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Opinion and Analysis: Politics

Making Victory of Defeat: What Next for Venezuela?

The unthinkable happened: at around 1 a.m. Monday morning, Venezuela's National Electoral Council announced that Hugo Chávez lost an election. Sure, it wasn't by much (just over 1%, some 150,000 votes), and wasn't a direct vote on the Venezuelan leader's mandate, but this was a defeat nonetheless. This needs to be candidly recognized. But while we reflect on errors made, we should not lose sight of the unique opportunities posed by this turn of events. Sunday's referendum defeat marks a critical juncture in the Bolivarian Revolution: with the most direct, state-led path to socialism effectively blocked, Chávez will have no other alternative than to rely on the mobilization of the popular revolutionary masses.

A defeat, period

It was Chávez himself who had made the vote a plebiscite on his rule, declaring that "a ‘SI' vote is a vote for Chávez" and adding that those voting "NO" are to be considered "traitors." The government, moreover, had taken a clear risk, originally demanding that the proposals be voted on as a single block, and then only dividing them into two blocks under pressure. There can be little doubt that a point-by-point vote would have salvaged at least a semblance of victory and would have resulted in some key elements of the reform being passed. But this is a risk Chávez knew he was taking.

What is imperative now is to take stock of what the defeat means. The disinformation campaigns of the opposition and their CIA backers aside, the referendum was lost because Chavistas failed to mobilize the moderate supporters of the process, garnering a mere 4 million votes compared to the 7 million who voted to re-elect Chávez only a year ago. Some moderate Chavista organizations like the PODEMOS social democrats (who had earned Chávez nearly a million votes in the past) and retired general Raúl Baduel "jumped the divider," moving toward the opposition and urging a "NO" vote, while many others who voted "SI" or merely abstained had their own ambivalent feelings toward the proposal. But this should not be seen as an indictment of the proposal itself: many of those who jumped the divider were moderate centrists, unprepared to go the full length with the Revolution.

Among the most radical sectors, misgivings about the reform proposal or the process were balanced by a sober assessment of the stakes. In a joint statement issued before the referendum, the Gayones and Fogata movements, two radical organizations on the far left of the Chavista spectrum, expressed the need to "be alert" to the strengthening of the state, a state that could eventually be turned against the left once again, as had been the case for the four decades preceding the Bolivarian Revolution and the Fifth Republic. But doesn't the battle against neoliberalism entail a strategic empowerment of the state? Even those most likely to find themselves on the receiving end of state violence and the "bourgeois monopoly of force" recognized both the substantive importance of the reform proposal and the need to "close ranks" against imperialism. As Sartre reminds us, to choose not to choose is in fact a choice, and the outcome of Sunday's referendum was proof enough of this fact.

The reform proposal, despite some valid concerns, was not short on positive developments: new rights for Afro-Venezuelans, the disabled, informal workers (all workers, for that matter), and women; a reining in of the Central Bank and new prohibitions on monopolies and rural latifundios; crucial steps away from the U.S.-model professionalized military structure; and, above all, the reinforcement of the nascent communal power that will determine much of Venezuela's future. But even were these not enough, even if the content hadn't justified the reform proposal to the degree that it did, an understanding of the dynamics of the Revolution would have made supporting the measure an absolute necessity.

A "SI" vote was the only right decision in the context, but now that context has changed. The Revolution has reached a critical juncture, a moment of historical bifurcation which entails both a transformed dynamic and a new series of opportunities. The disadvantages are clear: the Revolution has suffered a setback which is both material and spiritual. On the material plane, the government will not benefit from the tools necessary to move forward decisively with the construction of Venezuelan socialism. Corrupt state governors and municipal mayors will maintain their power quota, actively undermining both national programs and communal power. Internationally, Chávez will no longer wield an untarnished electoral image as a weapon against the continental right and an encouragement for the left. And, of course, Chavistas will need to look for a successor to the President (despite international press focus, the proposal for presidential re-election would almost certainly have passed in a point-by-point vote).

Spiritually, the consequences will likely be more dire still. The Revolution had a momentum, and Chávez an air of invincibility. The process had seemed a steamroller, repeatedly flattening a pitiful opposition by more than 20 percentage points. The government seemed to have earned the political capital to drive through the controversial changes necessary for socialist development. This was not the case, but nor should we overstate the implications of the loss: the opposition remains pitiful and the people are more mobilized than ever before. And we now have a clearer sense of how many "hardcore" Chavistas there are: some 4 million. And we know that, since the high abstention rate favored the opposition, who secured even a number of dissident Chavistas for the "NO" vote from the ranks of PODEMOS and others, we therefore also know that this is significantly larger than the "hard core" of the opposition. And we know that, were the reform proposal worded slightly differently, Venezuela would now be moving firmly toward socialism. Know yourself; know your enemy.

Democratic credentials

Immediately following the results announced by CNE President Tibisay Lucena, Chávez appeared on a live national broadcast to concede defeat. Addressing the opposition, he encouraged them to reflect: "It's not that I have given it to you, you have won it," he admitted, "but I wouldn't have wanted such a Pyrrhic victory, not this way." It is preferable to lose than to win a close vote, a "photo finish" as Chávez described it, since while both entail the need for self-critical reflection, in a victory this need can be obscured. While not saying so explicitly, Chávez is certainly aware of the dangers that "losing" such a close vote helps to avoid. The closer the vote, the more traction opposition claims of fraud would find with the public (it was said that opposition students were handing out blue t-shirts reading "FRAUD" even before polls had closed). And given the leaked CIA document regarding a destabilization plan dubbed "Operation Pincer," the eventual outcome of a close victory would be unpredictable to say the least.

But immediate destabilization aside, a close victory would have left the revolutionary leadership in a position of waging rearguard skirmishes to justify its democratic credentials (and without the help of the Carter Center). The Bolivarian Revolution has always been profoundly democratic, but this has been clearer at some times than others. The first beneficial effect of Chávez's concession, then, is that it flies in the face of the accusations of tyranny propagated by the opposition, Washington hawks from both parties, and the international media. It was clear that Chávez relished this opportunity to concede, and at times he appeared to be giving a victory speech rather than one marking defeat. While clearly losing political capital in some spheres, Chávez has regained it in others. As a result, pressure for a coup or other extra-institutional maneuvers to remove Chávez will abate, if only momentarily. That breathing space, if used correctly, could make all the difference.

Renovating leadership

The biggest practical defeat of the referendum, the rejection of presidential re-election, also has the potential to be canalized in positive directions. It has long been observed that the Revolution is too centered on Chávez the person, thereby obscuring the primary role of the popular masses. From the right and the liberal left, we are told that Chávez is consolidating personalistic rule through a charismatic style which, in the pop psychology of the international media, cements a fascistic bond between the people and their Great Leader, a veritable father-figure. Even on the seemingly opposite end, however, we are confronted with the practical question of succession and sustainability: no leader can last forever, and no process can afford to rely too heavily on a single individual. While the Venezuelan popular revolutionary organizations will survive the elimination of any leader, the process as a whole might not.

Here we are confronted with a paradox of the Revolution's leadership: Chávez, as a result of his long history and failed coup attempt, his bravery under adverse circumstances, and his willingness to risk life and limb for the pueblo, has quite rightfully earned the respect of the Venezuelan masses. But now, Chavismo is a movement of millions, boasting thousands of "leaders," most of whom joined Chávez after he came to power and who range from devoted revolutionaries to opportunistic bureaucrats. The majority of Chavista leaders simply cannot be trusted in the same way as can Chávez. And with such longtime loyalists as Baduel moving toward the opposition, it is difficult to imagine any member of the revolutionary leadership being granted a full mandate by the people to lead the process forward. Moreover, those who most appeal to the radical poor masses, like militant popular leader Lina Ron or Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas Juan Barreto, would almost certainly alienate the Chavista center, on which it relies as an electoral movement.

But new leadership must be found regardless, and this defeat has forced the question. We can only hope that this leadership come not from the moderate, conservative Chavistas who currently control some key positions within the Revolution's political apparatus. And ideally, new leaders would not come from the statist, Cuban-inspired wing of Chavismo either. Rather, if we value the Revolution as a radical and liberatory challenge to global capitalism, a true alternative, we will hope that the new generation of Chavista leadership will emerge directly from the third and most crucial sector of the movement: the popular, revolutionary, anti-bureaucratic and anti-statist element. It is this sector that, through decades of thankless grassroots organizing and armed insurgency, represents the bedrock of Chavismo, having played a key role in returning the President to power in 2002. It is this sector that, now, needs to step forward and impose its will on the process.

Indeed, such a course is the only way for the process as a whole to maintain its peculiar political dynamic. Marked by a severely Manicheistic and antagonistic quality, the Revolution has lurched forward in a virtuous dialectic of conflict and overcoming. If the reins are passed to a moderate, a corrupt politico, or a statist, the Venezuelan masses will begin to forget who their enemies are. The process will lose its momentum at the same time that, through a failure to mobilize, it will lose its electoral majority to a "social democratic" opposition, led perhaps by a Raúl Baduel or Ismael García, from which it has become indistinguishable.

Participation, against the state

Without the power the reform would have put in his hands to speed the process from above, Chávez will now, somewhat fortuitously, need to rely more heavily on the Revolution's natural and original fuel: the pueblo, the people, who have constructed the process from below. Without the governmental capacity to create the necessary federal districts to create the "socialist cities" out of thin air, it will now fall to Venezuelan militants to do so themselves, to make their own cities socialist. Afro-Venezuelans, who have already dug their way out of the pit of mestizaje through popular mobilization, will need to force revolutionary recognition on the racist white oligarchy. Landless workers will need to keep taking over latifundios, and the communal councils will need to keep expanding their power and autonomy. Without a state regulation stipulating a 36-hour workweek which, however important, would have little practical effect in the lives of the majority whose labor is informal, Venezuelan workers will now need to fight to reduce their workweek themselves. And without constitutional protection, the informal sector will now face an uphill struggle to access the pension system, but we should be clear that this would have been a struggle regardless: constitutions don't legislate, and nor do they create revolutionary practices.

The reform proposal would have, in many aspects, answered the demands of the Venezuelan people, giving them the juridical leverage to dialectically increase their power and further deepen those demands. In other words, the reform would have been an instance of sectors of the state helping to deepen the existing revolutionary demands put forward by popular organizations. But we need to remember that neither the state nor Chávez himself created those demands, and it was these popular organizations that created Chávez, not vice-versa. And hence the loss is far from total.

If taken advantage of, this ostensible "loss" could deal a blow to the moderate, corrupt, bureaucratic, and statist elements that plague Chavismo, thereby radicalizing the process as a whole. Let's be clear: the process will not and cannot be the same from here on out. This electoral defeat is indeed a turning point, but where we are turning to is yet to be seen. Revolutionary progress is not linear, and nor is it zero-sum. A referendum victory would have had undeniable benefits for the process: specifically, speed, momentum, and the decisiveness necessary to fill the gaps in a still imperfect revolutionary ideology. Now, however, the way forward will be in some key aspects more tentative and less cavalier, but those small steps will be all the more surefooted if they emerge from the demands of the pueblo.

The Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front, a bastion of revolutionary popular organization in the Venezuelan countryside, puts it better than I could ever hope to:

Now it's up to the people, it's up to us to self-critically assume responsibility for this electoral reversal, it's up to us to calculate our strength, that of the enemy, that of the traitors, and that of those conspiring from within. It's up to us to go beyond the institutional straitjacket and its bureaucratic and corrupt strings; to implement the revolutionary program we will need to dispense with them... It's up to us to unleash from below true constitutive power, the transformative action of the people, to construct a new, revolutionary institutionality with or without the support of the state, but alongside Comandante Chávez... We ourselves need to provide the answers and solutions to the needs that we have as a people: "it is the people that save the people."

Now is when the battle has just begun... now is when the waters become clear and purified, now is when the rooster's crow announces to the sun the dawning victory in Santa Inés. Now is when, like a single powerful fist and with a steady gaze, we must strike at the enemies of the Revolution, redoubling our labors, our spirit, to increase our levels of organization and consciousness... So that with a combative spirit and renewed energy, we might say in a single voice: We were born to conquer and not to be defeated.

"Por Ahora"

We shouldn't forget that Chávez wasn't always invincible: his political career began with two words, uttered at the moment that he took responsibility and surrendered after the failed 1992 coup, urging his comrades-in-arms to do the same: "We have not achieved our objectives," he told a Venezuela desperate for a way out of the corrupt and murderous Fourth Republic, "por ahora...," for now. While conceding defeat in the referendum, Chávez repeated those now-famous words: "We are built for a long battle. As I said on February 4th 1992, we haven't been able [to win] for now." Chávez wasn't always an undefeated champion: he was once a mere challenger who transformed an ostensible defeat, an utterly failed uprising, into a political victory. Now he, and the Venezuelan people, have five years to do it again.


George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He is currently working on a book about the history and significance of popular revolutionary organizations in Venezuela, and can be reached at gjcm(at)