Venezuela Referendum: Chavez on Brink of Dictatorship?

Again, a decisive vote this Sunday in Venezuela.

Since Hugo Chavez was elected in December 1998, Venezuela has voted 9 times with at least 4 of these elections termed as decisive. And yet nothing seems to be settled, and once again we are facing a "decisive" election this Sunday. How come?

What's at stake?

Chavez is asking the country to modify 69 articles of the 1999 constitution. That represents a full 20% of its articles.

If approved, these changes will profoundly change the Venezuelan system of government, creating in fact a new legal framework in what for all practical purposes will be a new constitution. Among other things, the president will get a 7-year term with a unlimited number re-elections. In addition, brand new powers will include: redrawing the internal map of the country; creating new districts for which he will name the executive without election by the people; atomizing the other political districts while making them directly dependent for funding from some bureaucrat in Caracas; directly administering the international reserves of the Central Bank; becoming the direct head of the army by getting the ability to name all ranking officers, while integrating it with a militia under his direct orders; expanding the tools already at his disposition to intervene any economical sector the government might want to control; and more...

In his attempt to convince voters to swallow such a bitter pill, he paired these changes with demagogic measures that include the mandatory reduction of the work week to 6 hours per day and health insurance and retirement for all, without any detail of how the scheme would be paid for. It is important to note that such popular appealing measures could have already been implemented with the 1999 constitutional draft without any need to modify it. People have noticed this and are wondering about the delay and sudden urgency.

Needless to say, as the project became public and discussion started, a steady opposition grew. If polls are correct, the NO should win by anywhere between 5 to 15 points, giving Hugo Chavez his first serious defeat. How did this happen?

Chavez 'Annus Horribilis'

The paradox of this year is that, fresh form a 63% victory in December 2006 and with the price of oil bringing Venezuelan income at an all time high, the Chavez administration has been making blunder after blunder while the internal situation has become less manageable as days passed.

It all started in December after his reelection victory. Chavez decided to speed up the process of change assuming that the vote he received was a blank check to create a Cuba-like socialist system that was delicately termed "Socialism of the XXI century" to hide the obvious implications. In fact, his victory was due in large part to populist measures that should not be confused with an embrace of hard socialism. Through the whole year a tug of war took place involving inner disputes within chavismo.

Chavez's drive, linked to his desire to become a world leader to replace a mummifying Castro, took him first to get rid of his vice president Jose Vicente Rangel, the only real political operator left in his entourage, the only one who could still talk discretely with the financial world and the opposition circles. It is rumored that the reason was that Rangel opposed the closing of RCTV, the major private network of Venezuela whose stern opposition did not stop Chavez from winning with 63% of the December votes.

With the departure of Rangel there was really no one left with enough stature in Chavez's cabinet to be able to say 'no' even occasionally. Soon enough it was clear that Chavez had assumed his December victory to do as he pleased with the country. The first thing he requested was an enabling law, lasting for 18 months, that would allow him to emit law-decrees on an incredible range of themes. This was totally unnecessary, since he already disposed of a 100% pro Chavez National Assembly.

This first of the "5 socialist motors" caused some worry, but as the other motors entered into gear, the worry started growing. Another motor was the creation of a constitutional commission in charge of suggesting what should be modified. That commission was all appointed by Chavez and was ordered to discuss the changes in secret.

It was after that that problems started piling up for Chavez. First the closing of RCTV in late May, an open act of censorship which was perceived as such by the country. The immediate result of this was to wake up a large student protest movement in defense of freedom of expression and information. The government was surprised by that and has not been able since to find a political response. The students after a summer recess came back to protest in the streets and have become the main agent behind the movement that now seems to be opposing the constitutional changes successfully.

The government hopes of having a calm summer were dashed anyway when early August a certain Antonini was caught in Buenos Aires airport, on an incoming flight from Venezuela in a private jet, with a suitcase filled with 800 000 US dollars, just as the Argentinian electoral campaign was in full swing. This was a real scandal because Venezuela is subject to very strict currency exchange controls: individuals are allowed to buy only 600 dollars in cash a year, plus a few thousand for travel through their credit cards. In other words, there was no legal or rational way to explain how Antonini could have gotten legally that money in Caracas. That the money is of dubious origin is quite a possibility: Antonini is missing since his return to Florida.

The timing of this cash seizure in Buenos Aires was made worse as Venezuelans started suffering critical shortages of certain goods. In late 2006 sugar went missing. Since then it has been joined in the missing list by milk, beans, and other items such as toilet paper. Milk has become the biggest problem, often leading to long lines at stores and even occasional fist fights.

The constitutional reform discussion

Trying to distract the country from these problems and scandals --mostly due to a poor management of the public administration where politics are all and results come a distant second, if at all, and also because time was running for a 2007 approval-- Chavez finally announced the proposed changes to the constitution in a several hours' speech on August 15. From the first reading it was clear that it was a naked ploy to ensure that Chavez could remain in office forever. Most of the articles basically consisted on ways to control the emergence of any challenging political opposition.

Then, chavismo kept piling up one error after another. The debates were under a cloak of secrecy and the ones in public ended up including only pro Chavez-speakers and odd anti-reform speakers, who most of the time were shamefully booed out of stage. Then, almost in the middle of some night the National Assembly added 36 more articles to the 33 articles originally approved,. As people started studying the proposed texts the "SI" option started fading quickly, while the "NO" kept going up in the polls until its current lead. (1)

The roughshod way in which chavismo tried to impose its reform consummated the break-up with some of its historical allies, already battered earlier this year when Hugo Chavez decided to consolidate his support behind a single party, the PSUV, an anachronism close to the single-party states of yore. The result was that a group of half dozen representatives of Chavez's own party PODEMOS in the National Assembly, who made an extraordinary show of resistance clearly denouncing the autocratic, even neo-totalitarian nature of the regime. It also had an effect in the country as two governors of PODEMOS all but joined the opposition creating a sudden awareness of the situation in the until then dormant provinces. Not to mention the constant stream of sectors declaring they opposed Chavez's plans, from the Catholic church to academic institutions.

Finally, there was a last error: since the 6-hour work week and the other populist measures were not enough to entice ordinary folks, Chavez decided to make the campaign a personal one, going as far as saying that a "no" vote was a vote against him and that people who voted "no" would be considered as traitors. Such epithet was liberally applied, even to retired General Raúl Isaías Baduel, the general that almost single-handedly rescued Chavez during the April 2002 coup, when he decided to come out against the constitutional reform. In Saturday's New York Times, Baduel writes an op-ed where he explains why he parted ways with Chavez.. But that defection was only the start: soon even Chavez ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, who happened to occupy a seat in the constitutional assembly of 1999 while she was first lady, asked the country to vote "no" and got directly involved in the opposition campaign.

For the last few weeks we have seen Chavez increasingly nervous, prone to excesses. And the result has been catastrophic, particularly on the foreign relations front; the "Why don't you shut up?" from King Juan Carlos of Spain is just the most flagrant example: Here at home, for example Friday night at the closing of the "Sí" campaign, we saw an increasingly lonely Chavez, more and more menacing and yet less and less scary. Saturday's chavista show paled in comparison to the brilliant student-led monumental closing of the NO campaign in Caracas Thursday, which earned a New York Times front page story. Because truth to be told, it's the student movement that deserves most of the credit for awakening the country to the threat posed by this arbitrary and even unconstitutional constitutional reform.

Even if the polls are favorable to the NO one cannot predict the final result with certainty. There are too many emotional issue between a large chunk of the electorate and their beloved leader. There is too much patronage from the powerful chavista political machinery. Many may decide at the last moment to vote "sí" anyway. But, then again, many might want to punish him for one year of bad government, a year of standing in line for food, a year of unnecessary fights in a country where he controls everything.

No matter what, one thing is certain: independently of Sunday's result we can be sure that the basic issues at the root of Venezuela's present political conflict will not be settled and we will require soon enough yet another "decisive moment."

Caracas-based Daniel Duquenal blogs at Venezuela News and Views