Chavez accepts referendum defeat (or: How not to be a dictator)

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Hugo Chavez’ defeat in the recent Venezuelan referendum on a package of 69 proposed reforms to the constitution was probably a healthy development for the revolution, although that will largely depend upon how the government deals with it.

The reform package consisted largely of progressive measures that would increased the power of communal councils, extended social security to the self-employed and informal sectors of the workforce (which account for some 40% of the total labour force), introduced the right to free university education for all, introduced the “right to the city” which would have guaranteed citizens equal access to a city’s services, recognised the importance of Venezuelans of African descent to Venezuelan culture, lowered the minimum voting age to 16, prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender, and so on. As journalist Greg Wilpert points out, “[t]hese are all forms of social and political inclusion that, if realized, would place Venezuela at the forefront in the world in this regard.”

Additionally, there were a small number of articles that served to further centralise power and increase the authority of the President. For example, the reforms would have allowed the President to run for re-election an indefinite number of times, increased presidential term lengths from six to seven years and made it more difficult for citizens to initiate referenda to recall the President (as occurred in 2004; Chavez won the referendum).

This apparent contradiction between moves to further decentralise power while at the same time increasing the authority of the state stems in part from what Wilpert calls the “slightly contradictory trajectory of the Chavez years”, whereby “greater democracy and greater citizen participation is introduced from the top, by the president”, albeit as a result of a widespread popular movement. “Strengthening the presidency thus, in this process, is also supposed to mean strengthening participatory democracy.”

Many people, including Chavez supporters, have expressed decidedly mixed views of the reforms – unsurprising, given that there are 69 of them. It is a shame that so many diverse initiatives were lumped into two “blocks”, with people having to either vote for all of them or none of them. The drafting process was also rushed – the national assembly was entitled to take up to two years to assess and debate the proposals – which meant that a) people became more susceptible to opposition spin and distortions (because, after all, it takes a lot longer to correct a lie than to spread one), and b) many people felt, understandably, that they had not been given an adequate say in what would have been a significant and lasting change to the country (although the consultation process was massive).

All these concerns resulted in a high level of abstention among Chavez supporters (voter turnout was only around 55%), resulting in a narrow defeat for the reform, by a vote of roughly 51%-49%. Seamus Milne comments,

“Crucially, it was the abstention of three million voters who backed Chávez in last year’s presidential election that lost the vote, rather than any significant advance by the opposition, which stayed stuck at roughly the same level of support.”

The defeat will hopefully result in a bit of “introspection in the Chavez movement and a critical debate which is long overdue for them”. As Tariq Ali writes,

“One of the weaknesses of the movement in Venezuela has been the over-dependence on one person. It is dangerous for the person (one bullet can be enough) and it is unhealthy for the Bolivarian process. There will be a great deal of soul-searching taking place in Caracas, but the key now is an open debate analysing the causes of the setback”.

Oil Wars has a good summary of what an honest look in the mirror might reveal for Chavez, and points out that this defeat (Chavez’ first) is in no sense a major blow for the revolution generally. Chavez remains very popular and, encouragingly, the opposition failed to gain significant support even in the face of a plainly flawed piece of legislation.

In any event, these are all basically internal Venezuelan issues. The reforms were put to a national vote, the Venezuelan people chose to reject them and the government accepted the result. That’s democracy in action, and it’s a good sign that the Venezuelan people are determined to remain in control of the revolution. It should also serve as a reminder that the revolution represents a widespread, grassroots social movement, far broader than a single person.

International media coverage of the campaign was predictably appalling. The weeks leading up to the referendum saw countless insinuations and accusations of Chavez being a “strongman” and a “dictator” – all standard media fare. Repeatedly, Chavez’ reforms were characterised as an attempt to “become president for life“. The Boston Globe informed its readers that the reforms, which would have allowed the President to be re-elected indefinitely, just as in Britain, France, Australia, Canada, and so on, “could have made him dictator for life”, while the Washington Post warned that they “could complete Venezuela’s transformation into a dictatorship.” When the Spanish King told Chavez to “shut up“, it was widely covered and received a generally positive reception in Western media – the unelected monarch’s desire to silence the elected President of Venezuela is evidently widely shared. The opposition’s campaign of violence and intimidation was not only ignored, but often inversed, with Chavistas being blamed for abuse that was clearly directed at them.

Those professing to be concerned about Venezuelan democracy should recall that, whatever one thinks of Chavez, the greatest threat to liberty in Venezuela undoubtedly comes from the U.S.-backed right-wing opposition. Indeed, one of the reasons why so many Venezuelans abstained or voted “yes” in the referendum, despite clear concerns about some of the proposed reforms, was undoubtedly a fear that to vote against it would strengthen the fascist opposition. Unlike Chavez, who accepted his first national electoral defeat with grace, the opposition was seen handing out blue “fraud” t-shirts before the results were even announced. This latest example of the opposition’s traditional tactic of attempting to discredit elections instead of trying to win it them was consistent with a video presented a few days earlier by the Venezuelan government, which showed opposition leaders calling on supporters to reject the results of the referendum and to take part in nation-wide protests to overturn the constitutional reform. It was also consistent with “Operation Pliers“, an alleged CIA document leaked shortly before the referendum, which outlined a plan to cooperate with “international press agencies”, Venezuelan opposition groups and opposition-aligned polling agencies to mount a “psyops” campaign to defeat the constitutional reforms. Whether the document is genuine or not is unclear, although the methods it outlines to subvert Venezuelan democracy are standard CIA practice, deployed in Latin America many times before. Needless to say, the revelation went virtually unreported in the international press (I could find only one mention of it in a mainstream article).

As the vote drew closer, the media became increasingly desperate in its attempts to demonise Chavez. The Washington Post resorted to parading out Donald Rumsfeld to accuse the “anti-American firebrand” of being a “tyrant” and call for “swift decisions by the United States” to defeat him (since, clearly, the Venezuelan people cannot be trusted to do so themselves in a free election), while the New York Times gave Chavez-defector and former Defense Minister Raúl Baduel an op-ed to characterise the reforms as undemocratic and, er, anti-Christian. Needless to say, Gen. Baduel was never given an op-ed in the Times when he was a Chavez supporter (and saying things like this). The day before the referendum, the NYT launched a last ditch attempt to sway the result. After dismissing Chavez’ “popular support” as a mere consequence of him “exploiting [Venezuela’s] oil wealth” (by, like, using it to help the majority of the population – outrageous, I know), the Times called on Venezuelans to “take a stand” against Chavez and “vote no”, for the sake of “Venezuela’s battered democracy”. Readers will recall that the Times demonstrated the extent of its profound concern for Venezuelan “democracy” in April 2002 when it, along with much of the American press, came out in favour of a fascist, U.S.-backed coup against Chavez, in which the first actions of the coup leaders were to dissolve the constitution, the National Assembly and the judiciary.

Chavez’ defeat in the referendum naturally sparked much jubilation in the press, accompanied, of course, by more distortions and absurd insinuations about Venezuela being a dictatorship (the New York Times, for example, called on the “international community” to “keep up the pressure” on Chavez, who “clearly hasn’t suddenly become a democrat.”) The Wall Street Journal went so far as to accuse (sub req.) the government of trying to “fudge” the results, implying that Chavez may well have manipulated the vote count to make the defeat look closer than it really was. Certainly, if the opposition had lost by such a small margin, we would currently be drowning in cries of “fraud” – the unevidenced accusations that Chavez has “massaged” the vote are a perfect example of what psychologists call ‘projection’.

The demonisation of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution is unsurprising, and has little to do with concerns over Venezuelan democracy. The reality is that the revolution has been at its core a democratic one, driven by mass popular political participation of a kind that should put us in the West to shame. As Brazilian President Lula da Silva (one of the “moderates”) recently put it,

“You can invent anything you want to criticise Chavez, but not for lack of democracy.”

This sentiment was echoed by leaders from across Latin America, who yesterday praised Chavez for his “democratic posture” after losing the referendum. Chavez is a “great democrat”, declared Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner. “If only that could happen in Argentina, where there is a candidate that lost by 23 points and now says that we cheated.” Bolivian President Evo Morales agreed, as did the President of Paraguay Nicanor Duarte, who stated that Chavez’ posture “demonstrates that he is a great democrat and it puts to death the impression that he is authoritarian.” Even the Peruvian President and the Spanish government, both of whom have had disputes with Chavez, praised his handling of the defeat. According to the Spanish Foreign Minister, “the free expression of the people’s will has been accepted by all sides, and that shows the good operation of a democratic system.”

Rather, what Western elites and the corporate press find so offensive about Chavez is the fact that under him Venezuela is daring to follow its own path, independent of the U.S. His government is using Venezuela’s natural wealth not to enrich U.S. corporations and a small, light-skinned elite, as has been the historical norm, but to improve the lives of the majority of the population. Worse still, Chavez is helping other countries to become independent of the U.S. as well, trying to integrate Latin American states in a regional bloc and using Venezuelan resources to help poor countries free themselves from the control of the U.S. treasury (via the IMF and the World Bank). Projects like Telesur and the Bank of the South fill U.S. planners with dread, because they challenge American hegemony in what the U.S. has long considered to be its “backyard”. The Western beef with the revolution is, then, not that Chavez is an undemocratic authoritarian, but precisely the opposite: the concern is that Venezuela is now being run according to the wishes of the majority of its population, which run counter to U.S. elite interests in the region. In short, the problem for the West is not that Chavez is a “dictator”, but that he isn’t one.

Cross-posted at The Heathlander

Further reading:

– ‘Down but not out in Caracas’, Seamus Milne

– ‘Deterring Democracy in Venezuela’, The Heathlander

– ‘Interview: Venezuela-tensions within the process’, Mike Gonzales

– ‘Spinning Chávez’, Hugh O’Shaughnessy

– ‘Keep the record straight’, John Pilger

9 comments

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    • pfiore8 on December 5, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    and i have to say, Chavez doesn’t look too bad through my lens

    but i need to do some more indepth study of him

    however, this is a great opportunity to see what he does in this situation…

    • RiaD on December 5, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    for taking the time to put this great essay together & publishing it here. I’ve learned a lot & you’ve sparked my interest to search for more.

    • kj on December 5, 2007 at 9:21 pm
  1. what Western elites and the corporate press find so offensive about Chavez is the fact that under him Venezuela is daring to follow its own path, independent of the U.S.

    How dare he.

    Thanks for a great essay.

  2. Time Out magazine describes Venezuela as “one of Latin America’s last dictatorships”.

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