June 2, 2004

Venezuela Edges Closer to a Chavez Recall Election

Venezuela is at an extraordinary juncture. After 30 months of intense political crisis, the nation waits anxiously for an announcement on whether or not there will be a recall referendum against President Chavez. After a contentious 6 month signature-gathering process marked by delays and unexplained rule changes, the National Electoral Council has started verifying hundreds of thousands of contested signatures that were reaffirmed by citizens this weekend. If more than 540,000 signatures are added to the total, the council must call a recall vote.

Though they have not yet been officially announced, the signature verification totals are an open secret. In accordance with regulations agreed in advance by the government and the opposition, the elections' authorities distributed copies of verification tallies at each of the 2700 signing centers in the process at the end of each of the three days of signing to all sides. The government, the opposition and international observers all have access to the raw data that CNE is charged with tallying. And since CNE's role at this stage is limited to adding together those daily tallies, with further verifications explicitly banned, it's difficult to imagine what the government could do at this point to wiggle out of reporting the real results.

Carter's touch

At their joint press conference at CNE yesterday, President Carter and OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria made all of this very clear. Gaviria said the main difference between this process and the original signature collection drive and this weekend's validation is that the checks built into this latest event will make it extremely clear if anyone cheats. President Carter said that while the observation mission has no legal authority, they reserve the right to comment on any discrepancy between the totals they've calculated and the ones CNE eventually announces. President Carter said he had firm commitments from CNE's board and President Chavez himself that no more surprises are in the horizon.

Since CNE has not yet announced official results, the media are barred from talking openly about signature tallies, a rule both sides have sporadically broken. Leaks are inevitable in a situation like this, and while the sides report different tallies, even the government appears to understands that enough signatures were collected. Chavez knows he will pay a heavy price if it tampers with them.

Descifrado, the well-connected opposition-minded gossip site, has been leaking like a Venezuelan schoolroof since Sunday. Juan Carlos Zapata, a TalCual co-founder who now runs Descifrado, reports confidently that the government has accepted it must allow a recall go ahead.

President Chavez himself hinted as much during a spot of afternoon baseball at Fuerte Tiuna, where he acknowledged the possibility that the opposition might just have snuck by with enough signatures. At dinner the previous night, across from President Carter, he had apparently made the pledge directly.

So Venezuela, remarkably, appears headed for a recall vote after all. The possibility, which seemed distant just a week ago, now seems likely. Opposition distrust of the authorities now runs so deep that it's almost impossible for many of us to believe it, and many will certainly refuse to believe it until they see CNE head Francisco Carrasquero announcing it on an all-channel TV broadcast. Even then, Venezuela is "territorio de lo posible," it is still posible that the government will work to stop or sabotage the vote later on.

The Day of the Doves

So far, the opposition's electoral strategy has been an amazing success. Never has the opposition enjoyed the international credibility it now has. While the government continues to scream bloody murder and label all opponents "coup-mongers" and "terrorists", hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan citizens have chosen to face down the regime in the civilized, legal way: by standing in line, again and again, under the rain and despite the intimidation, to sign their names on a petition.

The cornerstone of the government's rhetoric - that they are poor beleaguered democrats holding off a conspiratorial cabal of rich businessmen and media barons with US-backing - looks ever more incongruous in light of the weekend's events. Venezuela, the government wants to convince us, is the only place on earth where the fascist terrorist coup-mongers stand in line, in the rain, to sign petitions, while the belleaguered democrats work tirelessly to keep them away from the ballot box. It makes less than no sense. It had some usefulness as a propaganda tool, but more and more the message is only believed by a hard-core of zealots.

The Venezuelan opposition has always been a grab bag of groups of all sorts of different sizes, attitudes and ideologies. The "dove" faction that urged a legal, electoral solution has not always been in control of things. Both on April 11th and during the two month National Strike of Dec-Jan 2002-03, opposition hardliners took control of the movement and made very bad blunders that have cost the opposition dearly in terms of credibility. It took perseverance, hard work, and real effort for the dove wing to impose its slogan - without violence, within the law.

Paradoxically, a government that had always urged the opposition to behave in this way now finds itself terribly outflanked and devoid of a clear target. Whereas it was easy to dismiss coup leader Carmona or strike leader Carlos Ortega as dangerous reactionaries, the line loses all meaning in an opposition led by people like Pompeyo Marquez, Chuo Torrealba and Felipe Mujica. The government, which has always thrived on picking a fight with hothead opponents, had no idea how to handle their approach: Negotiate continuously. Don't rise to provocations. Keep your eye on the ball. Don't let the government distract attention from the RR.

Today, that simple strategy, together with the invaluable work of the Carter Center/OAS observation mission, has put Venezuela closer to finding an peaceful, democratic, electoral and constitutional solution to its governance crisis than many opposition hawks ever dreamed possible.

The strategy could still collapse. The government could still choose confrontation over civilization. It could still all be for naught. But right here, right now, we know the opposition has gone the extra mile, and then some, to make viable a solution to the crisis that doesn't lead to civil war. And I think that's a very great achievement on its own.