly, for once, Venezuelans were acting like Swiss people! The meticulous preparation and strict order that prevailed at many signing centers was in stark contrast to the day to day reality of official chaos and indifference in the face of the citizens. The personal act of signing, the experience of participating directly, in this way, along with millions of co-participants, became a sort of very public statement of belief, with name and signature, in a future where a lunatic does not rule the country.

I mean, people could see with their eyes that it is possible. People could see that it was actually possible to sign, officially, in front of a chavista witness and an opposition witness and a foreign observer, stamp your fingerprint, and go on your way having made a legally binding petition for a legally binding recall referendum. People could see that there is no need for a war, that Venezuelans can work their problems out like civilized people if the voices of extremism are cast aside for a moment.

Like a massive nationwide footbolito game, the episode demonstrated that beneath the surface of bombastic rhetoric and official intimidation, there is a broad stratum of chavistas who do not hate all white people and who want to sit down at the table of democracy alongside all of their compatriots and work things out amicably. This experiential dimension of the reafirmazo as civic education must not be lost sight of.

This was tremendously empowering to millions of people. It changes things.

Evidently, the success of the reafirmazo gives a huge boost in prestige for the institutions that made this possible, the Carter Center, the OAS, but by far most importantly, the National Electoral Council itself, CNE.

[for beginners, CNE is a bureaucratic agency chaired by a 5-member panel that has the final say on all matters electoral in the country, short of a supreme tribunal decision to overturn something it decides.]

The very fact that the Reafirmazo could even take place without any serious violence really does change the rules on the ground, especially for the chavistas. CNE has demonstrated a level of impartiality, wisdom, and technical dexterity that few of us could have believed a few months ago. Both in public and in private all five CNE board members exude a powerful commitment to carry out their legally mandated roles. None of seem to be cowering in the presence of Miraflores, and there is nothing Miraflores can do to change that. This certainly changes the fundamental rules of this game.

For one thing, the nation no longer has a single official institution - the president - now it has two - the president and CNE. The independence of CNE, the birth of the first official institution openly to refuse to cower to the autocrat may be the single most positive development of the last two weeks.

So I don't accept your premise that Miraflores can "girar ordenes" to Plaza Caracas. And the political reality is that the signatures simply cannot be ignored. They would have to proove that 1.2 million signatures were forged, or from the dead, or from the pressured, even though their own eye-witnesses have already signed the forms saying the petition was performed cleanly! It's really an impossible situation to be in.

The absolute torrent of signatures - combined with the stringent security measures and witness signatures that CNE itself had devised, wisely, to close down possibilities for fraud - make it unimaginable to me that CNE will fail to call a presidential recall referendum. And faced with the evident pressure from the streets and from abroad to let the voters be heard, only a kamikaze TSJ would tamper with such a decision. CNE simply has too much prestige right now, and TSJ members might be chavistas, but they are no kamikazes.

But what we don't need now is to start writing or saying or even thinking anything to discredit CNE. They are under a lot of pressure already, and deserve our support, not constant bickering or armchair quarterbacking. Again, CNE is the one and only life-raft that can possibly get us off this sinking ship. There is no use whatsoever in picking holes in it.

So, I'll bet you a bottle of Santa Carolina this referendum will happen.