Behind the Student Movement’s Victory

Behind the Student Movement’s Victory

Behind the Student Movement’s Victory

First and foremost, Venezuelans rejected Chávez’s political proposals.


After visiting Caracas in June, I wrote a report for The Nation‘s website in which I stressed how significant the emergence of a student movement was in the protests that arose as Chávez revoked the license of RCTV. The student protests in June were not about Chávez’s programs to provide the Venezuelan poor with healthcare, education and loans, or about his general (vaguely articulated) vision of “socialism for the twenty-first century.” Most of the students identified as socialists and were critical of those anti-Chavista leaders who seemed to them to represent business elites and international corporations. They had no affinity for the “Washington consensus” or neoliberal economic policy. Most of the students I spoke with, and all of the student proclamations, were concerned chiefly with political questions. They were evaluating whether the Chávez government was becoming authoritarian, not just in its attitude toward free speech and the right of assembly but in its intolerance of an independent judiciary and its penchant for legislation that eroded the Constitution. Even then it was rumored that Chávez wanted to amend the constitutional provision restricting the president to two successive elected terms.

Over the summer, the emergent student movement receded from the tactic of mounting large demonstrations, although many marched and leafleted during the Copa América soccer matches. But the organizational energy that had made the June demonstrations so effective that Chávez resorted to claiming that the students were stooges of an American “destabilization” strategy continued strongly offstage. When they returned to their campuses in September, the students prepared to protest the “constitutional reform project” that Chávez abruptly announced (giving the people only three months to consider an intricate, sixty-nine-item document that ranged over almost every area of national policy and even invoked a future organization of Latin American states).

Chávez handed the students and the older opposition a possibility for victory when he forwarded this huge list of disparate items for quick popular vote. Some propositions, particularly in the economic domain, had widespread popular support; they represented continuations and extensions of the programs that had galvanized the Chavista movement. But it looks to me like the political propositions divided Chávez’s followers and sent many into alliance with the student movement (if not with the opposition parties). Politically, Chávez overplayed his hand.

Most commentators agree that the opposition parties did not significantly increase their numbers at the polls. The defeat came about because so many Chavistas simply did not vote (it is estimated that 3 million of the poor did not go to the polls) and a significant number voted no. So within the Chávez camp, analysis of the defeat has focused on the key question of why Chávez did not get his usual 60 percent or so of the electorate. Three main explanations have emerged. First, there are conspiracy theories and alleged evidence of the CIA or the US Embassy destabilizing support for the opposition’s (and the Catholic hierarchy’s) most vicious propaganda, which is said to have frightened many of the rank-and-file Chavistas with false claims that Chávez intended to take houses, cars and even newborn children away from the people. (One element of the conspiracy theory had it that food shortages were engineered before the vote in order to discourage the people and make them feel that the revolution was not working or was corrupt.)

Second, there is the fifth-column theory that Chávez’s government and movement is being sabotaged from within by no-voting bureaucrats and careerists who want to slow down the Bolivarian revolution, converting it from a radical revolution into one that favors bureaucrats and careerists. Among those being blamed are regional governors and mayors and some within the military, including Gen. Raúl Baduel, once Chávez’s trusted comrade, who has emerged as a new leader in the opposition. The bureaucrats are said to cling to the 1999 Constitution because it favors them and their bourgeois ideals, while true Chavistas think the Constitution is not radical enough. Calls have been made by Chavista hardliners for purging the reactionaries within the Chavista movement.

Third, there is the theory that many of the Chavista masses are tired, apathetic or even resentful because the revolution has not been completed–they have not been relieved of their poverty and their misery. Perhaps, to counter this kind of discouragement, the referendum should have concentrated on socioeconomic initiatives and not tried to accomplish so confusingly many goals at once. Perhaps there should have been more time for debate and education, so that the people might have understood better the importance of the vote and the meaning of the propositions. Perhaps, as the president said, the defeat was a matter of timing: “Por ahora no pudimos” (For now we could not), he said, repeating the phrase he made famous in 1992 after his failed attempt at a military coup.

In all of this analysis, it seems to me there was only one thread that got to the core of the problem with the referendum. Some in the Chavista camp recognized that they might have won more if it had been possible for voters to vote item by item (preferably on a shorter list). Chavistas also recognized that the items they might have won were those that could have been legislated at an appropriate level of detail by elected parliamentarians–although these would not have gotten the more direct endorsement of the people. Commentators on all points of the political spectrum agree that there was widespread support for the propositions (particularly in Section III of the thirty-one-page “constitutional reform project”) that would have guaranteed social security for workers in the informal economy; lowered the voting age from 18 to 16, changed the workweek from forty-four to thirty-six hours, ended discrimination based on disability or sexual preference and required gender parity in political parties. Also popular were provisions to give some tax revenues directly to the community councils in the states, guarantee free education through university graduation to all Venezuelans, support organic agriculture and so forth.

The observation that item-by-item voting might have given the Chavistas a partial victory rather than complete defeat is, implicitly, a recognition that it was the political propositions that turned off so many people–including Chavistas. Extending the presidential term and abolishing restrictions on re-election, making recall referendums more difficult, assigning the president the right to make emergency laws without term, putting control of the (now autonomous) central bank in the president’s hands without any requirement of transparency about government expenditures, letting the president designate civilian “development regions” and military regions and directly control their governance–these were all propositions that obviously strengthened the executive so much that it would have been hard to call such a Venezuela a Bolivarian republic. It would have continued the revolution from the top down–that is, it would have brought to an end the people’s revolution, from the bottom up. Isn’t it possible that the political concerns of the students, who are not the old-guard opposition, were quite persuasive among the Chavistas–even among those who are deeply grateful to Hugo Chávez for the end of the ancien régime?

Other Articles in the Forum:

Mark Weisbrot: Progressive Change in Venezuela

Sujatha Fernandes: What Does the ‘No’ Vote Mean?

Chesa Boudin: A Silver Lining for the Bolivarian Revolution

Greg Grandin: Chavismo and Democracy

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