December 4, 2007. Venezuelan referendum: Democracy prevails, the Bolivarian revolution continues
The December 2 referendum on 69 proposed changes to Venezuela’s constitution resulted in a narrow majority “No” vote. The result was immediately accepted by President Hugo Chavez, who said: “We have fulfilled our promise of respecting our institutions. The umpire has spoken… We declare that we recognise the decision that the people have made. For now we could not do it. …I congratulate my adversaries for their victory. We are prepared for a long battle.''
9,002,439 Venezuelans voted, of which 8,883,746 votes were valid. In the block A vote (the reforms proposed by Chavez), 50.7% voted against and 49.3% voted for. In the block B vote (the reforms proposed by the National Assembly), 51.1% voted against and 48.9% voted for.
This is the first time in 12 national polls since Chavez was elected in 1998 that the opposition has won. Had the proposed constitutional reforms been adopted, they would have significantly extended democracy and social justice in Venezuela. They included the constitutional recognition of new institutions of popular power based on direct democracy, such as the communal councils, and new measures to allow people to directly manage resources and decision-making in their communities. While respecting the right to private property, the reforms recognised new forms of "social property" run by and for the people themselves, and were to give further recognition to the growing number of cooperatives.
The rights of gay men and lesbians would have been recognised in the Constitution, and the voting age reduced to 16 years. The rights and culture of Afro-Venezuelans and indigenous people would also have been Constitutionally protected, and governments would have been obliged to ensure free university education to the entire population. As well, workers' rights would be significantly extended, including a reduction in the working week from 44 to 36 hours, and social security and pensions were guaranteed to approximately 5 million workers in the “informal” economy.
In the words of Robert Hernandez, vice-president of the Venezuelan legislature, the reforms aimed to “transfer greater powers to the people and that's precisely the first step towards socialism. It's not anything other than giving society functions that until now have been privileges of the State."
But the referendum result is far from a fatal blow to the Bolivarian revolution. The fact that 4.3 million people voted for this program of action is in many ways remarkable, a measure of the deepening revolutionary process. As Chavez said after the result was announced: “In the proposals there where some very audacious ideas without precedent.”
Exposing as lies the persistent efforts of the international media to portray Chavez as a “dictator”, the December 2 referendum was thoroughly transparent and democratic. “We will accept the results no matter what they are”, Chavez said as he voted on December 2. “This process has been a gain for democracy in Venezuela. Everyone has the right to express themselves, even if it is done crudely sometimes … For most of Venezuela's history the people have been isolated from the political process. Here popular power will have its say.”
While the opposition can claim an electoral victory, it is not a decisive one. A defining feature of the December 2 poll was that participation (55.9% of the voting-age population) was considerably down from the December 2006 presidential election, in which 74% voted. The abstention rate of 44.4% in the constitution reform poll points to the real story of this referendum.
Compared to last year’s presidential elections, the opposition won very few people over, increasing their vote by less than 100,000. The pro-revolution vote dropped by around 2.8 million, but those votes did not go to the opposition, but to abstention. Commenting on this, Chavez said: “We need to work out what were the reasons for this … but I am convinced that the majority of these people are still with us. They did not vote for the opposition, they abstained due to doubts, fears, lack of time and due to lack of our ability to explain.
Confusion and fear were undoubtedly factors in the outcome. The fact that the proposed reforms aimed to provide a legal framework for significant advances in empowering Venezuela's poor majority was a direct threaten the political and economic power of Venezuelan and US corporate elites, who pulled out all stops in their campaign against the reforms.
Aided and abetted financially, politically and propagandistically by the US government and corporate media, Venezuela’s privileged elite ran a campaign of disinformation, intimidation and attempted destabilisation in the lead-up to the referendum.
A CIA memo uncovered the week before the referendum revealed that the opposition campaign was funded by the US embassy in Venezuela to the tune of US$8 million for propaganda alone. Contrary to international media portrayals of the Chavez government as restricting free speech, the opposition still controls the majority of media outlets in Venezuela and they used them to spread lies and rumours aimed at instilling fears about the proposed constitutional reforms. It was said, for example, that if the reforms were passed the state would be able to take your children and your home, and that small shops would be nationalised.
But the opposition campaign was not limited to propaganda. A month before the referendum, opposition leaders met with US officials who urged them to “organise acts of economic sabotage against infrastructure, destroy the food transport and delivery chain ... and organise a military coup with all means possible, including bloodshed by means of paramilitary force" to stop the constitutional reforms. (These same defenders of the old constitution carried out a short-lived coup in April 2002 that did away with the constitution altogether and dismissed all the freely elected state powers and institutions, including the congress, attorney-general, governors and mayors.)
In Caracas, two weeks before the referendum, anti-Chavez students violently attacked pro-reform students at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Then, on November 26, anti-Chavez protesters blocking streets in the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo shot three times and killed a worker on a truck full of pro-Chavez workers from local factories who tried to pass the roadblock.
On November 30, the government publicly released a video (see http://www.aporrea.org/medios/n105515.html) revealing the opposition’s strategy of destabilization for the referendum, in which opposition leaders are seen calling on supporters assembled in a church in Caracas to not recognize the results of the referendum and take part in nation-wide protests to overturn the constitutional reforms by “generating a political crisis and crisis of instability”.
These events were consistently ignored or misreported by the international media, which continues to portray the opposition as peaceful “anti-dictatorship” protesters.
International media lies
Following the referendum result, the corporate media will of course be triumphant. Within minutes of the result being announced, Reuters was again pedalling its lies in an article that appeared almost simultaneously in online newspapers around the world, declaring: “Mr Chavez, 53, has said he wants to rule until he dies”. The reforms, said Reuters, would have allowed “Mr Chavez - who has been in office since 1999 - to run for re-election indefinitely, control foreign currency reserves, appoint loyalists over regional elected officials and censor the media if he declares an emergency … [and] boosted his powers to expropriate private property”. The fact that almost every western democracy empowers its government to declare states of emergency (US presidents can declare states of emergency that suspend citizens' normal rights and liberties for up to two years) and that, unlike in Australia and the US, the Venezuelan constitution grants people the ability to recall any elected official, including the president, before their term finishes, was not mentioned.
The Reuters coverage claimed that Chavez still “wields enormous power in a country he has pledged to turn into a socialist state. His supporters dominate Congress, the courts and election authorities … [and] Mr Chavez had tried to make the referendum vote a black-and-white plebiscite on his rule.” This media spin is almost surreal: a “dictator” defeated in an undisputedly democratic election called by his government who immediately accepts the vote just doesn't add up. In Chavez’s own words, the December 2 referendum “demonstrated the credibility of our constitution [adopted in 1999, after Chavez was first elected] and the institutions that it has created, in our political system and Bolivarian democracy. Venezuelan democracy has matured and every process that unfolds allows it to continue to mature.”
The revolution continues
The revolution has won every major battle with the opposition forces since 2002, until this referendum. But alongside the opposition’s recent electoral victory is genuinely mass support for – and increasingly mass “ownership” of – the social missions, the new democratic structures, the economy and all the concrete content of the developing revolution. The opposition have won this election, but it is quite another thing to confront and defeat the increasingly organised and armed working people in an all-out struggle for power.
That around 2.8 million people who voted for Chavez last year were not convinced of the reforms does not amount to a rejection of what is contained in the proposed reforms, but indicates that the revolutionary forces were unable to successfully counter the media offensive and convince millions of Chavez supporters why they should back the reforms. It is in this context that Chavez's statement, “This Bolivarian republic will keep getting stronger. This is not a loss; for me this is another `For now’”, should be understood. The battle of ideas continues.
“We have been a people under fire, a people that has faced an … artillery of lies and rumours”, Chavez said. “However, it has been a massive step forward politically that 49% have voted for a socialist project … We will continue in the battle to construct socialism within the framework of the constitution. The reform proposals will continue to be put forward. It continues to be alive. It will not die.
The Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network is organising public events in a number of cities in December to discuss the constitutional reforms and the outcomes of the referendum. Visit http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org for details, and for links to further information about the Venezuelan revolution.