Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Venezuela opposition's victory larger than it seems

Venezuela's opposition victory in Sunday's referendum on President Hugo Chávez's bid to reform the constitution and create a Cuban-styled ''socialist'' totalitarian state was much more significant -- and geographically far-reaching -- than its official 50.7 to 49.3 margin would suggest.

Granted, Chávez's grip on power remains firm, and his government is not threatened in the short term. But Sunday's opposition win has changed Venezuela's political landscape overnight and will make it more difficult for Chávez-backed leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua to change their own countries' laws to be able to become presidents for life.


Among the reasons why the opposition's win may be bigger than it seems:

First, the anti-Chávez victory may have been larger than officially announced. While Venezuela's electoral authorities announced the defeat of the Chávez-proposed constitutional reform by a 1.4 percentage-point margin with 90 percent of the votes counted, the Venezuelan government-certified independent election monitor Ojo Electoral says the opposition won by a 3.8 percent-point margin.

''We don't know whether our quick count failed to account for some rural votes of towns with less than 10,000 people, where Chávez usually wins, or whether there was some kind of a government-opposition agreement by which national election authorities announced the results as ``irreversible,'' but by a smaller margin,'' Ojo Electoral official Pedro Nikken told me in a telephone interview from Caracas.

Second, the defeat of the Chávez-proposed constitutional reform, which would have created a constitutionally sanctioned ''socialist state'' and would have given Chávez powers to be re-elected indefinitely, took place despite a relatively high abstention rate of about 44 percent of registered voters.

Pollsters said Monday that much of the abstention came from pro-Chávez poor neighborhoods, where people were reluctant to vote for a Cuban-styled system, as well as from anti-Chávez neighborhoods where people were either intimidated into not voting or thought that casting their ballots would be a waste of time because the government would rig the vote anyway.

Now that the opposition has won, many of those anti-Chávez voters who stayed at home will be more likely to cast their ballots in the next elections. This gives the Venezuelan opposition significant room to grow and undermines Chávez's strategy of winning elections through a combination of government intimidation and massive resources to get out the pro-Chávez vote.

Third, Sunday's outcome was a major blow to Chávez's self-promoted aura of invincibility. Chávez had won every one of the last five national elections since 1998, in most cases by huge margins, which had led many to believe that he was unbeatable, at least while he continues enjoying one of the country's biggest oil bonanzas in history.

Fourth, Sunday's vote marked the emergence of a new opposition in Venezuela. Instead of being led by traditional political parties -- discredited by a long history of corruption -- it was headed by new actors, such as the student movement that rioted on the streets against the government's shutdown of the RCTV television network, and the former Chávez defense minister, Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, who came out against the Chávez-proposed constitutional reforms shortly before the vote.

Fifth, the Venezuelan opposition victory will embolden opposition forces in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, convincing them that they can defeat their respective presidents' efforts to redraft their laws and create radical leftist regimes ruled by presidents for life.

''In Venezuela, many people who normally vote for Chávez effectively told him: We still love you, but we don't like the way you are thinking,'' says Ana Julia Jatar, a fellow with Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, in a telephone interview from Caracas. ``They voted against Chávez's ideological adventure.''

The same may happen elsewhere. If the opposition won in Venezuela, where Chávez is awash in petrodollars, has 60 percent popularity ratings, and controls Congress, the Supreme Court, 20 of 22 governorships and much of the news media, there is no reason why it couldn't happen in countries such as Bolivia, where leaders are embarked in similar power-grabbing efforts without Chávez's political or financial might.


Summing up, Sunday's opposition victory in Venezuela does not mark Chávez's demise nor prevent him from coming back soon with a new project to turn Venezuela into a Cuban-inspired dictatorship. But it's a major setback for Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist leader, which could have an impact throughout his allied countries in the region.

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