Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: Tides of Victory

The referendum victory of Venezuela's president is founded on an extension of the understanding of democracy that has both national roots and regional parallels, says Julia Buxton.

The Venezuelan electorate is bent on using
democratic mechanisms to fuel the demagogic ambitions of its populist
president, Hugo Chávez. The voters  have
backed him and his party in thirteen of the fourteen elections and referendums
held in the country since Chávez was inaugurated in February 1999. Now, on 15
February 2009, a majority of them went so far as to grant him his wish of being president for life: for in the
referendum on that day 56% voted to lift term-limits on elected officials,
thereby eroding a noble Latin American tradition of safeguarding democracy by limiting incumbency.

The distant

So argue Hugo Chávez's opponents at home and
overseas – particularly in Washington, were the anti-Chávez lobby is striving
to maintain the disproportionate influence it had under George W Bush into the
Barack Obama administration. After the 15 February referendum, media and
academic commentators have painted a frighteningly dystopian vision of
Venezuela's political future. It all amounts to significant pressure on the new
Democratic administration to follow the Bush policy of isolating and
destabilising Chávez.

There had been high hopes in Washington that
the opposition would build on its defeat of Chávez in the referendum in
December 2007 on lifting term-limits held, as well as on gains made in the
November 2008 regional elections (including the capture of the municipal
capital, Caracas). A further defeat for Chávez would have chastened the
president's grand ambition to build "21st-century socialism" in Venezuela.
Along with the declining price of oil, the mainstay
of the Venezuelan economy, and domestic turbulence preoccupying Russia and Iran
– Venezuela's partners in building a multi-polar world order – a second
referendum defeat would have made Chávez a weakened proposition.  

So why did the electorate ruin this scenario by turning out in significant
numbers (the turnout was 66%) to approve this major change? The government's
opponents and critics point to the usual problems: the administration's
abuse of public spending, violation of election
laws, intimidation of the opposition, manipulation of voters, even anti-semitism. A Spanish deputy from the European
parliament – in Venezuela as an international election observer – was moved to
violate all norms of election observation by condemning dictatorship in Venezuela as soon as he
landed in the country. 

The terms of

The reality is more complex, democratic – and
worrying for Chávez's opponents. The decision by Venezuelan voters to lift
term-limits is of regional as well as domestic significance. It merits
cool-headed scrutiny by the new United States state-department team ahead of
the expected meeting between Chávez and Obama at the fifth Summit
of the Americas on 17-19 April 2009 in Trinidad.

The "yes" vote won – fairly and freely
according to international observers – for three reasons, which have nothing to
do with intimidation or fraud. First, Chávez learnt from past defeat. Instead
of the unwieldy sixty-nine proposals that bewildered voters in December 2007, there was just one question in the new
proposal: should five articles in the 1999 constitution be amended in order to lift the two-term
limit on officials serving in elected office?

Chávez, a formidable campaigner, expended
significant energy mobilising his supporters and explaining why lifting
term-limits – and opening up the prospect of his re-election in 2012 – was in
the interest of the Venezuelan people. Unlike December 2007, he did not take
success for granted. And in contrast to the messy infighting over candidacies
in the ruling PSUV ahead of the November 2008 regional elections, the Chavistas
unified around a single proposition and a single figure: Hugo Chávez. 

Second, the Chavistas' success also reflected
the ongoing weakness and disarray of the opposition, dashing critics' hopes of
presenting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with a viable alternative to
Chávez. In theory, Chávez could now outlast Obama. There was no opposition
campaign to speak of other than disruptive protests by belligerent students,
feted and funded as democratic freedom-fighters by America's libertarian right. Key opposition leaders were outfoxed by the
extension of the term-limit issue to all
elected officials (not just the presidency); and they relied on the old (and
repeatedly unsuccessful) formula of branding Chávez a demagogue in recycling
their ever-negative campaign message.

The context of

The third and and even more important issue
underlying the referendum result relates to how Venezuelans understand and
interpret democracy, and the type of
democracy that they want to see in their country.
A majority of voters did not support lifting term-limits because they were
misled or manipulated by Chávez or because they have an authoritarian political
streak. Rather, as the much respected regional Latinobarometro
survey has shown on an annual basis, Venezuelan public opinion is one of the
most democratic in the region and strongly opposed to autocracy. Venezuelans
consistently express a high level of support for their political model, and
confidence in the democratic system is constantly above the regional average.
While critics may see Chávez's Bolivarian revolution as an authoritarian
project, majority opinion in Venezuela judges it democratic.     

In this broader context, the fundamentals of
democracy are not altered by the lifting of term-limits. If
anything, they may be enhanced. Whether or not Chávez intends to be president
for life, he still has to face the electorate in 2012 if he wants to remain in
power; and even then there is no guarantee that he will win a third term and
retain the presidency. To do so, he needs to respond to popular concerns
relating to crime, insecurity, corruption and inflation – or he runs the risk
of defeat.

Moreover, the Venezuelan constitution provides
for mid-term "recall referendums" on elected officials, thereby maintaining
checks and balances on government at national, regional and municipal level.
Term-limits have traditionally been deeply destabilising in Venezuelan
politics, producing factional power struggles and lame-duck presidents. This
can now be avoided, while allowing the electorate to stick with their preferred
candidate – a democratic innovation. True, incumbency brings undoubted
benefits; but they are delivered only if voters are contented with the
performance of ruling officials and the opposition fails to present a viable

In the liberal-democratic model, term-limits
are viewed as essential for the checking and balancing of executive power. But
this emphasis on procedural mechanics and ideal-types does not match popular
understanding or expectations of democracy at the grassroots of Venezuelan
society. Most Venezuelan voters are clearly of the view that term-limits are
not the only, or necessarily an invaluable, mechanism for restraining power. A
host of other parliamentary systems have survived without limiting prospects
for re-election. Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organisation of
American States, is among those who has highlighted the democratising potentialities of lifting term-limits.

Venezuela has taken the regional lead in
implementing projects of major social transformation that challenge the power
and vested interests of minority elites. Hugo Chávez argued that the
opportunity to run for a third term was essential for the consolidation of his
Bolivarian revolution. His lead is now likely to be followed by Alvaro Uribe of
Colombia, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of
Nicaragua. Each of these heads of state are considering lifting term-limits on
the basis that this will allow for continuity and the institutionalisation of
change. In a region traditionally characterised by instability and fragile
institutions, this may prove to be a good thing.  

The clear message to the United States state
department is that South American societies want to mould their own unique
political systems and break with a rigid and limited liberal-democratic model
that minimises popular input. Variation and innovation in this context amount
to pluralism not authoritarianism.