Chávez’s referendum victory

February 25, 2009

Chris Carlson, a journalist formerly based in Venezuela, looks at the results of the country's referendum on presidential term limits in the context of a worsening economy.

THE VENEZUELAN people voted strongly in support of a constitutional amendment to remove term limits February 15, with 55 percent in favor. The election shows once again that a clear majority of Venezuelans supports Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution, named for the 19th century leader of the anti-colonial movement.

The solid victory makes it more likely that the movement will survive beyond Chávez's current term, which ends in 2012.

But what contradictions does it create to rely on one man to lead the revolutionary process? And will the Bolivarian Revolution be able to weather the coming economic storm?

After losing the vote on constitutional reform in 2007, as well several key posts to the opposition in the 2008 regional elections, it appeared that Venezuela's revolution had lost some steam.

The 2007 reform was Chávez's first and only electoral loss in his decade-long rule. High abstention among the pro-Chávez forces gave a victory to the opposition, and in 2008, while pro-Chávez forces recovered, they still lost some important offices to the opposition, including the office of mayor of Caracas and the governorship of some important states.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez casts a ballot in a December 2007 vote
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez casts a ballot in a December 2007 vote (José Cruz)

All of this led some opposition voices to claim that they had the support of a "new majority" in Venezuela.

But last Sunday's victory proved them wrong. With more than 70 percent of the electorate voting, support for Chávez grew by nearly 2 million votes from 2007--though still 1 million short of the peak turnout in 2006. Chávez defeated the opposition forces by more than 10 percentage points, allowing Chávez to seek reelection in 2012.

The victory also demonstrates that the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), Chávez' new political party, has the capacity to mobilize a huge number of voters--6.3 million in this election--making it by far the most powerful political party in Venezuela, and almost unbeatable in national elections.


BUT CHÁVEZ'S win also presents some obvious problems for Venezuela's revolution.

First, the movement's continued dependence on one irreplaceable leader makes its survival that much more precarious. Certainly, Chavez's charismatic leadership has been essential in uniting a wide range of leftist forces behind the revolution. As a result, the left has repeatedly defeated the right-wing oligarchy politically--a necessary ingredient for carrying out major social transformations.

But remove Chávez from the equation--which the U.S.-backed right wing attempted to do in a failed 2002 coup--and this left-wing unity would likely disintegrate.

Second, with Chávez always at the front, it makes it much harder for the revolutionary movement to take a course independent from Chávez's desires, or be critical of his decisions. Criticism of Chávez is many times seen as criticism of the Bolivarian movement, and undermines the unity of forces that support it.

Many in the Venezuelan left understand this and call for a strengthening of popular organizations such as the communal councils and the continued development of the PSUV as a solution. As the most recent publication from the Marea Socialista collective in the PSUV stated:

In order for Chávez to stop being indispensable as the head of the Bolivarian government, it is first necessary for social organizations and the organs of popular power to reach a much higher level of development, greater participation, a greater capacity to mobilize and a solid recognition of its leaders at the national level. The only possible solution will depend on this.

But most among the Venezuelan left still recognize the importance of maintaining Chávez at the head of the movement in order to keep the revolution alive. Therefore, they supported the removal of presidential term limits. Marea Socialista continues:

Meanwhile, if Chávez could not be re-elected, the Bolivarian Revolution would be weakened, its capacity to unite the people would be diminished, and internal division would grow, undermining the governability of the revolution and opening it up to the counterrevolutionary offensive, and personal aspirations of the endogenous right [i.e., conservatives with the Chavista camp].

For this reason, one of the major focuses the Bolivarian Revolution must now be the further development of the PSUV. This would allow for more open debate within the movement and for the emergence of new leaders, which was the reasoning behind a single united party in the first place. In fact, the party's founding congress early last year had the stated purpose of bringing the movement together behind a solid ideology and lessening its dependence on a single leader.

According to Marea Socialista leader Gonzalo Gómez, these party meetings need to continue to allow the party base to continue its internal debates:

The people have to debate, and debate openly, so that there isn't any danger that anyone will be singled out or labeled for making a criticism, for pointing out the problems or for condemning things that need to be condemned...We have to continue the ideological congress of the PSUV, because the elections and the electoral campaign interrupted what we were doing.

Time will tell whether or not the Bolivarian movement can solidify itself among the Venezuelan left and become independent of President Hugo Chávez's leadership. But the referendum victory at least gives them more time to work on strengthening popular power through the PSUV and community organizations like the communal councils.


A MORE immediate concern for the Bolivarian movement is the economy. As the world economy enters crisis and oil prices fall drastically, the most pressing questions are how Venezuela's oil-dependent economy will fare in the coming years, and whether the revolutionary government can survive the global crisis.

Many voices among the Venezuelan right are predicting economic hardship and impending doom for the Bolivarian Revolution. Certainly, with nearly half of state revenue coming from oil exports, the recent collapse in oil prices has to be a major concern for the Chávez government, and many are predicting a sharp drop in his popularity.

However, unlike previous governments in Venezuela, the Chávez government has taken certain measures to help it weather a drop in oil prices.

First, Venezuela has one of the highest international reserves per capital in the world, with around $42 billion at the end of 2008. This is a result of currency controls that the Venezuelan government implemented back in 2003. These controls greatly restrict capital flight from the country, making it very unlikely that they would have any balance of payments problems in the coming years.

Second, during the oil bonanza of the last few years the Chávez government managed to budget conservatively and put away a significant amount of savings. Venezuela has another estimated $30 to $40 billion available in various development funds to continue spending over the next year. This should give the government a sufficient cushion as long as oil prices don't stay low for too long.

Third, the Chávez government has kept its foreign debt low, meaning it won't need to use much of its international reserves to pay off debt. This also puts Venezuela in a good position to access loans internationally if necessary.

Nevertheless, the drop in oil prices--from $150 per barrel last summer to $40 today--will have a major impact on the economy. Chávez's government will have to budget conservatively over the next year or two. But since 1999, the Chávez government has also pursued a policy of uniting and strengthening OPEC to protect oil prices. This policy has been very successful, causing much irritation in Washington.

For example, oil prices more than tripled during Chávez's first two years in power, and since then have never dropped to even close to the levels of the pre-Chávez years. This means that oil prices are not likely to fall much further and will likely go up again in the next year as the OPEC countries make production cuts.

Were it not for Venezuela's efforts in uniting OPEC to control production levels, the current oil price would almost certainly be much lower than it already is--and Venezuela's recovery would be even slower.

So the Venezuelan government is in a relatively good position to confront the economic crisis.

It is important to point out that this is a drastically different situation from earlier Venezuelan governments. During the oil boom of the 1970s, for example, the government failed to maintain savings or rainy-day funds and ran up international debt to astronomical levels. This left the country in a very bad position when oil prices fell again in the 1980s. The result was an economic crisis that led to riots and violent military repression.

However, the Chávez government has yet to make much progress in diversifying the economy away from its dependence on oil. Although there have been great strides in certain sectors of the economy, such as food production, Venezuela is still extremely dependent on oil exports. This must change if the government hopes to tackle the problems of underdevelopment.

Much investment has gone into nationalizing key sectors of the economy, and building the so-called "socialist" factories, which are to be collectively managed by the communal councils. The economic results of these investments have yet to be seen, however.

And despite conservative budgeting of oil revenues, the economy could yet prove to be Chávez's Achilles' heel. Much progress is needed in the short term, yet it could be hard to deliver in the next year or two of decreased revenue during the economic downturn. If little progress is made before the 2010 parliamentary elections, the revolutionary forces could lose some ground to the right in the National Assembly, making advances in the revolutionary process that much harder.

So while Sunday's victory reaffirms that the Bolivarian Revolution is still very alive in Venezuela, much work remains to be done. It is yet to be seen if the Bolivarian movement can overcome resistance to further empower the grassroots organizations, deepen the democratization of the PSUV, break its dependence on Chávez and neutralize the threat from the right, both inside and outside of the movement.

Thus, the course taken over the next two years could prove to be decisive for the survival, or failure, of the Bolivarian Revolution.

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