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Venezuela: A balance sheet of the constitutional referendum victory

Venezuelan newspapers report the victory of the constitutional referendum.

By Gonzalo Villanueva

Venezuela’s February 15 constitutional amendment referendum, which proposed to modify the existing constitution to allow politicians to stand for re-election without restrictions, was triumphant. However, the referendum was more than a legal amendment – the removal of term limits – it was a political issue: to continue the revolutionary project or not? The Venezuelan people have convincingly signalled their desire to continue with the Bolivarian process, under the leadership of Hugo Chavez. The victory undoubtedly opens a path to advance and deepen the Bolivarian Revolution.

The amendment achieved a significant 6.3 million votes (54% of the vote). These latest electoral result confirms that the chavista camp has recovered significantly from the 2007 constitutional referendum defeat of 4.4 million votes (49.29%), a trend also followed in the 2008 regional elections. However, there is still a shortfall in comparison to the 2006 presidential elections that achieved 7.3 million votes (62.84%).

The result, however, is not an absolute nor decisive victory; but reflects the polarised nature of Venezuelan society. The opposition has consistently maintained a support base, and in the latest elections it actually increased its votes to 5.2 million. Previously, the highest vote the opposition had acquired was in the 2007 constitutional referendum of 4.5 million. In the November 2008 elections it reached 4 million votes.

In the last year, the opposition has recovered some political terrain, from its complete breakdown in the 2004 regional elections. Currently, the opposition has institutional representation that, on the one hand, reflects its support base of 4.5–5 million; but, on the other hand, it has won more space due to the deficiencies of the chavista camp – that is, due to previous corrupt governors/mayors or to the mismanagement of issues most concerning Venezuelans. However, and most significantly, the oligarchy still maintains a dominating position in the economy and media, which distorts and inflates its true size.

The constitutional amendment was initiated a few weeks after the November 2008 regional elections. Though the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 17 out of 23 states, it lost some strategic states – Zulia, Carabobo, among others – that won populous cities of an economic and political significance. Also, the mayoralty of Grand Caracas was a demoralising defeat for the PSUV, which has created obstacles for the realisation of new local projects and the preservation of old ones. Not long after, the opposition unleashed gangs to threaten and attack the social missions in areas where it had won; signalling the nature of what a potential counterrevolution could look like. However, an effective chavista mobilisation neutralised these attacks.

Some were shell-shocked by the opposition’s unexpected electoral advance – a consequence of a presupposed triumphalism, as Chavez has highlighted – although the warning signs were sounding long ago. Discussions and debates were initiated in the PSUV battalions, but little time was given for self-reflection and self-criticism to flourish before another election campaign was in motion. Though mixed conclusions were drawn, all was set aside as the amendment referendum became the priority.

Chavez affirmed he wanted to “get it [the amendment] out of the way”. A less than expected win in the regional elections; the global economic crisis (with Chavez vacillating between denying and accepting that it will impact upon Venezuela); and a plunge in oil prices from US$147 a barrel to under $40 were the impetus to push through the amendment campaign. In other words, before Venezuelans could note any adverse affects from a wavering economy.

PSUV battalions and social movements were mobilised across the length and breadth of the country. The campaign primarily orientated around the important issue of defending the gains of the revolution. It is estimated that 100,000 “yes” committees were organised to have an omnipresence on the streets or puntos rojos. “Patrols” door-knocked houses to distribute a gamut of propaganda and explain the importance of the amendment. The apparatus of the PSUV (and the state) was deployed: free shirts, caps, posters, placards, paid advertisements and media; no effort was to be spared. On a number of occasions, the masses were mobilised to rally for the “yes” campaign, with some rallies numbering up to 1 million participants. “The lines of Chavez” appeared for the first time in the printed media, and every phrase, paragraph and article was aimed educating the masses on the campaign.

However, at times, the campaign was stale, being unable to surpass the point of purely winning the amendment and defending the gains. The opportunity to put forward proposals and ideas to advance and deepen the revolution; to raise a conscious campaign, beyond that of rhetoric, for socialism counterposed to capitalism; and to confront the issues that most concern to Venezuelans, was not taken advantage of. Rather, official propaganda was sometimes meaningless: “Because Chavez loves us, and love is paid with love”, was reason number one in a flyer issued by the PSUV outlining why people should vote “yes” in the referendum.

However, the massive participation, from not only the PSUV but other movements, although electorally channelled, demonstrates the authentic grassroots activism of the chavista movement. The creation of various fronts, such as “the workers for the ‘yes’ vote”, which led a 1 million strong rally on January 23, strengthened the role of the working class in the campaign. Also, the flourishing student movement (the left-wing one) displayed its organisational independence and flair by orchestrating its campaign for the “yes” vote.

In the lead up to February 15, the opposition, aiming to sow confusion, fear and discontent, manoeuvred a subversive campaign – “the Puerto Rico Pact” - of destabilisation of basic foods; mobilising right-wing university students for violent attacks; agitating the higher ranks of the military for a coup; incursion and operation of Colombian paramilitary forces within Venezuela; and an intense propaganda campaign of manipulation and disinformation, perpetuated by the corporate media, both at home and abroad.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the opposition managed to mobilise an impressive number of supporters for its “no is no” rallies. Some reports estimate between 500,000 to 1 million people attended. A figure to reflect on considering that the pro-Chavez rallies were of equal size, although opposition rallies were less frequent.

The latest electoral victory constitutes the second-highest win for the chavista forces in the last 10 years of the revolution. Also, abstention was at a low 30%. Nonetheless, the vacillation of a portion of the constituency reflects that the central issues of society – crime, bureaucracy, corruption and inflation – are still a concern, with some people believing that these aren’t being addressed. These were central issues in the November 2008 elections and resulted in some casting a “punishment vote” against the PSUV. Breathing in the victory of the referendum, Chavez, in his speech, recognised the need to intensify the struggle on these issues. Though it was the first time that these issues were acknowledged since the campaign began, it was an important statement that represents an insight into the tasks ahead.

Another electoral victory has been achieved and, once again, it has been demonstrated that the PSUV can mobilise and organise around a central issue. However, the PSUV has not yet been developed beyond an electoral instrument. The objective forces exist; however, it still requires the subjective strength to construct the party, which still faces the internal obstacles of paternalism, bureaucratism and clientelism.

Chavez has highlighted the challenges and tasks ahead. This year will be the year of class struggle. The objective conditions of the global economic crisis, and the plunge in oil prices, will be the framework of this struggle. Venezuela cannot sustain its revolutionary project solely based on yesteryear’s lucrative oil export economy – “oil socialism” as some reformers have put forward. The opposition has been dealt a blow; the chavista forces have the opportunity to win back important space. The electoral juggernaut of the PSUV and the communal councils must be ideologically and structurally developed. Many are growing wary of rhetorical speeches without seeing results. The time for “permanent electoralism” needs to be transformed into revolutionary governance. The triumph of February 15 presents the opportunity to advance and deepen the Bolivarian Revolution.

[Gonzalo Villanueva is an independent journalist who was based in South America in 2008. He was a participant in the November 2008 Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network brigade and was in Venezuela in the months leading up to the constitutional referendum.

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