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What’s Really At Stake in the Venezuelan Election

by Elliott Young on Aug 8, 2004

Elliott Young

On August 15, Venezuela will face the most important election in its history. It’s a critical election because for the first time Venezuelans will vote to recall — or not recall — their president.

The United States had better respond more responsibly than it did two years ago. In April 2002, the United States stunned the world by immediately recognizing an illegal government installed after a military coup ousted the constitutionally elected president, Hugo Chavez. This time the United States has the opportunity to support democracy and allow the Venezuelan people to decide the fate of their country at the ballot box.

With heavy scrutiny from the Organization of American States, the Carter Center, the European Union, and thousands of international electoral observers, there should be no question of the legitimacy of this referendum. Therefore, there will be no grounds for the United States to reject its outcome.

Both U.S. presidential candidates have made threatening remarks about Chavez’s supposedly authoritarian and undemocratic rule. John Kerry went so far as to say that Chavez’s close relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro “raised serious questions about his commitment to leading a truly democratic country.”

Of course, the opposition-controlled media in Venezuela feed this sort of anachronistic anti-communism with one-sided coverage. Yet the more relevant historical analogy for Chavez’s Venezuela would be Juan Peron’s Argentina, a legacy that Chavez himself frequently invokes. In the middle of the 20th century, Latin American populists cultivated highly personalist styles of leadership while they nationalized key industries, stressed independence from the United States and ultimately strengthened a capitalism in their countries that benefited labor unions and workers.

Chavez’s charismatic hold on the vast majority of poor Venezuelans and his anti-Yankee rhetoric fit the populist profile. Inheriting a state-owned oil industry at a time of record high oil prices has enabled Chavez to pursue his ambitious social program of distributing resources to the poor without having to expropriate private industry. As long as oil prices remain high, Chavez may be able to have his cake and eat it too.

So why are members of the Venezuelan elite and significant sectors of the middle classes apoplectic at the thought of Chavez finishing out his term in office? Anti-Chavistas point to corruption, crime and economic crisis to justify their opposition, but crime and corruption are hardly new to Venezuela. And a good part of Venezuela’s economic decline, which has been turned around in the last year, can be attributed to the three-month long strike led by oppositionists. These are the same people who supported the April 2002 coup and who publicly declared their desire to topple the government by crippling the economy.

The vehement opposition to Chavez by the Venezuelan elites is cultural as well as economic. Put simply, they are embarrassed by their president. He’s a “clown,” he acts like a “monkey,” they complain, pointing to his impromptu singing and folksy digressions on his six-hour-long weekly call-in television program “Al Presidente.” Labeling Chavez a monkey plays the race card, hinting that Chavez (who is part Indian and part black) is distinct from the lily-white Venezuelan elites. Historian Samuel Moncada, chair of the history department at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, calls this the “aesthetic opposition.” As Moncada put it, “The Venezuelan elites will simply not forgive Chavez for breaking the cultural codes that distinguish them from the rest of Venezuela,” the darker-skinned 80 percent of the people that live in poverty.

Like Peron’s “descamisados” (shirtless ones), Chavez’s supporters are mostly poor and landless, the wretched of the earth. The passionate identification of the poor with Chavez cannot be chalked up solely to rhetoric or personalism; he has produced results: 60,000 peasant families have received more than 5.5 million acres of land, thousands of schools, health clinics and low-income housing have been built, an ambitious literacy program has graduated more than one million adults and higher education is being democratized.

Venezuela is polarized today, as it has always been. On one side are the rich who drive in caravans of SUVs with designer sunglasses, honking their horns to get rid of Chavez. On the other side is a heterogeneous crowd of loud and rambunctious Venezuelans, most too poor to afford cars, who seem willing to lay down their very lives for their “comandante.” Most Chavez supporters carry in their pockets a miniature edition of the new constitution, a symbol they frequently brandish as if it were a weapon.

The most reliable polls predict that Chavez will win in the referendum, yet the opposition has already begun to say that it will claim fraud if Chavez emerges victorious. The United States, which has a sorry history of supporting military coups and undemocratic regimes in, for example, Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973) and Venezuela (2002), must seize the opportunity to support democracy in Venezuela.

When Venezuelans return to the polls on Aug. 15, the United States should recognize the legitimacy of the results, whichever side wins. Since 1998, the Venezuelan people have voted twice for Hugo Chavez, and they will probably do it again. It is a strange irony that the very same people in Washington who lauded the military coup against President Chavez in 2002 today accuse him of being undemocratic. What’s at stake in this referendum is not only the future of Chavez, but the integrity of American foreign policy and its increasingly hollow calls for democracy around the globe.


Elliott Young is an associate professor of history and director of Latin American and Ethnic Studies at Lewis & Clark College.