2004-06-25 15:05:00
Embassy Caracas
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C O N F I D E N T I A L CARACAS 002081 



E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/21/2014

Classified By: Mark Wells, A/PolCouns, for Reasons 1.4(b) and (d).


C O N F I D E N T I A L CARACAS 002081



E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/21/2014

Classified By: Mark Wells, A/PolCouns, for Reasons 1.4(b) and (d).


1. (C) President Hugo Chavez is in full campaign mode for the
August 15 referendum on whether he should finish his term.
Smarting from the moral defeat of having to accept the
referendum, Chavez has recast the referendum as an inevitable
victory for his revolution. His strategy rests on mobilizing
lower class voters who have historically abstained from
elections. Chavez is beefing up spending in his "mission"
social programs and registering poor voters via a massive
identity card drive. On the darker side, the GOV continues
to harass opposition figures with flimsy criminal indictments
and some detentions. Failing that, there is a bag of dirty
tricks from which Chavez can draw to manipulate the electoral
process. The campaign's best asset, of course, is Chavez
himself, who remains a formidable communicator. End summary.

Turning Defeat Into Victory

2. (C) President Hugo Chavez was politically damaged by the
convocation of the recall referendum against him, currently
planned for August 15. After vowing to his followers for
more than a year that there would not be a referendum, Chavez
surprised many by accepting the results of the signature
drive mounted by the opposition to force the recall vote.
Venezuela is thick with speculation over the fallout of
Chavez's decision has had on his movement. Though some stars
have fallen -- most notably those of the previous campaign
committee Comando Ayacucho -- Chavez has already regrouped
and re-launched his campaign under the direction of the
"Comando Maisanta." (Chavez also called for one hundred
thousand "electoral patrols" of citizens who will get out the
vote.) Chavez claimed that the mere calling of a referendum
provided for by his own Bolivarian Constitution is a victory
for the participatory democracy espoused by his revolution.

3. (C) Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) Deputy Juan Barreto,
himself a director in Comando Ayacucho, told poloff June 17
that Chavez is in full charge of the referendum campaign and

is confident of a 65-35 percent defeat of the opposition at
the polls. Barreto claimed, most unconvincingly, that the
opposition had actually failed to obtain enough signatures to
activate the referendum, and Chavez had given the National
Electoral Council (CNE) the go-ahead to approve the
referendum in order to deal a final blow to his political
opponents. Barreto dismissed allegations that Chavismo is in
disarray, though admitted that military supporters had
opposed going to the referendum. Barreto said the Comando
Maisanta is a front organization to put new faces out to the
public, but asserted that Ayacucho political operatives
(officials of the pro-Chavez parties) such as himself are
quietly toiling away on the campaign.

Turnout, Registration Are Key

4. (C) Barreto said that mobilizing lower class Venezuelans
who historically have abstained from voting is the principal
strategy for Chavez to win the referendum. The GOV is aiming
for an abstention rate of just 20 percent, well below the
rates of recent years. The pre-Chavez political system,
Barreto said, discriminated against the poor by limiting the
number of voting centers in their neighborhoods. He claimed,
for example, that middle class Baruta municipality in Caracas
with 70,000 voters had more than 30 voting centers while the
nearby Sucre area with one million lower class voters was
given only 24 voting centers. Barreto said the CNE would
correct this problem when it issues the list of voting
centers for the referendum. (Comment: The CNE agreed June 23
to add centers and expand others in poor areas. The
transmission network for the voting centers is already being
installed, suggesting the CNE may not be able to shift easily

large numbers of voting centers out of upper class areas.)

5. (C) Barreto said the poor have also historically denied
identity cards ("cedulas") due to costs associated with
obtaining identity documents. Barreto said the GOV's "cedula
express" program -- which utilizes mobile units to issue
cards -- had issued two million cards to lower class voters
since January, with the ambitious goal of four million cards
by July 10, when the voter registration rolls are closed.
Barreto said workers in the mobile units have been
registering each cedula applicant in the electoral registry.
He also said that Cuban doctors working in the "Barrio
Adentro" program flag patients without cedulas. The
patients, he said are later visited by members of the
Francisco Miranda Front, the cadre of Venezuelan "social
workers" trained in Cuba, to arrange their identity cards.
(The CNE is also operating more than 600 registration sites
around Venezuela.)

Missions on Steroids

6. (C) In his rhetoric, Chavez is putting his populist
programs such as Mission Robinson (literacy) and Mission
Sucre (college scholarships) on the line. His message to
voters is that the opposition will take away these programs
if they return to power. To a considerable degree these
missions have been thinly disguised transfer payments to his
key low-income constituents. Chavez appears to be
accelerating his efforts to put cash in the hands of would-be
voters via the "Missions," though it is debatable how much
more effectively these moneys can be distributed with less
than two months remaining before the referendum. Chavez also
has to deal with the curious fact that some 233,000
recipients of Mission benefits also signed the petition
against him, suggesting that some votes, at least, are not
for sale. Another explanation is that Mission rolls have
been vastly exaggerated because of fraud or number padding by
Mission administrators, suggesting that Chavez's support in
the Missions is less than advertised.

Running Against Uncle Sam

7. (C) Chavez's negative campaigning thus far has hit on the
opposition as hapless agents of the USG. Chavez relishes in
claiming his true opponent is President Bush. Barreto said
that polls show the anti-U.S. message does not help and
claimed the rhetoric would be softened. Chavez, however,
shows no signs of lessening his accusations that the U.S. is
an imperial power on the verge of invading Venezuela.

Persecute The Opposition

8. (C) Questionable criminal indictments and detentions of
opposition figures continue at a steady pace, evidence that
the GOV will keep trying to discredit the opposition as
undemocratic coup-plotters and try to keep key opposition
leaders off-balance and preoccupied with their criminal
defense. Recent victims of this tactic include Sumate
directors Maria Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz, Gente de
Petroleo leader Juan Fernandez, Army Gen. Manuel Rosendo, and
Asamblea de Educadores leader Leonardo Carvajal. Each plays
a significant role in the Coordinadora Democratica (CD).
Barreto claimed the GOV is attacking the leaders of the
opposition's "Plan B," a civil rebellion to be launched, he
said, after Chavez wins the referendum.

Fraud and Manipulation

9. (C) Chavez may also resort to manipulation or just
downright fraud. Chavez controls the CNE and has shown his
willingness to change rules that do not favor him. He may

use this influence to delay the referendum (or the
certification of its results) past August 19, when a
presidential vacancy via recall would be filled by the Vice
President. These tactics may be a last resort, once the
results of the referendum are known but not certified. The
new touch-screen electoral system may help facilitate fraud
and manipulation. The CNE approved in record time the
contract for the Smartmatic-led consortium, one of whose
members, Bizta, had received startup capital from the GOV.
The deal smells of corruption -- and possibly fraud -- and
puts in doubt the security of the referendum process. We
note that Chavez may not need to resort to fraud with the
computerized system; an organizational and technical meltdown
with the untested system could delay and possibly scuttle the
referendum. A June 23 announcement by CNE Director Jorge
Rodriguez that he planned to install a system to
electronically fingerprint to ensure people vote just once is
also a concern for efficiency of the system.

Violence To Intimidate, Deteriorate

10. (C) We also cannot rule out the use of violence to
frustrate the opposition's preparations and intimidate
voters. When the GOV realized the opposition was on the
verge of a big win during the signature appeals, armed Chavez
supporters menaced dozens of appeals centers and opposition
information offices. For example, when the CNE projected on
June 3 that the presidential referendum would take place,
armed gangs (reportedly the Tupamaros) sacked private media
offices and violently assaulted an opposition deputy. If as
the referendum race unfolds it appears Chavez is headed for
defeat, Chavez may unleash this kind of targeted violence on
his opponents to destabilize the political situation, albeit
at a high price in terms of the perception of legitimacy for
his government, both domestically and abroad.

Blindfold, Delay the Referees

11. (C) The CNE, Comando Maisanta, and GOV officials have
called for strict limitations on international observers.
Their argument is that observers have tried to undermine the
authority of the CNE. In truth, the Chavistas were incensed
at the observers' critical press statements, like those of
Jimmy Carter just after the signature appeals process.
Chavez supporters will try to suppress the observers'
interaction with the press, limit their access to
information, and invite a slew of sympathetic observers to
offset any negative press. The CNE reportedly approved
regulations June 23 that prohibit observers from making press
statements, though the rules will not be finalized until
officially published. The rules also reportedly establish a
special committee to oversee international observers run by
CNE Director Oscar Battaglini, an outspoken critic of the
OAS/TCC missions.

Charm Offensive: Coincidence?

12. (C) We are also suspect the GOV may be trying to look
improve its image at home and abroad. Vice President Jose
Vicente Rangel met with the Ambassador June 16, for the first
time at Rangel's request. Rangel proposed that his chief of
staff, Rene Arreaza, accompanied by MFA chief of staff Temir
Porras, to visit Washington for meetings with the USG. In
counter-terrorism, the GOV announced June 23 it had captured
21 alleged members of the FARC in Venezuelan territory who
were returned to Colombian territory. On the drug front, the
GOV said June 22 it had dismantled a drug cartel operating in
the interior, resulting in cocaine seizures of 6,156 kilos.
These events may be a coincidence, but it sounds like the GOV
is following the advice of its Washington consultant on how
to win friends and influence people.



13. (C) The referendum pits Chavez against himself, an
unenviable position for any politician. But while
politically wounded, Chavez is far from finished. He is a
tireless campaigner and talented communicator with nearly
unlimited funds to spend over the next eight weeks. His
formula for boosting voter participation appears sound. His
populist message will probably not win over opponents but
will be difficult to counter. Chavez's thin bench of
political advisors has proven to be incompetent, and hesitant
to give Chavez the unvarnished truth, as shown by the
signature drive and appeals process. Hard-line and moderate
supporters of Chavez will also continue to bicker among
themselves. Chavez's campaign re-shuffling has not
eliminated these problems; "Comando Maisanta" is the same
"Comando Ayacucho" with an image makeover. Chavez is also
prone to misreading political signs, especially where human
rights and the international community are involved, which
could hurt his domestic popularity. The most dangerous
scenario may be that if Chavez wakes up late in the campaign
and figures that he is losing, under which scenario recourse
to blatant fraud and intervention may be his last option to
stay in office.