With the surprising loss of the constitutional reform referendum in December (by a minimal vote difference of 1.3%) Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution reached a turning point. The April 2002 coup attempt, the December 2002 shutdown of the oil industry and the August 2004 recall referendum represented major defeats for the opposition and a radicalisation of the Bolivarian process. But the failed reform was quite different: it was the first defeat for the Bolivarian movement, after 12 national electoral contests, since Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, and the first time that he and his movement had been forced to examine which way the process must go if it is to advance.
Shortly after his re-election in December 2006, Chávez had argued that Venezuela’s new constitution needed to be reformed for transition towards "21st century socialism". But when he presented his proposal to reform 33 articles of the constitution in August, after delays and closed-door discussions among top advisers, it provoked confusion and scepticism in all but the most pro-Chávez sectors of society. The scepticism intensified when the National Assembly (which may modify, and must approve the president’s constitutional reform proposal) added another 36 articles.
The 69 (out of 350) articles that were to be changed fell into four categories: strengthening participatory democracy, broadening social inclusion, supporting non-neoliberal economic development, and strengthening the central government (1). The first two were relatively uncontroversial; they included giving the newly formed communal councils more power and more secure funding, lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and health, requiring gender parity in the nomination of candidates for public office, introducing a social security fund for the self-employed and those in the informal labour market, guaranteeing free university education and recognising Venezuelans of African descent.
But the reforms that affected the economy and the president’s powers proved far more controversial because of what they contained – and what the opposition claimed they contained. Among economic reforms were the removal of central bank autonomy, prohibition of the privatisation of the oil industry, strengthening of land reform, reduction of the working week from 44 to 36 hours, and the introduction of social and collective property rights. The reform proposed to eliminate the two-term limit that a president may serve, lengthen the presidential term from six to seven years, allow the president to create special zones for economic development, give the president the power to reorganise municipal boundaries, make citizen-initiated referenda more difficult by increasing signature requirements, allow the president to promote all military officers, and toughen state of emergency provisions by removing the right to information.
What went wrong
Since the 3 December defeat, Chávez and his supporters have tried to figure out what went wrong. For the opposition, the reason its side won was simple: Venezuelans rejected the president’s attempt to create 21st century socialism, which it sees as Castro-communism. However, for Chávez supporters, who have always denied that their project is Cuban state socialism, the answer is not that simple – Cuban state socialism was not on the ballot.
Also, it wasn’t so much that those who had voted for Chávez in 2006 had now voted against him one year later. Rather, the opposition was effective in turning out its supporters to vote against the reform, while Chávez supporters abstained to a far higher degree than opposition supporters did (2).
There appear to be four main reasons why the reform initiative failed: the way the campaign was conducted, the defection of long-time supporters, the mood in the country and the process through which the reform was developed. At first this process took place entirely within a closed circle of Chávez advisers. Then, when the National Assembly debated the proposal, legislators held public meetings to get outside input, but the process was rushed, covering 69 articles in two and a half months, so the discussion was superficial.
The pro-reform campaign, launched on 2 November, a month before the referendum, did not have much time to educate the public as to what the reform was about: there were too many articles to discuss and the opposition waged a merciless campaign. It claimed that the reform would weaken the right to private property and suggested that all private property could be indiscriminately expropriated by the state. In reality, ordinary private property was not affected. The reform would have only strengthened the state’s mandate to expropriate food producers in the case of food emergencies or to redistribute latifundios for land reform.
The opposition also focused on the proposal that the president could appoint regional vice-presidents, claiming this would allow him to rule directly anywhere, bypassing elected officials. This too had nothing to do with the actual proposal, which did not assign these vice-presidents any new powers. Opposition literature and spokesmen made even more outrageous claims: the state would take children away from parents and socialism would become the only political creed. These were scare tactics, and effective. Even if people did not believe them all, they were sufficiently intimidated to stay away from the polls.
With the reform’s early 60% lead in the polls shrinking dramatically, Chávez began to refocus the campaign and actively tried to turn the reform into a referendum on his presidency, saying `A yes vote is a vote for me.’ The reform was too complex to explain in detail and it made sense for Chávez to use his personal popularity for the campaign.
But Chávez misread the popular mood, and former allies, such as the former defence minister, Raul Baduel, Chávez’s ex-wife Marisabel Rodriguez, and the social democratic party Podemos all turned against the reform.
The mood further soured because the government’s public administration had become inefficient and many of the president’s supporters wanted to send him a message. As the human rights group Provea reports, the social programmes, the missions for community health care, literacy training, high school completion, public housing, subsidised food, land reform, and employment through the creation of cooperatives, have all been deteriorating in the past year (3). While pro-Chávez poor Venezuelans appreciate the increase in social programmes and spending over the past four years (4), they are disappointed and frustrated at the inefficiency with which these programmes are managed (5). It did not help that there was a severe milk shortage in October and November, which made it almost impossible to find fresh milk, and hard to find powdered milk.
The assumption is that, but for these reasons, all Chávez supporters would have voted for the reform. Among hard-core Chávez supporters there is a firm belief that the reform process would have helped address the main issue: creating a society with greater social justice. Whether the reform was necessary for this is not clear since a large part of the reform could all have been implemented through ordinary legislation.
Many Chávez supporters fell for the opposition’s distortions of the reform; and many who did not, disagreed with Chávez’s argument that his powers needed to be strengthened to better defend the revolutionary process and promote the transition towards socialism.
Consequences of the defeat
Chávez and his supporters are convinced that the failure is a major setback. But there are voices that argue that this is an opportunity in disguise. If the reform had won, especially by a narrow margin, the opposition would not have accepted the result and would have tried to destabilise the country with violent protests and claims of fraud. Even now, many in the opposition are trying to claim that their win was far larger than the official result. A serious destabilisation campaign would probably have hindered the Chávez government from implementing the policies in the reform.
Also the failure has provoked the most profound analysis and self-criticism of the Bolivarian movement. For a long time criticism within the Bolivarian movement was out of the president’s view, since the movement is centred on him. Questioning his policies risked the unity of the movement, which needed to be unified to survive given the opposition’s efforts to overthrow Chávez (with financial support from the United States). If Chávez’s examination is serious, it will find flaws in the top-down and rushed process, in the president-centred aspects of the proposals and in the inefficiency of government programmes. Only then could he renew his efforts to bring about 21st century socialism in Venezuela. ________________________________________________________
Gregory Wilpert is a sociologist and editor of the website Venezuelanalysis.com. His most recent book is Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The Policies of the Chávez Government, Verso Books, London, 2007
(1) For a detailed analysis of the reform proposal, see: "Making Sense of Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform", Venezuelanalysis.com, 1 December 2007.
(2) In the mostly poor pro-Chávez neighbourhood of 23 de Enero (which voted 75.6% for Chávez in 2006) voter turnout declined by 23% between the presidential election and the referendum, while in the mostly middle class Caracas neighbourhood of El Recreo (which voted 70.3% for Rosales in 2006) voter turnout declined by only 14%.
(4) Social spending increased from 8.2% of GDP in 1998 to 13.2% in 2005 according to the Venezuelan ministry of planning and development.
(5) See "The wind goes out of the revolution", The Economist, London, December 6, 2007.