An Important but Risky Victory for Venezuela and for Socialism

The ten
percentage point victory (55-45%) that President Chávez and his movement
achieved on Sunday represents a
very important victory for the effort to create socialism in Venezuela. However, Chávez and his supporters ought to recognize
that this victory comes with a certain degree of risk because it increases the
Bolivarian movement's dependency on its charismatic leader.

By Gregory Wilpert – Venezuelanalysis.com
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The ten
percentage point victory (55-45%) that President Chávez and his movement
achieved on Sunday, February 15, 2009, in favor of amending Venezuela's
constitution so that Chávez may run for president again in 2012, represents a
very important victory for the effort to create socialism in this oil producing
Latin American nation. However, Chávez and his supporters ought to recognize
that this victory comes with a certain degree of risk because it increases the
Bolivarian movement's dependency on its charismatic leader. In other words,
even though Chávez is the best guarantor for socialism and progressive social
change in Venezuela today, his movement's dependency on him was strengthened by
the referendum victory, which is an Achilles heel for the movement.

But before
we can examine the consequences and meaning of this particular electoral result
for Venezuela and for the socialist project, it makes sense to first briefly go
over the reasoning behind eliminating term limits in general and in the
specific case of Venezuela.

In General: Term Limits - Good or
Bad?

Opinions on
term limits are as varied as opinions about politics go. Also, this is one of
the few issues that does not fall neatly along the left-right political divide.
For example, sometimes it is progressives who advocate term limits because of
the ridiculous obstacles challengers face against incumbents, particularly in
elections for the U.S. Congress and U.S. state legislatures where incumbents
enjoy massive fundraising advantages against challengers. In this case, so the
argument goes, the lack of term limits for elected representatives
entrenches the status quo and makes progressive change extremely difficult. It
is well known, for example, that historically 97% of incumbents win their
reelection bids in the United States and a vast majority of those running are
incumbents.

The most
famous term limit, though, is the two-term limit on the U.S. presidency, which
was implemented by Republicans in 1951 because they sought to prevent another more
than two-term presidency such as Franklin Roosevelt's.

In other
words, the arguments in favor of term limits cut both ways. On the one hand it
is said that not having term limits makes needed change more difficult because
of the power that long-time office holders amass. On the other hand, term
limits can also be seen as an obstacle to long-term needed political change
because it forces a change of leadership at a time when the leader's project
might not be ready for such change (along the lines of, "You don't switch
horses in the middle of the race"). Also, some add the argument that it is more
democratic to allow citizens decide if they want a long-serving representative
to continue to serve, rather than to force them out via an artificially
determined time limit.

In the case
of Venezuela, Chávez supporters generally argue that since the Bolivarian
Revolution represents a long-term project, and since Chávez is the best leader
for seeing this project to its conclusion, he ought to be able to hold office
for more than two presidential terms. Already when Chávez was first elected in
1998, he argued it would take about 20 years to complete the Bolivarian
Revolution, which is why he favored a seven-year term in office for the
president (as used to be the case for France), with at least one reelection
possibility, when the 1999 constitution was drafted. Constitutional Assembly
members, though, convinced Chávez to accept a six-year presidency with one
single opportunity for reelection.

Unfortunately,
the recent debate about term limits in Venezuela was generally quite distorted.
Rather than discussing the pros and cons of allowing people to run for office
repeatedly, the opposition tried to make people believe that the amendment
proposal was really about whether Chávez should be "president for life" and
that holding this constitutional amendment vote somehow violated Venezuela's
constitution. [1] Meanwhile,
Chávez supporters presented the issue as one that was merely about "expanding
citizens' right to choose" whomever they want for an office, without the
restriction a two-term limit imposes. Supporters of the proposal practically
never addressed the underlying issue that holding office for several terms in a
row could lead to the accumulation of power and the unfair and illegal use of
one's office to get reelected.

Indeed,
unfair advantage is enjoyed on both sides in the Venezuelan conflict. Media
owners and the wealthy face few restrictions in campaigning and the government
has been known to make use of some of its advantages to compensate (an
accusation, though, that the opposition massively exaggerated).

If the
opposition had managed to focus on the real issue, supporters of the amendment
would have been forced to address this issue and Venezuela would have enjoyed a
more serious debate about the pros and cons of term limits. The ultimate result
could have included better legislation to protect against using one's office
for reelection and better legislation to protect against the advantages that
wealth and private media ownership convey when running for office on behalf of
the wealthy.

In Specific: Eliminating the Two-Term Limit
for Chávez

Leaving
aside the more general arguments for and against term limits, why eliminate the
two-term limit for President Chávez? The main reason for this is that the
Bolivarian project needs Chávez in order to continue and to be carried to its
completion. First, he is the only undisputed leader who has so far proven to be
able to unite an otherwise notoriously fractious coalition of Venezuela's
progressive and radical left forces.

Second, not
enough time has passed for the Chávez government to implement its vision of 21st
century socialism (also known as Bolivarian Socialism and as Socialist
Democracy). While ten years in office might seem like a long time, the Chávez
government's program did not get off to a good start because of the vehement
and often violent opposition it faced. Also, it was not really until late 2005,
once the opposition in Venezuela had been soundly defeated, [2]
that Chávez fully embraced socialism and anti-capitalism. So, in effect, the
Bolivarian Socialist project has only been pursued in earnest from 2006 to 2008
- a mere full three years until now.

In addition,
even though Chávez has a mandate for building 21st century socialism
because he won the presidency with 63% of the vote in December 2006 on a
platform of establishing 21st century socialism, in December 2007
the project suffered an important setback when Chávez narrowly lost the
constitutional reform referendum, which was supposed to provide the
constitutional groundwork for the socialist project. To a large extent this
defeat was self-inflicted, in that it was a confusing proposal, the campaign
was poorly conducted, and many voters felt that too many issues remained
unresolved for whose resolution a constitutional reform was not necessary. Nonetheless,
Chávez has appealed to the Venezuelan people that he needs more time and a
majority of the Venezuelan people has now agreed to give him this time.

What the Victory Means

Given the
importance of Chávez for leading the Bolivarian project to its conclusion, the
February 15 victory is extremely important for Venezuela and for creating a
real progressive alternative to capitalist democracy as usual. As the
sociologist Max Weber pointed out about 100 years ago, there are times when
charismatic leaders are necessary to break through the ossified social
institutions in order to create something new. In other words, according to
Weber, charismatic authority is often the only way that old institutions can be
transformed. Examples of this type of charismatic leadership would be Lenin,
Mao, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela. This is not to say that
Chávez is on a par with these leaders in every respect, but he probably is with
respect to his ability to lead and inspire. And such leadership should not be
wasted if a people democratically decide that the cost of losing such
leadership far outweighs the possible benefit of maintaining term limits.

The recent
referendum victory becomes all the more important if we consider that the world
is currently in a process of entering its worst economic crisis since the Great
Depression 80 years ago. Back then people were desperate for an alternative to
capitalism and there is no reason to believe that a similar development will not
take place this time around. Viable alternatives to capitalism, whether under
the heading of 21st century socialism or some other name, will
become more important than ever. For better or worse, Chávez has become one of
the few leaders in today's world to forge a path in the direction of this
alternative.

However,
while this might be true on a global scale, Chávez's electoral success bears
some inherent risks for the Bolivarian movement. That is, it is precisely the
dependency of the Bolivarian movement on Chávez that is simultaneously its
greatest strength and one of its greatest weaknesses. This dependency is a
strength in the sense previously mentioned, that Chávez unites what would
otherwise be a very fractious movement. But it is also a weakness because such
dependency makes the movement somewhat fragile. First, if anything were to
happen to Chávez, the movement would probably fall apart into its component
parts in no time. Second, given this fragility, questioning the leader is quite
difficult because criticism rapidly threatens to undermine the movement's
stability and main strength. As a result, debate within the movement tends to
be possible as long as it does not question the leader's decisions or opinions.
This, in turn, makes movement self-criticism difficult and makes the potential
for errors all the greater.

Tasks for the Next Period

One of the first
tasks for the Bolivarian movement thus is that it must continue to develop the
United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) so that the Bolivarian movement
becomes less dependent on Chávez and more stable and more open to wide-ranging
debate. This means, first of all, developing alternate leaders and
strengthening party structures so that the whole party is more movement-driven
and less leader-dependent. The recent referendum victory has expanded the
time-horizon for this task because without the elimination of the two-term
limit this development would have had to happen within the next four years.
Expanding this time horizon, though, carries the risk that the task of
strengthening the party and decreasing the dependency on Chávez is postponed
until Chávez loses a presidential election or a recall referendum or is
otherwise removed from fulfilling his office (via assassination, perhaps).

Second, as
Chávez himself recognized during his victory speech, his government must take
the fight against insecurity and the high crime rate far more seriously. In a
recent interview with CNN Chávez said that one of the reasons he has not
pursued the reduction of crime with stronger police measures is because he
believes that crime is primarily caused by inequality and poverty and that
reducing these ought to reduce crime. While it is an established fact that
poverty and crime correlate very highly, it is also true that all available
statistics indicate that reducing poverty in Venezuela has not meant a
reduction of crime. Rather, that crime increased in tandem with the decrease in
poverty and inequality. In other words, the government needs to complement
poverty reduction with other measures in order to reduce crime. Along with the
fight against crime also belongs the general fight against corruption and
increasing the state's efficiency and effectiveness.

Third, as
some opposition critics have noted, [3]
the real test of Chávez's economic policies is yet to come, when the price of
oil is declining at a time when he cannot argue that the opposition caused the economic
problems (as was the case during the oil industry shutdown 2002/2003). That is,
the government will have to find ways to strengthen its efforts to create
social justice in a time of fewer (oil revenue derived) resources. This would probably
either mean going into debt so as to stave off a recession and/or taxing the
country's rich far more heavily.

Finally, the
fourth outstanding task for the next period is the deepening of participatory
democracy against the resistance of chavismo's
mid-level managers: the ministries, mayors, and governors. If popular power, as
the system of direct democratic communal councils is often known, is the heart
of Bolivarian Socialist democracy, then this will be the true testing ground
for the viability of an alternative to capitalist democracy. So far, the
communal councils have achieved much, but only in their own localities of
200-400 families. The real challenge, which Chávez has repeatedly announced,
but which has yet to happen, is to bring these structures to a higher level, to
the municipalities and perhaps even to state and national level. However, as
many have observed, this is going to be difficult because few mayors and
governors are willing to let go of their power.

If Chávez
and his movement manage to tackle these four tasks in the next two to four
years, then the future of Bolivarian Socialism will be bright indeed. Even
though Chávez won this referendum, the next period is going to be quite short
because if these tasks are not tackled successfully before the end of 2010,
then Chávez faces the real possibility of losing his two-thirds majority in the
National Assembly, or perhaps even his 50% majority, which would be a
devastating blow. [4]

If things
should go very wrong, such as if the economy were to crash for some reason
(this does not seem likely, but cannot be discounted), then Chávez could even
face a recall referendum in 2010. Should he weather these hurdles, though, the
next real test will be the presidential election in late 2012.

In other
words, even though the victory in the constitutional amendment referendum
bought Chávez and his movement more time to complete the Bolivarian Socialist
revolution, Chávez must deliver significant change in a relatively short amount
of time if this project is to succeed in the long term. And even though the
referendum has strengthened Chávez's hand in order to make these changes, it
has also (paradoxically) potentially weakened the Bolivarian movement.


[1] This
argument made very little sense, but was based on the fact that the 2007
constitutional reform referendum already included the proposal to eliminate the
two-term limit on the presidency and was voted down and the constitution
prohibits voting on the same reform proposal twice in the same legislative
period. However, Venezuela's constitution is very clear in distinguishing
between a constitutional reform and a constitutional amendment, which is not
subject to the same restriction as the reform.

[2] The
opposition was defeated militarily with the failure of the coup attempt of
2002, economically in the oil industry shutdown of 2003, and politically with
the recall referendum of 2004 and the national assembly elections of 2005

[3] See, "Is
Hugo Chavez Ready for the Coming Fall
?" by Francisco Toro, Huffington Post,
January 29, 2009

[4] While many
say that Venezuela is a very presidentialist system, most are not aware that
the National Assembly is quite powerful. Not only does it approve of the
budget, but it can also initiate impeachment proceedings against most
government officials, it appoints the members of the electoral, judicial, and
prosecutorial branches of government, and it can block any of the president's
legislative initiatives (the only reason Chávez could periodically legislate by
decree is because the AN allowed him to do so).