The Nation, September 22, 2003
Garden City Telegram (Garden City, KS) - Oct. 14, 2003
Venezuela appeared to take a couple of steps closer to a recall referendum on the presidency of Hugo Chávez in recent weeks, but there is little chance that he will be removed by electoral means. This is not because, as major US and Venezuelan media have alleged, Chávez is a "dictator" or "antidemocratic" but because the opposition is unlikely to muster the votes that would be needed to remove him.
In fact, Chávez has played by the rules since he was first elected in 1998, as former President Jimmy Carter has noted. But Venezuela's opposition has tried several times to remove him by extralegal efforts, including a short-lived military coup in April 2002-initially supported by the Bush Administration-and a sixty-four-day oil strike and business lockout this past December to February.
August 19 marked the halfway point in Chávez's term, making him eligible for recall under Venezuela's new (2000) Constitution. The opposition promptly turned in petitions that, they claimed, held 3 million signatures, asking for a recall referendum. The Supreme Court selected a five-person National Electoral Council to oversee the process, and their choices were welcomed by both sides.
But most of the signatures were gathered in February, when opposition leaders had no interest in a constitutional solution and were trying to topple the government by crippling the economy. Their petitions demanded a "nonbinding" referendum on whether Chávez should resign. It's doubtful such petitions would be valid for a recall vote. Even assuming the opposition could gather the required 2.5 million valid signatures, the constitution requires more than a simple majority to win; opponents would need more than the absolute number of votes that Chávez received in the last election, which he won with a 60 percent majority.
If they get all that, the opposition only wins a new election, in which Chavez would most likely be eligible to run. And most observers believe Chávez would win if he's allowed to run, even in the unlikely event that opposition leaders could agree on a single candidate.
The government has begun to highlight its achievements, especially in the areas of increased access for the poor to healthcare and education. Most impressive is an 18.2 percent decline in the infant mortality rate during Chávez's term of office, according to the latest health ministry data. School enrollment has increased by 1.3 million children, helped by the provision of free breakfast and lunches to poor children, and the elimination of fees.
Because of these commitments to the poor, Venezuela's Human Development Index-a UN measure of quality of life-reversed its decline and rose between 1999 and 2002. This came despite falling national income, which is expected to drop by more than 10 percent this year.
The opposition will focus on blaming Chávez for the steep recession. This is a difficult case to make on economic grounds, since it is mostly attributable to the economic devastation caused by the opposition's oil strike, as well as capital flight by business owners and wealthy citizens. But it will be helped by the fact that the private media are almost all controlled by the opposition and have abandoned the norms of modern journalism. (Imagine Gray Davis facing recall with ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN, as well as most radio and the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle all acting as daily advocates for the Republican right.)
Washington has weighed in, too. Bush Administration officials, embarrassed by their support for the military coup, have quietly endorsed the recall election. They have also cut off US Export-Import Bank credits to Venezuela and renewed complaints that Venezuela is not helping their "counterterrorism" and "antidrug" efforts in Colombia.
Chávez has made some mistakes-mostly in the realm of rhetoric, giving his enemies ammunition by such things as his overly public displays of affection for Fidel Castro. But his core base among Venezuela's poor majority has kept his approval ratings between 34 and 40 percent in recent months. This is amazingly high under the circumstances: in Peru, where the economy is growing and the media does not belong to the opposition, President Alejandro Toledo polls 11 percent. Still, with most of the Venezuelan opposition and the State Department committed to getting rid of Chávez by any means necessary, it's unlikely that the recall process will resolve Venezuela's conflict.