Venezuela: The referendum defeat - What does it mean?

The
problem is not that the Revolution has limited the democratic rights of the
opposition and trampled on "press freedom". The problem is that the Revolution
has been far too generous with its opponents, far too tolerant, far too patient,
far too gentlemanly.

By Alan Woods - In Defense of Marxism
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At
about 1am, after a long delay, the Venezuelan National Electoral Commission
announced the results of the referendum on constitutional reform. The proposals
for constitutional change were defeated by the narrowest of margins, with
4,504,354 votes against, (50.70%) and 4,379,392, (49.29%) for the YES. Soon
afterwards, president Chávez was on the television accepting the results. He
said that the proposed reforms had not been approved "for now", but
that he would continue to struggle to build socialism.

The
result, as could be expected, was greeted with jubilation by the right wing
opposition and all the reactionary forces. For the first time in almost a
decade they have secured a victory. There were scenes of jubilation in the
well-off middle class areas of Caracas.
"At last we have shown that Chavez can be defeated! At last the slide towards
communism has been stopped! At last we have given the rabble a lesson!"

The joy
of the reactionaries is both premature and exaggerated. A glance at the results
shows that the voting strength of the opposition has barely increased. If you
compare these results (after 88% of the votes had been counted) with the 2006
presidential elections, the opposition has only increased its vote by about
100,000, but Chávez lost 2.8 million. These votes did not go to the opposition
but rather to abstention. This means that support for the counter-revolution
has not significantly increased from its highest point one year ago.

How the bourgeoisie "informs" public opinion

A whole
number of factors contributed to this result. The bourgeoisie have in their
hands powerful instruments for shaping public opinion. They organised a full
mobilisation of the reactionary media in a hysterical campaign of lies and
slander against Chavez, the Revolution and socialism. This scare-mongering
campaign of the reactionary opposition undoubtedly had an effect on the more
backward sections of the population.

The
pressure was relentless. The Catholic Church, led by the reactionary Episcopal
Conference, preached from the pulpits against Chavez and "godless communism".
There was a two-page paid advertisement in Ultimas Noticias, one of the
most widely read papers in Venezuela and the one that most Bolivarians read.
Amongst other things, it claimed that the State would take your children away
from you and they would belong to the State and that freedom of religion would
be abolished.

In
Carabobo, the regional newspaper Notitarde published a polling day
front-page headline that said, "Today you decide and it will be a decision
forever" and just below a picture of an empty butcher's shop with a Cuban flag
and a picture of Castro with the headline "this is how socialist Cuba looks
today".

All
this exposes the mendacious hypocrisy of the campaign in the international
media to the effect that "there is no press freedom in Venezuela
today". This noisy campaign reached a crescendo a few months ago when the
government decided not to renew the license of RCTV, a right wing television
station that was a notorious nest of counterrevolutionary conspirators who
played a key role in the coup of April 2002.

The
problem is not that the Revolution has limited the democratic rights of the
opposition and trampled on "press freedom". The problem is that the Revolution
has been far too generous with its opponents, far too tolerant, far too patient,
far too gentlemanly. It has left too much power in the hands of the oligarchy
and its agents. It has placed a weapon in their hands which they are using very
effectively to sabotage the revolution, halt it in its tracks and ultimately
destroy it.

Abstentions

All this
is true but it does not answer the question of why the "no" vote won. The main
element in the equation was abstention: a large number of Chavistas did not
bother to vote. The question must be asked: why did they not vote? The
bureaucrats and middle class cynics will blame the masses for their alleged
apathy. That is completely false. The masses have consistently voted for Chavez
in every election and referendum. They voted massively last December. But now
there are signs of tiredness. Why?

After all
the talk about socialism, the oligarchy is still firmly entrenched and uses its
wealth and power to sabotage and undermine the Revolution. The golpistas of
2002 are still at liberty. The right wing media are free to spew out lies and
slanders against the Revolution. Peasant activists are murdered and nothing is
done about it.

Despite
the reforms of the government, which have undoubtedly helped the poor and
disadvantaged, the majority still live in poverty. The problem of homelessness
remains unsolved. The sabotage of the landlords and capitalists is causing
shortages of basic products. All this has an effect on the morale of the
masses.

The
overwhelming majority of the masses still support Chavez and the Revolution,
but there are clear symptoms of tiredness. After nine years of upheaval the
masses are tired of words and speeches, parades and demonstrations, also of
endless elections and referendums. They want less words and more decisive
action: action against the landlords and capitalists, action against the
corrupt governors and officials.

Above
all, they want action against the Fifth Column of right wing Chavistas who wear
red shirts and talk of socialism of the XXI century but are opposed to real
socialism and are sabotaging the revolution from within. Unless the Bolivarian
Movement and the PSUV is purged of these reformist bureaucrats and careerists,
nothing can be done.

The Fifth Column

The
bureaucrats once again showed their complete inability to organize a serious
mass campaign. They failed to answer the lies of the opposition. They failed to
explain the many points in the reformed constitution that would have benefited
the working class, such as the 36-hour week. How could they, when they
themselves are opposed to such socialist measures? This sabotage by the Fifth
Column is well known to the rank and file of the Movement - and also to its
enemies. Time magazine sneered:

"Even
some of Chávez's allies want to put the brakes on the President's radical
train. Many reform proposals, they argue, are less about empowering the people
than about concentrating power in the hands of Chávez. Among the initiatives:
eliminating presidential term limits; putting the now autonomous Central Bank
under the President's control; and the creation of regional vice-presidents.
Provincial leaders like Ramón Martínez, Governor of eastern Sucre state and
himself a socialist, consider the latter idea a lavish centralization of
federal authority, as well as a betrayal of Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution
(named for South America's 19th-century independence hero, Simon Bolivar).
‘This revolution was supposed to create more pluralism in Venezuela,' says Martinez. ‘We don't want a megastate like the
Soviet Union'."

Anyone
who reads these lines will immediately understand why there was no serious
campaign. Ramón Martínez is not a socialist but a leader of Podemos, those
renegades who split from the Bolivarian Movement on the eve of the referendum
campaign in order to wage a violent campaign for the "no" vote. His conduct should
surprise nobody. But it was not an isolated case. In Apure
the governor did nothing to organize the campaign and many others behaved in a
similar fashion. The bureaucrats merely repeated the same disastrous and empty
campaign they organized one year ago in the Presidential election.

A
comrade in Mérida described it in this way: "It was a stupid campaign in
which the posters only said that if you voted for Chávez it was out of ‘love',
while the campaign of the right wing was vicious. They said that everything
would be taken away from people, that if you had two houses one was going to be
taken away, if you had two cars, one was going to be taken away, that new-born
children were going to be taken away by the ‘socialist' state."

After
the result was announced there was a live phone-in show on RNV, one of the
state radio stations, and most of the callers blamed the bureaucracy for the
lack of campaigning for the YES. Many mentioned the attitude of
"Chavista" governors and mayors who not only did not organise any
campaign, but actively sabotaged it. These bureaucrats feared the passing of
these reforms as much as the opposition did. They correctly saw that the masses
would view this referendum as part of a long overdue settling of accounts not
only with the ruling class, but also against the reformist and bureaucratic
elements within the leadership of the Bolivarian movement.

Baduel's tactics

The
declarations of the opposition after the result was announced were highly
significant. The first speaker was one of the leaders of the reactionary
students. In third place was Rosales, the opposition candidate for President
who lost heavily to Chavez last December. But the second speaker was none other
than General Baduel, the former Minister of Defence of whom we have written
recently.

What did
Baduel say? He spoke of national reconciliation and offered to negotiate with
Chavez. He renounced all intentions to organize a coup. In short he offered a
smiling face and the hand of friendship. This is quite a clever tactic and
confirms our impression of Baduel that he is a clever counterrevolutionary.
This new tactic of the opposition also reflects the real balance of forces,
which, despite the referendum result, is still very unfavourable to the
counterrevolutionaries.

The
Revolution should place no trust whatsoever in the smiling face of the
Counterrevolution. Remember the words of Shakespeare: "there are daggers in
men's smiles"! The offer of reconciliation is a trap. There can be no
reconciliation between Revolution and Counterrevolution because there can be no
reconciliation between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited.

The only
reason for this change of tactic is that the opposition cannot defeat Chávez by
direct action. They are too weak and they know it. The more stupid elements
among the opposition are now drunk with success. But after a night of drunken
euphoria will come a morning with a bad headache. The "victory" was won by the
narrowest margin. The greatest exertions of the opposition only succeeded in mobilizing
about 100,000 more votes. Moreover, this struggle cannot be won with votes
alone.

The
pot-bellied bourgeois and his wife and children, the small shopkeeper, the
student "spoilt brats of the rich", the government clerks, resentful of the
advances of the "rabble", the pensioners nostalgic of the "good old days" of
the Fourth Republic, the speculators, thieves and swindlers, the devout old
ladies of both sexes manipulated by the reactionary hierarchy of the Church,
the solid middle class citizens tired of "anarchy": all these elements appear
as a formidable force in electoral terms, but in the class struggle their
weight is practically zero.

The class balance of forces

The real
balance of class forces was shown by the rallies at the end of the referendum
campaign. As in December 2006, the opposition moved heaven and earth to
mobilize its mass base and succeeded in assembling a large crowd. However, the
next day the streets of central Caracas
were flooded by a sea of red shirts and banners. The two rallies revealed that
the active base of the Chavistas is five or eight times bigger than that of the
opposition.

The
picture is even clearer when it comes to the youth. The right wing students are
the storm troops of the opposition. They have been the main force organizing
violent provocations against the Chavistas. They got 50,000 at their biggest
rally, on the most optimistic estimate. But the Chavista students had 200,000
or 300,000 on their rally. In this decisive area of struggle - the youth - the
active forces of the Revolution greatly outnumber those of the
Counter-revolution.

On the
side of the Revolution stand the overwhelming majority of the workers and
peasants. This is the decisive question! Not a light bulb shines, not a wheel
turns, not a telephone rings without the permission of the working class. This
is a colossal force once it is organized and mobilized for the socialist
transformation of society.

And the
army? What about the army? Reformists like Heinz Dieterich are always harping
on this theme like a repeating groove on an old gramophone record. Yes, the
army is a decisive question. But the army always reflects the tendencies within
society. The Venezuelan army has lived through almost a decade of revolutionary
storm and stress. This has left its mark!

There can
be no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the ordinary soldiers, sons of
workers and peasants, are loyal to Chavez and the Revolution. The same will be
true of most of the sergeants and other non-commissioned officers and the junior
officers. But the higher we go in the upper echelons the more unclear the
situation becomes. In the last few weeks there were rumours of conspiracies and
some officers were arrested. This is a serious warning!

Among the
officers, many will be loyal to Chavez; others will be sympathetic to the
opposition or secret counter-revolutionaries. Most will probably be apolitical
career soldiers, whose sympathies can incline one way or another depending on
the general climate in society.

The fact
that General Baduel has decided to adopt a cautious and conciliatory tone shows
that there is no serious base for a coup at the present time. The serious
counter-revolutionaries (including their CIA advisers) realise that the time is
not yet ripe for an operation like that of April 2002. Why not? Because any
attempt to launch a coup at this stage would bring the masses onto the streets
ready to fight and die if necessary to defend the Revolution.

Under
such circumstances the Venezuelan army as it is at present would be a most
unreliable instrument for a coup. It would lead to a civil war which the
counter-revolutionaries would not be confident of winning. And who can doubt
that this time a defeat of the counterrevolution in open struggle would mean
the immediate liquidation of capitalism in Venezuela.

It is for
these practical considerations that Baduel is taking the position that he is
taking. In effect he is playing for time, hoping that the objective conditions
will change to the advantage of the counter-revolution and the disadvantage of
the revolution. One must admit that these calculations are correct. Time is not
on the side of the revolution!

Pernicious role of sects

Baduel is
now arguing for the convening of a constituent assembly. This is, ironically,
the very same demand that is being put forward by the Argentinean PO and other
ultra-left sectarians. The ultra-lefts already found themselves agitating in
the company of the Counter-revolution in the referendum campaign, so this
should not be a great surprise.

The role
of Orlando Chirino and other so-called "Trotskyists" who called on people to
spoil the ballot papers was absolutely pernicious. These ladies and gentlemen
are so blinded by their hatred of Chavez that they are no longer capable of
understanding the difference between revolution and counter-revolution. This
writes them off entirely as a progressive force, let alone a revolutionary one.
But let the dead bury their dead.

The
counter-revolutionaries and imperialists understand the situation far more clearly
than the sectarian clowns and half-wits. The masses have been aroused to
political life by Chavez and are fiercely loyal to him. The bourgeoisie have
tried everything to remove Chavez but have failed. Each counter-revolutionary
attempt has been shattered on the rock of the mass movement.

They have
therefore decided to arm themselves with patience and play a waiting game.
Chavez has been elected for six years and therefore has five more years to run.
The first step of the bourgeoisie was to ensure that he could not stand for
election after that. That was the importance of this referendum from their
point of view. They calculate that if they can get rid of Chavez one way or the
other the Movement will split in pieces and disintegrate, allowing them to take
power back into their hands.

The
opposition is cautious because it is aware of its weakness. It knows it is not
strong enough to go on the offensive. But on the basis of "national
accord", it is trying to get Chavez to water down his programme. If they
succeed in this it will demoralise the Chavista rank and file, while the
reformists and bureaucrats will feel strengthened.

It is an
intelligent tactic, but there is a problem. Despite the referendum result, they
are stuck with Chavez till 2012-13 and no other important elections are on the
horizon. In a situation like Venezuela
many things can happen in five years. That is why they want a constituent
assembly. If they can win another referendum they will change the constitution
to permit early elections which they hope they can win - probably with Baduel
as their candidate.

Why are
they so confident they can win? Because the Revolution has not been carried out
to the end, because important economic levers have been left in the hands of
the bitterest enemies of the Revolution, and also because there is a limit to
how much the masses can tolerate without falling into moods of apathy and
despair.

Decisive measures needed!

Some
years ago, in May 2004, I wrote an article called Theses
on Revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela
in which I wrote the
following:

"To
rely exclusively on the willingness of the masses to make sacrifices is a
mistake. The masses can sacrifice their today for the tomorrow only up to a
certain point. This must always be kept in mind. Ultimately, the economic
question is decisive."

These
observations today retain their full force. In his
article
dated Tuesday, 27 November 2007, Erik
Demeester quoted figures from a recent report from Datanalisis (1) [the
Venezuelan statistical service], which revealed what already many people knew:
scarcity of basic foodstuffs is becoming intolerable. This study established
that milk, beef and sugar have become very difficult to find. Other products
like chicken, cooking oil, cheese, sardines and black beans are also very
scarce. The analysts who compiled the report interviewed 800 people in some 60
different shops, supermarkets and markets, both in the private sector and the
public distribution network, Mercal. 73.3% of the places visited had no milk
powder for sale. 51.7% no longer had refined sugar, 40% had no cooking oil, and
26.7% no black beans, a basic staple in Venezuela.

Two
thirds of the shoppers declared that they experienced food scarcity to one
degree or another in the shops where they usually buy. Queues of a few hours,
sometimes up to four hours, to buy some milk are no longer the exception. As
comrade Demeester points out, this is reminiscent of the situation in Chile when
wholesale economic sabotage was used against the left-wing Popular Unity
government of the 1970s.

For
the masses the question of socialism and revolution is not an abstract question
but is very concrete indeed. The workers and peasants of Venezuela have
been extraordinarily loyal to the Revolution. They have shown a high degree of
revolutionary maturity and willingness to fight and make sacrifices. But if the
situation drags on for too long without a decisive break, the masses will start
to tire. Beginning with the most backward and most inert layers, a mood of
apathy and scepticism will set in.

If
there is no clear end in sight, they will begin to say: we have heard all these
speeches before, but nothing fundamental has changed. What is the point in
demonstrating? What is the point in voting, if we live much the same as before?
This is the biggest danger for the Revolution. When the reactionaries see that
the revolutionary tide is ebbing they will pass over to the counteroffensive.
The advanced elements of the workers will find themselves isolated. The masses
will no longer respond to their appeals. When that moment arrives the
counter-revolution will strike.

Those
who argue that the Revolution has gone too far too fast, that it is necessary
to call a halt to the expropriations and reach a compromise with Baduel to save
the Revolution, are completely mistaken. The reason why a section of the masses
are becoming disillusioned is not because the Revolution has gone too far too
fast, but because it is too slow and has not gone far enough.

The
growing scarcity of basic products and inflation, affects mainly the working
class areas, which are the basis of Chavismo. It is this that is undermining
the Revolution, and not "going too far". You cannot make half a revolution. If
we accept the advice of reformists of the Heinz Dieterich school, we will
surely destroy the Revolution. We would be acting like a man sitting on the
branch of a tree and sawing the branch on which he is sitting.

Elections and the class struggle

Marxists
do not refuse to participate in elections. That is the position of anarchism,
not Marxism. In general, the working class must utilise every democratic
opening that is available to assemble its forces, to conquer one position after
another from the class enemy and to prepare for the conquest of power.

The
electoral struggle has played an important role in Venezuela in uniting, organizing
and mobilising the masses. But it has its limits. The class struggle cannot be
reduced to abstract statistics or electoral arithmetic. Nor is the fate of a
revolution determined by laws or constitutions. Revolutions are won or lost not
in lawyers' chambers or in parliamentary debates but on the streets, in the
factories, in the villages and poor districts, in the schools and army
barracks. We ignore this fact at our peril.

The
reformists believe that the working class must always observe the legal niceties.
But long ago Cicero
said: Salus populi suprema est lex ("The good of the People is the
Supreme Law
". We might add: the Good of the Revolution is the Supreme Law.
The counter-revolutionaries showed absolutely no respect for the law or the
Constitution in 2002 and if they had succeeded they would have abolished the
1999 Constitution immediately. Yet now they are all shouting about the defence
of that very same Constitution.

Even
after the defeat in the referendum, Chavez has enough powers to carry out the
expropriation of the landlords, bankers and capitalists. He has control of the
National Assembly and the support of the decisive sections of Venezuelan
society. An enabling act to expropriate the land, banks and big private
enterprises would provoke enthusiastic support among the masses.

The level
of abstentions that handed this narrow victory to the opposition is a warning.
The masses are demanding decisive action not words! It may be that this defeat
will have the opposite effect. It can rouse the masses to new levels of
revolutionary struggle. Marx said the revolution needs the whip of
counter-revolution. We have seen this more than once in the last nine years in Venezuela.

You
cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs and you cannot win a fight with
one arm tied behind your back. A revolution is not a game of chess with clearly
defined rules. It is a fight between mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable
class interests. Decisive measures are necessary to defend the Revolution and
disarm the Counter-revolution.

The
victory of the "no" in the referendum will act as a salutary shock. The
Chavista rank and file are furious and point the finger at the bureaucracy,
which they rightly blame for the setback. They are demanding action to purge
the right wing from the Movement. That is absolutely necessary! Our slogans
must be:

No
retreat! No deals with the opposition!
Carry the Revolution forward!
Kick out the bureaucrats and careerists!
Expropriate the oligarchy!
Arm the working people to fight against reaction!
Long live Socialism!