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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008


Setback for Chávez

Why were the reforms in Venezuela defeated?


THE DEBATE on the Venezuelan Left over the electoral defeat of President Hugo Chávez’s constitutional reforms began the moment the opposition’s narrow 51-49 percent victory was announced on the early morning of December 3. While the Right’s vote increased by about 300,000 since the presidential election almost exactly a year earlier, the pro-Chávez Left vote plummeted by 3 million votes, largely through abstention. So why was Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” named for the nineteenth century independence leader, blown off course?

In the streets, at meetings, and on Internet discussion sites, common themes soon emerged. The Chavistas were complacent after ten straight triumphs at the ballot box since Chávez was first elected in December 1998. Moderate government officials didn’t like proposals to extend power and budgetary authority to local communal councils and extend the state’s role in the economy. The new Chávez-initiated United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is dominated by bureaucrats who failed to mobilize the activist base. The Right’s hard-line anticommunist campaign, promoted by the private media, the Catholic Church, business federations, and U.S.-funded opposition groups—especially students—created doubt and fear. Workers and the poor were impatient over inflation and shortages of staples like chicken, milk, beef, eggs, and cooking oil in both state-run and private grocery stores. State corruption, long entrenched in Venezuela, added to popular frustration. There was confusion in the Chavista base over the complexity of the reforms and proposals to remove presidential term limits, centralize additional political powers in the executive, and build socialism. Several state pro-Chávez governors privately opposed the reforms and did nothing to mobilize support. Chávez himself neglected the referendum campaign, traveling widely internationally and involving himself in diplomatic crises with the King of Spain and the president of neighboring Colombia.

All of these are important factors in the defeat of the reform. But they are symptoms of a deeper problem at the heart of Chávez’s project—that is, the limitations of a revolutionary change initiated by the state. To be sure, the changes are impressive, as economist Mark Weisbrot pointed out in a recent article: “The Chávez government has provided healthcare to the vast majority of poor Venezuelans, subsidized food and increased access to education. Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person has increased by 314 percent over the eight years of the Chávez administration. The proportion of households in poverty has dropped by 38 percent—and this is measuring only cash income, not other benefits such as healthcare and education.”

Nevertheless, the state, while more aggressively enforcing tax collection, hasn’t squeezed the Venezuelan bourgeoisie—the oligarchy—through higher taxes or expropriations of their property. Instead, Venezuela’s dramatic social reforms that have benefited the poor have been funded almost entirely by revenues from the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. Nationalizations have been confined to the oil sector and to takeovers of the formerly state-owned telecommunications and electrical power companies, and shareholders received market price from the government. Land reform is extensive but also includes reasonable compensation to the landlords. Further, bank profits are engorged and a highly visible middle-class consumption boom provoked Chávez to complain about a “Hummer revolution,” a reference to the luxury SUVs favored by the upper-middle class and the rich.

Meanwhile, agribusiness and distributors were able to cut production of foodstuffs or divert products intended for state-subsidized grocery stores onto the black market, hitting Chávez’s base and making the government look ineffective. “The government’s halfway measures of state intervention and radical rhetoric were strong enough to provoke big business resistance and more capital flight, while being too weak to develop alternative productive and distributive institutions,” wrote Latin American expert James Petras following the referendum.

“In other words, the burgeoning crises of inflation, scarcities and capital flight, put into question the existing Bolivarian practice of a mixed economy, based on public-private partnership financing of an extensive social welfare state,” Petras continues.

Big capital has acted first economically by boycotting and breaking its implicit “social pact” with the Chávez government. Implicit in the social pact was a tradeoff: big profits and high rates of investment to increase employment and popular consumption. With powerful backing and intervention from its U.S. partners, Venezuelan big business has moved politically to take advantage of the popular discontent to derail the proposed constitutional reforms.

Alfonso Álvarez, who organized the inaugural meeting of the Association of Bolivarian Socialist Economists a few weeks before the referendum, summed up the problem this way: “We are trying to make a transition to socialism, but we still have a bourgeois state.”

That’s an argument commonly made on the activist Left, which in its overwhelming majority backed the referendum because of proposals aimed at empowering local communal councils and citywide “communes” that would have taken over some of the functions of mayors and state governors (a prospect none too pleasing to most such officials, including the Chavista ones). Other proposed reforms included lowering the voting age to sixteen, an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians, mandating a thirty-six-hour workweek, strengthening land reform, and providing social security benefits to workers in the informal sector. The reform would have also established councils for workers, peasants, students, and other social sectors.

Other reforms were more controversial even within the Chávez camp. Besides ending the ban on term limits, these proposals included the creation of an unlimited number of appointed vice presidents to preside over newly created federal districts, new powers to declare a state of emergency with a limit on the right to information, and a requirement for a greater number of petition signatures to initiate the recall of elected officials.

These criticisms from the Left should not, however, be confused with the wildly distorted propaganda campaign of the U.S. media, which portrayed the constitutional reform as a dictatorial power-grab by Chávez. The lack of term limits for president or prime minister, for example, is the norm in most European countries, and the proposals to expand the state of emergency powers were proposed as a means to defend the country against another U.S.-backed coup. The Left’s criticism was that the state and armed forces couldn’t be relied upon to defend what Venezuelans’ call the “revolutionary process,” given that sections of the military attempted the 2002 coup.

Nevertheless, ambivalence over these measures—and the one-month period allowed to explain and debate concepts like “social property”—doubtless undermined the effectiveness of the Chavistas in mobilizing their vote. And the PSUV, which signed up nearly 6 million people earlier this year, has yet to have its founding congress, and only a relatively small minority were active around the referendum. Had every PSUV member voted for the reform, it would have won by a substantial margin.

The Right, by contrast, was disciplined and focused. Having failed to overthrow Chávez in a U.S.-backed coup in 2002 and an oil industry lockout months later, the Right had fragmented since Chávez defeated their attempt to recall him in 2004 and his re-election in 2006. But the opposition got a makeover when former defense minister and retired general Raúl Baduel, a longtime Chávez ally, announced his opposition to the constitutional reforms, denouncing them as a “coup,” and effectively calling for the military to resist it. It’s unclear how much support Baduel has in the armed forces, but the officer corps was possibly alienated by a proposed constitutional reform that would have placed the decision over all officers’ promotions exclusively with the president.

Meanwhile, middle-class students at the main state and private universities took to the streets, promoting themselves as peaceful opponents of a “dictatorship” even as far-right elements carried out violent attacks on pro-Chávez students and faculty. Venezuelan-American attorney Eva Golinger and others have documented U.S. government funding for the students, and other opposition groups.

The model for the student protests was the color-coded U.S.-backed “revolutions” over the past decade that have brought down governments in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, and Kyrgyzstan (according to one report, the Venezuelan students had training in Belgrade). Expecting to lose the referendum, the Right had prepared a campaign to protest “fraud.” If a document claimed by the Venezuelan government to be a CIA report is to be believed, the opposition then planned to mount an open-ended protest to try and force Chávez out.

After the vote the opposition tried a different tack, promoting a social compact that’s apparently aimed at winning over more conservative elements in the government and sections of former Chávez voters who abstained on the referendum. More antigovernment protests, coached from Washington, are virtually certain, however. A likely focus will be the country’s high rates of violent crime, or perhaps food shortages. The model is Chile under the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, in which years of economic sabotage and popular protest set the stage for Augusto Pinochet’s coup of 1973.

On the left, the Web site has been flooded with debate. Even the government has opened the state media to critical voices. Key organizations and groupings have issued statements calling for a turn to the left and tackling the problems of food shortages, low wages, and inflation, in addition to initiating popular mobilizations. Organizing those struggles will be a challenge, though. After nine years of the “revolutionary process” what Venezuelans call “organizations of the base” remain relatively small and local in their orientation. This problem is exacerbated by divisions in the National Union of Workers (UNT) labor federation, formed in 2003 as a break from the old corrupt and U.S.-tied CTV labor federation.

Today, the UNT is split into five currents that operate more or less independently. The largest grouping, the radical class-struggle current, C-CURA, itself split over whether to enter the PSUV and support the federation. C-CURA’s best-known leader, Orlando Chirino, has alienated the overwhelming majority of the Left by opposing the reforms, speaking alongside CTV leaders, and giving interviews to the pro-opposition media. Another wing of C-CURA, led by Stalin Pérez Borges and his allies, founded the Marea current within the PSUV and backed the constitutional reforms as a means to defeat the Right and struggle alongside the most active and conscious sections of the working class and the poor.

In the near term, the PSUV will likely be a terrain for debate and realignment on the left. Militants in the Marea current call for a party without bureaucrats, corrupt elements, and bosses and expect to make alliances with grass-roots activists with a similar perspective. It’s far from clear whether or not the PSUV will permit such a thoroughgoing debate and openly organized currents. But the defeat of the referendum has undoubtedly opened up a space for critical voices in the party. When Chávez remarked that the failure of reforms indicated that Venezuelans perhaps weren’t “mature” enough for socialism, the Left replied in waves of Internet postings that it is government officials who aren’t ready for radical change.

Gonzalo Gómez, a supporter of the Marea current and a PSUV delegate from the Caracas barrio of Catia, outlined the debate in an article written for party members: “The confirmation [of PSUV members] wasn’t originally based on the recruitment and initial accumulation of cadre and political activists of the social movements and organs of popular power,” but was instead organized territorially, with workers and peasants as a “dispersed mass” in a multiclass, unstructured way, with many signing up only because their employer mobilized them to do so. The left-wing militants in the party, therefore, should press for a reorganization of the PSUV, he argues. “It’s very important that we draw up a plan of struggle in order to push forward concrete revolutionary changes and advance further”—not only through the PSUV, but with a popular assembly involving social movements, communal councils, and others.

“Fortunately,” he adds, “if the defeat [of the reforms] has some compensation, it is the deep reflection and discussion unleashed in the party and the revolutionary movement.”

Paul Haste, a British trade unionist living in Colombia, compiled these comments from Venezuelan activists:

Dalia Pérez, Barquisimeto: For so long the president has been favoring people with scarce resources and proposing actions to continue helping the poorest such as through the communal councils, and I believe that the abstention was a result of complacency, a lack of political maturity, and ingratitude, but the real problem is the situation of criminality and gangsterism in the barrios.

[The campaign] failed to organize regular political debates to explain and compare the advantages and disadvantages between socialism and capitalism. Some just wanted to take from the revolution, and for these, it doesn’t matter whether they vote or not. As such, those who abstained have to accept their irresponsibility.

José Rojas, Barrio El Junquito, Caracas: I hope the president counterattacks…it seems to me that the politicians were overconfident in the campaign, but now we should advance on the attack.

Pablo Trinidad, Cua: We have to find out what happened with this Chavismo Lite that stayed at home, we have to see what is going on with the people.

Furthermore, we have to make sure that it’s not just politicians in the media influencing this mystical public opinion, but that all Venezuelans are involved in politics.

We have to organize ourselves, go into the streets, construct this community, these councils…we have to respect our president and bring the confused abstainers to the polls.

The fight continues comrades—this hasn’t finished, and he who doesn’t believe that doesn’t deserve to be called a revolutionary.

Francisco Acuña, Valencia: I think that one of the reasons (for the defeat) was the scattered efforts to organize the PSUV on one side, and on the other, the discussion about the reform.

Of 6 million members, only 1 million and a bit attend meetings…the PSUV has not been organized, and this confrontation especially found it poorly prepared.

I believe in the PSUV, I believe it is necessary, but also I think it was a mistake to leave the organization of the party until after the referendum.

Ramón Prada, Caracas: What happened was the best thing that could have happened. Considering the adversary that we faced, it wouldn’t have suited us to win the referendum with a small margin. If we were not going to win with a sufficient margin, it was better to lose.

The rapid recognition of our adversary’s victory, without any scheming, was taken by our entire movement in a disciplined manner and saved the country from who knows how much unnecessary violence.

Stalin Pérez, Vilma Vivas, Marco García, and Ismael Hernández, National Union of Workers (UNT): What is to be done? To leave this situation and ensure that the revolutionary process overcomes this moment and can deepen, it is essential that all power should pass to the people and their organizations.

The PSUV congress should become a more democratic organization where all could think, propose, criticize, and decide the best course for the Bolivarian revolution, without the restrictions or bureaucratic interference that prevents free discussion.

We have immense confidence that hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans will continue advancing the socialist project, and will confront on this road any attacks the Right may try to make. But this confidence must be accompanied by unity and organization, and the construction of a space to debate all these themes.

Lee Sustar recently reported from Venezuela for Socialist Worker and is a regular contributor to the ISR. He can be reached at
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