Why The Constitutional Reform In Venezuela Went Down And Where To Next!

Why, when approximately 7.1 million people voted for Chavez in the presidential elections in December 2006, did nearly 3 million of them abstain in the constitutional reform referendum a year later?

With the defeat of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms, aimed at “opening the path to socialism,” in the referendum on December 2, by a tiny margin of 50.7% to 49.3%, many Venezuelans are asking ‘what happened?’ why, when approximately 7.1 million people voted for Chavez in the presidential elections in December 2006, did nearly 3 million of them abstain in the constitutional reform referendum a year later?

Given a number of factors this is not so difficult to explain. Firstly, Chavez’s original reform proposal of 33 changes to the constitution was itself very complex and far reaching, and along with including some very radical measures, such as power to communal councils, workers councils, it also included some very difficult concepts, in particular the proposed “new geometry of power” aimed at the political and territorial redistribution of power though out the entire country. Despite, the level of complexity Chavez’s initial proposal was relatively well received, with many polls showing support around 55-60%.

However, the decision of the National Assembly to add another 36 articles to the original proposal added to the confusion and complexity and also included a number of bureaucratic and unpopular measures, such as a “state of emergency” clause which allowed for restricted access to information, made it more difficult to recall elected officials, and altered aspects of Chavez’s original proposal making it less democratic, such as removing requirements for the creation of new federal and functional districts to be approved by a referendum of the local constituents. It was when the National Assembly made these additions, combined with an intensified opposition media campaign that support for the reforms began to decline.

The end result was a whopping reform package of 69 articles in dense legalistic jargon, not easily digestible by the average person on the street and rather than being voted on article by article, the reforms were then presented in two blocks, Block A comprised of Chavez’s proposal plus 13 others from the National Assembly, and Block B consisting of the remaining 23 changes proposed by the AN.

In this context, it was much easier to convince people to vote no – you only had to disagree with one or two aspects of the reform package to vote against it, where as support for the reforms required a much higher level of political consciousness than simply supporting Chavez or liking the social missions. However it was also not simply a straightforward fair fight between competing ideologies.

Dirty tactics of the opposition

Financially and politically backed by the US government and corporate media, Venezuela’s elite opposition ran a vicious campaign of disinformation, intimidation and attempted destabilisation in the lead-up to the referendum.

Contrary to international media portrayals of the Chavez government as restricting free speech, the rightwing opposition controls the majority of media outlets in Venezuela and they used them to spread lies and rumours aimed at instilling fears about the proposed constitutional reforms. It was said, for example, that if the reforms were passed the state would be able to take your children away and that people’s personal property, houses, cars and small businesses would be expropriated by the state. They also presented a proposed change which would have removed presidential term limits allowing Chavez to stand for reelection, such as is the law in France, Australia, the UK and around 170 other countries around the world, as a vote on whether Chavez would be “president for life.” The opposition also carried out illegal anonymous advertising campaigns and distributed fake copies of the consitutional reforms with falsified articles.

But the opposition campaign was not limited to propaganda. A month before the referendum, opposition leaders met with US officials in Prague, including Paul Wolfowitz, who urged them to “organise acts of economic sabotage against infrastructure, destroy the food transport and delivery chain … and organise a military coup with all means possible” to stop the constitutional reforms. (These same defenders of the old constitution carried out a short-lived coup in April 2002 that did away with the constitution altogether and dismissed all the freely elected state powers and institutions, including the congress, attorney-general, governors and mayors.)

In Caracas, two weeks before the referendum, anti-Chavez students violently attacked pro-reform students at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Then, on November 26, anti-Chavez protesters blocking streets in the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo shot three times and killed a worker who tried to pass the roadblock on his way to work. Two activists from the PSUV were also assassinated in Caracas in drive-by shootings in the week leading up to the referendum and one Chavez supporter shot near a polling booth in El Valle on the day of the referendum itself.

On November 30, the government publicly released a video revealing the opposition’s strategy of destabilization for the referendum, in which opposition leaders are seen calling on supporters assembled in a church in Caracas to not recognize the results of the referendum and take part in nation-wide protests to overturn the constitutional reforms by “generating a political crisis and crisis of instability”.

Despite these events, which were consistently ignored or misreported, the international media portrayed the opposition as peaceful “anti-dictatorship” protesters.

This campaign of fear combined with the fact that many people simply did not know the content of the reforms had the affect of confusing and neutralizing a large layer of Chavez’s support base, causing them to abstain.

However, there were also a number of factors on the Chavista side that contributed to the lower turnout in the referendum. In particular, there was no real attempt to reach out beyond the hardcore of Chavismo to broader layers. After winning twelve straight nationwide election victories over the past nine years, and the highest voter turn out in Venezuelan history giving Chavez a massive endorsement in the presidential elections a year ago, the Chavista forces were complacent – they thought they were going to win anyway!

Another problem of the ‘Yes’ campaign was a lack of organisation. At the grass roots level the key campaigning bodies were the newly formed battalions of the PSUV. However, the fact that the PSUV is still a party in formation and its political and organizational development is very uneven accross the country meant that they lacked a cohered cadre force capable of actively combatting the opposition lies and effectively agitating for the reforms. The flipside of this was that the Commando Zamora, the campaigning body created to push for the reforms on a national level, was a hand picked list of ‘representatives’ from different sectors, with many of them having little or no organic connection to their respective constituencies. For instance, some workers complained that Osvaldo Vera, from the Socialist Force of Bolivarian Workers (FSBT), was selected to represent workers without consultation or input from them. Activists have also blamed the rightwing of Chavismo for actively sabotaging the campaign.

Another factor that has potentially contributed to a certain level of disengagement from the process, and consequently, abstention, is the inability of the government to tackle a number of key issues affecting Venezuelan daily life, in particular, Venezuela’s exponential crime rate, (with homicide up to 12 000 in 2006 from approximately 4000 in 1998), which often rates as Venezuelan’s number one concern in opinion polls, artificially manufactured food shortages of basic staples such as milk, sugar and cooking oil, through hoarding, speculation and underproduction – this recalling the policy of economic sabotage applied to the Allende government in Chile in 1973, as well inefficiency of services such as rubbish collection.

Many on the left here have also drawn the conclusion that the high abstention from the Chavista camp was a reaction to, or “punishment” for, bureaucratic and corrupt practices in many of the state and municipal governments that are aligned with Chavez. For instance, Laura Franco argued in an article “One step back, two steps forward,” on plenosocial, December3, that while Chavez says the reforms are necessary to push forward towards socialism, “if the majority of public functionaries practice and reproduce the capitalist world, it is logical that more than 3 million people have demonstrated incredulity before this proposal.”

However, as Chavez and others have pointed out, the proposed constitutional reforms were oriented precisely at tackling these issues of bureaucracy and corruption, through handing over aspects of state functions to the people.

Amaury González wrote on www.aporrea.org Dec 5, if people abstained as a “punishment” then this is a conservative orientation, as this simply contributed to maintaining the status quo. “To speak of abstention as punishment,” he continued, “is to speak of a multitude of 3 million people that still think that problems can be resolved from above, without the most minimal intervention of them selves, as the principal people affected.”

Other factors people have pointed to are; voter turnout in for all Venezuelan elections, referendums, apart from presidential elections, is traditionally low, also the fact that the campaign itself was extremely short, only one month, and for almost half of that time Chavez, the key ideologue and motivator of the reforms was out of the country. Also to a certain extent Chavez’s confrontational ‘you’re either with me or you’re with George Bush’ discourse may have alienated more moderate layers.

While, all of these issues may have contributed to abstention, the biggest problem in reality was the lack of an effective communication strategy that could counter the lies of the opposition; this meant that people were unsure of the proposal and more easily manipulated by the corporate media.

All of these issues raise the question of the level of political consciousness within the Bolivarian process. It is possible that Chavez, who is moving at 100 miles an hour, radicalized just a little too fast and left a section of his base behind. Chavez himself has admitted as much, when he said that perhaps his timing was wrong. However, others have pointed out that the fact that some 4.4 million people voted for a project explicitly aimed towards socialism, in an unfair fight, is something that has never happened before and is in itself an extremely significant indicator of the possibilities for the successful struggle for socialism.

What the outcome of the referendum indicates is the real political polarization in Venezuela, with two political blocks heading in diametrically opposite directions, the opposition aiming to maintain its privileged position in society, and the Chavistas aiming to turn that society upside-down, ultimately creating a more just, egalitarian socialist society. In the middle stands a large sector that while generally supportive of Chavez, is not as convinced of the project and could be swayed in the other direction.

While the opposition is undoubtedly politically strengthened from this victory, with newspaper headlines screaming, “Venezuelans reject socialism” and so on, the fact that they are also talking of “reconciliation” and “peace”, in an attempt to win over more moderate sectors of Chavismo and those who abstained, is a recognition that they have not significantly increased their support base, only scraping through with a tiny majority. However, they cannot stand the fact that Chavez remains in power for another five years, and a future attempt to oust him through another recall referendum or other means cannot be ruled out. In the short term though, they will continue their media war against the revolutionary government and the Venezuelan people.

The Chavistas on the other hand, are making a thorough assessment. While the ‘endogenous right-wing’ of Chavismo may try to use the referendum result to put brakes on the process or move away from the project of socialism altogether, Chavez has made it clear in his speech recognizing the referendum results that socialism is still the path;

“I want them to know that I’m not withdrawing a single coma of this proposal. I will continue making this proposal to the Venezuelan people. This proposal continues living, it’s not dead,” he said.

From the activist grass roots, the overwhelming message seems to be ‘no quarter’ -, that this is just one battle in the long war for socialism, and that now is the time to push forward with the “revolution within the revolution.” That is, to put many of the aspects of the constitutional reform such as building up popular power, through communal councils, workers councils and so on, into practice. There is also a lot of talk of implementing social oversight over public institutions to root out bureaucracy and corruption, which they say are the worst enemies of the revolution and the cause of this referendum defeat. There is also recognition of the need to reach out to broader layers and convince them of socialism.

Chavez has suggested that as a future project the Venezuelan people themselves can take his initiative and modify it, and come up with their own constitutional reform proposal from below.

Palamino, a Chavez supporter who lives in my street is already talking of another referendum, however he says “next time we’re going to win.”