Venezuela: Between Ballots and
by James Petras
Venezuela's democratically elected Present
Chavez faces the most serious threat since the April 11, 2002
Violent street demonstrations by privileged
middle and upper middle class university students have led to
major street battles in and around the center of Caracas. More
seriously, the former Minister of Defense, General Raul Isaias
Baduel, who resigned in July, has made explicit calls for a military
coup in a November 5th press conference which he convoked exclusively
for the right and far-right mass media and political parties,
while striking a posture as an 'individual' dissident.
The entire international and local private
mass media has played up Baduel's speeches, press conferences
along with fabricated accounts of the oppositionist student rampages,
presenting them as peaceful protests for democratic rights against
the government referendum scheduled for December 2, 2007.
The New York Times, the Wall
Street Journal, the BBC News and the Washington Post
have all primed their readers for years with stories of President
Chavez' 'authoritarianism'. Faced with constitutional reforms
which strengthen the prospects for far-reaching political-social
democratization, the US, European and Latin American media have
cast pro-coup ex-military officials as 'democratic dissidents',
former Chavez supporters disillusioned with his resort to 'dictatorial'
powers in the run-up to and beyond the December 2, 2007 vote in
the referendum on constitutional reform. Not a single major newspaper
has mentioned the democratic core of the proposed reforms - the
devolution of public spending and decision to local neighborhood
and community councils. Once again as in Chile in 1973, the US
mass media is complicit in an attempt to destroy a Latin American
Even sectors of the center-left press
and parties in Latin America have reproduced right-wing propaganda.
On November the self-styled 'leftist' Mexican daily La Jornada
headline read 'Administrators and Students from the Central University
of Venezuela (UCV) Accuse Chavez of Promoting Violence'. The article
then proceeded to repeat the rightist fabrications about electoral
polls, which supposedly showed the constitutional amendments facing
The United States Government, both the
Republican White House and the Democrat-controlled Congress are
once again overtly backing the new attempt to oust the popular-nationalist
President Chavez and to defeat the highly progressive constitutional
The Referendum: Defining and Deepening
the Social Transformation
The point of confrontation is the forthcoming
referendum on constitutional reforms initiated by President Chavez,
debated, amended and democratically voted on by the Venezuelan
Congress over the past 6 months. There was widespread and open
debate and criticism of specific sectors of the Constitution.
The private mass media, overwhelmingly viscerally anti-Chavez
and pro-White House, unanimously condemned any and all the constitutional
amendments. A sector of the leadership of one of the components
of the pro-Chavez coalition (PODEMOS) joined the Catholic Church
hierarchy, the leading business and cattleman's association, bankers
and sectors of the university and student elite to attack the
proposed constitutional reforms. Exploiting to the hilt all of
Venezuela's democratic freedoms (speech, assembly and press) the
opposition has denigrated the referendum as 'authoritarian' even
as most sectors of the opposition coalition attempted to arouse
the military to intervene.
The opposition coalition of the rich and
privileged fear the constitutional reforms because they will have
to grant a greater share of their profits to the working class,
lose their monopoly over market transactions to publicly owned
firms, and see political power evolve toward local community councils
and the executive branch. While the rightist and liberal media
in Venezuela, Europe and the US have fabricated lurid charges
about the 'authoritarian' reforms, in fact the amendments propose
to deepen and extend social democracy.
A brief survey of the key constitutional
amendments openly debated and approved by a majority of freely
elected Venezuelan congress members gives the lie to charges of
'authoritarianism' by its critics. The amendments can be grouped
according to political, economic and social changes.
The most important political change is
the creation of new locally based democratic forms of political
representation in which elected community and communal institutions
will be allocated state revenues rather than the corrupt, patronage-infested
municipal and state governments. This change toward decentralization
will encourage a greater practice of direct democracy in contrast
to the oligarchic tendencies embedded in the current centralized
Secondly, contrary to the fabrications
of ex-General Baduel, the amendments do not 'destroy the existing
constitution', since the amendments modify in greater or lesser
degree only 20% of the articles of the constitution (69 out of
The amendments providing for unlimited
term elections is in line with the practices of many parliamentary
systems, as witnessed by the five terms in office of Australian
Prime Minister Howard, the half century rule of Japan's Liberal
Democratic Party, the four terms of US President Franklin Roosevelt,
the multi-term election of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in
the UK among others. No one ever questions their democratic credentials
for multi-term executive office holding, nor should current critics
selectively label Chavez as an 'authoritarian' for doing the same.
Political change increasing the presidential
term of office from 6 to 7 years will neither increase or decrease
presidential powers, as the opposition claims, because the separation
of legislative, judicial and executive powers will continue and
free elections will subject the President to periodic citizen
The key point of indefinite elections
is that they are free elections, subject to voter preference,
in which, in the case of Venezuela, the vast majority of the mass
media, Catholic hierarchy, US-funded NGO's, big business associations
will still wield enormous financial resources to finance opposition
activity - hardly an 'authoritarian' context.
The amendment allowing the executive to
declare a state of emergency and intervene in the media in the
face of violent activity to overthrow the constitution is essential
for safeguarding democratic institutions. In light of several
authoritarian violent attempts to seize power recently by the
current opposition, the amendment allows dissent but also allows
democracy to defend itself against the enemies of freedom. In
the lead up to the US-backed military coup of April 11, 2002,
and the petroleum lockout by its senior executives which devastated
the economy (a decline of 30% of GNP in 2002/2003), if the Government
had possessed and utilized emergency powers, Congress and the
Judiciary, the electoral process and the living standards of the
Venezuelan people would have been better protected. Most notably,
the Government could have intervened against the mass media aiding
and abetting the violent overthrow of the democratic process,
like any other democratic government. It should be clear that
the amendment allowing for 'emergency powers' has a specific context
and reflects concrete experiences: the current opposition parties,
business federations and church hierarchies have a violent, anti-democratic
history. The destabilization campaign against the current referendum
and the appeals for military intervention most prominently and
explicitly stated by retired General Baduel (defended by his notorious
adviser-apologist, the academic-adventurer Heinz Dietrich), are
a clear indication that emergency powers are absolutely necessary
to send a clear message that reactionary violence will be met
by the full force of the law.
The reduction of voting age from 18 to
16 will broaden the electorate, increase the number of participants
in the electoral process and give young people a greater say in
national politics through institutional channels. Since many workers
enter the labor market at a young age and in some cases start
families earlier, this amendment allows young workers to press
their specific demands on employment and contingent labor contracts.
The amendment reducing the workday to
six hours is vehemently opposed by the opposition led by the big
business federation, FEDECAMARAS, but has the overwhelming support
of the trade unions and workers from all sectors. It will allow
for greater family time, sports, education, skill training, political
education and social participation, as well as membership in the
newly formed community councils. Related labor legislation and
changes in property rights including a greater role for collective
ownership will strengthen labor's bargaining power with capital,
extending democracy to the workplace.
Finally the amendment eliminating so-called
'Central Bank autonomy' means that elected officials responsive
to the voters will replace Central Bankers (frequently responsive
to private bankers, overseas investors and international financial
officials) in deciding public spending and monetary policy. One
major consequence will be the reduction of excess reserves in
devalued dollar denominated funds and an increase in financing
for social and productive activity, a diversity of currency holdings
and a reduction in irrational foreign borrowing and indebtedness.
The fact of the matter is that the Central Bank was not 'autonomous',
it was dependent on what the financial markets demanded, independent
of the priorities of elected officials responding to popular needs.
As the Chavez Government Turns to Democratic
Socialism: Centrists Defect and Seek Military Solutions
As Venezuela's moves from political to
social transformation, from a capitalist welfare state toward
democratic socialism, predictable defections and additions occur.
As in most other historical experiences of social transformation,
sectors of the original government coalition committed to formal
institutional political changes defect when the political process
moves toward greater egalitarianism and property and a power shift
to the populace. Ideologues of the 'Center' regret the 'breaking'
of the status quo 'consensus' between oligarchs and people (labeling
the new social alignments as 'authoritarian') even as the 'Center'
embraces the profoundly anti-democratic Right and appeals for
A similar process of elite defections
and increased mass support is occurring in Venezuela as the referendum,
with its clear class choices, comes to the fore. Lacking confidence
in their ability to defeat the constitutional amendments through
the ballot, fearful of the democratic majority, resentful of the
immense popular appeal of the democratically elected President
Chavez, the 'Center' has joined the Right in a last ditch effort
to unify extra-parliamentary forces to defeat the will of the
Emblematic of the New Right and the 'Centrist'
defections is the ex-Minister of Defense, Raul Baduel, whose virulent
attack on the President, the Congress, the electoral procedures
and the referendum mark him as an aspirant to head up a US-backed
right-wing seizure of power.
The liberal and right wing mass media
and unscrupulous 'centrist' propagandists have falsely portrayed
Raul Baduel as the 'savior' of Chavez following the military coup
of April 2002. The fact of the matter is that Baduel intervened
only after hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans poured down
from the 'ranchos', surrounded the Presidential Palace, leading
to division in the armed forces. Baduel rejected the minority
of rightist military officers favoring a massive bloodbath and
aligned with other military officials who opposed extreme measures
against the people and the destruction of the established political
order. The latter group included officials who supported Chavez'
nationalist-populist policies and others, like Baduel, who opposed
the coup-makers because it radicalized and polarized society -
leading to a possible class-based civil war with uncertain outcome.
Baduel was for the restoration of a 'chastised' Chavez who would
maintain the existing socio-economic status quo.
Within the Chavez government, Baduel represented
the anti-communist tendency, which pressed the President to 'reconcile'
with the 'moderate democratic' right and big business. Domestically,
Baduel opposed the extension of public ownership and internationally
favored close collaboration with the far-right Colombian Defense
Baduel's term of office as Defense Minister
reflected his conservative propensities and his lack of competence
in matters of security, especially with regard to internal security.
He failed to protect Venezuela's frontiers from military incursions
by Colombia's armed forces. Worse he failed to challenge Colombia's
flagrant violation of international norms with regard to political
exiles. While Baduel was Minister of Defense, Venezuelan landlords'
armed paramilitary groups assassinated over 150 peasants active
in land reform while the National Guard looked the other way.
Under Baduel's watch over 120 Colombian paramilitary forces infiltrated
the country. The Colombian military frequently crossed the Venezuelan
border to attack Colombian refugees. Under Baduel, Venezuelan
military officials collaborated in the kidnapping of Rodrigo Granda
(a foreign affairs emissary of the FARC) in broad daylight in
the center of Caracas. Baduel made no effort to investigate or
protest this gross violation of Venezuelan sovereignty, until
President Chavez was informed and intervened. Throughout Baduel's
term as Minister of Defense he developed strong ties to Colombia's
military intelligence (closely monitored by US Defense Intelligence
Agency and the CIA) and extradited several guerrillas from both
the ELN and the FARC to the hands of Colombian torturers.
At the time of his retirement as Minister
of Defense, Baduel made a July 2007 speech in which he clearly
targeted the leftist and Marxist currents in the trade union (UNT)
and Chavez newly announced PSUV (The Unified Socialist Party of
Venezuela). His speech, in the name of 'Christian socialist',
was in reality a vituperative and ill-tempered anti-communist
diatribe, which pleased Pope Benedict (Ratzinger).
Baduel's November 5 speech however marks
his public adherence to the hard-line opposition, its rhetoric,
fabrications and visions of an authoritarian reversal of Chavez
program of democratic socialism. First and foremost, Baduel, following
the lead of the White House and the Venezuelan 'hard right', denounced
the entire process of Congressional debate on the Constitutional
amendments, and open electoral campaigning leading up to the referendum
as 'in effect a coup d'etat'. Every expert and outside observer
disagreed - even those opposed to the referendum. Baduel's purpose
however was to question the legitimacy of the entire political
process in order to justify his call for military intervention.
His rhetoric calling the congressional debate and vote a 'fraud'
and 'fraudulent procedures' point to Baduel's effort to denigrate
existing representative institutions in order to justify a military
coup, which would dismantle them.
Baduel's denial of political intent is
laughable - since he only invited opposition media and politicians
to his 'press conference' and was accompanied by several military
officials. Baduel resembles the dictator who accuses the victim
of the crimes he is about to commit. In calling the referendum
on constitutional reform a 'coup', he incites the military to
launch a coup. In an open appeal for military action he directs
the military to 'reflect of the context of constitutional reform.'
He repeatedly calls on military officials to 'assess carefully'
the changes the elected government has proposed 'in a hasty manner
and through fraudulent procedures'. While denigrating democratically
elected institutions, Baduel resorts to vulgar flattery and false
modesty to induce the military to revolt. While immodestly denying
that he could act as spokesperson for the Armed Forces, he advised
the rightist reporters present and potential military cohort that
'you cannot underrate the capacity of analysis and reasoning of
Cant, hypocrisy and disinterested posturing
run through Baduel's pronouncements. His claim of being an 'apolitical'
critic is belied by his intention to go on a nationwide speaking
tour attacking the constitutional reforms, in meetings organized
by the rightwing opposition. There is absolutely no doubt that
he will not only be addressing civilian audiences but will make
every effort to meet with active military officers who he might
convince to 'reflect'and plot the overthrow of the government
and reverse the results of the referendum. President Chavez has
every right to condemn Baduel as a traitor, though given his long-term
hostility to egalitarian social transformation it may be more
to the point to say that Baduel is now revealing his true colors.
The danger to Venezuelan democracy is
not in Baduel as an individual - he is out of the government and
retired from active military command. The real danger is his effort
to arouse the active military officers with command of troops,
to answer his call to action or as he cleverly puts it 'for the
military to reflect on the context of the constitutional reforms.'
Baduel's analysis and action program places the military as the
centerpiece of politics, supreme over the 16 million voters.
His vehement defense of 'private property'
in line with his call for military action is a clever tactic to
unite the Generals, Bankers and the middle class in the infamous
footsteps of Augusto Pinochet, the bloody Chilean tyrant.
The class polarization in the run-up to
the referendum has reached its most acute expression: the remains
of the multi-class coalition embracing a minority of the middle
class and the great majority of the working power is disintegrating.
Millions of previously apathetic or apolitical young workers,
unemployed poor and low-income women (domestic workers, laundresses,
single parents) are joining the huge popular demonstrations overflowing
the main avenues and plazas in favor of the constitutional amendments.
At the same time political defections have increased among the
centrist-liberal minority in the Chavez coalition. Fourteen deputies
in the National Assembly, less than 10%, mostly from PODEMOS,
have joined the opposition. Reliable sources in Venezuela (Axis
of Logic/Les Blough Nov. 11, 2007) report that Attorney General
Beneral Isaias Rodriguez, a particularly incompetent crime fighter,
and the Comptroller General Cloudosbaldo Russian are purportedly
resigning and joining the opposition. More seriously, these same
reports claim that the 4th Armed Division in Marcay is loyal to
'Golpista' Raul Baduel. Some suspect Baduel is using his long-term
personal ties with the current Minister of Defense, Gustavo Briceno
Rangel to convince him to defect and join in the pre-coup preparations.
Large sums of US funding is flowing in to pay off state and local
officials in cash and in promises to share in the oil booty if
Chavez is ousted. The latest US political buy-out includes Governor
Luis Felipe Acosta Carliz from the state of Carabobo. The mass
media have repeatedly featured these new defectors to the right
in their hourly 'news reports' highlighting their break with Chavez
The referendum is turning into an unusually
virulent case of a 'class against class' war, in which the entire
future of the Latin American left is at stake as well as Washington's
hold on its biggest oil supplier.
Venezuelan democracy, the Presidency of
Hugo Chavez and the great majority of the popular classes face
a mortal threat. The US is facing repeated electoral defeats and
is incapable of large-scale external intervention because of over-extension
of its military forces in the Middle East; it is committed once
more to a violent overthrow of Chavez. Venezuela through the constitutional
reforms, will broaden and deepen popular democratic control over
socio-economic policy. New economic sectors will be nationalized.
Greater public investments and social programs will take off.
Venezuela is moving inexorably toward diversifying its petrol
markets, currency reserves and its political alliances. Time is
running out for the White House: Washington's political levers
of influence are weakening. Baduel is seen as the one best hope
of igniting a military seizure, restoring the oligarchs to power
and decimating the mass popular movements.
President Chavez is correctly 'evaluating
the high command' and states that he 'has full confidence in the
national armed forces and their components.' Yet the best guarantee
is to strike hard and fast, precisely against Baduel's followers
and cohorts. Rounding up a few dozen or hundred military plotters
is a cheap price to pay for saving the lives of thousands of workers
and activists who would be massacred in any bloody seizure of
History has repeatedly taught that when
you put social democracy, egalitarianism and popular power at
the top of the political agenda, as Chavez has done, and as the
vast majority of the populace enthusiastically responds, the Right,
the reactionary military, the 'Centrist' political defectors and
ideologues, the White House, the hysterical middle classes and
the Church cardinals will sacrifice any and all democratic freedoms
to defend their property, privileges and power by whatever means
and at whatever cost necessary. In the current all-pervasive confrontation
between the popular classes of Venezuela and their oligarchic
and military enemies, only by morally, politically and organizationally
arming the people can the continuity of the democratic process
of social transformation be guaranteed.
Change will come, the question is whether
it will be through the ballot or the bullet.
James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology
at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership
in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless
in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked
(Zed Books). His latest book is The Power of Israel in the United
States (Clarity Press, 2006). His forthcoming book is Rulers and
Ruled (Bankers, Zionists and Militants (Clarity Press, Atlanta).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Read other articles
by James, or visit James's website.