Friday, February 20, 2009

After the referendum: What’s next for Venezuela?

After the referendum: What’s next for Venezuela?
By Nicole M. Ferrand.*

Unfortunately, last Sunday’s February 15th Venezuelan referendum passed 54% to 46%, ending term limits for President Hugo Chávez and other elected officials. Even though the results are not surprising since the polls predicted this outcome, the response of the international community and the electoral observers was shocking; they unanimously said that even though some irregularities did occur, the referendum was ‘fully democratic,’ basically legitimizing Chavez’s outrageous power grab.

Not by any means were these regular elections. Venezuelans were subjected to a brutal campaign as the government threw all the power of the State behind Chavez. There was open political activity in public buildings and state employees had to donate one day’s paycheck to the campaign and attend electoral activities during working hours. The entire Venezuelan nation was blackmailed by Chavez as he threatened civil unrest if he didn’t win the referendum.

Opposing journalists and media outlets, that have been targets throughout Chavez’s presidency, were viciously attacked prior to February 15th and the few international observers who dared to question the regime’s methods were expelled from Venezuela. The news outlets that reported irregularities were threatened as Chavez himself sent the army to destroy opposition media buildings and physically attack newsmen and women. Some independents were even kidnapped and there were assassination attempts against anyone who became a threat to Chavez.

The opposition did all it could but in the end the vast amount of resources Chavez had at his disposal were impossible to counteract. In addition, they could not unite and stand behind a figure who could challenge Chavez directly. This remains a problem for the opposition. The students who spearheaded the opposition and had mobilized since the referendum was announced were constantly intimidated and harassed and its leaders assaulted. Chavez went as far as demanding that police “throw tear gas, and of the strong kind” at any student demonstration.

The referendum was never free and fair. The media covered Chavez 100 to 1 and overall the process was the most outrageously unequal and abusive ever. Venezuela is not democratic and has not been since Chavez decided to turn it into a dictatorship. He has used the state’s resources to stay in power and has worked to build an apparatus that ensures his victory in whatever election if he should decide to hold.

Chavez rushed the vote on the referendum because he was well aware that with falling oil prices he could not longer continue funding the ‘social programs” and governmental handouts that made him so popular. He knew that sooner rather than later he would lose support because he would have to make unpopular decisions due to Venezuela’s financial crisis. To silence any current or future critics his repressive methods will increase. In order to increase state revenues a takeover of the private sector will most likely accelerate, irreversibly damaging Venezuela’s economy for decades to come.

Analysts have been extremely worried about freedom of expression in Venezuela and after Sunday’s elections, things will definitely worsen. The opposition media which has been targeted all along will face huge obstacles and the opinions and news information will have to toe the government’s line if they want to continue operating.

During the period prior to the referendum, the tactics of fear, lies and blackmail were used openly and widely. Sadly, they worked. It is likely that many Venezuelans who have the means will now go into exile and those who don’t have that option will continue to live in tyranny. What is worse, Chavez’s victory means that Iran will continue to expand its operations in the region, thereby creating a very dangerous and ominous situation.

We have to do everything we can to continue informing and spreading the word on what’s happening inside Venezuela because this is not only about the future of that country; it is also about the future of Latin America and the national security of the United States.

*Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of "The Americas Report" of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

1 comment:

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