In Luis Bunuel's 1972 satirical film "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," a wealthy group of friends is frustratingly interrupted by a bizarre series of events: terrorist attacks, arrests, military operations and death. Nightmares fold within nightmares in a surrealistic mockery of their simple desire to sit around a table for dinner.
It would seem as if Venezuelans are stuck in a similarly frustrating -- and sometimes just as surreal -- sequence of events. Months have folded into years of political infighting, accusations, polarization and unrest that may be about to reach their culmination. But then again, maybe not.
It's as if Venezuelans were condemned never to be able to simply enjoy the benefits of a working democracy. They are scheduled to vote tomorrow on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez or let him finish out the two years left in his term. Most analysts suggest that a narrow margin of victory by either side could trigger more violence and instability. But a wide margin by either side might be just as unsettling.
An overwhelming victory for Chavez would embolden the Venezuelan leader and give a new mandate to his divisive populist revolution. Yet if the opposition were to win by large numbers, a crumbling Chavez government could leave a chaotic void in power.
Amazingly, after months of struggle toward a democratic, constitutional, electoral and peaceful solution to Venezuela's crisis, there are those who hope that nothing will change. To them, less change means more stability.
A long-sought victory over Chavez "could turn into the worst nightmare," said Pedro M. Burelli, a former member of the board of directors of Venezuela's state oil company. In a telephone interview from Caracas, he said that a large victory for the opposition could lead to a quick "implosion" in the Chavez government that opponents would be as ill-prepared to respond to as Chavez's supporters would be to accept.
The Bush administration too may be wishing for little change in Venezuela. Over the past few days, Bush officials have been biting their tongues not to publicly antagonize Chavez. For officials who less than three months ago were issuing ultimatums and talking of a "consolidation of a dictatorship" under Chavez, this sudden silence is remarkable.
It may be a sign that they don't want to give Chavez anything he can use to his advantage, but it could also be a calculated response to avoid further instability in the United States' fourth-largest source of oil less than three months before the U.S. presidential election.
For U.S. business interests, particularly in the oil sector, more of Chavez no longer seems to be bad news. Three years after he boosted government royalties to 30 percent and required 51 percent state participation in new projects, oil companies are showing a new enthusiasm for Venezuela. Just last week ChevronTexaco announced a new $6 billion heavy crude upgrading project in the Andean country, whose crude reserves are the largest in the hemisphere. With oil prices at nearly $45 a barrel, only chaos would be a real deterrent to foreign investment.
While the fact that business interests would favor more of the same is no surprise, the recent words of some world leaders have been. Even some who stepped into the Venezuelan crisis months ago and ended up being antagonized by the Venezuelan leader now seem willing to bet that Venezuela will still be in good hands if Chavez wins.
Let's hope they are right. And particularly let's hope that other nations will never be called to task for becoming so invested in the referendum effort that they had no option but to go along, despite Chavez's repeated attempts to suppress the process.
Surely the threat of chaos is making many people think twice about the referendum, although Chavez is not among them. Nearly three months ago, Chavez wrote in a Post op-ed column that he was looking forward to the referendum. It is a chance, as he put it, to "once again win the people's mandate." Unfortunately, though, even if no significant questions are raised about the transparency of the process, Chavez seems to have made a sport of getting democratically elected, only to play undemocratically.
Despite the wishful thinking of some in Latin America, it's likely that Chavez will play the ugly winner. Instead of using the referendum for reconciliation, he will probably continue to stifle the opposition and govern on behalf of one group over another. What will be the charm in that?