January 13, 2004

The worst part about Chavez's new strategy...

...is that it actually seems to be working.

Right now, Hugo Chavez has a single goal: survival in power.

Oh sure, he'll talk about the revolution this and the revolution that and isn't it terrible how they want to take away the revolution, but Venezuelans long ago learned that revolution is merely one of a family of words Chavez uses as a rough synonym for "me."

[The others being "mvr", "government," "fiscalia", "Armed Forces", "state", "Magallanes", "law", "central bank reserves" and "constitution" - narcissists have a hard time with ego boundaries.]

Of course, plotting and surviving is Chavez's strength, the one activity he has a credible shot being called an "expert" in. Chavez plotted a coup for TEN YEARS between his Saman de Guere oath in 1982 and the actual coup-attempt on Feb. 4th, 1992! Plotting is hard-wired into his political imagination. Arguably, Chavez can't really tell the difference between politics and plotting. In any case, he can't seem to differentiate the opposition movement from a conspiracy any better than he can differentiate his political plotting from the practice of governing.

So it's Chavez the military conspirator who's facing this stability crisis; that's the mindset he brings to the problem. A quick assesment shows his hand is pretty weak, for two reasons: 1-He knows he cannot dominate the country's institutions the way he once could. 2-He know's the government is out of money.

So put yourself in his shoes? what do you do? Well, unless the other side makes a major blunder, you're gonna lose. The strategy, then, will be to try to goad the other side into making that mistake.

Think tactically: how can you put the opposition under pressure, how can you push it towards making a major blunder before the recall vote? How can you divide them?

Can't be that hard: the opposition is famously unable to agree on anything beyond its animosity to Chavez. It ranges from the Trotskyite Marxist Bandera Roja party to reactionary pro-Bush generals. It's not particularly hard to play on divisions. If they were ever forced to sit down and negotiate with each other, they probably couldn't agree on what to put on a pizza.

So what if they were forced to sit down and agree on a single, unified slate of nominations for state and local elections later this year? And what if you could force them to start negotiations right now, when they'd much rather focus on the recall vote?

Chavez must have asked himself: what are the chances that the opposition can stick together through a deal that complex, made up of hundreds of smaller local and regional deals?

It's just a lucky thing for him, then, that nationwide elections for governor and mayor are due later this year. It was not clear, juridically, whether those elections should take place in late July-early August, or in December. But it looks like this is the kind of favor Chavez can still expect a favorable hearing on from "his" CNE members.

Jorge Rodriguez has already announced the July/August timeline as the CNE's preferred timing for the regional votes. The political parties would have to present their nominations several months earlier - by March, no later. That'll probably fall in the middle of the referendum campaign: the worst time for a crisis.

If the opposition wants to go to the state and local elections as a united front, they need to sit down around a table right now and get that back room air good and smoky. A deal is crucial. Surely, if adeco dinosaurs are good for anything at all (which is questionable), they're good for cutting a backroom deal on candidacies. Now would be an excellent time for them to exercise some of those skills.

The deal will require real negotiation skills and painful concessions from everyone. The state and local election involve key decisions on the future of a whole generation of budding young politicos from literally every corner of the country. Even if a deal is reached, the disappointed will outnumbered the nominated by a ratio of 5 or 6 to one. Will those 5 or 6 also-rans turn around and support the recall effort with the same zeal if they know they will not be mayor or governor after the next election? Chavez is gambling the answer is no.

Chavez's gambit was subtle, well played. It could well work.

But as Pompeyo Marquez says, if the opposition parties are not able to work out their differences over something so ultimately petty as governorships and mayorships then they don't deserve to win the recall.

Of course, there's a distinct possibility that Chavez has blundered, that by forcing the opposition to put up or shut up, he's providing a much needed prod for the opposition politicos to get serious about picking leaders once and for all. Once the regional nominees are picked, the opposition could be far more coherent than it has been so far, much better able to act as a unit. It's hard to forecast these things.

But chances are that the opposition's propensity to prima donnaish maximalism will sink a comprehensive deal. Some parties are bound to walk off the table, the opposition negotiations could descend into a kind of battle royal. Even if you don't end up in some nightmare scenario, the negotiations will obviously be a distraction to a political leadership that wants to focus like a laser beam on the recall.

Of course, the opposition is well aware what the government is up to. They've been taken for a ride by Chavez more than once already - and I think, I hope, they've learned something over the last couple of years. I hope they'll understand how important it is for the country's future that they put their differences aside and reach a deal quickly. Really it would be very difficult for voters to forgive if the typical old infighting took precedence over the country's future here. Their fledgeling credibility is at stake.

Chavez probably figures that even if a deal is reached, it will still favor him, because a-there's a good chance voters will be unimpressed by the opposition nominees and b-it'll give him someone to demonize, someone to run against during the recall referendum, relieving him of the painful burden of having to run against himself.

So, for Chavez, it's a win-win situation.

For the opposition, on the other hand, it's both a challenge and a test.