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Opinion and Analysis: Politics

Was Failure Chavez's Masterplan?

Since President Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, the politics in Venezuela have been the most active and engaging in the world, with the radical new direction of the country fiercely contested. On Sunday, a large section of Chavez’s supporters chose to abstain from voting on a broad array of proposed constitutional reforms, leaving them unapproved and raising the very real, and honest question: Was it his intention to lose all along?

Only one year ago, Chavez was decisively reelected with a record 63% of the vote and only a quarter of the electorate abstaining. There have since been a handful of controversies, any of which could potentially have alienated a small minority of his support. However, Sunday’s vote was lost through the abstention of a crucial segment that still supports Chavez, yet wasn’t ready for radical landscape changes in order to bring about full-blown “21st century Socialism”.

One commentator has blamed this mass abstencion on “tiredness” resulting from excessive rhetoric and not enough action. This can’t be the case, as those who abstained must represent the more conservative, moderate wing of ‘Chavismo’. A more realistic argument is that the opposition’s scare tactics and disinformation made this sector wary of certain individual proposals. If there had been a significant ‘NO’ vote over and above the opposition’s known electoral capacity, perhaps this would ring true, but there was not; and in any case, propaganda from the ‘other side’ is rarely taken seriously. The mass abstention suggests moderate ‘Chavistas’ were simply behaving rationally under the odd circumstances of the entire affair.

The proposed reforms were, as Chavez quickly admitted, too early and too ambitious. Most commentators would go further and say they demanded far too much consideration in too short a space of time. Just months into Chavez’s final six-year term, an initial reform package of 33 proposals quickly ballooned into a total of 69. They represented an Aladdin’s Cave containing everything Chavez and his more radical support could have wished for. But moderates saw that few, if any, of the important proposals were urgent, that most simply did not require constitutional status, and that the whole package was desperately overreaching and thus risky.

Chavez is a savvy character, and it is rather implausible that he could have compromised this electoral contest (and contradicted his own style of governance) through such extreme miscalculation or greed. To submit this raft of significant changes to a public vote in the space of a little more than a month seems out of step with the modus operandi of a leader who has been the epitome of patience itself, and who knows the key to long-term success is consistently rising public approval. Of course Chavez’s political capital was high, but he is well aware that the revolution cannot progress in earnest with highly visible drops in popular support.

It would have been straightforward to advise Chavez on exactly how to achieve maximum votes: Streamline the reform package into a tidy mix of social benefits, executive and popular power; try to avoid anything that is not strictly necessary, that can be achieved by other means, or that gives the opposition an opportunity to scare the electorate. Float the ideas around for a few months before the campaign begins some time after the Christmas period. Make sure there are no international engagements during the campaign and be sure to participate in public debates.

Just as importantly, Chavez would have been duly advised to campaign in the same non-controversial fashion that had won him reelection last year. Curiously, he insisted on utilising a strange form of blackmail by asserting any ‘NO’ votes would be against him personally, even for George W. Bush. That meant if you didn’t want to vote ‘YES’, you’d better abstain – otherwise you’re an imperialist/oligarchical lackey. Surprise, surprise: abstention jumped from 25% in last December’s general election to almost 45%, with the increase almost exclusively comprising Chavez voters. In retrospect, was this ‘blackmail’ really designed to secure the ‘YES’ vote, or to minimise the ‘NO’ vote? Despite repeated appeals against abstention, this must have only served to increase it.

If a police detective was investigating the conspiracy theory of a purposefully lost election (let us not speculate that the election result could have been manipulated in favour of the opposition, despite the agonising wait after the polls had closed!), the motives, means and opportunity all fit like gloves - but especially the motives. Tellingly, the only alternative explanation for such a stunning loss is gross and uncharacteristic misjudgment, not to mention elementary errors of political campaigning. Most people would think Chavez has enough experience to know better.

To attempt to drive this truckload of reforms through en masse with, say, 55% of the vote, which is what many were expecting and what could theoretically have been achieved, would only have caused increased anger and civil strife in the country. At this important stage of the revolution, Chavez’s ‘loss’ has in fact done the complete opposite, swiftly ensuring peace and stability in Venezuela by effectively tranquilizing an opposition student movement that was close to boiling point. Their most frequent message was that they “just wanted peace”, and now they have it. On the other hand, Chavez has lost nothing and gained everything.

It now bodes extremely well for his international image in particular. Aside from quelling all dictator/fraud charges for the foreseeable future, his reputation as a dignified democrat and conciliatory statesman has increased tenfold, with fauning praise from most regional leaders. Meanwhile, the basic manifesto for his current term has been articulated in full, thereby initiating an informal process of debate that will continue over months if not years. Though the reform proposals were hardly grassroots choices, the method and style of the entire process gave an important lesson to the population, who are presumably now expected to make use of their constitutional power to initiate their own proposals (having been given enough ideas).

Of course Chavez wants to deepen the revolution, and it should be emphasised that nearly half of all voters were ready to grasp “21st century Socialism” with both hands. However, to conclusively legitimise the journey onwards, the essential ‘moderate wing’ needs to be picked up, or “taken on board”, as Chavez said himself during a call-in to state TV the day after the vote. What better way to identify and address this moderate wing than to set up an electoral test which the moderates are not going to approve? Chavez now knows exactly how many remain to be convinced of an all-out socialist project, and presumably even who they are and where they live.

Chavez is an outstanding statesman with a powerful ability to build consensus for his ideas and policies, and what he proposes to achieve is no secret: in thousands of hours of media appearances his visions of social justice, true popular power and a diversified economy have been well explained. Clearly not all have been sufficiently persuaded, but the most important step with which to enable an systematic process of persuasion has now been achieved through losing this election. The crucial signs are that Chavez’s base of opposition has not expanded, and those sympathetic to Chavez remain open to further persuasion.

We can now be sure that Chavez’s supporters are far from mindless sheep. Those that voted ‘YES’ were fully informed and ready to go ahead with the reforms. We can assume they are willing to dispose of capitalism and try a different experiment. Meanwhile, those that abstained were of sufficiently firm disposition to disassociate the reforms from Chavez, in spite of his contrary efforts, and thus made a neutral decision based on their perceived benefits/potential pitfalls in relation to the current state of Venezuelan society.

Venezuela is ripe for socialism, but to be a truly demonstrative international example, slim majority support will not suffice. “21st century socialism” may be based on popular power, but even that cannot be achieved without democratic consent. In fact, increasing executive power will be necessary in order to overturn the politics, economy and society into a revolutionary landscape of real grassroots decision-making. In the present society, overflowing with disposable income and increasingly catered for by rapidly expanding social missions and the largest oil reserves on the planet, moderates are liable to ask: How much better can it really get? Do we need to change a bunch of other things? Might that not be a risk?

The sector of Chavez’s support that has yet to acknowledge the inherent problems with the capitalist model, or alternatively the inherent benefits of socialism, might well overlap neatly with the sector that abstained in this constitutional reform vote. Perhaps they need to be convinced of the need for increased executive power and the democratic/other benefits of eliminating presidential limits. Whatever their concerns, we know that Chavez’s excessive rhetoric has not been sufficient to alleviate them – the answer now appears to be diversified means of education targeted directly at the ‘uncertain moderates’, and just as importantly, demonstration by example.

Clearly, the overriding failure of the reforms was not any individual proposals but the general intensity, scope and pressure of the package in the given circumstances. Chavez still has decree power for the next six months at least, and will surely use it to effect the most urgent proposals. The opposition still has the constitutional power to strike down any legislation if the electoral force is behind them, though the election results show that they remain a limited minority. Practically all ‘NO’ votes came from the limited block of stridently anti-Chavez, pro-capitalist views which may represent only a third of the entire Venezuelan population.

Though the opposition feels empowered, it will prove to be an illusory experience and the position of the socialist movement with five years of Chavez’s provisionally final term remaining is even stronger than before. In the ambience of reduced attacks from both domestic and international opposition and perhaps the invaluable extermination of the ‘dictator’ charge once and for all, most of the intended advances will inevitably be achieved with or without constitutional imperative (imagine a successful popular initiative to eliminate presidential term limits), and positive results will almost certainly ensure the big hullabalooza: Chavez’s reelection in 2012. “For now”, Chavez says, Venezuelans have to “mature, and continue constructing our socialism”.

Carlos Ruiz's Rebel Resource site allows comments and has hundreds of categorised online videos.