The invisible majority: Venezuela after the referendum

Ivan Briscoe
24 August 2004

If successful political leadership requires a combination of tactical skill, a popular touch, and sheer good luck, the Venezuelan presidency of ex-army officer Hugo Chávez is promising to be one of the more fortuitous in a continent recently littered with popular uprisings and official humiliations. For his many enemies at home and abroad – not least in the giant United States neighbour to the north - Chávez should long have followed Jamil Mahuad (Ecuador, 2000), Alberto Fujimori (Peru, 2000), Fernando de la Rua (Argentina, 2001), Sánchez de Losada (Bolivia, 2003), and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Haiti, 2004) into political oblivion. But after comfortably surviving the latest in a series of challenges – a “recall referendum” on 15 August 2004 triggered by the opposition’s gathering of the required 2.4 million votes – it looks as if Hugo Chávez and his experiment in how to govern Venezuela are far from approaching nemesis.

For the country’s Coordinadora Democrática opposition front, Chávez’s 58.25%-41.74% victory in the referendum on his rule amounted to little more than an exercise in “gigantic fraud.” If the opposition are right, gigantic is certainly the word - to secure his victory, Chávez must have assembled a vote-rigging conspiracy that compromised a series of independent monitors: former United States president Jimmy Carter; a group of technical experts from the North American electronic polling firm Smartmatic; and the Organisation of American States (OAS), currently headed by former Colombian president César Gaviria, who before falling in with the red berets of the “Bolivarian revolution” had declared total war on his country’s Marxist guerrillas.

Also on Venezuela in OpenDemocracy:

  • Dan Storey, “The Venezuelan road to…where?” (June 2003)
  • Ivan Briscoe, “Beyond the zero sum, from Chavez to Lula” (July 2003)


There were, no doubt, anomalies in some polling stations, but the zeal with which leaders of the opposition front brandished their evidence – a stray opinion poll, strange numerical patterns, “the expressions on the faces of the voters in the queues” – is revealing less of fraud than of their own wilful refusal to accept reality. And this is possibly the referendum’s most telling consequence: far from sealing an era of deep political division – which began in late 2001, reached a zenith in the failed coup of April 2002, and toyed with mutually assured self–destruction in the general strike of December 2002 to February 2003 – the referendum seems only to have emphasised that Chavista–style democracy will not resolve Venezuela’s domestic strife.

The talk in the Coordinadora is now of boycotting September’s regional polls, thereby stripping Chávez of the “illusion” of popular support. “The least that exhausted voters might think is that any candidate who throws himself into the ring is an accomplice of Chávez”, wrote one of the more moderate columnists in El Universal newspaper. The president’s own loyalists have gleefully retorted that the opposition, sulking after seven consecutive electoral defeats – in national elections, local polls and referenda – is simply acknowledging its inability to compete with the people’s messiah.

A fractured polity…

What both sides omit to mention is that this modus of aborted electoral participation has a known and baleful history in the region. It has featured in one form or other during the years of Juan Perón’s exile from Argentina, in the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, and in recent elections in Jean–Bertrand Aristide’s Haiti: in short, it has been the precursor to a final and definitive degeneration in civic life.

The manner in which the referendum on Hugo Chávez has failed to transcend the perceptions of mistrust and loathing within Venezuelan society indicate that, contrary to the Carter philosophy, vote–counting has already lost all capacity to legitimise and heal. “I feel used because they robbed me”, declared one anti–Chavista, Dulce de Rodríguez, quoted in El Nacional newspaper. “I live in the district of La California, and I spent eight hours in the queue to vote – all for nothing, just to be made a fool of. There were people from all classes in that queue, and everyone said they were going to vote Yes (against Chávez). It’s not fair.”

This remark, echoed across the country’s private media since the referendum, exposes the indignation, elitism and solipsism that are among the banes of Latin American political life. A peculiar blindness to Chávez’s popularity in the ceros – the shantytown hills that surround Caracas and other cities – was already evident in the 2002 coup, when the then leader of the Fedecámaras employers’ federation, Pedro Carmona, swung into and out of power with spectacular indifference to the will of the poor (who composed, according to the World Bank, approaching 70% of Venezuela’s urban population in 2001).

Since then, this sheer invisibility of Chávez’s supporters in the eyes of his enemies – except in their incarnations as gunmen, communists and criminals – has solidified into a single, accepted way of viewing the nation; Enrique Mendoza, governor of Miranda province and leading figure in the opposition, declared after the referendum: “the country will only attain unity when the will of the people is respected.”

It is tempting to ascribe this blindness to unbridgeable divides of wealth and status. Venezuela is, indeed, a highly unequal society, but it is far from being in the continent’s inequitable major league (Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala). Moreover, the most oligarchic element in the opposition front, Fedecámaras, was also the first to accept Chávez’s victory without cavils, a domestic mirror–image of the begrudging nod that international investors and oil market experts made to the victorious president.

A striking feature of the Venezuelan oligarchy is a sheer refusal to include their poorer compatriots within their field of vision. Their insulating wealth – gated communities, private education and health, second homes in the United States and children at its universities, occasional travel to Miami – reinforce an utter indifference to their impoverished social surroundings, one that is yet accompanied by a fine–tuned class awareness of those “close by”. It is little wonder that they react with hysteria and denial to the Chávez regime’s devaluation, punitive economic policies, and wholesale emphasis on its ten oil–funded social “missions” which serve the poorest with a gruel of Bolivarian schools, 13,000 Cuban doctors and subsidised food.

The dislocations resulting from the regime’s policies are far more widely felt among the middle and lower–middle classes, who see their lifestyle props undermined by Chávez’s radical measures and feel themselves to be teetering nervously on the edge of destitution. Since 2000, 6,000 small businesses have vanished, and the black market economy now absorbs half of the labour force. Millions of Venezuelans see Chávez as the tyrant leading them to pauperisation, intent on launching the same cataclysm suffered by their social equivalents in Argentina, Mexico and Brazil – a hollowing out of the professional class.

This combination of shock, fear, economic change and social convulsion provides the emotional as much as the political backdrop to Venezuela’s extreme polarisation. The anti–Chavistas’ encounter with their country’s home–grown political tumult, reinforced by a new familiarity with poverty, have helped sharpen responses of hysteria and denial to Venezuela’s transformation.

In expressing their furious, almost allergic reaction to the regime, Chavez’s opponents have resorted to a vocabulary of hate – often racial (Chávez is a zambo, a mixture of black and indigenous) and anti–Communist, perpetually stressing the “thirst for freedom” of the Venezuelan people. This is mirrored and matched on the government’s side; from his first day in office, Hugo Chávez has generously sprayed excoriating tirades over his chosen enemies, perhaps drawing inspiration from Ché Guevara’s incendiary Message to the Tricontinental (1967), a pivotal text for the Latin American left of the 1970s: “a people without hate cannot triumph over a brutal enemy.”

…means a damaged democracy

If hate has thus become the dominant register of political communication in Venezuela, it is also a result of the extraordinarily rapid destruction of the main institutions of Venezuelan democracy in the wake of Hugo Chávez’s rise to power. This is not the same thing as saying that Chávez has acquired the sway of a dictator – for despite his hands–on interference in the media, the armed forces and state industries, the forms of legality have been preserved and the supreme court, for example, has regularly thwarted his initiatives. But Chavez’s achievement has included the decimation of the two parties that monopolised Venezuelan politics from 1958–1998; and their replacement, the Coordinadora, is a flabby and faction–ridden alternative, incapable of producing clear leaders or coherent policies.

These tendencies suggest that the political trajectory of the “Bolivarian revolution” in its seventh year is a long way from completion. A fulfilment of the opposition’s threat to boycott the September regional elections would leave critics of the president entirely outside formal institutions, and hand the initiative to mass marches and the private media, where the hand of tycoon Gustavo Cisneros has imprinted a shrill and repetitive tone of imminent apocalypse.

Such an outcome may please Chávez, and leave the door wide open to his re–election in 2006. But a polity where mob sentiment and living–room panic are dominant forms of opposition promises to institutionalise instability, and could nurture much more violence (there were 165 extra–judicial killings in 2002–2003, according to the human rights group, Provea). And while the nature of politics in an oil–rich country like Venezuela seems defined by a contest for control over the single national resource – whose riches, owned by the state–owned PDVSA company, Chávez is democratically entitled to distribute – the current climate suggests that competing notions of the real Venezuelan pueblo, the authentic community, are solidifying into partisan, partial glimpses of social reality. With each passing day, any coherent vision of collective, national development is becoming less likely or credible.

Also by Ivan Briscoe in OpenDemocracy:

  • “Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve” (April 2003)
  • “A victory for Spain, not al–Qaida” (March 2004)
  • “Dreaming of Spain, migration and Morocco” ( May 2004)

For the moment, however, Hugo Chávez can bask in the rewards of his political savvy, populist instinct, and good fortune; they include an embarrassment of riches in the PDVSA state oil company, a renewed democratic seal of approval, and compliments from left–leaning governments across the continent (along with reluctant recognition from Washington). He has coined a formula for guaranteed electoral success in a land where the only political choice for a majority of the population is wanton neglect or paternalist patronage. But perhaps the most compelling challenge that faces him is to change the terms of that choice; free of an organised opposition threat, can Chávez find within his ideology a means to bring the aspirations of his flock and his foes together?


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