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December 12, 2008

Why Chávez Will Ultimately Fail

In a world of packaged sound bites and public relations made for television, the image most people have of Hugo Chávez is the one created by his handlers. The real Hugo Chávez is an entirely different person. Not only is the man on the street fooled, members of the US Congress are just as easily fooled. Or maybe not and they are just playing their roles in the scripted drama. After all, most of them too, are made for television personalities.

Venezuelan Democracy

You need some historical background to understand Hugo Chávez. Let's start on January 23, 1958 the day General Marcos Pérez Jiménez was deposed. A new, supposedly democratic era started in Venezuela. Amazingly we had a succession eight legally elected governments which turned over power to their successor as is expected in a democracy. This is what the outside world saw. But inside there was festering bitterness fed by deteriorating economic conditions, specially after the 1970s oil bubble burst, and by the unwillingness of the two principal political parties to share power with the people. They were willing enough to nominally share power with minority parties but this was not real power sharing, it was just allowing the minority parties -- and the armed forces -- to feed at the public trough.

Rómulo Betancourt, the first of the eight democratically elected presidents, is reputed to have asked at a meeting of his coalition partners who the "real" enemy was. He got the usual answers: the communists, the businessmen, the Russians, the Americans. He responded by pointing to his shoulder. What did he mean? The "epaulets" were the real enemy. His proposal was to buy them off with the "arepazo." Keep them shut up by stuffing their mouths full of arepas. It worked for a while. The Venezuelan military became one of the most corrupt institutions in the country.

As we went along, people wanted to have more control over their lives. They wanted a decentralized government. They wanted local issues to be settled by the locals, not by the big wheels in Caracas. I call our system a quasi democracy because it was set up in such away that, in fact, we had a two party dictatorship, not a real representative government. We voted but not for the candidates of our choice. We voted for lists made up by the parties. This method guaranteed a certain number of positions to each party depending on the party's voting power. Suppose a certain legislature were composed of 50 elected members. Suppose further that AD was fairly sure of getting 40% of the vote. In practice the top 20 names would be electd and the bottom 30 would not. In such a situation, who do you suck up to, to the voters or to the list makers?


Carlos Andrés Peréz
Carlos Andrés Peréz

Arturo Uslar Pietri
Arturo Uslar Pietri
The voters wanted to change the way candidates were nominated. They wanted to name each individual candidate and to do away with the lists. This, of course, would have sapped the parties' power over the system. In earlier days the battle cry of the political parties over oil concesssions had been "Fifty-Fifty." Back then the oil companies got to keep 60% of the profits and paid only 40% in royaties. When the new nominating process was proposed AD, the leading political party, dusted off the "Fifty-Fifty" slogan. Fifty percent of the candidates by list and fifty percent by individual name. They must have missed the irony of it. Earlier "Fifty-Fifty" had been to defend the Venezuelan people from the greed of the Yankee imperialist, capitalist dogs. Now "Fifty-Fifty" was being used to defend the politicians from the will of the people.

To make a long story short, by 1992 the popular discontent was strong enough that we had riots and the coup attempt by Hugo Chávez. Democracy was seen as failed and alternatives were proposed. Some, remembering the benign dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, wanted a military government capable of putting the house in order. Others wanted a government of "Notables," the principal proponent being Arturo Uslar Pietri, the man I have called the "Venezuelan Democracy's Undertaker." Through the efforts of Uslar Pietri and Rafael Caldera, a man who hated the sitting president, and with the acquiescence of his own party, Carlos Andrés Pérez was indicted on false charges and deposed. After the interim rule of Ramón José Velásquez, Rafael Caldera bolted his party for refusing to nomiate him for the Nth time and led a coalition of "German cockroaches" to electoral victory. His victory was a clear sign that the people had had enough of the traditional parties that were seen as the source of the country's ills.

The Pardon

Caldera and Chavez
Caldera during the Chavez swearing in ceremony.
Then Rafael Caldera did one of the most stupid things any man has ever done, he gave Hugo Chávez a pardon and let him out of jail. Caldera's government was even worse that his predecessors' so it was no big surprise that Hugo Chávez, who had been lauded by Caldera, got elected in 1998 and by a huge majority.

To tell the truth, I was surprised. I didn't think Chávez had a chance. Up to then, the radical leftist parties had never been able to garner more than 30% of the vote between them. If memory serves, Chávez won with over 70% of the vote. Now, as I think back on it, I realize that the vote was never ideological but practical: who will give me the most? Of course, the candidtate with the best and most credible promise wins. Splinter parties would never be able to deliver so why vote for them? But when the main parties have proven to be incapable of delivering, you vote for the Messiah!

The Chávez Coalition

Luis Miquilena
Luis Miquilena
Once out of jail, his presidential ambitions intact, Luis Miquilena, Chávez's political mentor, convinced him that the road to power was via elections, just as Salvador Allende had been elected in Chile and Adolph Hitler in Germany. Once in power, it is easy enough to dismantle democracy and to institute the kind of regime the leader desires, specially when discontent is at a fevered pitch. But let us not forget that Chávez's first impulse was to gain power by violence, the coup attempt should be proof enough that Chávez does not have much use for democracy.

To get elected you need a political machine. AD and COPEY, the two main left of center parties, were not available to Chávez. The available political machinery was the extreme left, those parties that between them had never exceeded 30% of the vote. It was a perfect fit. The left was anxious to feed at the public trough from which they had been excluded and they could use a charismatic leader like Chávez to get there.

My upstairs neighbor (who has since moved) is a ranking official in the Chávez regime. He came from one of the socialist parties in the Chávez Coalition. During the height of the 2002 disturbances and discontent I asked him why he supported Chávez. His answer was most revaling. He didn't! "Then what are you doing in the Chávez government?" was my next question. His reply: "I believe in the system."

The above pretty much explains what has been happening since 1998. It explains the relation between Chávez and the coalition as well as the relation between Chávez and the military. He does not control either 100%. It is beyond this essay to illustrate the workings of the coalition. Suffice it to say that Chávez has used the carrot and the stick to achieve his aims but when the carrot was insufficient and the stick not threatening enough, a lot of his colatition partners have bolted. The most notorious being his communist mentor, Luis Miquilena.

When you study the deeds instead of just listening to the words, it should be loud and clear that Chávez is no ideologue of any stripe. He is ambitious beyond measure and his ambition is to be the President of Venezula for life. Better yet, the second Libertador. Translated into simpler terms, Chávez is a typical Latin American tin-pot dictator.

The End of the Road

Yon Goicoechea
Student leader Yon Goicoechea
Chávez has been defeated in the last two elections, first in the constitutional referendum on December 2, 2007 and now in the regional elections. After last year's referendum a young woman said to me: "See, he is not invincible. He can be defeated." While the political opposition has been badly fragmented, in part because the ordinary citizen does not trust the old time politicans who we blame for the ascendency of Chávez, the student body has been most united and credible because they are not seeking electoral positions. The students have taken the time to visit the people, specially the poor, to explain to them just what the constitutional referendum was all about: perpetual presidential reelection. The referendum was burdened by a huge number of changes designed to convert Venezuela into a Communists state. That might have passed but perpetual power is not something Venezuelans trust. Non-reelection has been a central issue in all previous constitutions.

Chavez in Paris
Chávez in Paris
Additionally, the Chávez Coalition is badly fragmented and the main reason is Chávez's inordinate desire for power. Chávez has created a single leftist party in the hope of controlling the rather fragmented left. Since this control would annul the political chances of many of his rivals, a large number have moved to the opposition. It was partly this fracturing of the Chávez Coalition that cost him so dearly in the past election. I don't see any reason for this trend to reverse.

Petare slums
Now Chávez is trying again, the next referendum will not have all the excess baggage. It will be a simple question: perpetual presidential reelection: Yes or No? Not only are the students already on the move to defeat the referendum, the Chávez Coalition is crumbling.

Petare is the easternmost part of Caracas. It is a poor sector, at least half being slums. Petare voted against Chávez. If the people felt that Chavez was the champion of the poor, Petare would have been solid Chávez as it has been in earlier elections. The former Mayor of Caracas and ex minister of education, Aristobulo Izturiz, who lost to Antonio Ledezma for the post of Metropolitan Mayor said in a sound bite to the press that Ledezma had not won. Instead, Chávez lost. In this, Izturiz, who is a faithful Chávez ally, can be believed.

Denny Schlesinger

Uslar Pietri, Venezuelan Democracy's Undertaker

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