The Venezuelan Referendum
Chavez wins and the balancing
by Justin Podur
Z magazine, October 2004
Three days before Venezuela's President
Hugo Chavez Frias won a resounding victory in the recall referendum
of August 15, he held a press conference at the Miraflores palace
in Caracas. At the press conference all the mainstream domestic
and international press were in attendance, from the New York
Times's Juan Forero to CNN International. Alternative media were
present as well: journalists from venezuelanalysis.com, Z Magazine,
Brazil de Fato, the Socialist Worker, and the Narc' News Bulletin
all managed to get in. These latter might have been less surprised
than the mainstream journalists to hear Chavez quote Noam Chomsky.
Chavez described his governments program
as follows: "As the dangerous radical Aristotle said-wait,
who was it that called Aristotle a 'dangerous radical'? Ah, yes,
it was Noam Chomsky. As Noam Chomsky called him, that 'dangerous
radical' Aristotle said that poverty and democracy were incompatible
For Aristotle, there were two possible remedies to this problem.
Both were subtraction operations-Aristotle was very mathematical.
So you could subtract from the democracy or you could subtract
from the poverty. We here have tried to do something more than
Aristotle recommended: we have tried to reduce the poverty and
increase the democracy."
That was not all Chavez said at the press
conference. He laid out his plans in other ways as well. He described
Simon Bolivar's dream of Latin American integration as a way to
counter the hegemony of the empire in the North. He described
the small, practical steps his government has enacted to carry
that out: the "oil-for-beef" deal with Argentina, the
possibility of a Latin American TV channel, the creation of a
South American financial institution, the proposed gas pipeline
through Colombia. He described the Missions-Mision Robinson and
Mision Sucre, which brought education to adults and young students
who had lacked access in the past; Mision Barrio Adentro, which
brought thousands of doctors into poor neigh-
Unlike virtually every other world leader,
he spoke openly against the U.S. war in Iraq by actually mentioning
the Iraqi victims who have been massacred by the thousands. When
asked what he hoped for from the United States, he answered: "We
could hope for a great deal. If the United States respected our
countries, what couldn't we accomplish? If, instead of war with
Iraq, we went to war on poverty, what couldn't we accomplish?
How many millions could we educate, how many millions inside the
United States could we give health care to? I would be the first
one to work with any United States president who was interested
in this. I would be the very first, the best, the firmest ally
.... But we cannot hope for much from the United States."
He addressed the Venezuelan opposition
to his presidency and his program in a similar vein. "I am
prepared to sit down with any member of the opposition interested
in dialogue. The day after we win, we can sit down for lunch here
at Miraflores. We will talk about how to move forward together.
Any member of the opposition who will respect the constitution
and respect the Venezuelan people, we are prepared to talk."
The important and novel part of the conference
that day, however, was his careful deployment of Wall Street analysts.
Quoting Nicholas Field, a London market analyst, and the Lehman
Brothers, Wall Street analysts, Chavez suggested that international
markets were starting to understand that Chavez's government was
a stabilizing influence in the region. "Are these Chavistas?"
he asked rhetorically. "I don't think they are Chavistas.
I just think they are well informed." But the quoting of
Wall Street, as well as the discussion of the Colombia-Venezuela
pipeline deal and the ChevronTexaco contract signed just the week
before, had another intention as well: to show that Chavez did
not intend to threaten private property or even multinational
interests, so long as Venezuelan sovereignty was respected.
Chavez's campaign speech exemplified the
complicated and fragile balancing act that his government is forced
to play. It is a government that is trying to build a more democratic
system, doing so by supporting the initiatives of a powerful and
energized grassroots and by using electoral politics and constitutional
initiatives. It is a government whose strength-and hence weakness-is
the popularity and mobilizing ability of its leader. It is a government
that is facing both subtle and brutal imperial depredations and
an undemocratic and unscrupulous local elite with a surprisingly
large and intransigent middle-class base. It is a government that
is trying to negotiate the conflict between capitalist globalization
and local democracy. All these tensions were played out during
the referendum and its aftermath.
The head of the "Coordinadora Democratica"
(the umbrella organization of the Venezuelan opposition), Eduardo
Mendoza, gave a press conference the next day. The location was
an opulent private country club in a wealthy part of town. Mendoza
is from perhaps the second wealthiest family in Venezuela and
is governor of the state of Valencia. If Chavez's press conference
was a carefully crafted campaign move, so too was Mendoza's. Here,
Mendoza tried to establish the credibility of a future claim of
fraud by setting up the double argument the opposition used throughout
the referendum campaign: if we win, the vote will have been fair;
if we lose, the vote will have been fraudulent. Mendoza said that
international observers had reported, in private meetings with
the opposition of course, that their work was being "blocked."
How, specifically, he was asked. Well, he could not say out of
respect for the "privacy" of the observers who expressed
worry that they might be kicked out and decided not to complain
publicly, the most important thing being that they stay in the
country. Mendoza thanked the Carter Center and the OAS profusely,
several times, something the opposition was going to regret the
day after the referendum.
Perhaps most indicative of the opposition's
thinking was Mendoza's reply to a question from TV Azteca in Mexico-the
Fox News of Mexico-asking, "What kind of Venezuela are you
seeking?" Mendoza answered, "We want a Venezuela where
people respect one another. Where we are all Venezuelans, we are
all together, whatever religious differences we might have, whatever
class differences we might have. One Venezuela, where the rich
and poor can coexist."
That noble dream of a coexistence of rich
and poor was, and continues to be, aggressively fought for by
the international press as well. Despite Chavez's use of Wall
Street analysts, investors' desire for stability in oil markets
did not and does not equate to respect for Venezuelan democracy
or sovereignty. The day before the referendum, a Wall Street Journal
article called Chavez "Castro's mini-me" in a piece
that had virtually nothing to do with Venezuela (it was about
repression in Cuba). The day of the referendum, an article in
the UK Independent cited mysterious "exit polls" and
predicted a massive repudiation of Chavez. Days after the referendum,
the NYT editorial page chastised the opposition, telling it to
acknowledge that it didn't represent the majority of Venezuelans;
a few days later, the NYT's Juan Forero was repeating the usual
convoluted formulations, accusing Chavez of "doing everything
possible to provoke the U.S.," including things like "threatening
to cut off oil exports to the U. S. in the event of an invasion."
The opposition and the U.S. press's attempts
to portray Chavez as a "dictator-in-the-making" who
is "flirting with repression" might resonate with constituencies
in the Venezuelan middle class or in the U.S. elite, where contempt
for democracy is profound. But the majority of Venezuelans remember
the decades of human rights violations-censorship, torture, disappearances,
assassinations, and massacres. The years between 1958-1998 in
Venezuela were years of stacked courts, sham elections, counterinsurgency,
economic plunder, and harsh repression for the most vulnerable
parts of the population. This is part of why the extraordinarily
well-financed anti-Chavez propaganda machine has been so ineffective
in Venezuela. Currently, though, that propaganda machine has been
extremely effective in reaching the opposition's middle-class
base, something that became obvious on voting day.
The Voting Day Disconnect
0n the morning of August 15, Chavez voted
in a large, poor neighborhood called 23 Enero (January 23 marks
the date in 1958 that the Perez Jimenez dictatorship was overthrown).
The residents of that barrio were, and continue to be, overwhelmingly
pro-Chavez. They have benefited directly from the work of the
Missions, but their support for Chavez goes far beyond that. Jose
Contreras of the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar (CSB), a community
and youth organization in the barrio, listed the reasons his militant
organization supported Chavez. "First, he is an anti-imperialist.
Second, he is a person of the left. And third, he is committed
to democracy." The CSB is anti-capitalist and revolutionary.
Wasn't there a conflict there? "This is a process that is
in motion, that is based on participatory democracy. We believe
that progress is possible within this process." To Contreras,
the Chavez government is unlike any previous government. Under
others, the people and organizations of his community were repressed,
imprisoned, infiltrated, and undermined. Under Chavez, the community
has received support and encouragement. Throughout the barrio,
people were sober and confident that they would win by a large
margin and they faced the very long lines with equanimity.
In one of the wealthiest neighborhoods
of Caracas, El Bosque, the base of the opposition had turned out
to vote in a mood no less confident than those of the 23 Enero
barrio. A grass-roots activist for the Coordinadora Democratica
explained the two alternatives, "The majority is with us.
If we win, it will be a great victory for democracy." If
the opposition lost? "The only way the government can win
is by fraud." Any evidence of fraud happening at this voting
No evidence of fraud turned up anywhere
that day, in fact. There were some problems with the fingerprint
voter-registration machines. The biggest problem was that the
voting system had never coped with such a massive turnout before.
The result was long lines with up to 12 hours of waiting. Many
people probably did not get to vote. Turnout was still remarkably
high, though, with 8.5 million voters out of an electorate of
some 14 million.
At 4:00 AM on August 16, preliminary results
finally came in. With 94 percent of the vote counted, some 4.99
million votes had gone to Chavez, 3.57 million to the opposition.
The National Electoral Council announced the result and by the
afternoon the Carter Center and the Organization of American States
(OAS) had endorsed the results, stating that their own analyses
and counts showed the election to have been fair and decisive.
In between the National Electoral Council and the Carter Center
declarations, however, the opposition had their own press conference
where, without any accompanying evidence or logic, they cried
In Chavez's victory speech, he called
the results a triumph for the people, a triumph for the constitution,
and a triumph for democracy. He was still ready to talk to the
opposition who, after all, represented millions of voters. By
the afternoon, Chavez joked that the lunch he had prepared for
the opposition had grown cold in the palace kitchens. "With
a microwave, we can still resolve these problems," he said,
but only if the opposition would accept the vote and respect the
The opposition leadership's continuing
refusal to do so is unfortunate, not only for the 40 percent of
Venezuelans who are in opposition, but also for democracy in Venezuela.
If the opposition was willing to respect the constitution and
respect the majority, a real dialogue on the future of the country
could take place. If, by some miracle, the United States could
be induced to stop its destabilization attempts and the atmosphere
of siege could lift, the space for criticism and correction within
the movement would be wider.
As it is, movements are taking those opportunities
for reflection and internal debate. Like so much else in Venezuela,
the backdrop for this reflection is the media. ViVe is a television
station that reaches 60-70 percent of Venezuela's population by
antenna. It is community television, with state support. The enshrining
of communication as a human right in the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution
gave media activists the right to broadcast on television in their
community. Two years later, CatiaTV, a community television station,
democratized the airwaves. ViVe was created to do for the country
what CatiaTV did for Catia. As CatiaTV helped with the birth of
ViVe, so ViVe is helping with the birth of CamunareRojoTV, their
first campesino television station.
CamunareRojo is a small agrarian town
in the state of Yaracuy where the children and grandchildren of
activists in a community with a history of resistance going back
to the 1930s wield digital cameras as weapons in the struggle
for land reform. How does the old generation of Communists feel
about Chavez and his "direct democracy?" Was it just
putting a different face on capitalism? "Listen lad,"
the 80-year-old activist Benigno Antonio Rodriguez Mendoza told
me, "this is not a static process. At one point, Communists
said that bourgeois democracy was a step forward from feudalism.
We are going from representative democracy to participatory democracy
and one can't say where it will all end." But as a Communist,
shouldn't he support armed struggle, rather than electoral politics?
"I do support armed struggle. There are different kinds of
armed struggle. One kind is taking up arms and seizing power,
like in China or Cuba. But another is arriving in power and then
having to defend the revolution with arms. I think that is possible
here and if that happened, I would support it."
Venezuela's process is far from perfect
and coming to grips with the empire, one way or another, is a
potential cloud on the horizon. If the Colombia-Venezuela pipeline
does come to fruition, it will pass through indigenous territory
where peasants are today being massacred by paramilitaries in
order to clear the territory. The callous, murderous social cleansing
of the paramilitary Colombian regime and its U.S. backers cannot
coexist with Venezuela's dreams of participatory democracy. Something
will break and the U.S. is no doubt hoping it will be Venezuela's
dreams. That's why paramilitaries have long since begun operations
in Venezuela, testing the limits and waiting for opportunities.
There are other weaknesses as well, one of which is dependence
on Chavez. If there were a circle of leaders, all of whom had
ideas, public profiles, and popular bases, the movement would
be far less vulnerable. This other leadership is growing, however,
and it is only a matter of time.
The problems and dangers are real, but
this is a powerful movement with people and organizations that
have shown an ability to learn and adapt. Perhaps the most hopeful
message of all was the one everyone remembered: that before 1998,
or at least before 1992, Venezuela was a place of near total apathy.
Activists had an extremely hard time getting anyone's interest.
Voter abstention was incredibly high. Political parties and worker's
unions were just organs of demobilization and depoliticization.
A few years later, there is a genuine battle going on for the
future of the country and the poor are actors in the drama, not
If that can happen over there, why not
Justin Podur was in Caracas from August
10 to 20, covering the referendum and the "Bolivarian Revolution."
He is a regular contributor to ZNet.