September 3, 2004

Taking stock of the CD's collapse in international standing

I'm not about to tell the CD to give up its fraud claims until they're satisfied they know what happened on August 15th. But as they go forward with this line, they do so with eyes wide open...they need to understand the scale of the international public relations catastrophe they create by sticking by this line. This New Republic piece gives you a taste for the sort of coverage the opposition can expect if it sticks to its claim. Brutal stuff.


Caracas, Venezeula
Late Monday night, 19 hours after the results in this week's referendum on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were reported, opposition leader Carlos Hermoso was furiously spinning a conspiracy theory. Despite results endorsed by international observers that showed Chávez winning by a landslide 16 percentage points, Hermoso said that "massive fraud" had been committed by both the election observers and the electronic voting machines used here for the first time. In a complicated yarn, Hermoso claimed that touch-screen voting machines in which people could vote "Yes" to oust Chávez or "No" to keep him were expertly "manipulated" by the government. Though there had also been a paper trail recording each voter's choice, Hermoso said the papers had been kidnapped and are now under military custody in a building called the "White Rabbit." But Hermoso warned that hard evidence of such fraud will be "very difficult" to find. As for the stamp of approval offered by election observers like Jimmy Carter, Hermoso argued that such observers were "compromised" by oil companies and the U.S. State Department, which wanted to keep Chávez in power.

Never mind that the populist Venezuelan commander-in-chief spent much of the recall campaign bashing the U.S., or that Washington openly welcomed a short-lived coup against Chávez earlier in his term. Like many others in the Democratic Coordinator (CD), the loose grouping of 27 political parties and 40 civil society organizations that united against Chávez, Hermoso suddenly found himself on the defensive following Chávez's big victory on Sunday, and simply refused to believe he had lost. The New York Times reported that on Monday two opposition leaders became so angry that "their faces turned white." Indeed, many other opposition leaders demanded a manual recount. "We want to know the truth," said Julio Borges, another top Coordinator official. "We will keep fighting until all our hair falls out." Some called for more anti-Chávez protests like the ones that have disrupted Venezuelan life for more than two years. Seven people were wounded in a small protest on Monday.

Indeed, it seems that the opposition leaders simply believed their own hype, while not realizing how ineffective the anti-Chávez movement had been. Riven by internal divisions, the CD waged a weak campaign that failed to take into account the president's enormous popularity in the poor barrios that make up the majority of Venezuela. The CD started on a bad note. In December 2003, the group mounted a devastating two month strike in which almost all Venezuelan business came to a halt and the state oil company nearly ceased operations. The strike ended in February 2004, but the economic damage was severe and the public, say some analysts, largely blamed the CD. "The strike was a failure," said Gregory Wilpert, head of a website called Venezuela Analysis.

Already behind, the CD never created a coherent political agenda to gain the 3.75 million votes it needed to oust Chávez. Its leader, Enrique Mendoza, was an uninspired speaker who brought little to the campaign. Then, the agenda the CD did release at the end of July largely copied Chávez's programs to end poverty and unemployment, without his searing--and popular--populist rhetoric. "The problem with the opposition is that they live in their own world," said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at Washington's Inter-American Dialogue, an organization focused on Latin America. "Having an anti-Chávez agenda wasn't enough." Indeed, on Election Day the opposition's internal exit polls showed it beating Chávez by 20 percentage points, though most mainstream polls, at the time, showed Chávez had a slight lead.

Meanwhile, Chávez, though known as a loose cannon, ran a strong and disciplined campaign. "We shouldn't be asking what the Coordinator lacked, but what Chávez had in abundance," said one opposition consultant who believes the Coordinator underestimated Chávez's charismatic leadership. "The truth is that the president is an excellent campaigner." Chávez's social programs, funded by oil money from the state-run oil monopoly--which has benefited from skyrocketing oil prices--were part of this campaign. Chávez invested up to $1.7 billion from Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, in building "missions" in poor barrios that offer free health care and teach people how to read. He also spent state money on primary education and new housing for the poor, all of which was advertised as being a direct result of Chávez policies. And after the oil strike, Chávez got the state oil company back up and running--partly by hiring Algerian experts to come in and train new Venezuelan workers--and kept the country's 3 million barrels of oil exports a day flowing. Venezuela is the world's number five oil exporter, and Chávez has vowed to expand oil production even further in the coming months.

In fact, the hard truth is that Venezuela is more stable today than it would have been if the opposition had won, at least in the short term. If the president was defeated or even if the vote had been close, mass chaos likely would have ensued with fanatics on both sides taking to the streets. A new election probably would have been held in 30 days, creating another opportunity for protest and even violence.

So despite Hermoso's cries of fraud, the long journey to remove Chávez through a recall is over. Opposition leaders should accept their loss if they are to have any chance of toppling him in the next presidential election in 2006. And they had better get cracking--Chávez's supporters are already talking about keeping him in office until 2021.

Rachel Van Dongen covers Latin America for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, and other publications.

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