Hugo Chavez' narrow defeat in the referendum
was the result of large-scale abstentions by his supporters.
44 percent of the electorate stayed at home. Why? First, because
they did not either understand or accept that this was a necessary
referendum. The measures related to the working week and some
other proposed social reforms could be easily legislated by the
existing parliament. The key issues were the removal of restrictions
on the election of the head of government (as is the case in
most of Europe) and moves towards 'a socialist state.' On the
latter there was simply not enough debate and discussion on a
As Edgardo Lander, a friendly
critic pointed out:
"Before voting in favour
of a constitutional reform which will define the State, the economy,
and the democracy as socialist, we citizens have the right to
take participate in these definitions. What is understood by
the term socialist state? What is understood by the term socialist
economy? What is understood by the term socialist democracy?
In what way are these different to the states, economies, and
democracies that accompanied socialism of the 20th century? Here,
we are not talking about entering into a debate on semantics,
rather on basic decisions about the future of the country."
And this was further amplified
by Greg Wilpert, a sympathetic journalist whose website, venezuelaanalysis.com,
is the best source of information on the country:
"By rushing the reform
process Chavez presented the opposition with a nearly unprecedented
opportunity to deal him a serious blow. Also, the rush in which
the process was pushed forward opened him to criticism that the
process was fundamentally flawed, which has become one of the
main criticisms of the more moderate critics of the reform."
Another error was the insistence
on voting for all the proposals en bloc on a take it or leave
it basis. It's perfectly possibly that a number of the proposals
might have got through if a vote on each had been allowed. This
would have compelled the Bolivarians to campaign more effectively
at grassroots level through organised discussions and debates
(as the French Left did to win the argument and defeat the EU
Constitution ). It is always a mistake to underestimate the electorate
and Chavez knows this better than most.
What is to be done now? The
President is in office till 2013 and whatever else Chavez may
be the description of 'lame-duck' will never fit him. He is a
fighter and he will be thinking of how to strengthen the process.
If properly handled the defeat could be a blessing in disguise.
It has, after all, punctured the arguments of the Western pundits
who were claiming for the last eight years that democracy in
Venezuela was dead and authoritarianism had won.
Anyone who saw Chavez' speech
accepting defeat last night (as I did here in Guadalajara with
Mexican friends) will not be in any doubt regarding his commitment
to a democratically embedded social process. That much is clear.
One of the weaknesses of the movement in Venezuela has been the
over-dependence on one person. It is dangerous for the person
(one bullet can be enough) and it is unhealthy for the Bolivarian
process. There will be a great deal of soul-searching taking
place in Caracas, but the key now is an open debate analysing
the causes of the setback and a move towards a collective leadership
to decide on the next candidate. It's a long time ahead but the
discussions should start now. Deepening popular participation
and encouraging social inclusion (as envisaged in the defeated
constitutional changes) should be done anyway.
The referendum defeat will
undoubtedly boost the Venezuelan opposition and the Right in
Latin America, but they would be foolish to imagine that this
victory will automatically win them the Presidency. If the lessons
of the defeat are understood it is the Bolivarians who will win.