June 09, 2008
Once again Hugo Chávez may be overreaching. On May 28, a spine-chilling intelligence decree went into effect with ominous consequences for civil liberties and the writ of habeas corpus. Ostensibly issued to deflect national-security threats, the decree threatens Venezuelans who refuse to act as informants with up to four years in prison. Warrantless wiretapping and other forms of surveillance are green-lighted. A community-based network of spies is in the works.
Chávez has a lot more to fear from the peaceful opposition than from any national-security threat. On May 22, his government disqualified some 400 individuals from running in the Nov. 23 elections for supposed ''administrative irregularities.'' Only more than 80 percent are opponents, and Chavista corruption is running rampant. The intelligence decree is, thus, likely to be applied against the opposition for simply exercising its civil liberties.
A year ago, Chávez erred badly. Taking over RCTV, Venezuela's oldest commercial broadcaster, turned out to be an overreach: Polls showed an 80 percent disapproval of RCTV's shutdown, and hundreds of thousands of students flooded the streets in protest. One thing led to another, and Chávez lost the Dec. 2 referendum, which would have allowed his indefinite reelection.
''Dec. 2 put in evidence the incipient weakness of Chávez's charisma,'' says Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the daily newspaper Tal Cual and a democratic-Left opponent. He is cautiously upbeat about Nov. 23 if the opposition stays on the tracks of unity and democratic participation.
Favoring a coup in 2002 and what he calls ''an acute abstentionitis'' after the recall referendum of 2004 cost the opposition dearly. Chávez gained control of almost all governorships and mayoralties as well as a full grip of the municipal councils and the National Assembly. A ''disastrous course of action,'' Petkoff notes.
Tipping the balance
In the 2006 presidential election, Chávez bested Manuel Rosales by 14 points. Rosales, nonetheless, won by conceding defeat, recognizing Chávez's victory and not crying fraud. In addition, two new previously regional parties -- A New Time and First Justice -- emerged as national organizations. Chávez's call -- They Won't Return -- directed at the two traditional parties now rings hollow.
Two other factors tipped the balance against Chávez. Tensions within the Chavista coalition came to the surface, most notably the defection of retired general and former defense minister Raúl Baduel. His opposition to Chávez's indefinite reelection opened a door that not a few Chavistas stepped through on Dec. 2 to vote No.
Most important were the students Chávez inadvertently mobilized by the RCTV takeover. Though a long-standing and militant fixture in Venezuelan politics, the student movement had laid dormant under Chávez. ''These young people running on a full tank and fully embracing democracy refreshed the opposition's face,'' Petkoff concluded.
Crime out of control
In the meantime, Chávez is struggling if by no means out. His United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has further aggravated tensions within the ruling coalition. Three fellow-traveler parties refused to join the PSUV ranks; one of them explicitly rejected a single party as anathema to democracy and pluralism. Notwithstanding an ocean of petrodollars, the economy is chafing under the anti-market, Chavista yoke. Crime, which hits the poor hardest, is out of control.
On Nov. 23, the opposition stands to gain six to eight governorships and no less than 100 mayoralties, the same share held before the abstention strategy set in. Regaining a foothold in the political system after having dealt Chávez his first electoral defeat last December is, however, light years away from where the opposition was in 2004.
Chávez has been an autocrat with a democratic veneer. Since winning the 2006 election, he has overreached in authoritarian directions that have offended the democratic sensibilities of most Venezuelans. In part, that's why three million of Chávez's supporters abstained from the polls on Dec. 2.
Disqualifying opponents from the upcoming election and issuing a draconian intelligence decree further erodes his democratic credentials. The PSUV, moreover, is insisting on a constitutional amendment to allow Chávez's reelection in 2012 even though 60 percent voted against that specific change last year.
Only by defending and broadening the democratic spaces left in Venezuela will the opposition gain ground against a Chávez currently set on a path to full autocracy.
Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida International University