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The Venezuelan Referendum: Countdown to August 15

JP Leary
Date Published: 
August 13, 2004

Since last summer, when petitions gathered before the half-way point of Chávez’s six-year term were summarily thrown out as illegal, the recall process has been controversial. A new set of petition signatures was submitted to the CNE in December, and the board – which is falsely accused by the Venezuelan opposition and several North American editorial boards of loyalty to Chávez – ruled that 876,000 suspicious signatures needed to be verified in a three-day “repair period” in late May, during which 11,000 polling stations were set up around the country for people to reaffirm their signature.

Many of the submitted petition sheets were filled out by the same hand, a violation which the CNE determined was serious enough to warrant their “repair.” American and Venezuelan politicos hostile to Chávez denounced the decision as an underhanded ploy by a Chávez-controlled CNE. And in the meantime, the two chambers of Venezuela’s Supreme Court – which side alternately with the government and its opposition – traded rulings for and against the CNE’s decision. The “repair period” went forward, however, and the elections council determined the requisite number of new petition signatures had been collected to call a referendum vote.

Bolivarian constitution

The new Venezuelan constitution’s unique presidential recall law – would that the Peruvian, Colombian, or American constitutions had such a clause – was introduced by Chávez himself in the 1998 “Bolivarian Constitution” voted into law in his first year in office. The text, along with its various legal reforms, has become one of the principal achievements, and the most potent symbol, of the presidency. The constitution is mass-produced and sold on street corners across Venezuela; many of the so-called chavistas own pocket-sized versions of the blue book, sometimes brandishing it at rallies and marches, or to emphasize a point in street-corner debates. The complete text is even published in an improbably small keychain version.

I asked one merchant selling the constitution and the texts of new government laws (they range from the new urban land reform law to the slightly less exciting penal code) if he thought people actually read the thing—strangely enough, he was all for the opposition. “Of course,” he answered, giving me an incredulous look, and I felt sorry for asking.

Here’s what one Caracas columnist recently said of Chávez and his “followers” in the run-up to August 15: “Following the example of dictators like Hitler, he captivated the masses by telling them what they wanted to hear, and in so doing promoted the criminal element that obviously has no scruples to positions of power, all in order to buy off, under the mantle of legality, the conscience of the thinking class that has groveled at the feet of the powerful in search of scraps left over from this cesspool of corruption.”

The excerpt nicely contains many of the opposition media’s talking points, in suitably paranoid style: Chávez is a wily dictator, like Hitler (or Stalin, or Hitler and Stalin, with Fidel Castro sometimes thrown in for good measure); and he has “deceived” the poor masses (the “criminal element”), who follow him blindly in search of handouts or vengeance. As Luis Duno Gottberg has pointed out, the notion of a self-organized, politically sophisticated populace in the barrios is both terrifying and inconceivable to the Venezuelan elite in the current climate.

Many of the successes of the “Bolivarian Revolution” proclaimed by Chávez have resulted from local organizing at the neighborhood and town level, and less often from government initiatives, which are often blocked by opposition lawmakers anyway (and are hardly ever very radical, in fact). It is this groundswell of popular participation in political life that returned Chávez to power in 2002, and it will be required to save his presidency now.

In the last few months, during the increasingly heated battle over the referendum, which both sides expect to win, the president himself has escalated much of his anti-imperialist rhetoric, positing the recall vote as a referendum on American power and influence in Venezuela, and attacking George W. Bush and other members of the US administration in the strong personal terms for which he has become well-known in the international press (he called Condoleeza Rice “sub-literate” at the Summit of the Americas meeting last spring, and challenged Bush to a bet on whose presidency will last longest). Chávez has also proposed, alarmingly, to increase the country’s military budget and even create popular national defense militias.

American hand

The government has recently begun an investigation of Súmate, an opposition-aligned NGO that audited many of the recall petitions, for taking $53,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy, an American grant-making organization that receives its funding from the US government and has dispersed hundreds of thousands of dollars to opposition groups. The Venezuelan government alleges that Súmate broke Venezuelan election laws by taking money from a foreign government, a position that has incensed the opposition and many in the US government, which has similar laws for American elections.

And as the Venezuelan economy continues its recent recovery, in part on the strength of world oil prices, the government has pledged nearly $2 billion in national oil profits to fund schools, medical clinics, and other social programs for the poor. The opposition calls this “pandering to the poor,” the poor who, for many minds in the opposition, can only ever be pandered to, never so much as communicated with.

One of the great strengths of el proceso in Venezuela is the space it has created for a sector of Venezuelan society to participate in its own governance for the first time: neighborhood committees, tenant organizations, land reform councils, radio stations, and television broadcasters have sprung up in every working-class neighborhood. The government refers to this as “participatory democracy,” and despite grandiose claims to the contrary, it ultimately has limited power over the panopoly of activity taking place across the country, mostly in Venezuela’s numerous big cities.

This radical democratization of everyday political life and the provision of state social services in the barrios would be the immediate first casualties of an opposition government, should the internally fragmented political parties and bickering civic groups that make up “the opposition” ever manage to form one. Still, by forcing the August 15 referendum, the anti-Chávez bloc has managed to focus the political life of the entire population on the future of the country’s foremost politician, an unfortunate outcome regardless of one’s feelings about Chávez himself.

The government, and with it the political mobilization of Venezuela’s poor, are now in genuine danger, and it is difficult to predict who will actually win the referendum: although the editors of the Washington Post don’t seem to realize it, there are few things in life less reliable than a Venezuelan opinion poll. Regardless of the outcome, however, the August 15 vote is unlikely to settle for good the historic conflict taking place in Venezuelan society, which has been a long time coming and likely has a long time yet to go.