Proofs of life A question of timing
Dec 032007

A question for any historians out there: are there other examples of a leader seeking near-dictatorial powers through democratic means, then losing and quickly conceding defeat?

Augusto Pinochet in 1989 is the only example that comes to mind, and it is not an apt analogy for yesterday’s outcome in Venezuela, since the Chilean general already had dictatorial powers.

Even Hugo Chávez’s strongest critics owe him at least a bit of praise today, however grudging, for so rapidly acknowledging the failure at the ballot box of his attempt to expand powers through a series of constitutional reforms.

This morning’s outcome – a 49-to-51-percent defeat – certainly weakens Chávez politically. But it is also a blow to the chorus of analysts who had declared democracy and insitutionality to be dead in Venezuela (many of whom supported a decidedly undemocratic coup attempt in April 2002).

“True enough, Chávez was elected, but he has since used his power to rig the electoral apparatus and rob it of all credibility,” one of those critics, former Bush administration Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, wrote last week. “He has made democratic change impossible and peaceful dissent useless, so it should come as no surprise when demonstrations turn deadly and elections are utterly discredited.”

Mr. Noriega’s sentences are almost amusing this morning. It appears that Venezuela’s electoral apparatus still has some credibility left.

Instead, the referendum’s result is a victory for those in Venezuela who resist the political polarization that has consumed their country. People who say they support much of what Chávez has tried to do for the poorest Venezuelans, but who could not support the new direction signaled by the constitutional reforms. People like Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, Chávez’s former defense minister; the leaders of the student movement; and leaders of social-democratic political organizations that have insisted on independence from the president’s “United Socialist Party of Venezuela.”

With the referendum going down to a narrow defeat, and with Chávez conceding quickly, Venezuela has just threaded a difficult needle. The country just avoided some potentially disastrous outcomes that seemed perfectly plausible yesterday. Had the results showed Chávez’s “yes” vote winning narrowly, the opposition would surely have cried fraud and taken to the streets, with bloody results. Had Chávez refused to accept the outcome, forcing weeks of re-counts amid explosive rallies and demonstrations, violence would also have been likely.

These scenarios, thankfully, appear to have been averted. The vote was close: Hugo Chávez certainly had an opportunity to insist on his victory, thereby proving right the critics who portray him as an authoritarian. But he didn’t take it.

Instead, Venezuela today awakened to the best possible outcome: a quick vote count, an evidently functioning set of electoral institutions, and – last but not least – defeat of a package of reforms that included some pretty bad ideas.

Caracas should breathe a sigh of relief this morning.

5 Responses to “Venezuela threads the needle”

  1. Santiago S. Says:

    Adam,

    Your analyzes are moving more and more towards the left as time goes by – please keep up the objectivity and insight that has kept me coming to the blog for about a year now. On this point, I would refer you to the

  2. Santiago S. Says:

    Adam,

    Your analyzes are moving more and more towards the left as time goes by – please keep up the objectivity and insight that has kept me coming to the blog for about a year now. On this point, I would refer you to the Economist’s article on the election, which hints at the real reason why Chavez may have been so keen to accept defeat; he was fearing an army split after an implicit threat by General Baduel minutes before the press conference was supposed to start at 7pm.

    Now that I have your attention, I would also suggest you rectify your post on General Uscategui. If you read the latest Semana, you will see that, it seems, the General is actually innocent. The real culprit seems to be Rito Alejo del Rio (oh surprise, right?). In any case, I want corrupt generals to be prosecuted as much as you do, but we should acknowledge when we mistakenly accuse someone.

    Thanks

  3. Adam Isacson Says:

    Santiago, we call them as we see them here. And you know, there are probably two reasons we haven’t devoted much time and resources to working on Venezuela.

    One is that our critique of the Bush administration’s current approach to Venezuela (post-Roger Noriega, since 2005 or so) isn’t that strong. They have sought to engage, and have generally avoided saying stupid things in public. The policy has been far from perfect, but is much improved. In fact, by keeping their mouths shut and avoiding appearing hostile, Assistant Secretary Shannon and others clearly helped make the opposition victory possible.

    The other reason, though, is that the extremely polarized climate makes any work on Venezuela tiresome and fruitless. There are very few potential counterparts to work with who aren’t virulently on one side or the other. And whenever one writes something about Venezuela that fails to satisfy one extreme or the other, even on minor details, one is attacked for being “leftist” or “rightist,” often both at the same time. It’s not only unhelpful, it’s boring and predictable.

    And we will absolutely not rectify on General Uscátegui. We had no idea whether he was in on the Mapiripán plot along with Mancuso, Castaño, Rito Alejo del Río and whoever else. What we do know is that General Uscátegui commanded the brigade whose area of responsibility included Mapiripán.

    We know that this brigade, the 7th, received repeated entreaties for help as hundreds of paramilitaries – operating for the first time in the region, flown in from Urabá to an airport heavily guarded by the security forces – massacred people over an entire week.

    We know that Gen. Uscátegui’s brigade refused to respond to the carnage in any way. We know that Gen. Uscátegui personally refused to respond to the massacre even when Maj. Hernán Orozco, head of the battalion specifically in charge of Mapiripán, urgently contacted him, at least twice, to tell him it was happening.

    Maybe Gen. Uscátegui failed to protect the citizens of Mapiripán because he supported the paramilitary action there. Maybe he failed to act simply because he was afraid of the paramilitaries, as he indicated when he broke down in tears during his trial. Either way, it was a severe dereliction of duty that had very bloody consequences.

    There is nothing to rectify.

  4. Santiago S. Says:

    Adam,

    Agreed on the Chavez front – keep up the Colombian focus. Also, before I make my second point, thanks much for posting the Ingrid letter in English. I actually sent a letter to El Tiempo in response to Ingrid’s mother’s (well-justified) protests against the letter’s publication. I agree with her, but, frankly, as a Colombian, that letter is invaluable – it should be mandatory reading for all of us, and everyone who is interested in learning about the hostages’ plight.

    On the Uscategui front, I quote Vanguardia (and Semana had a similar point, which I can’t find right now):
    “Sin embargo, el juez le dio la razón a Uscátegui, quien siempre se defendió con la afirmación de que el día de la masacre no tenía el mando de las tropas en la zona donde se ejecutó la masacre, porque había sido relevado de esa función por el batallón Joaquín París.”

    Uscategui, apparently, no longer commanded troops in that area. As I said, I have been a harsh critic of Colombia’s inability to prosecute the military when needed. However, if Petro (I mean, we are talking about Gustavo Petro here), Semana, and Vanguardia (not to mention an impartial judge) are on the same side, you may consider a different point of view. Frankly, I had a hard time believing his innocence at first too. In any case, I guess we will agree to disagree on this one.

  5. Sergio Méndez Says:

    Adam:

    I think the logic of this post is dangerous. We have nothing to thank Chavez. Respecting the democratic decision that defeated him in the referendum is something that should be basic for any so called democratic leader, not something exceptional that deserves praise. Is like when Uribe comes to the media and to his detractors and says that we should thank him and his goverment that there is “freedom of speech to criticize him”, as it was not something basic an essential that any ruler should respect and not a gift given by his highness, the president and the junta that governs with him

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