Four Lessons for Progressives from Venezuela's Recent Referendum

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.

By Josh Lerner - Foresight
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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.