Lessons from Venezuela’s Constitutional Referendum

On December 2, Venezuelan voters narrowly rejected 69 proposed changes to their constitution. Contrary to some reports, this does not mean that Chávez has been “defeated” or that the opposition has become the “new majority.” Roughly 4.5 million people voted against the referendum in 2007 and against Chávez in the 2006 presidential election. While the opposition vote has not changed much, many of the 7.3 million Venezuelans who voted for Chávez in 2006 stayed home for the referendum. Although millions more abstained, Chávez’s government remains in power with close to a 60 percent approval rating. Organized opposition groups have minority support and little political power. 

So what does the referendum vote mean? What lessons does it offer for those committed to social justice and democracy? Here are four ideas. 

(1) Deeply progressive social, economic, and political policies can be popular. Lost in most of the discussion on the referendum are the many inspiring policy proposals that generated broad support and relatively little opposition. The proposed changes to the constitution’s articles included gems such as: 

  • Article 21: Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and health. 
  • Article 64: Establish adequate housing as a right for all Venezuelans. 
  • Article 87: Create a social security fund for Venezuelans who are self-employed or employed in the informal sector. 
  • Article 90: Decrease the workweek from 44 hours to 36 hours. 
  • Article 103: Mandate that all public education, up to and including university, be free of charge. 
  • Article 272: Require the penitentiary system to orient its work towards the full rehabilitation of prisoners and to respect their human rights during incarceration. 

(2) Politically embedded journalists produce skewed news. Much has been made of how reporters embedded in the U.S. military have produced inaccurate and biased media coverage. The referendum coverage shows how journalists embedded in political movements can be just as dangerous. As others have observed, coverage of Venezuela in the U.S. mainstream media has been atrocious. Most stories are dominated by unrepresentative interviews with Chávez critics or defectors, reports of opposition rallies, and anti-Chávez rhetoric. They have reduced the 69 proposed constitutional changes to only a few of the more contested proposals. 

Why are the journalists so biased? Among other reasons, perhaps because they are embedded in the Venezuelan opposition. When I first visited Venezuela in 2006, I was shocked by the extreme political and economic segregation. Cities are largely divided into Chavista and anti-Chavista zones. The latter look not very different from Los Angeles, with shiny mega-malls, tree-lined boulevards, and gated villas. The former are often informally planned barrios with self-built homes, unfinished streets, and a surplus of trash, pollution, and violence. Guess where the mainstream journalists live, work, and play? With the salary of a foreign correspondent, they can afford to stay in the wealthier neighborhoods, where anti-Chavismo is nothing less than common sense. As long as Venezuela remains so polarized, mainstream journalists will circulate in a social world dominated by the opposition—unless media establishments or the Venezuelan government try more sincerely to put reporters in “fair and balanced” spaces. 

(3) Solidarity does not mean unconditional support. Alongside the referendum’s progressive policy reforms were questionable proposals, such as unlimited presidential reelection, new presidential powers to declare states of emergency, and presidential discretion to create new local and state government bodies and appoint their leaders. These changes caused millions of Chavistas to vote no or to abstain. Despite their general support for Chávez and his government, dissenters showed that their loyalty has limits. As one voter said, “People who have been with Chávez do not support the reform. He wants a blank check, and that’s impossible. We’re not stupid….” 

Many leftists and Venezuelan solidarity groups have been slower to come to this realization. With too few exceptions, they have responded to the mainstream media’s unabashed contempt of Chávez with unabashed defense of Chávez. Critiques of mainstream media coverage are important. Critical discussion of the pros and cons of government proposals would be more helpful, both to provide more constructive ideas and for communicating the complexities of the Venezuelan revolution to Northern audiences. 

(4) Democracy is not a yes or no issue. The referendum largely failed because of fixed and conflicting assumptions about democracy. The government claimed that the proposed reforms were democratic, and opponents claimed that they were undemocratic. For critics, the possibility of unlimited presidential reelection might further consolidate power in one man’s hands, and the appointment of leaders to new government bodies would steal power from democratically elected mayors and governors. From the government’s perspective, the reforms would let Venezuelans choose their leader without constraints, while developing new venues for democratic participation. 

Both sides were right. Democracy is no simple matter, and reducing it to a yes or no issue tends to exclude and inflame those with different views. This is exactly what the Venezuelan government did. At a rally before the vote, for example, Chávez proclaimed, “Whoever votes ‘Yes’ is voting for Chávez, and whoever votes ‘No’ is voting for George W. Bush.” Statements like this are nothing new—the government has a long history of asserting its vision of democracy as the only legitimate option (TINA, with a twist). 

The referendum highlighted two questionable parts of this vision. First, assumptions about democratic leadership. For Chávez, a strong democratic leader is someone who is elected by a majority, who believes in democratic processes, and who has the power to make these beliefs reality. The proposals on presidential reelection, states of emergency, and political appointees all emerge from this vision. 

The government has a valid argument, but the No vote has a stronger argument for a different kind a democratic leader. These voters assumed that democracy requires many different leaders, all chosen directly by the people, kept in check with strong limits, and forced to regularly cede power to new leaders. For Chávez to be a truly democratic leader, he would need to encourage other people to lead. 

Second, the Yes and No votes had different assumptions about the time that democracy takes. For the government, democratic reforms are urgent and need to be passed as soon as possible. To its credit, the government opened up significant debate on the referendum—it organized over 9,000 public consultations and made several revisions based on this input. By the time of the vote, 78 percent of Venezuelans had read or been informed about the reforms. 

For opponents, this debate was not enough. Chavistas and anti-Chavistas alike complained that they had too little time to study the proposals, and that many key ideas were underdeveloped. Citizens only had a few months to read, discuss, and revise the constitutional changes. After such abbreviated discussions, proposals for things such as “federal cities” and “functional districts” remained highly ambiguous. Democratic reforms are always urgently needed, but if the government wants to successfully pass and implement them, it will need broad public support. It takes many months of debate, adjustment, and compromise  to forge such support. 

As the U.S. presidential campaign marches on, these lessons are particularly relevant. What kind of democratic leader should citizens demand? How quickly should they expect big changes? How do assumptions about democracy limit what politicians and movements struggle for? 

After the election, Chávez claimed that the vote was a step forward for democracy. He may be more right than he realizes. Not only did the referendum show that the government respects the democratic process, it also shook people up in a new way. Whereas in the past, Chávez shook people out of complacency and passivity, this time he may have shaken them out of unconditional support and fixed assumptions. More so than ever before, millions of Chávez supporters openly questioned and dissented from their leader’s wishes. Now that is democracy. 


Josh Lerner is an activist and researcher based in New York. He is a PhD student at the New School for Social Research and co-coordinator of ParticipatoryBudgeting.org. For a more detailed analysis of the referendum’s proposals, see venezuelanalysis.com.