Venezuela: Between Ballots and Bullets

Venezuela’s democratically elected Present Chavez faces the most serious threat since the April 11, 2002 military coup. The United States Government,
both the Republican White House and the Democrat-controlled Congress
are once again overtly backing the new attempt to oust the
popular-nationalist President Chavez and to defeat the highly
progressive constitutional amendments.

By James Petras - Axis of Logic

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James Petras, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Binghamton University, SUNY
James Petras, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Binghamton University, SUNY
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Introduction

Venezuela’s democratically elected Present Chavez faces the most serious threat since the April 11, 2002 military coup.

Violent street demonstrations
by privileged middle and upper middle class university students have
led to major street battles in and around the center of Caracas. More
seriously, the former Minister of Defense, General Raul Isaias Baduel,
who resigned in July, has made explicit calls for a military coup in a
November 5th press conference which he convoked exclusively for the
right and far-right mass media and political parties, while striking a
posture as an ‘individual’ dissident.

The entire international and
local private mass media has played up Baduel’s speeches, press
conferences along with fabricated accounts of the oppositionist student
rampages, presenting them as peaceful protests for democratic rights
against the government referendum scheduled for December 2, 2007.

The New York Times, the Wall
Street Journal, the BBC News and the Washington Post have all primed
their readers for years with stories of President Chavez’
‘authoritarianism’. Faced with constitutional reforms which strengthen
the prospects for far-reaching political-social democratization, the
US, European and Latin American media have cast pro-coup ex-military
officials as ‘democratic dissidents’, former Chavez supporters
disillusioned with his resort to ‘dictatorial’ powers in the run-up to
and beyond the December 2, 2007 vote in the referendum on
constitutional reform. Not a single major newspaper has mentioned the
democratic core of the proposed reforms – the devolution of public
spending and decision to local neighborhood and community councils.
Once again as in Chile in 1973, the US mass media is complicit in an
attempt to destroy a Latin American democracy.

Even sectors of the center-left
press and parties in Latin America have reproduced right-wing
propaganda. On November the self-styled ‘leftist’ Mexican daily La
Jornada headline read ‘Administrators and Students from the Central
University of Venezuela (UCV) Accuse Chavez of Promoting Violence’.
The article then proceeded to repeat the rightist fabrications about
electoral polls, which supposedly showed the constitutional amendments
facing defeat.

The United States Government,
both the Republican White House and the Democrat-controlled Congress
are once again overtly backing the new attempt to oust the
popular-nationalist President Chavez and to defeat the highly
progressive constitutional amendments.

The Referendum: Defining and Deepening the Social Transformation

The point of confrontation is
the forthcoming referendum on constitutional reforms initiated by
President Chavez, debated, amended and democratically voted on by the
Venezuelan Congress over the past 6 months. There was widespread and
open debate and criticism of specific sectors of the Constitution. The
private mass media, overwhelmingly viscerally anti-Chavez and pro-White
House, unanimously condemned any and all the constitutional
amendments. A sector of the leadership of one of the components of the
pro-Chavez coalition (PODEMOS) joined the Catholic Church hierarchy,
the leading business and cattleman’s association, bankers and sectors
of the university and student elite to attack the proposed
constitutional reforms. Exploiting to the hilt all of Venezuela’s
democratic freedoms (speech, assembly and press) the opposition has
denigrated the referendum as ‘authoritarian’ even as most sectors of
the opposition coalition attempted to arouse the military to intervene.

The opposition coalition of the
rich and privileged fear the constitutional reforms because they will
have to grant a greater share of their profits to the working class,
lose their monopoly over market transactions to publicly owned firms,
and see political power evolve toward local community councils and the
executive branch. While the rightist and liberal media in Venezuela,
Europe and the US have fabricated lurid charges about the
‘authoritarian’ reforms, in fact the amendments propose to deepen and
extend social democracy.

A brief survey of the key
constitutional amendments openly debated and approved by a majority of
freely elected Venezuelan congress members gives the lie to charges of
‘authoritarianism’ by its critics. The amendments can be grouped
according to political, economic and social changes.

The most important political
change is the creation of new locally based democratic forms of
political representation in which elected community and communal
institutions will be allocated state revenues rather than the corrupt,
patronage-infested municipal and state governments. This change toward
decentralization will encourage a greater practice of direct democracy
in contrast to the oligarchic tendencies embedded in the current
centralized representative system.

Secondly, contrary to the
fabrications of ex-General Baduel, the amendments do not ‘destroy the
existing constitution’, since the amendments modify in greater or
lesser degree only 20% of the articles of the constitution (69 out of
350).

The amendments providing for
unlimited term elections is in line with the practices of many
parliamentary systems, as witnessed by the five terms in office of
Australian Prime Minister Howard, the half century rule of Japan’s
Liberal Democratic Party, the four terms of US President Franklin
Roosevelt, the multi-term election of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair
in the UK among others. No one ever questions their democratic
credentials for multi-term executive office holding, nor should current
critics selectively label Chavez as an ‘authoritarian’ for doing the
same.

Political change increasing the
presidential term of office from 6 to 7 years will neither increase or
decrease presidential powers, as the opposition claims, because the
separation of legislative, judicial and executive powers will continue
and free elections will subject the President to periodic citizen
review.

The key point of indefinite
elections is that they are free elections, subject to voter preference,
in which, in the case of Venezuela, the vast majority of the mass
media, Catholic hierarchy, US-funded NGO’s, big business associations
will still wield enormous financial resources to finance opposition
activity – hardly an ‘authoritarian’ context.

The amendment allowing the
executive to declare a state of emergency and intervene in the media in
the face of violent activity to overthrow the constitution is essential
for safeguarding democratic institutions. In light of several
authoritarian violent attempts to seize power recently by the current
opposition, the amendment allows dissent but also allows democracy to
defend itself against the enemies of freedom.

In the lead up to the US-backed
military coup of April 11, 2002, and the petroleum lockout by its
senior executives which devastated the economy (a decline of 30% of GNP
in 2002/2003), if the Government had possessed and utilized emergency
powers, Congress and the Judiciary, the electoral process and the
living standards of the Venezuelan people would have been better
protected. Most notably, the Government could have intervened against
the mass media aiding and abetting the violent overthrow of the
democratic process, like any other democratic government.

It should be clear that the
amendment allowing for ‘emergency powers’ has a specific context and
reflects concrete experiences: the current opposition parties,
business federations and church hierarchies have a violent,
anti-democratic history. The destabilization campaign against the
current referendum and the appeals for military intervention most
prominently and explicitly stated by retired General Baduel (defended
by his notorious adviser-apologist, the academic-adventurer Heinz
Dietrich), are a clear indication that emergency powers are absolutely
necessary to send a clear message that reactionary violence will be met
by the full force of the law.

The reduction of voting age
from 18 to 16 will broaden the electorate, increase the number of
participants in the electoral process and give young people a greater
say in national politics through institutional channels. Since many
workers enter the labor market at a young age and in some cases start
families earlier, this amendment allows young workers to press their
specific demands on employment and contingent labor contracts.

The amendment reducing the
workday to 6 hours is vehemently opposed by the opposition led by the
big business federation, FEDECAMARAS, but has the overwhelming support
of the trade unions and workers from all sectors. It will allow for
greater family time, sports, education, skill training, political
education and social participation, as well as membership in the newly
formed community councils. Related labor legislation and changes in
property rights including a greater role for collective ownership will
strengthen labor’s bargaining power with capital, extending democracy
to the workplace.

Finally the amendment
eliminating so-called ‘Central Bank autonomy’ means that elected
officials responsive to the voters will replace Central Bankers
(frequently responsive to private bankers, overseas investors and
international financial officials) in deciding public spending and
monetary policy. One major consequence will be the reduction of excess
reserves in devalued dollar denominated funds and an increase in
financing for social and productive activity, a diversity of currency
holdings and a reduction in irrational foreign borrowing and
indebtedness. The fact of the matter is that the Central Bank was not
‘autonomous’, it was dependent on what the financial markets demanded,
independent of the priorities of elected officials responding to
popular needs.

As the Chavez Government Turns to Democratic Socialism: Centrists Defect and Seek Military Solutions

As Venezuela’s moves from
political to social transformation, from a capitalist welfare state
toward democratic socialism, predictable defections and additions
occur. As in most other historical experiences of social
transformation, sectors of the original government coalition committed
to formal institutional political changes defect when the political
process moves toward greater egalitarianism and property and a power
shift to the populace. Ideologues of the ‘Center’ regret the
‘breaking’ of the status quo ‘consensus’ between oligarchs and people
(labeling the new social alignments as ‘authoritarian’) even as the
‘Center’ embraces the profoundly anti-democratic Right and appeals for
military intervention.

A similar process of elite
defections and increased mass support is occurring in Venezuela as the
referendum, with its clear class choices, comes to the fore. Lacking
confidence in their ability to defeat the constitutional amendments
through the ballot, fearful of the democratic majority, resentful of
the immense popular appeal of the democratically elected President
Chavez, the ‘Center’ has joined the Right in a last ditch effort to
unify extra-parliamentary forces to defeat the will of the electorate.

Emblematic of the New Right and
the ‘Centrist’ defections is the ex-Minister of Defense, Raul Baduel,
whose virulent attack on the President, the Congress, the electoral
procedures and the referendum mark him as an aspirant to head up a
US-backed right-wing seizure of power.

The liberal and right wing mass
media and unscrupulous ‘centrist’ propagandists have falsely portrayed
Raul Baduel as the ‘savior’ of Chavez following the military coup of
April 2002. The fact of the matter is that Baduel intervened only
after hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans poured down from the
‘ranchos’, surrounded the Presidential Palace, leading to division in
the armed forces. Baduel rejected the minority of rightist military
officers favoring a massive bloodbath and aligned with other military
officials who opposed extreme measures against the people and the
destruction of the established political order. The latter group
included officials who supported Chavez’ nationalist-populist policies
and others, like Baduel, who opposed the coup-makers because it
radicalized and polarized society – leading to a possible class-based
civil war with uncertain outcome. Baduel was for the restoration of a
‘chastised’ Chavez who would maintain the existing socio-economic
status quo.

Within the Chavez government,
Baduel represented the anti-communist tendency, which pressed the
President to ‘reconcile’ with the ‘moderate democratic’ right and big
business. Domestically, Baduel opposed the extension of public
ownership and internationally favored close collaboration with the
far-right Colombian Defense Ministry.

Baduel’s term of office as
Defense Minister reflected his conservative propensities and his lack
of competence in matters of security, especially with regard to
internal security. He failed to protect Venezuela’s frontiers from
military incursions by Colombia’s armed forces. Worse he failed to
challenge Colombia’s flagrant violation of international norms with
regard to political exiles. While Baduel was Minister of Defense,
Venezuelan landlords’ armed paramilitary groups assassinated over 150
peasants active in land reform while the National Guard looked the
other way. Under Baduel’s watch over 120 Colombian paramilitary forces
infiltrated the country. The Colombian military frequently crossed the
Venezuelan border to attack Colombian refugees. Under Baduel,
Venezuelan military officials collaborated in the kidnapping of Rodrigo
Granda (a foreign affairs emissary of the FARC) in broad daylight in
the center of Caracas. Baduel made no effort to investigate or protest
this gross violation of Venezuelan sovereignty, until President Chavez
was informed and intervened. Throughout Baduel’s term as Minister of
Defense he developed strong ties to Colombia’s military intelligence
(closely monitored by US Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA) and
extradited several guerrillas from both the ELN and the FARC to the
hands of Colombian torturers.*

At the time of his retirement
as Minister of Defense, Baduel made a July 2007 speech in which he
clearly targeted the leftist and Marxist currents in the trade union
(UNT) and Chavez newly announced PSUV (The Unified Socialist Party of
Venezuela). His speech, in the name of ‘Christian socialist’, was in
reality a vituperative and ill-tempered anti-communist diatribe, which
pleased Pope Benedict (Ratzinger).

Baduel’s November 5 speech
however marks his public adherence to the hard-line opposition, its
rhetoric, fabrications and visions of an authoritarian reversal of
Chavez program of democratic socialism. First and foremost, Badual,
following the lead of the White House and the Venezuelan ‘hard right’,
denounced the entire process of Congressional debate on the
Constitutional amendments, and open electoral campaigning leading up to
the referendum as ‘in effect a coup d’etat’. Every expert and outside
observer disagreed – even those opposed to the referendum. Baduel’s
purpose however was to question the legitimacy of the entire political
process in order to justify his call for military intervention. His
rhetoric calling the congressional debate and vote a ‘fraud’ and
‘fraudulent procedures’ point to Baduel’s effort to denigrate existing
representative institutions in order to justify a military coup, which
would dismantle them.

Baduel’s denial of political
intent is laughable – since he only invited opposition media and
politicians to his ‘press conference’ and was accompanied by several
military officials. Baduel resembles the dictator who accuses the
victim of the crimes he is about to commit. In calling the referendum
on constitutional reform a ‘coup’, he incites the military to launch a
coup. In an open appeal for military action he directs the military to
‘reflect of the context of constitutional reform.’ He repeatedly calls
on military officials to ‘assess carefully’ the changes the elected
government has proposed ‘in a hasty manner and through fraudulent
procedures’. While denigrating democratically elected institutions,
Baduel resorts to vulgar flattery and false modesty to induce the
military to revolt. While immodestly denying that he could act as
spokesperson for the Armed Forces, he advised the rightist reporters
present and potential military cohort that ‘you cannot underrate the
capacity of analysis and reasoning of the military.’

Cant, hypocrisy and
disinterested posturing run through Baduel’s pronouncements. His claim
of being an ‘apolitical’ critic is belied by his intention to go on a
nationwide speaking tour attacking the constitutional reforms, in
meetings organized by the rightwing opposition. There is absolutely no
doubt that he will not only be addressing civilian audiences but will
make every effort to meet with active military officers who he might
convince to ‘reflect’…and plot the overthrow of the government and
reverse the results of the referendum. President Chavez has every
right to condemn Baduel as a traitor, though given his long-term
hostility to egalitarian social transformation it may be more to the
point to say that Baduel is now revealing his true colors.

The danger to Venezuelan
democracy is not in Baduel as an individual – he is out of the
government and retired from active military command. The real danger
is his effort to arouse the active military officers with command of
troops, to answer his call to action or as he cleverly puts it ‘for the
military to reflect on the context of the constitutional reforms.’
Baduel’s analysis and action program places the military as the
centerpiece of politics, supreme over the 16 million voters.

His vehement defense of
‘private property’ in line with his call for military action is a
clever tactic to unite the Generals, Bankers and the middle class in
the infamous footsteps of Augusto Pinochet, the bloody Chilean tyrant.

The class polarization in the
run-up to the referendum has reached its most acute expression: the
remains of the multi-class coalition embracing a minority of the middle
class and the great majority of the working power is disintegrating.
Millions of previously apathetic or apolitical young workers,
unemployed poor and low-income women (domestic workers, laundresses,
single parents) are joining the huge popular demonstrations overflowing
the main avenues and plazas in favor of the constitutional amendments.
At the same time political defections have increased among the
centrist-liberal minority in the Chavez coalition. Fourteen deputies
in the National Assembly, less than 10%, mostly from PODEMOS, have
joined the opposition. Reliable sources in Venezuela (Axis of
Logic/Les Blough Nov. 11, 2007) report that Attorney General Beneral
Isaias Rodriguez, a particularly incompetent crime fighter, and the
Comptroller General Cloudosbaldo Russian are purportedly resigning and
joining the opposition. More seriously, these same reports claim that
the 4th Armed Division in Marcay is loyal to ‘Golpista’ Raul Baduel.
Some suspect Baduel is using his long-term personal ties with the
current Minister of Defense, Gustavo Briceno Rangel to convince him to
defect and join in the pre-coup preparations. Large sums of US funding
is flowing in to pay off state and local officials in cash and in
promises to share in the oil booty if Chavez is ousted. The latest US
political buy-out includes Governor Luis Felipe Acosta Carliz from the
state of Carabobo. The mass media have repeatedly featured these new
defectors to the right in their hourly ‘news reports’ highlighting
their break with Chavez ‘coup d’etat’.

The referendum is turning into
an unusually virulent case of a ‘class against class’ war, in which the
entire future of the Latin American left is at stake as well as
Washington’s hold on its biggest oil supplier.

Conclusion

Venezuelan democracy, the
Presidency of Hugo Chavez and the great majority of the popular classes
face a mortal threat. The US is facing repeated electoral defeats and
is incapable of large-scale external intervention because of
over-extension of its military forces in the Middle East; it is
committed once more to a violent overthrow of Chavez. Venezuela
through the constitutional reforms, will broaden and deepen popular
democratic control over socio-economic policy. New economic sectors
will be nationalized. Greater public investments and social programs
will take off. Venezuela is moving inexorably toward diversifying its
petrol markets, currency reserves and its political alliances. Time is
running out for the White House: Washington’s political levers of
influence are weakening. Baduel is seen as the one best hope of
igniting a military seizure, restoring the oligarchs to power and
decimating the mass popular movements.

President Chavez is
correctly ‘evaluating the high command’ and states that he ‘has full
confidence in the national armed forces and their components.’ Yet the
best guarantee is to strike hard and fast, precisely against Baduel’s
followers and cohorts. Rounding up a few dozen or hundred military
plotters is a cheap price to pay for saving the lives of thousands of
workers and activists who would be massacred in any bloody seizure of
power.

History has repeatedly taught
that when you put social democracy, egalitarianism and popular power at
the top of the political agenda, as Chavez has done, and as the vast
majority of the populace enthusiastically responds, the Right, the
reactionary military, the ‘Centrist’ political defectors and
ideologues, the White House, the hysterical middle classes and the
Church cardinals will sacrifice any and all democratic freedoms to
defend their property, privileges and power by whatever means and at
whatever cost necessary. In the current all-pervasive confrontation
between the popular classes of Venezuela and their oligarchic and
military enemies, only by morally, politically and organizationally
arming the people can the continuity of the democratic process of
social transformation be guaranteed.

Change will come, the question is whether it will be through the ballot or the bullet.

© Copyright 2007 by AxisofLogic.com

* Venezuelanalysis.com Editor's note: Baduel was defense minister from June 2006 to July 2007, most of the incidents the author refers to occurred while Badel was head of the Venezuelan Army, not Defense Minister.