A Report from Caracas
By John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss
John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss traveled to Venezuela at the end of November, as participants in a tour organized by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network.
Responding to what he termed a “photo finish” defeat in Venezuela’s December 2 constitutional referendum, President Hugo Chávez pledged to continue the struggle for the measures that were presented to voters.
Announcing the results on national TV, he accepted “the decision made by the people” and thanked all voters, both those who voted “yes” and those in the “no” camp. But he called for his movement to stay on course. “I do not withdraw a single comma from the proposal,” he added. “The proposal is still on the table.”
Chávez also recalled the words he used after the failure of the Bolivarian movement’s initial bid for power: “As I said on February 4, 1992, we could not do it – for now.’” On that occasion, the Venezuelan masses seized on the words “for now” (por ahora) as a commitment to fight on until victory was won.
Chávez closed by saying that a major proposal in the constitutional reform project, the expansion of social security to include workers in the informal economy and housewives, does not require a constitutional amendment and would be carried out as soon as possible.
The right-wing victory in the vote was paper-thin: 51% to 49%. The “no” camp increased its vote only marginally (about 2%) from the opposition’s score in last year’s presidential elections. The big change was the abstention of more than a third (38%) of those who voted for Chávez last year. Unconvinced of the reform proposals but unwilling to associate themselves with the opposition, they chose this time to stay at home.
Profile of the Reform
Chavez announced plans to reform Venezuela’s 1999 constitution shortly after his reelection in December 2006, as a way to open the road for the country’s advance to socialism. On August 15, 2007, he proposed amendments to 33 articles of the constitution. This triggered an extensive public debate in all parts of the country.
Following this discussion, on November 2, the National Assembly adopted a package that included not just Chavez’s amendments, but others affecting another 36 articles. The referendum followed automatically 30 days later.
The reform’s main provisions can be grouped under six headings:
Popular power: Creation of a new level of government consisting of communal and other councils that would receive at least 5% of the national budget and would take decisions not through elected representatives but through assemblies of all members.
Non-capitalist economic development: Provisions for new forms of collective, social, and public property alongside private ownership; subjection of the central bank to government direction; stronger measures for land reform and against capitalist speculation.
Deepening social inclusion: A variety of measures to counter discrimination, democratize higher education, and move towards a 36-hour work week.
New territorial divisions: New presidential powers to channel resources to designated regions with special needs.
A stronger presidency. Removal of the two-term limit on a president’s time in office; provision for suspension of freedom of information during a state of emergency (a response to the capitalist media’s role in organizing the unsuccessful 2002 military coup); and other measures.
Socialism as the goal. The amendments proclaimed a socialist society as Venezuela’s goal, without specifying what that would mean in practice.
(For a fuller outline, see Greg Wilpert’s discussion in Venezuelanalysis.)
The view from the streets
When we arrived in Caracas, 12 days before the vote, the streets in downtown and working-class areas were lined with banners, posters, and graffiti calling for a “yes” vote (“Sí con Chávez”). The “no” campaign conceded the streets, relying instead on its vise-grip on the media—the strongest instrument of political control.
We saw little evidence of public discussion. Efforts were being made to circulate the text of the reforms, which filled several dozen pages of legalistic prose. But at first, we saw these distributions only close by the National Assembly. Not until the last few days did we see “red points”—with tables, banners, and music—carrying out the distributions across the city. In the last week, a “dual-column” version was also distributed. We spent time pouring over it, trying to grasp the changes, but it was slow going.
Only in the final few days before the vote did we see flyers that attempted to summarize the changes. Just back from a lengthy trip abroad, Chávez spoke stirringly during the final week in defense of the reform.
Nonetheless, on the whole, we did not see any concerted effort to explain why the changes were necessary.
A loaded debate
Most of criticisms we heard from “no” supporters were based on obvious distortions of the reform, including claims that the changes would abolish private property, end free bargaining for employment contracts, make Chávez president for life, abolish elections, and end free speech.
Other charges were even more fanciful: the government was arming criminal gangs and promoting incursions of Colombian paramilitaries, planning to take children from their parents, and preparing to convert Venezuela into a “totalitarian” state like Cuba or North Korea.
Such accusations were usually delivered in a scattergun style that made reasoned response difficult.
The whole debate was loaded against the Chávez supporters — to vote “yes,” you had to support a wide range of proposals which were individually and collectively difficult to understand. But to vote “no” or abstain, you only needed to object to a single proposal, or just feel uneasy or uncertain. The capitalist media made certain that everyone heard plenty of reasons for unease and uncertainty.
The ‘yes’ campaign
During our two-week stay, we talked to many hundreds of “yes” supporters. In the two mass demonstrations we attended, we carried a banner reading, in Spanish, “Canadians in support of the Bolivarian revolution.” Marchers crowded round to greet us, talk to us, and express their internationalist convictions.
Given the complexity of the issues, it was striking how well and thoroughly these “yes” supporters understood the reform. Whenever we asked, “Which change is the most important?” we got specific and thoughtful responses, often quoting the constitutional paragraph number, and often taking up complex topics remote from the speaker’s immediate experience.
Partisans of the “yes” often overestimated our knowledge of the changes. On a voting lineup in the “23 de Enero” district of western Caracas, a “yes” supporter, asked which change was the most important, replied, “Well, I’d say article 115, but also articles…” and he reeled off a series of article numbers, far too quickly for us to jot down.
We took part in a pro-reform student demonstration of more than 60,000 – the largest such action so far – and a campaign windup that mobilized some 750,000 in downtown Caracas. Both actions were far larger than anything the “no” forces managed. At both events the mood was confident, joyous, and militant.
And as Chávez points out, the vote of 4.3 million for reforms that endorsed a course toward socialism is a historic achievement.
The impact of our discussions with “yes” supporters was overwhelming and is hard to convey to those who have not witnessed revolution. Here we have a revolutionary vanguard of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions—experienced in struggle, wise, passionate, and determined—that has several times rallied a decisive majority to beat down attacks of the imperialist foe.
Defections from the Bolivarian camp
Yet again and again, “yes” activists told us that support for the reform in their milieus was noticeably less than support for Chávez in the presidential elections last year. This uncertainty in the progressive camp was reinforced by a series of much publicized defections, including the Podemos party (which scored 8% in last year’s vote) and former defense minister and army chief Raúl Baduel. Many Bolivarian activists told us that the reform faced possible defeat.
In this context, it seemed to us that the revolutionary forces urgently needed to organize an intensive dialogue with those in Bolivarian rank-and-file who were uncertain about the reform. We expected to see efforts to canvass working-class areas similar to what took place earlier this year, when five million signed up to support the project of a new unified socialist party (the PSUV). But we saw no such initiative.
A PSUV meeting we attended in the Catia district of Caracas, a week before the vote, concerned itself with the organizing of scrutineers at polling places – a crucial and complex task – rather than with organizing discussions with voters in its region and getting out the “yes” vote. For the newly formed party branch we visited, just getting the scrutineers in place and provided with logistical backup was a major challenge. The party shows great promise, but did not play a strong visible role in the campaign. (See “The Battle for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela,” by Kiraz Janicke.)
Hammer of counterrevolution
The opposition campaign proceeded along two parallel tracks. On one hand, “no” spokespersons – with Baduel and Podemos in the lead – cloaked themselves in the mantle of the 1999 constitution, an early Bolivarian achievement, claiming they merely wanted to defend the movement’s original goals (although in fact, the opposition at that time had bitterly opposed that progressive document).
At the same time, the opposition readied its “Plan B.” Opposition groups engaged in repeated violent provocations against “yes” supporters, including three wanton killings of Chávez supporters. Elements of the right-wing student movement that is strong in the country’s traditional upper-class universities were prominent in the disorders. There was talk of insurrection if “yes” forces won.
Opposition leaders did little to disavow and prevent such actions. During the campaign they did not pledge to accept a “yes” victory. All this reinforced fears about voting.
In the aftermath of the vote, some opposition leaders made conciliatory gestures, clearly seeking to build a bridge to more conservative forces within the government. Yet the entire course of the opposition since Chávez’s election in 1999 has aimed not just at halting the Bolivarian process but at forcibly destroying the revolution root and branch and fully restoring U.S. domination and oligarchic rule. In view of Venezuela’s oil wealth and world political influence, the opposition’s masters in Washington can settle for nothing less.
If the opposition can preserve its control of Venezuela’s most powerful social institutions, starting with the private economy and the media, it has good reason to hope that over time they can divide, grind down, and crush the revolution.
This fact was a central motivation for the constitutional reform proposals. The Bolivarian movement’s socialist course is not a change from its original goals, which included national sovereignty, a break from neo-liberalism, endogenous development, popular democracy, equality, and the well-being of the working masses. Rather, as Chávez has stated, these goals can be achieved only through a fundamental re-organization of society along socialist lines.
However, many supporters of the Bolivarian cause preferred to stand pat on the social achievements of their movement, rather than risking an uncertain advance toward socialism. The dynamics of elections under capitalism, which isolate working people from each other while maximizing the impact of hostile media, reinforce such conservative impulses.
Yet the revolutionary process has as yet been able only to slightly alleviate the grinding poverty of the Venezuelan masses. Society has only begun to recover from the devastation of neo-liberalism. A still-dominant capitalist class conspires to heighten instability, while seizing on it to discredit the government.
The revolution cannot stand pat. It must advance – or ultimately lose all.
That choice will be made not in parliament but in the arena of mass social struggles, where the multi-millioned Bolivarian vanguard, if successfully deployed, has decisive political weight.
The referendum’s outcome is a serious setback. But the resolute response of President Chávez, plus the vigor and determination of the Bolivarian ranks, provide good reason to believe that the revolution will resume its forward march.