Venezuela: Emerging opposition collage
(International Relations and Security Network, 19/11/2007)
Days ahead of a 2 December referendum on the latest round of Venezuelan constitutional reforms, the traditional opposition remains divided, but a number of new elements have risen to present their claims against the reforms - among them political parties, government leaders and a former defense minister who could become the unwilling leader of this opposition collage.
Until former defense minister Raul Baduel held a press conference to speak out against the reforms on 5 November, he was considered one of Chavez's closest supporters, a man widely respected for his cool and principled thought. But his public address, which concluded that the current process of reforming the constitution was illegal, has prompted a flurry of speculation about Baduel's loyalties. In fact, many analysts are now wondering whether the former defense minister's comments could lead Chavistas to reconsider their support for the Venezuelan president.
Baduel's central argument has nothing to do with the various articles of the reform package - themselves contested. His problem lies with the process. Rather than convene a Constituent Assembly, as has been done in the past and is currently underway in Bolivia and Ecuador, Chavez decided to simply have the reform package approved by the National Assembly before subjecting it to a popular referendum.
This method clearly benefits Chavez as his political coalition has nearly 100 percent control of the National Assembly and many of his followers would likely vote in favor of the reforms without question. Submitting the reforms to a popular vote also takes advantage of the tendencies for abstention that many in the traditional opposition have continued to observe.
Yet by completely sidestepping a Constituent Assembly, Chavez has, according to Baduel and others, chosen to ignore Venezuelan law, enshrined in the 1999 constitution. This, the former defense minister says, amounts to a political coup de etat.
In a letter sent to Chavez in September, Venezuela's Communist Party (PCV) also spoke out against a president most would assume represents the party's political goals, and decried the reform proposal as "contrary to the federal character of the Republic, consecrated in the fundamental principles of the constitution."
A third group of non-traditional opposition may soon grow from the various state governors who have supported Chavez but have seen few rewards for their loyalty.
The article that has drawn the most attention is one allowing the president to run for office an unlimited number of times - a privilege that while extended to Chavez would not be extended to many state-level governors who are looking ahead to the 2008 elections as the potential end of their political careers. These governors are not as concerned with the reform process as they are with the limitation of their power as state-level authorities with no promise of remaining in office longer than their current two terms.
Venezuela's students represent a fourth segment of the recently emerged non-traditional opposition. Since May, this group has repeatedly faced Chavez's supporters in the streets of Caracas and other major cities. It is a boisterous and organized group, but few think it can function as a core element of the opposition.
What amounts to a group of strange bedfellows is not likely to become a unified force any time soon.
Baduel has begun a nation-wide campaign to encourage Venezuelans to vote "no" in the referendum. He does not speak to the students, the Communist Party, Venezuela's middle class or the rowdy students. He speaks directly to Chavez's supporters.
The former defense minister's loyalty to Chavez runs back decades. In fact, he has been so close to the president that some local analysts have speculated that his public opposition to the president was some sly tactic to further divide and confuse the opposition. But the opposite is more likely true. Baduel appears to be a man of principle. He stood firm by Chavez as long as the president moved forward in what Baduel thought was a well reasoned and, most important, legal manner.
In an interview with the Venezuelan daily El Universal on 18 November, Baduel said it was his moral judgment that the process was illegal and thereby not in the best interests of the nation.
As a reasoned and well-informed individual, Baduel's reputation might grasp the attention of enough Chavez supporters to reject the president's reforms on 2 December. If not, he will come close and possibly carry on as the leader of Venezuela's new opposition, one born from within the president's own camp.