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Venezuela: Referendum victory advances process of change

By Chris Kerr

Caracas, February 20, 2009 -- “Today we opened wide the gates of the future … Truth against lies [and] the dignity of the homeland has triumphed”, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez insisted to tens of thousands of celebrating supporters after Venezuelans voted to amend the constitution to end term limits on all elected politicians — allowing Chavez to stand for re-election in 2012.

“Venezuela will not return to its past of indignity”, Chavez stated, referring to the four decades of alternating rule by two corrupt parties that followed the overthrow of a military dictatorship in 1958.

During this period, known as the Fourth Republic, billions of dollars of oil wealth was squandered by a corrupt elite that increasingly opened the country to plundering by foreign corporate interests while the poverty rate sky-rocketed. Chavez was first elected in 1998 on a platform of transforming Venezuela (creating a “Fifth Republic”).

The turn-out of voters in the referendum was the largest ever, with 54.85% (or more than 6.3 million) voting in favour of the amendment. Around 5.2 million voted “no”. The result was declared free and fair by independent international observers.

The victory has provided a major rejuvenation to the Bolivarian revolution, with the Chavez government receiving a strong mandate to continue its socialist orientation.

The referendum followed an intense campaign carried out through the media, street mobilisations and by political organisations.

The “no” campaign — led by the private media, US-backed opposition parties and student movements — organised a strong campaign of destablisation and disinformation, proclaiming a “yes” victory would entrench a “Chavez dictatorship”.

On January 9, the leaders of the campaign, including Julio Borges, of the opposition Justice First Party, and Alberto Federico Ravell, director of a major private television station Globovision, travelled to Puerto Rico and held meetings with the US State Department to devise the strategy of the “no” campaign.

The “no” campaign was led by the opposition-aligned private media that, echoed by the corporate media the world over, portrayed the amendment one that would make Chavez “president for life”.

The campaign also featured a series of violent right-wing student demonstrations, the discovery of two right-wing Colombian paramilitary units in Caracas and the robbery and desecration of the largest Jewish synagogue in Caracas.

The latter was portrayed in the corporate media in Venezuela, and internationally, as unleashed by Chavez’s condemnation of Israel’s war on Gaza, which included the expulsion Israel’s ambassador in protest.

This was despite no evidence linking the government or the revolutionary movement that supports it to the attack. In fact, the government not only condemned the attack, but authorities moved swiftly to make a number of arrests. The Venezuelan Israeli Association expressing “profound gratitude” to the government for its response to the attack, in a statement recognising the government’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.

Opposition parties also invited conservative politicians from other nations to participate in agitation against the government and the National Electoral Council. The “no” campaign culminated in a mass demonstration of tens of thousands.

On the other hand, the “yes” campaign — led by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) — was successfully able to neutralise its counterpart through the organisation of 100,000 “electoral battalions” that organised in the poor neighbourhoods, workplaces and campuses to campaign for the reform and mobilise maximum participation on election day.

Despite the intense campaigning of both sides, the election day transpired without any major incidents and with the vast majority of voting centres experiencing short fast lines.

According to a February 17 report, Nicanor Moscoso, the president of the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts, proclaimed: “The referendum complied with international standards and national legislation, especially with regard to communication and the transparency of the electoral administration.”

In the end, the “yes” campaign triumphed in 19 out of 24 states and 268 out of 316 municipalities.

Significantly, the “yes” vote won in states that the opposition had triumphed in gubernatorial elections last year, including the capital city Caracas and industrial heartland Carabobo.

The support for the amendment to remove term limits, largely seen as a referendum on the leadership of Chavez and the socialist orientation he advocates, drew a sharp increase in support from the 2007 referendum on nearly 70 constitutional reforms that aimed to significantly radicalise the Venezuelan revolution (with only 4.4 million voting in favour).

It is also an increase in the pro-revolution vote from the 5.5 million votes cast for PSUV and other pro-Chavez candidates from last November’s regional elections.

It is still, however, around a million short of the votes Chavez received in the December 2006 presidential election, when, arguing that the vote was a virtual referendum on socialism, he received more than 7.3 million votes — the highest in Venezuelan history.

However, the counter-revolutionary opposition also received its highest number of votes since Chavez came to power, up from the 2006 presidential race (nearly 4.3 million), the 2007 referendum (4.5 million) and November’s regional elections (4.7 million).

This trend has led opposition leader Ismael Garcia to warn Chavez to “manage (his) victory”, while the president of the opposition party A New Time called on supporters to “continue the struggle against the totalitarian project”. Opposition-aligned pollster Luis Vincent Leon declared, “the game is about to begin”.

However, despite the increased support, the result has been a major blow for the forces opposing the revolutionary process.

The Chavez government has received a fresh mandate to accelerate its socialist reforms, and the organisational capacity of the revolutionary movement — in particular, in relation to the PSUV — has emerged significantly stronger than at any other time in the ten years since Chavez’s initial election as president.

Also, while the opposition may be able to muster a certain level of votes in opposition to Chavez, if it wishes to pose a serious challenge in future presidential elections, it will also need to present its own alternative program, as well as unite behind a single candidate to promote it — both things that have so far proven beyond the capability of the US-funded opposition groups.

While the opposition has increased in votes, the margin of the loss and the partial electoral fatigue of Venezuelan society ensures that it is unlikely to attempt a recall referendum halfway through the current term of Chavez that comes about next year.

Recall referendums are a progressive feature, almost never mentioned in the corporate media, of the Venezuelan constitution adopted after Chavez came to power. It allows any elected official to be subjected to a referendum on their rule from halfway through their term if 20% of electors sign a petition requestioning it.

In 2004, the opposition called such a vote on Chavez, which he easily won.

The likely absence of such an electoral challenge should ensure a period of relative stability in national governance.

It will also provide the government with more space to solve daily problems (such as crime, trash collection, inflation, corruption and poor infrastructure), deal with the fallout of the world economic crisis and develop its anti-poverty, pro-worker social reforms.

The lack of an urgent electoral campaign will also provide various social movements, labour unions, political organisations and communal councils the space for internal reorganisation to reorientate themselves towards tackling the various social problems of their respective communities — with both the PSUV and National Union of Workers (UNT) scheduled for congresses in 2009.

The result of the referendum is also likely to have an impact internationally. Venezuela is helping lead a radical bloc of anti-imperialist nations in Latin America that includes Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and possibly Paraguay (where the right-wing lost elections for the first time in six decades) and El Salvador (if the leftist FMLN win the March presidential vote, as polls indicate).

The fresh mandate of the Chavez government also reinforces the leftward shift of Latin America in general. Former Cuban president Fidel Castro wrote in his weekly column that Cuba’s “future is inseparable from what happens” in Venezuela’s referendum.

Castro stated: “The fate of the peoples of ‘New America’ will depend heavily on this.”

Bolivia’s left-wing president, Evo Morales, commented: “Sometimes, we are accused of being dictators by the empire. There is no dictatorship in Latin America. Rather, we are going through processes of profound transformation with the participation of the people.”

The victory will also strengthen the hand of the Chavez government when dealing with the new US administration of President Barack Obama, which has largely maintained the same stance as the Bush administration in relation to Venezuela and Latin America. Obama has spoken, however, of possible conditional concessions in future relations.

The first meeting between Chavez and Obama will occur at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in early April.

[Chris Kerr is a Green Left Weekly journalist living Caracas. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #784, February 25, 2009.]

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