Venezuela: Chavez on the tightrope of democracy

Article published on July 28, 2003
community published
Article published on July 28, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Is Chavez turning into another Allende? Massive demonstrations, breaches of the Constitution, commandeering of the media are Putschists at work only in the opposition? The elections will reveal all.

After an attempted coup détat and a wave of protests and general strikes paralysing Venezuela for a good few months, President Chavez is more determined than ever to carry his mandate through to 2006; and he seems to be aiming higher still.

The political opposition certainly bears the blame for its incapacity to turn the support from the press and the unions, and an extraordinary popular movement, into political victory. On the contrary, it has emerged from the showdown discredited and is not addressing the future in the best conditions.

The future, in August 2003, is the prospect of organising a referendum that would sanction overthrowing the President mid-term, something the Constitution allows for and which would represent the only institutional way out of a colossal political crisis rocking a country that is already in a sorry state.

Though this referendum may be welcomed by the majority of the population be it to establish Chavez legitimacy or to precipitate his downfall it leaves a lot of questions hanging. Not so much as to the outcome - which, with 70% against the President, is hardly in doubt - but as to the elections which would follow. Divided, discredited, with no real leader, the opposition would be hard-pressed to put forward a credible candidate.

The Putschists,: from conservatives to communists

The traditional parties have in fact contributed in no small way to the current economic and political situation. In 1998, in a climate of general defiance towards politics, Chavez was able to gain the upper hand merely by presenting himself as the new man sent by fate. Many not least I myself - believed that Venezuela would now see better days: Chavez was the bearer of a real hope of change.

But those who rush to support this brave defender of the oppressed and who see in him a new Allende [socialist president of Chile, from 1970 to 1973, before being deposed by the coup détat which brought US-backed General Pinochet to power] or an alter ego of Lula [current president of Brazil, workers party candidate, former metalworker] need to recognise a thing or two about myth and reality.

It is both dangerous and reductive to designate the opposition, whose ranks are made up of the whole ensemble of traditional, conservative, liberal, socialist or communist parties, fascist or Putschist. That would be to adopt the phraseology of the current leadership, with its tendency to discredit all forms of opposition to its policies: parties, press organs, and above all civil groups.

The Putschists have, after all, done nothing but demand the elections that they have been denied since a year ago. Once in power, Chavez modified the Constitution by replacing the non-renewable 5-year presidential mandate by a 6-year mandate with the potential to be renewed five times thats enough to stay in power until 2006!

Militarisation of the administration

This champion of democratic legitimacy must not be allowed to sweep under the carpet the fact that, in 1992, he tried twice to overthrow the government with the aid of the army something worth going to prison for. In order to prove his goodwill and his renewed faith in democratic virtues after his election, his first gesture of appeasement, was to make the date of this abortive putsch a national holiday. There followed, without any kind of popular consultation, numerous violations of the Constitution the most worrying being the militarisation of the civil administration. The population has reason to be nervous

The clash between the current leadership and the collection of the press bodies (public television being a natural exception) has reached a pitch never before seen in a democracy. If, at the beginning, the print media supported Chavez, the courteous exchanges between the President and national journalists are have now far passed the stage of pleasantries. Treating El Nacional, the countrys leading daily as not even fit to use as toilet paper, does little to enhance the debate.

From the moment the first criticisms addressed to the Head of State made themselves heard, he has responded by violently attacking the newspapers of the opposition daring to defy him, using the dangerous labels fascists and traitors to the country, and following this up with searches of the headquarters of the incriminated newspapers, who have significantly contributed to radicalising pro- and anti-Chavez opinion.

Poetic and extreme propaganda

On the public TV channel, however, the President is omnipresent. The programme, allo presidente, is a virtual televisual platform from which Chavez addresses his fellow citizens every day, occasionally for four hours.

Faced with a now hostile independent press, Chavez response has been to resort to seizing airtime. While this process is familiar to all democratic countries, in Venezuela it has taken on disturbing dimensions in terms of length and frequency. Often playing a key role in broadcasting is what can only be described as often romantic/poetic, sometimes extreme, propaganda, taking the place of any sincere effort to educate the public politically and economically.

In view of all this, one can understand the present concerns of Venezuelas population over possible intentions to usurp power. Justified or not, this concern is undeniably present.

One of the oppositions present mistakes has been to attack Chavez on the personal front and not from the point of view of his government track record. This situation reversed, criticism might gain in readability, though, and a way out of the clash of ideologies and of what is already the most traumatic political crisis ever experienced by the country would become possible. However, we cant express our judgements as to the regimes true colours until the new presidential elections, which, until further notice, will still be held in 2006.