CARACAS — Why is Chávez calling for debate now? After years of confrontation and polarization, what explains the shift? Every day, since Saturday, January 15, a multitude of editorials, opinion columns and blog posts are published, attempting to get to the bottom of President Hugo Chávez’ conciliatory tone and call for dialogue in his annual “Memory and History” address to the National Assembly. Much to their surprise, the recently seated and more diverse* group of legislators received a smiling, hand-shaking Chávez, making a call for dialogue and debate.
This is indeed surprising as over the past seven or eight years, Chávez has essentially prohibited interaction between members of his political party (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV) and opposition representatives. As things stand–intentionally and as a consequence–each side has their own media. With very rare exceptions, Chávez supporters never even speak to opposition newspapers, TV or radio stations; and the same is true for members of the opposition. As the National Assembly was 95 percent pro-Chávez prior to January 5, debate was also unnecessary in that forum.
This complete avoidance of their political adversaries–or “enemies”–has made it possible for Chávez to very effectively demonize and dehumanize the opposition. Without exception, the president and his supporters always include insulting and derogatory rhetoric in speeches and national broadcasts** about the opposition and its individual members. “Oligarchy,” “bourgeoisie,” “liars,” “mobsters,” “far-right extremists,” “contra-revolutionaries,” and “fascists” are the terms most commonly used.
There are no debates, no interviews, no conversations, nothing. As one can imagine, it is easier to characterize someone as a “fascist far-right extremist” when you don’t have to sit down with them and discuss their social-democratic policies for a more effective welfare state. This strategy has worked quite well for Chávez up until now. It has enabled him to call the opposition whatever dirty names he likes and leave them to bicker and moan in their own sympathetic media, thereby reinforcing their negative image in the eyes of Chávez supporters.
Why Mr. Nice Guy? Why now?
The most convincing arguments in the domestic press have centered around the idea that Chávez essentially has no other options. His popularity is down, even according to his own pollsters and as shown in last year’s legislative elections (his party won only 48 percent of the popular vote). As the argument goes, if he hopes to win reelection in December 2012, he has to start making nice with some of the folks in the middle, the “neither-nor” (ni-ni) voters as they are called in Venezuela.
In addition, it will be harder to control what “the people” think of the opposition now that they too have the National Assembly as a platform from which to present ideas and policy proposals.*** But still, Chávez isn’t a National Assembly deputy, he is the president, and his metaphorical megaphone is much louder than any that the Assembly or opposition political parties have access to.
While the arguments of 1) electoral necessity and 2) the new presence of opposition voices are good ones, they do not explain Chávez recent niceties on their own. As you may know, the outgoing National Assembly passed a “mega-package” (paquetazo) of laws in the waning days of its mandate. Among them were laws that a) challenge the sacred autonomy of Venezuelan universities, b) restrict free speech on the internet, c) forbid foreign funding of political rights groups, d) prohibit elected Assembly deputies from switching political parties and e) provide Chávez with the power to rule (legislate) by decree for a full 18 months.
These laws were extremely unpopular (and many arguably unconstitutional) not only with the Venezuelan opposition, but also in the international community. The “rule by decree” law, passed by a lame-duck Assembly, essentially stripped legislative power (for a year and a half, mind you) from the incoming and more plural group of deputies. The negative press that followed was extensive and durable; more so than Chávez has ever seen. While the usual suspects on the ideological right are habitually publishing negative stories about the Chávez government, the new set of laws was also convincing to many moderate and left-leaning governments and activists around the world. Many who had previously believed the Chávez rhetoric about implementing a more just and equitable system of governance began to question his democratic credentials in earnest. For some of them, this was in fact the tipping point.****
Going into his annual address last Saturday, Chávez was well aware of the severity of the international criticism. This awareness was first evidenced when he refused to sign the aforementioned university law, stating that further debate was needed (a move Chávez has never made before). He and his supporters firmly rejected criticism of the “rule by decree” law by the Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. However, it seems clear that he was receiving (and listening to) phone calls from foreign ministers and presidents (in Latin America and beyond) conveying concerns and warnings regarding the law. It seems likely that some heretofore silent voices made up an important part of that international pressure; namely Brazil and Spain.
After that, it became clear what Chávez needed to do to shore up support, both at home and abroad. In addition to his domestic concerns (those mentioned above as well as crime, inflation, housing, etc.), he was faced with a serious international problem. Contrary to what his persona might convey, Chávez desperately needs international support. Why do you think he gives away so much oil (to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, China, Belarus, etc.)? For fun?!
It is true that Chávez needs his “bad boy” image. He needs to have the United States to play the role of the external enemy and threat in order to justify much of his policy. However, he needs to have a majority of the rest of the world (particularly moderate left nations like Brazil and Spain) at least partially in his pocket. Why, you ask? If the US position vis-a-vis Venezuela becomes the accepted norm, then his provocations and claims against the “evil empire” (as he regularly refers to the US) lose legitimacy. Without tacit support from moderate and leftist leaders, his constant ranting and raving begins to appear as just that. In other words, if no one is out to get him, then he has nothing to scream and shout about; and therefore nothing with which to motivate his supporters, his base.
“Adversaries” vs. “Enemies”
Given these domestic and international pressures, Chávez implemented a new international public relations strategy to regain the necessary support. He took a trip down to Brazil for the inauguration of President Dilma Rousseff and made nice with known enemy and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, recently elected conservative Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and (drum roll, please) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Although he has insulted her in song in the past (video of Chávez singing at around 1:00 minute), the now famous handshake with Clinton in Brazil set the stage perfectly for his National Assembly appearance.
On January 15, President Chávez sealed the deal. He marched into the National Assembly and 1) shook hands with people he would not have spit on previously, 2) called for dialogue and debate, 3) recognized the opposition as his political adversary as opposed to his mortal enemy, 4) promised to renounce “rule by decree” powers in five months instead of 18, and 5) very effectively communicated his conciliatory message to a captive international audience. Chávez loves baseball (as do all Venezuelans) and this was a home run.
As a president who is on television 10-15 hours every week, it’s easy to lose track of the impact any given event. One speech begins to look like the previous, and the one to follow, and the one after that. But viewed from an international perspective, the annual “Memory and History” address was a very special occasion. No foreign journalist (in Venezuela and much less those outside the country) is going to watch all of Chávez’ public appearances. The international press corps probably has no idea what Chávez says in half of his broadcasts. But they were watching and taking notes on January 15, and the overwhelmingly positive resulting coverage of the event stands as irrefutable evidence.
Epilogue: Know your audience
Two days later, the world may have been watching the national broadcast celebrating Chávez’ signing of a new law for flood refugees. There would be no media coverage, however, to prove it. And how was his call for dialogue holding up? Well, he didn’t use the word “fascist,” but he did warn his audience that if the “bourgeoisie” opposition were to win the presidential election in 2012, that “they would put an end to Venezuela.” The crowd hissed in agreement in response. This address was for a different audience altogether.
By Roberto Silvers in Caracas (January 20, 2011) https://robertosilvers.wordpress.com
*The outgoing National Assembly was made up of 95 percent Chávez supporters. The new Assembly, seated January 5, consists of only 59 percent. The remaining 41 percent are members of various opposition political parties.
**This rhetoric is heard quite a lot by the Venezuelan public, as Chávez is typically on State television or mandatory national broadcast (all broadcast and cable television and radio) 10 to 15 hours per week. Yes, every week.
***Although the outgoing National Assembly did forbid coverage of congressional debate by any independent media. Only the State owned National Assembly Television (ANTV) and Radio has permission to broadcast from the legislative chamber. Also, it doesn’t hurt Chávez’ cause that the commentators on those public media insult and ridicule opposition legislators as part of their coverage.
****International criticism of the “rule by decree” law came from nearly all major newspapers worldwide and from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of diverse ideological perspectives. The most recent–and quite damning–of which coming from the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an NGO typically quite reserved in its criticism of Chávez. (Warning. Be wary of news from Venezuelanalysis.com as it is a Chávez government founded and funded news outlet which essentially translates and analyzes government press releases.)