The Venezuelan government lost its constitutional amendment referendum in a national vote Dec. 2, emboldening the opposition and dealing President Hugo Chavez his first electoral defeat since he took office a decade ago. This is hardly the end of the line for Chavez, but something new is taking shape in the country: a competent and capable opposition.
Contrary to Venezuelan government predictions, a constitutional referendum that would have consolidated President Hugo Chavez's power has failed by a slim margin, reports indicate. This is the first electoral defeat for Chavez since he became president in 1997; he has survived not only elections but also recall referendums and even a coup. What makes this vote different, however, is not that Chavez lost, but how he lost. Chavez's inability to stamp out the embers of opposition has raised hope among his detractors — many of whom call him "the world's worst dictator" — that he will one day make one mistake too many and be swept aside.STRATFOR does not agree with this assessment. Although he is personally unpredictable and many aspects of his rule are erratic, as a political operator, Chavez is among the savviest we have ever seen. His use of oil revenues to solidify his power base and export his ideology has proven remarkably successful, and the arming of his Chavistas with automatic weapons has hugely mitigated the chance that any "People Power" revolution can displace him. (Do not confuse these comments with an endorsement; being a competent power broker is not the same as being a competent leader.) If one wishes to call anything in Venezuela "the world's worst," the title should go to the opposition. For most of his term in government, Chavez has faced a well-funded opposition with robust foreign backing. Yet, the opposition is so fragmented that it repeatedly has proven unable to score even tactical victories against Chavez. Even when a constellation of forces managed to briefly oust Chavez in a 2002 coup, the opposition found itself splintering before it had even captured the presidential palace. Things have changed. The opposition campaign against the constitutional changes that would have enshrined Chavez in power for a generation was organized, unified and even a little slick. This goes beyond the boost the opposition received from the defection of former members of Chavez's inner circle, including Joel Acosta Chirinos and Raul Isaias Baduel — though having some of Chavez's closest allies lobby against the constitutional revisions certainly helped. There also are reports that some of Chavez's opponents took a page from the president's own book and resorted to threats to convince some poorer Venezuelans to vote "no" in the referendum. But none of that would have led to failure had not the opposition pulled together in a way it never has before. A reason for this newfound effectiveness is the entrance into the Venezuelan equation of a new group from the most unlikely of places: Serbia. Roughly three months ago, a group calling itself the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) began operating in Venezuela. CANVAS' raison d'etre is simple: to teach local forces how to most effectively oppose the authoritarian regimes who rule them. Courtesy of CANVAS, the dustbin of history boasts a few pieces of geopolitical roadkill: former Georgian President Edward Shevardnadze (Rose Revolution, 2003), former Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev (Tulip Revolution, 2005), nearly President Viktor Yanukovich (Orange Revolution, 2004-05) and CANVAS' first-ever foe, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (2000). CANVAS, originally known in Serbia as Otpor (loosely translated as "Resistance"), excels at bridging the gaps between disparate factions, mobilizing popular support, coordinating protest actions and hitting authoritarian governments where it most hurts. It shines at carrying out the sort of activities at which the Venezuelan opposition fails miserably, and it has now contributed to Chavez's first real defeat. None of this means that the Venezuelan opposition will not again fracture and return to irrelevance. Forces still remain hugely in Chavez's favor, and the president already has indicated that his constitutional revisions will be back, one way or another. Chavez certainly is going to take a hard look at all the levers of power to ensure that defections and the media cannot again be used against him. A purge — a broad one — is brewing. Meanwhile, shock and questioning appear to be the order of the day in Caracas — which is precisely how events started in Belgrade, Tbilisi, Bishkek and Kiev.