Recall Referendum Countdown

Chavez supporter

Outside my small apartment in downtown Caracas, the countdown continues to the 15th. of August, Venezuela’s, and possibly the world’s, first presidential recall referendum. The Venezuelan opposition forces are fragmented into various parties with one aim to oust Chavez. One of the largest groups, Primero Justicia, has chosen the color yellow for their campaign, one of the three colors of the Venezuelan flag. Chavez’s supporters had dibs on red; I guess no one wanted blue? Paratrooper red is the color of Chavez’s own favorite beret, similar to the beret worn by the Venezuelan National Guard instrumental in crushing the 48-hour US-backed coup of 2002.

The messages of the pundits on both sides are simple now; “¡Vota Si!” or “¡Vota No!”. The “¡Vota No!” posters are red. A no vote is against recalling the President, thereby offering Chavez a chance to complete his term.

It is still difficult to predict the result of the referendum but the “¡Vota Si!” group will be hard pressed to get the required percentage of the vote to oust Chavez. To recall the president they will need to get more ‘Si’ votes than Chavez received to elect him in the first place. The numbers in the ‘interior’ (the Venezuelan countryside) are strongly pro-Chavez but the upper middle class and the extremely rich, both urban and rural, are predominantly ‘Si!’ voters — strongly opposed to Chavez completing his term. The battle is being waged for the swing vote, a large band of undecideds and frequent non-voters estimated at 30% of the electorate.

Venezuela’s predominantly urban population will sway the vote one way or the other for the simple reason that 90% of the population is urban. Many ‘Si!’ campaigners are urban, well heeled, and often lighter skinned. In Caracas, the upper middle class is staunchly contra-Chavez. You’ll find them strolling the malls of Las Mercedes on the east side of the city, displaying their ‘Si!’ buttons with pride. In such a mall, the price of a pair of European-made designer sunglasses is about US$600. For 20 times this price, just five miles away in the barrios, you can buy a two-bedroom apartment. Few Mercedes shoppers ever visit their neighboring barrios but it will be in these barrios that the vote will be decided. To swing the vote the Chavistas and the anti-Chavistas have been taking increasingly radical steps.

Chavez’s supporters are organized into local political cells called Bolivarian Circles. Similar in form to the local Cuban political cells that have supported Castro for decades, these circles are Chavez’s powerbase. Sundays and National holidays they are out there in the rural towns and urban barrios with their giant speakers demonizing the US-backed coup-makers (‘Golpeistas’ in Spanish) — as they refer to the competition. Dressed in the red T-shirts of the Bolivarian revolution, they hand out ‘No!’ stickers to passing cars. More sophisticated propaganda includes posters listing Chavez’s many government schemes or ‘Missions’. Missions are blunt but effective development schemes with a progressive slant. Though they suffer from many problems with corruption, they have made a difference, especially in rural areas. They include schemes to increase adult literacy, assist small farmers, provide healthcare to the poor, support for arts and sports, the building of thousands of ‘Bolivarian’ schools, providing micro-credit to those in the barrios who wish to rebuild their shacks or open a hot-dog stand to better their lives.

Chavez is given to drawn-out populist speeches and “meet the president” radio pieces where a selected audience gets to chat with their president about their positive experiences in the adult literacy mission. He is comfortable with the common people, possibly more comfortable than he is in the world of international politics where he does come across as a little rough around the edges. In his speeches these days Chavez increasingly refers to the menaces he sees endangering his Bolivarian revolution. His favorite allusion these days is to speak of “the devil who is coming” using the tried-and-tested political trick of diversion. He points to malicious external forces to divert their attention away from problems at home. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher used this tactic to demonize Argentina over the Falklands to great effect while the Argentine leader were doing the same thing to her. Venezuela’s external threat is arguably greater than that which threatened “Fortress Britain”. Chavez’s speeches contain many historical references to the Bolivarian revolution that brought independence from the Spanish empire in the 19th century. In metaphorical terms, he sees the Mercosur alliance as realizing Bolivar’s dream of reuniting Gran Colombia — one great South American Republic. He might be right! Mercosur that began life as a trade agreement between Argentina and Brazil is growing to become a force to be reckoned with.

Sometimes Chavez’s historical allusions, viewed from an outsider’s perspective, are a little heavy-handed. Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas on the 24th of July 1783 and shrines to him are everywhere in Venezuela. On his birthday last week I was in Plaza Bolivar, in the city of Bolivar, capital of the state of Bolivar, in this, the newly renamed ‘Bolivarian Republic’ listening to speeches on Bolivar, broadcast nationwide on most stations in Venezuela. When your town square, your currency, your school, your political system and even your country, is renamed after a dead patriot, it seems just a tad overdone.

Chavez’s speeches are criticized harshly by his opponents but resonate strongly with his supporters who are ready to take to the streets, armed if necessary, to protect their revolution from “the devil who is coming”. Whom this ‘devil’ represents is not too difficult to discern. The state channel broadcast a live puppet play from Plaza Bolivar in central Merida. Merida is Venezuela’s Andean capital and has a staunchly pro-Chavista governor. It was the first place to install a shrine to, (you guessed it), Simon Bolivar in it’s town square. The ‘devil’ puppet had skeletal hands protruding from a body in the shape of a television set, and on its head sported the red, white and blue top hat of Uncle Sam.

The Contra-Chavista ‘Si’ voters are organized too and are not without their resources. They have their work cut out battling a Chavista government with its interests firmly aligned with Chavez’s success. The devil-puppet with the torso of a television-set also alluded to Venezuela’s media magnates — the ‘Si!’ voter’s most powerful weapon.

When Nixon’s government ousted Salvador Allende’s government in the early seventies they realized the power of the newspapers to influence public support. Santiago’s major daily, “El Mercurio” was given more than a million dollars to incite insurgence against the president in the run-up to the coup. Another of Nixon’s tactics was to fund business organizations in their efforts to destabilize the government by collapsing the Chilean economy. Chile’s crippling strikes were often organized by the business owners (seemingly contrary to their own interests). This was part of Nixon’s plan to make the Chilean economy ‘scream’. It worked well then, so why not now?

While no evidence exists that the US has interfered in the media here in Venezuela, many of the press magnates are so radically anti-Chavez that the CIA might be better spending its money elsewhere. It is impossible to find balanced government media coverage here. In most outlets, coverage of the government is so extraordinarily anti-Chavez that it warps even excellent newspapers such as El Nacional, once firm supporters before the election.
The US has been more interventionist when it comes to economic interference and the support of coups. The Venezuelan government has been finding it difficult to engineer economic recovery caused by crippling oil strikes during Chavez’s term. The strikes occurred after the purge of the hierarchy of the PDVSA (the national oil company). Chavez believed that this measure was necessary to reduce corruption in the PDVSA; it also served to consolidate his own power in the oil company is Venezuela’s primary source of foreign income. PDVSA also supplies 15% of US oil requirements. The drawn-out strike was supported by the oligarchies even though it hurt the economy badly. Some blame lies with the inexperienced henchmen that Chavez put in place to control the PDVSA for the interruption in oil supplies, but much of the interruption was the result of belligerent anti-government sabotage. In the 2002 coup attempt, Pedro Carmona became the puppet president for 48 hours. Carmona was the leader of Fedecamaras, Venezuela’s largest business association. He received covert US government funding, funneled through a US union, to help with his bid to topple Chavez.

Chavez is extremely unpopular with many Venezuelan big-business owners. Apart from bringing down the wrath of US economic pressure, there is also the question of taxation. Previous regimes have been much more lenient. The SENIAT, the somewhat corrupt Venezuelan Customs and Taxation department, is much more vigilant than its previous counterparts in enforcing taxation rules. Recently the SENIAT has been conducting zero evasion campaigns to dissuade tax evasion. More important still, the rules of the taxation game were rewritten in the new 1999 constitution! Can you imagine the reaction of US-based corporations if the US tax-law was eradicated and then written anew by a socialist government, eliminating decades of lobbying loop-holes in one fell swoop? Carmona’s first official act was to throw out the new constitution but his reign was short. The constitution is now back in force, and business-owners are paying much more in taxes than they were used to.

Also extremely unpopular with the rich are Chavez’s currency controls. Apart from making it difficult to export profits or even make an international business trip, currency restrictions also make it very difficult for Venezuelan businesses to trade internationally as they are restricted in their ability to purchase with hard currency. The Venezuela national bank imposes currency restrictions. This restricts speculation on the Bolivar. Such restrictions are unpopular with the currency markets. They have reacted predictably, not trading Bolivars, thereby making the currency effectively useless outside Venezuela.

Chavez’s close relationship with Cuba’s Castro has also been irksome to the US state department and their allies in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government’s oil-for-doctors barter deal has helped to cushion Castro’s regime from recent oil shocks. These minor irritations are insignificant when compared to Chavez’s opposition to US-friendly trade agreements, particularly the FTAA. It could be argued that this is the primary reason the US state department wants Chavez out.

Chavez has been instrumental in the expansion of Mercosur, signing Venezuela on as an associate member just this month. Mercosur, the South American trading block, has become the lynch-pin of the “Buenos Aires consensus”. Chavez is sometimes the only, always the most vocal, opponent of the FTAA. Mercosur even went so far this month as to offer associate membership to Mexico. This is significant for many reasons: Mexico is the only Latin American trading partner participating in NAFTA, it is also part of North America and many believed that Mercosur’s influence would remain south of the Panama Canal. Now that Mercosur is signing direct trade agreements with China and the European Union, it represents a direct threat to US economic hegemony, even in their own “back yard”.

While the US indisputably rules the world in military power, dwarfing the military forces of the European Union or China, the current US government has had less success with economic agreements than some of its competitors. The Republicans have had little success in implementing US-friendly trade agreements thereby advancing the interests of US-based trans-national corporations. The US may have dropped the ball with the FTAA. In the last meeting in Mexico Chavez refused to sign an intent to join the FTAA. He insisted on a clause[1], effectively undermining the ‘agreement’ entirely.

Returning to metaphor, Chavez could be viewed as Mercosur’s flag bearer, Lula and Kirchner standing in the rear lines offering tactical support. Arguably, Chavez’s self-image as the re-incarnation of the hero Bolivar is not too far-fetched, but maybe his role is more military, more closely resembling Bolivar’s military leader: the Irishman Daniel Florence O’Leary, the man that helped make Bolivar’s vision a reality.

[1] “Venezuela enters a reservation with respect to the paragraph on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) because of questions of principle and profound differences regarding the concept and philosophy of the proposed model and because of the manner in which specific aspects and established timeframes are addressed. We ratify our commitment to the consolidation of a regional fair trade bloc as a basis for strengthening levels of integration. This process must consider each country’s particular cultural, social, and political characteristics; sovereignty and constitutionality; and the level and size of its economy, in order to guarantee fair treatment.”

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