Is Chávez's Win A Good Thing?


On 15 February 2009 Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez, won an historic referendum clearing the way for him to keep running in — and possibly winning — presidential elections. Chávez justified the constitutional change on the grounds that he needs to continue his reign for another 10 years in order to implement his 21st-century version of socialism. He won over 54 per cent in a vote that had the second-lowest abstention rate in the last 10 years.

On winning, Chávez has proclaimed himself a pre-candidate for the upcoming 2012 elections, saying that now nothing but "God or the people" can stop him.

Although the vote has been formally accepted, questions have been raised over the legality of the referendum and the authenticity of the vote: concerns that suggest that Chávez is exerting increasing influence over democratic channels for public dissent.

On 11 December 2008, a group of six Venezuelan citizens petitioned the Venezuelan Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia or TSJ) to pass a judgement on whether the "amendments" Chávez proposed fundamentally change the Constitution. This is an important point because the changes were specifically called "amendments" by the Government in order to bypass a legal obstacle that prevents the same "reforms" to be put to the same electoral constituency, which became a problem for Chávez after these reforms were popularly rejected in 2007. The petitioners asserted that a referendum for indefinite re-election would fundamentally change the political principle, peculiar to Latin American democracies, of alternabilidad.

Simply put, Alternabilidad means that power must change regularly through legal means to preserve democracy. It’s a particularly important principle in the Venezuelan constitution because it recognises the historical tendency for sitting presidents not to lose elections. As Chávez’s hero Simón Bolívar wrote in his Discourse of Angostura: "Nothing is more dangerous than to allow a citizen to remain for a long time in power. The pueblo becomes accustomed to obeying them and they become accustomed to ruling."

Controversially, the TSJ ruled that within a democratic state based on the rule of law the amendments could become a useful tool to further embed citizen autonomy. The reason they gave was that the amendments would allow the people to guarantee that public initiatives they believed had social value would be continued. Moreover, the Court ruled that anyone who argued that the "amendments" proposed in 2009 were the same as those put forward in the 2007 referendum for constitutional "reform" was drawing unfounded "analogies".

In the interests of having the most informed public discussion possible, many Venezuelans had hoped that the judgement would be made before the National Assembly began debates on the referendum on 18 December 2008. The TSJ, however, did not respond for another two months — well after the go-ahead for the referendum had been given by the National Assembly. Consequently the "debate" occurred without the guidance of the court’s decision.

Critics interested in undermining the validity of the victory for Chávez and the "Yes" vote have identified other irregularities in the administration of the referendum. In the lead up to the referendum the Government outspent the "No" coalition by a ratio of 4:1 and its opponents have accused it of misspending public money on demonstrations and voter "reward" programs.

Most distressing was the violence against opposition protests — particularly against students who were refused permission to march in the last days leading up to the referendum. While it is doubtful that the Government initiated such violence, it could have done more to control it.

Speaking after the vote, Henry Ramos from opposition party Acción Democrática argued that voters were not entirely "persuaded" by the Government’s arguments and its sometimes questionable tactics, pointing to the increased opposition vote in the important states of Táchira, Mérida and Lara. 

There are other indications that the population is capable of making decisions that see past Chávez’s polarising discourse. A growing section of the Venezuelan population — popularly referred to as "ni-nis" (for "no-no") — carries little loyalty to any political party or cause, but decides their votes based on single issues. Also, a report by the private research body Hinterlaces identifies significant growth in a segment of the population described as "autonomous Chavistas": voters capable of disagreeing with the President’s arguments while still sympathising with his cause.

This conditional support runs as a counter-current to the polarising effect within Venezuelan politics, often encouraged by Chávez himself, and commonly seen in the way Venezuela is discussed outside its borders (see the reader responses to Antonio Castillo’s measured article on One of the reasons for this polarisation is that, much like Cuba in the 1960s, the success or failure of Chávez’s program is a high-stakes game for different sides of politics all over the world.

The first time many people heard about Chávez was during his early challenges to neoliberalism and the conservative orthodoxy that held sway across much of the world. Many international observers were deeply impressed by Venezuela’s introduction, under Chávez, of the 1999 constitution, which was designed to politically re-enfranchise the whole population. That document also guaranteed, among other things, free healthcare and education for all, and was backed up by a program of wealth distribution to pay for it, largely via Venezuela’s now-famous "Bolivarian missions".

While the good intentions of these missions are not in dispute, the cold, hard fact is that they depend, financially and otherwise, on Chávez and his administration for their existence. As anyone applying to a funding body knows, there is a tendency to shape your demands according to the preferences of the body giving out the cash. The same is true for the missions. While it is admirable that Chávez began the mission programs, it should be acknowledged that they also concentrate power within his presidency at the expense of local and state governments. This means that grassroots participation goes hand in hand with increasing centralisation.

According to a 2008 report by International Crisis Group, the central Government spending on missions has not empowered civil society, but rather created an increasingly dependent form of "clientalistic" relations. This trend becomes particularly apparent in the lead up to elections or referendums as these missions help to promote the Chávez vote.

Now, with a drop in oil prices expected to cut Venezuela’s oil earnings from US$92.9 billion last year to US$21.6 billion for 2009, it will be increasingly difficult for Chávez to carry out his social programs. The price for Venezuelan oil is currently around US$34 a barrel, while state spending for 2009 is based on expectations of US$60 a barrel.

It is likely that the referendum would have had more difficulty passing had it come later in the year, when the effects of reduced Government income made a serious impact on his social programs, and it’s hard to imagine that Chávez hasn’t thought of that.

Anti-chavista writer for AlertaVenezuela Enrique ter Horst points to a possible change in Chávez’s tactics, with recent calls for "allegiance" and patriotism from Venezuelans as he asks them to take pay cuts to support the revolution. Ter Horst also claims that the decision by the United States to phase out dependence on Venezuelan oil might provide Chávez with the ammunition to keep blaming domestic problems on United States, a strategy long employed by Cuba.

Meanwhile, following Venezuela’s lead, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia are also experiencing a push to adopt indefinite presidential terms.

While winning the referendum is an undeniable victory for Chávez, it raises new questions over the future of democratic stability in Venezuela. Now that he may be re-elected indefinitely there is less immediate pressure upon Chávez and his supporters to develop democratic institutions, and to thereby protect their social gains against a possible return to power of opposition parties. Nor is there the same need for the Chávez-aligned political groups to widen their participation to develop the best candidates as his successors.

In making one man the symbol of revolution and reform, Venezuela risks weakening those curbs on executive power that are the hallmarks of a healthy democracy. Yet so far, against such concerns, Chávez can always point to a record of undeniable improvements for a vast number of Venezuelans.

At their roots, criticisms of the referendum reflect a range of fears, including those of local vested interests playing at politics, and the fears of neoconservatives that a "good example" of an economic model opposed to theirs might undermine their argument.

As well as these more tendentious positions, there are also the fears of those who have seen too many South American despots to feel entirely comfortable with a powerful leader in that region. Such people wonder to what lengths someone in Chávez’s position might go to maintain his popularity when the economic climate, and perhaps public opinion, turn against him.

Now, if such fears truly are unfounded, it looks like Chávez will have plenty of time to prove them wrong.

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