The Constitutional Reform referendum in Venezuela has failed, and Chavez, unlike the Venezuelan opposition, gracefully accepted the defeat. The best outcome would have been a slim victory for the "Si" side, and the loss will have negative regional and global consequences. Colombia’s President Uribe, backed by the US, had days before destroyed a humanitarian accord that Chavez had been trying to broker between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrillas. The US is in the process of negotiating a free trade deal with Peru. Canada, serving US foreign policy as it often does, is trying to get the US a free trade deal with Colombia through the back door, by negotiating one for itself. In all this, progressive forces and politicians in place in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil, have looked to Venezuela for political direction and support. The referendum outcome will help the US to isolate these forces.
But, as Chavez himself said, the battle is not over and there are some good things that can come out of this.
The referendum results: "No" got 50.7% (4 504 351), "Yes" got 49.2% (4 159 392) votes. Abstention was very high, at 44.11%. These are from El Tiempo, the Colombian newspaper, and they come from when there were 97% of the votes counted.
Note how very close things were. The normal split in previous years, including the 2004 referendum, has been about 5 million voting with Chavez and about 3.5 million voting against. In this referendum, about 500 000 voters switched and voted against Chavez. Last year’s presidential election, which Chavez won with 63% of voters, had only 30% abstention. Many who had voted with Chavez voted abstained, and some voted against.
The usual fear tactics and dirty tactics were used by the opposition and the Americans. The spread of disinformation, from the notion that Chavez was going to ban miniskirts to Chavez was going to take your firstborn, was pervasive. There were small-scale capital strikes, threats of a new coup, and other abuses. But the Bolivarians had defeated those tactics in the past and many of them had already been exposed by a much stronger Bolivarian media strategy than ever before.
What good can come of it? One of the best things that could happen in Venezuela, as unlikely as it is, is that it could make socialism, popular participation, and democracy seem like normal things, normal options for a society to choose – if not for elites or for the US, for Venezuelan and Latin American peoples. Instead, every time there is an electoral process, there is polarization, a sense that the whole revolutionary project is in the balance, the whole future is in the balance and imperialist violence is hanging overhead, and that voting against Chavez is to side with these reactionary imperialist forces. If, instead, this vote could be seen the way Chavez is presenting it, as a defeat of a specific proposal "for now" (one of his famous phrases), in the context of an ongoing process, that would be a very good thing.
There are two related weaknesses in Venezuela’s revolution. The first is the absence of highly visible leaders with a national television profile and ideas of their own, that are in Chavez’s league, that are a part of the revolutionary process, but that might have slightly different proposals or strategic ideas. This is something that revolutions have always had a hard time producing – it always seems to focus on a single person.
The second problem is the difficulty, again largely created by the US and imperialism, in having a space for dissent within the revolutionary process. Oh, it is true that the Bolivarians are incredibly tolerant of the opposition, allowing speech and acts against the government that would not be tolerated in the US or Canada. Much harder though, and unclear how to accomplish, is for there to be debate within the movement about specific proposals without one side or the other having to go over to the opposition. In a context where the opposition has some 3.5 million voters, plus tremendous media power, foreign financing, and ultimately military backing, that is very hard to do. But this referendum outcome could help. It could actually split the opposition voters, by showing that Chavez isn’t a dictator and is willing to accept a democratic result, something the opposition has been unwilling to do.
The other reason not to despair over this defeat is because of the weaknesses of the referendum itself. The most important flaw was that it was an "omnibus" referendum, in which voters had to accept or reject the whole package. Some parts of this package were exciting – other parts were less so.
There were three issues in the referendum that concerned me, and if they had been presented by themselves I would have voted against them. These were the removal of term limits, (which are a relatively minor issue, given the many jurisdictions in the world that don’t have them), the increased presidential powers to appoint and remove officials, and the 7-year terms (both which I would vote against as much because they could be used against the Bolivarians in future – who wants to be stuck with an empowered reactionary regime for 7 years?). From increased social welfare to the creation of popular power, there was much that was very good and exciting in the constitutional reforms, but how can we know that the 500,000 or so that switched didn’t switch on these three issues? Support for the Bolivarian process could well be deeper than support for this referendum, and potential support for it is even greater (given the high abstention rates and the outcome of the last presidential election). We’ve always known that the Bolivarians were the more democratic of Venezuela’s two sides. Accepting this defeat and carrying on with the process is bound to demonstrate this to many.
Justin Podur covered the 2004 recall referendum for ZNet from Venezuela and writes on Colombia-Venezuela issues. He is based in Toronto and can be reached at email@example.com.