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Down, for now

Print edition : Jan 04, 2008 T+T-
Hugo Chavez at a news conference at the presidential palace in Caracas on December 1.-FERNANDO LLANO/AP

Hugo Chavez at a news conference at the presidential palace in Caracas on December 1.-FERNANDO LLANO/AP

President Hugo Chavez accepts the defeat of his constitutional reform proposals in good spirit but vows to pursue them afresh.

Hugo Chavezat

THE narrow defeat of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavezs proposals for constitutional changes in a referendum is being viewed as a minor political setback for the President. Observers of the Latin American scene, however, have been heartened by the fact that the percentage of votes polled by the United States-backed Opposition did not increase. The high abstention by the traditional support base of Chavez was the key factor that led to the defeat of the proposals.

The government-sponsored referendum lost by less than a percentage point. In the 2006 presidential election, Chavez polled 7.3 million (63 per cent). This time, the turnout of Chavez supporters was only 4.3 million (56 per cent).

Since Chavez came to power in 1998, this is the 14th time Venezuelan people have gone to the polls. A combination of voter fatigue and the governments failure to convince even its supporters about the more radical aspects of the constitutional changes, contributed to Chavezs first ever electoral defeat. Podemos, a socialist democratic party, which normally supports the Chavez government, campaigned against the referendum.

The Opposition also found a new supporter in former Defence Minister Gen. Raul Baduel. Baduel, who was the countrys Defence Minister until last year, had played an important role in smashing the U.S.-backed coup against Chavez in 2002.

The Opposition, which controls 78 per cent of the television stations and 80 per cent of the print media, has been spewing vitriol against Chavez since the time he first assumed the presidency. The Catholic Church, unsurprisingly, was also solidly behind it. The American media have reported that the Bush administration has been funnelling huge amounts of money to the Venezuelan Opposition through the secretive Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), which is under the U.S. Agency for International Development. The funds are meant for democracy promotion.

Venezuelan officials revealed that they had intercepted communication between the U.S. embassy in Caracas and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. which showed that $8 million had been channelled to the Opposition through the offices of the OTI. Among the myths propagated by the Opposition was that the state would have the authority to take away babies and expropriate personal property, including cars and homes, if the constitutional changes were approved.

The Opposition-controlled media were full of stories about Venezuela slipping into Castro-communism.

Chavezs supporters say that they have only lost a battle, not the war. Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas said that the recent events were two steps forward and one backward. An opinion poll conducted by the Venezuelan newspaper Ultima Noticias a few weeks before the referendum, showed that 46 per cent of the respondents were of the view that reforms to the Constitution were necessary while 35 per cent were opposed to it; 72 per cent rated the Chavez presidency as either excellent or good; 25 per cent said that it was either bad or terrible. The poll is a reflection of the polarisation of Venezuelan society.

Chavez, while underlining his strong commitment to the democratic process, was quick to concede defeat. He appeared on television after 90 per cent of the votes were counted, with the Opposition leading 50.7 per cent to 49.3 per cent. Only 300,000 votes separated the winners from the losers. Two days before the Election Commission officially announced the results, Chavez congratulated the people of Venezuela and said that he recognised the decision the people have made. There was no unseemly political wrangling, such as the one witnessed in the U.S. presidential election of 2000. The voting process in Venezuela is similar to that in India. Electronic machines are used and the vote count is transparent.

Chavez emphasised that he was not giving up on the reform proposals. He said that he would not withdraw a single coma from the proposals and that the defeat was for now. This was for now line has become a legend in Latin America. Chavez had made this famous remark when he was imprisoned after his failed coup attempt in 1992. We know how to convert apparent defeats into moral victories, he said. He also announced that one of the amendments he had proposed in the referendum the plan to create a social fund for workers in the informal economy would be implemented as soon as possible.

In another speech made a few days after the referendum results were announced, Chavez said that if his radical proposals had been approved by a narrow margin, it would have been a pyrrhic victory for him. The Opposition, which had all the while been claiming that Chavez was out to rig the electoral process, would have cried foul. The Opposition had staged violent protests in Caracas before the referendum. It had issued threats about escalating the violence in case the Yes vote emerged triumphant.

However, the President cautioned his political opponents from going into premature celebrations of victory. After the results were announced, Opposition supporters had thronged the streets of Caracas chanting, This is the beginning of the end (for Chavez).

An unperturbed Chavez said that despite the electoral setback, he was planning to push ahead with another referendum for the revision of the Constitution. I think that the Opposition has nothing to celebrate. We didnt lose anything. Prepare yourself, because a new offensive will come, he said.

The President stressed that the narrow defeat in the referendum had not pushed him back by one millimetre, while acknowledging that he made a strategic mistake about the timing of the referendum. He insisted that the result would not veer him away from the socialist path. Many Venezuelans, he remarked, were still not politically mature enough to openly and wholeheartedly embrace a socialist project.

Supporters of Chavez

The 69-point revision of the Constitution that Chavez had proposed was part of his strategy to build the new socialism for the 21st century. The main purpose of the reforms was the equitable distribution of wealth. Among the key proposals was the shortening of the work day and the establishment of a social security system for millions of Venezuelans languishing outside the formal economy. The state would have been allowed to use its resources to develop the neglected parts of the country.

A radical proposal was the idea of setting up a new level of government the popular power. This would have been the last tier of government below the municipalities. The peoples councils would have got more powers as decentralisation was a major plank in the raft of proposals that were put to vote. Chavez has always said that the road to 21st century socialism was through peaceful democratic means and not a revolution.

The reform proposals also envisaged speedier and more effective land reforms. The reforms would have enabled farmers cooperatives to claim the land immediately after the allotment by the state. At present, they can gain possession only after the legal challenges by the landlords are settled in court. The state would also have had the power to nationalise food production distribution in order to guarantee food security. On the economic front, the reforms would have brought the countrys central bank under the control of the government and weakened the hold of oligarchs on the commanding heights of the economy.

Critics of the reforms highlighted those aspects of the reforms described by the government as the New Geometry of Power. They alleged that it was a blatant attempt by the President to centralise power. One of the main purposes of the amendments was to give the President the authority to redraw the boundaries of municipalities for purposes of efficient administration. There have not been any reforms in the past 200 years. The Venezuelan capital Caracas itself has many municipalities, which has led to chaotic planning.

The Oppositions main charge was that the proposed changes in the Constitution would turn the President into a caudillo (a Spanish term meaning dictator) who would never give up power. The constitutional changes that the government wanted would have removed the two-term limit on the presidency. Venezuelan officials say that the only purpose of this amendment was to make the system even more democratic. They point out that in most democratic countries including Britain, Germany and India there are no fixed terms for Presidents or Prime Ministers.

But there seems to be a rethink on the issue owing to the questions raised by many Venezuelans across the political spectrum on the proposal to allow the President to run again after his term in office comes to an end in 2013. Some of Chavezs supporters are of the view that unlimited terms as President is not good for democracy as it would make it difficult for credible challengers to emerge. But Chavez has used the presidency to introduce more and more democratic reforms from the top. From Chavezs point of view, strengthening the presidency is akin to strengthening democracy and grassroots participation.

However, the prevailing mood seems to have had an impact. Chavez told a graduating class of military cadets in the second week of December that he would quit office when his term ended as he had lost the referendum. At the same time he stressed that he would re-introduce the proposals for constitutional changes. Indications are that in the next round, the newly formed United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will play a more active and united role. The party has brought most of the left-wing parties under one umbrella. It will now try to mobilise voters to petition for another referendum on constitutional changes. According to the countrys Constitution, at least 15 per cent of the voters have to sign for another referendum to be held.

Former Defence Minister

Many Venezuelans sympathetic to the goals of the Bolivarian revolution felt that the repeated use of the word socialism in the reform proposals was a result of misplaced zeal. The right-wing Opposition derived propaganda mileage from this by misinterpreting it as an attempt to do away with political pluralism. Besides, many supporters of the President point out that the proposed constitutional amendments did not envisage any radical measures against the private sector. In fact, the private sector has grown after Chavez took over. The financial sector in Venezuela, fuelled by petrodollars, has registered the highest growth rate in the world.

The Venezuelan elite has reason to fear that if Chavezs democratic revolution is carried to its logical end, they will no longer be able to enjoy the lifestyle they are accustomed to. Washington would like nothing better than to destabilise Chavez, who is fast becoming the most popular statesman of the developing world.

As Washington has learned from experience, Chavez is a man to be reckoned with. In his characteristic no-holds-barred way of speaking, Chavez had warned the Empire (as he prefers to call the U.S.), that he would cut off oil supplies to it from Venezuela if it continued to interfere in Venezuelas internal affairs. Check because your fists could be wounded. You could have your fingers fractured, Chavez said while accusing the Bush administration of orchestrating the Oppositions attempts to scuttle the reform proposals.