The Venezuelan Referendum

With the defeat of the Constitutional reforms at the polls on
December 2, the Bolivarian Revolution has undeniably lost a battle in
its long struggle to create a more just and humane society, but it has
also proven that democracy is alive and well in Venezuela.

By Clifton Ross - Dissident Voice
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The inexperienced soldier thinks everything lost when he
is once defeated because he hasn’t yet learned from experience that
courage, ability and perseverance correct bad luck.

– Simon Bolívar, Cartagena Manifesto

With the defeat of the Constitutional reforms at the polls on
December 2, the Bolivarian Revolution has undeniably lost a battle in
its long struggle to create a more just and humane society, but it has
also proven that democracy is alive and well in Venezuela. Chavez’s
upbeat and ready acceptance of the results and his congratulations
toward those who had waged an undeniably dirty campaign against the
reforms, earned him an unexpected compliment from CNN commentators who
referred to his “magnanimous” acceptance of the results. More to the
point, despite outright lies and fabrications of the capitalist mass
media in Venezuela and internationally, psyops brewed in the labs of
the CIA and U.S. State Department, Chavez has managed to maintain and
protect a pluralistic democracy, in itself a refutation of the
“democratic” pretensions as well as the charges made by the opposition
that he’s a dictator and there is no freedom or democracy in Venezuela.

Indeed, the lies and black propaganda reached absurd levels, with
some ads proclaiming that the reform would “take children away from
their parents” and expropriate homes from their rightful owners. (The
reform, in fact, would have guaranteed precisely the opposite, making
it more difficult for people to lose their homes in case of
bankruptcy.) However, the most universal mischaracterization of the
reforms was the constantly repeated lie that they would “make Chavez
president-for-life.” Once again, in the US and Venezuelan opposition
press, we were led to believe, falsely, of course, that this reform was
all about Chavez and not the Venezuelan people. This fiction was
repeated so often and so forcefully that the other 69 articles of
reform in the two slates proposed, one by Chavez himself, and one by
the National Assembly, got little or no coverage. Those much-neglected
articles included guaranteeing social security for workers in the
informal economy; lowering the voting age from 18 to 16; lowering the
work week from 44 to 36 hours; prohibiting discrimination based on
disability or sexual preference and requiring gender parity in
political parties; giving five percent of tax revenues disbursed to the
states directly to the community councils; guaranteeing free education
to all Venezuelans through the university (yes, that would include
PhD’s), and making organic agriculture the “strategic basis of integral
rural development.” Because the media reduced the entire Reform to this
one issue, they presented the defeat of the Reforms as a “defeat for
Chavez” rather than a temporary setback for greater democracy, social
justice and the struggle of the working people and middle class of
Venezuela who stood to gain from the reform. After all, Chavez still
has five years left in office, a National Assembly and, according to
polls, a majority of the people on his side.

Even the President of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay
Lucena, acknowledged that the media was weighted against Chavez and the
reforms when she pointed out that, in the month of November, the media
dedicated 59 percent of its coverage to the opposition and 41 percent
to supporters of the Reforms. This fact has led intellectuals like Jose
Sant Roz, Professor of the University of the Andes and author of over
20 books on Venezuelan politics, to call for the creation of a national
revolutionary daily since the only pro-government daily paper, Diario Vea, is of relatively small size and circulation compared to the half-dozen or so newspapers of the opposition.

The defeat of the Reforms has raised other issues and prompted much
critical internal reflection already among Chavistas. The commentaries
flood in by the hour at www.aporrea.org, and reveal the insight and profound reevaluation that the referendum has induced.

First, some have criticized the management and organization of the
referendum on the reforms, asking why the Electoral Battalion Units
(UBEs) that were so successful in the 2004 referendum on the Presidency
of Chavez had been disbanded after that political moment and not,
rather, extended, empowered and built upon.

Others, like Venezuelan writer and analyst at Vheadline.com,
Franco Munini, have argued that “we put all our eggs in one basket”
with all 69 articles in two slates rather than having the option
available to vote article by article. It’s likely, contrary to the
views expressed in the opposition/imperial press, that term limits on
the presidency would have been eliminated, and some of the other
popular measures would also have passed if such an approach to the vote
on the Reforms had been allowed.

There have also been criticisms within the Bolivarian movement that
not enough has been done to push the social agenda forward. Dr. Steve
Ellner of the Universidad de Oriente of Venezuela writes today that
there had been “the lack of sufficient attention to concrete, tangible
problems and an overemphasis on lofty ideals. I’m referring to issues
that range from garbage collection and shortages of staples to
corruption.” Related to this has been a common criticism that not
enough has been done to weed out corruption, especially within the
Chavez movement and the government itself.

In the end, the defeat was ambiguous as a “defeat.” While it appears
that it might slow down Chavez’ momentum (unlikely), it may have only
reflected a slowdown on the part of the activists at the base, given
the very low turnout. Last year 70 percent of the voters turned out
with a majority voting to re-elect Chavez. By contrast, only 56 percent
turned out yesterday for the referendum. This is certainly one of the
most distressing aspects of the December 2nd referendum on the
Constitution: that a revolution priding itself on its pilgrimage from
“bourgeois representative democracy to participatory, protagonistic
democracy” seems to be backsliding. This fact should motivate activists
in the party to think carefully about what they will need to do in the
future to push forward and reactivate the enthusiasm and commitment
that has brought Venezuela so far so quickly and it appears that Chavez
is already considering this to be the crucial lesson here. This
referendum, moreover, may have the effect of finally convincing some in
the opposition that the Bolivarian Process is what it always claimed to
be: Democratic and liberatory. As Venezuelan political analyst Franco
Munini sees it, “(Bolivarians) won in the end because the opposition
said, in voting down the reforms, that it didn’t want any changes to
the constitution that we wrote in 1999. Which is to say they’re finally
coming around to where we were seven years ago.”

Clifton
Ross represented the U.S. in Venezuela's World Poetry Festival in 2005.
From 2005-2006 he reported from Mérida, Venezuela. His movie, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is now available from www.freedomvoices.org and www.progressivefilms.org. He is the co-editor of Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (1994, New Earth Publications) and his book, Fables for an Open Field
(1994, Trombone Press, New Earth Publications), has just been released
in Spanish by La Casa Tomada of Venezuela. His forthcoming book of
poems in translation, Traduciendo el Silencio, will be
published later this year by Venezuela’s Ministry of Culture editorial,
Perro y Rana. Ross teaches English at Berkeley City College, Berkeley,
California. He can be reached at: [email protected]. Read other articles by Clifton.