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Chavez and why the referendum failed

Gregory Wilpert on the Venezuelan referendum (2 of 3)

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PAUL JAY: Now, it was a very, very close vote. And just under 51% in favour of the opposition, the no vote; just under 50% for the pro-Chavez vote. It was so close, and the opposition was certainly expecting a very, very close vote, somehow, one way or the other, would go pro-Chavez. But in fact it didn’t and the institution of the election process itself seems to have held up remarkably well. How will this affect the view of the opposition and how people see each other?

GREGORY WILPERT: Well, the opposition certainly feels extremely strengthened and emboldened now. And they’re basically saying, well, this shows, you know, that Chavez is not unbeatable, and that we can win more elections and defeat Chavez in the near future. Chavez himself took the whole thing in stride and says, you know, savour your victory for now, ’cause it’s just a defeat for us that is temporary, and we’ll continue to push on. So he was quite defiant in that sense, but also very conciliatory and very statesmanlike, I thought. I was a little bit afraid that, given his recent conflicts with the King of Spain, that he would pout or something like that, but actually he was able to rise to the occasion, really, and gave credit where credit was due, and recognized that this meant that they would have to enter a time of reflection.

JAY: The fact that he’s abiding by the decision and it was extremely close, will this actually in some ways increase his credibility or strengthen Venezuela? I mean, I think the suspicion behind which a lot of people didn’t vote for this, this quote-unquote power grab, which is a phrase which I think every media organization in the world has used about a hundred times, using the words "power grab." But the accusation of dictatorship and so on and so on, the fact that he’s actually abiding by the rules here in such a close vote, will it in fact in some way strengthen him with some of the people that have had such great doubts about him?

WILPERT: Yes, I certainly think so. I mean, people were ultimately saying that Chavez would never recognize the results, especially if they were close and so on, and he’s proven them all wrong. And it shows that democracy in Venezuela is alive and well, contrary to what the critics of the Chavez government are saying, and confirms pretty much that Chavez is perfectly capable of admitting and accepting defeat, which is something that the opposition never wanted to believe here.

JAY: In his speech after the results were known, he used a very famous phrase, very well known to Venezuelans, where he accepted his defeat for now, which he said in a coup he tried to organize—what is it? Ten years ago or more? What does he mean for now? What’s next for Chavez after this setback?

WILPERT: Well, he promised that he would not change a single comma in this reform proposal. Now, clearly, according to the Constitution, cannot resubmit this proposal during this legislative period, but it seems like he definitely intends on bringing about many of the changes that were promised in the reform, those that can be introduced without changing the Constitution. And he still leaves open the possibility of changing the Constitution in some other way in the near future, perhaps shortly before he would have to leave the presidency.

JAY: So sometime before—I think it’s 2012 where his term would be up—in theory he could have another referendum, allowing him to run again.

WILPERT: [nods head yes]

JAY: What was the turning point in this? A few months ago, the opposition was disorganized it had no momentum. How did the opposition gain such strength in a relatively short amount of time?

WILPERT: I think they managed to coordinate around a certain set of messages. They really seemed to have the help of some public relations firm or something. I mean, the brochures that they came out with were really high gloss, very professional, and very well coordinated in terms of their messages. So I think that really made the difference, because at first, when Chavez first presented the proposal, it looked like it would fly, would go by with an overwhelming advantage. But once the campaign really started, they managed to swing this around. And I really think it was mostly the combination of the confusion over the issues and the well-coordinated message from the opposition.

JAY: It all seemed to begin with the closing of the television station a few months ago, which I don’t think a lot of people didn’t quite understand why it was being done or how it was being done, and it seemed to engage the students, who hadn’t been so engaged previously.

WILPERT: Well, the students became an important factor, although I’m not so sure closing of the television station really played any role in this particular referendum, that is, people here saw those as two very separate issues. And like I said, when Chavez proposed this proposal in August, that was already several months after the television station went off the air. And at that time it looked like the reform was going to pass without any problems. So I really think it was really the reform itself that was to blame, so to speak. And of course the students played an important role, because they presented a new face to the opposition, an unused face, one that hasn’t yet been discredited the way the rest opposition have been discredited. So they played an important role, although I think people tend to overestimate it as well, because it’s not a one student movement; it’s actually a pretty strongly divided student movement into both pro-Chavez and opposition camps.

JAY: There were reports that in the Barrios, in the poor areas around Caracas and throughout Venezuela that had traditionally been the strongholds of Chavez support, that even there there was opposition gained strength, at least opposition to this particular referendum. Is there a feeling that the promises are not being kept? Is there, as we’re hearing in a lot of the western press, that there’s a kind of disillusionment in some of the Barrios, that things are not happening nearly as quickly as people hoped for or thought should?

WILPERT: Well, I think some of that is probably setting in. But on the other hand, the same polls that predicted that Chavez would lose the referendum, that is, the opposition polls, those very same polls still say that Chavez is immensely popular, that he enjoys over 60 percent of support from the population, and far more than in the Barrios. So I think that aspect is probably being exaggerated, although certainly there are some people who feel like more changes need to come faster, which explains partly why Chavez wanted to push this reform so quickly, because he thought that by pushing this reform so quickly, he would be able to deliver more in less time.