Venezuela: The significance of the referendum


On February 15, Venezuelans vote in a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment that will allow for any candidate to stand for any elective office, without restriction on the number of terms they may serve.

Only the people's vote will decide whether they are elected and how many terms they serve.

In other words, if President Hugo Chavez, who is already serving his second term under the provisions of the 1999 constitution, wishes to stand for a third term, he may do so.

Equally, the opposition mayor of Greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, may stand three or four times if he wants.

This is no different from the practice in Britain, where Margaret Thatcher won four elections for the Conservatives, and Tony Blair won three times for Labour.

Why is there such a fuss about this proposal in Venezuela?

Once again, as so many times before in the last ten years, the media are full of stories about Chavez's dictatorial ambitions of being "president for life".

The opposition goes on about "the principle of alternation". But they know perfectly well that Chavez will only be re-elected in 2012 if the people vote for him in elections that have been certified time and again as impeccably free and honest — and that the possibility of mid-term recall still exists.

And alternation, as the experience here in so many "advanced democracies" shows, is all too often a neat device to prevent any real change while giving the appearance of choice with a superficial change of personnel.

The real problem is that Chavez represents the continuation of the Bolivarian project, a popular revolution that has transformed Venezuela and inspired similar transformations in several other Latin American countries.

And that against Chavez, the opposition will lose again, badly.

Chavez is the people's candidate, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be. No, he is not a dictator, and of course he is not infallible. He himself has often recognised his failings.

But he has demonstrated time and again his commitment to serving the people — the poor, the workers, the excluded — and they have reaffirmed their confidence in him.

If he were to go, it is to be hoped that the people would find, indeed create (as they did with Chavez) another leader or leaders.

But why substitute a leader of proven ability, indeed one who has grown in stature and maturity with every new stage of the revolutionary process?

What is at stake in Venezuela is a fundamental clash of class interests, although one which is being played out as far as possible in a peaceful and democratic fashion.

The campaign for the constitutional amendment to abolish term limits is simply the latest battleground in this contest. As such, a victory for the "Yes" campaign on February 15 is crucial — and let's hope the victory is a decisive one!

[Diana Raby is senior fellow at the Research Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool. This article is abridged from]