The Venezuelan Referendum
by Clifton Ross / December 4th, 2007
"The inexperienced soldier thinks everything lost when he is once defeated because he hasn’t yet learned from experience that courage, ability and perseverance correct bad luck."
– Simon Bolívar, Cartagena Manifesto
With the defeat of the Constitutional reforms at the polls on December 2, the Bolivarian Revolution has undeniably lost a battle in its long struggle to create a more just and humane society, but it has also proven that democracy is alive and well in Venezuela. Chavez’s upbeat and ready acceptance of the results and his congratulations toward those who had waged an undeniably dirty campaign against the reforms, earned him an unexpected compliment from CNN commentators who referred to his “magnanimous” acceptance of the results. More to the point, despite outright lies and fabrications of the capitalist mass media in Venezuela and internationally, psyops brewed in the labs of the CIA and U.S. State Department, Chavez has managed to maintain and protect a pluralistic democracy, in itself a refutation of the “democratic” pretensions as well as the charges made by the opposition that he’s a dictator and there is no freedom or democracy in Venezuela.
Indeed, the lies and black propaganda reached absurd levels, with some ads proclaiming that the reform would “take children away from their parents” and expropriate homes from their rightful owners. (The reform, in fact, would have guaranteed precisely the opposite, making it more difficult for people to lose their homes in case of bankruptcy.) However, the most universal mischaracterization of the reforms was the constantly repeated lie that they would “make Chavez president-for-life.” Once again, in the US and Venezuelan opposition press, we were led to believe, falsely, of course, that this reform was all about Chavez and not the Venezuelan people. This fiction was repeated so often and so forcefully that the other 69 articles of reform in the two slates proposed, one by Chavez himself, and one by the National Assembly, got little or no coverage. Those much-neglected articles included guaranteeing social security for workers in the informal economy; lowering the voting age from 18 to 16; lowering the work week from 44 to 36 hours; prohibiting discrimination based on disability or sexual preference and requiring gender parity in political parties; giving five percent of tax revenues disbursed to the states directly to the community councils; guaranteeing free education to all Venezuelans through the university (yes, that would include PhD’s), and making organic agriculture the “strategic basis of integral rural development.” Because the media reduced the entire Reform to this one issue, they presented the defeat of the Reforms as a “defeat for Chavez” rather than a temporary setback for greater democracy, social justice and the struggle of the working people and middle class of Venezuela who stood to gain from the reform. After all, Chavez still has five years left in office, a National Assembly and, according to polls, a majority of the people on his side.
Even the President of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, acknowledged that the media was weighted against Chavez and the reforms when she pointed out that, in the month of November, the media dedicated 59 percent of its coverage to the opposition and 41 percent to supporters of the Reforms. This fact has led intellectuals like Jose Sant Roz, Professor of the University of the Andes and author of over 20 books on Venezuelan politics, to call for the creation of a national revolutionary daily since the only pro-government daily paper, Diario Vea, is of relatively small size and circulation compared to the half-dozen or so newspapers of the opposition.
The defeat of the Reforms has raised other issues and prompted much critical internal reflection already among Chavistas. The commentaries flood in by the hour at http://www.aporrea.org/, and reveal the insight and profound reevaluation that the referendum has induced.
First, some have criticized the management and organization of the referendum on the reforms, asking why the Electoral Battalion Units (UBEs) that were so successful in the 2004 referendum on the Presidency of Chavez had been disbanded after that political moment and not, rather, extended, empowered and built upon.
Others, like Venezuelan writer and analyst at Vheadline.com, Franco Munini, have argued that “we put all our eggs in one basket” with all 69 articles in two slates rather than having the option available to vote article by article. It’s likely, contrary to the views expressed in the opposition/imperial press, that term limits on the presidency would have been eliminated, and some of the other popular measures would also have passed if such an approach to the vote on the Reforms had been allowed.
There have also been criticisms within the Bolivarian movement that not enough has been done to push the social agenda forward. Dr. Steve Ellner of the Universidad de Oriente of Venezuela writes today that there had been “the lack of sufficient attention to concrete, tangible problems and an overemphasis on lofty ideals. I’m referring to issues that range from garbage collection and shortages of staples to corruption.” Related to this has been a common criticism that not enough has been done to weed out corruption, especially within the Chavez movement and the government itself.
In the end, the defeat was ambiguous as a “defeat.” While it appears that it might slow down Chavez’ momentum (unlikely), it may have only reflected a slowdown on the part of the activists at the base, given the very low turnout. Last year 70 percent of the voters turned out with a majority voting to re-elect Chavez. By contrast, only 56 percent turned out yesterday for the referendum. This is certainly one of the most distressing aspects of the December 2nd referendum on the Constitution: that a revolution priding itself on its pilgrimage from “bourgeois representative democracy to participatory, protagonistic democracy” seems to be backsliding. This fact should motivate activists in the party to think carefully about what they will need to do in the future to push forward and reactivate the enthusiasm and commitment that has brought Venezuela so far so quickly and it appears that Chavez is already considering this to be the crucial lesson here. This referendum, moreover, may have the effect of finally convincing some in the opposition that the Bolivarian Process is what it always claimed to be: Democratic and liberatory. As Venezuelan political analyst Franco Munini sees it, “(Bolivarians) won in the end because the opposition said, in voting down the reforms, that it didn’t want any changes to the constitution that we wrote in 1999. Which is to say they’re finally coming around to where we were seven years ago.”
Clifton Ross represented the U.S. in Venezuela's World Poetry Festival in 2005. From 2005-2006 he reported from Mérida, Venezuela. His movie, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is now available from http://www.freedomvoices.org/ and http://www.progressivefilms.org/. He is the co-editor of Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (1994, New Earth Publications) and his book, Fables for an Open Field (1994, Trombone Press, New Earth Publications), has just been released in Spanish by La Casa Tomada of Venezuela. His forthcoming book of poems in translation, Traduciendo el Silencio, will be published later this year by Venezuela’s Ministry of Culture editorial, Perro y Rana. Ross teaches English at Berkeley City College, Berkeley, California. He can be reached at: email@example.com. Read other articles by Clifton.