Monday, December 10, 2007

Showdown at Fort Tiuna

Showdown at Fort Tiuna
December 10, 2007

Americas columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady reports on the continuing impact of Venezuela's rejection of dictatorship.

There is only one thing more amazing than Hugo Chávez's defeat last week in a referendum designed to give him dictatorial powers. That is the suggestion, now being peddled by some members of the foreign press, that by accepting the loss the Venezuelan president has proven his democratic bona fides.

This is a preposterous claim, and no one is doing a better job of disproving it than Mr. Chávez himself. In the week since the vote, he has done nothing to conceal his appetite for vengeance and his determination to satisfy it. He has twice crudely referred to the opposition victory as excrement and he has even insulted his followers, who he says were "lazy and cowardly" for not turning out in greater numbers at the polls.

As to the democratic ideal of accepting the will of the people, he will have none of it. Rather, he is pledging to find another way to push through the constitutional amendments that voters rejected.

After nine years of Chávez rule Venezuelans know their president all too well, and there was plenty of hand-wringing this past week about the potential for a Chávez crackdown in the wake of the referendum. Indeed, only a wishful thinker could have bought into the president's conciliatory act in the early morning hours of Monday, when he calmly congratulated the "No" campaign. Feigning acquiescence in the face of defeat is classic Chávez and dates back to at least 1992, when he led a coup d'état and failed. At that time he used the same phrase -- "for now" -- as he did last week when speaking before a national television audience about his defeat. In both cases his message was the same: He had lost a battle but not his insatiable thirst for power.

This gives Venezuelans reason to be fearful. But the events that transpired behind the scenes on the night of the referendum have leaked into the public arena. And now there are grounds for hope too. As it turns out, Mr. Chávez is neither as popular nor as powerful as his friends in the foreign press have made him out to be.

Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) was supposed to issue a preliminary report about two or three hours after the polls closed at 4 p.m. a week ago Sunday. By 10 p.m. there was still no news and the public was growing agitated. Around 12:30 a.m. Caracas time I inquired from New York about the delay. One source close to the tallying process told me that Mr. Chávez's "Sí" campaign had lost but that he was refusing to concede. Interestingly enough, according to Caracas-based sources, he was arguing with the military at its headquarters at nearby Fort Tiuna. Finally, just before 1:15 a.m. the CNE announced that the "No" vote had won.

Venezuelans of course wanted to know why the announcement had taken so long, and apparently there were those in the military who wanted to tell. On Tuesday, Hernán Lugo-Galicia, a writer for the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, published a chronicle of the long night. And while his piece relies on unnamed military sources inside the fort, its account of the president's behavior is consistent with other reports and with the failure of the CNE to announce the results in a timely fashion as it promised.

Mr. Chávez denies that the military pressured him into accepting defeat. But he has not denied that he went to Fort Tiuna and met with the high military command. Mr. Lugo-Galicia reports that the president told the officers that until 100% of the votes were counted he would not recognize his defeat.

"Tension is growing," Mr. Lugo-Galicia writes of that moment. The fort "is ordered closed and soldiers confined to their barracks. A general stands up, and after expressing respect for the commander in chief, warns that the Armed Forces will not go out to repress the population." If tallying the votes were to take four days, the general warns, there would be mayhem and "this country will not bear such days of agitation."

Mr. Chávez seems to have been surprised by the vote. Mr. Lugo-Galicia reports that he was "irate," and launched recriminations against his closest confidants saying, "they lied to me, they deceived me."

Yet there was not much he could do to reverse the results. As was expected, retired Gen. Raúl Baduel, who had publicly called the government's effort to pass the amendments a "coup against democracy" seems to have played an influential role in persuading the president to accept his defeat.

According to Mr. Lugo-Galicia, military officials close to Gen. Baduel tried to make Mr. Chávez understand that it was useless "to prolong the agony." The chronicle continues: The president "only listens and says nothing. Finally he gets up and withdraws to his private office within the military installation. He remains there a long time. No one knew what would happen." What happened, it seems, was that Mr. Chávez was thwarted by the university students.

In a 2004 recall referendum against the president, the paper ballots were never audited against voting machine totals. This time the students joined the opposition, fanned out across the country to witness the vote, and promised that they would demand a full auditing of the paper ballots if there was suspected hanky-panky. This, together with Mr. Chávez's drop in popularity, made it difficult to rig the final outcome.

In the end, while Mr. Chávez did not ignore the vote, it wasn't because he didn't want to. Rather, he calculated that giving in, when all the evidence was against him, was safer than facing an almost sure uprising from the population, which the military had already said it would not put down.

Mr. Chávez may have had some help in reaching that decision from his aging mentor, Fidel Castro. The Miami Herald reported on Friday that when he went to his office at the military headquarters, he phoned the Cuban dictator for advice. If so, it would be routine Chávez behavior. In 2002, when he was briefly removed from power, he was also coached by telephone from Havana. After that he briefly expressed contrition for his bullying ways and then resumed them. There is a pattern of behavior here and it's not that of democrat.

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