Venezuela’s Recall Referendum

WASHINGTON  All too often White House statements about Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and other dubious justifications for war, were taken at face value by the American press. Now there is another example of the triumph of misinformation, which – not coincidentally – again concerns an oil-rich country where the U.S. government seeks “regime change.” Venezuela. This time, however, it is not a dictatorship but a democracy that is under attack.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was democratically elected, first in 1998, and then again in 2000 under a new constitution that was approved by voters in a referendum.
Despite massive political turmoil, including a 64-day oil strike that crippled the economy, there have been no states of emergency or suspension of constitutional rights under his government.

In fact, under the Chávez government, in contrast to past governments of Venezuela, freedom of speech, assembly and association have been absolute. “I believe that freedom of speech is as alive in Venezuela as it is in any other country I’ve visited,” former President Jimmy Carter said during a visit there last year.

If the reader has a different impression, it is because American reporting on Venezuela generally includes far- fetched opposition charges – that Chávez is creating a “Castro-communist dictatorship,” for example – often without rebuttal.

In April last year, Chávez was briefly overthrown by a military coup that the Bush administration initially welcomed. The coup was preceded by the traditional hallmarks of a Washington-sponsored regime change, including increased U.S. funding to opposition groups and high-level meetings between U.S. officials and key people involved in the coup.

The Bush administration continues to intervene politically in Venezuela. Last month Washington cut off credit to Venezuela from the U.S. Export-Import Bank. According to foreign diplomats here, the head of the bank privately admitted that this was done for political reasons.

In the last few weeks there has been a concerted public relations effort both in the United States and in Venezuela, joined by the Bush administration, to create a false impression about a proposed referendum to recall Chávez.
The Bush administration wants people to believe that the government signed an agreement with the opposition to hold a recall referendum, and that Chávez will be to blame if it does not happen. The editorial boards of several major U.S.
newspapers have already endorsed this script.

But the government signed no such agreement – that would be like Governor Gray Davis of California agreeing to a recall election before anyone gathered signatures and filed a petition. The opposition will have to submit the signatures and follow the constitutional procedures – just as in California
– before any referendum is held.

Furthermore, the opposition is divided and it is not clear that the most powerful elements really want a referendum. It carries more risk for them than it does for Chávez. They are already discredited for having led a badly bungled coup attempt and a strike that devastated the economy and won them nothing. If they lose the referendum, or fail to gather the required 2.5 million valid signatures to obtain one, their game could be over.

Even if the opposition were to win, they would only win a new election – in which Chávez would probably be eligible to run.
And it is very likely that he would win – no one else in Venezuela has anywhere near his level of support.

This has been the opposition’s main problem for the last four and a half years: They can’t win an election because the vast majority of the country is poor and has rejected the traditional governing elite after 40 years of corrupt rule. So they have turned to other means, such as the military coup, the oil strike and other efforts to destabilize the government.

In the coming months most American news reports will blame whatever goes wrong in Venezuela on the Chávez government. Those who want to hear the other side of the story – or even get a rough idea of what is actually going on – had better be prepared to spend some time digging around on the Internet.

The writer is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Note from Weisbrot on Polling, to a journalist in Caracas:

Regarding the polling data, of course there is probably some truth to these numbers, but I think reporters should let their readers know that these pollsters are not only paid by the opposition, they are not at all neutral. Most inaccurately, GQR (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner) / POS state in their press release “If a recall referendum on Chavez is held this year, as provided in the Venezuelan Constitution, voters would reject him by a 2 to 1 margin, paving the way for new presidential elections.” This is a statement for which these firms have no evidence from their polling data, since as you know, in order to win a new election the opposition will have to get more votes than Chavez received in his last election. So it all depends on turnout (which has varied from the 30s to the 60s in percentage points), for which GQR has no data and therefore no basis for this claim.

Stan Greenberg, chairman of GQR, makes little effort to hide his own prejudice, declaring in the press release on the July poll that “Hugo Chavez was once a polarizing figure. Now he is just unpopular.” Again, it may be that the decline in popularity over the last few months shown in GQR’s polls is accurate, but the pollster’s bias and their source of money should be disclosed to the reader. The questions in the poll reflect the GQR/POS/opposition views, too — for example, respondents were asked, according to GQR’s release, whether Chavez is “already trying to prevent a referendum from occurring”  or if “he will do anything to stay in power,” but there is no indication that any similar questions were asked about the opposition, despite their attempts to topple a democratically elected government by a military coup and oil strike. In fact, there is no indication from the report on GQR’s web site that any question that could put the opposition in a negative light was asked. This is not a objective or neutral survey of Venezuelan public opinion, and it is wrong to report it as such.

Furthermore, if the polling data were put in context, readers might have a very different impression of what is happening in Venezuela than they have now. With the economy in a steep recession (due mostly to the enormous damage from the oil strike and business lockout) and the vast majority of the media blaming Chavez for everything that is going wrong, what would anyone expect the polls to show? What would Clinton have polled during his impeachment if NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and the major newspapers and radio were instruments of the Republican right? With a bit more information, at least some of your more sophisticated readers might be quite impressed that Chavez manages to poll 38 percent in the GQR referendum poll, or even to get approval ratings in the 35-40 range (as compared to Toledo in Peru, where the economy is growing and the media is not part of the opposition, and he has 11 percent approval ratings).

As for the agreement, I think the text is pretty clear, the parties just agreed to abide by Article 72 of the constitution, which was a victory for the government, since the opposition had been demanding a “non-binding” referendum of questionable legality, and prior to the defeat of their strike had shown no interest whatsoever in a constitutional, revocatory referendum under Article 72 — as you remember it was just, “Chavez, vete ya!” For the government, the agreement made no concession, since the government had maintained all along its support for article 72. Of course very few people here in the U.S. would see it that way, since the international press put an opposite spin on it, repeatedly printing things like “Chavez was trapped by his own constitution,” etc., making it look like it was Chavez rather than the opposition who had now agreed to abandon extra-legal methods and pursue a constitutional solution — and of course worse, as in the numerous false statements about the government and the opposition agreeing to hold a referendum. This is especially true of editorials in major newspapers here.

I don’t know why anyone would insist on holding Chavez or the Venezuelan government to a higher standard than they would hold U.S. officials or institutions. Governor Gray Davis did not say, “who cares about the signatures, it’s clear that enough people want a recall election,” nor would any journalist here expect him to do so. (And incidentally, Gov.
Davis won’t have the major broadcast and print media campaigning against him). Those 1.3 million signatures had to be legal, valid, and verified, and gathered in strict accordance with the law, or there would be no referendum in California. So why shouldn’t the rule of law apply in the same manner in Venezuela? Is the rule of law less important when the United States and its (mostly rich) allies have a goal of getting rid of an elected president?

If in fact these signatures were gathered on petitions demanding a “non-binding” referendum before the midpoint of Chavez’ term, then it appears to me that they would not applicable to a recall referendum under Article 72. This is not a technicality — this is a pretty basic question about whether the law is being followed.

As for fraudulent signatures, you are of course right that “it would make no sense for the opposition to do that,” but I can attest that these things happen quite often, as in Washington DC, where our incumbent mayor had to run as a write-in candidate in the last election because of a massive amount of forgeries among the 10,000 signatures on his nominating petitions. (He probably ended up with more than the required 2000 valid signatures, but the election authorities determined that these were gathered in violation of the law, for example, the people signing off at the bottom of the petition did not actually witness the signatures — a technicality, but one that is taken very seriously here).

The bottom line is that these people do not have the right to a recall election simply because they were able to bring the economy to its knees with an oil strike, or pull off a (temporary) military coup, or because they have powerful friends in Washington, or billionaires like Cisneros on their side, or because they control the private media. They will have to follow the law just like the Californians did, and I think that would be an honest framework for reporting on what transpires from this point on, rather than dismissing the legal issues. On the basis of past reporting it is easy to predict that, in the coming months, legitimate legal challenges as well as technical difficulties in the electoral process will be reported as the government obstructing the referendum, and I trust that you will do your best to avoid that kind of reporting — or at least present both sides of any important dispute.



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