Then and Now: How Does Maduro’s Venezuela Compare to Pinochet’s Chile?

(La Patilla)
Venezuela is the exception, not the rule when it comes to dictatorships in Latin America. (La Patilla)

By Angelo Flórez de Andrade

The Venezuelan opposition is struggling to hold a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro, because his adminstration has prevented the opposition from exercising its right to revoke him.

Have there been similar experiences in Latin America? What is Nicolás Maduro’s status over other leaders who have faced the possibility of a recall? Here are some similarities and differences between the Chilean referendum of 1988, and the Venezuelan recall processes.

Chile’s Dictatorship and the Referdendum of 1988

For over 10 years, Chile lived under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1989). The Chilean military regime violently repressed political opponents. This included tortures and abductions.

By the late 80s, the communist collapse and democratization processes in Latin America put at risk the continuity of the dictatorship. In addition, the constitution drafted by the dictatorial regime established that the Chilean people would vote in 1988 on the continuation of the standing government. In that electoral process, Chileans were asked if they agreed with letting Adolfo Pinochet remaining in power.

Supporters of the “Yes” would approve the continuation of the military rule. Those who voted “No” would support the holding of presidential elections.

Legalized political parties — by Law 18,603 of 1987 that allowed the creation of parties in Chile, except those political movements “contrary to law,” i.e. communists — could support one of the two options. Among those who supported “No” were almost all progressive and centrist parties, like the Christian Democratic Party, and some members of the right, such as Sebastián Piñera, who later became President of Chile.

For the first time since the 1973 coup, the opposition could expose their views on television. However, the military government censored the “No” campaign. Despite the military’s power, about 55 percent of Chileans voted against the dictatorship.

The Pinochet government had no choice but to accept the results. A year later, Chile would hold free and democratic elections. However, Pinochet maintained certain privileges, such as staying as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and getting a lifetime seat in the Chilean legislature without being elected.

The Venezuelan Recall Referendum of 2004

One of Hugo Chávez’s electoral promises when he was running for president in 1998 was drafting a new constitution. Article 72 of the Constitution of Venezuela states that all elected offices can be removed. The article allows a recall referendum after any official completes half of the period for which he is elected.

Chávez’s government politicized the bureaucracy of the state oil company (PDVSA), which led to mass layoffs in 2002. The political situation worsened when some members of the Venezuelan Army supported a coup. After an attempt in April of that year, Venezuelan society became even more polarized.

The oil strike continued, Chávez radicalized his speech and kept politicizing the bureaucracy.

The opposition continued to promote the removal of the Bolivarian government. Invoking Article 72 of the constitution, the opposition collected signatures in 2003, and gave them to the electoral authority. However, the National Electoral Council invalidated the signatures, arguing that these had been collected before Chávez was halfway through his term.

In October 2003, the political opposition and civil organizations like Súmate collected signatures again. Their mission was to collect 20 percent of the signatures in the voter registry, which totaled about 2.4 million.

Despite all the legal obstacles Chavista institutions created, the referendum took place on schedule. International organizations such as the Organization of American States and the Carter Center monitored the elections. Chávez won with nearly 59 percent of the vote.

It is difficult to predict how the Venezuelan leader would have acted had he been defeated. Hugo Chávez only lost one election: the referendum to reform the Constitution in 2007. On that occasion, he said that the victory of the opposition was minimal, and tried to amend the constitution again in 2009.

In any case, what we do know is how Chávez reacted after winning the recall referendum. Human rights organizations asserted the Venezuelan government used the lists of signatories to politicize the bureaucracy. The so-called “Tascon List” allowed them to purge public administration, and to prevent the allocation of state contracts to any opponent of the regime.

Maduro’s Recall Referendum?

After Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, Nicolás Maduro became President of Venezuela. The consequences of statism, and the politicization of the administration became even more evident. In December 2015, Chavismo faced one of their few defeats, and lost the majority in the National Assembly.

In 2016, the opposition seeks to get back to the track of 2004. The opposition bloc aims to collect signatures to revoke Maduro’s mandate, but Chavista institutions are trying to prevent it by all means.

Earlier this year, the Venezuelan opposition began collecting 400,000 signatures (one percent) of Venezuelan voters. By August, the signatures were submitted to the National Electoral Council. The institution validated some of them, and invalidated others — including that of the opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Later on, the mission of the opposition would be to collect 20 percent of all the signatures registered on the electoral roll. However, several maneuvers by the regime’s legal team led to a change in the rules. Now, the opposition must collect 20 percent of the signatures in every Venezuelan state.

CNE stated that it was not possible to conduct the referendum in 2016 due to technical issues. For the opposition leaders, the organization seeks to delay the recall. If the electoral process takes place after January 10, 2017, and the president is in fact revoked, the vice president would take office without an election.

The opposition decided to take on the challenge and collect the signatures. However, Venezuelan courts halted the process in October 2016. Thus, the CNE stopped the process as well. According to the opposition, the courts acted in favor of Maduro’s government.

Maduro, Chávez and Pinochet

Though Pinochet systematically violated Chilean human rights and silenced the opposition for years, he accepted the results of the referendum. Despite his authoritarian and personalistic attitude, Chávez more or less respected the constitution, and accepted the challenge of being submitted to a recall referendum.

We do not know for sure what would have happened if “the commander” had lost, but at least he did confront a referendum. Maduro has avoided facing new elections at all costs.

Chávez and Pinochet may have accepted results, but not because of their strict adherence to the law, since both of them were involved in military coups. It is likely they did so because they believed they could win. The case with Maduro is different: even the regime’s pollsters say it is very difficult for the Venezuelan leader to win the recall referendum.

President Maduro still has a long way to match Pinochet’s authoritarian record. However, if he aims to imitate the latter, he is on track to do so.

Maduro constantly violates the Venezuelan constitution. That same constitution inspired by the values of his mentor, Hugo Chávez. The successor of “the commander” ignores Article 72 of the constitution, and refuses to recognize the National Assembly.

Even if a miracle occurred and the politicized Chavista institutions accepted the recall, the CNE would probably conduct the recall after January 2017. That would result in a change of face, not new elections. In this case, the social and economic reforms Venezuela needs would be delayed, again.

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