16 April 2013

Venezuela: 'time for a tough hand'

The stage is set for a violent showdown tomorrow in Venezuela. Interim president Maduro is not allowing a recount of the weekend's close election vote and has forbidden demonstrations in favor of a recount, citing violence and fatalities at protests yesterday and predictably accusing the opposition of plotting a coup d'etat. "It's time for a tough hand," Maduro said, according to a Reuters translation. This will only confirm Maduro as an authoritarian bully in the mold of his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, in the eyes of those inclined to see both men that way regardless of the evidence. That attitude seems to prevail in the U.S., or at least in official circles, regardless of the party in power here. The Obama administration so far refuses, for what it's worth, to recognize the Venezuelan election results, favoring a recount. Maybe Democrats can't help empathizing with any call for a recount in a disputed election. Many liberals in the U.S. will say that the Venezuelan opposition has as much right to demand a recount as Al Gore and the Democrats did after the 2000 presidential election, recalling that Gore only conceded defeat after the Supreme Court had issued an opinion. But while we recall the aftermath of the 2000 vote as a kind of crisis, we should also remember that the Democrats made their protests with a civility absent from the streets of Caracas. For whatever reason the stakes seem higher in Venezuela -- no one in November 2000 feared that George W. Bush was driving for dictatorship. But in the wake of Chavez we have a crisis of confidence in Venezuelan democracy. The opposition takes for granted that the government prevails by cheating, while the government regards the opposition as treacherous. It's the sort of situation where liberals often can't help giving the opposition the benefit of the doubt, but in Venezuela's case it seems fair to ask whether the opposition owes anyone else that same benefit. I'm not sure whether Governor Capriles, the opposition leader, could be called a right-winger by U.S. standards, but many opponents of the Chavez-Maduro regime share a characteristically right-wing assumption that no election of a leftist or poor-people's party is truly legitimate. Leftists are assumed first to "bribe" voters by various means, then to accumulate and abuse power toward an eventual goal of dictatorship. Even in the absence of actual dictatorship, as in Venezuela, elections are presumed by many to be rigged so long as the Chavez party wins. To an extent this attitude is the partisanship you might find anywhere on Earth. But in Venezuela and other countries where "left" parties win elections frequently a danger exists of a critical mass of bad faith in elections and democracy resulting in the sort of coup Maduro automatically assumes to be in the works. The alternative isn't for anyone to give Maduro a free pass; the election seems close enough to justify a recount on objective grounds. But electoral democracy requires opposition parties at some point -- in this case, ideally, after an objective recount -- to concede the legitimacy of defeat and the right of the winners to govern. If the Venezuelan opposition can't do that, than whatever happens afterward can't be blamed entirely on the government. It may be tyranny when the government won't let the opposition win, but when the opposition won't let the government win, the word you're looking for is chaos.

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