Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The military and the tyrant: Reflections on the referendum in Venezuela

By Michael J.W. Stickings

From Newsweek (via Ed Morrissey):

Most of Latin America's leaders breathed a sigh of relief earlier this week, after Venezuelan voters rejected President Hugo Chávez's constitutional amendment referendum. In private they were undoubtedly relieved that Chávez lost, and in public they expressed delight that he accepted defeat and did not steal the election. But by midweek enough information had emerged to conclude that Chávez did, in fact, try to overturn the results. As reported in El Nacional, and confirmed to me by an intelligence source, the Venezuelan military high command virtually threatened him with a coup d'état if he insisted on doing so. Finally, after a late-night phone call from Raúl Isaías Baduel, a budding opposition leader and former Chávez comrade in arms, the president conceded—but with one condition: he demanded his margin of defeat be reduced to a bare minimum in official tallies, so he could save face and appear as a magnanimous democrat in the eyes of the world. So after this purportedly narrow loss Chávez did not even request a recount, and nearly every Latin American colleague of Chávez's congratulated him for his "democratic" behavior.

This from Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican foreign minister and now a global distinguished professor at New York University, likely a reputable source.

For my comments on Chavez's ruler-for-life referendum, see here (before) and here (after). Here's how I put it in the former: "The entire process has been rigged, and the referendum is no exception. If he can't win through intimidation, he will find some other way. Whatever the polls say, Chavez's power grab is pretty much a sure thing."

It may still be a sure thing -- he will try again and he may well succeed.

(Ed predicts he will target the military: "He will have to find some way to diminish the military command to reduce their threat to his regime, so expect some show trials and mass purges in the next couple of years. Once he has reduced the military threat to his regime, the next vote will go Hugo's way, regardless of the will of the Venezuelan electorate.")

As for this past referendum, I thought he would win -- or rig it to win. My error, it would seem, was not taking into account the will of the Venezuelan military. It may have been motivated more by self-preservation than by a commitment to democracy, but at least its last-minute stand against Chavez's encroaching tyranny enabled the will of the Venezuelan people to prevail.

For the time being.

**********

At TNR, Georgetown professor Michael Shifter is more optimistic, interpreteting the "stunning" referendum result as "the beginning of the end" for Chavez:

Chávez's loss reveals his domestic vulnerability and the limits of his aggressive petrodiplomacy. True, he will continue to seek to expand his influence in Latin America, even beyond such close allies as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. He will lose his ideal foil when Bush leaves office in January 2009, but he will continue his belligerent verbal assaults on the United States and will move to strengthen links with anti-US regimes like Iran. None of that is likely to change. After all, Chávez remains on a mission that is essentially about extending power, but after last Sunday's setback , it is unlikely that Chávez, for all his political talents, will succeed in reversing his regime's decay.

Yet this conclusion seems to be at odds with much of the rest of Shifter's piece, including this:

The loss, his first in nearly nine years in power, must have been tough for Chávez, but he shouldn't be underestimated. To his credit, he quickly acknowledged defeat, thereby fending off international opprobrium for a regime already under intense scrutiny. His claim to enhanced legitimacy -- in a democracy, you win some and you lose some -- might gain Chávez some favor with foreign governments troubled by his authoritarian moves. Most importantly, Chávez's existent power was not on the line in this vote. Despite emerging fissures, he still controls all key institions -- the courts, the National Assembly, the armed forces -- and will continue to do so. The Constitution of 1999, which Chávez designed, gives him enormous powers and allows him to remain in office until 2013. Time is on his side, and he has plenty of money to spend.

Indeed, Chávez may have been gracious in defeat, but he certainly hasn't given up. He invoked the phrase that catapulted him to political stardom after his failed coup attempt in 1992, saying "We couldn't do it, for now." It seems he will use other means -- such as his broad decree powers or another constitutional assembly -- to relentlessly pursue his plan of 21st Century Socialism, including indefinite reelection. Moderation or backtracking is out of character and should not be expected. Chávez is a consummate military man who thrives on combat and disdains the give-and-take of democratic politics. He is a shrewd political operator who tends to strike back quickly (rhetorically, at least) when he feels vulnerable. As in the past, he could well turn the loss to his advantage and emerge even stronger.

And therein lies the key point: Chavez may have lost this battle, but he remains in power and in control of much of the country. The referendum was not a vote on his tyranny but rather on allowing him to extend his tyranny -- and, indeed, he remains a tyrant.

He came close to overturning the outcome of the vote but apparently had the good sense not to. That doesn't mean he accepted the outcome of the vote, just that he decided for tactical reasons to take the fight elsewhere.

Temporarily aligned against him, however much at cross-purposes, are the military high command and various and largely impotent opposition groups, and perhaps also a large chunk of the Venezuelan people, and he will take the fight to them in other, non-electoral arenas.

There is hardly any reason to be optimistic. The end has not begun.

And he will try again, later.

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