February 25, 2004

Beating Plan Colina III

Today, my inbox is replete with furious/ranting/despondent emails about CNE's decision to put almost 150,000 forms "in the fridge" because they contain "planas".

This Bloomberg article explains why the opposition is so mad, but the reporting is somewhat careless: it blurs the all-important distinction between outright invalidation and what the council actually did. CNE has not invalidated anything, it's important to understand that. All that it has done is open a process to re-confirm the validity of the signatures it has. It's a delaying tactic, not a final decision.

Whatever the details, the opposition as a whole is livid. The decision is widely seen as a naked stab at violating the constitutional rights of those who signed. Even Teodoro is furious, which is always a bad sign.

But I'm going to do the heretical and suggest that there might be some positive aspects to this nasty situation.

As always happens, each side in the confrontation tends to forget the other. Both sides lose sight of the requirements for real, long term reconciliation. It's worth reminding ourselves that the recall is only useful if both sides accept the results.

Think Moises Naim here. Chavez cannot be thrown out by one half of the country, or even by 60% of the country - if the remainder are not convinced of the legitimacy of the procedures. The country needs to vomit Chavez out of its system, the entire country. The only good reason to have a referendum in the first place is to reach a solution both sides can accept as legitimate.

Millions of Venezuelans honestly think the signatures are fake. It's hard for the opposition to accept that, but that's what they genuinely think. With much of the country honestly convinced that there are millions of fake signatures backing the recall petition, proceding with a referendum would not unite the country. In fact, proceeding under those circumstances would risk destabilizing the country further.

Now you and I both know that the only reason millions of people believe the signatures are fake are that the president has pursued an obscene and wide-reanging disinformation campaign. Still, blatantly ill-intentioned though it has been, Chavez has millions of supporters who believe it. We should welcome a process that gives us a chance to prove to them beyond any doubt that the signatures are there.

And hell, who knows, maybe Maria Corina Machado really is some kind of Lara Croftesque CIA operative secretly cranking out millions of fake signatures from bank records, as the government would have us believe. It seems wildly unlikely to me, but still, if it's true, with the reparo process we'll find out.

The situation is incredibly infuriating, because Chavez's game is so blatant, so false, so fantastically irresponsible and dangerous. We still remember how he yelled "megafraude" on the Sunday while the firmazo was still going on - we know this line was agreed well ahead of time, long before they'd had even a look at the signatures or had any conceivable evidential basis for screaming fraud. We know it's a sham. But like it or not, it's a sham millions of people believe. That's the country Venezuela has become, and our job now is to try to stop that country's slide into open conflict.

It's not the opposition who needs convincing the signatures are there, it's the two in five Venezuelans who believe in Chavez and believe Chavez. It's keeping the faith of those people in the process that's important for reconciliation, especially if Chavez eventually loses a recall vote, as I believe he will.

In ten years, nobody will care that it took four or five weeks longer than it would have otherwise to get to the recall, they'll care that the war was averted.

I realize that for many in the opposition this is just the last straw, and it's probably hard to listen to any arguments anymore. Chavez nos tiene locos, sin vaina. But the stakes are too high to give up now.

(But, answer this: what alternative do we have?)

You better think (Think! Think!)
I know that from any reasonable point of view the CNE's decision is wrong, and yes, I realize it's alarming that they are still making up rules as they go along, and yes I've read and re-read articles 22 and 29 of the instructivo again and again and I'm sure it doesn't say what Jorge Rodriguez says it says. I could rant at length about how wrong the decision is, how silly, how contrary to plain old common sense. But I won't. Because fanning the anger everyone is feeling would play right into the government's hands. It's time to stop, breathe deeply and think.

We need to realize that by intensifying the "megafraude" rhetoric and forcing CNE to acknowledge it, Chavez is just doing what he's always done. He's doing what he did in February 1992, and in April 2002 and in December 2002: he's provoking a crisis. He thinks sooner or later one of these crises will finally lead to an actual, old-style social revolution of the kind Venezuela really hasn't had so far. Like all good marxists, he's convinced that the worse things get, the better things get. "Heightening the contradictions," used to be the jargon. In other words, forcing a conflict. That's his only strategy.

We've seen him do this before. We saw it twelve years ago, we saw it twice in 2002 - both during the coup and the strike. Now, we're seeing Plan Colina III. He's running the same old play book all over again. You can tell this is the government's plan by just how often JVR has been acusing US of trying to replay April 2002 (rule one of JVResque psy-war: whatever you're doing, acuse your opponent of doing it.)

Chavez needs push us into despair, he's only hope is to goad us into doing something stupid. His only chance to stay in power is if we over-react, if we do something that will, again, allow him to take over even more institutional and political space.

The opposition's job, now, is to make sure that Plan Colina III blows up in his face. And the way to do it is by doing precisely the opposite of what we did in 2002 - by ignoring the extremists on our side, by processing our (justified) anger intelligently, and by refusing to give him the supreme pleasure of falling into his trap for a third time. A la tercera va la vencida, carajo!

The recall is still our best and - in fact - only strategy. The opposition should seize the offensive and welcome the reparo, despite our justified misgivings, as a chance to strip naked the charade of the mega-fraude charge. It might revolut us, it might make our blood boil, but we have to play ball. The path to the revocatorio is long and hard, but it's the path.

Encouragingly, Enrique Mendoza seems to get it. He quickly pledge to win by remaining within the legal system, which is a positive step. The opposition cannot succomb to the lure of emotional maximalism again.

The chilling fact is that there are only two alternatives to a legitimate, broadly credible recall: open dictatorship and civil war. If 40% of the country believes the referendum was called on bogus signatures, a referendum could well trigger a civil war. The chances of getting out of this mess without violence are - obviously - not great, but the alternatives remain too horrific to consider.

If we fall into his provocation again, we're Haiti.

It's time for cool heads to prevail, folks.