A week ago Sunday, the Venezuelan people put the brakes on Hugo Chavez by voting “no” on a referendum that would have greatly expanded presidential power and diminished the rights of the people, all under the guise of democracy. Chavez had hoped to demonstrate his “commitment” to freedom on the world stage. But, fortuitously, the Venezuelan people stole the show by defending their rights and power at the voting booth.
Sunday’s referendum was greeted by the free world as a significant setback for Chavez. But it has become clear that his defeat was even more significant than it first appeared; Chavez was rebuked at the ballot box by the Venezuelan people, behind closed doors by top military leaders, and in the press by some of his greatest supporters.
The current that so recently seemed to be headed toward Chavez’s absolute power has stalled and can now hopefully be reversed.
As I described before the vote, fractures in the president’s coalition were visible prior to the referendum. One time supporters of Chavez — especially members of the army, the student population, as well as the poor and underprivileged — began to question their leader, and object to his power-grabs, and his gross mishandling of the country’s financial and social affairs.
More difficult to discern before the referendum was just how fragile Chavez’s coalition had become. But events that unfolded in the immediate aftermath of the vote reveal that cracks in his coalition are deep and debilitating and give us reason to remain hopeful for Venezuela’s future.
News of the referendum’s defeat swept across the country and drove the Venezuelan people into the streets of Caracas and other major cities in celebration. Several press reports, as well as testimony from credible witnesses of the election, now confirm that the military pushed Chavez into a speedy and definitive public acknowledgment of defeat, helping affirm the principles of democracy and the limits of public authorities.
In fact, by insisting that Chavez recognize the defeat of the referendum, the military made a definitive break from history and made themselves an ally of democracy – an all-too-uncommon role in the history of the region. Their actions sent a clear message to Chavez — and to the rest of the world — that they refused to intervene and repress their own people in a blood bath on the streets.
Even members of his most inner circle have begun to turn against him. Mexico-based political scientist Heinz Dieterich, author of Socialism in the 21st Century, and Chavez’s chief guru in recent years, maintained this week that Chavez cannot impose his socialist revolution on his followers. In a series of pointed articles, he warned that the president must embrace a more inclusive, and less unilateral, approach to governing; otherwise, he runs the risk of devouring his own revolution. Dieterich also predicted that Chavez’s “strategic defeat” dealt a serious blow to the Bolivian and Cuban regimes, which will likely begin to unfold by the end of the decade.
As some reports have noted, the constitutional reforms would have done little to change Chavez’s actual legal power. The Enabling Law, which the national assembly passed last year, already gave the president the right to rule by decree on numerous issues, including economic matters. Nevertheless, the defeat of the referendum was a serious and significant political loss for Chavez. And the aftershocks continue to degrade his presidential power and diminish support from the international community.
Prior to Sunday’s vote Chavez threatened anyone who opposed the constitutional reform. The situation has now changed and dissent among the Chavistas — the president’s closest supporters — can be heard on the floor of the national assembly and all over Venezuela. And as the Chavista apparatus showed obvious signs of crumbling, the embattled president became more aggressive and vicious in his rhetoric — a marked change from his subdued concession early Monday morning.
No doubt this dissention from within is a reaction to the weakening of Chavez’s power and his loss of influence on the world stage. He had already managed to alienate himself from some of his Latin American neighbors such as Brazil, Colombia, and Chile. Current events will no doubt give room for pause from his vassals in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. And it will be hard for the Cuban regime to ignore the writing on the wall.
In characteristic Chavez style, he framed his loss as a win for democracy. But Chavez cannot use rhetoric to downplay the voice of the Venezuelan people, bravely expressed by university students, and the actions of credible military leaders and members of his inner circle. Venezuelans rejected Chavez’s unilateral approach to leadership and are now looking for actions to bring about true democracy in their country. — Jaime Daremblum is the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He was Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998-2004.