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Why were Chavez's reforms defeated?

By Lee Sustar | December 7, 2007 | Page 1

THE DEFEAT of proposed constitutional reforms in Venezuela is a big victory for the U.S.-backed conservative opposition--and will open a period of crisis and internal debate within the camp of President Hugo Chávez.

The defeat is seen by many on the left as an opportunity to fight to rescue the "revolutionary process" from bureaucratism and to meet the economic needs of workers and the poor who suffer the effects of inflation and shortages of food and other necessities.

The opposition won by a narrow margin--not because of a big surge on the right, but because of large-scale abstention in the pro-Chávez camp. In the first bloc of reforms, the "no" vote got just over 4.5 million votes, or 50.7 percent of the total. In the second bloc, the "no" vote was similar at 51.1 percent. More than 118,000 ballots were spoiled.

Voter turnout was just over 55 percent, compared to 74 percent in the presidential election a year ago, when Chávez won by 7.3 million votes, nearly 63 percent of the total. In other words, the pro-Chávez vote dropped by 3 million through abstention, while the opposition vote increased by less than 250,000 from last year's election.

On the ballot on December 2 were 69 changes to the constitution, ratified in 1999 during Chávez's first year in office. The changes would have created what Chávez calls a "new geometry of power" by dramatically strengthening the role of communal councils and other forms of "popular power," as well as increasing the welfare state by extending social security benefits to workers in the informal sector of economy, which includes about half of all workers.

What else to read

Lee Sustar's article "Where is Venezuela going?" in the July-August 2007 issue of the International Socialist Review is an extensive and in-depth look at Hugo Chávez and the meaning of 21st century socialism.

The best source in English for current news and analysis of Venezuela is the Web site. Readers of Spanish should visit, the widely read, frequently updated and most important Web site of the Venezuelan left.

Changing Venezuela: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government, a book by Gregory Wilpert, editor of the Web site, looks at politics and policy in the debate over socialism. Another very useful book is Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict, edited by Daniel Hellinger and Steve Ellner.


The reforms would have also strengthened land reform, lowered the voting age to 16 and established new categories of "social" and "communal" property--although private property would remained protected.

However, the changes also would have strengthened the presidency in several ways. Proposals included abolishing terms limits for the presidency, presidential appointment of an unlimited number of vice presidents to oversee regions, and the suspension of the public's right to information during states of emergency.

These centralist proposals became the focus of the right's claim that Chávez was carrying out a "coup," in the words of one of his former allies, the retired general and former defense minister Raúl Baduel. This, in fact, was a call for the military to reject the changes, had they been approved.

At the same time, a conservative student movement mobilized under the banner of democratic rights. The violence of many of their protests was ignored by the mainstream international media, which focused on "pro-Chávez thugs" instead.

The Venezuelan "oligarchy"--the super-wealthy families that dominate commercial and industrial life--was equally hostile to the social gains included in the reforms. The pro-opposition media and employers bombarded Venezuelans with crude anti-communist propaganda about how their homes and personal property would be confiscated and their children would be sent to communist schools.

This was part of a CIA destabilization campaign, according to the Venezuelan government, which released what it said was a U.S. Embassy cable containing details of plan for protests in the event that a "yes" vote prevailed.

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WHILE THE right-wing campaign undoubtedly had an impact, this doesn't explain the dramatic rates of abstention of typically pro-Chávez supporters.

Part of the problem was the length and complexity of the reform proposals, which were finalized barely a month before the vote. But according to left-wing activist Javier Biardeau, the campaign made a mistake in making the vote a referendum on Chavez rather than on the content of the reforms themselves.

"To 3 million Bolivarians [who abstained], this didn't seem adequate," he wrote on the Web site "The great responsibility for the defeat rests with those who convinced Chávez that the revolution depends exclusively on him personally. Mistake."

Moreover, there's a big gap between the promises of "popular power" and the reality of shortages of staples like chicken and milk in government-subsidized Mercal grocery stores.

Because of scarcity engineered by agribusiness networks and corrupt distributors, the Venezuelan poor find themselves forced to wait in line sometimes for hours, only to leave empty-handed--or have to pay twice as much to get the same items from a vendor on the street.

According to a survey of 60 stores by the Venezuelan polling and research firm Datanalisis, 73.3 percent had no milk powder for sale. Some 51.7 percent lacked refined sugar. Another 43.5 percent were out of beef. The conservative media exaggerated the scale of the shortages--but the problems were plainly serious enough.

Similarly, many cooperatives, set up with government grants and loans to help workers in the informal sector, have collapsed, thereby failing to strengthen the government's base.

At the same time, most public-sector workers earn only the minimum wage--like nearly 73 percent of all workers in Venezuela. While the minimum is the highest in Latin America, it is low in view of inflation--dampening those workers' enthusiasm for constitutional changes, which seem abstract for many.

For example, in a recent interview on a popular nightly political talk show, Chávez quoted the contemporary philosophers Michael Hardt and Toni Negri to justify communal councils.

All this has alienated workers and the poor, who, despite the great gains made through Chávez's reforms of health care, education and more, now see the wealthy and the upper middle class benefiting from Venezuela's oil boom. Those elements, in turn, draw in sections of the government bureaucracy, according to leaders of the Marea socialist current in the Chávez-initiated United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

"It's necessary to finish with the enriched government functionaries, who have connections and business with sections of the economically powerful, and who go around in Hummers and other luxury SUVs," wrote Stalin Pérez Borges, Vilma Vivas, Marco García and Ismael Hernández, who supported the reform while criticizing its centralist aspects.

"The ministers who attack the rights of the [revolutionary] base are obstacles...The president needs to take a close look at this situation, which weighed enormously in the decision to vote 'no' and to abstain."

The top leaders of the PSUV, which was formed earlier this year but which still hasn't held its founding congress, also came under criticism from the left for failing to mount an effective "yes" campaign. "A lot of people are saying that the PSUV didn't do an effective job at communicating to the community at large," a Venezuelan independent media activist said in an interview. "They just discussed things among themselves.

"What's needed now is a discussion at the base. There will be people around Chávez who will argue to slow down. But solving the problems of the people will mean going to the left."

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