May 30, 2004

Ineffectual Authoritarianism

This weekend, we've seen that the press has been unfair in its treatment of CNE. I realize opinions are so hardened on this subject by now, I'm most unlikely to convince anyone, but think about it: the entire chavista drive to screw up the reparos this weekend happened outside CNE. Whether it's the military or civilian supporter groups, in the vast majority of cases the trouble was outside the CNE jurisdictional line. If the government was so confident it could order CNE around, why would it have gone through all the trouble, all the bad publicity, all the grief of violently attacking the signing centers, when an inside job would've been so much smoother and less evident?

The reparos have underlined once again just how ineffectual Chavez is as an authoritarian. Watching the news yesterday, it seemed quite clear that someone high up in Miraflores had given the order to go out and screw up the reparo centers. And they tried. They even managed to mobilize a few groups which managed to get to a few centers and make life extremely unpleasant for a few people, including Globo's Marta Palma. But the Chavistas simply did not come down like a great locust swarm to erase the referendum from the face of history, like some feared (and others apparently hoped.)

The government once again flubbed it. They thought they had enough popular support to cause a very serious problem in signing centers throughout the country. But when the order was given, they found out that they actually only control a fairly limited number of chavista extremists.

Worst of all, from their perspective, the attempts at intimidation or obstruction failed. Faced with the obdurate determination of the oppo signators, the chavista intimidation attempts barely scored above flash-in-the-pan status. Probably the most remarkable element of watching Globovision yesterday was seeing the way that the small lines of people waiting to sign simply never give up! Even when dozens of government activists came by on motorcycles firing roman candles into voting centers and shouting Viva Chavez, people simply stayed put, waited for them to leave, and hung on to their places in line! Gente arrecha!

Which, frankly, makes me proud to be Venezuelan. There's something wonderfully irreverent and rebellious about this attitude, a kind of principled stubborness in the face of intimidation that has and will continue to serve the nation well. It's the story of the grandmother in Los Palos Grandes who saved Rosendo all over again.

But if I'm proud of the bravery of grassroots antichavez signators, I'm also proud of the rank-and-file chavistas. Because, folks, Chavez's 30%, the vast bulk of the normal, decent, honest, hard-working Venezuelans who support Chavez did NOT heed the call for violence. (Believe me, if one in three Venezuelans had poured out onto the streets to rip things up, we would've noticed!) Instead, many of them were inside the reparo centers serving as witnesses, collaborating without any problems with the opposition witnesses as well as the CNE personnel and the soldiers. The dirty little secret here is that the bulk of rank-and-file chavistas don't want a war any more than we do.

It's not the first time. In late 2002, after TSJ refused to try the April generals, we saw chavistas calling their supporters out on the street. Only a handful did.

Poor Chavez. Now he knows what it is to be isolated. Alone in Guadalajara. Alone in the streets of Venezuela. Able to raise a raucus in 20 or 30 signing centers, but just not powerful enough to put serious obstacles in the way of the remaining 99% of them. His power is crumbling visibly around him. In the end, my feeling is he'll fall not because of how authoritarian he is, but because of how sadly ineffectual he is at it, how oddly unable to translate his personal magnetism and his hold on his supporters' imaginations into the real acts of day-to-day brutality that keep authoritarians in place.