Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Chavez and Venezuela : Elections matter

Venezuela's Constitutional Reform Fails (For Now)

By Justin Podur
ZNet Commentary

ZNet - December 04, 2007


The Constitutional Reform referendum in Venezuela has
failed, and Chavez, unlike the Venezuelan opposition,
gracefully accepted the defeat. The best outcome would
have been a slim victory for the "Si" side, and the
loss will have negative regional and global
consequences. Colombia's President Uribe, backed by the
US, had days before destroyed a humanitarian accord
that Chavez had been trying to broker between
Colombia's government and the FARC guerrillas. The US
is in the process of negotiating a free trade deal with
Peru. Canada, serving US foreign policy as it often
does, is trying to get the US a free trade deal with
Colombia through the back door, by negotiating one for
itself. In all this, progressive forces and politicians
in place in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, and
Brazil, have looked to Venezuela for political
direction and support. The referendum outcome will help
the US to isolate these forces.

But, as Chavez himself said, the battle is not over and
there are some good things that can come out of this.

The referendum results: "No" got 50.7% (4 504 351),
"Yes" got 49.2% (4 159 392) votes. Abstention was very
high, at 44.11%. These are from El Tiempo, the
Colombian newspaper, and they come from when there were
97% of the votes counted.

Note how very close things were. The normal split in
previous years, including the 2004 referendum, has been
about 5 million voting with Chavez and about 3.5
million voting against. In this referendum, about 500
000 voters switched and voted against Chavez. Last
year's presidential election, which Chavez won with 63%
of voters, had only 30% abstention. Many who had voted
with Chavez voted abstained, and some voted against.

The usual fear tactics and dirty tactics were used by
the opposition and the Americans. The spread of
disinformation, from the notion that Chavez was going
to ban miniskirts to Chavez was going to take your
firstborn, was pervasive. There were small-scale
capital strikes, threats of a new coup, and other
abuses. But the Bolivarians had defeated those tactics
in the past and many of them had already been exposed
by a much stronger Bolivarian media strategy than ever

What good can come of it? One of the best things that
could happen in Venezuela, as unlikely as it is, is
that it could make socialism, popular participation,
and democracy seem like normal things, normal options
for a society to choose - if not for elites or for the
US, for Venezuelan and Latin American peoples. Instead,
every time there is an electoral process, there is
polarization, a sense that the whole revolutionary
project is in the balance, the whole future is in the
balance and imperialist violence is hanging overhead,
and that voting against Chavez is to side with these
reactionary imperialist forces. If, instead, this vote
could be seen the way Chavez is presenting it, as a
defeat of a specific proposal "for now" (one of his
famous phrases), in the context of an ongoing process,
that would be a very good thing.

There are two related weaknesses in Venezuela's
revolution. The first is the absence of highly visible
leaders with a national television profile and ideas of
their own, that are in Chavez's league, that are a part
of the revolutionary process, but that might have
slightly different proposals or strategic ideas. This
is something that revolutions have always had a hard
time producing - it always seems to focus on a single

The second problem is the difficulty, again largely
created by the US and imperialism, in having a space
for dissent within the revolutionary process. Oh, it is
true that the Bolivarians are incredibly tolerant of
the opposition, allowing speech and acts against the
government that would not be tolerated in the US or
Canada. Much harder though, and unclear how to
accomplish, is for there to be debate within the
movement about specific proposals without one side or
the other having to go over to the opposition. In a
context where the opposition has some 3.5 million
voters, plus tremendous media power, foreign financing,
and ultimately military backing, that is very hard to
do. But this referendum outcome could help. It could
actually split the opposition voters, by showing that
Chavez isn't a dictator and is willing to accept a
democratic result, something the opposition has been
unwilling to do.

The other reason not to despair over this defeat is
because of the weaknesses of the referendum itself. The
most important flaw was that it was an "omnibus"
referendum, in which voters had to accept or reject the
whole package. Some parts of this package were exciting
- other parts were less so.

There were three issues in the referendum that
concerned me, and if they had been presented by
themselves I would have voted against them. These were
the removal of term limits, (which are a relatively
minor issue, given the many jurisdictions in the world
that don't have them), the increased presidential
powers to appoint and remove officials, and the 7-year
terms (both which I would vote against as much because
they could be used against the Bolivarians in future -
who wants to be stuck with an empowered reactionary
regime for 7 years?). From increased social welfare to
the creation of popular power, there was much that was
very good and exciting in the constitutional reforms,
but how can we know that the 500,000 or so that
switched didn't switch on these three issues? Support
for the Bolivarian process could well be deeper than
support for this referendum, and potential support for
it is even greater (given the high abstention rates and
the outcome of the last presidential election). We've
always known that the Bolivarians were the more
democratic of Venezuela's two sides. Accepting this
defeat and carrying on with the process is bound to
demonstrate this to many.

[Justin Podur covered the 2004 recall referendum for
ZNet from Venezuela and writes on Colombia-Venezuela
issues. He is based in Toronto and can be reached at

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