Lessons from Venezuela’s referendum

Issue: 117

There are two sorts of defeats the left can suffer. There are devastating defeats that set it back years or even decades. And there are small defeats from which it can learn.

The defeat for Hugo Chavez’s referendum on a new constitution in December was of the second sort. But if the lessons are not learnt quickly, the ground will be laid for a defeat of the first sort. This would put at stake not just the constitutional changes, but all the gains that Venezuela’s workers, peasants and urban poor have made over the past eight years.

The referendum was important. It was the method by which the dominant wing of Chavismo intended to build upon victory in the presidential election a year earlier. They have always seen the “Bolivarian Revolution” as something carried out from the top down. Their vision has been that Chavez will do good things for those below, with talk of popular power as a cover for uncritical, adulatory support for el comandante.

Hence the two central planks of the constitutional changes: allowing Chavez to stand again for president in five years time and every seven years after that; and increasing his power to rule by decree, without being subject to any other body, be it the Chavista parliament or bodies of “popular power”. Most of the other proposed changes—such as the shorter working day or the extension of social security rights to the informal sector—were already within the power of Chavez and parliament under the existing constitution.

It was the top-down approach which came to grief. The main cause of the failure was not the campaign of the right, backed by private TV channels and big national newspapers. The opposition vote was only 200,000 higher than that received by their defeated candidate in the presidential election 12 months earlier. What mattered was that three million people who voted for Chavez then abstained in the referendum. Among those who did not vote for the constitution were 1.2 million of the 5.5 million who have signed up for membership of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) launched by the Chavistas.

There was widespread agreement about the reasons for abstention in the many commentaries on the left wing website Aporrea—the indispensable source of real information about Venezuela for anyone who can read Spanish. Again and again there have been complaints about the corruption and lack of democratic control of many of those who are supposed to introduce socialism from above—ministers, mayors and deputies.

Speaking to the Argentinian paper Pagina 12, one of the best known Chavista activists, Lina Ron, said, “We were betrayed by a great many elements, people who have had different posts in the government, mayors, governors, ministers, members of the supreme court, who have turned their back on the commandante.”

Heinz Dieterich, by no means on the far left, writes of the “domination of a new political class whose tentacles reach from control of Caracas airport via influences in the intelligence services, in the foreign ministry and over nomination of generals in the armed forces to powerful economic activities”. Chavez, he writes, is able to “stand at a certain distance from the cases of corruption, the ineptitude of his ministers and the lack of serious debate in the cabinet” but “pays the price for this through lack of information over what is really happening, and the way his entourage in the presidential palace, full of opportunists who are too inept for the positions they hold, guarantee the bureaucratic control of the process but not its closeness to the people”.

Much further to the left, Stalin Perez Borges and the other revolutionary socialists of the Marea Clasista y Socialista (Socialist and Class Tide) tell how “there is a bureaucratic and corrupt structure in governorships, mayors, ministries”. One result has been the incapacity to confront the hardships which the still-capitalist economy is producing: “The government speaks of socialism and equality as a project, but does not solve crucial social problems like insecurity, housing, the wages problems facing wide sections of people, while other sections continue to enrich themselves through big business and their economic and political power.”

There is a strong danger that this disillusion will grow worse over the coming months. Rising inflation is already eating into the living standards of the masses, and there are shortages of certain basic goods because of the refusal of farmers and foodstuff processors (including those in the new co_operatives created by the government) to accept price controls. This is not mainly a result of sabotage by big capitalists, as it was in Chile in 1973, but rather the logic of capitalist market mechanisms that have been left intact. The danger is that such conditions will further demoralise layers of people and enable the right to go beyond celebrations over Chavez’s referendum defeat to push forward for real victories for themselves.

The Venezuelan upper middle class have a rabid hatred of Chavez and the Bolivarian process. But they have not achieved anything like a decisive victory yet. The public stance of some of their leading figures after the referendum was one of reaching out to the “moderate”, more conservative elements of Chavismo. Teodoro Petkoff, economics minister in the mid-1990s and one would-be leader of the opposition, issued a call to this effect, saying the no vote could not have won “without an important part of those who support Chavez”.

One small social democratic party, Podemos, broke with Chavez to urge a no vote. It is no secret that there are others still in the governmental apparatus who want to compromise with the opposition. At least one minister has said, “Venezuelans are not ready for socialism.” That sort of retreat would be disastrous for the mass of people who, since they defeated the coup against Chavez in April 2002, have pushed forward the process from below. It would leave the capitalist economy completely intact—and with it the impact of inflation on the living standards of the mass of the population. It would give new confidence to the rich to demand economic concessions at the expense of the poor. It would leave the giant corporations that dominate most of the media free to propagate their message of hate against the remnants of the progressive reforms.

It would also provide a cover for the many army officers who sympathise with the right to organise themselves in a way they have not dared to since the failed coup attempt. One of the most dangerous myths surrounding Venezuela is the one spread in books and articles by Marta Harnecker, Diane Raby and others that its military officers are different to those elsewhere in Latin America. It is even claimed that it was the army, not the mass movement, that saved Chavez in 2002. That myth received a serious blow weeks before the referendum when the officer who had been portrayed by official Chavismo as the “hero” of 2002 , Raúl Baduel, turned against Chavez only weeks after resigning as minister of defence. There will be many others still on active service who share the upper middle class’s hatred of Chavez. No doubt the Venezuelan rich and their allies in the CIA will seize any opportunity to begin organising them.

It is not good enough when the revolutionary process has suffered a defeat, albeit not a fatal one, to say things can simply continue as before. The defeat was the outcome of relying on a top_down approach which introduced some reforms but left intact the capitalist economy and the main parts of the machinery of the state. More defeats will follow unless the movement from below develops structures of its own capable of acting independently of the presidential palace.

We have insisted before that the PSUV is not such a structure. Established by presidential edict from the top down, it includes, alongside hundreds of thousands of dedicated activists, a good number of corrupt bureaucrats, refugees from the pre-Chavista parties who still exist at every level of the state apparatus, people who dream of an authoritarian Cuban model, and even some capitalists who profit from their Chavista connections. If it failed to motivate nearly a fifth of its members to vote in the referendum, it is certainly not a tool for carrying through a real revolution or even combating counter-revolution. At best it can provide a debating forum out of which can emerge a real revolutionary current—and then only if the leadership allows freer debate than hitherto.

The prime task of the left outside Venezuela is, of course, to show solidarity against any attempt by the Bush White House to seize upon Chavez’s new weakness as an excuse to impose its own bloody solutions on the country. But the prime task inside Venezuela is to hammer home the lessons of 2 December and to draw together the many, many activists who are beginning to see that the reformist road of socialism from above is not a viable option.