Chavez’s Fix

Chavez’s Fix

Is Venezuela's president undoing his country's experiment in democracy?


Last year, President Hugo Chávez staked much of his considerable political capital on a national referendum featuring sixty-nine proposed amendments to Venezuela's Constitution. Given that Chávez had won all five national votes he'd faced since he took office in 1999, including the 2006 presidential election, when he garnered 63 percent of the vote, the referendum's defeat in December was a dramatic turnaround. But the outcome was actually the best thing that could have happened, if not for Chávez himself then certainly for the "Bolivarian" movement he has led for more than a decade.

The referendum was the most recent flashpoint in the often high-stakes and always high-decibel struggle that has raged for years between Chávez's supporters and his critics, with each side fully convinced that it is protecting Venezuelan democracy from the other. Unfortunately, the substance of their competing claims has been largely drowned out by polemics that reduce the country's complex political dynamics to a single question: is Chávez a dictator or a democrat? Those who say "dictator" see a military strongman who has exploited high oil prices to buy political support–at home through clientelistic social programs, abroad through gratuitous jabs at an unpopular US President–while seizing control of the country's political institutions. Those who say "democrat" see a charismatic leader of a vibrant popular movement intent on deepening democracy–in Venezuela by empowering the poor, abroad by defying the political and economic dogmas of Washington and Wall Street on behalf of the entire region.

Given the deep disenchantment with democratic institutions that exists throughout much of Latin America today, the political transformation under way in Venezuela deserves to be the subject of a vigorous regional debate. Instead what we've gotten has been more like a shouting match, with the Washington-Caracas mudslinging topping the international headlines. Donald Rumsfeld compares Chávez to Hitler, George H.W. Bush calls him an ass, Pat Robertson calls for his assassination. Chávez, meanwhile, denounces George W. Bush as an assassin, a coward, a drunk, a donkey, a birdie and, most famously, the devil. Condoleezza Rice calls Chávez a tyrant who is "really, really destroying his own country"; Chávez quips that Rice is an illiterate in need of a husband.

Predictably, the diatribes avoid the many knotty questions about Chávez and his presidency. If he is such a dictator, why has he won so many internationally validated elections? Why have his opponents remained so vocal and active? And why was the opposition able to defeat him in the 2007 referendum? Conversely, if Chávez is such a democrat, why has he embraced Fidel Castro–a full-fledged authoritarian who, for decades, imprisoned his critics and quashed internal dissent–as his mentor and model? Why has he aggressively undermined the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary and concentrated power so heavily in the president's office? And why, most recently, did he use the referendum to seek sweeping powers to suspend due process rights in times of emergency?

The failed referendum did not end the polemics. But for the many, more sober observers caught in the middle, it did help to clarify the actual state of Venezuelan democracy. Chávez's defeat was proof that Venezuela today is not a dictatorship. Still, the authoritarian tendencies of Chávez's government, while exaggerated by some of his critics, are very real. His supporters may excuse them as responses to the problem of political exclusion that is, undoubtedly, a more fundamental threat to democracy throughout the region. But unless those authoritarian tendencies are curbed, the Bolivarian dream of overcoming this exclusion will almost certainly remain unfulfilled.

Like most Latin Americans, Venezuelans know all about exclusion. Yet unlike most others, they tend to associate it with the political system touted elsewhere as its most promising antidote: representative democracy. The reason is historical: during the 1980s and '90s, when other countries in the region were making tortured transitions away from military dictatorship or one-party rule, Venezuelans were stuck with a standard three-branch, two-party democracy that was, by all accounts, a disaster.

Venezuela's pre-Chávez system was put in place in 1958 through a power-sharing pact between the two mainstream parties (as well as a third, small leftist party) that aimed to prevent the sort of concentration of power that had given rise to a military dictatorship ten years earlier. For several decades it had served as the poster child for democracy in the region–at least among political scientists who specialized in the subject. In his introduction to Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era, historian Steve Ellner identifies the supposedly "positive aspects" that earned the respect of (mostly) foreign academics. It was a two-party system in which the parties were highly institutionalized, with multiclass membership and predominantly middle-class leaders who eschewed sectarian attitudes, ideological agendas and ultranationalistic rhetoric, and who were willing and able to resolve their differences through interparty agreements. This arrangement–according to the democracy experts–is what allowed Venezuela to escape the extreme polarization and violence ravaging the rest of the continent at the time.

But then one morning in February 1989, the model democracy exploded. The proximate cause was a hike in gasoline prices, which prompted a hike in bus fares that in turn provoked angry reactions from would-be passengers throughout Caracas and in cities around the country. Spontaneous street demonstrations erupted into riots and rampant looting. After a delayed and fumbling response, the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez sent troops into the streets to restore order, which they managed to do only after killing hundreds of civilians, mostly by means of extrajudicial executions.

Among the casualties of the Caracazo, as the four days of violence came to be known, was the political scientists' rosy view of Venezuelan democracy. As Ellner writes, those factors previously seen as the system's virtues were now understood to be its vices. The parties' excessive influence had stunted civil society; their multiclass membership prevented them from effectively representing the interests of the country's lower-class majorities; and their penchant for interparty pacts had papered over the deep and growing polarization that would be, from that moment forward, the defining feature of Venezuelan politics.

A rich and illuminating postmortem on the region's democratic poster child can be found in the compilations edited by Ellner and fellow American academic Daniel Hellinger, and by Jennifer McCoy and David Myers, as well as the essay collection by Venezuelan historian Margarita López Maya. While varying somewhat in emphasis and content, all three tell essentially the same story: how an economic crisis collided with a political one to create a perfect storm of popular discontent.

Venezuelan democracy had thrived on the distribution of oil revenues through a system of clientelism that fostered dependency and corruption but benefited almost everyone, at least through the '70s. So long as petrodollars were available to underwrite generous subsidies for powerful interest groups and ambitious social programs for the lower classes, there was no need for the governing elite to develop effective policies for the regulation and redistribution of oil wealth. But in the early '80s, a drop in oil prices, combined with a hike in international borrowing costs, sent the economy into a twenty-year decline. From 1975 through 1995, the percentage of the population living in poverty more than tripled, from 17 to 65 percent. Successive administrations responded to the economic crisis with adjustments such as the reduction of state subsidies and capital controls and devaluation of the bolívar, whose design reflected extensive consultation with international creditors but virtually none with the population that would suffer their harsh consequences. The result was the profound sense of betrayal among the country's lower classes that fueled the Caracazo in 1989.

The Caracazo also revealed the severity of the country's political dysfunction. As López Maya observes, it caught the country's democratic leaders off guard because they were largely disconnected from the people they supposedly "represented." I was reminded of the gulf between those two Venezuelas during one of several trips I took to Caracas last year. One evening I drove into the densely populated hills of Catia, in western Caracas, with Andrés Antillano, a community organizer and university professor. "These communities have been here for decades, but until recently they didn't exist, at least not officially," Antillano explained. "The roads in here weren't on the city maps. The properties weren't titled. Many people didn't even have birth certificates. In some areas, there was no electricity, no water, no basic services. The only state presence was the police." Considering that the state was accustomed to treating the country's poor as invisibles, is it any surprise that it didn't anticipate the scope of their discontent in 1989 or solve their problems once they were exposed?

Hugo Chávez stepped onto the country's political stage amid the post-Caracazo social strife. In February 1992 Lieutenant Colonel Chávez and nearly 200 other army officers launched a coup d'état that left scores of civilian casualties and failed to topple the government. Facing certain defeat, Chávez exchanged his gun for what the world now knows to be his most potent weapon: a microphone. The Pérez government allowed the lieutenant colonel to appear on national television to call off the coup and instruct his fellow conspirators to surrender. Once on air, however, the telegenic Chávez did something more: he assumed personal responsibility for the rebellion and hinted that he might try to foment another. Chávez had managed to turn a military disaster into a spectacular media triumph that catapulted him from the obscure ranks of discontented junior officers into the center of the country's political imagination. One minute of television exposure was enough to make him a standard-bearer for the change that the majority of Venezuelans, and the poor especially, craved.

Chávez had served two years in jail for the coup attempt when he was set free in 1994 by a grant of amnesty from the newly elected President Rafael Caldera. Chávez joined the growing ranks of community organizers and activists who were working to transform the political system just as the Caldera government was launching a third wave of neoliberal reforms (such as privatization of state industries, state spending cuts and exchange-rate liberalization) and the country was enduring one of the largest increases in inequality in the world. The continuing economic and political crises set the stage for the 1998 presidential election, which Chávez would win running as the ultimate outsider. The only political experience on his résumé was his involvement in the failed coup.

Once in office, Chávez never stopped campaigning. In his inaugural address he called on the Venezuelan people to join him in a "Bolivarian Revolution" (named after Venezuela's political patron saint, Simón Bolívar, who led the wars of independence against Spain in the nineteenth century); as his first official act he called a national referendum to convene a constituent assembly to write a new Constitution. Chávez would spend much of his first year in office rallying support for this project, and in December 1999 Venezuelans voted overwhelmingly to enact the new Bolivarian Constitution, which "refounded" the republic as a "participatory" democracy in which the state is obligated to promote the "participation of the people in the formation, execution, and control of public administration."

Gregory Wilpert's Changing Venezuela by Taking Power is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand this Bolivarian Revolution on its own terms. Wilpert, an American sociologist and journalist who edits the pro-Chávez website, provides a comprehensive, nuanced and insightful assessment of the government's policies, examining what they have accomplished and where they have fallen short. Chávez's most popular innovation has been his massive investment in new social programs. Rather than rely on dysfunctional state institutions to administer these programs, Chávez decided in 2003 to circumvent them, launching a series of "missions" accountable directly to the president's office alone. The missions employ volunteers, temporary workers and foreign professionals to provide poor communities like those in the hills of Catia with the basic services the state failed for years to deliver. The most popular of these missions are health posts in poor communities staffed by at least 10,000 Cuban medics. Several others have focused on education, providing preschool to tens of thousands of children as well as elementary education to millions of adults.

Expensive social programs are nothing new to Venezuela. President Carlos Andrés Pérez's grandiose attempt to create "Great Venezuela" during the oil boom of the 1970s saw billions lavished on free healthcare, universal public education and massive public works programs. What is new, Wilpert writes, is the effort to give participants a voice in how the programs are run. Local health and education committees have assisted the work of the missions by coordinating their outreach within communities, water committees have collaborated with the state water company to increase and improve service and land committees have led efforts to title properties in poor neighborhoods. Over the past two years, about 18,000 "community councils" have been established, according to government figures, to coordinate these existing committees, draft community development plans and implement projects to address local needs.

Chávez calls this process an "explosion of popular power," and the community councils the "essence" of a new "twenty-first-century socialism." His government has put its money where his mouth is, according to Wilpert. Last year, the government reported allocating $1.5 billion in grants to more than 12,000 councils for local projects, ranging from the formation of communal banks and medical posts to the repair of streets and sewage systems. It says it will spend another $2 billion in 2008.

It's difficult to know how many of these committees and councils are fully functional or how active community participation really is. One "popular assembly" I witnessed last year was attended by more than forty neighbors, yet only two of them spoke up during the one-hour session. Another had a much smaller turnout but far more participation. What is clear is that this process has been a transformative experience for some barrio residents who do participate. Adelaida Rodriguez, a 56-year-old with a fourth-grade education, approached me after one of these meetings to tell me her story. "Before, I was too timid to speak out about these issues," she said. Rodriguez was now attending school and leading local efforts to obtain state financing to build a neighborhood cultural center for children. "It's all thanks to President Chávez that I'm here."

The "explosion" of popular power hasn't been triggered entirely from above. Local leaders and community groups have played an important role in propelling it forward in a variety of areas, including the public airwaves. After decades of being shut out by the mainstream media, a network of local activists seized upon Chávez's 1998 triumph to promote community radio stations. They worked with Chavista legislators to draft legislation on alternative media that is among the most advanced in the hemisphere. Where other governments generally ignore or actively discourage community radio stations, Venezuela's new law established the state's duty to support them by granting licenses and providing seed capital, infrastructure grants and training. Today there are more than 270 community radio stations licensed and operating in Venezuela.

If Chávez is promoting broader political participation in Venezuela, then how has he come to be regarded by so many in Venezuela and in many parts of the Americas as a dictator in the making? Part of the answer is undoubtedly the misinformation circulated by some of his opponents. As Wilpert points out, Chávez was being labeled a leftist dictator long before he had consolidated presidential power or, for that matter, done anything particularly leftist, such as redistributing land and oil wealth. The accusations initially came from Venezuelan elites who resented being excluded from power for the first time in their lives. At the same time, Chávez did help feed his strongman persona by filling top posts with military officers while routinely taking over the airwaves to berate his critics with tirades and inflammatory epithets–"weaklings," "rancid oligarchs," "traitors."

Some Chávez supporters insist the president's belligerent tone has merely echoed the opposition's. But this defense of Chávez sells him short. Chávez's success has resulted precisely from his ability to pick fights and win them. Whereas previous governments had sought, unsuccessfully, to contain the fires of discontent, Chávez has thrown gas on the flames in hopes of burning the old system down. As a Chávez supporter in a poor neighborhood in Caracas told me, "Chávez didn't divide Venezuelans. We were already divided. If the other side didn't realize it, that's because their media had covered it up by ignoring the rest of us."

The fact that Chávez's opponents didn't fully grasp this division reflects a basic irony of recent Venezuelan history: those who had built and sustained the old system of exclusion would ultimately become its victims. Isolated in their own echo chamber, the country's elite would prove as unprepared for Chávez as they had been for the Caracazo. And their isolation would contribute to the colossal miscalculations their leaders would make as they repeatedly sought to oust their democratically elected president from office over the next several years.

These efforts included the unsuccessful coup of April 11, 2002; a strike at PDVSA, the state oil company, later that year aimed at forcing Chávez's resignation; and the national referendum to recall Chávez as president in 2004. At each turn the opposition underestimated both the popularity and political acumen of the president, who egged them on with insults, exploited their outrage (and outrageousness) to rally his base and outmaneuvered their leadership with a tactical savvy reminiscent of Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping a powerful rival in the ring. Each effort to oust Chávez served only to fortify his presidency. The 2002 coup provided him with a rationale for purging the army, which would prove crucial for surviving the PDVSA strike later that year. The strike, in turn, provided him with a rationale for purging PDVSA and then channeling oil revenues into popular social programs, a move that repaid itself with the landslide "no" vote in the 2004 recall referendum. And the 2004 referendum's endorsement of Chávez's presidency prompted a demoralized opposition to withdraw from congressional elections the next year, thereby assuring that the legislature would be made up entirely of Chávez supporters.

There's nothing intrinsically undemocratic about a civilian president controlling a country's armed forces or its national oil company. In fact, establishing civilian control of the military has been one of the key challenges facing democracies throughout Latin America in recent decades. What is troubling, however, is when a democratic government openly advocates political discrimination within these and other state institutions, as Chávez and his ministers have repeatedly done. A month before the 2006 election, for example, two private TV stations broadcast a video in which Rafael Ramírez, the head of PDVSA and energy minister, tells employees to give up their jobs if they don't support Chávez. Rather than criticize the speech, Chávez publicly urged Ramírez to "repeat it one hundred times a day" and then called upon all oil workers and military personnel to "go away to Miami" if they were not "with the revolution."

These were hardly idle threats, as Ramírez made clear in his speech, warning employees, "We removed 19,500 enemies of the country from this business and we're ready to keep doing it." Ramírez was referring to PDVSA workers who had been summarily fired after the 2002 oil strike and then blacklisted from future employment in the energy sector. Many other Venezuelans found themselves blacklisted in 2004 when they signed the petition to hold the recall referendum against Chávez. After the petition was submitted to the National Electoral Council, Chávez instructed this supposedly autonomous agency to release their names to a Chavista congressman, Luis Tascón, who posted them online. The resulting "Tascón List" was then used by government officials to exclude Chávez opponents from jobs and services. The official reason for the list was to help weed out fraudulent signatures, while the official justification for the mass firing of oil workers was that their strike had been an act of "sabotage" that severely damaged the country's economy. Whatever the justifications, however, the lesson drawn by many Venezuelans was that opposition to Chávez could cost them their livelihoods.

The most well-known case of political discrimination is Chávez's decision not to renew the license of the main opposition TV station, which resulted in its removal from the public airwaves last May. Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) was one of four private channels that used to provide uniformly antigovernment programming, most notably during the 2002 coup, when it urged viewers to join opposition protests and then blacked out news coverage when the coup began to unravel. Subsequently, the two other stations with national coverage dropped their partisan programming. (The fourth, which has remained critical, is a twenty-four-hour news station with far more limited viewership.)

Chávez's supporters defended the RCTV decision by pointing out, correctly, that the station's broadcast license was expiring. They also argued that its support of the 2002 coup provided ample grounds for the government not to renew its license. Yet what was disquieting wasn't the decision so much as how it was rendered. The government singled out RCTV for condemnation at the same time that it renewed the license of a station that had supported the 2002 coup but subsequently dropped critical coverage of Chávez. And it denied RCTV's owners any form of due process to contest the charges against them. Moreover, Chávez chose to present the decision as an overtly punitive and politically motivated one. And, for good measure, he did so in a nationally televised speech, standing in military dress before rows of troops and declaring that his government would no longer tolerate private media that were "against the people, against the nation, against national independence and against the dignity of the Republic!"

Why the unnecessary provocation? It may have been, as Chávez's critics argue, an attempt to intimidate the remaining opposition media into toning down their criticism. After all, he had wielded the threat of nonrenewing concessions in the past in response to critical coverage. (After stations broadcast the video of his energy minister's discriminatory speech, Chávez publicly warned them, "Don't be surprised when I tell you, 'There are no more concessions.'") Or maybe it was the contrary: Chávez wanted more criticism, not less. Until then, provoking the opposition had been like hitting a political piñata: the harder Chávez struck, the more electoral candy he got. (If that was the rationale, it may have been the worst miscalculation of his presidency, as the RCTV closure helped spawn an opposition student movement that would play a decisive role in his defeat in the December referendum.)

Yet multiple interviews with seasoned Chavistas led me to still another explanation, one that strikes me as the most interesting for what it suggests about Chávez's approach to democracy. All the years under the old regime had instilled in Chávez and his entourage an abiding distrust of the sort of institutional procedures that could have guaranteed RCTV a fair hearing. Even when they control the institutions that administer those procedures, they still don't trust them.

This profound distrust of government institutions is shared by many Venezuelans, especially those who voted Chávez into office in 1998 largely on his promise to repair the country's dysfunctional democracy. But once the Chávez camp came to power, the predominant attitude within its ranks seems to have morphed from distrust into outright disregard. One glaring example is the "enabling" law that Congress passed in January 2007, which effectively surrenders the body's legislative role to the president for eighteen months by granting him the power to pass laws by decree, subject only to an up-or-down vote in Congress.

Even more troubling has been Chávez's handling of the country's judiciary. A main plank of his 1998 campaign was the promise to rid the courts of rampant corruption and political interference. The Chávez government created a historic opportunity to do so with its 1999 Constitution, which created a new Supreme Court and established strong protections for judicial independence, such as the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote of Congress to impeach a sitting justice. But once this new court's rulings began to manifest the same divide that had polarized the country–with the justices split equally for and against Chávez–the Chávez camp abandoned these protections and launched a takeover. In May 2004, the Chavista-led Congress passed a law that added twelve seats to the twenty-member Supreme Court and created new mechanisms–in flagrant violation of the 1999 Constitution–to remove sitting justices.

The results were predictable. Congress filled the new seats with committed Chavistas, including Luis Velásquez Alvaray, a main sponsor of the court-packing law, who proceeded to fire hundreds of lower-court judges, only to be removed from the bench two years later by means of one of the unconstitutional measures he had helped design (he was subsequently impeached). The official reason for the justice's removal was corruption. The real reason–the justice claimed in a dramatic news conference before fleeing the country–was that he had resisted pressure from members of Chávez's cabinet to fire a judge on political grounds.

The principal justification for the court-packing legislation had been a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that absolved military officers of their role in the April 11 coup against Chávez on the absurd grounds that what had occurred on that day was not a coup d'état. And the new, packed court promptly overruled that earlier decision in March 2005. Yet remarkably, six years after the coup, no one has been successfully prosecuted for his role in removing Chávez (and thanks to an amnesty Chávez announced in December, it looks like no one will be). But then again, it did not help that the same Chavista Congress that expressed such outrage at the court's attempt to deny the reality of the coup had itself rejected calls for an independent truth commission that could have determined, once and for all, what actually happened on April 11, 2002.

For more than five years, Chávez has exploited the events of April 11 much the same way Bush has exploited September 11:

as a basis for expanding executive power. The coup has provided the main justification for purging the military, packing the Supreme Court, removing RCTV from the public airwaves and, most recently, proposing a constitutional amendment that would empower the president to suspend due process rights indefinitely. Chávez and his supporters have repeatedly condemned presumed coup supporters in the court of public opinion but have shown less interest in trying them in a court of law. In this sense, they have proven themselves to be, like many of their opponents, more concerned with pursuing power than promoting the rule of law.

Of course, concepts like "the rule of law" and "due process" have often been manipulated, in Venezuela and elsewhere, to perpetuate political exclusion. A degree of distrust of such concepts is understandable and perhaps even healthy, especially if it encourages efforts to promote effective new forms of democratic accountability. Venezuela's "participatory democracy" seeks to do just that through something called the "social audit," one of the more appealing notions of the Bolivarian project, which has been incorporated into a variety of laws governing public administration in recent years. The aim is to allow ordinary citizens and community organizations to monitor government agencies and programs rather than passively depending on institutional mechanisms to hold officials accountable for them. It is a role that Chávez supporters I've spoken with clearly relish.

It's one thing to criticize the Chávez government, however, and another to criticize Chávez. During my visits to several Caracas barrios last year, I repeatedly heard Chávez supporters vigorously denounce the corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement of government programs but argue in the same breath that Chávez himself wasn't to blame. The problem, they insisted, was that state institutions remain bloated with bureaucrats from the "old regime," or that the president's cohorts aren't cut from the same revolutionary cloth as their leader. What's more, they pointed to these failings as reasons for granting Chávez more power, not less. Chávez, it would seem, has succeeded in molding a persona out of a material more potent than Teflon. Complaints about his government don't just bounce off him. They make him stronger.

The real test of how powerful the new "popular power" actually is may come the day any of these community groups becomes disenchanted with the president. Right now, it's unclear how far most would go in challenging Chávez, since they depend on the president's office to certify their community councils, approve their projects and allocate the bulk of their funding. In fact, such dependency is a major weakness of the current model of "participatory" democracy in Venezuela, and eradicating it would require granting the councils greater political and financial autonomy. But even if they were more autonomous, how would local councils actually challenge state power? How could any community-level organization prevail against a powerful national president? Realistically, the only way would be by turning to other powerful state institutions for protection or support.

But in today's Venezuela, where would they turn? The courts? The 2004 court-packing neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government. The Congress? Since the opposition's 2005 electoral boycott, the legislature has been controlled almost entirely by Chávez supporters who, as Chávez has publicly observed, owe their seats to their affiliation with him. What about labor unions? While the Chávez government has encouraged the formation of new labor organizations, it has also systematically undermined union independence–according to the International Labor Organization–by interfering in union elections, creating obstacles to collective bargaining and discriminating against non-Chavista unions. It may be true, as Chávez supporters argue, that these institutions are no more politicized than they were before Chávez. But this fact–however useful it may be for exposing the double standards of some of his critics–is small consolation for the people who need these institutions to promote their interests and protect their rights.

This, then, is the second major weakness of Venezuela's new "participatory" democracy: the old institutions associated with "representative democracy" remain as weak and dependent as ever. The Bolivarians were right that their country's democracy was incomplete without more effective mechanisms for direct participation. But the obverse is also true: participatory democracy doesn't truly empower people in the absence of strong, independent institutions through which citizens can assert their rights against the state itself.

I know Chávez supporters who understand this. But there clearly are some who don't, and Chávez himself appears to be one of them. He has lambasted Chavista labor leaders who insist that their unions remain politically independent, inveighing against what he calls the "venom of autonomy" within organized labor. He has assailed Chavista politicians who refused to merge their own parties into a single socialist party, denouncing them publicly as "counterrevolutionaries" who, by questioning his efforts, had joined the "opposition." He has attacked Chavistas who would seek "to neutralize decisions of the revolution, through a judge, or a court, or even in the very Supreme Court, behind the back of the leader of the revolution, acting from the inside against the revolution." In a nationally televised speech, Chávez bellowed that such judicial challenges would be considered "treason against the people, treason against the revolution!"

In another country, such talk of treason might portend political prisons and clandestine graves. But this is Venezuela, where hyperbole is a local inflection; and this is Chávez, whose policies are rarely as violent as his verbal barrages. Still, the president's bully-boy tactics do have consequences. On the positive side, they may have helped to bring down a decrepit old regime by exposing suppressed political differences and propelling people to take sides. Yet they can also have the far more unsavory consequence of suppressing differences and silencing dissent. Such an impact has already been felt in some communities, according to Bolivarian activists I spoke with in Caracas last year, feeding what Wilpert calls a "personalistic politics" in which "faithfulness to the Bolivarian project, loyalty to Chávez and uncritical acceptance of all of Chávez's policies are seen to be one and the same thing." Andrés Antillano, the veteran organizer who drove me through the hills of Catia, described his frustration at repeatedly hearing people at community assemblies cite Chávez's declarations to silence neighbors who had offered opinions different from their own. "This is supposed to be about their views, not Chávez's," he said. Antillano insists that the Chávez presidency has created unprecedented possibilities for empowering the country's poor. But he has mixed feelings about the president's role today: "The great paradox here is that the same leader who played such a critical role in launching and promoting this democratic process could end up being the one who puts the brakes on it."

At its core, the 2007 referendum was all about power. The sixty-nine constitutional amendments proposed by Chávez and his supporters in Congress contained a wide range of disparate measures, some of them quite progressive, such as a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But the main thrust of the referendum was a transfer of state power. The question still being debated in Venezuela today is: transfer to whom?

For Chávez and his supporters, the referendum was a means to empower "the people." But the clearest beneficiary would have been the executive branch. For starters, presidential term limits would have been abolished, making it possible for Chávez to pursue his declared goal of remaining president for another fifty years. Chávez supporters argued that indefinite re-election would be "more democratic," as it would allow the electorate to decide how many terms a president would serve. But Chávez torpedoed this talking point when he explained why the proposal to abolish term limits would not apply to other elected officials. Term limits were needed, he insisted, to prevent these office holders from becoming "caudillos."

Another amendment would have allowed the president to create new federal provinces, cities, districts and defense regions anywhere in the country, and to handpick the officials who govern them. In theory, these new jurisdictions would coexist with already established ones. Yet given the wealth and power of the national government, these appointees could easily be used by the president to supplant the authority of democratically elected state governors and mayors.

A third amendment–a clear threat to human rights–would have granted the president sweeping emergency powers, including the power to indefinitely suspend basic due process guarantees, such as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. It would have made it possible, in other words, during states of emergency, to sentence people to lengthy prison terms without having to prove they had committed any crime. Moreover, this amendment would have eliminated the requirement that an emergency had to exist for a state of emergency to be declared. Instead, the mere "possibility" of a "situation capable of generating" an emergency would suffice. While Congress would still have to approve emergency decrees, it would no longer be able to revoke them once they were in place. The amendment would have also eliminated time limits on states of emergency, thus allowing the president to maintain them indefinitely. It would have removed the requirement that emergency decrees suspending rights be approved by the Supreme Court and comply with international human rights treaties (which allow the suspension of some rights during states of emergencies, but only temporarily, and never allow suspension of basic guarantees like presumption of innocence and fair trials).

Chávez supporters justified these emergency powers by invoking April 11. In their minds, the failed coup is a grim reminder that democratic governments must be able to protect themselves from enemies determined to destroy them. Of course, unlike others who employ such formulas (such as the Bush Administration in Guantánamo Bay or the Castros on the rest of Cuba), the Chávez government is to date not guilty of systematically imprisoning people without due process. Chávez supporters pointed to this comparatively clean record when defending the proposal. But their defense raises the question: if Chávez wasn't inclined to engage in such abuses, why did his supporters go to such lengths to empower him to do so?

As for "power to the people," the reforms would have enshrined the concept of "popular power" in the text of the Constitution, creating a "fourth level" of government. It would have given constitutional recognition to community councils, workers' councils, fishermen's councils and half a dozen other councils, as well as cooperatives and communes, through which this "popular power" would be exercised. One amendment would have guaranteed that at least 5 percent of the federal budget be set aside for these mechanisms. Another would have mandated the passage of legislation that would authorize the councils to engage in an array of administrative functions currently carried out by state and municipal governments. What the reforms would not have done, however, was grant the councils the autonomy they now lack. The councils might indeed "empower" people to challenge state and local governments, yet the councils themselves would still rely on the president for official recognition and funding. Consequently, the transfer of power from state and local governments "to the people" would have been, to a large extent, just another transfer of power to the president.

The biggest challenge facing the Bolivarian movement, López Maya says toward the end of her book, is how to transcend its most important asset: Chávez's charismatic leadership. Wilpert echoes this view, observing that "the movement's dependence on Chávez and his charisma reproduces some of the worst aspects of the previous regime that the movement set out to overcome," such as clientelism and corruption. The referendum may have been a crucial step toward breaking that dependency, especially since Chávez himself chose to frame it as a referendum on his leadership. He lumped the diverse, complex and contentious proposals into a single package and then campaigned under the slogan "Whoever votes 'yes' is voting for Chávez, and whoever votes 'no' is voting for George W. Bush."

The referendum lost not because Chávez isn't still popular but because millions of his supporters rejected–or were simply unmoved by–this formula. Many who are happy to have Chávez as their president were uncomfortable with giving him more power. As one Chávez supporter told the Washington Post: "He wants a blank check, and that's impossible."

The referendum also failed because the government's efforts to demonize its opponents fell flat. In the past, it was easy for Chávez to attack the opposition as undemocratic coup-mongers, given that at least some of them had indeed participated in the 2002 coup. But this time the "no" campaign was led largely by figures immune to that charge: university students who were teenagers in 2002, as well as Chávez's former defense minister, Raúl Isaías Baduel, and former wife, Marisabel Rodríguez, both of whom played key roles in restoring him to power during the coup. It would seem that the distorting impact of the 2002 coup on Venezuelan politics, like that of 9/11 on US politics, is finally beginning to wane.

The referendum result was, in short, a defeat for the with-me-or-with-the-enemy mindset that, whatever its historic justification, is anathema to pluralism. It was also a defeat for the equally insidious mindset that equates power to the president with power to the people. If the defeat helps propel the Bolivarian movement beyond these limits, it could prove to be a major boon for those seeking to promote a more genuinely participatory democracy in Venezuela.

Whether Chávez is ready to move in that direction is an open question. He has called for a period of "revision, rectification and relaunching" of the revolution but insists that he will still pursue all the rejected reforms–including, especially, the removal of presidential term limits. He has declared that the Bolivarian Revolution should tolerate diverse political "currents" but continues with his zero-sum approach to national politics, warning his supporters that should they lose the regional elections later this year, "the next step will be war" and a return to "the April 11 framework."

The political cost of the referendum, meanwhile, has only been compounded by the widespread perception, even among Chavistas, that the government has failed to curb rampant corruption and violent crime, while its much-touted social programs have fallen significantly short of their promise. The health and education missions "have all been deteriorating in the past year," Wilpert recently reported on his website. And there have been severe shortages of milk and the subsidized basic foodstuffs that the government distributes largely through its Mercal mission, a network of state-run markets and cooperatives concentrated in poor communities.

On my last trip to Caracas, I came across a Mercal market with a revolutionary slogan emblazoned on its outer wall: Con Chávez Todo, Sin Chávez Plomo. With Chávez everything, without Chávez lead (in Spanish, plomo, or "lead," is slang for bullets). Like so much else in Venezuela today, it's hard to know for sure what to make of this message. Was it no more than a bit of bravado, reflecting the idealistic fervor and bunker mentality of a moment that may have already passed? Or could it be an omen of darker days to come? The fact that the shelves inside these Mercal markets are increasingly bare only feeds the uncertainty about where the country's Bolivarian experiment is headed.

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