Help Venezuela Break Down Social Apartheid

An end must be put to authoritarian interference and the false even-handedness between an opposition which holds democracy in contempt and a government which has done everything in its power to deepen democracy whilst fully respecting human rights and freedom of expression.

The victory of President Chavez in the recall referendum on 15th August was a clear endorsement of his economic and social policies: health and literacy programmes, land reform, the rights of small fishermen, the protection of black and indigenous minorities, all of which require control over the national oil supply. Chavez’ victory at the same time confirmed the Venezuelan people’s support for his foreign policy and its prioritisation of an autonomous integration of Latin America in the face of the great centres of power, principally the United States.

But it was also a victory for Venezuelan democracy and a step in the direction of a participatory democratic system: the recall referendum, introduced as part of the new constitution, permits an elected office-holder, halfway through his term, to be evaluated by the citizens.This is a world-first and an example to everyone, including ourselves in Europe. What European leader would willingly subject himself to such a test? Who could hope to see his popularity rise by 3% after five years in power? 1.8 million Venezuelans more voted forChavez this time than did so in 1998.

For those of us who witnessed this historic election day, it is clear that the most important achievement of this government had been to enable millions of people who were traditionally excluded from their country’s political life at last to participate.

The reform of the Constitution and the health and literacy programmes have made possible a gradual integration of the poorer neighbourhoods into political life. During the last year two million additional voters have been enrolled in the national electoral register, people who hitherto had no existence as “citizens”.

We visited these so-called “popular” districts of Caracas just as evening fell on election day, 15 August: in front of every polling booth there were huge queues, because the opposition, whose support is concentrated in the richer parts of the capital, simply refused to allow the electoral authority to open new polling booths in the poorer neighbourhoods which cover two-thirds of the city. The consequence was that not everyone in these overwhelmingly pro-Chavez areas was able to vote. This did not, however, prevent the government from winning almost 60% of the vote, contrary to the confident assertions in both the local and international media that this “populist” administration represented fewer than 30% of the Venezuelan people.

What is at stake is simply democracy, and not merely a disagreement over a government’s programme. The majority of the opposition seeks to enforce a form of social and political apartheid and to this end is prepared to trample democratic rules underfoot, to complain -amongst other things – of violence and mass fraud, without advancing the least argument which might seriously support such accusations.The refusal to accept the result of the referendum is nothing more than a refusal of that other Venezuela, the Venezuela of people who live in marginalised neighbourhoods, the Venezuela of black and indigenous people.

The attitude of these political leaders, of the commercial media and the hierarchy of the national Catholic Church is for this reason quite unacceptable.It is pleasing, on the other hand, that a section of the opposition, including the employers’ organisation “Fedecameras” (which, together with the bureaucratic trade union federation CTV was one of the motors of the coup d’état of April 2002) has indeed recognised the result. At the same time the call for dialogue from President Chavez, on his first public appearance after the vote, is to be applauded.

When you see the pictures of the coup d’état of April 2002, the programmed deaths designed to justify the putsch and the manhunt which led to seventy killings in the 24 hours following the seizure of power before the people returned the country to democracy; when you know that the opposition organised a two-month sabotage of oil supplies which brought the Venezuelan economy to the brink of catastrophe; when you heard opposition leaders declare, before the referendum, that they would close the country’s borders in order to settle scores with the “Chavists”; when you read the recent declarations from the social democratic ex-President of Venezuela Carlos Andrés Perez, who has stated that President Chavez must be overthrown by violence and replaced by a transitional dictatorship; when you know that the opposition has brought in Colombian paramilitaries (around a hundred of whom were arrested last May 8) whose mission was to take over various military barracks and murder the Head of State; when you see that the opposition has refused to enter the dialogue which President Chavez proposed the day after the referendum; then you understand what has, happily, been avoided thanks to the clear result of 15 August.

It is not Chavez who has divided Venezuela. It is rather those who have condemned 70% of the population to poverty in what is an immensely rich country, for Venezuela is the fifth biggest oil-producer in the world. The resulting situation is so explosive that it erupted spontaneously on 29 February 1989 – long before the time of Chavez –  when the people rose up against cuts in public spending recommended by the IMF and blindly imposed by then president Carlos Andrés Perez, who responded by declaring a state of emergency and sending the army against the people, as a result of which between 3.000 and 5.000 citizens were murdered.

It was just a few years later that Hugo Chavez entered the political arena. His most important achievement has been slowly to sketch out a political project capable of channelling such resistance into a peaceful movement.

As Vice-President José Vicente Rangel has said “this bourgeoisie is so irrational that they cannot understand that they have Chavez to thank for the fact that reforms which were in themselves unavoidable have been introduced in an orderly and non-violent fashion. Only when the opposition accepts that “this other country” – the slumdwellers, landless farmers, small fishermen, the indigenous and black populations -also has a right to exist, that the land will be reconciled.

In common with Spain, which immediately congratulated President Chavez on his victory, my own country Belgium as well as the European Union, must change their attitude to the Venezuelan government. An endmust be put to authoritarian interference and the false even-handedness between an opposition which holds democracy in contempt and a government which has done everything in its power to deepen democracy whilst fully respecting human rights and freedom of expression.

If we want to be consistent with the principles of our foreign policy and our policies on development and co-operation, then we should help this Venezuelan government, even if as no more than a matter of policy.

Paul Emile Dupret is a member of the secretariat of the European Parliament’s United Left Group (GUE-NGL), acting as an adviser on trade and development issues. He visited Venezuela at the time of the referendum in the company of a number of Euro-MPs from his own and other groups. He writes here on behalf of the Belgian-based “Collective Venezuela 13 April”.This article first appeared in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.