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Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan Election

8:00 AM, Oct 14, 2010 • By VANESSA NEUMANN
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After Chávez confiscated his property, Arria started Rescatando a Venezuela (Rescuing Venezuela), a group of Venezuelans who are trying to get their case heard in The Hague. Arria was a former witness against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and knows what it will take to get Chavez charged with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Arria’s Exhibit A is incitement to violence. Chávez rants almost daily on TV about obliterating the bourgeoisie. The result is that parts of the Venezuelan underclass look at sections of Caracas and the countryside as “enemy territory.” The violence has led to more than 120,000 killed over the last 11 years, numbers tantamount to civil war in a country of 25 million. “I always compare [Chávez] to the Rwandan Milles Colines case,” Arria told me. “The Milles Colines people would broadcast to incite the Hutus to kill the Tutsis. We are the Tutsis here.”


On Election Day, I sat on a shady stoop in La Castellana, in eastern Caracas, as voters emerged from the polling place with their right pinkies dipped in the purple ink that indicated they had voted, the same mark that U.S. authorities used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within arm’s reach of the young soldier guarding the entry, I noticed his shiny boots didn’t look as if they had seen much mud or rural military action.

“Are you based in Caracas?” I asked.

“Yes, Fuerte Tiuna,” he said, referring to the famous military fort where Chávez was held prisoner during an ill-advised forty-eight-hour coup against him during Easter 2002.

“Have you voted already?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I don’t really care about any of them. I don’t have any views. I’ve never voted.”

“You should,” I answered. “You’ve vowed to risk your life for your country; you should care who commands you, who controls your life. You’ve certainly earned the privilege.”

He shrugged his shoulders. He had never thought about it but seemed flattered I had.

“Do you have brothers and sisters?” I asked him.

“Two brothers,” he answered. “Seventeen and fifteen. I’m twenty. It’s important to have brothers. Simón Bolívar had brothers,” he said, tapping into the mythic stature of the liberator that Chávez has exploited to feed his eponymous Bolivarian Revolution.

“They must look up to you,” I said. “Do you want them to be soldiers, too?”

“Not really. I want them to have a better life.”

Back home that evening in Caracas, we gathered around a large television to await the results on Globovisión, the twenty-four-hour news channel most critical of Chávez. However, in contrast to the U.S., politicians and broadcasters are not allowed to conduct exit polls or predict outcomes, but must await the CNE’s official announcement. That was expected to come around 9 p.m., but it wasn’t until 2 a.m. that the official results were announced, in a very glum and muted tone. Diego Arria had been right: The people had spoken and a majority of them wanted Chávez’s PSUV party out of the National Assembly.

Parties opposed to Chávez, won 51.88 percent of the vote. But because of the electoral law, this majority translated into only 40.61 percent of the National Assembly seats, or 67 to the PSUV’s 98 seats. Nonetheless, the result puts new obstacles before Chávez. Without controlling two thirds of the National Assembly, the PSUV cannot modify the constitution as it has in the past. Even worse from Chávez’s perspective is that the election left him one seat shy of the three-fifths supermajority needed to renew the “enabling law,” or “Ley Habilitante,” that gives the president the right to rule by decree, a power Chávez will retain until the new legislature is sworn in January 5.

One week after the election, Pablo Pérez Álvarez, the governor of Zulia, the state encompassing Lake Maracaibo, where most of Venezuela’s oilrigs are located, said that the election of 12 candidates from the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) was a victory against “official favoritism.” Chavez and the PSUV “gave away money, washers, dryers; they wanted to buy people with handouts, but we won the people’s trust with our campaign and our propositions,” he told a reporter from El Universal. Nevertheless, Álvarez explained, the opposition would go to the National Assembly to work with its rivals, not fight with them, and would debate all issues “with tolerance, respect and dialogue.”

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