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A Failed Reform, Chávez, and Democracy in Venezuela

Vincent Bevins
Date Published: 
January 16, 2008

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’ proposed constitutional reform was far from the cynical power grab it was portrayed as in the U.S. press. But the likely consequence of the failure of the complex package, despite its many progressive elements, is the possibility and necessity of an even further democratization of the social changes taking place in the country.

Headlines noted that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was handed his first defeat in ten elections since 1998 when the proposed constitutional reform package was very narrowly defeated last December. The referendum results and Chávez’ immediate recognition of the outcome both came as a bit of an anti-climactic surprise and have changed the political climate dramatically for both his supporters and his opponents.

For his numerous enemies at home and abroad, the result has finally forced recognition that Venezuelan elections are free and transparent, and that Mr. Chávez is not, and has never been, a dictator. Dictators do not lose elections.

But for the Venezuelans that support the Bolivarian, socialist and anti-imperialist revolution that has accompanied his presidency, many of whom chose not to vote for the reform, the loss opens up the opportunity and the necessity of moving beyond the leadership of a single man and taking a more protagonistic role in the social changes if they are to continue. This could spell a profound furthering of the democratization of the Venezuelan revolution. Indeed, this process seems to have already started in the response of Chávez’ supporters to his reforms.

Despite the mantras repeated in the American press, the proposed constitutional reforms were much more complex and profound than a supposed power grab on the part of Chávez. Apart from removing term limits on the presidency (meaning Chávez or anybody else would be allowed to run for election for more than two terms in office, like in France, Italy, or the case of FDR) Venezuelans voted on 68 other proposed changes to the Constitution with a sweeping set of consequences.

The work day would have been reduced from 8 to 6 hours, a social security fund would be set up for the roughly 40 percent of Venezuelans who work informally and thus don't receive benefits or vacations, and discrimination based on sexual orientation would have been banned. A series of types of public, community, and social property would have been established and promoted, use of urban space would be guaranteed to all residents and speculation would be banned. And the programs of socialism and "popular power" would have been cemented and enshrined in the constitution. Popular power in this case consists of the autonomous formation of small local communal councils, which are given a sizable share of government resources to use as they see fit and are recognized as the local and fundamental units of the government.

This particular program is unquestionably radically democratic. The communal councils would decide freely on local programs and governance and would even elect the management of government and community media.

But these changes are only a fraction of those which were the most discussed, and a smaller fraction of those which would profoundly alter the country. And Venezuelans were given a little over a month to decide whether or not to support the package, which was initiated by one man, the still overwhelmingly popular Chávez. He submitted 33 proposed reforms to the National Assembly (Congress) who added 36 more. And despite the fact that I know less than a handful of people that actually read the entire reform project, those of us that did read and analyze it had a very hard time making sense of what the actual effects on the country would be in many cases. It seems that Venezuelans were basically being asked to vote mostly on the fact that Chávez supported the reforms.

“Voting yes was an act of faith,” said one supporter of Chávez during a melancholy gathering at a left-wing watering hole a few days after the vote. “I trust Chávez not to have abused the consequences of the reform, but people didn’t know what the consequences would have been when another president takes over.”

That might be because some of the reforms, mostly those added by the National Assembly, seemed puzzling or unnecessary. The 180 day limit on “states of emergency” would have been removed, so would the right to information in these circumstances. And many of the new powers given to the socialist state went to the president.

Given the decision to approve this package, it seems that approximately one third of Chávez’ supporters chose to stay home, while the traditional opposition came out in force. In 2006, approximately 7 million people voted for Chávez to be elected as president (he remains in power until 2012) while 4 million voted for his opponent. On December 2, the same amount of 4 million voted against the reform, while only 4 million supported it, and the package lost by about one percent.

So, three million of his supporters chose not to vote on the project because they didn’t understand it completely, support it completely, or simply thought a new constitution was unnecessary. In fact, the vast majority of the reforms didn’t actually even need a reform to become law. But Chávez wanted them in the constitution.

It’s not likely that this defeat of his reform project represents a drop in support for him or his broader revolutionary project. A number of supporters have simply distinguished between specific projects and Chávez himself.

As Venezuelan historian Margarita Lopez Maya said, “Chávez has support, but they don’t just give him a blank check.”

Most of the Chavistas that didn’t support the reform chose not to vote at all rather than vote against it. But if you can find one that did, they usually felt conflicted and voted based on the package and not on Chávez. Marisa, who writes for a government newspaper, said that “I never wanted to do anything that helped the opposition, because they hurt the country so much. And when I saw him speak after the results were announced, it hurt me to see Chávez defeated like that. But the reform just wasn’t necessary, not like it was presented.”

Or Ivan, who is a member of a socialist collective, said that “I’m voting no because I prefer the idea of a more parliamentary socialist state. This proposal is too presidential.”

But it was the first time that this had happened to Chávez. In a process of societal transformation that has been marked by a little bit too much of uncritical reliance on a single leader, the participants in that transformation told the leader that they’d prefer not to do it this particular way, at least not now. Chávez tried to make the reforms a referendum on his presidency, but it didn’t work. The opposition led a very successful campaign telling people that the reform would mean your house would be taken away, or that a permanent state of emergency would be declared. Chávez ' camp failed to respond well to these claims, preferring to emphasize the link to Chávez himself. But many of his supporters chose to vote on the issue, rather than their loyalty to him.

Regardless of whether the reform would have been good for the country, this opens up opportunities for a radical furthering of the democratic nature of the movement.

That is not to say that things have not already been incredibly democratic. I have never voted on my constitution, and most Americans are not often asked what they would like the fundamental structure of their society to be. Venezuelans were actually asked openly to decide whether or not they would be allowed to decide to vote for Chávez when his term ends. When Colombian president and Bush’s strongest Latin America ally Alvaro Uribe wasn’t allowed to re-run for president, he just changed the constitution without any referendum and re-ran. This was not accompanied by much public outcry in the United States.

But despite the democratic nature of the vote, the package still came from the top and the National Assembly and Chávez’ supporters have tended to just rubber-stamp his proposals. With the prospect of Chávez leaving when his turn runs out in 2012 and the fact that he can’t submit another constitutional reform before then, the people are faced with the prospect and indeed the necessity of playing a much more active role in whatever it is that is going on here if the revolutionary changes are to continue.

And it has been a mistake to think that because the reform didn’t pass that “the process,” as it is called, has stopped or would stop. Many communal councils already exist, more are being formed and they are receiving more and more rights and responsibilities. At present, they’re receiving plenty of money to organize community projects, such as lighting dangerous slums or fixing roads. And there are a growing number cooperative socialist enterprises.

The tone of the advertisements and campaigning against the reform say a lot about the political climate in the country. Rather than simply opposing Chávez’ goals completely, a lot of the arguments claimed that the reform was not the proper way to establish socialism. A popular sticker said that the army was already properly constituted to “defend us from the empire” and didn’t need changing.

Those changes that didn’t need the constitutional reform will probably be passed as law by the National Assembly, especially those which are obviously popular like the social security fund for non-dependent workers. Some of the changes, however, do require a reform, and Chávez can not submit another reform by law. But the people can submit a reform to the National Assembly with the signatures of 15% of the registered voters. It would then be up for another national referendum.

Many organizations have already started planning to try this. The proposed reform, discussed and formulated outside the government, would be similar in some respects to that proposed by Chávez, but “improved and simplified.” And instead of presenting a large number of significant changes all together, there has been talk of voting on individual articles or groups of articles. This is a serious possibility and could be one of the most democratic constitutional formation processes I have ever heard of. Some people and workers’ organizations have already organized to collect signatures, though this is likely ineffective until the project is actually discussed and the reform written.

The Chávez presidency has succeeded in radically reducing poverty, transferring political powers and control of resources to the communities, and has energized a society, regardless of individual political persuasion, to be aware of its political rights and discuss how they would like their society to be. The living rooms, cafes, and bars of this country are filled to a remarkable extent with discussion of fundamental political questions, conducted in a manner which is really inspiring. Despite very rare cases of political violence, it is incredibly common to see the radical left, moderates, and conservatives find themselves at the same table, quite politely, but passionately, discussing politics.

But the Chávez presidency has been unable to do much about shocking levels of crime in Caracas and the country, the legacy of clientelism in the state, and political opportunists which surround Chávez. He has recently quite humorously criticized high ranking supposed “socialist revolutionaries” who drive Hummers and wear $500 ties. More importantly, “the process” has been so far dependent on the leadership of a single man. The rejection of the recent referendum by many of the process’s usual supporters signified a break with that tradition. It also opened up a space for them to take more control of the movement and continue the best of what Chávez has initiated with a lesser role for him, or without his leadership at all.

It is unclear whether a bottom-up readjusted constitutional reform, widely discussed and collaboratively written and then submitted for referendum would include the provision that allows Chávez to re-run. Many supporters do think that his leadership is reliable and worth relying on for another term. But in the event of his exit in 2012, the responsibilities of societal transformation, if it is to continue, will fall even further on the backs of the people themselves.

Vincent Bevins lives in Caracas. He writes for a newspaper there (daily journal, the international paper), and corresponds for U.S. newspapers.