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December 4, 2007

Chavez Lost

Double celebration, on Monday I went out with a friend to celebrate my 69th birthday.

Chavez interview in Paris

Chavez interview in Paris.

Frankly it is a big relief that Chavez lost but the news reports are not telling the real story. In the previous election Chavez promised the opposition that he would ram ten million votes down our throats. He got seven. This election he got 4.2 million votes. His backers are 40% fewer than the last election. The only reason the vote was relatively close is that abstention went up from 36% to 44% because a lot of people were afraid that their vote would be stolen like in past elections.

Abstaining in this round was a big mistake because so much has changed since Chavez shut down RCTV, a very popular TV station, the oldest one in the country. The students who traditionally have been very active in politics, had been quiescent, apathetic, during the Chavez years. They sprang into political life when the TV station was closed and they have been incredibly creative in their campaign. They made sure not to ally themselves with the discredited opposition and they made sure not to attack Chavez directly. Their position was that Chavez as president was OK but that the land should be governed by democratic rule. They refused confrontation. They gave the soldiers flowers to show that they had no aggressive intentions. During the debate about the changes to the constitution, they went to the poor sections of the country to explain why the reforms would be harmful to the people.

A number of important people turned their backs on Chavez including his ex wife and ex first lady as well as the ex defense minister who happens to be a Chavez compadre, the godfather to one of the Chavez children. General Baduel was the man who brought Chavez back to the presidency in April 2002 after he quit or was deposed (depending whose story you believe). Baduel was absolutely clear on his criticism of the constitutional change, he said: "Constitutions must limit the power of government, not enhance them." I had never heard such a clear definition of the purpose of a constitution. The message was so clear that it was impossible to misunderstand, Chavez wants power and the constitution should limit that ambition, not make him president for life.

But the real force were the students who are numerically a large group. They made it clear that they would not allow the election to be stolen and that they would remain in the polling stations until victory or defeat was declared under fair procedures. Around 8 PM our local time (7 PM Eastern) it was reported in Tenerife, Canary Islands, that the president would be giving a victory speech shortly. This appears to have been a Reuters leak (I would not put it past them, they are the people who published adulterated pictures during the Israel/Lebanese war last Summer). But that speech was not to be. The electoral council was supposed to present the first official bulletin at 8 PM. That was postponed to 11 PM and it was postponed again. There was no logical reason for the delay. The vote was automated and the voting machines are connected by phone to the electoral council computer room. As soon as each polling station tallied the paper ballots against the machine totals, the results would be instantly available. The polling stations closed at 4 PM with a few exceptions and by 8 PM 80 to 90% of the results should have been available to prepare that first bulletin.

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The deflated Chavez effigy down for the count.

What follows is my imagination at work, I was trying to figure out a reason for the delay and this is my conclusion: Chavez was going to steal the election once again but cooler (military) heads convinced him that they would have a student revolt on their hands. This would not be the old and nasty opposition but their own sons and daughters they might have to fire on. Remember how clear General Baduel was in his opposition to the constitutional reforms. I don't think the military could entirely ignore his remarks.

Yesterday and today I spent quite a bit of time speaking to strangers. Every one seemed happy that Chavez lost. After being told in a public forum to "shut up" by the King of Spain, after being told off by several Latin American leaders, after being deserted by wife and compadre, Chavez has lost a large part of his appeal. I feel that he will be much less of a force in the future. Today on the streets I even heard talk about calling for another referendum to oust him before his term is up. It could happen (but I would not count on it).

Denny Schlesinger

Note: Today Chavez denied being coerced by the military to accept the electoral defeat. This convinces me that my analysis was sound. They did tell him to stand down.

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