University of Pittsburgh
August 1, 2004

Will the Third Time Be a Charm for Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez?

Pitt professor says Chávez faces three challenges but has the support of Venezuela's poor
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—Despite two unconstitutional attempts to depose his administration, including an aborted military coup in April 2002 and the failure of an oil-production strike in early 2003, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías has managed to remain president of Venezuela. On Aug. 15, his countrymen will have a referendum to determine whether to end Chávez's presidential term. With personal and professional interests in the outcome, Aníbal Pérez-Liñán—assistant professor of political science in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences with an appointment in Pitt's Center for Latin American Studies within the University Center for International Studies—and Clementina Acedo—assistant professor of administrative and policy studies in Pitt's School of Education and codirector of Pitt's Institute for International Studies in Education with an appointment in Pitt's Center for Latin American Studies—are closely watching Venezuela's recall election.

With the support of the middle class, Chávez won Venezuela's 1998 presidential campaign with 56 percent of the vote. Chávez, who at the time of his election was the leading voice against political corruption, is now the focus of international scrutiny.

Immediately after taking office in 1999, Chávez called for the election of a Constitutional Assembly in order to reform the 1961 Constitution of the Republic of Venezuela. His party won more than 90 percent of the assembly's seats; this allowed Chávez to obtain a new, tailor-made constitution. The assembly modified the structure of the three branches of government: dissolving the existing bicameral congress, which had been controlled by the opposition, to create a unicameral congress; reshuffling the judiciary to appoint loyalists in key positions; and extending the presidential term from five to six years while allowing for immediate reelection, which had previously been prohibited. As a result of these constitutional changes, a general election took place in 2000. Chávez again won with 60 percent of the vote. To counterbalance the six-year presidential term, the 1999 constitution included a provision for one recall election following the president's first three years in office and in accordance with the wishes of 20 percent of voters.

Chávez's populist style and his unwillingness to negotiate alienated the middle class, the mainstream media, the trade unions, and the business sector. Unable to request a recall election for three years, however, the opposition attempted to illegally remove Chávez from power.

In late 2003, the opposition groups collected nearly 2.5 million signatures requesting the recall of the president and 33 pro-government legislators. After several debates on the verification of signatures presumed to be forged, the National Electoral Council set the date of the referendum for Aug. 15. The question on the ballot reads: "Do you agree with terminating the popular mandate given through legitimate democratic elections to citizen Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for the current presidential term?"

"The [Chávez] administration now confronts three challenges: the mainstream media is adamantly anti-Chávez; the international public opinion distrusts the current administration; and the Venezuelan middle class, who supported the president in the 1998 election, has abandoned the boat," Pérez-Liñán explained. "On the other hand, Chávez still has much personal charisma and controls the Venezuelan oil revenues that sustain his education, health, and labor programs for the poor. As a result, the president remains popular among the poorest sectors in the country, which may represent as much as 70 percent of the Venezuelan population."

Pérez-Liñán researches political stability and institutional performance among Latin American democracies and, more recently, presidential impeachment in Latin America. He received the Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Universidad del Salvador, Beunos Aires, Argentina, in 1993 and the Ph.D. degree in government and international studies from the University of Notre Dame in 2001.

Acedo, who is a native Venezuelan, received the Licenciatura in sociology from Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, Caracas, Venezuela, in 1982. At Stanford University, Acedo received Master of Arts degrees in international development education and philosophy and the Ph.D. degree in international comparative education in 1984, 1988, and 1997, respectively. Her areas of specialization include international development and education, education reform, economics of education, teacher education, and ethical and equity issues in education.

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