Was the constitutional reform a threat to democracy? A reply to Mr. R.Douglas MacDonald.

On December 7th R. Douglas MacDonald wrote an interesting letter (http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/letter/2974) on the constitutional referendum in which he mentions my article on the same (http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2955). He is kind enough to say that he finds “Woods' argument regarding the masses not supporting Chavez' revision of the Constitution to be persuasive and subtle: perhaps indeed an economy that has not moved forward quickly enough to supply and redistribute goods for the common good does reduce the commitment and spirit of the poor toward the socialist cause.”
I am firmly convinced that this is indeed the case and that it explains why almost three million chavistas did not vote “yes”. They did not vote “no” because they do not support the opposition, which, after superhuman efforts, only manage to scrape together 100,000 more votes than in the last election. They simply did not turn out to vote. Why? Because they are dissatisfied with the slow pace of the revolution and discontented with the results.
Mr. MacDonald then says that what I “did not address was the argument that the revised constitution could have permitted Chavez to be elected president for life.” And he asks "Does Woods believe that this would have been a democratic and socialist improvement?. Would the permanence of the presidential office in Chavez have furthered or stifled the socialist cause?”
The same question has been repeated a thousand times in our so-called free media in recent months. The difference, I hasten to add, is that Mr. MacDonald asks an honest question for honest reasons: he wants to clarify the issues and further the debate, whereas the people who own the media wanted only to distort the message and blacken the image of Hugo Chavez.
The answer is really very simple. The opposition and the media claim that Chavez wishes to introduce a dictatorship, to be a President elected for life and so on. But the reformed constitution did not concede such powers or anything like them. It merely aimed to remove the restriction on standing for President more than twice. Does this constitute a violation of democracy? Let us see.
In Europe there is no such limitation. Sarkozy in France and Merkel in Germany can stand as often as they like. So can Gordon Brown in Britain. And in any case, the reformed constitution only allows Chavez to stand for election. It will be up to the people whether they elect him or not. Mr. MacDonald himself says that “in Canada (as far as I know) a Prime Minister and his party can be elected repeatedly without any limitation other than that of the general will of the electorate and the particular will of the PM's party.”
Precisely! This should be the normal procedure for electing a head of state in a democracy. In Britain, which is supposed to be a democracy, we have a hereditary head of state who was never elected and never will be. The same is true in Spain where Juan Carlos, who permits himself the luxury of telling the elected President of Venezuela to "shut up", has never been elected by anyone but was appointed by the fascist dictator Franco.
Incidentally, who elected the Venezuelan Episcopate? Who elected the editors of the right-wing newspapers? Who elected the business leaders? Not the people of Venezuela, who voted massively for Hugo Chavez less than one year ago.
So, no, I do not agree that the fear of a permanent lifetime President would account for the poor abstaining from the referendum, although it undoubtedly served to mobilize a large number of middle class and well-to-do opposition voters, whom the right wing stampeded to the polls with the shrill propaganda about dictatorship.
What discouraged the poor people from voting from Chavez – who they undoubtedly still support – was rather things like corrupt mayors and governors, high prices and the scandalous shortages of milk and meat that clearly are caused mainly by sabotage and intended to discredit the idea of revolution and socialism. What is even worse is the fact that, instead of dealing with the roots of the problem, government spokesmen appear on television to inform the people that there are no shortages and that all is well! The masses know that all is not well. They want a fundamental change in society. That is why they voted for Chavez in unprecedented numbers last December.
The reformed constitution was not a recipe for dictatorship but contained many points in the interest of the masses. It contained the 36-hour working week, which is one reason why Fedecameras does not like it. Nor did the bosses like the clauses that would make it easier to nationalize their banks, estates and factories. They did not like the idea of the formation of Bolivarian militias or workers' councils in the workplaces. They did not like the commitment to building a socialist economy in Venezuela.
That is why they were against the reform. Democracy had nothing at all to do with it. Let us not forget that these same individuals in April 2002 enthusiastically backed the coup that overthrew the democratically elected president. And let us not forget either that they were radically opposed to the 1999 constitution, which they now defend with such fervour.
Unfortunately, the case for the positive socialist reforms contained in the new draft constitution was never put. The opposition waged a very effective campaign – that must be admitted. But the bureaucrats who unfortunately still occupy key positions in the Bolivarian Movement, in government offices and in Miraflores, had neither the ability nor the inclination to wage a serious campaign for socialism.
The truth is that the opposition did not win the referendum: we lost it. And we lost it not because the Revolution has gone too fast and too far, but because it has gone too slowly and not far enough. Let us hope that Chavez and the activists of the PSUV draw the right conclusions from this.
Alan Woods
London, 12th December.