Progressive Change in Venezuela
"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.
On the other side, the opposition tried several oil and business strikes and a military coup in April 2002 to win what it could not gain at the ballot box. The first act of the short-lived coup government was to abolish the Constitution and dissolve the Supreme Court and the elected National Assembly. The coup was reversed due to massive prodemocracy street demonstrations, but eight months later the opposition once again tried to topple the government with a devastating management-led oil shutdown. Unlike in the United States, where we have three sets of labor laws that would have put the leaders of such a strike in jail, the Chávez government allowed the strike to run its course, with the economy crippled in the process.
Only after all extralegal means failed to dislodge the government did the Venezuelan opposition resort to the ballot box, exercising its constitutional right to a recall referendum on the presidency in August 2004. The opposition lost by a margin of 59 to 41 and promptly refused to accept the result. Although vote-rigging was nearly impossible under the dual electronic-plus-paper-ballot voting system and the result was certified by the Carter Center and the OAS, the opposition--which has its own media and invents its own reality--to this day holds to conspiracy theories that the referendum was stolen by a fantastic electronic fraud. In December 2005, seeing that it would lose congressional elections, the opposition boycotted, despite the OAS and European Union observers' condemnation of the boycott.
The opposition did finally accept its defeat in the December 2006 presidential elections, which Chávez won with 63 percent of the vote and the highest turnout ever. And now that it has finally won at the ballot box, there is a possibility of an opposition emerging that is more willing to play by the democratic rules of the game. The student movement seems to have more elements that favor democratic means of challenging the government, and may have played a role in persuading others in the opposition to vote in the referendum. But they have not transformed the opposition into a democratic movement.
With regard to class, polls sponsored by the opposition and the government show that poor and working people are overwhelmingly pro-Chávez, and the upper classes are against him. There are obvious reasons for this class divide: the Chávez government has provided healthcare to the vast majority of poor Venezuelans, subsidized food and increased access to education. Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person has increased by 314 percent over the eight years of the Chávez administration. The proportion of households in poverty has dropped by 38 percent--and this is measuring only cash income, not other benefits such as healthcare and education. Interestingly, the upper classes have also done pretty well, but they appear to oppose Chávez for mostly ideological reasons, including his commitment to "twenty-first century socialism." The Chávez administration has also provided the poor with more of a voice in government than they have ever had.
On the questions of national sovereignty and empire, the lines are also clearly divided in Venezuela. Leading opposition groups, including some who were involved in the coup, have received US funding and other support. Washington's involvement in the coup is well documented and much deeper than the understatements and euphemisms used by major US and international media to describe the US role. The Washington Post reported this week that the Bush Administration has been funding unnamed student groups, presumably opposition, up to and including this year.
The Bush Administration remains committed to regime change in Venezuela, through destabilization and delegitimation, although there are differences within the State Department. Its tacit support for the completely unjustified opposition boycott of the December 2005 congressional elections is a good example of this strategy: giving up about 30 percent of the Venezuelan congress just for the propaganda advantage of having the media report on "a congress completely dominated by Chavez." While the media focuses on Chávez's rhetoric, such as his notorious UN speech in which he referred to President Bush as the devil, his confrontation with Washington has been inevitable and not of his choosing.
Latin American racism is different than in the United States because "race" is less well defined; but institutional racism is no less prevalent, as the noticeable difference in skin color between the white elite and the poorer classes throughout the region makes very clear. In Venezuela, this difference of complexion is also quite visible between the anti-Chávez and pro-Chávez demonstrations. Perhaps more important, those who are aware of and against racism--including indigenous and antiracist groups--are overwhelmingly pro-Chávez, partly because of his government's actions on behalf of indigenous rights, including land reform and land titling, and on constitutional rights. Needless to say, the opposition to Chávez--who is proud of his African and indigenous heritage--also contains overtly racist elements.
Indigenous supporters outside Venezuela include President Evo Morales of Bolivia, a close friend and ally of Chávez. Other progressive Latin American presidents also have close relationships with him and see him as a very important ally: Néstor Kirchner of Argentina, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and, although the international media are always trying to deny it, President Lula da Silva of Brazil. Lula heads a divided government, but he has consistently defended Chávez. All of these leaders understand the historic nature of what is happening in Latin America--the majority of a region once known as "the United States's backyard" now has governments that are more independent of the United States than Europe is. Chávez has played a huge role in this process, most importantly through the Venezuelan government's billions of dollars of lending and grants to governments--made without policy conditions. Until a few years ago, Washington's main avenue of influence in Latin America was through control over credit, which was exercised through a creditors' cartel headed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The collapse of this cartel in recent years is the most important change in the international financial system in more than three decades, and one that has drastically reduced US influence. Venezuela's provision of an alternative source of credit has helped other democratic governments to try and deliver on their electoral promises without the threat of economic strangulation from abroad that, just a few years ago, may have doomed them to a short life. It is thus helping to promote democracy in the region.
What about the charges that Venezuela under Chávez has been moving toward "an authoritarian state"? The denial of a broadcast license renewal to a TV station that participated in a military coup and several other attempts to topple the government--one that would not get a license in any other democratic country--is hardly inappropriate. It was also defended by other democratic presidents in the region, including those of Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia. Venezuela's media are still dominated by the opposition and remain the most antigovernment media in the hemisphere. Then there is the controversial "enabling law," which gives Chávez fairly broad temporary authority to make certain legislation by executive order, subject to revocation by the congress or referendum. But as the US State Department's top official for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, commented when the Venezuelan congress passed the law in January, "It's something valid under the constitution. As with any tool of democracy, it depends how it is used." And Chávez has hardly used the enabling legislation at all--only to extract more concessions from foreign oil companies.
One can go through the list, but the point is that one does not have to agree with every decision of the Venezuelan government to see that there is little or nothing to back up the absurd image of "authoritarian rule" that the Chávez haters have created. Unfortunately they have gotten help from politicized groups such as Reporters Without Borders, which receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (which has funded groups involved in the overthrow of elected governments, including Venezuela  and Haiti ); the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is funded by big media owners; and other organizations that are generally more autonomous but whose independence seems to weaken under pressure with regard to Venezuela. Bottom line: no reputable human rights organization has claimed, nor would they, that civil liberties or human rights have deteriorated under the Chávez government--or that it compares unfavorably on these issues with the region.
A historic transformation in under way in Latin America. After more than a quarter-century of neoliberal economic reform and the worst long-term economic-growth failure in more than a century, a revolt at the ballot box has elected leaders who are looking for democratic alternatives that will restore economic growth and development, and reduce poverty and inequality. The US government is opposing these efforts; a key element of its overall strategy is to demonize Chávez and delegitimize the democratic government of Venezuela. The US and international media have enthusiastically embraced this agenda, with journalism that makes Judith Miller's worst articles in the run-up to the Iraq War look fair and balanced by comparison.
A more truthful and accurate reporting and analysis of these events is sorely needed.
Other Articles in the Forum:
Sujatha Fernandes: What Does the 'No' Vote Mean?
Chesa Boudin: A Silver Lining for the Bolivarian Revolution
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Behind the Student Movement's Victory
Greg Grandin: Chavismo and Democracy