Will Chavez Share Mubarak’s Fate?

February 14th, 2011 at 12:57 am | 47 Comments |

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Mubarak has gone.  America’s firm ally, an icon of stability and cooperation in an otherwise volatile region, was the lynch-pin for containing the myriad doomsday scenarios that pundits love to mull over.  And yet, at the end of his thirty years, we learned that Mubarak’s stability was nothing more than a pressure cooker.  Locking up free speech, running a corrupt economy that shirked investment, was empty of opportunity and unable to change with the rest of the world, stifling a burgeoning population fully aware of the better lives to be had in a freer society.  It should come as no surprise that the regime shattered in the fantastic fashion that it did.  Repressive regimes built upon rapidly growing and engaged societies slowly calcify.  After decades of economic stagnation, institutional decay, and social humiliation, things fall apart.  Now all eyes are on the Middle East, but there are other, less Western friendly Mubaraks across the globe.  One, to our south, resplendent with his newly attained dictatorial powers, seems to be rapidly projecting his country on a similar path.

Last week was the twelfth anniversary of the beginning of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.  Those twelve years have brought increased crime, deterioration of infrastructure, and rapid inflation, as well as substantial emigration of the middle and upper class citizens that settled there in the mid 20th century.  The following is an account of my recent experience as I passed through Caracas on my way to Ecuador.  The experience was, to say the least, strange and disheartening.

As we exited the airplane from Miami to Caracas we were met by a disinterested looking man in a black Santa Barbara Airlines polo asking “¿Vas a Quito?  ¿Vas a Quito?” (Going to Quito?) “Sí” we answered, joining a small group of others making the journey.  A few minutes later we were escorted to an empty lobby adjacent to a much larger area for immigration.

We were told that at the moment there was no plane to Quito, and that they expected to have a flight available for us by 11:00 pm that night.  We were then told that while we waited we would be taken to a hotel and given dinner, and then brought back for the flight.

“We’re not going anywhere,” said a man standing beside us with his wife and two kids.  “We’ve been through this before. I doubt they even have a plane available to fly us to Quito.”  The man, Marco, who works for an American airline company and lives in Miami, then proceeded to tell us that two years ago he and his family were told the same story and were taken to what the airline personnel told them was a “five star hotel”.  Arriving at the hotel they learned to their chagrin that the hotel was actually named “Five Star Hotel” and was in reality a run-down building situated in a violent slum north of Caracas, near the beach.  They waited more than a day, unable to leave their room, the door to which had to be kept shut with a suitcase.  They were also warned that the neighborhood was dangerous and there had been a murder the night before.  Finally they received a call, were picked up in a bus, and flown to Quito.

In any other city the prospect of being driven around in a bus and dropped in a crummy hotel would certainly have been an inconvenience, but not something unusual.  In Caracas however, it is another matter.  Caracas is a dangerous place.  In fact, it is the most dangerous city in the world by numbers, more deadly than Baghdad.  In 2009 4,644 civilians died from violence in Iraq, in the same year more than 16,000 died in Venezuela.  Caracas itself has a murder rate of 200 per 100,000, which makes it the murder capital of the world.

At the airport, as we pondered our darkening future, we were joined by sixty or seventy more Ecuadorians arriving from Madrid.  They were told the same story; that there was a delay, and that we were all going to a hotel to wait things out.  They were unhappy.  Soon many of them had encircled the man who had greeted us and the short, stocky, unfriendly looking woman that had joined him.  Tensions began to rise and the group began yelling at the representatives, demanding to know why there was no plane, and if we were really going to fly at 11pm.  It was now nearly 5pm and many of us wondered what rationale lay behind taking us to a hotel for just a couple of hours, unless of course they intended simply to get us out of the airport and out of their hair.  A soldier and a police officer entered the circle, the group dispersed.

A half hour later we were standing on the street waiting to be loaded into buses.  The air was heavy and hot, and smelled of diesel exhaust.  Young men with tight clothes and heavily gelled hair were driving up on dirt bikes and whispering “What do you need?  What do you need?”

“They are changing dollars”, my friend, a better Spanish speaker than I, told me.

As families strolled out of the airport they would saunter by the men on motorbikes, seeming not to speak at all, and after a subtle exchange they would hop into their taxi and be gone.  The guards nearby were either bored or unaware.  Inflation in Venezuela is the highest in the South American continent, hovering around 30% a year.  In an attempt to control the rapid devaluation of the Bolivar, Chavez has set limits on the how many dollars can be exchanged for the currency.  On the black market, which we had just stumbled upon, and which did not seem to be too concerned about secrecy, the exchange rate is much more forgiving for Venezuelans trying to hold on to their wealth.

It was 6:30 and already dark when we were loaded onto the bus.  We wound through the barrios north and west of the airport.  The city was thronging with life, cafes and fruit stands were packed, traffic was thick and slow, the streets were dirty and crowded, and the sweltering humidity had the effect of making the barrio feel as if it were alive itself.  On the walls and buildings were tile mosaics, and painted portraits of socialist all-stars like Ché.  Further along, on a collapsing retaining wall was scrawled in spray paint comunismo es pobreza, “communism is poverty.”

We entered the hotel to find that it was, surprisingly, a very nice place.  The walls were stone, and on the second floor there was a balcony with a pool, blasting Michael Jackson’s music.  Across the street were the shores of the Caribbean, adorned with a nearly empty tiki bar bordered by a sidewalk that was falling into the sea.  It was now nearly 7:30, and we were convinced that we would be here for at least the night, if not several days.  We were fed a meal and given a room.

Ninety minutes later we were back on the bus and on the way to the airport.  The whole group, which numbered around one hundred, felt relieved, but was also puzzled.  How can the airline profit when it spends a couple thousand dollars bussing people to a hotel for less than a two hour stay?  Santa Barbara Airlines is a private company based out of Venezuela.  However it seems that their operations are heavily interfered with by the government.  According to another travel account I found, Santa Barbara uses US dollars to make payments on maintenance or other company purchases.  The dollars are purchased with an account in Miami, but the Venezuelan government has to approve the transfer of dollars before the purchase can be made.  An inefficient process to say the least.  It certainly seemed that something equally illogical, and probably corrupt, was behind our runaround in Caracas.

Upon returning to the airport we were placed in a line for nearly two hours, while the staff of the airline tried to get us over our next hurdle.  The government had charged each passenger a $40 airport tax.  This tax, ubiquitous in Latin America, is charged to everyone who leaves the country via airport.  Those on layover are not charged, as they never leave the airport itself.  We had, however, left the airport, so the tax was enforced.  This precipitated another angry crowd, and more angry insults.  This time the staff hid behind the counter, at times laying down to rest while waiting to hear from some higher up.  Eventually, again to our surprise and relief, the airline paid the tax, another $4,000 out of their pocket, apparently to keep us comfortable for all of two hours.

In the airport Chavez has gone to great lengths to advertise the revolution.  Huge banners hang from the ceiling with slogans hailing the accomplishments of the revolution.  Diminished infant mortality says one, Increased the production of corn by 132% says another, and perhaps the best states Increased the size of the growth of our children.  I had to ask a friend if I was reading this correctly, but literally the revolution has made children bigger, if you believe it.  Each banner had the large title Vivir en Socialismo “to live in socialism.”  Having only been in the country a handful of hours I felt as though I saw quite a bit of the revolution, enough to see what happens when one person slowly squeezes the life out of a country for the sake of a revolution discarded by the rest of the world, even by its most famous living relic, Fidel Castro.  Last week marked the twelfth anniversary of the beginning of Chavez’s revolucion. One can only cringe to think of what twelve more might bring.


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47 Comments so far ↓

  • SFTor1

    Hugo Chavez has begun a process that is absolutely necessary in Venezuela: the construction of a broader middle class. That means opportunity for the poor. That means health care and education for everyone, even if you were not born with a silver spoon in your mouth. That means redistributing income from the rich to the less rich, exactly like the GI Bill did in the United States after WW2.

    You could easily argue that a Hugo Chavez is exactly what Egypt needs. Nothing will change in that country until the middle class gains real power through wealth, education, and a social safety net.

    Where were all these upper-class Venezuelans and their leaders when their country needed them? Where were they when the country became a prototypical land of haves and have-nots? When the poor went hungry and the rich got richer? Snorting coke on their yachts, that’s where they were. Playing golf on their country clubs while poor people looked around for someone to bring social justice to the country. While the rich slept they found Hugo Chavez.

    And if Bruce McNitt does not understand how better nutrition makes people taller, he has some reading to do. It’s called protein. Milk will do the trick. Maybe the poor in Venezuela didn’t have so much of it before things changed.

    Hugo Chavez needs to learn to behave, but to paint him as a Mubarak-style dictator is to miss the point by a mile. Rest assured that the rich there will always remain rich. The United States needs to work with Hugo Chavez to bring investment and opportunity to Venezuela. That’s how we win together.

    One more thing, Bruce: next time you want to write about a country, maybe your hardships with missed flights won’t be front and center. It’s not that interesting.

    • Churl

      “The United States needs to work with Hugo Chavez to bring investment and opportunity to Venezuela.”

      So Hugo can nationalize the foreign-financed enterprises once they’re established?

  • red-menace

    SFTor1:

    1. You’re definitely a Commie.
    2. Chavez is comparable to Iran’s dictator, not Mubarak.
    3. Venezuela used to have Middle Class that was destroyed by Chavez.
    4. Chavez has full Obama’s support so he isn’t going anywhere soon. These two Socialists are like brothers.

  • SFTor1

    Dear Churl and red-menace:

    Churl:

    You have never heard of investing in, or working with, enterprises that are partially owned by a government? Try Statoil in Norway.

    red-menace:

    1. get a grip. Call people “commies” as much as you want to. I’ll just call you a reactionary has-been. Countries need a middle class, and they don’t appear by themselves. They are brought into being by economic arrangements. This is done through laws.

    2. Chavez is comparable to either Ahmadenijad or Mubarak. He is more like a, dare I say it?, duly elected president of a country that needs to change.

    3. No, Venezuela had an upper class and a whole lot of poor people.

    4. Please educate me on how Chavez has Obama’s support. Obama is a socialist? You are speaking like an idiot. Are you an idiot, red-menace?

    • Churl

      SFTOR1, If you have come to believe that Venezuela is anything like Norway, for your sake and the sake of those close to you, please seek professional help.

  • tommybones

    Why is Venezuela any of our business? Here’s an idea. Why not have the U.S. government mind it’s own business?

  • Pablo

    Chavez is unlikely to share Mubarak’s fate for several reasons.

    1. Chavez is a lot more popular than Mubarak. Although Chavez’ approval ratings have gone down, he remains popular with Venezuela’s working class.

    2. The turmoil in the Middle East helps Chavez because it increases the price of oil. Venezuela was the only major Latin American country that has not recovered from the world economic crisis, posting negative numbers in 2010. Yet, the price of oil per barrel has risen by $9 in the past several weeks. This helps Chavez solidify support.

    For more analysis: http://www.thecrossculturalist.com/2011/02/weekend-world-beat-chavez-and-egypt.html

  • carmona

    twelve years from now, venezuela will have drastically reduced its crime rate, after ameliorating the wretched conditions of inequality between rich and poor, and eliminating poverty and homelessness which are the root-cause of violence. cringe all you want, but chavez’s aggressive politics have been necessary to end the historical exploitation of the country’s wealth by upper-class elites, who ruled from 1958 to 1998, in a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” known as “puntofijo”. i agree whole-heartedly with SFTor1 that “Hugo Chavez is exactly what Egypt needs”. Another Colonel Abdel Nasser!

  • carmona

    http://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFTRE71C1WC20110213

    CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez scoffed on Sunday at commentary by critics that his 12-year rule was at risk of a people’s uprising like that which toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak after three decades in power.

    “I laugh when some clever analysts from the Venezuelan opposition try to compare my government with that of ex-president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt,” Chavez said during his regular weekly “Hello, President!” program.

    “They’re crazy, they’re wrong, they have no sense.”

    Supporters of the 56-year-old former soldier, who has won all but one of about a dozen national votes in Venezuela starting with a presidential poll in 1998, say he has put power in the hands of the people after decades of rule by an elite.

  • jquintana

    Chavez is a leftist dictator, and leftists in the United States love to support leftist dictators (i.e. Sean Penn and Michael Moore’s love affair with Fidel Castro, Jane Fonda clever little visit to North Vietnam in the late ’60s). Chavez has the added benefit of having said derogatory things about the U.S. for years, which lefties love—”well, you hate America, you can’t be ALL bad.”

    Plus, I don’t see Obama making an “orderly transition of power” speech about Chavez anytime soon, so he’s safe for the time being.

    • politicalfan

      JQuintana- This is funny. Why does your response remind me of Sarah Palin? ‘Leftist liberals.’ I know many (as you say) leftist liberals and they are actually good folks. They even put up with an Independent like me.

  • carmona

    jquintana, you do realize that saying derogatory things about the U.S. does not a dictator make. besides, you oughta know: Chavez does not hate America.

    if he did, i can’t imagine he’d be willing to provide free heating oil to 500,000 Americans, including 200,000 low-income households, every year! (for more info on this, see http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/5965).

  • Elvis Elvisberg

    There’s no comparison.

    Politically divided Venezuela: Rallies for and against Hugo Chavez, the president, flood the streets of Caracas. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2010/2010/01/201012414628771986.html

    Poll setback for Venezuela’s Chavez: President’s socialist party retains parliamentary majority but opposition wins enough seats to challenge his power. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2010/09/2010927448633281.html

    That stuff never happened in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. (Well, there were some protests, lately…)

    Chavez is not a “liberal” leader, in the classical sense that would encompass Democrats & Republicans. He tried to come into power by coup and shuttered the opposition TV station, for two examples that leap to mind. He’s not a good guy. (As SFTor1 points out, the poverty & stratification of Venezuela created the conditions for him to come to power). But nor is he a dictator.

    • carmona

      Elvisberg, thank you for being straight with your terms! Just as it is wrong and misleading to call him a dictator, of course, Chavez is no ordinary (classically) ‘liberal’ democrat. In fact, it’s because he’s not a ‘liberal democrat’ that many mistake him for a ‘dictator’.

      But neither of these terms really fit. Chavez is an interesting political figure for me, because he’s occupies a third category.

      When Chavez led a failed coup attempt in 1992, he wasn’t seeking to ‘undermine’ democracy in the country, but rather, to restore it! The political system that governed Venezuela from 1958 to 1998 had become corrupt, benefitting only the elites, and wholly excluding the poor. In another effort to re-found the republic, he got elected, then called for a referendum, constituent assembly, and new constitution.

      Say what you want, but had it not been for Chavez’s efforts to rescue the republic from corruption, and create a new political system, democracy would have already come to a complete end in Venezuela. YES, Chavez has single-handedly PRESERVED democracy in the country.

      • Elvis Elvisberg

        Thanks for your reply, carmona.

        From what I understand, your characterization of the pre-Chavez Venezuelan order is pretty accurate. I don’t know enough about the situation there to know whether Chavez’s coup attempt was necessary or intended to destroy the democratic government in order to save democracy. But I am very, very, very skeptical of that argument. I mean, our politics are polarized in Washington DC right now, and no one is doing anything to ameliorate the astronomical unemployment rate. But that doesn’t mean we need a populist coup, y’know? Democratic politics can be awful, but extra-legal attempts to replace the elected government are almost universally terrible things.

  • Wismer

    if he did, i can’t imagine he’d be willing to provide free heating oil to 500,000 Americans, including 200,000 low-income households, every year! (for more info on this, see http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/5965).

    Yet there is also credible evidence that Chavez has been supporting FARC. So I guess that would even it out. Do a little good in order to do a little bad.

    Tommybones. This is a forum. People talk in a forum. Among the things people talk about is foreign policy. Every country has a foreign policy. All of their citizens have opinions of other countries so therefore, talking about what the US government should do about Venezuela is a legitimate topic. It is our business, just as it is Venezuelans business on how to deal with the US.

    Would not any reasonably educated citizen of the world (and through which, their respective governments) be concerned, say, if the Iranian regime is stamping out opposition violently and is developing nuclear weapons? Would you say then that it is none of the worlds business what Iran does? Would it be more appropriate to be concerned about the goings on in Iran after Tel Aviv has been blown away?

    Iran is more extreme in its dislike for the US than the government in Caracas, but the behavior of Hugo Chavez and his socialist aims are troubling for not just the US but regionally as well. He is linked with supporting FARC. He tried to revise history when he exhumed the body of Bolivar. He is quietly changing laws in how the democratically elected oppsition can oppose him by restricting their time to debate laws, for example.

    • carmona

      Wismer,

      I know there have been widespread rumors for awhile, but I’ve never seen any “credible evidence”.
      Let’s suppose that there is such evidence. What does Chavez’s “support” for FARC consist of?

      He’s not actually providing them with bombs, or direct material support. I find it hard to believe Chavez would provide such assistance, given his principled renunciation of armed struggle.

      I recall that Chavez had attempted to negotiate the release of FARC hostages years ago. It’s much more likely that, if anything–if he is at all sympathetic to their cause–Chavez would like to them to abandon the armed struggle for electoral politics. Many guerrilla movements in Latin America have been granted amnesty (on certain conditions), and allowed to participate in democratic politics.

      What I’m saying is, the attempt to link Chavez to a “TERRORIST GROUP” is overblown.

      • Traveler

        Carmona,

        Do you read the news? It has been well reported how the FARC computers documented considerable tangible support (funds and materials) provided to FARC by Chavez. In addition, FARC has many bases in Venezuela. So if that is not support, then what is? Not a good thing if you want international acceptance.

        Is he an autocrat driving his country into a ditch, or a hero rescuing the downtrodden poor? Maybe if he makes everyone poor, that is one way to get rid of income inequality. Frankly, if he wasn’t so self righteous and downright incompetent, I think he would get a pass from the more conservative among us. From what I gather, the country worked a lot better when there was a middle class. Maybe Tommybones will set me right.

  • ProfNickD

    I’m torn between considering Chavez either a clown or a thug. Maybe some of each? A thuggish clown? A clownish thug?

    • politicalfan

      What do the people he represents think?

      • carmona

        In the past Chavez has enjoyed massive popular support (winning all but one of 12 national elections). But, until recently, his support appeared to have been declining. In last year’s parliamentary election, the people were more-or-less split between Chavez’s political party and the opposition groups.

        Next year, Chavez will compete in a presidential election. It’s possible that he could lose–but my impression is that, like the Republican 2012 field, there aren’t any strong opposition candidates…

  • lessadoabouteverything

    A very good website for those who wish to understand Venezuela is http://caracaschronicles.com/
    written by the journalist Francisco Toro. Here is his take on this: It’s become the opposition’s favorite parlor game: Could Chávez get Mubaraked next year? I think it could happen…but in an odd way. To see why, you have to understand how repressive regimes fail.

    A major reason regimes like Mubarak’s, and Ben Ali’s, turn out to be brittle is that they stack up one incentive after another for people to falsify their preferences. You may despise the regime, but since expressing such a view is likely to get you imprisoned, tortured or worse, you have every reason to keep your views to yourself for as long as the overall Opposition seems weak.

    Over time, your country is liable to end up in a situation where the vast majority of the population secretly hates the regime, but it’s too risky for any one person to say so. It’s a classic coordination problem: everyone wants to go second, no one wants to go first.

    The events that create the conditions for overcoming this problem are, by nature, unpredictable. But, in time, some sui generis event comes along and sets off a defection cascade, where each defector’s decision lowers the cost of defecting for those closest to him/her, leading to yet more defections that in turn make it easier for yet more people to stop falsifying their preferences and express their anti-regime feelings openly.

    In this sense, regimes are only as brittle as they are repressive. In particular, they’re brittle to the extent that their repression is comprehensive: that is, to the extent that they try to throw in jail everyone who speaks out against them. Comprehensive repression that sets the stage for mass preference-falsification, which itself is the pre-requisite for a defection cascade. Mubarak fell into that trap. So did Ben Ali.

    Chávez hasn’t. In Venezuela repression has always been selective rather than comprehensive. The regime has made sure everyone knows that speaking out could get you in trouble…but most often won’t. The relative (please, oh hate-mailers, fixate on the qualifying adjective here) liberalism of the Chávez regime, when compared with the old-fashioned dictatorships of North Africa, make preference falsification far less prevalent in Venezuela. Ours, afterall, is the land of the Maisanta Database – a place where there’s not that much of a point falsifying your beliefs because the government already has an exhaustive list measuring each citizen’s political loyalties, and everybody already knows it has it.

    My sense, though, is that there’s one segment of Venezuela’s population where preferences are increasingly falsified: the pro-Chávez camp.

    As the regime’s one-time earnest followers get more and more disillusioned with its inability to deliver on bread-and-butter issues, they retain powerful incentives to fake ongoing loyalty, if for no other reason than to keep some sort of access to what remains of the Chavista welfare system. Within traditionally chavista circles, expressing doubt is tantamount to apostasy, creating something that looks curiously like a recipe for Brittle Authoritarianism…but only within the pro-Chávez camp!

    (Think of this as a corollary to Petkoff’s bon mot about how the only ones who really don’t have any freedom of speech in our country are the government’s supporters.)

    The intriguing possibility – the one the opposition needs to work towards over the next 22 months – is that the December 2012 presidential elections will turn into the “peculiar set of circumstances” that sets off a defection cascade within the ranks of disaffected chavistas, most likely in the aftermath of an amateurishly rigged election.

    It’s in those circumstances that we could hope to bring the military – in Venezuela as in Egypt the ultimate arbiter of these things – over to our side, by showing them just how isolated the government they’ve been bolstering has become.

    This, incidentally, is what makes a Cairo-on-the-Guaire scenario imaginable in 2012 whereas it wasn’t in 2002: back then, there was no chance of a defection cascade on the part of chavistas, because support for the government back then was not falsified!

    For some time, people who run focus groups in Venezuela have been noting that the complaints and frustrations of chavistas in classes C, D and E are strikingly similar to those of their anti-government counterparts. That right there would seem like a first pre-condition for a defection cascade among them.

    It’s too early to tell. But then, with these things, there are only two phases: too early to tell, and too late to stop.

  • Carney

    One of the major differences is that Chavez has oil money he can ladle out to supporters to buy consent. Mubarak had no carrot, only stick.

    We can take away the oil money by ending oil’s status as the world’s monopoly source of transportation fuel. We can do that by making cars able to run on something other than oil-derived fuel. The simplest way of doing that is “flex fuel” – a relatively trivial modification costing automakers $130 per new car at the factory and enabling gasoline cars to also be able to run on alcohol fuels such as methanol and ethanol.

    With flex fuel a standard feature like seat belts, drivers are no longer a helpless captive market, forced to pay whatever OPEC demands. And petro-tyrannies see their revenues dry up.

  • Slide

    to compare the democratically elected Chavez to the autocrat Mubarak shows the utter silliness of the right wing in this country. So to answer the question posed by this article? Chavez may lose favor with the people of his country and be voted out of office. His party lost some ground in the last elections held in September. Elections. Fair elections. Democracy. Do you guys on the right just talk about freedom and Democracy all the time or do you really believe in what it stands for?

    • Carney

      Freedom and democracy are NOT the same thing.

      • SFTor1

        Fine. Let’s just agree that Hugo Chavez was duly elected by the people of Venezuela. The elections were pronounced fair by the OAS and outside observers, such as the Carter Center. Next.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    Slide, they were not remotely fair elections, they were weighted. It would be like red states like Alabama getting 10 Senators but blue states getting one. Though Chavez party won a huge majority in parliament his party did not even get a majority of the votes.

    Read caracaschronicals and his detailing of the elections.

    • Slide

      Slide, they were not remotely fair elections, they were weighted. It would be like red states like Alabama getting 10 Senators but blue states getting one.

      Or California, population 37 million, getting 2 Senators and Wyoming (half million population) also getting 2 Senators? Like that?

  • Slide

    Slide, they were not remotely fair elections

    well, if you only listen to opposition groups I guess you would feel that way.

    _____________________________

    Though the OAS and Carter Center certified the recall referendum as fair, some opposition groups, like the anti-Chávez, NED-funded Sumate, charged (and continue to charge) a fraudulent vote tally. Such charges have been largely dismissed by an otherwise anti-Chávez U.S. press, but Sumate has managed to convince Washington Post editor Jackson Diehl of the righteousness of its cause. More than a year after the failed referendum (4/10/06), Diehl wrote favorably of “the election-monitoring group Sumate, which has meticulously documented Chávez’s manipulation of the electoral system.”

    Sumate is not an “election-monitoring group,” but a prominent political opposition group that spearheaded the recall. The group’s co-founder, María Corina Machado, was a coup supporter who signed the 2002 Carmona Decree that suspended Venezuela’s democracy. No actual election monitoring group challenged the referendum’s official results (Miami Herald).
    ___________________________

    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3009

  • lessadoabouteverything

    slide, this was parliamentary elections and to highlight our absurdity of our Senate in no way diminshes that Chavez gamed the elections. And I am not sure if you are stating the Human Rights Watch (A progressive watchdog group) is wrong, but if you are than you have to provide details why they are wrong.

  • ottovbvs

    I know Chavez is one of the current US boogeymen but he came to power and still enjoys a lot of popularity for sound reasons which have a lot to do with US policy in the region over the last 100 years. Sorry Mr McNitt, there isn’t the faintest chance Chavez is going to follow Mubarak. I can think of several US clients in the middle east who run far more repressive regimes than Chavez and are likely to fall before he is. The total unrealism of this piece is indicative of just how out to lunch the right is in this country when it comes to foreign policy.

  • SFTor1

    Why is it so hard to see that different countries need different policies at different times? Venezuela was a prime example of an old-school Latin American country that only benefited a tiny upper class. It had to change.

    To posit that the country could thrive under a U.S.-style free market system that shows the very same strain—economic stratification—that led Venezuela to Chavez is to disregard the situation on the ground.

    Venezuela probably needs another generation at least of social democracy, with its redistribution policies, heavy taxation of the rich, nationalization of some national resources and industries, subsidized education and free health care. Maybe then the country will be ready for a liberalization of the economic sector. Until then the United States should support the political changes taking place in Venezuela.

    After all, the same things were done in the United States. I’ll mention the numerous land distribution schemes—the land rushes in the 19th century—and the GI Bill, as obvious examples.

  • carmona

    SFTor1, I’m with you all the way. Never expected to find such a sane person on FrumForum!

    It’s easy to frighten people about Chavez by citing his “Communist” agrarian reform program! Such fears are silly when you consider that it’s identical to our “Homestead Act” of 1862! The discovery of oil in the early 20th century transformed Venezuela from having an economy based on agricultural production to one based on petroleum exports; as a consequence, the agricultural sector suffered a devastating collapse, and the countryside was soon abandoned. Most Venezuelans live in cities, when otherwise good farm land is left idle and unproductive.

    Chavez’s agrarian reform is good (even brilliant) policy for Venezuela; if successful, it will make the country more self-sufficient–as it is now the only Latin American country that imports most of its food from others. It’s also diversifying the economy… give people jobs, homes, etc. Those who dismiss it as “Communist” are simply scumbags.

    This is a great article: “Venezuela’s Agrarian Land Reform: More like Lincoln than Lenin”: http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/963

  • Slide

    lessadoabouteverything // Feb 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm “slide, this was parliamentary elections and to highlight our absurdity of our Senate in no way diminshes that Chavez gamed the elections.”

    it was you that brought up that the elections were “weighted” as demonstrative of the unfairness of the elections. Once I demonstrated that our elections are “weighted” as well you change the argument to the contention that Chavez “gamed” the elections. Care to provide any evidence of that? Like it was said earlier in this thread, independent organizations have proclaimed that the elections were conducted fairly. It just kills you that a guy like Chavez that you despise for some bizarre reason is popular (or at least popular enough to win elections) in his own country.

  • baw1064

    One question: How the heck did the author end up with an itinerary through Caracas on the way to Ecuador? Remind me never to make reservations through that travel agent!

    As for Chavez, I can’t express my thoughts any better than the King of Spain did at an international conference a few years ago in which Chavez kept interrupting with his typical nonsensical harangue:

    ¿Por qué no te calles? (Why don’t you be quiet?)

    Yet another reason to stop importing oil.

  • SFTor1

    Baw:

    Nothing against the Spanish King, but Hugo Chavez has perhaps traveled a more difficult road, and done a lot more for his people, than said monarch. That in full knowledge of the help he provided with a smooth transition from Franco to democracy.

    Still, it is of course nice to be civil and let Mr. Juan Carlos speak without interruption.

    • baw1064

      You have a good point. But the whole blow-up started when Chavez referred to the previous President of Spain (Aznar, of the Popular (conservative) Party) as a Fascist. The current President (Zapatero, of the Socialist Party), who was at the meeting, came to his predecessor’s defense, and pointed out that “just like me, he was duly elected under our political system” (paraphrasing). I’m not sure his rights were being violated because people got upset at him calling people fascists at an international conference.

  • burrsalem

    I don’t know about this Bruce McNitt character…

  • lessadoabouteverything

    Slide, ok here is the analyis you asked for. http://www.caracaschronicles.blogspot.com/
    Beginner’s Guide the Chavez Era
    Why a Beginner’s Guide?
    First, caveat lector: it’s surprisingly tough to find insightful material on Venezuela online. Wild overstatement is rampant: Chavez provokes such strong emotions that both his supporters and his critics tend to check their common sense at the door. When you start out, it’s crucial to be aware that most of what you’ll find about the Chávez era online, for or against, is little more than propaganda.

    This guide is my little attempt to push back against all that: a collection of smart, stylish, sophisticated pieces about Venezuela by genuine heavyweights in academia, journalism and the human rights community.

    Of course, I’m a Chávez opponent, so the stuff I’ve put together here tends to be rather critical. What it’s not, though, is partisan pablum or unhinged polemic: lord knows, there’s too much of that around as it is.
    Contents

    1. Best Overall Introductions
    2. Journalistic Pieces
    3. Human Rights Reports
    4. From the Archives
    5. Critical Theory of Chavismo
    6. Skypecasts

    1. Best overall introductions
    If you only have 90 minutes to spend catching up with all the recent craziness in Venezuela, you can’t do better than this November, 2008, Frontline documentary for PBS. It’s simply brilliant:

    * The Hugo Chávez Show
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/hugochavez/

    I strongly recommend people read this blog. I live in Latin America, I have travelled extensively throughout the region, I am sure the vast majority of everyone else here hasn’t. I am not an expert on Venezuela but I recognize the real experts. If you want real, on the ground reporting from Venezuelans, then read that blog. If you do not read that blog then everyone here is acting like a Dilettant. I am not saying you have to agree with him, but he brings in many of the best and brightest within the country.
    http://caracaschronicles.com/

    Yes, there are plenty of official mouthpieces and water carriers of Chavez, but unless you are willing to go to Venezuela it makes sense to read from people who live there and who are not employed by the government.
    Here is an example that I would love the Chavistas to rebut, show me how wrong it is:

    Things that are scarce
    Posted on February 10, 2011 by Juan Cristobal

    I hate to discuss this, but it’s so shocking it needs to be told. Apparently the latest thing you simply cannot find in Venezuela’ shelves is … sanitary napkins. As if women needing to buy this product needed one more thing to foul their mood.

    But you know what else you can’t find in Caracas either? Credibility.

    Remember how on December 29th the government announced a devaluation of the official exchange rate?

    Here is BCV director Armando León, on January 5th (I’m paraphrasing): “The exchange rate unification will not have an additional impact on inflation.”

    Here is BCV President Nelson Merentes on December 30th: “Our econometric models tell us that the [devaluation's] impact on prices will not be significant.”

    Here is Finance Minister Jorge Giordani on December 30th: “The [devaluation's] impact will be minor, because we now have more judicial transparency and a stronger financial sector.”

    Here is “vicepresident” Ricardo Menéndez on January 3rd: “The [devaluation] may even help lower prices.”

    Guess what? Inflation in January alone was 2.8%. In January of last year, it was 1.7%. In December, it was 1.8%. The probable cause for this inflationary spike? Oh, I have no idea…

    So next time you hear the economic gurus of the government spouting off predictions that make no sense, remember: they have no credibility. Sanitary napkins are far from the only thing you cannot find.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    Por Francisco Monaldi, Profesor del IESA y la UCAB

    Como estaba previsto, las elecciones legislativas de 2010 resultaron en una sobrerrepresentación importante del oficialismo en la Asamblea Nacional: 49% de los votos obtenidos por el oficialismo a nivel nacional se tradujeron en cerca de 60% de los escaños. Este hecho ha suscitado una gran controversia en el país porque se percibe como poco razonable e injusto que los opositores al gobierno, obteniendo una mayoría en el voto total, tengan 31 diputados menos. Sin embargo la discusión al respecto ha adolecido de imprecisiones y manipulaciones de parte y parte que hace falta aclarar, permitiendo así comprender cuáles elementos del sistema electoral debemos reformar para hacerlo más razonable y equitativo.

    Para empezar, es necesario destacar que ésta es la primera elección legislativa en que el sistema electoral venezolano ha dejado de ser proporcional y se puede considerar claramente como un sistema mayoritario, en que “el ganador se lo lleva todo”, violando abiertamente el principio de representación proporcional establecido en la Constitución de 1999. Venezuela tiene ahora el sistema más desproporcional de América Latina y uno de los más desproporcionales del planeta, fuera del mundo anglosajón. Esto ha sido chocante para un pueblo como el venezolano acostumbrado por décadas a un sistema proporcional.

    Se ha atribuido la sobrerrepresentación del oficialismo casi exclusivamente a la manipulación de las circuitos electorales realizada por el CNE oficialista en base a la nueva ley electoral, conocida por el termino gerrymandering en inglés. Sin embargo, es importante entender que si bien la manipulación de circuitos le quitó un número importante de diputados a la oposición, entre 6 y 8, esta no es la única fuente, ni la principal, de la diferencia de 31 diputados. Aún más importante, sin la presencia de otros elementos generadores de sobrerrepresentación, el gerrymandering no hubiese tenido mucho efecto. Pasemos a analizar entonces en orden de importancia los factores que alejan al sistema electoral venezolano de la proporcionalidad entre votos y escaños.

    SOBRERREPRESENTACIÓN DE LOS ESTADOS DESPOBLADOS

    En primer lugar, hay que destacar la sobrerrepresentación de los estados más despoblados del país en la Asamblea Nacional (fenómeno conocido como malapportionment en inglés). En estos estados, con la excepción de Nueva Esparta, domina ampliamente el oficialismo. Un voto en Delta Amacuro vale casi seis veces más que un voto en el estado Miranda o Zulia, un voto en Monagas vale casi tres veces más que un voto en Distrito Capital o Carabobo; y un voto en Portuguesa casi el doble que en un voto en los estados con mayor población (ver gráfico anexo).

    El origen de esta absurda sobrerrepresentación no es el CNE o la reciente ley electoral, sino la Constitución de 1999. Como compensación a la eliminación del Senado en el cual estaban igualmente representados todos los estados del país, la Asamblea Constituyente decidió que en la nueva legislatura unicameral cada estado tendría 3 diputados independientemente de la población que poseyeran. Por eso, Delta Amacuro tiene 4 diputados con apenas 100 mil electores y Miranda tiene solo 12 con más de 1 millón 700 mil. Es decir que con 17 veces más población electoral, Miranda solo tiene 3 veces más diputados. El malapportionment por si solo explica buena parte de la diferencia de escaños, aún con un sistema proporcional daría una ventaja al oficialismo; pero como veremos se ve potenciado por el sistema mayoritario (y el gerrymandering que este sistema hace posible).

    Es importante destacar que si bien en nuestro antiguo Senado había un alto nivel de malappportionment, como es común en las cámaras territoriales de los países federales, esto no se traducía en una significativa sobrerrepresentación de Acción Democrática, el partido mayoritario en casi todos los estados más despoblados. La razón es que en el Senado venezolano, como el actual Congreso chileno, todos los senadores se elegían en circuitos binominales (los estados) con representación proporcional, es decir que para que un partido obtuviera los dos senadores del estado tenía que más que duplicar al siguiente partido en votos. De hecho, tomando los votos lista que sacaron las alianzas en esta elección de 2010, un hipotético Senado hubiese quedado con 24 Senadores oficialistas y 22 de oposición (21 MUD y 1 PPT), es decir que el 49% de votos oficialistas se hubiera traducido en 52% de los escaños. La pequeña ventaja del oficialismo se originaría en que más que duplico la votación de la oposición en Delta Amacuro y por eso se llevarían los dos senadores de ese estado.

    DE PROPORCIONAL A MAYORITARIO

    En segundo lugar, el sistema electoral, como dijimos, dejó de ser proporcional para convertirse en mayoritario, y ese hecho, combinado con el punto anterior, es lo que genera la mayor parte de la diferencia en escaños. En un sistema proporcional puro el porcentaje de votos se parece al de escaños. Por ejemplo, en el Distrito Capital en que se eligen 10 diputados, la Unidad saco una ligera ventaja en votos sobre el oficialismo (con más de 47% de los votos cada uno). Eso implicaría que en un sistema proporcional cada alianza hubiese obtenido 5 de los 10 diputados. Pero como el sistema en esta elección dejó de ser proporcional el oficialismo pudo obtener 7 de los 10 diputados (70%), 6 de los 7 nominales, aún perdiendo el voto total en el Distrito Capital. Es importante entender por qué.

    En el sistema mixto como el que se ha usado en Venezuela desde 1993 una parte de los diputados se elige nominalmente por mayoría simple y una parte se elige proporcionalmente por lista. Dos cambios hicieron que este sistema mixto, inicialmente proporcional, lo transformarán en un sistema claramente mayoritario.

    El primero es la eliminación de la proporcionalidad global del sistema. En elecciones anteriores, los diputados nominales obtenidos por un partido o alianza se tomaban en cuenta para la distribución de los diputados por lista. Por ejemplo, volvamos a nuestro caso del Distrito Capital. Como el oficialismo saco 47% de los votos y obtuvo 6 de los 7 diputados nominales (60% de los 10), no le correspondería ningún diputado adicional por lista. A la oposición le corresponderían los 3 diputados por lista para compensar que no llego a los 5 diputados que le corresponderían proporcionalmente. Quedaría entonces el oficialismo con 6 (60%) y la oposición con 4 (40%), todavía sobrerrepresentado al oficialismo pero no tanto como quedó en la realidad (70% a 30%). Al eliminar el vínculo entre los votos nominales y de lista, se exacerbó el carácter mayoritario del sistema electoral.

    Esto nos trae a la segunda importante razón por la que el sistema dejó de ser proporcional, el incremento de la proporción de diputados nominales elegidos por mayoría y la consecuente disminución de los electos proporcionalmente por lista. En su versión original el sistema mixto establecía que 40% de los diputados se elegían nominalmente y el resto por lista. Este porcentaje fue sucesivamente elevado a 50%, luego a 60%, hasta llegar a 70% en esta última elección. En la medida que se aumentó el porcentaje de diputados nominales se incrementó al carácter mayoritario del sistema. Volvamos al ejemplo del Distrito Capital. Supongamos que, como era en el pasado, 5 diputados se eligiesen nominalmente y 5 por lista. Supongamos, como ocurrió en la reciente elección, el oficialismo ganase todos menos uno de los escaños nominales (4 en este caso). A la oposición en este caso le asignarían 4 de los 5 de lista, si hubiera proporcionalidad global, con lo que quedaría 5 a 5. Es decir que 47% de los votos para cada partido se traduciría en 50% de los escaños, como en un sistema proporcional puro. Si lo analizamos incorporando la eliminación de la proporcionalidad global, a la oposición le hubieran tocado 4 de los 10 diputados.

    De hecho el sistema electoral también sobrerrepresentó a la oposición en algunos estados como Anzoátegui, Táchira y Zulia, compensando parcialmente la sobrerrepresentación global del oficialismo. De hecho la oposición sacó más porcentaje de votos en Miranda, donde sacó la mitad de los diputados, que en Zulia, donde sacó 12 de 15 (80% de los diputados). Sin embargo, como el oficialismo es mayoría en muchos estados despoblados que, como explicamos antes, eligen más diputados por elector; la mayoría de la oposición en unos pocos estados muy poblados no puede compensar completamente a la sobrerrepresentación del oficialismo. A eso hay que agregar el uso de gerrymandering en los estados dominados por la oposición, como discutiremos más adelante, lo que hizo aún más cuesta arriba poder compensar con los estados opositores.

    Otro ejemplo de los efectos perversos del sistema mayoritario, es que el PPT sacando el 28% de los votos en el estado Lara no haya obtenido ningún diputado. Una minoría muy importante quedo entonces sin representación en ese estado. La división de la oposición entre MUD y PPT les costó a la oposición 5 diputados que se llevó el PSUV. Pero si el sistema fuese proporcional todos hubieran obtenido diputados en proporciones similares a sus votos.

    La combinación de la sobrerrepresentación de los estados más despoblados con la transformación del sistema proporcional en uno mayoritario, constituye entonces la principal fuente de la diferencia entre los escaños obtenidos por el gobierno y la oposición. De hecho, hay escenarios en que la sobrerrepresentación del oficialismo, provocada por ésta combinación de factores, hubiese podido ser mucho mayor. Si el oficialismo hubiese obtenido 55% de los votos, hubiese podido obtener más de 75% de los diputados. En cambio si la oposición hubiese sacado 55%, es posible que ni siquiera hubiese obtenido la mayoría absoluta en la Asamblea.

    GERRYMANDERING

    Volvamos entonces al tema de la manipulación del los circuitos electorales a la que se le ha atribuido casi exclusivamente la sobrerrepresentación del oficialismo. Esta estrategia ventajista, que se conoce en inglés como gerrymandering, constituye una de las desventajas más importantes del uso de sistemas mayoritarios. ¿En qué consiste? En construir circuitos electorales de manera que un determinado partido tenga garantizados el mayor número de curules nominales en un estado. Esto se realiza de varias formas. Una manera es crear circuitos en que la oposición sea abrumadora mayoría, por ejemplo más del 80%, como el C2 de Miranda. La oposición hubiese ganado igual en ese circuito con 51% de manera que el restante 30% de los votos está siendo “desperdiciado”. Esta fue la técnica que se uso al incluir a la Parroquia Leoncio Martinez del Municipio Sucre en el C2 de Miranda y sacarla del circuito mas competido de Sucre/Petare.

    Otra manera es fusionar circuitos. Por ejemplo, en Vargas anteriormente había dos circuitos uninominales uno de los cuales era bastante más competido que el otro. El CNE fusionó los dos circuitos en uno solo para elegir a los dos diputados nominales, haciendo mucho menos probable que la oposición obtuviera un diputado. Algo similar ocurrió en el sur de Valencia con la creación de un gran circuito trinominal en que el oficialismo sacó los 3 diputados.

    También se utilizó la técnica de crear, dentro de un mismo estado, circuitos con mayor población electoral por diputado a elegir que en otros, de manera de beneficiar a una parcialidad. Una especie de malapportionment estadal.

    En resumen, el gerrymandering consiste en diversas técnicas para distribuir los votos esperados del partido que lo diseña, de forma tal que se maximice su número de diputados, desperdiciando pocos votos. También puede ser usado defensivamente en momentos de declinación de un partido, para garantizarse un cierto número de diputados en un escenario de menor votación.

    Es notable que la manipulación de circuitos electorales hecha por el CNE ocurrió fundamentalmente en los estados en que la oposición es mayoría o está cerca de serlo. Además los criterios de diseño cambiaron de estado a estado de manera claramente oportunista. Por lo tanto es evidente que la mayoría oficialista en el CNE utilizó esta estrategia para beneficio del partido de gobierno logrando reducir el número de diputados opositores.

    El caso del Distrito Capital es ilustrativo. Con las circunscripciones existentes en 2005 y la distribución de votos obtenida en 2010, la oposición hubiera obtenido la mitad de los diputados nominales. Por ejemplo, al antiguo circuito conformado por las parroquias El Paraíso y La Vega en que hubiera ganado la oposición se le agregaron las parroquias de Macarao, Caricuao y Antímano, con lo cual el oficialismo obtuvo los dos diputados de esa nueva circunscripción.

    En total, la manipulación de circuitos parece haberle quitado entre 6 y 8 diputados a la oposición. De manera que es una fuente importante de distorsión entre la proporción de votos y escaños, pero no la única, ni la principal. Es más, si se hubiera seguido con el sistema de 50% de diputados nominales y proporcionalidad global, el gerrymandering hubiera tenido efectos muy reducidos en el número de diputados de la oposición, porque al compensar los diputados nominales obtenidos con gerrymandering con diputados de lista, la estrategia no sería muy eficaz.

    COMPARÁNDONOS CON ESTADOS UNIDOS Y MÉXICO

    Se ha argumentado, como supuesta defensa al sistema, que en Estados Unidos existe un sistema mayoritario con abundantes casos de gerrymandering y un alto nivel de malapportionment en el Senado. Es cierto que el sistema es mayoritario (uninominal) y que por eso precisamente el gerrymandering es un grave problema. Pero en E.U.A los circuitos electorales se rediseñan cada 10 años en base al nuevo censo poblacional y descentralizadamente en cada una de las legislaturas estadales, de manera que no puede hacerse un gerrymandering centralizado a favor de un solo partido a nivel nacional, como el que realizó el CNE. Además, los tribunales han forzado a las legislaturas estadales a crear circuitos que representen a las minorías, de manera proporcional a su peso en la población.

    También es cierto que el Senado estadounidense, al igual que el de Venezuela antes de 1999, tiene un alto nivel de malapportionment, pero la Cámara de Representantes es completamente basada en población. Además, los circuitos para elegir a los senadores, por ser equivalentes a todo el estado, hacen imposible el gerrymandering. Demás está de decir que el hecho de que el sistema mayoritario lo usen nuestros vecinos del norte, no implica necesariamente que sea bueno para nosotros. Países con instituciones fuertes y consolidadas se pueden dar el lujo de tener un sistema mayoritario porque el gerrymandering puede ser acotado y no usado solo por una parcialidad. Aún así este tipo de sistemas tiene problemas muy importantes que es bueno considerar.

    En realidad nuestro sistema actual tiene mayores similitudes con el implementado por el PRI en México para mantener su hegemonía, pero garantizando una pequeña participación de la oposición, que le otorgará cierta legitimidad al sistema político. Para ello se implementaron variantes de un sistema mayoritario con un reducido componente proporcional, de manera que el PAN y otros partidos minoritarios conservaran una cuota de participación.

    LA REFORMA NECESARIA

    Entonces, ¿cómo habría que cambiar el sistema electoral para hacerlo más representativo de la voluntad de los votantes? Lo primero es modificar la ley electoral para hacer al sistema de nuevo claramente proporcional. Lo más fácil es volver a que el 50% de los diputados se elijan por lista, volver a la proporcionalidad global y prohibir el uso de las “morochas” que representaban una trampa al sistema (evita la proporcionalidad global). Con eso el gerrymandering se haría muy poco efectivo y el sistema volvería a ser más proporcional en cada estado.

    Para evitar la sobrerrepresentación de los estados menos poblados sería necesario cambiar la Constitución de 1999, lo cual luce bastante más complicado. En caso de que se plantee una reforma constitucional habría que reducir el malapportionment, por ejemplo reduciendo el número de diputados asignados a cada estado de 3 a 2 o a 1. Alternativamente, se podría restablecer el sistema bicameral manteniendo una cámara totalmente basada en población, como lo era la Cámara de Diputados en el pasado.

    También sería conveniente dejar asentado más contundentemente que el sistema electoral tiene que ser proporcional, y definir límites claros para subir los costos políticos de transformarlo en mayoritario. Finalmente, habría que establecer criterios homogéneos para el diseño de circuitos electorales para limitar el uso de gerrymandering, pero esto sería menos relevante si el sistema vuelve a ser claramente proporcional.

    La proporcionalidad tampoco es una panacea y tiene problemas que no cabe analizar aquí, pero la tendencia mundial ha sido a moverse hacia sistemas con mayor proporcionalidad. Hasta en Gran Bretaña, los inventores del sistema mayoritario, se están planteando una reforma al sistema electoral. ¿Cuál es el sistema electoral apropiado? Es un debate interesante que sería muy bueno que tengamos en el país, pero lo que está claro es que no podemos tener el sistema más desproporcional de la región, en un país altamente polarizado. Es una receta perfecta para el colapso de la democracia.

    Caracas, 30 de Septiembre de 2010

    • Churl

      In Zukunft, bitte auf Englisch schreiben. Es ist auch möglich, Links zu lange Schriften verwenden

  • lessadoabouteverything

    As to the election, here is a report on TNR: http://www.tnr.com/article/world/78000/chavez-venezuela-opposition
    Sunday’s parliamentary election in Venezuela saw Chávez’s governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela slump to a landslide. Chavistas walked off with 59 percent of the seats in Venezuela’s single-chamber National Assembly on the back of just 48 percent of the vote, all thanks to a well-known list of unfair voting conditions that left the playing field far from level: an aggressively gerrymandered map, massive rural overrepresentation, and blatantly biased election rules approved by a blatantly biased Elections Commission.

    Though routed in the seat count, the vote felt like a win—and a coming of age—for opposition activists. Gone are the days when the words “Venezuelan opposition” conjured a hodge-podge of ancien regime holdovers and reactionary cranks. The vote was a milestone in the opposition’s gradual transformation into an organized mass political movement able to credibly challenge Chávez for the allegiance of everyday Venezuelans.

    Working in tremendously challenging circumstances against a hyper-empowered petrostate that had put all its resources into the campaign, the opposition’s umbrella Roundtable for Democratic Unity (the unfortunately anagramed M.U.D.) went toe-to-toe with chavismo, coming within 90,000 votes (out of eleven million cast) of matching their tally. (A small anti-Chavez left-wing party got the remaining 3 percent.)

    For a movement short of money, with limited access to broadcast media, run almost entirely by volunteers and vilified daily by official media, this is highly impressive. Slowly, over the last twelve years, the opposition has learned some basic lessons about democracy and what it takes to champion it in the face of an autocratic onslaught. The first has to do with unity: a movement long riven by personal rivalries and intractable clique dynamics finally pulled together to put forward a single, unified slate and campaign with an impressive degree of message discipline. The kinds of feuds and splits that had earned them a well-deserved reputation for haplessness simply vanished in this cycle.

    The second (related) lesson has to do with message discipline: the opposition finally grasped the need to get control of the agenda by picking a powerful theme and sticking to it. This time, with public concern mounting over an unprecedented crime-wave that has left Venezuela with a murder rate four times higher than the death toll for civilians in Iraq, the opposition pushed hard on crime and the government’s failure to deal with it. With food inflation clawing back many of the gains in living standards the poor had made earlier in the Chávez era, the opposition put the government on the offensive, highlighting recent scandals in the state-owned food distribution network. Most importantly, the opposition managed to stay on its bread-and-butter message in the face of any number of government attempts to shift the focus of the debate.

    For the first time in the Chávez era, the opposition managed to set aside the kinds of highly abstract discourses about “communism,” “Marxism,” “Fidelismo,” and other such abstractions that had been the mainstays of its messaging so far. With public opinion research showing again and again that this form of messaging could only rally the opposition’s middle-class base, the opposition finally started to get the knack of targeting “the other 80 percent”: working class Venezuelans who scarcely care about the various “isms” but want their basic concerns addressed.

    Paradoxically, by the end of the campaign it was Chávez who seemed out of touch, wedded to a highly abstract, ideological discourse that lacked any evident points of contact with Venezuelans’ day-to-day reality. With official discourse sounding more and more like something out of a 1974-vintage mimeographed pamphlet from a radical campus group, it was suddenly the opposition—with its narrow focus on issues like crime and food security that matter to people every day—that had something relevant to say.

    All of which sets the stage for an extremely interesting presidential election in December 2012. The government’s failure to clear the 50 percent mark despite an unprecedented mobilization of state resources to secure a win is a clear indication that 2012 is no sure thing. Unlike in past elections, the government will no longer be able count on the opposition to simply shoot itself in the foot repeatedly until it’s out of contention. Buoyed by this experience, opposition politicians will now come under overwhelming pressure to rally around a single candidate selected via primary.

    We should be clear: the obstacles to a transition to full democracy in Venezuela remain daunting. In his eleven years in power, Hugo Chávez has worked assiduously to break down all barriers between the state, the government, the military and the governing party. This obviously creates massive structural advantages for his United Socialist Party. When the opposition wants to organize a rally, it has to struggle to field enough volunteers to set it up; when the government wants a rally, it just calls the army and hundreds of soldiers are ordered to set it up. When the opposition wants to put a 30-second on the air, it has to fight to raise every penny to pay for it, then struggle to find a station willing to air it. The government can just commandeer the airwaves on every TV channel and radio station for Chávez to campaign for hours on end, free of charge, and does so, often.

    Nobody ever said it would be easy, taking on Chavez within what remains of Venezuela’s democratic structures. But Sunday’s election makes one thing clear: it may be hard, but it’s not impossible.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    The Fraud is in the List Rule
    Posted on September 29, 2010 by Francisco Toro

    The real fraud in Sunday’s legislative election came not through something blatant like ballot stuffing, but rather through an arcane change to a little-understood corner of the election law that robbed the opposition of some 10 seats in the National Assembly.

    In state after state, this seemingly harmless change in the Ley Organica de Procesos Electorales’s method for apportioning members to the National Assembly picked off seats that ought to have been ours and handed them to PSUV, making a mockery of the constitution’s explicit demand for proportional representation in legislative elections.

    The result?

    The easiest way to explain that table is with an example. Let’s take Apure State. In Apure, the MUD took 38% of the list vote while losing all three of the circuits. If there had been no list voting at all (as in the U.S. and Britain), the system would have been entirely non-proportional: 38% of the voters would elect 0% of assembly members.

    Under Venezuela’s old, pre-LOPE rules, the two list seats would have been apportioned with a view to bringing the distribution of Apure’s seats in the A.N. as closely into line as possible with the distribution of Apure’s votes. If that’s the goal, the obvious solution is to give both list seats to MUD. By doing so, the old rule would have given 60% of Apure’s seats to the government (the 3 circuit seats) and 40% to the opposition (the 2 list seats): close enough to the actual, 62-38 popular vote breakdown.

    Preserving proportionality in this way is the whole point of list voting!

    Under the new LOPE, however, List voting no longer makes it its business to preserve proportionality. Instead, a Chinese Wall is erected between circuit voting and list voting, with the two list seats apportioned without any reference to what happened in the circuits.

    So, since the government got a little over half the list votes, it gets 1 list seat. Since the opposition got a little under half the list votes, it gets one list seat. That’s D’Hondt for you. The final result – 4 seats to the government, 1 to the opposition – gives the government 80% of the seats in Apure State on the back of just 62% of the popular vote.

    Nationally, this seemingly “technical” new rule worked to the government’s benefit in 15 states, to the opposition’s benefit in 4 states, and made no difference in five states. Nationwide, without this change, the opposition would’ve walked off with 74 seats – 45% of the national assembly – instead of 64.

    Again, it’s easy to retort that plenty of system’s we all recognize as democratic (the U.S.’s, Britain’s, Canada’s…) are even less proportional than ours. But there’s a difference: those countries have no constitutional guarantees of proportionality; we do. Not because the CIA put it there, or because Romulo Betancourt put it there or Francisco de Paula Santander put it there: because chavistas put it there, right into article 186 of the constitution Chávez used to carry in his breast pocket and call “the best constitution in the world”.

    So, say it with me now: the new list apportioning system is un-con-sti-tu-tion-nal. Unconstitutional. Capisci?

  • baw1064

    I hadn’t realized that “Gerrymandering” had been borrowed into Spanish. Not one of America’s more noteworthy cultural contributions!