In a surprise result, it was announced on 3 December that Venezuelan voters have rejected the 69 reforms to the national Constitution proposed by President Hugo Chávez and the National Assembly.
The proposed reforms to further what Chávez often calls ‘socialism for the 21st century’ were divided into two blocks. In the first block, which included Chávez’s 33 proposed changes to the 1999 Constitution, the ‘no’ vote won by 50.70 per cent to the ‘yes’ vote’s 49.29 per cent. In the changes proposed by the National Assembly – which is dominated by Chavistas because of the opposition’s abstention during the 2005 elections – the ‘no’ vote won again with 51.05 per cent of voters voting against the reforms, 48.94 in favour and a surprising abstention rate of 44.39 per cent.
So, why did Chávez lose the referendum, despite his almost unstoppable political momentum since winning the presidency in 1998?
Two determining factors come to mind. The first is the high level of absenteeism.
Political analyst and Chávez watcher Gregory Wilpert argued before the referendum that considerable confusion about the reforms had already translated itself into voter apathy with a ‘large segment of the population’ unwilling to vote for or against the Constitutional amendments. ‘In the end’, wrote Wilpert, ‘it all boils down to which side mobilises more supporters.’
Given Chávez thrashed Right-wing candidate Manuel Rosales in last year’s presidential election – 62.9 per cent to 37.9 per cent – doubling their support for the President from 3.7 million votes in the 1998 elections, to 7.3 million in 2006, many Chavistas may have grown overconfident. A victory seemed ‘assured’ and thus it was safe to give voting a miss.
In fact, until now, Chávez and his supporters have been unacquainted with the words ‘electoral defeat’ – even when opinion polls have predicted a tight result.
The second determining factor behind Chávez’s defeat may simply be that many Venezuelans did not agree with the proposed changes to the 1999 Constitution which Mary Robinson – former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – once described ‘excellent.’
Leaving aside misrepresentations in the mainstream media, such as Roger Cohen’s comments in the New York Times on 29 November about Chávez making a ‘grab for socialist-emperor status’, most admirers of the Caracas administration have hitherto been unequivocal in their support for changing the Constitution.
Mark Weisbrot in the New Statesman last 21 November highlighted many of the positive aspects of the reforms but hardly elaborated as to why many Chavistas had serious issues with certain proposals.
Edgardo Lander – a sociology professor at Caracas University – was an exception. An organiser of the World Social Forum and a former part of the Venezuelan government’s negotiating team that helped defeat the US’s Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Lander, in a paper for the Transnational Institute, noted that many of the constitutional amendments which claimed to establish a socialist economy were ambiguous and without practical substance. (A point also raised by Wilpert who wrote that the ‘inclusion of the term "socialist" in many parts of the referendum seems unnecessary, other than to give a label to something that has not been proven to deserve this label’.)
On the issue of centralisation versus de-centralisation of State powers, Lander wrote:
Is the concept of a ‘decentralised federal State’ and the relations between the attributions of the central and de-centralised entities not altered when the competencies of the National Government are greatly increased, thus weakening the attributions and autonomies of the municipalities and the States?
Quite importantly, Lander adds that much of the debate over the referendum in Venezuela took place in an unhealthy political climate:
Far from promoting an open debate over the society that is sought, or even over the different aspects of the proposed reform, a manichean dichotomy between chavismo and antichavismo is created, where those who express disagreement with some aspects of the reform proposal are disqualified as belonging to the opposition, or as ‘reformists’, ‘infiltrators’, ‘counterrevolutionaries’, who have ‘jumped ship’.
This is certainly a shame because many of the proposed changes in the Constitution were quite positive, such as extending the social safety net to the poorest section of Venezuelan society and guaranteeing access to free tertiary education.
None of which diminishes the actions of many in the Venezuelan Right – some of whom have engaged in violent student protests to create an image of instability – and the Bush Administration, which, as highlighted by long-time Latin American observer James Petras, has recently been exposed in a memo sent by a US embassy official to Michael Hayden – head of the CIA – entitled ‘Advancing to the Last Phase of Operation Pincer’. According to Petras, the memo discusses plans to destabilise the recent referendum and ‘co-ordinate the civil military overthrow of the elected Chavez Government’.
And yet, most credible observers say Chávez still enjoys firm support amongst the population and the military. Any future attempts to destabilise the political process in Venezuela should meet stiff resistance.
During Chávez’s presidency, millions of poor Venezuelans have benefited from health, education and work programs, but corruption at all levels of government and a culture of cover still exists.
That political culture belongs to the ‘grey era’ of the Soviet Union and may have been a contributing factor in Chávez losing the referendum.
As far as the 2013 presidential elections are concerned, Chavistas will now have to start thinking about who will lead the Bolivarian revolution into the future.
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