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  • VENEZUELA: POLITICAL REFORM OR REGIME DEMISE?

    Latin America Report N°27 – 23 July 2008

  • TABLE OF CONTENTS

    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS................................................. i I. INTRODUCTION ............................................................................................................. 1 II. 2007: SEEKING CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM AND REGIME

    CONSOLIDATION........................................................................................................... 2 A. ACCELERATING THE REVOLUTION ................................................................................................2 B. THE CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM....................................................................................................3 C. WANING SUPPORT ........................................................................................................................4

    1. Political context ......................................................................................................................4 2. Socio-economic and public security problems.......................................................................7

    D. INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT ...........................................................................................................9 E. THE DECEMBER 2007 REFERENDUM...........................................................................................11

    III. 2008: THE BEGINNING OF THE END FOR CHAVEZ?......................................... 13 A. IS POLITICAL REFORM STILL POSSIBLE? .....................................................................................13 B. THE POLITICAL FORCES..............................................................................................................14

    1. The pro-Chávez camp...........................................................................................................14 2. The opposition ......................................................................................................................16 3. The potential for violence in the run-up to the November polls...........................................18

    C. THE SOCIAL AND INTERNATIONAL SITUATION ............................................................................20 1. The socio-economic time bomb ...........................................................................................20 2. International arena for the “socialism of the XXIst century” ...............................................23

    IV. CONCLUSION................................................................................................................ 28 APPENDICES A. MAP OF VENEZUELA........................................................................................................................29 B. CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM REFERENDUM RESULTS.........................................................................30 C. ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP ....................................................................................31 D. CRISIS GROUP REPORTS AND BRIEFINGS ON LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN........................32 E. CRISIS GROUP BOARD OF TRUSTEES................................................................................................33

  • Latin America Report N°27 23 July 2008

    VENEZUELA: POLITICAL REFORM OR REGIME DEMISE?

    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

    President Hugo Chávez faces mounting difficulties at home and abroad. The defeat of constitutional reforms in a December 2007 referendum, a year after re-election, was his worst setback since winning the presidency in 1998. It was not primarily the divided opposition, which lacks a broad social base, that dealt this blow but the abstention of three million Venezuelans, in- cluding many former government supporters. There is growing disenchantment over food shortages, rising inflation, public insecurity and corruption, as well as resistance to Chávez’s push to merge his coalition’s parties into a new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and concern about further concentration of power in the president’s hands and his foreign policy, including disputes with Colombia. Only by ending attempts to drastically alter the 1999 constitution is Chávez likely to return Venezuela to democratic sta- bility. If he fails to compromise and govern more transparently and inclusively, November municipal and regional elections could produce a dramatic new setback for his increasingly autocratic “Bolivarian revolution”.

    Following his landslide second re-election in Decem- ber 2006, Chávez sought to accelerate implementation of his “socialism of the XXIst century”. The govern- ment-controlled National Assembly (NA) passed an “Enabling Law” (Ley Habilitante), which grants him full legislative powers until the end of July 2008, and he proposed sweeping reform of the 1999 constitu- tion. If approved in the referendum, the latter would have removed limitations on presidential re-election as well as paved the way for centralised education; further politicisation of the military; recentralisation of government through a new territorial and political order; and strengthening of communal councils charged with administering the executive-led social welfare programs (misiones). Attempts to impose decrees with- out broad discussion in the first half of 2008 sparked strong dissent that forced their withdrawal.

    The chavista movement is losing momentum. It has become bureaucratic, corruption is spreading and the government’s management is poor. The president’s social programs are not meeting expectations and have

    not empowered citizens. In the cities and even in rural areas, where Chávez’s social base has been strongest, dissatisfaction is spreading due to shortages of basic foodstuffs and rising inflation and crime. The PSUV, established in early 2007, is unlikely to help Chávez regain lost support. On the contrary, at the grassroots and regional (state) and local (municipalities) levels, it is perceived as a top-down decision-making struc- ture that reduces any space for political participation not blessed by the president.

    The November elections will be a critical test for the Chávez administration and democratic processes in the hemisphere. If the political opposition is to make broad gains and capture several chavista fiefdoms, it must breathe life into the unity pact signed in early 2008, reach consensus on strong single candidates, attract the under-privileged sectors of the electorate and design a convincing national strategy capable of offsetting Chávez’s charisma.

    RECOMMENDATIONS

    To the Government and State Institutions of Venezuela:

    1. Focus on applying the 1999 constitution and act immediately to improve public sector accountabil- ity and transparency by:

    (a) establishing a high-level, civilian-led national commission to design a public security strategy to fight crime; members of the commission should include representatives of the interior and defence ministries, the National Assem- bly, the attorney general’s and ombudsman’s offices, a multiparty group from state govern- ments and mayoral offices, national, regional and local law enforcement agencies and civil society;

    (b) ensuring that any revision to the withdrawn intelligence decree is consulted widely with civil society, the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights and the Inter-American Com-

  • Venezuela: Political Reform or Regime Demise? Crisis Group Latin America Report N°27, 23 July 2008 Page ii

    mission on Human Rights to ensure that it does not contain provisions violating the 1999 con- stitution or internationally recognised covenants protecting civil liberties to which Venezuela is a signatory;

    (c) creating with the leadership of the comptrol- ler’s office and the support of the attorney general’s office, the prosecutor general’s office (procuraduría) and the National Assembly a team of special prosecutors to conduct fair and independent investigations of charges of government corruption;

    (d) alleviating food shortages by spurring domestic production, increasing support to small farm- ers and giving investment guarantees to national and foreign investors in agriculture; and

    (e) integrating the social missions with existing public welfare programs and establishing effec- tive and independent monitoring and evalua- tion mechanisms for them.

    2. Establish guarantees for transparent conduct of the November 2008 municipal and federal state elec- tions and respect of basic civil and political liber- ties enshrined in the 1999 constitution by:

    (a) demonstrating in word and deed that violence will not be tolerated during the electoral cam- paign, including by avoiding the term “civil war” to describe the consequences should the opposition win in some key states and munici- palities;

    (b) inviting, jointly with the National Electoral Court (CNE), the Organization of American States (OAS) to send an international observation mission to help guarantee free and fair elec- tions and making available to it information on all polling stations across the country; and

    (c) lifting, in accordance with Article 65 of the 1999 constitution, the comptroller general’s ban on 258 candidates to stand for office – they have yet to be convicted by a judge – and en- couraging the Supreme Court (TSJ) to rule on the matter before the end of the candidate reg- istration period.

    3. Pursue a foreign policy conducive to peace