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Chávez & Opposition Agreement Anything But Binding

www.coha.org
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 03.27
30 May 2003

COHA Research Memorandum:

Chávez and the Opposition Sign an

Agreement that is Anything But Binding

- Weakened and divided since the failure of the December/ January strike, the opposition has been unable to achieve its principle goal of a guaranteed August referendum by yesterday's agreement with Chávez.

- The agreement is a victory for Chávez, allowing him to claim that the turmoil is ending, without actually having to risk his presidency.

Yesterday, after nearly seven months of intermittent negotiation, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the leadership of the opposition signed an agreement in an attempt to diffuse the country's current political crisis. In their public statements, both sides are praising the accord as evidence of support for the constitution and as a step towards ending the violent turmoil in Venezuela. In reality, however, the agreement is a strong victory for Chávez and demonstrates that the weakness of the opposition was very much a factor at the negotiating table. The agreement calls on both sides to respect the constitutional principle of allowing a referendum only after an elected official has served half of his or her elected term, insinuating that any possible referendum will include not only the president, but also opposition governors and mayors. Although the opposition was seeking early general elections, the agreement does not even guarantee that a referendum will take place, nor does it prohibit Chávez from blocking opposition efforts to stage such a vote.

With current opinion polls showing that the Venezuelan president would not win an August referendum, Chávez has little motivation to facilitate it. While hailing the agreement as a step by the opposition to acknowledge the primacy of the Constitution, the president maintains that, "The referendum is only a possibility. It is not certain that there will be a referendum." Even César Gaviria, OAS secretary-general and one of the chief moderators of the negotiations, acknowledged, "the document does not put an end to the crisis." The opposition does have some victories to show its supporters. In the agreement the government finally acknowledged that human rights abuses and an armed citizenry are current problems plaguing the Venezuelan population. However, the main threat posed by the agreement lies in the language referring to any possible referendum. Since the document refers to all elected officials, it is likely that Chávez will threaten to force referendums for some of the opposition governors and mayors, should he himself have to face a vote.

The Venezuelan president has proven himself a master strategist. During both the coup and recent strikes, Chávez defied opinion polls and not only managed to survive, but quite possibly has emerged stronger than before. The opposition should keep this in mind as it uses the agreement to press towards a referendum in August. Chávez was forced to concede little in negotiations and is not bound to facilitate such a vote. Even if it does take place, Chávez has sufficient time to court anew the part of his population that he had previously lost and may once again be able to overcome his current low popularity ratings in opinion polls to retain power. It is also possible that Chávez could lose any referendum, but win the subsequent presidential election, in which he would be allowed to run. While Chávez does not have a majority of the Venezuelan population behind him, the opposition is weak and divided. If the economy revives and the president is able to rebuild his constituency, his re-election prospects may be anything but bleak.

This analysis was prepared by Katherine Wells, research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued 30 May 2003

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email coha@coha.org.


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