Article 72 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (approved in 1999) begins:
All popularly elected offices and positions are revocable.
After half of the term for which the official was elected has passed, a number no less that twenty percent of the registered voters of the corresponding electorate can begin the process of revoking the official’s mandate.
…during their time in office, a functionary cannot be recalled more than once.
In 2004, the Venezuelan opposition was able to bring about a recall referendum against the president, Hugo Chávez Frías, which he won by a wide margin. (Margarita Lopez Maya notes that although the percentages voting for and against Chávez were roughly the same – 58.25% in favor and 41.74% against the Bolivarian revolution – the number of Venezuelans who turned out to vote had increased by more than a third. This signals two important things: first, that the revolution has mobilized more voters than any government in the history of Venezuela (for example, in December of 1989, just 10 months after the Caracazo, there was an official abstention rate of 55% in the off term elections). Second, it continues to polarize the population to roughly the same degree. (Though, it is worth noting, Chávez carried the 2006 elections with 63% of the votes).
A second round of recalls has just finished in Venezuela, this time taking aim at mayors, governors, local and national assembly members – all told, 167 officials faced the prospect of justifying their political existence to the electorate. Many of the officials with jobs on the line were Chavistas – or described themselves as Chavistas. However, this time the prime movers of the recalls were not escuálido organizations like Súmate (chief author of the 2004 adventure), but rather radical strains within Chavismo itself. This is, of course, why the recall is so important to the 1999 constitution, the construction of ‘21st Century Socialism,’ and the supplanting of representative by protagonistic democracy. The ability to recall serves as one more check on the opportunism and institutional inertia inherited from four decades of puntofijismo. That is to say, the purpose of the recall in Venezuelan democracy of the Fifth Republic is to keep elected officials directly and immediately accountable to the will of the people.
For radical Bolivarians the recalls of 2007 were a way to weed out ineffective and/or corrupt politicians (like, many contend, mayor of Libertador – a sector of Caracas – Freddy Bernal; or PODEMOS governor of Aragua Didalco Bolivar). Even better, or so the radical Chavistas contended, the recall would allow for the more middle class and reformist elements of the revolution, as well as fair-weather friends who have just been ‘following the money,’ to be swept out of power. (For example, given the intransigence of parties like PODEMOS and Patria Para Todos (PPT) to dissolve and join the PSUV and the resulting defection of their bases to the new party, many expected the recalls to bring about a definitive end to their existence).
So why didn’t anything happen?
The Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) opened more than 1,570 voting centers, 3,664 voting stations, and 5,419 agents in every state of the nation. These centers and staffers were ostensibly there to collect signatures for stage one of the recall process, which determines whether or not enough registered voters want to go forward. This past Saturday, Sunday and Monday (June the 16th, 17th and 18th) the centers were open, staffed, and ready.
And they stayed that way all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday; but in nearly every voting center throughout the country, the preparation was all for not. In only nine of the 167 possible recall cases were enough signatures gathered to move to the next step of the referendum. In many cases, less than half the necessary signatures were gathered.
By Saturday evening accusations were flying from all sides of the political spectrum as to who and/or what is to blame. Popular electoral recall – constitutionally sanctified and approved by a majority of the population – seems to be one of the few issues on which Chavista and Opposition politicians can agree. Both sides do not and cannot dare to question the validity, value, and downright goodness of the institution. And likewise, both sides are scared to death of it.
More than a Conspiracy of Silence
One could be forgiven for thinking the recalls came and went without much popular participation because nobody knew they were occurring. The CNE finalized the lists of officials up for potential recall in the week immediately preceding the three-day signature gathering window. This has lead opposition parties and Bolivarian militants alike to claim the government intentionally sabotaged the process, since many of its own cadre were facing recall.
Perhaps. Should evidence of backroom dealing, intentional manipulation on the part of the electoral or executive branches, or anything else of the sort emerge, it would certainly add their list of ammunition for the spin-machine in their war against the Bolivarian Revolution.
But even more important is the fact that NO political party supported the recalls, even those opposition sectors which stood to possibly gain from the recalls they worked so hard to bring about in states like Anzoátegui. Thus, the opposition’s inevitable future claims of fraud and ‘authoritarian anti-democrat antichrist and etc’ lose a bit of their potency, by their own hands (again). It makes sense that the Chavistas – especially those who stood to lose their jobs – wouldn’t go out of their way to publicize the referendum. As for the opposition, their calculated silence betrays the weakness of their position in Venezuela today.
The opposition knew it couldn't pick up any seats, knew it faced the very real likelihood of facing more robust Chavista replacements for recalled officials, and knew that should the recalls fail, they could spin it into the 'Totalitarian Chavismo' file. In other words, they decided it is better to sleep with the devil you know. Underlying the political maneuvers of 'Chavistas' and opposition politicians alike, however, is a fear common to all politicians in liberal democracies of the population's direct expression and empowerment.
A few weeks ago I asked a student, a militant from the PCV, what he thought of the recalls. He responded that he thought they were a great thing, and proceeded to cite a long list of politicians from his home state who switched ranks from Acción Democratico (AD -- one of putofijista parties) to the MVR (Movimento Quinta Republica – the Fifth Republic Movement, Chavez’s party which brought about the end of the fourth republic with the new constitution of 1999) but have not changed their practice. They still line their pockets with tax money, extort favors and concessions, half-execute showy projects in order to gain short-term popularity, and will jump Chávez’s ship at the next opportunity. These are the people, echoed a newly elected member of a communal council in the ultra-Chavista barrio 23 de enero, have made the MVR just as bad as AD and COPEI in terms of corruption and inefficiency, and it’ll be good riddance to them when they’re gone.
Luis Augusto Zapata, militant Boliviarian and president of the National Integration and Participation Bloc, which was the principal promoter or recalls in the country and whose home state (Aragua) had the most officials up for potential recall, called the process a ‘fraud’ and encouraged all Venezuelans to boycott the process. On Friday, the day before the initiation of signatures, he argued that the CNE was orchestrating the re-legitimation of elected officials without the necessary – and constitutionally mandated – due process to make it a legitimate exercise of democracy.
(Of the nine mayors and legislators now up for recall, six are from the MVR or PPT, both Chavista parities at the time of the official-in-question’s election. Three are either from AD or independent ‘oppositionistas.’ Again, the majority of the push to recall officials came from within the more radical wings of the Bolivarian Revolution.)
Why (and How) Fraud?
I’ve been asking everyone I know about the referendum, what they think of the failed process, the extremely low turnout, their impact and significance at this current moment in Venezuelan political and social history. Explanations and opinions vary, here are the 3 most common groupings:
1. La sombra de la Lista Tascón
The first and predictable spin from the opposition to the failed referendum came from COPEI secretary general Luis Ignacio Planas, who argued participation was so (might we say puntofij-tastically?) dismal because the population was afraid to voice their disapproval publicly after the 2004 anti-Chávez referendum. The fiasco around the ‘Lista Tacsón’ (Tascón List) is enough, or so the argument goes, to stifle any genuine democratic practice under the dictatorship of Chávez and the Bolivarians.
The Tascón list is named after a MVR legislator from Táchira who published the names of anti-Chávez signatories on his website during the 2004 recall. In February of that year, Chávez called for the list to be made public to prevent fraud on the part of the recall’s proponents (considering the same folks had just instigated a coup and tanked the economy of the country during a 2 month long strike, as well as the dubious maneuvers of Súmate and other opposition movements in the lead up to the recall, one might forgive him for being more than a bit skeptical about their fidelity to democratic and legal methods…). Luis Tascón promptly published the list, including more than 2,400,000 names and identification numbers, which led to all manner of ‘purge’ and ‘political discrimination’ claims. In April of 2005, Chávez called for the list to be stored and buried.
The Tascón list, a rather popular piece of evidence of the government’s Big Brother-Baby Killer-Worse than Hitler nature, is an interesting political artifact. It has undoubtedly been used and continues to be used BOTH by Chavistas and Oppos as a political litmus test for everything from jobs at the bank to election judge posts. Chavistas see signatories as escuálidos, and escuálidos see non-signatories as godless communists or spineless nothings. Either way, the ostensibly buried list continues to play an active role in Venezuelan political life.
In other words, escuálido complaints about the list are made in bad faith. They use it for exactly the same purposes.
What's more, COPEI’s accusation also serves as a testament to the opposition’s lack of popular support. IF (and that is a pretty big if, methinks) people didn’t turn out to vote out of fear of La Lista Tascón Junior, it signals a rather significant lack of faith of the opposition’s ability to bring about regime-change. That is to say, since the opposition picture of human, and especially Venezuelan, nature is one of self-interested opportunists, who follow Chávez for the moment because they’re ‘following the money’ not speaking against him shows a certain degree of certainty of the revolution’s longevity. Or, it shows that they’d rather be in the good graces of Chávez than of COPEI and the like.
But like I said, I think this explanation is horseshit.
2. Planned Ineptitude and Democracy Fatigue
Many, though not all, are agreed on the fact that the CNE dropped the ball on this one. Many people simply did not know the recalls were occuring, or if they did, didn't have access to the information necessary to make a decision on the matter -- so effective was the media and party blactout.
The CNE announced the three-day ‘jornada’ on the week in which it was to take place. ‘Publicity’ consisted of lists published in newspapers – no TV commercials or street blitzes or anything one might expect for an institution changing-event. However, whereas opposition folks see this as the result of Chávez playing political puppeteer, at least one friend sees it as the distance between the bureaucratic sabotage of the Fourth Republic and the deep ('protagonist') democracy of the Fifth. So says a friend:
“When Chávez was up for recall, when we all knew it was bullshit, he demanded the polls be opened for five days rather than three, to allow as many people to vote as possible.”
He’s referring to the fact that many signatories of the 2004 referendum claimed that they were coerced into signing against Chávez – physically, through bribes, or through patron-client relations (still a rather prominent fact of Venezuelan political life) – which was common knowledge at the time. Chávez’ demand that the polls remain open even longer only gave the opposition more time to mobilize – by whatever means – voters to the polls. However, he wanted the process to be as open, inclusive, and exhaustive as possible – so that the people could speak.
The CNE’s ineptitude, to paraphrase the same friend, displays the institutional inertia that always stands against the radicalization of the status quo, which were the real stakes of the recalls. Thus, whereas Chávez and the Bolivarians want an open, direct, and constant democracy, the institutions they have inherited from the Fourth Republic want to manage the will of the people, to be ‘responsible’ and to keep their jobs.
Along these lines, fancy academic smarty-pants talk about Venezuela's ‘democracy fatigue.’ That is, Venezuela (enemy of freedom and danger to liberty and democracy) has had nearly constant elections and campaigns since 1998. Presidential elections, a constitutional assembly, National Assembly elections, communal council elections, presidential recall, another presidential election and YET ANOTHER recall for local and representative officials makes for a populace that just wants to go back to work and television; they’ve had enough of the polls. The underlying assumption here, of course, is that Venezuelans are either too stupid or too lazy to be 'responsible' democratic citizens. OR, just as common, the Chávez government expects too much of a people not properly trained for hyper-democracy after four decades of Puntofijismo.
Either way, this ‘fatigue’ combined with the general historical low turnout for non-presidential electoral events makes for a political culture prone to ‘misuse’ or completely miss the opportunity which just came and went this past weekend.
3.5. And Now?
The opposition mayor of Baruta (a rather posh district of Caracas), Henrique Capriles Radonski, called the recalls ‘a waste of time and money.’ Tarek William Saab, the Chavista governor of Anzoátegui, thinks something should be done to make those who bring erroneous recalls to the table reimburse the public for their folly. Both men were up for recall. Connection?
4. The big Conspiracy.
This is by far my favorite, and not even all that implausible. A recall in which Chavistas are put on the chopping block – i.e. where the government doesn’t just have a rubber stamp legislature and etc – would force the world to admit that Venezuela has a free political system, freedom of expression and a healthy democracy. The opposition knew they wouldn’t win the potentially vacant spots of outgoing Chavista mayors, governors, and assemblypersons, so they simply let them go on without their participation, hoping for a low turnout they could denounce in the future. This isn’t too far out there in that it fits into their contemporary strategy of putting all their eggs in the basket of international opinion and would actually make more political sense than many of their current escapades.
This is rather close to the position of José Vincent Rangel, former Vice President and perpetual ally of the revolution. The problem with this position, is that it puts all the blame on the opposition for not creating a culture of 'democratic opposition' and lets the CNE off the hook. I tend to agree with the fact that the opposition doesn't do much for democracy (looking back on their track record, the 2004 referendum was their FIRST attempt conduct themselves legally or with even a gesture towards democratic proclivities). But ignoring the CNE's and other 'official' roles in this weekend's failure glosses over the very real and necessary democratic struggle within the Bolivarian Revolution.
A slightly different, ‘harder,’ version of this thesis asserts that there were actual meetings at the regional level among functionaries of the various opposition parties and their Chavista counterparts where ‘gentlemen’s deals’ were struck. While this strikes me as unlikely, what is telling is the response of my friend to my raised eyebrows.
“They’re all really just ADecos anyway.”
That is to say, the MVR politicians up for recall are really just members of the AD along for the ride. Hence, to this Bolivarian militant, the idea of MVR elected officials meeting up with AD and Co for some backroom deals is nowhere out of the realm of possibility.
This is, then, the real kernel to pull out of the failed referendums of last weekend. Venezuela isn’t only polarized between Chavistas and Escuálidos, it is also, and perhaps more importantly, divided within the Chavista camp between ‘Chavistas’ and Bolivarians. That is to say, between those sectors who want a slight rearrangement – no doubt more equitable – of the spoils of this oil-rich nation, and those who want to build a new society. To paraphrase a well known Venezuelan poet, it is the difference between those who want a world where the poor can eat at the table of the rich, and a world where rich and poor no longer exist.