Raul Larios

Can democracy win in Venezuela?

National Flag of Venezuela

In Venezuela, democracy has traveled a long, rocky and often bloody road in the 20 years since Lt. Coronel Hugo Chavez’s failed attempt to overthrow the government in 1992.  But recent events give pause for optimism: a dozen political parties were able to come together at last month’s primaries to elect 1 single opposition candidate for the upcoming national elections scheduled for October 7, 2012.

The winner of the primaries was Henrique Capriles, the current governor of Miranda (Venezuela’s second largest state), and the former president of the Chamber of Deputies (somewhat equivalent to Speaker of the House of Representatives).  And the scuttlebutt is that his chances are good, really good.

However, as a long-time observer of Venezuela, I am not so optimistic.  For years I did a lot of wealth management business there, in those dark days when democracy was teetering under the notoriously corrupt President Carlos Andres Perez.  Even the military couldn’t stand him.  They tried twice to overthrow him (including the failed attempt by Chavez that landed him in jail for several years).  Perez was eventually impeached in 1993 for corruption.

My lack of optimism is well founded.  President Chavez controls all government institutions in Venezuela, including the all-important CNE or “Consejo Nacional Electoral”.  This supposed independent branch of government has the final word on all local, regional and national elections.  Any electoral disputes are decided by simple majority of its five voting members, who are granted that power by Parliament, which is solidly controlled by Chavez.

Furthermore, Chavez masterminded and set in motion open class warfare when he launched his first presidential campaign in 1997.  He blamed the 2-party political system of the time for all the corruption and social injustice — the means by which the so-called “upper classes” perpetuated their power and wealth at the expense of the so-called “lower classes”.  And he promised to abolish it.

His promise rang deep amongst the poor, and he won all states with 56.2% of the popular vote — which was the largest margin in 40 years!  In other words, it was a landslide with a mandate.

Shortly after his election, Chavez called for a public referendum regarding the drafting of a new constitution to abolish the 2-party system.  Keep in mind that at the time, public referendums were virtually unknown in Venezuela.  The masses came, and he got an 88% ‘yes’ vote — an obvious validation of the mandate.

The newly elected Constitutional Assembly gave itself sweeping powers, including the power to abolish any government institution and dismiss any elected official perceived as corrupt or as a puppet of the so-called “upper classes”.  By the way, the Assembly did not hesitate to exercise those powers.  It even dissolved the Chamber of Deputies (Venezuela’s House of Representatives).  What is even more amazing was that in 1999, a second public referendum actually approved the new Constitution (including all actions taken by the Assembly) by 71.8% of votes.  Was this another validation of the mandate or was there some voting fraud?

Democracy was tested again in 2004, when the opposition invoked the new Constitution for a recall referendum — to remove Chavez as president!  However, the tally was a 59% vote against Chavez’s recall.  The turnout was massive (70% of all registered voters).  Please keep in mind that despite multiple allegations of voting fraud, the Organization of American States and the Carter Center were the international observers, and they both ratified the legality of the outcome.  Again I ask, mandate or fraud?

In December 2006, there was another presidential election.  Would you be surprised to find out that Chavez won by 62.8% of votes and that voter turnout was even larger (74.6%)?  Mandate or fraud?

What about Chavez’s cancer?  By American standards, a rational electorate would not vote for somebody so sick.  However, Chavez’s base (the so-called “lower classes” of Venezuela) will not see things by American standards.  Having been born in a mud hut of a poor working class family of a remote village, Chavez is their man.  The masses feel that they deserve it; that this is how they win the class warfare — by one of their own being “el presidente” for life.

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April 3, 2012 - Posted by | New York | , ,

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