Opinion and Analysis: Politics
Four Lessons for Progressives from Venezuela's Recent Referendum
On Sunday, Venezuelan voters narrowly rejected 69 proposed changes to the country’s constitution. Contrary to some reports, this does not mean that Chávez has been “defeated” or that the opposition has become the “new majority.” Chávez’s government still remains in power with close to a 60% approval rating, and the organized opposition groups still have minority support and little political power. So what does the referendum vote mean? What lessons does it offer for those committed to social justice and democracy, in the US, Venezuela, and elsewhere? Here are four ideas.*
1) Deeply progressive social, economic, and political policies can be popular. Lost in most of the discussion on the referendum are the many inspiring policy proposals that generated broad support and relatively little opposition. The proposed changes to the constitution’s articles included gems such as:
- Article 21: Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and health.
- Article 64: Establish adequate housing as a right for all Venezuelans.
- Article 87: Create a social security fund for Venezuelans who are self-employed or employed in the informal sector.
- Article 90: Decrease the workweek from 44 hours to 36 hours.
- Article 103: Mandate that all public education, up to and including university, be free of charge.
- Article 272: Require the penitentiary system to orient its work towards the full rehabilitation of prisoners and to respect their human rights during incarceration.
2) Politically embedded journalists produce skewed news. Much has been made of how reporters embedded in the US military have produced inaccurate and biased media coverage. The referendum coverage shows how journalists embedded in political movements can be just as dangerous. As others have observed, coverage of Venezuela in the US mainstream media has been atrocious. Most stories are dominated by unrepresentative interviews with Chávez critics or defectors, reports of opposition rallies, and anti-Chávez rhetoric. They have reduced the 69 proposed constitutional changes to only a few of the more contested proposals.
Why are the journalists so biased? Perhaps because they are embedded in the Venezuelan opposition. When I was in Venezuela last year, I was shocked and awed by the extreme political and economic segregation. Cities are largely divided into Chavista and anti-Chavista zones. The latter look not very different from Los Angeles, with shiny mega-malls, tree-lined boulevards, and gated villas. The former are often informally planned barrios with self-built homes, unfinished streets, and a surplus of trash, pollution, and violence. Guess where the mainstream journalists live, work, and play? With the salary of a foreign correspondent, they can afford to stay in the wealthier neighborhoods, where anti-Chavismo is nothing less than common sense. As long as Venezuela remains so polarized, mainstream journalists will circulate in a social world dominated by the opposition - unless media establishments or the Venezuelan government try harder to put reporters in more “fair and balanced” spaces.
3) Solidarity does not mean unconditional support. Alongside the referendum’s progressive policy reforms were genuinely questionable proposals, such as unlimited presidential reelection, new presidential powers to declare states of emergency, and presidential discretion to create new local and state government bodies and appoint their leaders. These changes caused millions of Chavistas to vote no or to abstain from voting. Despite their general support for Chávez and his government, these dissenters showed that their loyalty has limits. As one voter said, “People who have been with Chávez do not support the reform. He wants a blank check, and that’s impossible. We’re not stupid… There are conscious, thinking people here, too.”
Leftists and Venezuelan solidarity groups in the US have been slower to come to this realization. With too few exceptions, they have responded to the mainstream media’s unabashed contempt of Chávez with unabashed defenses of Chávez. Critiques of mainstream media coverage are important. Critical discussion of the pros and cons of government proposals could be even more helpful, both to provide constructive ideas for Venezuelans and for communicating the complexities of the Venezuelan revolution to Northern audiences.
4) Democracy is not a yes or no issue. The referendum largely failed because of fixed and conflicting assumptions about democracy. The government claimed that the proposed reforms were democratic, and opponents claimed that they were undemocratic. For critics, the possibility of unlimited presidential reelection might further consolidate power in one man’s hands, and the appointment of leaders to new government bodies would steal power from democratically elected mayors and governors. From the government’s perspective, the reforms would let Venezuelans choose their leader without constraints, while developing new venues for democratic participation.
Both sides were right. Democracy is no simple matter, and reducing it to a yes or no issue tends to exclude and inflame those with different views. This is exactly what the Venezuelan government did. At a rally before the vote, for example, Chávez proclaimed, “Whoever votes ‘Yes’ is voting for Chávez, and whoever votes ‘No’ is voting for George W. Bush.” Statements like this are nothing new – the government has a long history of asserting its vision of democracy as the only legitimate option (TINA, with a twist).
The referendum highlighted two questionable parts of this vision. First, assumptions about democratic leadership. For Chávez, a strong democratic leader is someone who is elected by a majority, who believes in democratic processes, and who has the power to make these beliefs reality. The proposals on presidential reelection, states of emergency, and political appointees all emerge from this vision.
The government has a valid argument, but the No vote has a stronger argument for a different kind a democratic leader. These voters assumed that democracy requires many different leaders, all chosen directly by the people, kept in check with strong limits, and forced to regularly cede power to new leaders. This vision of leadership is based on a long history of democratic social movements and the age-old lesson that power corrupts. The US civil rights visionary Ella Baker perhaps put it best, saying that democracy required “people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.” For Chávez to be a truly democratic leader, he would need to encourage other people to lead.
Second, the Yes and No votes had different assumptions about the time that democracy takes. For the government, democratic reforms are urgent and need to be passed as soon as possible. To its credit, the government opened up significant debate on the referendum – it organized over 9000 public consultations and made several revisions based on this input. By the time of the vote, 78% of Venezuelans had read or been informed about the reforms.
For opponents, this debate was not enough. Chavistas and anti-Chavistas alike complained that they had too little time to study the proposals, and that many key ideas were underdeveloped. Citizens only had a few months to read, discuss, and revise the constitutional changes. After such abbreviated discussions, proposals for things such as “federal cities” and “functional districts” remained highly ambiguous. Democratic reforms are always urgently needed, but if the government wants to successfully pass and implement them, it will need broad public support. It takes many months of debate, adjustment, and compromise to forge such support.
As the US presidential campaign marches on, these lessons are particularly relevant. What kind of democratic leader should citizens demand? How quickly should they expect big changes? How do assumptions about democracy limit what politicians and movements struggle for?
After the election, Chávez claimed that the vote was a step forward for democracy. He may be more right than he realizes. Not only did the referendum show that the government respects the democratic process, it also shook people up in a new way. Whereas in the past, Chávez shook people out of complacency and passivity, this time he may have shaken them out of unconditional support and fixed assumptions. More so than ever before, millions of Chávez supporters openly questioned and dissented from their leader’s wishes. Now that is democracy.
* For a more detailed analysis of the referendum’s proposals, see Greg Wilpert’s article at venezuelanalysis.com.
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