Chavismo and Democracy

Chavismo and Democracy

An honest account of the referendum cuts through neoliberal propaganda and looks at what’s really at stake.


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.”

Despite its advocacy of a strong executive, what distinguishes Chavismo is its fragility. As an evolving movement that came to power through the ballot, it had to make significant compromises with entrenched power blocs in the military, the decomposing and discredited political establishment and the civil, educational and foreign-service bureaucracy. Chávez is often presented as if he were omnipotent, when in fact the state he presides over and the political movement he nominally leads is exceptionally weak and fragmented. Many of the most controversial of the defeated reforms were designed to limit abuse and incompetence committed by local party bosses and Chavista officials, including governors and mayors. These included doing away with presidential term limits (while keeping those on other elected offices) and giving the presidency the power to appoint some officials and redefine the political divisions of the nation. They also entailed devolving administrative and budgetary responsibility away from regional and local government officials to communal and workers’ councils, mandating, for example, that “municipalities are obligated to include in their activities the participation of councils of popular power” and that civil society organizations have a say in political and judicial nominations.

Other proposed amendments would have reversed many of the compromises the left wing of Chavismo made with conservatives and moderates in order to ratify the 1999 Constitution, and would have established a wide array of political and economic rights that Chávez couldn’t introduce when he first came to power. The reforms would have lowered the voting age from 18 to 16; prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, race or disability; established gender parity in candidacies for elected office; provided social security for workers in the informal economy; guaranteed free university education; shortened the workweek from forty-four to thirty-six hours; and recognized social and collective forms of property (as opposed to the strict definition of private property in the current Constitution).

Aside from the anti-Chávez irreconcilables, who over the last nine years have acted as if they were living through some kind of biblical plague, it seems that a significant amount of opposition to the proposed reforms came from Chavista party and government officials who understood the amendments as an attempt to weaken their private fiefdoms. There are reports that many mayors, for instance, did not mobilize voters as they did for Chávez’s re-election last December. There is also evidence that the opposition, funded by national and international corporations and Washington “democracy promotion” grants, mounted an effective disinformation campaign. In addition to exaggerating the power the reforms would give to the executive branch, rumors spread throughout the country designed to capitalize on common prejudices and fears, that the state, for instance, would do away with all private property, legalize gay marriage and take away the rights of parents over their children.

But it also seems that the reforms, many of them baroquely worded and vague, met a good deal of thoughtful opposition from committed Chavistas who continue to support Chavez–even opposition polls admit that his popularity continues to hover around 60 percent notwithstanding the results of last week’s referendum. (Between his election in 1998 and his re-election in 2006, the number of Venezuelans voting for Chávez doubled, from more than 3.5 million to nearly 7.5 million, from 56 to 63 percent of the electorate.) “I’m celebrating because the ‘no’ won,” said one voter to the New York Times, “but I still have President Chavez.”

Critics of Chávez inevitably dismiss his support as the product of emotive populism, as did Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who, with more than a whiff of condescension, wrote in a report for The Nation‘s website that the Venezuelan president serves as a “mirror for the wretched of the earth, and they are joyous when he succeeds at being the vulnerable ideal he projects.” Others, such as Teodoro Petkoff, who ran the campaign of Chávez’s opponent in last year’s presidential election, talk about Chávez’s “magical realist” hold over the poor, who are apparently entranced by the baubles their president dangles in front of them. But what can be more populist than a plan supported by Petkoff designed to weaken Chávez’s support by promising millions of poor Venezuelans a black debit card called Mi Negra, backed by the national treasury, which would give them access up to $450 per month (call it neoliberal populism, giving to the poor just enough to force the defunding of state services). This promise alone should be enough to end once and for all the charge that Chávez is an irresponsible populist. That the vast majority of citizens rejected this proposal in favor of a more organized form of state-backed economic redistribution should confirm that it is critical thinking, not populist enchantment, that accounts for Chavismo’s support.

Actually, “Chavismo” is not an adequate description of the social movement that makes up Chávez’s political base, since many organizations predate his rise to political power, and their leaders and cadre have a sophisticated understanding of their relationship with Chávez. Over the last couple of years, a number of social scientists have done field work in urban barrios, and their findings confirm that this synergy between the central government and participatory local organizations has expanded, not restricted, debate and that democracy is thriving in Venezuela.

Never before have the majority of Venezuelans been so involved in the political life of the nation. Throughout the country, peasant organizations, cooperatives, women’s and gay rights’ organizations, indigenous groups, environmental activists, community councils and cultural associations argue about the possibilities, limits and perils of Chavismo. Hundreds of community radio and TV stations provide a forum for residents to express views, address local issues and learn, free of charge, production and broadcasting skills. Critics dismiss these stations as but more mechanisms of patronage and control. But all empirical evidence points to an extraordinary democratization of free speech, with little or no monitoring of content, frequent criticism of the government and uninhibited and robust grassroots participation. This is confirmed by yet another poll, released last month, by the respected Chilean firm Latinobarometro: for the third year running, Venezuelans are behind only Uruguayans in their satisfaction with their country’s democratic institutions (59 percent compared with the regional average of 37 percent).

Not only has access to the right of communication been widened but the range of public debate has been greatly expanded. Chavismo has ripped open the straitjacket of post-cold war Latin American discourse, particularly the taboo against government regulation of the economy and economic redistribution. Public policy, including economic policy, is now open to discussion and, importantly, popular influence. This is in sharp contrast to Costa Rica, where a few months ago its Supreme Court, with the support of its executive branch, prohibited public universities from not just opposing but even debating the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which soon won a national referendum by a razor-thin margin. Needless to say, the State Department–as well as the American media and many liberal intellectuals–offered no protest.

In Venezuela, one research team found that a large majority of their sample were committed to democratic pluralism, believed in peaceful methods of conflict resolution and worked to ensure that their organizations functioned with high levels of “horizontal or non-hierarchical” democracy. It is common to find committed Chavistas who are not only members of Chávez’s official party but openly hostile to it, which, theoretically at least, helps keep it responsive and honest. This stands in sharp contrast to Nicaragua in the 1980s, where it would have been impossible for someone to oppose the Sandinista Party and still consider him- or herself a revolutionary. It is this same independent, critical thinking that may account for the high abseenteeism that was reported in some traditional Chávez strongholds. Uncomfortable with some of the reforms, many opted to just not vote; in much of the reporting from the barrios, it was common to hear some version of “I’m a Chavista but I’m against these reforms.”

Theoretically, last week’s vote could strengthen Chavismo as a social movement in two important ways. First, it could force the government to forgo its perpetual campaigning and pay more attention to effective public administration, particularly to curbing crime and rooting out corruption. As political scientist Steve Ellner put it, as reported in the New York Times, “what hurt Chavez the most was the lack of sufficient attention to concrete, tangible problems and an overemphasis on lofty ideals.” There is no reason that many of the best of the defeated reforms couldn’t be enacted in the future through legislation. Second, it could force the movement to move beyond its dependence on Chávez’s skill as a politician and coalition broker to succeed. This would include figuring out how to turn the new Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela into an effective organization that can truly represent and mediate between the diverse associations and political tendencies that make up Chavismo, and cultivate a new generation of leaders.

The referendum’s loss takes place in a larger context in which neoliberals–in Venezuela, Washington and Wall Street–will use it to go on the offensive. Already on opposition blogs, commentators are taking their narrow victory as a bugle call to remove Chávez from office before the remaining five of his six-year term are up. We will soon see a grouping of the opposition around the students who led the campaign against the reforms, as well as around Raúl Baduel, former head of Venezuela’s armed forces and Chávez ally who came out against the constitutional reforms. We will also soon witness a strategic embrace of the language of “social justice,” participatory democracy and economic redistribution–but only as long as Chavismo remains a political threat. Make no mistake: the goal is not just to limit Chávez’s power or remove him from office; it is to dismantle the social missions, cooperatives, communal councils and land reform; end the country’s independent foreign policy; and take back what the nation’s ruling elites understand to be theirs: the oil.

But Chávez, while gracious in defeat, is hardly repentant. The advocates of Venezuela’s protagonist democracy have been down before, and hopefully the same democratic engagement that contributed to the referendum’s defeat will lead to their resurgence.

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

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Behind the Student Movement’s Victory

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