Last Thursday the New York Times ran a remarkable profile of the Venezuelan opposition. Titled “Rifts Plague Anti-Chavez Venezuelans,” Times reporter Juan Forero details the chaos that marks Venezuelan opposition parties in the run-up to the this year’s presidential elections. Significantly, these rifts are not ideological in nature — precious little of the discussion centers on values, ideas or agendas. The split within the anti-Chavez faction involves whether or not they will participate in elections at all. Having controlled all aspects of Venezuelan political life for generations before President Chavez was elected in 1998, the traditional parties are fighting over whether they will commit to democracy.

The Times describes presidential candidate Julio Borges as a lonely voice within the mainstream opposition for encouraging participation in the elections. While other anti-Chavez leaders claim that despite repeated failures at the ballot box, they actually represent the hearts and minds of most Venezuelans, Borges seems to understand that a large majority of Venezuelans are happy with their president.

“We spent seven years trying to get Chavez out of Miraflores,” Mr. Borges said, referring to the presidential palace. “What we have to do is get Chavez out of people’s hearts.”

In other political realities, this condescending statement might be seen as a negative way to frame a campaign, but within the often-bizarre psychology of Venezuelan opposition leaders, it represents a huge step toward facing reality. For the first time, a major anti-Chavez candidate recognizes the deep support of the president by his countrymen.

Self-destructive tactics

Attend any pro-Chavez rally in Venezuela, and you’ll see T-shirts, signs and hats that read “Chavez los tiene locos.” Loosely translated, the meaning is “Chavez has ‘em going crazy,” in reference to the opposition. The Chavistas have a good point. In the past six years, guttural hatred of the president and flat-out denial of his broad support have plagued the opposition, and led to catastrophic tactical choices.

In 2002, when rebel military officials conspired with Venezuelan business leaders and a corrupt labor federation to kidnap President Chavez, and then enlisted the help of national media outlets to spin the coup as a “democratic” move, Venezuelans came out to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to demand the return of their elected leader. Coup leaders were shaken when democracy was restored after two days, as many of them honestly believed that they had widespread popular support for the takeover.

Later that year, when oil executives tried forcing Chavez out of office through a three- month worker lockout that collapsed the Venezuelan economy, the opposition further alienated themselves from the Venezuelan electorate, many of whom suffered profoundly from shortages of food, cooking oil, gasoline and electricity.

During the 2004 recall referendum, opposition groups, led by the US-funded NGO Sumate, publicized phony exit polls to undermine President Chavez’ decisive 60-40 victory. International observers immediately condemned the move, and former President Jimmy Carter held a press conference to denounce Sumate who, in his words, “deliberately distributed this erroneous exit poll data in order to build up, not only the expectation of victory, but also to influence the people still standing in line.” Anti-Chavez groups responded with a campaign of harassment against Carter, and many continue to deny the international observers’ conclusion that the results were legitimate.

Last fall, the largest opposition parties pulled out just days before congressional elections were held, when polls showed they would lose by wide margins. A week earlier, they had gone to the Organization of American States (OAS) with a long list of demands to be met before they would participate. When the National Electoral Council met their demands, they walked away anyway, handing over every seat in the National Assembly to pro-Chavez candidates.

Democracy and the Venezuelan character

Clearly, these tactics play better in the international press than among the average Venezuelan. The editorial writers at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal can applaud the point being made against the president they love to hate, without directly suffering the short term hardship (job losses, food rationing, etc.) or the long term damage (dismantling of democracy, aggressive civic polarization) imposed on the Venezuelan people.

But on the home front, the opposition leaders are in disarray not because of the failure of these actions, but because of the nature of their tactics. Venezuelans like living in a democracy, and they are fiercely proud of their tradition of peaceful government transitions. While much of South America languished under military dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s, Venezuela remained free and democratic (albeit with an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor).

This democratic nature of the Venezuelan electorate was made evident last fall, when continent-wide poll results were made public by the Chilean polling firm Latinobarometro. While citizens of other Latin American countries expressed growing reservations about democracy as the best tool to address their problems, Venezuela, along with Uruguay, topped the list of nations that prefer democracy over all other forms of government. What’s more, Venezuelans were more likely than citizens of any other Latin American country to describe their government as “totally democratic.”

The formation of an un-Venezuelan Opposition

So how is it that the traditional ruling parties believed that strategies that violate the very character of their culture would ever be effective in Venezuela? And why have they clung to anti-democratic tactics after each one has blown up in their face? A number of historic and cultural factors help shed light on the situation.

A lazy system: the Punto Fijo Pact

In the late 1950s, Venezuela’s dominant political leaders signed a power-sharing agreement that allowed two political parties, Accion Democratica (AD) and Social Cristiano Copei (Copei) to effectively shut out all other parties from participating in political life. In theory, the Punto Fijo pact was intended to prevent extremist social movements from taking power and destabilizing the young democracy, but in practice it led to decades of patronage, and created an enormous amount of political apathy in the majority of Venezuelans who believed, credibly, that their voice would never be represented by political leaders.

Another unintended consequence of the pact was that national political leaders were not required to spend a lot of time with the Venezuelan people in order to be successful. Certainly, they had to engage in a lot of politicking within the two political parties, but the party makeup represented a narrow slice of the Venezuelan public.

Once an official had gained prominence within the party structure, he was virtually guaranteed a seat in office because voters simply had no other alternative.

President Chavez was the first Venezuelan since Punto Fijo to win the presidency as a third-party candidate. While he was boosted by a number of historical and cultural factors that came into alignment by 1998, Chavez’ presidential campaign, out of necessity, was grounded in an enormous grassroots mobilization effort. For this reason, Chavez the president has his finger on the pulse of the Venezuelan electorate in a way the opposition never did.

Life in a bubble

The Venezuelan upper classes, which make up the bulk of opposition leadership, truly live in a world apart from the rest of the country. Caracas’s finer neighborhoods are made up of gated communities and high-end shopping malls. Many have never set foot the barrios and working class neighborhoods populated by the majority of Caraquenos. When a nicely dressed Venezuelan woman living in Caracas’ Altamira neighborhood told me she didn’t know a single person in the country who supported President Chavez … I don’t think she was exaggerating.

What’s more, this upper-class worldview is reflected in the majority of the Venezuelan media. Telenovelas and reality programs are teeming with rich and fashionable Venezuelans with expensive tastes. Today you have to turn on state television to see the diverse cultural makeup of Venezuelan society. Before Chavez, even on government TV it was rare to see, for example, an Afro-Venezuelan, even though afrodecendientes make up a significant share of the Venezuelan citizenry.

So when the returns from the recall referendum were broadcast, and Chavez had won by a sweeping margin, it is almost understandable that some people found it easier to believe in an elaborate conspiracy between Chavez, Carter, and the OAS, rather than concede that they may have misjudged the nature of their own country. For many wealthy Venezuelans, the slow understanding that they are in the minority is only now beginning to sink in.

Influence from abroad

Of course, there is well-documented evidence to suggest that many of the tactics used by the Venezuelan opposition are not — to use a particularly chavista term — endogenous. It makes sense that strategies that violate the Venezuelan character were never dreamed up by Venezuelans in the first place.

With regard to the 2002 coup, we know that at least two of the top military leaders were trained in the notorious School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia. We also know that the Congressionally-financed National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Department of Defense provided training and financial support to the individuals and organizations involved in the bloody uprising.

In the run-up to the 2004 recall referendum, we know that Sumate, the very organization chastised by President Carter for attempting to undermine the results, received more than $50,000 from the NED (NED Grant Agreement No. 2003-548.0, September 12, 2003), and that the Democratic Coordinator, the umbrella organization representing all of the organizations that led the effort, received training and strategy advice from the NED-financed Center for International Private Enterprise.

And last February, the Christian Science Monitor ran a jaw-dropping story on efforts by a little-known subsidiary of the U.S. Agency on International Development (USAID), known as the Office on Transition Initiatives (OTI), which distributed $4.5 million dollars to opposition parties in 2005 for “overtly political” work aligned with U.S. “foreign policy goals.” If Venezuelans seem paranoid about U.S. intervention in their democracy, they have good reason to fear.

All this helps explain how the traditional Venezuelan opposition has become so disconnected from its countrymen, but also why candidates like Borges are beginning to buck the trend, rolling up their sleeves and actually interacting with the Venezuelan electorate.

Not that it will make much difference.

The presidential election

Barring extreme unforeseen circumstances, President Hugo Chavez will be elected to a second term this December. As described above, the opposition is in utter disarray. But more importantly, new data indicate that the extent of popular support for President Chavez appears deeper today than pundits on either side may have imagined.

Candidates like Julio Borges may be refashioning their tone and image in the wake of polling results, released in March, which surprised even the Chavez camp. The results came from the firm Consultores 21, an opposition aligned polling firm with 20 years experience in Venezuela, confirms a large base of support for the president.

Let’s look at the most significant findings.

Nearly a quarter of likely voters offer their “unconditional” support for the president, meaning virtually nothing will change their minds. The largest group of Venezuelans, fully one-third of the electorate, supports Chavez “conditionally.” In other words, if the opposition unveils a truly spectacular candidate, they might switch, but for the most part, they are casting their lot with the president. Before this poll was released, conventional political wisdom held that the undecided voters would make up the largest chunk of the electorate, but it turns out that even if every undecided voter decides to vote for an opposition candidate — a near impossibility — Chavez would still win with 56 percent of the vote.

What’s more, it appears that the depth of the opposition is as weak as it is small.

International press attention often focuses on just how passionate the Venezuelan opposition is. But according to this poll — again from a respected firm aligned with the opposition — only 8.5 percent of the electorate would vote against Chavez no matter what. Most of the opposition may be inclined to vote against Chavez, but would consider voting for him in the right circumstances. Add the two opposition figures together, and you just barely surpass the level of “unconditional” support that Chavez enjoys.

To get a sense of why Venezuelans have so little faith in the opposition, look at a poll that about the way they feel about the boycott of the congressional elections last December. The question asks, “With whom do you agree most: with those who say that the [opposition] candidates boycotted to defend the right of the people to clean elections, or with those who say that they boycotted because they knew that they would lose since they did not have the support of the people?” Fifty-eight percent said it was because they were going to lose. Barely a third said it was a statement on clean elections.

And on the positive side, here is why Chavez enjoys such wide support.

The question is about President Chavez’ ability to achieve important benchmarks in the country’s social development. From top to bottom, Venezuelans give him high marks in improving: Education, 69.4 percent; Housing, 65.3 percent; Health Care, 65.2 percent; Road Construction, 56.3 percent; Purchasing Power, 54 percent; Employment, 53.6 percent.

The president gets middling marks on two of Venezuela’s oldest and most chronic problems: security (49.8 percent), and the struggle against corruption (49.3 percent).

In general, Venezuelans think the country is heading in the right direction. They are happy with President Chavez, and often disgusted with the opposition, who rarely seem to understand the average Venezuelan.

These facts can’t make the anti-Chavez factions happy.

The question remains: will opposition leaders make a commitment to democracy this year? To be sure, they have almost zero hope of winning the presidency this December. Yet time and again, each anti-democratic action they’ve undertaken has marginalized them in the eyes of Venezuelan voters. If they choose to boycott, as they did last year, they will further alienate themselves at home. Worse, over time their actions may cause a more chronic problem by undermining Venezuelans’ faith in democracy itself.

Yet so far, Julio Borges is the only opposition candidate advocating widespread participation. Perhaps that explains why the relative newcomer is the surprise frontrunner for the anti-Chavistas.

At 36-years-old, Borges has a long political career ahead of him. He almost certainly realizes that a good faith campaign this year will position him well for future bids. He is counting on the fact that his countrymen will not look favorably on those willing to sacrifice Venezuelan democracy to score another political point against Chavez.

The other potential candidates are nearing the end of their careers, and are not likely to run in 2012.

Here’s hoping the others put the greater good of the country before their personal goals.

Eric Wingerter (eric@veninfo.org) is public education director at the Venezuela Information Office in Washington, D.C.

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