The turn-out in Venezuela last Sunday was huge. 94.9 percent of the electorate voted in the recall referendum.[i] Venezuela, under its new Constitution, permitted the right of the citizens to recall a President before s/he had completed their term of office. No Western democracy enshrines this right in a written or unwritten constitution. Chavez' victory will have repercussions beyond the borders of Venezuela. It is a triumph of the poor against the rich and it is a lesson that Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina should study closely. It was Fidel Castro, not Carter, whose advice to go ahead with the referendum was crucial. Chavez put his trust in the people by empowering them and they responded generously. The opposition will only discredit itself further by challenging the results.
The Venezuelan oligarchs and their parties, who had opposed this Constitution in a referendum (having earlier failed to topple Chavez via a US-backed coup and an oil-strike led by a corrupt union bureaucracy) now utilised it to try and get rid of the man who had enhanced Venezuelan democracy. They failed. However loud their cries (and those of their media apologists at home and abroad) of anguish, in reality the whole country knows what happened. Chavez defeated his opponents democratically and for the fourth time in a row. Democracy in Venezuela, under the banner of the Bolivarian revolutionaries, has broken through the corrupt two-party system favoured by the oligarchy and its friends in the West. And this has happened despite the total hostility of the privately owned media: the two daily newspapers, Universal and Nacional as well as Gustavo Cisneros' TV channels and CNN made no attempt to mask their crude support for the opposition.
Some foreign correspondents in Caracas have convinced themselves that Chavez is an oppressive caudillo and they are desperate to translate their own fantasies into reality.. They provide no evidence of political prisoners, leave alone Guantanamo-style detentions or the removal of TV executives and newspaper editors (which happened without too much of a fuss in Blair's Britain).
A few weeks ago in Caracas I had a lengthy discussion with Chavez ranging from Iraq to the most detailed minutiae of Venezuelan history and politics and the Bolivarian programme. It became clear to me that what Chavez is attempting is nothing more or less than the creation of a radical, social-democracy in Venezuela that seeks to empower the lowest strata of society. In these times of deregulation, privatisation and the Anglo-Saxon model of wealth subsuming politics, Chavez' aims are regarded as revolutionary, even though the measures proposed are no different to those of the post-war Attlee government in Britain. Some of the oil-wealth is being spent to educate and heal the poor.
Just under a million children from the shanty-towns and the poorest villages now obtain a free education; 1.2 million illiterate adults have been taught to read and write; secondary education has been made available to 250,000 children whose social status excluded them from this privilege during the ancien regime; three new university campuses were functioning by 2003 and six more are due to be completed by 2006.
As far as healthcare is concerned, the 10,000 Cuban doctors, who were sent to help the country, have transformed the situation in the poor districts, where 11,000 neighbourhood clinics have been established and the health budget has tripled. Add to this the financial support provided to small businesses, the new homes being built for the poor, an Agrarian Reform Law that was enacted and pushed through despite the resistance, legal and violent, by the landlords. By the end of last year 2,262,467 hectares has been distributed to 116,899 families. The reasons for Chavez' popularity become obvious. No previous regime had even noticed the plight of the poor.
And one can't help but notice that it is not simply a division between the wealthy and the poor, but also one of skin-colour. The Chavistas tend to be dark-skinned, reflecting their slave and native ancestry. The opposition is light-skinned and some of its more disgusting supporters denounce Chavez as a black monkey. A puppet show to this effect with a monkey playing Chavez was even organised at the US Embassy in Caracas. But Colin Powell was not amused and the Ambassador was compelled to issue an apology.
The bizarre argument advanced in a hostile editorial in The Economist this week that all this was done to win votes is extraordinary. The opposite is the case. The coverage of Venezuela in The Economist and Financial Times has consisted of pro-oligarchy apologetics. Rarely have reporters in the field responded so uncritically to the needs of their proprietors.
The Bolivarians wanted power so that real reforms could be implemented. All the oligarchs have to offer is more of the past and the removal of Chavez.
It is ridiculous to suggest that Venezuela is on the brink of a totalitarian tragedy. It is the opposition that has attempted to take the country in that direction. The Bolivarians have been incredibly restrained. When I asked Chavez to explain his own philosophy, he replied:
'I don't believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don't accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don't think so. But if I'm told that because of that reality you can't do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labour and never forget that some of it was slave labour, then I say 'We part company'. I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don't even like paying taxes. That's one reason they hate me. We said 'You must pay your taxes'. I believe it's better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing ... That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse ... Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it's only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias.'
And that's why he won.
[i] Editor’s note: the percentage of ballots counted for the preliminary result was 94.9%. Turn-out, which was indeed one of the highest in Venezuela’s recent history was approximately 72%, or 10 million voters out of 14 million registered.