The Venezuelan Referendum

Chavez wins and the balancing act continues

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, 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 Opposition

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 station? "No."

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 "fraud."

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 constitution.

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 spectators.

If that can happen over there, why not here?


Justin Podur was in Caracas from August 10 to 20, covering the referendum and the "Bolivarian Revolution." He is a regular contributor to ZNet.

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