Mérida, January 26th 2009 (venezuelanalysis.com)-- Fifty-one years to the day after Venezuelans toppled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, tens of thousands of Venezuelans held marches in Caracas and other major cities last Friday to either support or oppose a constitutional amendment that would get rid of the two-term limit on elected officials.
The amendment, which will be voted upon in a national referendum February 15th, is seen by many as a test of their support for the movement toward "21st Century Socialism" spurred by the administration of President Hugo Chávez over the last decade.
Marchers both for and against the amendment praised democracy and condemned dictatorship, and accused their counterparts of doing the opposite. Meanwhile, nuanced deviations from the polarized norm remained as a sub-text of the mainstream opposition and pro-Chávez discourse.
Anti-amendment demonstrators in the city of Mérida, an urbanized opposition stronghold in an otherwise pro-Chávez rural state, chanted, "This government will fall," while amendment supporters nearby chanted, "This government and the revolution will go on."
A university student organization called the M-13, which violently shut down city streets in Mérida to oppose the amendment last week, led a peaceful march Friday of nearly 10,000 people, mainly from opposition political parties, who chanted "students want freedom," while John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" and leftist folk music played over the loudspeaker.
"President Chávez is not the only man who can govern Venezuela... all Venezuelans love democracy, and we should have the right to be elected president," said an M-13 organizer at the front of the march. "We do not want the return of a dictatorial regime."
Meanwhile, flyers circulated throughout the crowd bearing a quote by Simón Bolívar, the South American independence leader and namesake of left-leaning "Bolivarian" movements such as Chávez's: "Nothing is more dangerous than to allow the same citizen to remain in power for a long time. The people become accustomed to obeying, and he to commanding."
If voters approve the amendment, it will not automatically keep Chávez in power; the people's vote in free and multi-party elections will still determine who leads the country. Moreover, powerful anti-Chávez governors and mayors such as former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales will also have their term limits removed.
However, opposition marchers said that Chávez's ability to squash opposing candidates before voting day will increase the longer he remains president, and that incumbents have disproportionate power to promote their own re-election campaigns.
Demonstrators at a smaller pro-amendment march in Mérida Friday made clear that the amendment is meant to give the transformation into "Socialism of the 21st Century" more time to come to fruition, with Chávez as its leader.
"We are here to support the constitutional amendment which permits Chávez to stand as a candidate in 2012," said one supporter who was tabling for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). "Chávez is indispensible for the revolution, which has brought us education, jobs, health care, and is occurring across Latin America."
According to Oneida Rivas, a pro-amendment activist, if Chávez and other proponents of the Bolivarian Revolution do not stay in power, Venezuela will become "another Colombia."
"Colombia is in constant warfare," Rivas explained. "Many revolutionaries in Venezuela know that if the opposition takes power, the persecution against us will return, and we will be forced to flee to the mountains."
Beyond the issue of Chávez, opposition marchers claimed that the amendment is illegal because the question of presidential term limits was already proposed and voted down in a 2007 constitutional reform referendum. Demonstrators chanted and held signs saying "No means no," and "what part didn't you understand?" in reference to the defeated 2007 reform.
In response to this, Yecenia Jaimes, a volunteer with the PSUV, explained during the pro-amendment rally that the current amendment is distinct from the reform, which proposed a much deeper alteration of whole sections of the constitution.
"The constitution says an amendment is just a change in wording that does not alter the meaning of the article," said Jaimes. "What's more, we gathered more than the required signatures and the National Assembly and CNE [National Electoral Council] legally approved it."
A volunteer organizer for the opposition march, wearing a t-shirt of the conservative party COPEI, offered a different perspective. The proposed amendment, she said, actually will alter the meaning of the articles related to term limits, and so it should be considered a reform.
Notably, neither the pro- nor anti-amendment marchers mentioned the fact that Venezuela's Supreme Court reviewed and gave the go-ahead to the referendum. Instead, they treated the constitution as an issue to be decided upon by the people in the streets and at the ballot box.
Despite the overall polarization, several young demonstrators at both rallies offered more nuanced perspectives on the matters at hand.
Alejandro Arévalo, a young member of the Socialist Union of the Left, attended the pro-amendment march to accompany his allies, but said he is personally opposed to the amendment.
"Continuous re-election does not permit the rotation in the collective leadership that socialism requires," said Arévalo. "Either we create a broad, conscious socialist movement, or we stay dependent on certain leaders."
Arévalo told Venezuelanalysis.com that the Venezuelan people are strong enough that, if Chávez does not continue as president, they will not allow their voices to be silenced by other leaders who may not have the same connection with the poor majority of the country.
"Chávez is indispensible for Chavism, but he is not indispensible for socialism," Arévalo said. "There are plenty of young leaders here."
Guillermo Altamar, a leader of Youth for the Amendment, agreed that socialist consciousness and popular empowerment are important and incomplete in Venezuela, but asserted that the amendment is a step toward achieving these goals.
"The amendment is going to allow us to continue deepening the democratic rights of the workers and the people," said Altamar. "It will allow us to reveal the internal contradictions within the Bolivarian process and resolve them."
"We are in favor of the amendment because we want to end the exploitation of men by men, we want land demarcation for the indigenous people, we want to construct a new organization of work and society," Altamar added, citing particular issues on which some say the Chávez government has dragged its feet.
Amidst the crowd of anti-amendment demonstrators, Olivia Rondón, an M-13 organizer, shared her perspective that the Chávez government should not be entirely condemned. "We must strengthen the missions and cooperatives, which are good ideas but have been lost because the government just throws money at them," she told Venezuelanalysis.
"The president has to stop saying that you are either with me or against me," said Rondón. "Why must he go on saying he is the only hope for Venezuela, and that he and his party are the only ones who can make decisions for Venezuela?" she asked.
When asked what happens if the amendment is approved, Rondón insisted that it will lose, expressing complete certainty that her movement constitutes the majority in a nation where most polls and elections results indicate the majority still adores Chávez and critically supports the PSUV.
Oneida Rivas spoke with equal confidence about her pro-amendment movement, and did not flinch when asked what would happen if the amendment were rejected. "Each one of us is another Chávez, indispensible like Chávez. We must continue the struggle after he is gone."