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Undaunted, the opposition kicked off a months-long strike later that same year, which crippled the oil industry before it finally ended last February. Now, opponents to Chavez are engaged in their second attempt to achieve a recall referendum, which would oust him just over halfway through his current term. They claim to have gotten 50 percent more signatures than they needed to force such a vote, but Chavez claims massive fraud inflated their totals.
A Third Way?
Even those who do not support the president often have no love for his opponents. “I don’t want to be with Chavez,” says retired journalist Jose Vivas, who lives with his wife in a hotel they run on the beach of the tiny Caribbean fishing village of Santa Fe. “I don’t want to be with the opposition. I want a third way.” According to Vivas, one argument against Chavez by those least virulently opposed to his rule is that he is responsible for the divisions in Venezuela. “He divided the country into the ones who are for him and the ones who are against him.”
Fernando Nocua, a Chavez supporter, envi-ronmental activist, and small business owner in the Andean city of Merida, sees things differently. “Many people say that Chavez has divided Venezuela, but Venezuela has been divided before him—between 70 percent poor people and the rest middle class and just [a] small group [of] really rich people.”
The group advocating the third way seems to differ with the opposition over its sometimes undemocratic methods. “If the majority want Chavez, look, I have to respect that,” says Vivas. “The majority is what counts.”
Throughout the country pro-Chavez graffiti is ubiquitous to this day, a fact that also indicates the economic gulf between supporters and opponents of Chavez. Opposition graffiti is uncommon, though more expensive billboards in support of the current referendum drive—many of which have been defaced with spray paint—are commonplace. Pro-government billboards are relatively rare, yet also often defaced, and formal pro-Chavez advertisements usually take the form of cheaper banners and signs.
Last December 6, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, as Chavez’s supporters are known, turned out for a rally on Avenida Bolivar to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his election. The gathering had the feel of a street party, with vendors selling beer and snacks, and hawkers touting Chavez’s trademark red beret—symbolic of the parachute regiment he belonged to at the time of the 1992 coup.
Chavez himself did not arrive at the rally until 5pm. By the time he finished his national broadcast an hour and forty-five minutes later amid a fireworks display, his supporters at the front of the crowd showed little sign of waning enthusiasm. He is “one of the finest social communicators I ever saw, and I have a lot of years in television,” says Jose Vivas. On this day, Chavez sang to the crowd, as he regularly does, repeatedly pulling a copy of the Venezuelan constitution from his shirt pocket and holding it up as he spoke.
In his first speech as president, Chavez announced his intent for a national referendum stating that the people decide whether elections should be held for a National Assembly to draft a new constitution to replace the old one formulated in 1961. As early as 1984, changes had been made to the old constitution, but none so vast as those found in the final draft of the new one. In April of 1999, 88 percent of the people voted “yes” to the referendum and by December of that year, 71 percent approved the new constitution.
The new constitution also handed Chavez’s opponents the tool they need to dethrone him: the recall referendum. Under the new document, a recall vote can be called by a petition of at least 20 percent of the registered voters in a given politician’s constituency. For the presidency, that comes out to approximately 2.4 million of 12 million registered voters nationwide.
In February 2003, the opposition made its first attempt to force a recall vote. Despite the opposition's claim that it had enough signatures, last September the petition was thrown out by the National Election Council (cne) on the grounds that the midpoint in Chavez’s current term—his first under the new constitution—had to be reached before his mandate could be challenged in this way.
Last November, the opposition tried again. Just before Christmas, they turned in what they claimed were 3.6 million valid signatures demanding a plebiscite on the remainder of Chavez’s term, along with sufficient endorsements, they claimed, to go ahead with votes on the future of an uncertain number of the 37 pro-Chavez members of the National Constituent Assembly (acn) they had also sought to oust. The cne said it would take 30 days to verify the petitions, but no one seemed certain as the year drew to a close if this meant calendar days or business days.
At the same time, the cne is also looking over signatures gathered by Chavez supporters in an attempt to force recall votes to oust opposition acn members. Chavez says there are enough signatures to do so; the opposition claims the effort fell far short. Once this is sorted out, any referenda could be held as early as March or April. All of this begs the questions: why is Chavez so hated, and why is he so loved? Ironically, the answer to both may just be the vast problems faced by Venezuela early in this new millennium.