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Chavez's Fix | The Nation

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Chavez's Fix

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The biggest challenge facing the Bolivarian movement, López Maya says toward the end of her book, is how to transcend its most important asset: Chávez's charismatic leadership. Wilpert echoes this view, observing that "the movement's dependence on Chávez and his charisma reproduces some of the worst aspects of the previous regime that the movement set out to overcome," such as clientelism and corruption. The referendum may have been a crucial step toward breaking that dependency, especially since Chávez himself chose to frame it as a referendum on his leadership. He lumped the diverse, complex and contentious proposals into a single package and then campaigned under the slogan "Whoever votes 'yes' is voting for Chávez, and whoever votes 'no' is voting for George W. Bush."

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Daniel Wilkinson
Daniel Wilkinson covers Latin America for Human Rights Watch. His book Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror,...

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If you found George W. Bush's 2000 victory in Florida difficult to stomach, imagine being on the losing side of Mexico's 1988 presidential election.

The referendum lost not because Chávez isn't still popular but because millions of his supporters rejected--or were simply unmoved by--this formula. Many who are happy to have Chávez as their president were uncomfortable with giving him more power. As one Chávez supporter told the Washington Post: "He wants a blank check, and that's impossible."

The referendum also failed because the government's efforts to demonize its opponents fell flat. In the past, it was easy for Chávez to attack the opposition as undemocratic coup-mongers, given that at least some of them had indeed participated in the 2002 coup. But this time the "no" campaign was led largely by figures immune to that charge: university students who were teenagers in 2002, as well as Chávez's former defense minister, Raúl Isaías Baduel, and former wife, Marisabel Rodríguez, both of whom played key roles in restoring him to power during the coup. It would seem that the distorting impact of the 2002 coup on Venezuelan politics, like that of 9/11 on US politics, is finally beginning to wane.

The referendum result was, in short, a defeat for the with-me-or-with-the-enemy mindset that, whatever its historic justification, is anathema to pluralism. It was also a defeat for the equally insidious mindset that equates power to the president with power to the people. If the defeat helps propel the Bolivarian movement beyond these limits, it could prove to be a major boon for those seeking to promote a more genuinely participatory democracy in Venezuela.

Whether Chávez is ready to move in that direction is an open question. He has called for a period of "revision, rectification and relaunching" of the revolution but insists that he will still pursue all the rejected reforms--including, especially, the removal of presidential term limits. He has declared that the Bolivarian Revolution should tolerate diverse political "currents" but continues with his zero-sum approach to national politics, warning his supporters that should they lose the regional elections later this year, "the next step will be war" and a return to "the April 11 framework."

The political cost of the referendum, meanwhile, has only been compounded by the widespread perception, even among Chavistas, that the government has failed to curb rampant corruption and violent crime, while its much-touted social programs have fallen significantly short of their promise. The health and education missions "have all been deteriorating in the past year," Wilpert recently reported on his website. And there have been severe shortages of milk and the subsidized basic foodstuffs that the government distributes largely through its Mercal mission, a network of state-run markets and cooperatives concentrated in poor communities.

On my last trip to Caracas, I came across a Mercal market with a revolutionary slogan emblazoned on its outer wall: Con Chávez Todo, Sin Chávez Plomo. With Chávez everything, without Chávez lead (in Spanish, plomo, or "lead," is slang for bullets). Like so much else in Venezuela today, it's hard to know for sure what to make of this message. Was it no more than a bit of bravado, reflecting the idealistic fervor and bunker mentality of a moment that may have already passed? Or could it be an omen of darker days to come? The fact that the shelves inside these Mercal markets are increasingly bare only feeds the uncertainty about where the country's Bolivarian experiment is headed.

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