The 12 months of 2005 were a microcosm of both the accelerating Bolivarian project and the political blunders of the opposition. The sixth year of Hugo Chávez’s administration brought further consolidation of executive power over the Venezuelan state, economy and media, while the opposition stood and watched.
In retrospect it almost looks like the two sides were complicit. They weren’t, but no one could blame you for thinking so.
From my perch at the National Endowment for Democracy and later knowing opposition leaders, I had the frustrating privilege of watching the train wreck that passed for the opposition’s calculations—first in denouncing without evidence the 2004 referendum results and later coercing members to abstain from the 2005 legislative elections—against the backdrop of an accelerating Bolivarian project hell-bent on gaining absolute control over the Venezuelan state and economy.
They handed the keys to the castle to Chávez and undermined international solidarity.
The opposition’s strategy was confused and divisive. It was focused on ill-conceived short-term goals and self-righteousness, driven largely by individual political ambitions. In 2005 the opposition not only handed a blank check to the anti-democratic intentions of the Chávez government, they also undermined their own credibility and cohesion. What was personally painful was to see the responsibility of halting such a predictable disaster in the hands of leadership of such incompetence and leaders of such political avarice.
Viva la revolución and its unintended collaborators
Freshly re-legitimized by his victory in the August 2004 recall referendum, and his candidates’ success in the municipal and regional elections of October 2004, and with political momentum and oil prices in his favor, Chávez moved to accelerate his Bolivarian revolution and expand it beyond the country’s borders.
Early in the year, the government moved to expropriate “unproductive” lands. From the start of the program in 2005 until 2008, the National Land Institute reported the redistribution of more than 4,380,000 hectares of “recovered” land to more than 101,500 families and cooperative-owned farms. To assist in the formation and the productivity of these new cooperatives, the government created that same year the Fund for the Development of Socialist Agriculture (FONDAS), with a $400 million budget, to provide loans and technical support to cooperatives. Price controls, lack of access to markets and corruption meant that many of the loans recipients defaulted, and food production never reached the goals envisioned in the plan after 2005.
It was personally painful was to see the responsibility of halting such a predictable disaster in the hands of leadership of such incompetence.
Flush with cash from the rise in oil prices ($60 per barrel that year, and rising), the government also moved to extend its control over the oil sector. Oil contracts with major international companies were renegotiated, imposing tougher terms and higher royalties, and scrapped association contracts signed in the 1990s for joint-ventures dominated by the-now-fully state-controlled PDVSA.
The year also saw an expansion of the Bolivarian revolution beyond Venezuela’s borders. President Chávez bought several hundred million dollars of Argentine bonds, helping re-finance that country’s debt; under the Peronist government of President Nestor Kirchner, Argentina defaulted and was frozen out of international capital markets. In September of 2005, Chavez signed a trade pact with nine Caribbean governments to provide them with favorable credit terms to purchase Venezuelan oil for the next 25 years. That deal, which became known as PetroCaribe, continues to provide the core of now-President Nicolas Maduro’s regional support, allowing Chávez’s handpicked-successor to avoid regional accountability for its abuses. The government-funded teleSUR news network was also launched. While Chávez claimed teleSUR’s creation was to battle the media monopolies of the imperialist north, the regional 24-news station soon became a propaganda tool for the Bolivarian movement and its allies.
Government control over society and the media, of course, ramped up, along with retribution against government employees who signed petitions requesting the recall referendum.
Who’s advising these guys?
Meanwhile, the opposition reverted to its strategy of forcing a confrontation to make the government quit or bring international credibility to their struggle. Unfortunately, not only didn’t their inchoate, half-baked strategy not accomplish their goals, it did the opposite: they handed the keys to the castle to Chávez and undermined international solidarity. Just a few days shy of the December elections to select all 167 members of the National Assembly, the five main opposition parties declared they would not participate in the elections.
That refusal was a logical extension of their unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the August 2004 referendum. After all, how could they justify competing in a process they already denounced as corrupt? Not coincidental with the abstention, of course, was that the opposition was trailing in the polls. Most expected the opposition to win, at most, a third of the assembly seats. As luck would have it, I was with a former mayor from the Cuarta República when Primero Justicia announced its decision to join the other four parties in the boycott. After hearing the news, he turned to me and said “We told them that if they participated in these elections, it was the same as collaborating with the Vichy government”. The metaphor was clearly intended as a threat to coerce opposition politicians to abstain, but the former mayor’s comparison was also a telling example of why the strategy didn’t work. For one, for all the government’s lack of democracy and totalitarian agenda, comparing it to Hitler’s genocidal rule and empire was another example of exaggerating the immediate dangers of Chávez; and the effort to tar those who participated in democratic elections, despite their flaws, as Nazi collaborators was (and remains) odious.
In the end, the opposition’s refusal to play in an election it was likely to lose had three powerful consequences. First, it reinforced the impression among international observers and Human Rights advocates that the opposition was, at best, hopeless in trying to advance a constructive, positive agenda, or tenuously committed to the democracy it claimed defend. The unexpected and clumsy decision snatched international sympathy from the jaws of defeat.
Second, the 2005 legislative elections were the last in which Venezuela allowed credible election monitors. Both the OAS and the EU had teams on the ground before and during the process. Such groups should have been the opposition’s best allies in guaranteeing the integrity of the process, but the opposition raised a series of demands that appear now in retrospect to have been a ruse to justify not participating in elections they would lose. The majority of elections in Venezuela since have been observed by partial, non-credible and technically unqualified international groups.
Third, and most damning, was that the state was effectively given over to Chávez. With no opposition candidates on the ballot, pro-government parties won all of the seats. In the words of John Polga-Hecimovich, by refusing to contest the elections, the opposition gave “Chávez the luxury of a parliamentary supermajority and law-making carte blanche for a five-year period”. They all yielded the last remaining check on presidential power to the governing party.
It’s worth noting that most of the decision-makers back then are still playing that role today.