Venezuela: Why the reforms lost and where to now

With the defeat of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms, aimed at "opening the path to socialism" in the referendum on December 2, by a tiny margin of 50.7% to 49.3% with 90% of the vote counted, many Venezuelans and supporters of the Bolivarian revolution internationally are asking "what happened?".

The first thing to note is that the figures reveal that the actual number of votes cast against the reforms was only marginally higher than the votes cast for the opposition candidate, Manuel Rosales, in the December 2006 presidential elections, which indicates the result does not represent any significant increase in support for the counter-revolutionary forces. The question then is why, when approximately 7.1 million people voted for Chavez in the presidential elections in December 2006 — on an explicitly socialist platform — did nearly 3 million of them abstain in the constitutional reform referendum a year later?

Given a number of factors it is not so difficult to explain. Firstly, Chavez's original reform proposal of 33 changes to the constitution, announced on August 15, was itself very complex and far-reaching — including some very radical measures, such as power to communal and workers' councils. It also included some very difficult concepts, in particular the proposed "new geometry of power" aimed at the political and territorial redistribution of power through out the entire country.

Despite the level of complexity Chavez's initial proposals were relatively well received, with many polls showing support at around 55-60%.

Confusion

However, the decision of the National Assembly to add another 36 articles to the original proposals added to the confusion and complexity. Whereas Chavez's original proposals amounted to institutionalising a massive extension of popular democracy, the National Assembly proposals included a number of bureaucratic and unpopular measures that pushed in the other direction.

These included the "state of emergency" clause that allowed for restricted access to information, as well as proposed reforms that made it more difficult to recall elected officials and that made some aspects of Chavez's original proposal less democratic, such as removing requirements for the creation of new federal and functional districts to be approved by a referendum of the local constituents. It was when the National Assembly made these additions, combined with an intensified opposition media campaign, that support for the reforms began to decline.

The end result was a whopping reform package of 69 articles in dense legalistic jargon, not easily digestible by the average person on the street. Rather than being voted on article by article, the reforms were then presented in two blocks.

In this context, it was much easier to convince people to vote no, or, if someone didn't feel confident about any one of the reforms, to simply abstain. You only had to disagree with one or two aspects of the reform package to vote against it or abstain, whereas support for the reforms required a much higher level of political consciousness than simply supporting Chavez or liking the social missions. However it was also not simply a straightforward fair fight between competing ideologies.

Opposition lies and violence

Financially and politically backed by the US government and the corporate media, Venezuela's elite opposition ran a vicious campaign of disinformation, intimidation and attempted destabilisation in the lead-up to the referendum.

Contrary to international media portrayals of the Chavez government as restricting free speech, the right-wing opposition controls the majority of media outlets in Venezuela and it used them to spread lies and rumours aimed at instilling fear about the proposed constitutional reforms. It was said, for example, that if the reforms were passed the state would be able to take your children away, and that people's personal property, houses, cars and small businesses would be expropriated by the state.

It also presented a proposed change that would have removed presidential term limits allowing Chavez to stand for re-election — such as is the case for heads of government in France, Australia, Britain and around 170 other countries — as a vote on whether Chavez would be "president for life". The opposition also carried out illegal anonymous advertising campaigns and distributed fake copies of the constitutional reforms with falsified articles.

But the opposition campaign was not limited to propaganda. A month before the referendum, opposition leaders met with US officials in Prague who urged them to "organise acts of economic sabotage against infrastructure, destroy the food transport and delivery chain … and organise a military coup with all means possible" to stop the constitutional reforms. (These same self-proclaimed defenders of the 1999 constitution that the proposals aimed to reform carried out a short-lived coup in April 2002 that dissolved the constitution altogether as well as all elected officials in the country.)

In Caracas, two weeks before the referendum, anti-Chavez students violently attacked pro-reform students at the Central University of Venezuela. On November 26, anti-Chavez protesters blocking streets in the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo shot and killed a pro-Chavez worker trying to pass the roadblock on his way to work. Two activists from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) — the mass party being created to unite all pro-Chavez forces — were also assassinated in Caracas in drive-by shootings in the week leading up to the referendum. One Chavez supporter was shot near a polling booth in El Valle on polling day.

On November 30, the government released a video revealing the opposition's strategy of destabilisation following the referendum — which they expected to lose. Opposition leaders are seen calling on supporters assembled in a Caracas church to not recognise the voting results and take part in nation-wide protests to overturn the constitutional reforms by "generating a political crisis and crisis of instability".

Despite these events, which were consistently ignored or misreported, the international media portrayed the opposition as peaceful "anti-dictatorship" protesters.

This campaign of fear, combined with the fact that many people simply did not know the content of the reforms, had the affect of causing a large layer of Chavez's support base to abstain.

Internal problems

However, there were also a number of factors on the Chavista side that contributed to the lower turnout in the referendum. In particular, there was no real attempt to reach out beyond the hardcore of Chavismo to broader layers. After winning 12 straight nationwide election victories over the past nine years, and with Chavez winning the largest number of votes by a presidential candidate in Venezuela's history one year previously, the Chavista forces were complacent — they thought they were going to win anyway!

Another problem with the "Yes" campaign was a lack of organisation. At the grassroots level the key campaigning bodies were the newly formed battalions of the PSUV. However, the PSUV is still in the process of being formed and its political and organisational development is very uneven across the country. This meant they lacked a cohered cadre force capable of combatting the opposition lies and agitating effectively in favour of the reforms.

On top of this, Commando Zamora, the campaigning body created to push for the reforms on a national level, was a hand picked list of "representatives" from different sectors, with many of them having little or no organic connection to their respective constituencies. For instance, some workers complained that Osvaldo Vera, from the Socialist Force of Bolivarian Workers was selected to represent workers without consultation or input from them. Activists have also blamed right-wing sectors of Chavismo for actively sabotaging the campaign.

Another factor that has potentially contributed to a certain level of disengagement from the process, and consequently, abstention, is the inability of the government to tackle a number of key issues affecting Venezuelan daily life, such as Venezuela's exponential crime rate (with homicide up to 12,000 in 2006 from approximately 4000 in 1998), which often rates as Venezuelan's number one concern in opinion polls. There is also the inefficiency of basic services, such as rubbish collection.

Also, there are manufactured food shortages of basic staples such as milk, sugar and cooking oil, as a result of hoarding hoarding, speculation and underproduction by the capitalist class in an attempt to sabotage the revolution. This recalls the policy of economic sabotage applied to the Salvador Allende government in Chile in 1973.

Many on the Venezuelan left have also drawn the conclusion that the high abstention from the Chavista camp was a reaction to, or "punishment" for, bureaucratic and corrupt practices in many of the pro-Chavez state and municipal governments. For instance, Laura Franco argued in a December 3 article entitled "One step back, two steps forward" on the discussion site Plenosocial, that while Chavez says the reforms are necessary to push forward towards socialism, "if the majority of public functionaries practice and reproduce the capitalist world, it is logical that more than 3 million people have demonstrated incredulity before this proposal".

However, as Chavez and others have pointed out, the proposed constitutional reforms were oriented precisely at tackling these issues of bureaucracy and corruption, through handing over aspects of state functions directly to the people. Amaury Gonzalez wrote in an article on December 5 posted on Aporrea.org that if people abstained as a "punishment" then it reflects a conservative tendency because it contributed to maintaining the status quo. "To speak of abstention as punishment", he argued, "is to speak of a multitude of 3 million people that still think that problems can be resolved from above, without the most minimal intervention of them selves, as the principal people affected".

Another factor that have been raised is that voter turnout for all Venezuelan elections, apart from presidential elections, have been traditionally low. Also the official campaign was extremely short, only one month, and for almost half of that time Chavez — the key ideologue and motivator of the reforms — was out of the country. To a certain extent Chavez's confrontational "you're either with me or you're with Bush" discourse may have alienated more moderate layers.

While all of these issues may have contributed to abstention, the biggest problem was the lack of an effective communication strategy that could counter the lies of the opposition; this meant that people were unsure of the proposal and more easily manipulated by the corporate media.

All of these issues raise the question of the level of political consciousness within the Bolivarian process. It is possible that Chavez, who is moving at 100 miles an hour, has radicalised the process a little too fast and left a section of his base behind. Chavez himself has suggested that perhaps his timing was wrong. However, others have pointed out the fact that some 4.4 million people voted for a project explicitly aimed towards socialism — in a fight where the capitalist class had huge advantages — is something that has never happened before, and an indication of massive potential to construct socialism.

Class polarisation

What the outcome of the referendum indicates is the real political polarisation in Venezuela, with two political blocs heading in diametrically opposite directions. The opposition aims to maintain its privileged position in society, while the Chavistas aim to turn that society upside-down, ultimately creating a more just, egalitarian, socialist society. In the middle stands a large sector that, while generally supportive of Chavez, is not as convinced of the project and could be swayed in the other direction.

Behind this lies the counter-posed interests of different classes, with the opposition being the political representatives of powerful capitalist interests — often based in the First World, especially the US — along with other layers of Venezuelan society with privileges associated with the old order. On the other side, the revolutionary movement headed by Chavez is based on an uneven and still-developing alliance of the formal working class, campesinos (peasants) and the urban poor — as well as other sectors such as small and medium-sized businesses squeezed by big capital.

The opposition is undoubtedly politically strengthened from this victory, with newspaper headlines screaming, "Venezuelans reject socialism". However, the fact that the same forces that violently overthrew Chavez in 2002 are now talking of "reconciliation" and "peace" — in an attempt to win over more moderate sectors of Chavismo and those who abstained — is a recognition that they have not significantly increased their support base. Chavez still has five years left of his presidential term, and a future attempt to oust him through another recall referendum or other means cannot be ruled out. In the short term, they will continue their media war against the revolutionary government and the Venezuelan people.

The Chavistas, on the other hand, are making a thorough assessment. While the Chavista right-wing may try to use the referendum result to put brakes on the process or move away from the project of socialism altogether. In his speech recognising the referendum results, Chavez has made it clear that socialism is still the path, declaring: "I want them to know that I'm not withdrawing a single comma of this proposal. I will continue making this proposal to the Venezuelan people."

From the activist grassroots, the overwhelming message seems to be "no quarter" — this is just one battle in the long war for socialism, and that now is the time to push forward with the "revolution within the revolution". The struggle is to put many of the proposals for constitutional reforms into practice on the ground — such as building up popular power through communal and workers' councils.

There is also a lot of talk of implementing "social oversight" over public institutions to root out bureaucracy and corruption, which are seen as the worst enemies of the revolution and a key cause of the referendum defeat. There is also recognition of the need to reach out to broader layers and convince them of socialism.

Chavez has suggested that as a future project the Venezuelan people themselves can take his initiative and modify it, and come up with their own constitutional reform proposal from below. Palamino, a Chavez supporter in Caracas who is already talking of another referendum, told Green Left Weekly that "next time we're going to win".

[Kiraz Janicke is part of the GLW Caracas bureau.]