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Means and Mobilization: Venezuela’s referendum on term limits


The campaign to remove term limits from elected offices in Venezuela has brought into sharper focus what appears to be a compromise long struck here, a sacrifice of means to ends. With President Chávez’s declaration of a total mobilization in favour of the amendment the means of state have been dramatically brought into the arena of electoral competition, seemingly at the cost of a fair democratic contest.

While definitions of contemporary representative democracy have long been disputed there is a baseline that has rarely been denied, that representative democracy is at least free and fair electoral competition by individuals and/or political associations for control of the state. Implicit in this baseline is that use of the state’s generally large and powerful resources in such a contest violates its norms, especially that of fair competition. The state is to be competed over, not through. 

Use of the state apparatus in election by a government that proclaims its democratic intentions betrays a sacrifice. Norms of democratic competition are sacrificed to the purportedly just aim, that of maintaining the government in power.

The Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 is unique in creating 5 branches of state; among these is the world’s first constitutionally embedded, financially and administratively autonomous electoral branch, the National Electoral Council (CNE). Its role is broad, but includes the elimination of "doubts and vices" from the electoral system, and in this spirit it has been active in investigating opposition claims that the "Yes" campaign is unfairly using the state.

The CNE recently investigated a demonstration held by truck drivers, finding that they didn’t belong to PDVSA, a public company, but a cooperative collectively owned by its members and as such violated no democratic norms. Likewise it has been busy investigating accusations that the Caracas metro has been playing pro-amendment songs on repeat. 

Yet CNE failures in this matter abound, some subtle and some less so. One advert for example, run every day since the Bolivian referendum across a number of national newspapers, depicts Chavez and Morales arm in arm with the text "Congratulations Bolivia…..we continue advancing. The Yes won". This barely camouflaged pro-amendment slogan is discretely labelled the work of the Venezuelan state in the bottom left corner. Yet more importantly, and apparently under the President’s orders the public television channel 8 has been completely turned over to the service of the "Yes" campaign. Likewise Chávez has declared the immediate focus of the huge and widely popular Missions, which range from providing primary health care to planting trees, to be securing a resounding "Yes" in the referendum of February 15th. One Mission worker told me "we’re a part of the state, we shouldn’t be involved. We’ve had to drop all our work to follow the President’s orders." 

Firm supporters of the amendment, the Venezuelan Communist Party, have ironically denounced exactly this type of behaviour from opposition governor Antonio Ledezma while their General Secretary declared the use of public television channels "valid in promoting the amendment".

It appears then, that the government of Hugo Chávez is guilty of this sacrifice, bending the rules of representative democracy to perpetuate itself in power. No matter the benefits to the people’s welfare brought about by this government, the compromise seems irresolvable.

Yet this all depends on the breadth of one’s understanding of fair competition. Jesse Chacon, Minister for Communications and Information, responding to this question yesterday exclaimed "You tell me the state has channel 8? Certainly, but on the other side, creating imbalance, is Globovision, let alone Televen, Venevision, and Channel I." This is a common Chavista argument, that the opposition is so dominant in the private corporate media that only by using the state media can any prospect of a "fair" electoral contest be kept alive. 

Under further pressure regarding the mobilization of the Missions Chacon responded "And the universities? Things are happening in them that were unheard of in my days as a student." A significant number of rectors of publicly funded yet constitutionally autonomous universities have vocally come out against their amendment, their campuses have become staging grounds to peaceful and violent opposition student groups alike. The Catholic Church represents another socially influential bastion of the opposition that has not stood idly by on the sidelines of the increasingly intense electoral battle, the amendment "will not solve a single one of the country’s problems" declared its most recent conference. 

The fundamental question remains; do the actions of universities, the church and the private media, among others, undermine the fairness of the electoral contest? If so do they do so sufficiently to justify the use of the Venezuelan state to level the playing field?

Bound by the 2004 law on social responsibility in the media, which came under heavy criticism from groups such as Human Rights Watch, and with the RCTV shaped hole left by President Chávez’s decision not to renew its broadcast license the Venezuelan private television media is neither as vehement or powerful as it was in 2002 when it played a key part in the coup that almost toppled the Chávez government. This said, there can be no doubt of the private media’s continuing opposition (especially in print and by radio), one newspaper editor recently stating on a program aired by Globovision "Be careful, Hugo. Don’t end up like your counterpart Benito Mussolini, hung upside down."

This kind of profound politization, when as commonplace as in the Venezuelan media can be legitimately accused of subverting the fairness of electoral contests. Without a chance to spread their plans, views, and values free from serious bias in coverage parties cannot be said to be in a fair competition. The private media in Venezuela has transgressed the acceptable "post modernist" bounds of political influence, that of interpretation and presentation, and continues as a direct and potent policial actor.  

Human Rights Watch observes, in its recently damming report on the Chávez regime, that even after moving to cable in 2008, to which only a quarter of Venezuelan’s have access (having had its airwaves liscense witheld), RCTV received an audience share of 13% in comparison with the largest state channel, VTV’s meagre 4%. The use of state means in this domain do not thus seem to violate fair contest so much as enhance it. They endeavour to balance the actions of illegitimate political actors, the private media.

A different story is presented by use of the Missions in response to the actions of the Universities and other socially important institutions. The media are procedurally essential to fair contest, controlling the distribution and interpretation of information clearly and dramatically affects the ability of a party to compete. Social institutions may be equally effectual, but the manner in which this is achieved is qualitatively different. The Church’s word may affect a party’s ability to win, but it doesn’t affect the party’s ability to compete in the same way as the media.  

While the universities, as publicly funded institutions should cease their activities immediately, institutions independent of the state should be free to hold whatever opinion they so choose. The huge and influential Missions cannot therefore be used as legitimate counter weights except in relation to the universities. The balance seems this time to lie with the "Yes" campaign, the Missions profoundly touch the lives of an incredibly large number of Venezuelans. This does represent a sacrifice, use of the Missions subverts the fairness of electoral competition in an endeavour to pass the amendment.

Some policies of the Chávez administration do demonstrate a compromise between its expressed democratic values and its concerns for self preservation beyond 2013, which will see Venezuela’s next presidential elections. Meanwhile however, the policies that have up to now been most vigorously denounced by the opposition, namely the use of state media in the "Yes" campaign, in fact seem to strengthen that very same democratic procedure.

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