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Referendum Cannot Heal a Wounded Venezuela

Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

For several years, Venezuela has been a dangerously divided nation on the brink of political chaos. Supporters of President Hugo Chavez regularly clashed in the streets with backers of the coalition allied against him.

Today, a nation still polarized over its charismatic leader goes to the polls in a national referendum on his rule. Whether he is ratified or defeated, there is only one safe bet: Unless there is a serious push toward greater reconciliation, the political rancor and mistrust will persist, with consequences for the U.S. and the wider region.

Venezuela’s problems are deep-seated, in part the product of a discredited and corrupt political order. But, since being elected for the first time in 1998, Chavez has been an unusually divisive figure. His verbal assaults on the country’s civic institutions -- the church, media and labor unions -- have been fierce and relentless and have pitted Venezuelans against one other.

Opposition forces, consisting of the wealthy and middle classes unnerved by his rhetoric but also many poor Venezuelans weary of his broken promises, are desperate to end Chavez’s rule. His record as president has buttressed their cause. Economic and social conditions have deteriorated dramatically. The number of Venezuelans living in extreme poverty doubled between 1999 and 2003, Chavez’s first five years as president, and nearly 75% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to Catholic University in Caracas. Crime and unemployment, two chief concerns of most Venezuelans, have increased. Further, according to Human Rights Watch, the government is manipulating the judiciary, packing the Supreme Court with pro-Chavez justices and continuing to erode the rule of law. And there is ample concern about the fairness and transparency of today’s referendum.

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The opposition, a collection of disparate interests, is held together only by its disdain for Chavez. Its political strategy is weak, it lacks effective leadership and it committed unconstitutional actions, including the April 2002 coup that temporarily deposed Chavez, that undermined its democratic claims. The opposition’s focus on Chavez has hampered the development of a realistic reform agenda for the Latin American country that has suffered the region’s most stunning economic decline over the last two decades.

Even if the opposition triumphs in today’s vote, its ability to govern will be limited by its considerable distance from Venezuelans who have gravitated to Chavez, who yearn for a better life and are still searching for answers.

Though Chavez has been a disastrous administrator, he is a formidable campaigner. He has effectively deployed his charisma and oratorical skills and, more important, Venezuela’s ample oil reserves. Fueled by oil revenue, social spending in the barrios has soared. According to the Venezuelan government, the state-owned oil company recently increased its investment in healthcare, education, job training and other programs from $40 million to more than $2 billion. High oil prices have helped the economy grow. But the preelection social programs demonstrate that progress has been more symbolic than real. By projecting hope and obscuring the results, Chavez has aroused expectations among his overwhelmingly poor supporters -- and raised the bar for future politicians. Venezuela’s history of political corruption is the backdrop for his campaign promises. His slogans, “No Volveran” (“They will not return”) and “No al Pasado” (“No to the Past”), invoke the bad old days of bankrupt political institutions. He relishes revolutionary rhetoric and has counted on Venezuelans to overlook that, under his rule, the country’s slide has only accelerated. Yet Chavez’s vigorous and targeted social spending right before an election smacks of the manipulative practices he accused the traditional parties of doing for decades. Despite Chavez’s claims about a radical break from the past, in some respects his rule has magnified the worst traits of the old order.

Chavez’s verbal attacks against what he sees as the imperialist appetites of the United States and particularly the Bush administration have been unusually shrill. Yet under Chavez’s “revolution,” the oil flows freely, and foreign investors in the state-controlled petroleum sector are not complaining too loudly. Though Washington has been the target of unremitting jabs, Wall Street has been enthusiastically embraced. U.S. policy toward Venezuela has also been ambivalent: tacit approval of the 2002 coup coupled with calls for order, stability and respect for democracy.

Events in the Middle East together with election-year politics have reinforced the role of Venezuela as the United States’ fourth-largest oil supplier. More than anything else, Washington hopes that political calm will prevail in Venezuela. If Chavez remains in power, the challenge throughout the region will be to keep his behavior in check. Chavez’s rhetoric has at times inflamed relations with nearby governments, which suspect him of working against their interests. If Chavez survives the vote, the U.S. can help ease these tensions through quiet, high-level diplomacy.

Despite a public evenly divided over Chavez’s rule, if the margin of today’s vote is sufficiently wide -- and corroborated by such respected international monitors as the Organization of American States and the Carter Center -- the outcome is likely to be accepted by both sides, and the chances for any unrest will diminish. Should the opposition win handily, then the constitution calls for general elections to take place within a month. Chavez would presumably run again, and the opposition would be forced to come up with a unity candidate to challenge him. If Chavez wins the referendum by a wide margin, however, the opposition should look to upcoming elections, particularly the 2006 presidential contest. Moderates on both sides will have to handle the calls of radicals to subvert the constitutional framework.

Today’s national referendum is a welcome exercise of political possibility. But even under the most optimistic scenario, it will not by itself overcome the bitterness and heal the deep wounds that afflict Venezuelan society. By now the lesson should be clear: To achieve social peace and basic governance, Chavez or his successor will have to reach out across the divide.


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