A hat-trick in Venezuela

Print edition : September 10, 2004

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses supporters from the balcony of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas on August 16. Photo: Howard Yanes / Reuters

With his resounding victory in the Venezuelan presidential referendum on August 15, Hugo Chavez consolidates his position as the people's President. Published in the issue dated September 10, 2004.

THE writing on the wall was clear, but the Opposition in Venezuela, which is backed by the United States, refused to recognise the political realities and paid the price for it. Hugo Chavez, whom it hoped to dislodge from the presidency in a referendum held on August 15, triumphed once again, getting more than 58 per cent of the votes cast. Francisco Carrasquerro, President of the National Electoral Commission, declared Chavez the winner. Polling booths in many parts of the country were kept open until midnight, so that all the voters who had queued up could cast their ballots. More than 8,568,000 votes were cast - the highest so far in Venezuelan history. The voting had to close more than eight hours after the scheduled time. Jesus Torrealba, a prominent Venezuelan Opposition leader, said the result was "impossible to swallow".

Chavez, however, was magnanimous in victory, and told his supporters that those who voted against him should be "respected". The result was a great victory for the Venezuelan Constitution, he said and added that he was "pleased to be the first President on earth to submit himself to the people's judgment halfway through his term". He expressed the hope that Washington would now start to "respect the government and people of Venezuela". "The ball must have fallen right in the middle of the White House. It's a present for Bush," he said, using Baseball terminology to take a dig at U.S. President George W. Bush.

The Bush administration had provided more than $2 million to the Opposition through the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. front organisation, and in the run-up to the referendum Chavez had alleged that Washington was pouring millions of dollars into the country to unseat him.

At a joint news conference held the day after the vote, the former U.S. President and Nobel Peace laureate Jimmy Carter, and Cesare Gaviria, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), pronounced the referendum free and fair. Carter said the results announced by the Electoral Commission were "compatible" with the figures that the international observers had. Carter emphasised that the international team of monitors had not found "any element of fraud" in the way the referendum was conducted. He added that initial counts by the "Sumate" - the electoral watchdog endorsed by the Opposition parties - had also estimated that 55 per cent voted for Chavez being retained in office.

CHAVEZ has now defeated the machinations of the Opposition for the third time in a row. A failed U.S.-backed coup attempt in April 2002 was followed by a concerted attempt by the elite to paralyse the country economically. It brought work to a virtual standstill at Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company in December 2002, hoping to precipitate a crisis that would eventually lead to the overthrow of the government. This had happened in Chile in the early 1970s, when the Chilean middle class went on strike, and precipitated a chain of events that led to the overthrow of the socialist government of Salvadore Allende.

Chavez tackled the strike successfully and brought the hitherto "autonomous" PDVSA under the full control of the government. As many as 18,000 anti-Chavez employees were sacked during the two-month-long strike and Western analysts concluded that the Venezuelan oil industry would grind to a halt after this purging. Instead, the PDVSA, now popularly called the People's Oil Company, is perceived to be more efficient, pumping around 2.6 million barrels of oil a day and earning the country more than $7 billion this year from oil revenues. Venezuela's oil reserves are comparable to that of Saudi Arabia, and most of the revenue goes into the social sector, for the benefit of the poorer sections of society. "Oil is not for a minority, so that the minority can get rich," was Chavez constant refrain as he hit the campaign trail.

This time around, the Opposition exploited a clause in the Constitution, which allows for a recall of the sitting President. In retrospect, this was a difficult task. To "recall" the President midway through his term, the Opposition had to get more than the 3.8 million votes polled by Chavez in the 2000 presidential election. Besides the "yes" votes in favour of Chavez' removal had to be more than the "no" votes. The Opposition failed on both counts, and even before the first vote was cast, it started making allegations of fraud.

However, Jimmy Carter said that he had never before witnessed people participating in a vote in such a massive way. People started queuing up at the crack of dawn to cast their ballots. The Venezuelan government had introduced a foolproof computerised voting system, which included fingerprinting of every voter.

In a recent article, El Mundo, a Spanish daily, said that the Central Intelligence Agency had put in place a contingency plan in the event of Chavez winning the referendum, and had for "good or bad" started working on a strategy to "neutralise" Chavez.

Washington fears that the Venezuelan model could be emulated by other Latin American countries, including neighbouring Colombia, which has been in the throes of a civil war for decades. The Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, is under a cloud as there are serious allegations that he was in the pay of the notorious Medellin drug cartel, which was led by Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo Manrique's popularity ratings are in single digits.

Chavez and his anti-globalisation "Bolivarian" ideology have a lot of admirers across Latin America, and he has been repeatedly emphasising the need for Latin American countries to unite politically and to pursue an alternative form of economic development. All this is anathema to Washington, which still controls the destiny of many Latin American countries.

Chavez' friendship with Fidel Castro coupled with his open admiration for Cuba's socialist model of development, has further angered the top echelons of the Bush administration.

AROUND 80 per cent of the Venezuelan people live in the countryside, and their culture and skin colour are different from those of the white elites, concentrated in Caracas, the capital. Samuel Moncada, a prominent Venezuelan social scientist, called the parties ranged against Chavez the "aesthetic opposition".

The Opposition has repeatedly used racist pejoratives against Chavez, who is of African and native Indian descent, and made clear their preference for a leader of pure European descent. There is no doubt that Chavez lost some of the support he had with some sections of the elite. They abandoned him when it became clear that he was intent on fulfilling the agenda for which he was elected. But the reform measures he undertook for the benefit of the people in the last couple of years more than compensated for that loss.

Hundreds of thousands of new voters were registered. As many as 60,000 peasant families received more than 5.5 million hectares after the government started implementing the much-needed land reforms. Eight per cent of the budget went for national health and education and the government stopped subsidising the private schools to which children of the elite go. Easy bank credit was made available to both the rural and the urban poor and health care was taken to the remote corners of the country. The Cuban government offered help in the social sector, with Cuban doctors playing a big role in taking health care to the poor.

It was no surprise then that most of the votes in the rural areas went to Chavez. Also, names in the voters register had swelled from 12.5 million in April to 14 million. The increase was a result of a massive campaign undertaken by the government to empower the poor neighbourhoods.

An ex-paratrooper, Chavez has said that he will continue in politics till the radical reforms he has envisaged for his country are implemented fully. The results of the referendum are a boost to his stature as one of the foremost statesmen of Latin America.

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