On Sunday, August 15th Venezuela lined up to vote. Beginning as early as 3am, Venezuelans camped outside of schools and public buildings, waiting hours to cast their vote in a referendum to decide not only the future of their controversial President Hugo Chávez, but also of the Bolivarian revolution that he has spearheaded. Despite the lines, and the heat, the mood was almost universally festive. People exhibited a genuine excitement about voting—something almost anathema to the voting experience in Canada or the US.
At root, whether they view Chávez as a messianic saviour come to turn Venezuela’s tradition of political exclusion, corruption, and clientelism on its head; or as a Castro-Communist pseudo-dictator determined to run the economy into the ground, Venezuelans had something at stake in this election.
The result was a remarkable mobilization amongst the poor that countered global trends towards reduced electoral participation and reflected a deepening of democracy beyond mere representation. This mobilization was itself a reflection of Chavez not only running against neoliberalism electorally (as others have done) but his commitment to govern against neoliberalism (which few, if any, other governments have done).
At 4:05 the morning of August 16th, 2004 as supporters of Chávez who had been gathering outside the Presidential palace all day held their breath, Venezuela’s National Electoral Committee (CNE) announced the fate of Hugo Chávez and of his revolution. “5.9 million or 58.4% have voted ‘No’ to recalling Chávez, while 4.2 million or 41.5% of Venezuelans have voted ‘Yes’” announced the President of the National Electoral Council.
And the streets erupted in celebration…
Referendum and Revolution in Context
Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, as governments promised to deliver on social programs and development but only brought more structural adjustment, Venezuelans rejected the traditional parties and political system in massive numbers. Between 1993 and 2000 participation rates in elections (both national and regional) and in referenda averaged less than 45% – a higher 60% if we only consider Presidential elections. Last Sunday, the participation rate reached 73% despite waits of up to 14 hours in many locations, going against recent trends all over the Americas. In Canada’s recent federal election, for example, participation was just 61%—the lowest since confederation.
In a report released in the August 14, 2004 edition of The Economist, responses between the mid-90s and the present to the question of whether ‘Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’ are compared (for the full report, see www.latinobarometro.org). Comparing the 1996 data with 2004 figures, reveals that of all 17 countries surveyed, support for democracy since the mid-90’s has grown fastest in Venezuela. Of only three other countries that saw an increase in their populations’ support for democracy over authoritarianism, Venezuela far outpaced them in both the improvement and the latest level of support for democracy.
AVG LATIN AMERICA
Why has this contrasting trend – confirmed by the referendum – occurred in Venezuela and not elsewhere in Latin America?
Perhaps the most important reason is the that the Chavez government has bucked another trend in Latin America, breaking with the previous two decades of neoliberal political and economic policy. Chávez and his Bolívarian revolution have made a commitment to radically increasing social investment at a time when social spending is universally being cut elsewhere in the region. Furthermore, Chávez has not only expressed his resistance to the neoliberal project, as have his Argentine and Brazilian counter-parts, he has actually begun to offer an alternative.
Though still in the developmental stages, the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) pointstoa different kind of regional integration than the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) spear-headed by the US. According to the official website of the Bolivarian alternative, “while the FTAA responds solely to the interests of trans-national capital,…the ALBA emphasizes the struggle against poverty and social exclusion.”
This regional perspective is balanced domestically by social projects launched since 1998 designed to address the many facets of Venezuelan poverty through free, accessible, and universal healthcare, education, child care, employment, and community organization.
But the difference in Venezuela goes beyond electoral politics. Behind the increase in electoral participation is the recent expansion of the democratic system itself. With an ongoing process of power decentralization, the Bolivarian revolution has begun making the Venezuelan people the protagonists in their own political life. Though this development is still in the early stages and many serious barriers to its successful and transformative implementation remain, it has drawn many Venezuelans back into a political system that had previously consciously excluded them.
The Next Step
By consolidating the legitimacy of the Chavez government, the referendum victory has ushered in a new stage in the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’—a stage that will raise new difficulties and challenges along with new potentials. The opposition is imploding, and to avoid being buried with them, their allies in the US, in the international private media, and influential NGOs have all jumped ship. For the first time since first coming to power in 1998, Chávez has some room to manoeuvre. Yet this brief respite will not last. If, as Chávez declared to his supporters in his victory speech, “it is time to deepen the Bolivarian revolution,” the pressure will return. And so will the opposition.
With the referendum over, there is a choice ahead, both for Venezuela and the world. Will the Bolivarian revolution be deepened to begin profoundly redefining the basis and the terms of Venezuelan society? Will what has so far been an impressive, though limited, mobilization of the grassroots gain the space to develop into a movement that transcends Chávez and can exist independent of him?
One thing seems clear: there is no room for half-hearted revolution now. Though international capital, the media, and the US have recognized Chávez’ victory, this is no recognition of weakness on their part. They are waiting to see if he will fade into the kind of malleable populist that they can deal with, trading inflammatory rhetoric for backroom deals with neoliberalism.
To ensure that he does not, the Bolivarian revolution does indeed need to be deepened. For pressure on Chávez from below to exceed pressure from the foreign and the domestic right, the revolution needs a detailed strategy for developing the base. The international left can play a concrete role here: Chávez is stronger than ever and yet just as vulnerable to the machinations of international capital. From a position of supportive criticism the international left can be part of the battle for Venezuela as it moves beyond the confines of its own borders, and prepares to explode onto the global scene. To do this, the left must move past its reservations and to admit that today Venezuela represents the frontier of the struggle against neoliberalism.