As things heat up, it looks like Hugo Chavez is trapped in a lose-lose situation

November 27, 2007

Things have certainly heated up in the last few days, almost as much as
the damaged power supply of the computer where my blog resides, certainly
sufficiently to justify an update and at least give you some perspective on how
I see things.

First of all, there is no doubt that Chavez has managed to irk some of
his former buddies, who while not outright supporters, at least had seemed to
achieve some form equilibrium with the volatile Venezuelan President. Both Spain and Colombia have
all of a sudden been frozen out by the autocrat, literally and diplomatically.
There is little I can add there, Chavez was clearly looking for some sort of
international success with the release of the hostages of the FARC, while Uribe
seemed to be allowing Chavez to fish for some quick fame as a way of having
some FARC leaders come out of hiding and capture them. In the end Chávez
got frustrated with the failure of his efforts and supposedly overstepped the
bounds of the established rules, causing the irkness of the Colombian President
who does not see the FARC, for historical reasons, as more than bloody
terrorists and enemies. Meanwhile Chávez is still asking for an apology from
the Spanish King for telling him to shut up, an apology that is certainly not
forthcoming in the King’s lifetime. There were also minor incidents with the
President of Chile, which suggest that Hugo Chávez is either on the edge or
getting ready to break up with the world or nervous about the upcoming

And what once seemed, at least to me, like a sure thing, the approval of
the referendum on Constitutional reform, may be looking iffy at this point in
time. Both pro-Chavez pollsters and anti-Chávez pollsters are giving the NO
vote a lead, but the most startling aspect is without a doubt the speed with
which the numbers have changed. In less than three weeks, we have gone from a
YES lead, with large abstention, to a large NO lead in some cases, as voters
seem to be more interested in participating that they were a month ago. Quico has posted an excellent
summary of the polls here.

While the Government seems clearly nervous, as was shown by the strong attack
on the church today by the Vice-President accusing it of participating in
meetings to create disturbances, it is also mobilizing all of its resources and
blatantly violating all electoral rules. The TV balance present earlier in the
month is now non-existent and Chávez is trying to use the impasse with Colombia to his
advantage. Similarly, after opposition students announced their closing of the
campaign on Thursday, the Government said it already had the permits for that
day, but when the opposition said it would do it Friday, the Government
preempted them by saying they had the permits for Friday. Fortunately, the
students did not make a point of this saying they would move to Thursday as
originally planned.

In the end, the NO would need a huge lead to win, given the tricks up
the sleeve of the administration. To me, the SI still has the edge on the
ability of the Government to mobilize the vote. The No enjoys the advantage that
the turnaround in people’s sentiment has been quite dramatic and in polling
trends like that have to respected as they are quite difficult to reverse. However,
Datanalisis reportedly has a new poll from Nov. 24th. which showed
the trend reversing and the race now being close.

For Chávez the reversal has been quite dramatic and in some sense has
created a lose-lose situation for him, which has few political openings for him
to save the day. He needs a mandate to push his socialist revolution forward and
it certainly looks that he may barely get it. This will weaken him
significantly and he still has five years to go in his presidential term.
Losing would be devastating, as he would be left with no clear political
program going forward, at a time when discontent is growing fast.

Chávez can obviously withdraw his reform, which would make him look bad,
but may in the end be the best of all options. Other options such as suspending
the vote on legal grounds or arguing violence may be too contrived to work in his

In the end, the surge in the NO is something more than just the reform
proposal. The original Constitutional reform proposal by the President had
sufficient illegalities in it to make it questionable, but then the National Assembly
made it look even worse with the addition of 32 more articles and  a number of transient reform (which by the
way will not be voted on). Add to this the widespread shortages of basic
staples, inflation and the aggressive style by the Government and many people
are getting fed up with the unrealized promises of the revolution.

In the end the Government has forgotten the reform and turn the vote
into a plebiscite, it has become “YES with Chávez” as a way of trying to revert
the trend. He is an extremely good campaigner and will throw all of the power
of the Government behind the SI votes in the last few days. Unfortunately, the
same rush to vote that he thought would work to his advantage, may in the end
work against him as even a slim advantage will more likely be a defeat for the autocrat.

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