Referendum Defeat In Venezuela: A Warning To The Working Class
Bill Van Auken
narrow defeat on Sunday of a constitutional reform submitted to a referendum
vote by the government of President Hugo Chavez has produced a mood
of right-wing triumphalism within both Venezuela’s oligarchy and
the US political establishment.
is the beginning of the end,” chanted opponents of Chavez in the
streets of Caracas after the Venezuelan electoral tribunal announced
that the proposed reform had gone down to defeat, with 50.1 percent
of the voters casting “no” ballots and 49.9 voting “yes.”
over the defeat for Chavez, the Bush administration is stepping up its
threats. The White House’s attitude was summed up by its former
top official on Latin America, Roger Noriega, the former assistant secretary
of state for the Western Hemisphere. Noriega declared Monday in relation
to Chavez: “It will be a bitter pill and he will be slashing in
every direction and will provoke another crisis. If he overreaches again
or soon, he will be risking everything, and he knows it.”
represented the first electoral defeat suffered by Chavez since he came
to office in 1998 on a program of left nationalism and increased social
was a 69-point revision of the 1999 constitution, which was also drafted
under Chavez. The changes included some social provisions—the
shortening of the working day and the establishment of a social security
system for the millions of Venezuelans outside of the formal economy.
The central thrust of the reform, however, was to substantially increase
the power of the Venezuelan presidency, while doing away with term limits
and lengthening the president’s term in office.
changes were measures allowing the imposition of indefinite states of
emergency—without any court review—in which the president
could suspend due process rights and freedom of expression. The president
would have also been granted the power to decree federal territories,
effectively supplanting elected provincial and municipal governments
with his own appointees, and to decide on all promotions within the
in favor of the reform was largely pitched as a vote of confidence in
Chavez, underscoring the personalist character of the entire project,
designed largely to keep the president in office and expand his powers.
rhetoric surrounding Chavez’s advocacy of the reforms as a means
of realizing a vaguely defined “21st century socialism,”
the revised constitution did nothing to advance the independent political
power of the working class. Rather, it handed a state that—both
in practice and in the language of the constitution itself—defends
capitalist private ownership of the means of production, increased powers
that could be used to repress any genuinely working class revolutionary
be no doubt that the defeat of the reform will embolden those sections
of the country’s old ruling elites that bitterly resent Chavez’s
social reforms and populist politics. It will fuel attempts by them
as well as their allies in the military, backed by Washington, to find
other, non-electoral means to depose Chavez’s government, just
as they sought to do in the abortive CIA-backed coup of April 2002.
a grave threat to Venezuelan working people, as such a coup would not
stop at overturning the Chavez government, but would inevitably unleash
wholesale repression against workers and the most oppressed layers of
the population—those who took to the streets in 2002 to defeat
the last coup attempt.
result comes nearly one year after Chavez was elected to a second six-year
term last December. In that election, he won 63 percent of the vote,
largely on the strength of the anti-poverty measures implemented by
his government, utilizing the increased income from rising oil prices,
which have soared eight-fold since Chavez was first elected president.
voting was characterized by a far higher abstention rate than in last
year’s presidential contest. Political analysts in Venezuela had
predicted that heavy abstention would favor the government, which they
believed could turn out sufficient numbers of its supporters and beneficiaries.
As the results indicate, however, the opposite proved to be true. The
growth in abstention came largely from those who voted for Chavez in
2006, while the opposition managed to increase its own vote total slightly.
2006 some 7.3 million Venezuelans voted for Chavez’s reelection,
this time around only 4.3 million voted for the constitutional reform.
On the other side, the “no” vote Sunday totaled some 4.5
million—approximately 200,000 more than the number that voted
for Chavez’s principal competitor in the presidential election,
can be explained in part by the aggressive and virulently anti-communist
campaign waged by all of the main pillars of Venezuela’s oligarchy—the
business federation Fedecamaras, the Catholic bishops and the right-wing
privately owned media. In some of the lurid propaganda employed by this
campaign, Venezuelans were told lies about the reform laying the basis
for the state to take away their children or expropriate their homes
was also directed by the media—both Venezuelan and international—to
the anti-government demonstrations staged by students, most of them
drawn from the wealthier sections of youth attending the private universities.
These demonstrations—coordinated with the right-wing opposition
and frequently violent—were portrayed as a crusade for liberty.
US financed opposition
As the Washington
Post acknowledged over the weekend, the protests were funded in no small
part by the US government. The Post cited US documents obtained by National
Security Archive researcher Jeremy Bigwood under the Freedom of Information
Act showing that at least $216,000 was funneled through the Office of
Transition Initiatives (OTI), a secretive branch of the US Agency for
International Development that was set up in Caracas in the wake of
the failed April 2002 coup.
was earmarked in part for “democracy promotion.” This is
doubtless only a small portion of the funding provided through US agencies,
including the National Endowment for Democracy and the CIA itself.
On the eve
of the referendum, the Venezuelan government announced that it had intercepted
a memorandum from one Michael Steere, an embassy “regional affairs”
officer in Caracas, to CIA Director General Michael Hayden in Washington,
reviewing US operations surrounding the referendum and indicating that
some $8 million had been funneled to opposition forces through OTI.
to details released in Caracas, the memo refers to “Operation
Pliers” and outlines plans for “psychological operations”
aimed at boosting the “no” vote and fomenting a campaign
to discredit the referendum as a fraud if the reforms passed. The memo
also points to an initiative through the embassy’s defense attaché
to establish connections with right-wing military officers, apparently
with the intention of preparing another coup in the wake of the referendum.
US-backed propaganda campaign doubtless had an effect, particularly
upon the more backward sections of the Venezuelan population, underlying
the shift in the electorate are deeper political and social contradictions.
On the one
hand, sections of the Chavista movement either openly or tacitly supported
the defeat of the constitutional reform. This included Chavez’s
former key military supporter, retired Gen. Raul Baduel, who until last
summer was the defense minister.
close ally of Chavez going back to Chavez’s founding of the cell
in the army that organized an abortive 1992 coup, was the officer who
rallied the decisive section of the military against the 2002 coup against
the president. But he openly aligned himself with the right wing in
opposition to Chavez’s constitutional reform. Other prominent
officials as well as the social democratic party Podemos—which
had previously been part of the government’s parliamentary coalition—did
of governors and leading municipal officials identified with Chavismo
tacitly backed defeat of the reform, in large part for fear that handing
Chavez the authority to set up federal territories threatened to undercut
their own power and privileges.
working class itself, the referendum’s results express growing
disillusionment with the government’s inability to resolve the
basic social questions in Venezuela, its diversion of oil revenues into
various social programs notwithstanding.
reforms and the socialist rhetoric of the Chavez government, the reality
of Venezuela is a country where the commanding heights of the economy
remain firmly in the hands of a financial elite. Indeed, the private
sector constitutes a larger share of the country’s economy today
than when Chavez first took office, and it remains, along with the military,
a pillar of his government.
Much of the
growth of the private sector is accounted for by the financial sector,
which has recorded the highest rate of profit anywhere in the world.
Last year, commercial banks in Venezuela, many of them subsidiaries
of major international financial institutions, saw a 110 percent increase
economy is fueled by $100 million in daily oil revenues, the lion’s
share coming from exports to the US, financial speculation and administrative
corruption have created increasing imbalances that are taking their
toll on the working class and the poor.
by the government to ameliorate the effects of a 20 percent inflation
rate—the highest in Latin America—with price controls has
been circumvented by producers, who are either curtailing production
or diverting their goods onto the black market. The result has been
widespread shortages of basic food commodities for the general population,
the majority of which remains in poverty, even as the wealthy elite
is able to buy anything it wants and is spending more than ever.
will do everything possible—up to and including direct military
intervention—in order to reassert its hegemonic control over Venezuela’s
oil reserves, the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
cannot be defeated by strengthening the bourgeois state apparatus headed
by Hugo Chavez, which rests on a military that defends capitalism and
which gave rise to the attempted US-backed coup of 2002, none of whose
leaders have ever been punished.
political organizations attempt to subordinate the working class to
Chavez and portray his “Bolivarian Revolution” as some new
path to socialism, to be realized without the working class itself overthrowing
capitalism or establishing its own organs of state power. They see their
own role as that of agents of influence, supposedly pushing Chavez to
carry out more radical measures.
of Latin America—from Allende in Chile to a host of other “left”
military regimes—has shown again and again that the inevitable
result of such opportunist politics is to hand the working class over
to its bitterest enemies.
urgent task posed by the referendum’s results and the growing
political dangers in Venezuela is the independent mobilization of the
Venezuelan working class in its own political party, fighting on the
basis of a genuine internationalist and socialist program in unity with
workers throughout Latin America, in the US, and internationally.
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