December 07, 2007
Before Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez acknowledged defeat in Sunday's referendum, it was made clear to him the consequences of not doing so.
CARACAS -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez did not go gently into the night Sunday as vote tallies showed he was losing a vote on his proposals for radical constitutional revisions, military and opposition officials say.
Military officers and opposition leader played a crucial role in averting a possible attempt by the furious Chávez to refuse to recognize his defeat, the officials, familiar with the events, told El Nuevo Herald.
Some early exit polls Sunday predicted a victory for Chávez, but as the day progressed the indications swung toward a victory for the vote against the revisions -- which included allowing unlimited presidential reelection.
Chávez has acknowledged that he thought long and hard about his defeat before conceding -- the release of official tallies was delayed from 8 p.m. Sunday to early Monday -- but has flatly denied that any military officers pressured him to accept the opposition victory.
As the delay lengthened, opposition officials said, suspicions arose among leading Chávez critics gathered to monitor the tallies in the Caracas offices of Manuel Rosales, governor of the state of Zulia and loser to Chávez in the last presidential election.
''The opposition did not know how to handle the situation until it decided to pressure the military, warning them that what would come if the [pro-no] results were not accepted would be bloody,'' said a businessman who witnessed the events in the Rosales office.
Vicente Díaz, a member of the board of directors of the National Electoral Council, said this week that the delay was the result of an agreement with the yes and no factions to withhold results until 90 percent of the votes had been counted. That agreement was broken, as tensions rose, with an announcement of only 87 percent of the votes counted.
A telephone call went out from the office to Gen. Jesús González González, head of the armed forces unified command, the businessman said, as rumors grew that Chávez would not accept a defeat.
From another phone in the same office, a former leftist politician called Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Rodríguez to warn him of the consequences of not accepting the defeat, the businessman added. He asked that the politician not be identified.
At the same time, from an office elsewhere, retired army general and former Defense Minister Raúl Isaías Baduel was receiving preliminary results from polling centers, said a retired colonel who was in contact with Baduel's office.
At 7:15 p.m. Chávez headed into a meeting with the armed forces high command in Fort Tiuna in Caracas, the country's most important military installation, accompanied by a group of his ministers and supporters in the legislature.
According to the retired colonel, the high command apprised Chávez of the various scenarios if he refused to accept defeat.
''They let him know that the people could hit the streets massively . . . and that there was no way of guaranteeing that the military would go out to repress the people,'' the colonel told El Nuevo Herald.
News reports published in Caracas and Spain Tuesday -- strongly denied by Chávez -- said the president was ''irate'' and complained that he had received false information predicting victory.
The businessman in Rosales' office said the call to Gen. González went out at around 7:30.
Almost simultaneously, the former leftist political leader called Vice President Rodríguez ``and fought with him . . . even used a couple of swear words . . . to push him to accept the results.''
At 9 p.m., Rodríguez held a brief news conference and acknowledged that the results were ``tight.''
The sense that the no vote was ahead swept Caracas, and as the National Electoral Council continued to delay the release of the tallies, opposition leaders began going on television to announce that their side was winning.
In the central Caracas municipality of Libertador, a heavily pro-Chávez area, Mayor Freddy Bernal made a radio call to police patrol cars and motorcycles, according to media reports and a recording posted on several Internet sites.
The voice is heard ordering a ''maximum alert'' while awaiting ''instructions from the fundamental leader [Chávez] to see where is the place, if necessary, to show force.'' Chávez appears to have begun to accept his defeat around 10 p.m. according to Venezuelan media reports.
SPOKE TO CASTRO
Chávez supporter-turned-critic Pablo Medina said the president went alone into a room at Fort Tiuna and spoke to his top political mentor, Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
''Every minute that passed made it harder for the government to impose a result different from what was already out in the public opinion,'' said the retired colonel.
Then came the first signal of concession, the dismantling of the stand in front of the Miraflores presidential palace where Chávez had promised to make a victory speech after the votes were counted.
A second sign was the urgent suspension of a giant publicity campaign that the government had arranged for a victory, said the owner of a printing facility who had been contracted by the government as part of the campaign.
''If Chávez had insisted in not recognizing his defeat, the Armed Forces and the people would have forced him to resign from the presidency. He knew that, and because of that he did not take any risks and accepted the debacle,'' said Medina.
''The military helped in one way or another to allow peace to reign . . . and avoid a civil war,'' said retired Lt. Col Joel Acosta Chirinos , a former Chávez ally and now a fierce critic.