Democracy, Revolution, and Term Limits in Venezuela


“The reform is aimed as a personal project. This is neither revolution nor socialism, but personal ambition”, argued Federico Black of the student organisation Furthering the Country to the virulently anti-Chavez Venezuelan daily El Universal.

Black was referring to an amendment to Venezuela’s constitution that will be voted on in a referendum on February 15 to remove limits on the number of times an elected official can stand for election to a public office. If passed, it would allow President Hugo Chavez to stand in the presidential elections in 2012.

According to Black, “We have been educating the public about why you should vote ’no’. The point at issue is to explain to ordinary people and the whole country that indefinite reelection is anti-democratic and a mere personal desire …”

Thus goes the constant and repetitive theme of the corporate media’s coverage of the referendum campaign, hammering the same line as the US-funded right-wing opposition.

President for life?

It misleadingly characterises the proposed reform as “indefinite re-election”, implying that the vote is about whether or not to make “Chavez president for life”.

All the amendment would do is remove existing restrictions on standing for election, Chavez, or any other incumbent, would still be required to actually win the popular vote.

As well, Venezuela’s constitution includes the profoundly democratic right to hold a referendum on whether or not to recall any elected official from halfway through their term if 20% of their electors sign a petition calling for one.

The opposition called a recall referendum on Chavez in 2004, which he won.

In response, the Bolivarian government has pointed out that many states throughout the world do not have term limits for their heads of state, without this being considered anti-democratic.

Chavez has repeatedly stressed that he does “not have any plan to be president for life. That would be a violation of the constitution [and also] the political system. That would be the end of alternative governments.”

The referendum has become the latest battle in Venezuela’s intense class struggle. The Bolivarian revolution led by Chavez, which has sought to implement policies to empower the poor that have resulted in poverty rates halving, has been met by powerful resistance from the old elite, backed by the US government, and much of the middle class.

The campaign around the referendum has involved large rallies by supporters of the revolution among the poor, with 100,000 grassroots committees established to campaign for a “yes” vote. The “no” campaign has been marked by the violent protests and riots by middle-class students that have become a hallmark of the opposition.

According to polling companies linked to the opposition (Datanalysis) and to the government (IVAD, GIS), despite differing statistics and conclusions, two distinct trends are evident in all polls. The first is that the majority of Venezuelans support the amendment (varying from 51%-55%) and the second is that the support for the amendment has grown significantly since the debate over it commenced late last year.

The actual result will most likely depend on the voter turnout.

However, the question still remains, not only among conservative commentators, but progressive as well: Is the referendum about entrenching Chavez in power permanently?

To answer this question, we need to place the question of term limits in Venezuela’s current situation. Venezuela is currently experiencing a revolutionary upheaval, as the poor majority and working people seek to overcome crippling poverty and underdevelopment imposed by a corrupt elite that allowed multinationals to drain the oil-rich nation of its wealth.

Popular power

Central to this struggle from its beginning has been, in the words of Chavez, the need for “the sovereign people [to] transform itself into the object and the subject of power. This option is not negotiable for revolutionaries.”

The desperate actions of the Venezuelan oligarchy in response to the initial reforms implemented by the Chavez government, including a failed military coup and bosses lock-out in 2002 and 2003, made it clear that a profound and far-reaching transformation of the entire society from the bottom up was required in order for the process of change to advance.

The actions of the poor and workers in mobilising on a massive scale to defeat the attempts of the elite to overthrow the Chavez government revealed that the motor-force of the process was the people themselves.

In this sense, the revolution has achieved much in the ten years since Chavez was first sworn in as president. Millions of people have become involved in politics for the first time and are involved in running the social missions (community run social programs) and other organisations from the ground up.

In particular, thousands of communal councils, grassroots bodies run democratically by groups of up to 400 families, are emerging as the base of popular power. These are promoted as potential building blocks for a new democratic and decentralised state — through which people learn to govern — as part of constructing a socialist system.

Also, the mass-based United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), with 5.8 million aspiring members, has emerged as the political instrument that can unite the previously fragmented revolutionary movement.

But, inevitably, the Bolivarian revolution was born with defects inherited from the very society it is attempting to transform. Populism, bureaucracy and corruption still pervade Venezuelan politics.

And while those fighting for justice in Venezuela are united in various organisational structures, these structures are still new and the unity is fragile.

It has been the personal leadership role of Chavez — with his unique connection to the impoverished majority and approval ratings far higher than any other Chavista figure and even the PSUV — that has been crucial to inspiring and mobilising millions.

Chavez’s role has been essential to maintaining unity between the often fragmented forces for progressive change, while at the same time pushing for “revolution within the revolution” — that is, the overcoming of the revolution’s internal problems such as corruption and bureaucracy.

Chavez has used his connection with the masses to constantly seek to educate and radicalise, turning his weekly Alo Presidente TV show into a “socialist school”.

International role

Chavez’s role transcends Venezuela’s borders, as he has sought both to promote pro-people integration in the region and used international forum’s to give voice to the world’s oppressed.

This has brought Chavez into confrontation with US imperialism, however such actions have given Chavez massive moral authority.

It is true that it can not be considered a strength of the revolutionary process that so much importance is attached to an individual leader, no matter what their personal qualities. There is the need to develop a broad-based collective leadership.

However, this requires time to develop and is one of the key aims of the PSUV, which only formed properly last year.

The role of Chavez must be considered in the context of the urgent need to deepen the revolutionary process in Venezuela and Latin America, especially in the context of the global economic crisis.

At this point in time, Chavez’s role in using his immense authority to promote radical solutions to the crisis and consciously mobilise millions to that end is indispensable.

US imperialism and its local agents in Venezuela are fully aware of this, as they are of the danger of allowing the process to develop in order to create a collective leadership with the authority currently invested in Chavez.

This explains the vehemence of the “no” campaign, not supposed concerns about democracy. Such claims are laughable from an opposition that in 2002 overthrew the elected government and installed one of Venezuela’s richest men as president — before a mass uprising restored Chavez.

The Venezuelan people have the right to determine their political system and decide for themselves who can or cannot stand for election — this right to self-determination is the most relevant democratic principle at stake in the referendum.

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