Hugo Chavez suffered a narrow but humiliating loss at the polls last week for his referendum on changing the Venezuelan constitution into a roadmap for dictatorship. His acknowledgment of the defeat gained him praise from world leaders for his commitment to democracy. However, Newsweek now reports that Chavez tried to manipulate an overwhelming loss into a victory — only to be stopped at the threat of a military coup (via QandO):
Most of Latin America’s leaders breathed a sigh of relief earlier this week, after Venezuelan voters rejected President Hugo Chávez’s constitutional amendment referendum. In private they were undoubtedly relieved that Chávez lost, and in public they expressed delight that he accepted defeat and did not steal the election. But by midweek enough information had emerged to conclude that Chávez did, in fact, try to overturn the results. As reported in El Nacional, and confirmed to me by an intelligence source, the Venezuelan military high command virtually threatened him with a coup d’état if he insisted on doing so. Finally, after a late-night phone call from Raúl Isaías Baduel, a budding opposition leader and former Chávez comrade in arms, the president conceded—but with one condition: he demanded his margin of defeat be reduced to a bare minimum in official tallies, so he could save face and appear as a magnanimous democrat in the eyes of the world.
So after this purportedly narrow loss Chávez did not even request a recount, and nearly every Latin American colleague of Chávez’s congratulated him for his “democratic” behavior. Why did these leaders not speak out? Surely they knew of Chávez’s machinations, and with the exception of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and, to a large extent, the Argentine Kirchner duo, none of the region’s heads of state sympathizes with the Venezuelan revolutionary.
The reason for the silence: these leaders know Chávez can count on a fifth column in nearly every country in the region. Even while he denounces the policies of his opponents and throws vitriol in every direction, he also uses his nation’s resources to befriend their constituencies. These acolytes are devoted to his ideals and, more important, to his funding. They are boisterous, or powerful, or both, and they can make life miserable for governments ranging from the emblematic left (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil) to the liberal right (Mexico’s Felipe Calderón or Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe).
This seems at least plausible, and considering the source — the former Foreign Minister of Mexico, now an NYU professor — rather credible. Many of Hugo’s critics wondered whether he would indeed steal the election, especially given his violent supporters and all-or-nothing rhetoric. He had called opposition to the referendum traitorous, and said that those voting “No” would be voting for George Bush rather than Hugo Chavez.
If true, it demonstrates that even Chavez has a limit to his power, and the military will watch him closely. They allowed him the face-saving charade of a razor-thin loss, but the reality of his failure must have hit him hard. Even his champions among the poor don’t want to see a Fidel-like regime installed in Venezuela, let alone the military or the middle-class. He has pushed as far as he can go — at least through nominally democratic means.
Look for Hugo to try other means next. His first target will be the military. He will have to find some way to diminish the military command to reduce their threat to his regime, so expect some show trials and mass purges in the next couple of years. Once he has reduced the military threat to his regime, the next vote will go Hugo’s way, regardless of the will of the Venezuelan electorate.