Amidst the tensions and national and international expectations created by the 2016 recall referendum effort to bring an up-or-down vote on President Nicolás Maduro’s presidential mandate in Venezuela, I’m reminded of a previous referendum on Hugo Chávez’s presidency in 2004. Truth is, despite all the fervor over the current referendum drive, it’s not that different from the contentious recall drive of 2004.
At that time, I reviewed the situation for SIC, a magazine edited by the Jesuit think tank in Venezuela, Centro Gumilla.
In June 2003 the negotiation and dialogue table had just concluded. The unprecedented discussions had brought together supporters of the government and the opposition backed by César Gaviria, then the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) as well as the Carter Center and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
After six months of discussions, during which the umbrella opposition group Coordinadora Democrática launched the failed “Oil Strike” (December 2002–January 2003), the opposition and Hugo Chávez’s government defined a road map in May 2003. Both sides basically agreed that the political crisis should be channeled through an electoral solution. By doing so, they agreed to activate an unprecedented mechanism included in the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999: the recall referendum.
This mechanism, which allows the country to revoke an elected official before the second half of his or her term via popular vote, was, and is still, a huge innovation in the Western Hemisphere.
By halfway through 2003, SIC stated that “the government knows that the degree of rejection of Chávez is high and that he will lose the referendum.” A public opinion survey by Datanálisis at that time also demonstrated that the rejection of Chávez peaked at 68.6 percent in June 2003.
With this starting point, Jesuit Arturo Sosa stated in his situation analysis Trapiche, historia y futuro (Trapiche, history and future): “The sooner the referendum occurs, the more possibilities there are to revoke President Chávez’s term. As a consequence, chavismo’s strategy is to delay it as much as possible. To do so, they could delay the appointment of the National Election Council until a greater presence in this organization is achieved, force the opposition to recollect the signatures to call the referendum (…) Best case scenario for chavismo is to avoid the recall referendum or, otherwise, to defer it after August 19, 2004, thus avoiding an immediate presidential election.”
That was then, this is now
As we now know, chavismo did manage to delay the presidential recall referendum for over one year using a number of diverse strategies. The recall referendum finally occurred on August 15, 2004, though by most polls at that time, the frustration with the chavista government had started to ebb–due in no small part to the efforts of the chavista state.
In the months between making the decision to hold the referendum and the actual referendum, the government initiated actions aimed at marshaling popular support. The so-called social missions became an explicit arm of the state. Unfortunately, they were more committed to seeing through the commitments that came out of the mediation efforts than seeing a democratic, legitimate election.
Thirteen years later history is repeating itself; this time without outside observers who can raise serious issues over the quality of the popular endorsements of the initiative. In the 2016 road towards the referendum, chavismo is again working to delay the referendum. If they can delay it until January 10, 2017, Maduro’s defeat would result in his vice president assuming the presidency rather than having to hold a new presidential election.
The struggle between Maduro’s government and the opposition alliance, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), must be followed closely these days. The referendum will only be successful if, unlike in 2003, the opposition alliance manages to channel the popular discontent with Maduro into votes against the incumbent president, which today has reached 73 percent according to Venebarómetro.
However, if the government maintains its iron grip over key institutions (especially the National Election Council, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Armed Forces), allowing it to discourage or frighten Venezuelans from protesting on the streets, the recall referendum will not occur in 2016. The result will be the end of a possibility for real change in Venezuela in the short term. Maduro and the chavistas have learned from their past recall experiences and are clearly attempting to repeat what has been a winning chavismo strategy for defeating recall referendums: agree to hold the referendum, but then delay and delay some more.