A Debate on Hugo Chavez and Venezuela’s Failed Constitutional Reform

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was handed his first electoral loss since winning the presidency seven years ago when he narrowly lost a controversial referendum on 69 proposed changes to the constitution earlier this month. We host a debate with Greg Wilpert, author of “Changing Venezuela by Taking Power,” and Francisco Rodriguez, the former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was handed his first electoral loss since winning the presidency seven years ago when he narrowly lost a controversial referendum on 69 proposed changes to the constitution earlier this month. Chavez conceded defeat in the referendum and said he would leave office in 2012. We host a debate with Greg Wilpert, author of “Changing Venezuela by Taking Power,” and Francisco Rodriguez, the former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly. [includes rush transcript]


Gregory Wilpert, editor of the website venezuelanalysis.com and the author of “Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government.”

Francisco Rodríguez, assistant Professor of Economics and Latin American Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He was Chief Economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly from 2000 to 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a key Bolivian ally, Venezuela. Earlier this month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was handed his first electoral loss since winning the presidency seven years ago. Chavez narrowly lost a controversial referendum on sixty-nine proposed changes to the constitution. They included measures to eliminate presidential term limits, create forms of communal property and cut the work day from eight to six hours. Turnout was lower than expected.
Addressing his supporters a few days after the election, Chavez conceded defeat in the referendum, said he would leave office in 2012.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: [translated] I have to leave the government in the year 2012. I have to go. You did not approve the reforms. Well, I have to go. I have to go.

AMY GOODMAN: World leaders were largely positive about the election’s outcome. Many praised President Chavez for respecting the choice of his voters. President Bush used the opportunity to urge a free trade deal with Colombia. But Bolivian President Evo Morales and former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner lauded Chavez for his democratic qualities.

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] I respect and value Chavez very much. He’s democratic. If he were authoritarian, he would impose what he thinks to govern. But his desire is to consider the Venezuelan people, and Venezuelan people make democratic decisions. That must be respected, and here we don’t have to be afraid of a referendum. The people can decide the fate of the country.

NESTOR KIRCHNER: [translated] With the attitude he has had toward Argentina and that today he has lost an election, he’s shown himself to be a great democrat by accepting the results.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Venezuelan people rejected one-man rule. They voted for democracy. And the United States can make a difference in South America, in terms of Venezuelan influence, and here’s how: the Congress can pass a free trade agreement with Colombia.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Bush’s reaction. Today we host a debate on the constitutional reform referendum held in Venezuela. Gregory Wilpert is with us, editor of the website venezuelanalysis.com, and he’s author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. He is speaking at the Brecht Forum tonight in New York, joining us in our Firehouse studio. We welcome you, Greg Wilpert.

GREGORY WILPERT: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone by Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly from 2000 to 2004, assistant professor of economics and Latin American studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Francisco Rodriguez joins us on the phone from Middletown, Connecticut. Welcome, Professor Rodriguez. It’s good to have you with us.
Your response—you are returning to Venezuela; you were just there, Greg—to what has taken place, the defeat of what Chavez was hoping for, to stay in office longer, although many other provisions, as well, of the constitution got defeated.

GREGORY WILPERT: Well, actually, I think what happened is in many ways an opportunity for the Bolivarian movement. That is, if this reform had actually won, it would have been very likely that the opposition would have launched a number of efforts to destabilize the country, would have launched violent demonstrations and things like that, claiming fraud. There are some rumors that there were T-shirts already printed that claimed fraud. And that would have made actually governing much more difficult for President Chavez.
Now that he lost the referendum, though, he looks much more democratic than people claimed in the past. And so, this is a real opportunity for him to actually implement many of the reforms that were in the constitutional reform, but that don’t require a constitutional amendment. So, for example, lowering the work week is possible. Introducing a social security fund, introducing nondiscrimination against—on the basis of sexual orientation, those kind—

AMY GOODMAN: That doesn’t have to be approved by constitutional amendment?

GREGORY WILPERT: No, many of those things don’t. And so—and actually they said that they will implement, for example, one of the first things is the social security fund for self-employed and for informal workers. So he can move ahead with a large part of his agenda with much more social peace in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Francisco Rodriguez, your response to the defeat of Chavez on these issues and how he accepted them? Professor Rodriguez?

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Yes, yes. Hello, I’m sorry. First of all, I think I’d like to say that I agree that this is a great opportunity for the Chavez administration to be more inclusive, to be more democratic, to finally recognize that there is a large fragment of the population, which indeed in this referendum was a majority of Venezuelan voters, that do not agree with his project of society and to try to call for a government of national unity.
Regrettably, Chavez has been very ambivalent about doing this and very contradictory. It’s true that he rapidly recognized the results on the night of the election, and that was seen as a good sign by just about everybody, and I believe it was a very good sign. But it’s also true that just a couple of days later, he publicly went on national TV before the armed forces and referred to the opposition victory with an adjective, which is an expletive which I think that we’d have a lot of trouble, actually, if I were to say it on US television. But nevertheless, because of the power of the Venezuelan presidency, in the middle of the day this was carried to all Venezuelan households. There has been, just to give you an example, the Minister of the Interior, Pedro Carreno, made the following statement just a few days ago. He said there is no possible reconciliation, because our project for reconciliation was in the constitutional reforms. So in other words, if we lose, there’s no reconciliation. So I think that what’s happening is, again, the Venezuelan government, the Chavez administration, has a fundamental discourse that is dividing Venezuelan society between those who are with them and those who are against them. And I think that—

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Rodriguez, you’re actually comparing Chavez to Bush here? The attitude of, if you are not with us, you are against us?

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: I’m sorry, I did not hear the question.

AMY GOODMAN: I was making a joke, but are you comparing Chavez to Bush here? If you are not with us, you are against us.

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: I did not—if you’re asking whether I made a particular comparison, I did not. I did say that Chavez has a discourse in which he has many times actually repeated that phrase. If you are not with me, you are against me. If you are voting against the constitutional reform, you are voting for George W. Bush. He made this statement publicly during the campaign. So it’s a very divisive discourse, and it’s a discourse with which the majority of Venezuelan people have shown that they’re not identified. And I don’t think—I think that if Chavez does not present an inclusive discourse that can include all Venezuelans, then there are going to keep on being problems of governability, and I think that what we’ve seen in the referendum is the first question of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregory Wilpert, your response?

GREGORY WILPERT: Well, several things. I mean, for one thing, it’s been often said that Chavez is being contradictory because he was reconciling, being conciliatory, and then qualified the victory of the opposition with this negative adjective. But one has to understand under what circumstances he did that. I mean, he did that because the opposition started arguing that this was—that they actually had won by a much larger margin than what was made public. And so, Chavez was upset, because this was—the Venezuelan elections are totally transparent, and there was no shred of evidence or proof of any sort that there was any funny business. But yet, there were a whole bunch of rumors going around and newspaper articles claiming that Chavez negotiated the result to made it look closer than it really was, and so on. And so, he was angry about that, and I think that’s relatively understandable, that, you know, here they are winning and still claiming, oh, we actually won by a much larger margin and they still cheated us, you know, and he was being graceful about the result.

The other thing is, I mean, the whole thing about reconciliation, I’m not really sure what there is often to reconcile about. On the one hand, you have a sector of the opposition that wants to get rid of Chavez by any means necessary, whether it’s violence or whatever, and you cannot reconcile with that. But on the other hand, Chavez has often said, you know, he wants to be more inclusive and wants to—as long as the opposition plays the democratic game. So far, many times they’ve shown that they’re not. When they are playing the democratic game, I think reconciliation, of course, is always good, and you want democratic debate and participation, but it’s not always possible. And so, that’s why it appears like a contradiction, but you just have to recognize, you know, what’s going on in the specific case.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap up, Greg, you’ve been living for years in Venezuela. You’ve come now to the United States. What do you think are the greatest misunderstandings people here have of what’s happening now in Venezuela?

GREGORY WILPERT: Well, I think the greatest misunderstanding is this idea that the Chavez government is non-democratic or something like that. After all, Chavez has won now eleven out of twelve national elections in the past nine years. And the opposition had full freedom of speech. And so, I think this notion that there’s somehow violation of human rights and so on, I think that’s very problematic. I mean, it just doesn’t bear with the facts. On the other hand, there are problems, of course. The government isn’t perfect. And I think one has to recognize some of the problems that exist in Venezuela, but they’re not these kinds of problems that are talked about here usually, which have to do with lack of democracy or lack of human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the problems?

GREGORY WILPERT: Well, I think there’s an overemphasis on the role of Chavez, that is, a very strong concentration of the movement on Chavez, the person. That is a problem. I think it makes criticism within the movement very difficult—self-reflection. That’s actually one of the good things about the loss of the referendum, is that now it has forced a lot of self-reflection about what is going wrong in the Bolivarian project that previously wasn’t really possible. So, I mean, that’s one.
And then, there’s, of course, the old tradition in Venezuela of patronage and clientelism, which has continued to some extent in the Chavez presidency, and there’s not enough recognition of that within the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Rodriguez, your response?

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yes. I think that there are a set of problems right now in Venezuela, particularly management of the economy is dismal. In the midst of the oil boom, the country actually has rampant inflation. Inflation in the month of November was 4.4%. The scarcity of the basic goods, the primary consumption basket of poor individuals.
I think that you also have to understand that in Venezuela there have been significant amounts of political persecution. The opposition, one of its main goals—actually, the opposition has supported social security reform and has indeed asked the president to approve it, even before going to the constitutional referendum because a constitutional change was not necessary for it. But the opposition is asking, and I think that a great sign by President Chavez, for the release of political prisoners that are currently held by the Venezuelan government, of prisoners such as former Finance Minister Francisco Uson, who’s in jail for treason for speaking to a TV program about the death of some soldiers. This government published a list of four million, 3.5 million voters who signed for the recall referendum petition. These voters were thrown out of their jobs. They have been persecuted economically. The government itself, Chavez himself has recognized that this happened.
The denunciations that were made in the press, well, when there is a free press, you have to accept that there are going to be rumors published in the press. A very respectable Spanish newspaper, actually, El Mundo, this morning in Spain comes out with a very lengthy report on the military pressures that existed on Chavez to actually recognize the results. So these are quite credible stories, and I think that in a country in which there is a free press, the government should be able to recognize it and discuss these things that are going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Francisco Rodriguez, we’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and Greg Wilpert, his book is called Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. He heads back to Venezuela this week.

Source: Democracy Now!