Last Sunday, Venezuelans went to the polls and narrowly defeated a set of sixty-nine proposed reforms to their country’s Constitution. The amendments, backed by President Hugo Chávez, were condemned by his critics at home and abroad as a tyrant’s power grab. Gloating headlines and gleeful postmortems hailed the wisdom of common Venezuelans rising up to snatch back democracy from the brink. “Freedom wins!” ran a statement released by Florida Republican Congressman Connie Mack. Roger Noriega, the old Iran-contra hand who as George W. Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs helped organize the 2004 coup against Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, predicted that Chávez would be “slashing in every direction and will provoke another crisis.”
But Chávez has so far responded with poise, going on TV to call the results a sign that “Venezuelan democracy is maturing.” As Ezra Klein points out on his blog, “referenda meant to increase the powers of the executive do not, in fact, fail by two percent. And when they do, the dictator does not, in fact, say, ‘I congratulate my adversaries for this victory. For now, we could not do it.'”
Whether this graciousness is sincere or forced, lasting or fleeting, an honest accounting of the referendum–even as it signaled a defeat for the specific strategy that the Venezuelan president chose to pursue following his landslide re-election last December–was a triumph for the general model of political accountability that Chávez has tried to consolidate since coming to power, as well as a showcase for the kind of deliberative democracy that he has played no small part in fostering.
That model entailed the rotation of power away from decentralized party politics and toward a greatly fortified executive branch and a mobilized and empowered citizenry. Venezuela’s Constitution, adopted during Chávez’s first year in office, requires a plebiscite on any treaty that would infringe on national sovereignty, including free-trade agreements, and establishes transparent mechanisms to recall politicians (used by the opposition to try to recall Chávez in 2004). Political scientists can debate the viability of direct, or “protagonist,” democracy, but they would have a hard time making the case that politicians in Latin America’s traditional representational systems are more accountable to their citizens. Throughout the 1990s, candidates for president repeatedly ran on antineoliberal platforms only to capitulate to the IMF and Wall Street once in office. And what system of checks and balances controls the monopoly power of Latin America’s corporate media, as much a political as an economic force, or the “veto” that bond managers and banks have over a country’s financial sovereignty? Hate him or admire him, Chávez at least tells voters what he plans to do: he made clear that in his re-election campaign he planned to introduce legislation that would allow him to seek yet another re-election.
Many of the criticisms of the reforms focus on amendments that would extend this model, either by strengthening the executive branch or granting political power to local grassroots organizations such as communal or workers’ councils. Expectedly, Chávez’s foes singled out the proposed bolstering of the president’s ability to declare a state of emergency as a step toward dictatorship. And just as expectedly, Chávez defenders say this power–which would have remained subject to the approval of the national assembly–is needed to defend Venezuela against destabilization campaigns, such as the failed April 2002 coup, sponsored or encouraged by the United States. It is true that as originally written, the reform would have extended worrisome powers to the executive branch. Yet lawmakers in the National Assembly revised the proposed changes to make them conform to international norms governing states of emergencies as described in a 2005 report by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. In fact, as they were voted on, the proposed reforms to the rules governing the suspension of liberties during emergencies are practically indistinguishable from those found in Venezuela’s earlier 1961 Constitution, which was held up by Washington as a model for the rest of Latin America. As Gregory Wilpert writes in a sober analysis of all sixty-nine proposals, “contrary to most news reports,” any declared state of emergency would still include “the right to defense, to a trial, to communication, and not to be tortured. This is more than one can say for the current situation in the U.S., where the president has the authority to arrest people without due process, according to the recently passed Military Commissions Act.”