Looks to Form New Plan
Three days before the Dec. 3, 2006, presidential elections
in Venezuela, fireworks enlivened the sky above Caracas,
Venezuela's capital city. Earlier that day, Manuel
Rosales, the man who emerged only several months earlier
to challenge Hugo Chavez for president, called on
his supporters to light up the city.
that they did: they fired off miniature rockets, blasted
guns into the air, whacked pots and pans, blew whistles
and honked car horns.
But when Venezuelans went to the polls, they ultimately
decided the country did not need new blood in office.
At around 11 p.m. Election Day, Rosales conceded defeat.
In the affluent neighborhood of Las Mercedes, situated
in the hills overlooking the city where many of Rosales'
supporters reside, the noisy celebrations ceased.
By 11:30, nearly all the lights had been turned off.
People just went to bed.
In another part of the city, Hugo Chavez -- perched
on the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace,
his signature red shirt soaked by rain -- addressed
a crowd of thousands, promising an "expansion"
of the Bolivarian Revolution. The roaring crowd waved
huge Venezuelan flags and pumped their fists. "Long
live the revolution!" he bellowed.
According to Venezuela's electoral council, Chávez
won 63 percent of the vote to Rosales' 37 percent.
Still, Rosales and the opposition chalked up their
loss under the win category for garnering a sizeable
chunk of the voting population by legitimate means.
The opposition has indicated that it intends to keep
Rosales, a politician from the western state of Zulia,
as its front man, but presidential losers in Venezuela
have a tendency to disappear.
Coup de blah
In the recent past, challenging Chávez democratically
has not been the preferred tactic. In 2002, the opposition
-- at the time, the leaders of the two political parties
that dominated Venezuelans politics for 40 years before
Chávez emerged -- staged a military coup that
failed. Then came the national oil strike in 2002-3,
which caused enormous damage to Venezuela's economy.
In 2004, the opposition to Chávez managed
to get some 3 million Venezuelans to sign a petition,
which in turn led to a referendum to determine whether
Chávez should be recalled from office. Chávez
maintained his presidency after 58 percent of Venezuelans
voted against sacking him.
To this day, some opposition members insist the referendum
was stolen. However Mark Weisbrot, co-director of
the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington,
D.C., argued that international observers, including
the Carter Center and Organization of American States,
deemed the process clean. "You can see [that
the opposition is] in a bubble world," Weisbrot
said. "I've talked to these people a lot ...
and I haven't met one who can even carry on a conversation
like a normal person."
During the Venezuelan congressional elections in
December 2005, opposition parties decided to boycott
the elections because they said they couldn't "trust"
the electoral process. This proved to be a major blunder.
Even they admit that. The abstention in the end gave
Chávez full control of the 167-member National
then, there has been "an evolution" within
the opposition, said Alvaro Vargas Llosa, director
of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent
Institute. Two years ago, "some of the old guard
-- the dinosaurs -- were still trying to control things."
Now, the opposition has expanded to include a middle
class and lower middle class that don't directly benefit
from Chávez's social programs, and the people
who have democratic instincts but feel threatened
by the gradual erosion of these institutions, said
And so all these groups have coalesced behind Rosales
to traverse the democratic avenue in hopes of one
day dislodging Hugo Chávez.
On the Friday before Sunday's elections, some Venezuelan
government employees received an image in their e-mail
inbox. The image showed two smiling men (one was Rosales)
clutching each other by the elbows. To the right of
the men was a checklist of accusations, including:
"They dared to kidnap President Chávez
with the intention to assassinate him." Below
the checklist was a phrase meant to reference Rosales'
campaign slogan, "Dare to change!" However,
the phrase in the image read, "If you dare you
It was a threat with real possible consequences.
After the recall referendum in 2004, the names of
those who participated -- as well as their ID number
and their vote to keep or remove Chávez --
was made public. The information, known as the Maisanta
List, can easily be purchased on the streets of Caracas.
After the list was divulged, numerous state employees
who voted against Chávez lost their jobs, according
to State Department officials in Caracas.
"Some people have a well-founded fear of speaking
out," said Llosa of the Independent Institute.
Also causing fear among potential Chavez dissenters
were the fingerprint machines set up at the polling
stations aimed at preventing people from voting multiple
times. Although some observers praised the equipment
as effective measures against cheating, critics --
including several U.S. State Department officials
in Caracas -- said that many Venezuelans worried that
the machines would be used to create another Maisanta
On the whole, said Milos Alcalay, former Venezuelan
ambassador to the United Nations and now adviser to
Rosales, Election Day went smoothly. The problem,
he said, was that while international observers were
impressed by the level of participation and professionalism
at the polling stations, they failed to observe the
chicanery occurring behind the scenes, or that the
National Electoral Council "supports the government."
Alcalay said that many in the opposition viewed this
last election as a "now or never" situation,
that if they didn't grab the presidential reins this
time around, Chávez would be able to continue
his consolidation of power. Alcalay insisted that
the loss was still a win, and that winning the presidential
election at this time was most likely impossible.
"Reality obliges you to go on the sense of possibilities."
Indeed, was is it possible for Chávez to not lose?
His face -- spray painted on walls, printed on posters,
talking on television -- is ubiquitous and inescapable
in Caracas. As one recent story from The Economist
magazine put it: "With abundant oil revenue at
his disposal and no budgetary restraints or institutional
checks on his power, Mr. Chávez is a tough
has characterized the opposition as the corrupt guard
of yesteryear. And the opposition has played into
that perception, said Michael Shifter, vice president
for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington,
D.C. "With [the opposition's] political inexperience
and their lack of strategy, they helped Chávez
reinforce his message," Shifter said.
For instance, the opposition complained that the
Cuban doctors, whom Chávez sent into the Caracas
slums as part of his social program, were poorly trained.
But for an impoverished Venezuelan, a poorly trained
doctor is better than none.
"It was just terribly foolish, just no sensitivity
at all for people who have absolutely no access to
medical service," said Shifter. "This was
just an example that struck me as having no political
According to the Evans/McDonough opinion research
firm, 4 percent of Venezuelans say that the opposition
is their "most important problem," next
to corruption and housing. When Chávez addressed
his people on election night, the crowd passed above
their heads a coffin with the phrase "Mi Negra"
pasted on the side. Mi Negra (My Black One) was Rosales'
proposed economic plan, which called for distributing
20 percent of the country's oil earnings to the poor
via a debit card, which is black in color.
But on top of painting the opposition with a negative
brush, Chávez has impassioned his constituency
-- the poor Venezuelans -- with his social welfare
programs called "missions," which have helped
abate poverty, improve education and provide health
care to those who are otherwise deprived.
According to Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, the Venezuelan
ambassador to the United States, in an article in
Foreign Affairs, "Venezuela's social programs
will allow the country to meet the U.N. Millennium
Development Goals in 2012, three years ahead of schedule,
and the country's ranking on the U.N.'s Human Development
Index (a broad measure of economic and social welfare)
continues to rise. Although some critics have called
these programs clientelistic, they are simply responding
to long-ignored needs and building much-needed human
capital in Venezuela."
The opposition, on the other hand, has its laundry
list of complaints: Crime is rampant (between 2001
and 2006, the number of homicides in Venezuela has
been three times the number of victims in Afghanistan,
according to Llosa); many of the missions, Chávez's
magnum opus, are closed; the government is corrupt;
the country's infrastructure is crumbling (the big
bridge that links Caracas to Venezuela's main airport
recently collapsed); housing is scarce; and Chavez
is wasting the country's windfall oil revenues in
other countries, including the U.S.
However wresting the presidency from Chavez will
take more than pointing out Venezuela's problems,
said Alcalay, the former U.N. official, but also devising
feasible answers that people will accept, not paste
to the side of a coffin.
"It's extremely difficult for [the opposition]
to develop new policies and develop new credibility,"
said Richard Gott, author of the book, "Hugo
Chavez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela."
"The most probable outcome of the Chávez
era (and I think it's got a long time still to go)
is that it will eventually fall prey to its own internal
contradictions, and groups of it will split off,"
said Gott. "But that, I would say, is several
years in the future. And in the meantime, this existing
opposition has to sort of go through the motions.
But it must in its heart of hearts know that it's