“He had faults, like other men; but it was for his virtues that he was hated and successfully calumniated.” –Bertrand Russell, on the American revolutionary Thomas Paine
The defeat of the Venezuelan government’s proposed constitutional reforms last Sunday will probably not change very much in Venezuela. Most of what was in the reforms can be enacted through the legislature. This is especially true for the progressive reforms: social security pensions for informal sector workers, free university education, the prohibition of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. The negative elements, such as expanding the government’s powers in a state of emergency, probably wouldn’t have changed much if they had passed. The Chávez government has never declared a state of emergency and did not invoke any special powers even when most democratic governments in the world would have done so, e.g., during the oil strike of 2002-2003, which crippled the economy and almost toppled the government for the second time in a year, or after the April 2002 military coup. (It is also worth noting that even if they had passed, the amendments wouldn’t have given the Venezuelan government the authority to commit the worst infringements on civil liberties that the Bush Administration has made in its “war on terror.”)
Chávez’s proposal to scrap term limits was defeated, but he has more than five years to try again if he wants. But even if this is his last term, the changes under way in Venezuela will not likely be reversed when he steps down.
Most important, the character of the political battles in Venezuela has not changed. The popular presentation of this contest as between pro-Chávez and anti-Chávez forces is misleading. It is a struggle of left versus right, with the two sides divided and polarized along the lines of class, democracy, national sovereignty and race.
For these reasons, in the past eight years there has been very little progressive or even liberal opposition to the Chávez government in Venezuela–just as there were no progressive or liberal organizations in the United States that supported President George W. Bush for re-election in 2004. Venezuela is politically polarized–much more so than the United States.
The referendum shifted these political dividing lines only very slightly and very likely temporarily. Some within the progovernment coalition opposed the reforms, and it appears that the amendments failed mainly because a great many of Chávez’s supporters didn’t vote. But there is no indication that these people have shifted to the opposition camp, and polls show that Chávez and the government remain highly popular. The opposition to the government is still a right-wing opposition, despite the addition of a mostly well-off student movement that is more ideologically mixed–including the student opposition leader Ivan Stalin Gonzalez, who recently defended his namesake in the Wall Street Journal.
With regard to democracy, there has always been a clear difference between the two sides. Chavez’s immediate acceptance of a razor-thin margin of defeat before all the votes were even counted should cut through all the media hype about a “strongman” and a “dictator.” Chávez congratulated his opponents on their victory. As in previous elections, he had publicly committed to accepting the results before the vote and had called on the opposition to do the same.