Venezuela's opposition ignores the Constitution

Those trying to end the rule of Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela are having a very difficult - and protracted - time of it.

Coup and strike notwithstanding, the opposition has had no success because it has been unable to convince the world that the unwillingness to abide by Venezuela's laws and Constitution represent a defense of, not an attack on, democracy.

The opposition claims that Mr. Chávez is a dictator aiming for totalitarian control. But this jars with the complete political and journalistic freedom enjoyed in the country. The Chávez regime does not take political prisoners (unless they break the law, such as those who tried to oust him in April) and the local press is openly and militantly antigovernment.

The opposition also asserts that the struggle against Chávez is purely political, devoid of social or racial overtones. This is difficult to reconcile because the president's strongest support is among poor and mixed-race Venezuelans and the opposition is largely white and middle-to-upper class.

The arguments put forward by the anti-Chávez militants and their professed commitment to freedom and democracy don't tally with their willingness to disregard their Constitution and forgo traditional elections. They claim that if Chávez remains in power until the elections, in 2006, he'll either irreparably damage the economy or somehow make his rule permanent.

But this professed inability to defend their interests and forward their views in the regular give-and-take of politics rings hollow. Chávez's popularity has indeed diminished substantially since his election; the most reliable Venezuelan pollster Alfredo Keller puts it now at 36 percent. As the president's popularity decreases, and as long as he keeps operating within the legal and democratic framework, an equally legal and democratic opposition representing the majority of the population should have no difficulty making its preferences felt through the existing electoral system.

The Venezuelan opposition is no political orphan. Businesses, the privately owned-media, organized labor, and the traditional political parties are all solidly in its ranks. Even without waiting for 2006, the opposition has a multitude of legal and political means to make its power felt. No government can effectively function without the active collaboration of all the interests and institutions it represents.

The opposition's unwillingness to abide by the electoral timetable seems less than true concern for freedom and democracy. Given the global influence of US interests and the strategic importance of Venezuelan oil, there is little chance that Venezuela would be allowed to go the way of Cuba. So what's really at stake, what the opposition is trying to impede, isn't the "radicalization" of the country, or the emergence of a totalitarian dictatorship, but the threat that Venezuela will no longer be in the hands of those who controlled it during the past 30 years of corrupt politics and inept economic policies. And Chávez's electoral victories - winning the presidency, calling for a new Constitution, winning a congressional majority - came as direct reactions to that previous state of affairs. But many of those now leading the opposition were active participants in the misgoverning and ineptness that made Chávez possible, and they fear losing the sway they've long held.

The opposition has been totally silent about what it advocates for the future, how it plans to avoid repeating the past. It's silent because it can't speak with one voice. Its ranks range from the ultraconservative association of industrialists to Bandera Roja, a radical leftist group that opposes Chávez not because he is undemocratic, but because he is democratic.

If both government and opposition were truly committed to the rule of law, a compromise between their more moderate elements should not be hard to achieve. Chávez claims he wants to work within the legal structure; the opposition is doing itself, and Venezuela, no favor by refusing to follow suit.

Francisco José Moreno, a political economist who has advised Latin American leaders - including two Venezuelan presidents prior to President Chavez - is president of the Strategic Assessments Institute, a think tank specializing in politics and economics.

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