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Venezuela: The Tension Continues

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Memorandum to the Press 04.17
Monday, April 5, 2004


  • Above all else, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez needs time for the country’s poor to directly benefit from the recent prices in oil premiums, in order for him to successfully remain in office.
  • The potential increase the number of Chávista Supreme Court justices could permanently isolate and contain opposition
  • forces.

  • The petition process’s undeniable loss in momentum in recent weeks could be the reason why Chávez appeared to be so receptive to the OAS and the Carter Center.
  • Because it is unlikely that the opposition will be granted the opportunity to stage a recall referendum, significant concessions must be made on their behalf in order to stave off fatal alienation and a potentially violent backlash.
  • More of the Same

    Since the opposition officially submitted 3.4 million names on December 19, calling for the recall of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, his enthusiasts as well as anti-Chávistas have been hotly contesting the validity of his rule. President Chávez may not have been an Ivy Leaguer, but when it comes to political smarts, he has them in abundance. He knows that what he now needs more than anything else is time— time to allow for the increase in revenue coming from the present premium price of oil to make its way into the hands of the poor, which is his core constituency. Chávez needs to pour more funds into educational and health projects, and continue to expand the number of state-subsidized food markets in slum neighborhoods, and youth athletic centers.

    The time needed by Chávez must be secured through the use of every conceivable strategy in order for the money to flow and be recorded in the growing number of former supporters of the president, who are again backing him after defecting due to his failure to keep promises of higher living standards. In recent months, Chávez’s support as represented by recent polls has increased from 35 percent to almost 45 percent. It is in the president’s direct interest to continue to delay the recall vote for as long as possible by any legal means, even if this requires stretching the law. The president originally lost his overwhelming backing because he hadn’t made good on his promises to the poor to improve their lives. Now he must do this to survive, which he above all realizes.

    Delaying the Recall

    Approximately 1,100 employees of the National Electoral Council (CNE) tirelessly have labored to enter the names and national identification card numbers of each recall referendum signatory into computers. The original deadline for the completion of this painstaking process was February 13; however, the overwhelming number of petitions which required examination, as well as the violent protests against the process itself, which has cost a number of lives, inevitably has caused multiple delays.

    Ratification Controversy

    The latest controversy consists of the Electoral Chamber’s validation of 876,000 tainted signatures that the CNE officially had voided on March 2. The CNE subsequently sought to nullify the Electoral Chamber’s ruling by appealing to the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, which, in turn, is advocating on behalf of the CNE and its right to seek, one by one, verification of disputed signatures. Since Venezuela’s constitution precisely outlines the rules and conditions under which a recall referendum may take place, the Constitutional Chamber feels that its jurisdiction allows it to play a pivotal role in determining if the opposition meets those standards. Chief Justice of the Constitutional Chamber, Ivan Rincon, appointed by loyal Chávistas, predictably declared that the Electoral Chamber has no jurisdiction in the matter of the conflict over petitions, accusing his opponents of “infringing” on local laws. In order to defend its March 15 ruling, the Electoral Chamber will most likely enter an appeal to the Supreme Court’s 20-member Plenary Assembly, the highest appellate body in the country.

    Chávistas in the Supreme Court

    Considering the Supreme Court’s increasing bench of highly committed Chávistas, the Electoral Chamber’s hardball approach to defending the interest of the opposition comes as no surprise. The nation’s high court has recently allowed the National Assembly to pass a bill that could permanently restructure the Supreme Court to Chávez’s advantage. If approved, this measure would enable lawmakers to appoint Supreme Court justices by 50 percent of the present lawmakers plus one, instead of the originally proposed two-thirds special majority. It would also raise the number of judges from 20 to 32.

    Because it will be Chávez who nominates the new judges, he could predictably infiltrate the high court with faithful MVR delegates, thus securing for himself a source of vested protection against his sworn enemies. As opposition lawmaker Alejandro Armas succinctly stated, “The Supreme Court decision tries to give a judicial backing to what the government is trying to do. We’ve been waging a battle in Congress to delay approval of the law.” The opposition isn’t the only critic of this decree; high court Justice Antonio Garcia declared, “The life of the Supreme Court is in play.” According to a report in the El Nacional Daily, Garcia lamented that the ruling violates the spirit of the constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority to revise any fundamental law of Venezuela’s governing system.

    This recent ruling represents yet another problem for the opposition by placing it at an unfair disadvantage due to the judiciary’s vulnerability to political leverage. In March 2003, the Supreme Court’s “plenary assembly” suspended the five-year old system used to appoint judges, without providing a clear explanation for the basis of its decision. At the present time, 85 percent of Venezuela’s judges have been offered temporary appointments by the selection process, without having to formally compete for their posts. Their resulting inherent job insecurity makes them more vulnerable to ideological patronage and pressure coming from within as well as from outside the institution. According to Fernando Rodriguez, one of the judicial system’s supervisors, its suspension indicates “the return of judicial tribes,” an old informal scenario where judges sought after specific cases and often made their decisions based mainly on party loyalties or financial considerations.

    Opposition’s Deteriorating Momentum

    Prior to the Electoral Chamber’s public approval of the mandatory 2.4 million petitions, Chávez appeared to be assuming a more tranquil role due to the mounting evidence that the recall referendum would legally not even take place, due to the number of strings in the president’s hands. In January, after a month of anxiously waiting for the examination’s results, the opposition feared that the CNE might not approve the minimum number of petitions to call for an official referendum, as authorized by the constitution, which clearly states that at least 20 percent of the electorate must be in favor of recalling the current president. The leftist opposition party, Movement to Socialism (MAS), revealed on January 30 that the CNE had annulled 652,000, or approximately one-fifth of the signatures. MAS representative Nelson Rampersad stated that the electoral body could very well invalidate at least 66,000 more petitions, citing the appearance of repeated signatures and codes that clashed with the CNE’s data.

    Because pro-government officials control vital components and phases of the electoral process, such as computer systems and the transcription and verification procedure, the opposition repeatedly has charged that the CNE has been conspiring to nullify more than 40 percent of their 3.4 million signatures. In order to create a more credible environment in which to conduct the signature verification process, the opposition helped recruit the Carter Center and the OAS to serve as impartial supervisors. On the other hand, highly placed Venezuelan officials expressed their dissatisfaction over any external attempt to supervise the CNE’s probe of the petitions. Its director, Oscar Battaglini, bitterly remarked, “International observers have the right to participate, but there are certain areas which, as an autonomous and sovereign power, we have placed off limits.” Such a response only fueled the opposition’s distrust of the CNE, insinuating that the body could be guarding a secret that would indicate misconduct on its part. Nevertheless, the OAS, in whom the opposition had placed great faith, the European Union, the Carter Center, and the ‘Group of Friends’ maintained that the CNE had fairly and professionally conducted the entire process.


    Some well-wishers, including COHA’s staff, declare that the only remedy that can save Venezuela from the kind of societal explosion that has plagued so many other Latin American nations is for all sides to enter into a carefully articulated social and economic compact which will specify the rules of the game in critical areas. Because the opposition will most likely lose any contest within the CNE due to the preponderance of Chávistas who presently man its stations, it would be wise if it be granted significant concessions that will guarantee access to political leverage in a trustworthy manner. If the Constitutional Chamber successfully annuls more than one million of the originally estimated 3.4 million petitions collected by the opposition, it would be wise to at least acknowledge that the Chávistas’ looming presence in all aspects of the government may have contributed to the opposition’s contraction, despite the fact that international monitors had intervened to supervise the process. Not only would such a process comply with the basic democratic principles that the OAS professedly has sought to uphold, but it would also help foster cooperation from the opposition by helping to rectify any patently unfair act or decision that the CNE may have committed during the petition investigation process.

    This analysis was prepared by Jill Shelly, Research Associate.

    Issued 5 April, 2004

    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; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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