Venezuelan Referendum : A Post-Mortem and its Aftermath

Mis en ligne le 05 décembre 2007

Venezuela’s consti­tu­tio­nal reforms sup­por­ting President Chavez’s socia­list pro­ject were defea­ted by the nar­ro­west of mar­gins : 1.4% of 9 mil­lion voters. The result howe­ver was seve­rely com­pro­mi­sed by the fact that 45% of the elec­to­rate abs­tai­ned, mea­ning that only 28% of the elec­to­rate voted against the pro­gres­sive chan­ges pro­po­sed by President Chavez.

While the vote was a blow to Venezuela’s attempt to extri­cate itself from oil depen­dence and capi­ta­list control over stra­te­gic finan­cial and pro­duc­tive sec­tors, it does no change the 80% majo­rity in the legis­la­ture nor does it weaken the pre­ro­ga­ti­ves of the Executive branch. Nevertheless, the Right’s mar­gi­nal win does pro­vide a sem­blance of power, influence and momen­tum to their efforts to derail President Chavez’ socio-eco­no­mic reforms and to oust his govern­ment and/​or force him to recon­cile with the old elite power bro­kers.

Internal deli­be­ra­tions and deba­tes have already begun within the Chavista move­ment and among the dis­pa­rate oppo­si­tio­nal groups. One fact cer­tain to be sub­ject to debate is why the over 3 mil­lion voters who cast their bal­lots for Chavez in the 2006 elec­tion (where he won 63% of the vote) did not vote in the refe­ren­dum. The Right only increa­sed their voters by 300,000 votes ; even assu­ming that these votes were from dis­grunt­led Chavez voters and not from acti­va­ted right-wing middle class voters that leaves out over 2.7 mil­lion Chavez voters who abs­tai­ned.

Diagnosis of the Defeat

Whenever the issue of a socia­list trans­for­ma­tion is put at the top of a govern­men­tal agenda, as Chavez did in these consti­tu­tio­nal chan­ges, all the forces of right-wing reac­tion and their (‘pro­gres­sive’) middle class fol­lo­wers unite forces and forget their usual par­ti­san bicke­ring. Chavez’ popu­lar sup­por­ters and orga­ni­zers faced a vast array of adver­sa­ries each with power­ful levers of power. They inclu­ded : 1) nume­rous agen­cies of the US govern­ment (CIA, AID, NED and the Embassy’s poli­ti­cal offi­cers), their sub­con­trac­ted ‘assets’ (NGO’s, stu­dent recruit­ment and indoc­tri­na­tions pro­grams, news­pa­per edi­tors and mass media adver­ti­sers), the US multi-natio­nals and the Chamber of Commerce (paying for anti-refe­ren­dum ads, pro­pa­ganda and street action); 2) the major Venezuelan busi­ness asso­cia­tions FEDECAMARAS, Chambers of Commerce and wholesale/​retailers who poured mil­lions of dol­lars into the cam­paign, encou­ra­ged capi­tal flight and pro­mo­ted hoar­ding, black market acti­vity to bring about shor­ta­ges of basic food-stuffs in popu­lar retail mar­kets ; 3) over 90% of the pri­vate mass media enga­ged in a non-stop viru­lent pro­pa­ganda cam­paign made up of the most bla­tant lies – inclu­ding sto­ries that the govern­ment would seize chil­dren from their fami­lies and confine them to state-control­led schools (the US mass media repea­ted the most scan­da­lous vicious lies – without any excep­tions); 4) The entire Catholic hie­rar­chy from the Cardinals to the local parish priests used their bully plat­forms and homi­lies to pro­pa­gan­dize against the consti­tu­tio­nal reforms – more impor­tant, seve­ral bishops turned over their chur­ches as orga­ni­zing cen­ters to vio­lent far right-wing resul­ting, in one case, in the killing of a pro-Chavez oil worker who defied their street bar­ri­ca­des. The lea­ders of the coun­ter-reform quar­tet were able to buy-out and attract small sec­tors of the ‘libe­ral’ wing of the Chavez Congressional dele­ga­tion and a couple of Governors and mayors, as well as seve­ral ex-lef­tists (some of whom were com­mit­ted guer­rillas 40 years ago), ex-Maoists from the ‘Red Flag’ group and seve­ral Trotskyists trade union lea­ders and sects. A sub­stan­tial number of social demo­cra­tic aca­de­mics (Edgar Lander, Heinz Dietrich) found paltry excu­ses for oppo­sing the ega­li­ta­rian reforms, pro­vi­ding an intel­lec­tual gloss to the rabid elite pro­pa­ganda about Chavez ‘dic­ta­to­rial’ or ‘Bonapartist’ ten­den­cies.

This dis­pa­rate coa­li­tion headed by the Venezuelan elite and the US govern­ment relied basi­cally on poun­ding the same gene­ral mes­sage : The re-elec­tion amend­ment, the power to tem­po­ra­rily sus­pend cer­tain consti­tu­tio­nal pro­vi­sions in times of natio­nal emer­gency (like the mili­tary coup and lockouts of 2002 to 2003), the exe­cu­tive nomi­na­tion of regio­nal admi­nis­tra­tors and the tran­si­tion to demo­cra­tic socia­lism were part of a plot to impost ‘Cuban com­mu­nism’. Right-wing and libe­ral pro­pa­gan­dists turned unli­mi­ted re-elec­tion reform (a par­lia­men­tary prac­tice throu­ghout the world) into a ‘power grab’ by an ‘authoritarian’/’totalitarian’/’power-hungry’ tyrant accor­ding to all Venezuelan pri­vate media and their US coun­ter­parts at CBC, NBC, ABC, NPR, New York and Los Angeles Times, Washington Post. The amend­ment gran­ting the President emer­gency powers was de-contex­tua­li­zed from the actual US-backed civi­lian elite-mili­tary coup and lockout of 2002-2003, the elite recruit­ment and infil­tra­tion of scores of Colombian para­mi­li­tary death squads (2005), the kid­nap­ping of a Venezuelan-Colombian citi­zen by Colombian secret police (2004) in the center of Caracas and open calls for a mili­tary coup by the ex-Defense Minister Baduel.

Each sector of the right-wing led coun­ter-reform coa­li­tion focu­sed on dis­tinct and over­lap­ping groups with dif­fe­rent appeals. The US focu­sed on recrui­ting and trai­ning stu­dent street figh­ters chan­ne­ling hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars via AID and NED for trai­ning in ‘civil society orga­ni­za­tion’ and ‘conflict reso­lu­tion’ (a touch of dark humor?) in the same fashion as the Yugoslav/​Ukrainian/​Georgian expe­rien­ces. The US also spread funds to their long-term clients – the nearly defunct ‘social demo­cra­tic’ trade union confe­de­ra­tion – the CTV, the mass media and other elite allies. FEDECAMARAS focu­sed on the small and big busi­ness sec­tors, well-paid pro­fes­sio­nals and middle class consu­mers.

The right-wing stu­dents were the deto­na­tors of street vio­lence and confron­ted left-wing stu­dents in and off the cam­pu­ses. The mass media and the Catholic Church enga­ged in fear mon­ge­ring to the mass audience. The social demo­cra­tic aca­de­mics prea­ched ‘NO’ or abs­ten­tion to their pro­gres­sive col­lea­gues and lef­tist stu­dents. The Trotskyists split up sec­tors of the trade unions with their pseudo-Marxist chat­ter about “Chavez the Bonapartist’ with his ‘capi­ta­list’ and ‘impe­ria­list’ pro­cli­vi­ties, inci­ted US trai­ned stu­dents and shared the ‘NO’ plat­form with CIA funded CTV trade union bosses. Such were the unholy allian­ces in the run-up to the vote.

In the post-elec­tion period this uns­ta­ble coa­li­tion exhi­bi­ted inter­nal dif­fe­ren­ces. The center-right led by Zulia Governor Rosales calls for a new ‘encoun­ter’ and ‘dia­lo­gue’ with the ‘mode­rate’ Chavista minis­ters. The hard right embo­died in ex-General Baduel (dar­ling of sec­tors of the pseudo-left) demands pushing their advan­tage fur­ther toward ous­ting President-elect Chavez and the Congress because he clai­med “they still have the power to legis­late reforms”! Such, such are our demo­crats ! The lef­tists sects will go back to citing the texts of Lenin and Trotsky (rol­ling over in their graves), orga­ni­zing stri­kes for wage increases…in the new context of rising right-wing power to which they contri­bu­ted.

Campaign and Structural Weakness of the Constitutional Reformers

The Right-wing was able to gain their slim majo­rity because of serious errors in the Chavista elec­to­ral cam­paign as well as deep struc­tu­ral weak­nes­ses.

Referendum Campaign :

1) The refe­ren­dum cam­paign suf­fe­red seve­ral flaws. President Chavez, the leader of the consti­tu­tio­nal reform move­ment was out of the coun­try for seve­ral weeks in the last two months of the cam­paign – in Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, France, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Iran) depri­ving the cam­paign of its most dyna­mic spo­kes­per­son. 2) President Chavez got drawn into issues which had no rele­vance to his mass sup­por­ters and may have pro­vi­ded ammu­ni­tion to the Right. His attempt to mediate in the Colombian pri­so­ner-exchange absor­bed an enor­mous amount of wasted time and led, pre­dic­ta­bly, now­here, as Colombia’s death squad President Uribe abruptly ended his media­tion with pro­vo­ca­tive insults and calum­nies, lea­ding to a serious diplo­ma­tic rup­ture. Likewise, during the Ibero-American summit and its after­math, Chavez enga­ged in verbal exchange with Spain’s tin-horn monarch, dis­trac­ting him from facing domes­tic pro­blems like infla­tion and elite-ins­ti­ga­ted hoar­ding of basic food stuffs.

Many Chavista acti­vists failed to ela­bo­rate and explain the pro­po­sed posi­tive effects of the reforms, or carry house-to-house dis­cus­sions coun­te­ring the mons­trous pro­pa­ganda (‘stea­ling chil­dren from their mothers’) pro­pa­ga­ted by parish priests and the mass media. They too faci­lely assu­med that the fear-mon­ge­ring lies were self-evi­dent and all that was needed was to denounce them. Worst of all, seve­ral ‘Chavista’ lea­ders failed to orga­nize any sup­port because they oppo­sed the amend­ments, which streng­the­ned local coun­cils at the expense of majors and gover­nors.

The cam­paign failed to inter­vene and demand equal time and space in all the pri­vate media in order to create a level playing field. Too much empha­sis was placed on mass demons­tra­tions ‘down­town’ and not on short-term impact pro­grams in the poor neigh­bo­rhoods –sol­ving imme­diate pro­blems, like the disap­pea­rance of milk from store shel­ves, which irri­ta­ted their natu­ral sup­por­ters.

Structural weak­nes­ses

There were two basic pro­blems which deeply influen­ced the elec­to­ral abs­ten­tion of the Chavez mass sup­por­ters : The pro­lon­ged scar­city of basic food­stuffs and hou­se­hold neces­si­ties, and the ram­pant and see­min­gly uncon­trol­led infla­tion (18%) during the latter half of 2007 which was nei­ther ame­lio­ra­ted nor com­pen­sa­ted by wage and salary increa­ses espe­cially among the 40% of self-employed wor­kers in the infor­mal sector.

Basic food­stuffs like pow­de­red milk, meat, sugar, beans and many other items disap­pea­red from both the pri­vate and even the public stores. Agro-busi­ness­men refu­sed to pro­duce and the retail bosses refu­sed to sell because state price controls (desi­gned to control infla­tion) les­se­ned their exor­bi­tant pro­fits. Unwilling to ‘inter­vene’ the Government pur­cha­sed and impor­ted hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of food­stuffs – much of which did not reach popu­lar consu­mers, at least not at fixed prices.

Partially because of lower pro­fits and in large part as a key ele­ment in the anti-reform cam­paign, who­le­sa­lers and retai­lers either hoar­ded or sold a sub­stan­tial part of the imports to black mar­ke­ters, or chan­ne­led it to upper income super­mar­kets.

Inflation was a result of the rising inco­mes of all clas­ses and the resul­tant higher demand for goods and ser­vi­ces in the context of a mas­sive drop in pro­duc­ti­vity, invest­ment and pro­duc­tion. The capi­ta­list class enga­ged in disin­vest­ment, capi­tal flight, luxury imports and spe­cu­la­tion in the inter­me­diate bond and real estate market (some of whom were justly burned by the recent col­lapse of the Miami real estate bubble).

The Government’s half-way mea­su­res of state inter­ven­tion and radi­cal rhe­to­ric were strong enough to pro­voke big busi­ness resis­tance and more capi­tal flight, while being too weak to deve­lop alter­na­tive pro­duc­tive and dis­tri­bu­tive ins­ti­tu­tions. In other words, the bur­geo­ning crises of infla­tion, scar­ci­ties and capi­tal flight, put into ques­tion the exis­ting Bolivarian prac­tice of a mixed eco­nomy, based on public-pri­vate part­ner­ship finan­cing an exten­sive social wel­fare state. Big Capital has acted first eco­no­mi­cally by boy­cot­ting and brea­king its impli­cit ‘social pact’ with the Chavez Government. Implicit in the social pact was a trade off : Big Profits and high rates of invest­ment to increase employ­ment and popu­lar consump­tion. With power­ful backing and inter­ven­tion from its US part­ners, Venezuelan big busi­ness has moved poli­ti­cally to take advan­tage of the popu­lar dis­con­tent to derail the pro­po­sed consti­tu­tio­nal reforms. It’s next step is to reverse the hal­ting momen­tum of socio-eco­no­mic reform by a com­bi­na­tion of pacts with social demo­cra­tic minis­ters in the Chavez Cabinet and threats of a new offen­sive, dee­pe­ning the eco­no­mic crisis and playing for a coup.

Policy Alternatives

The Chavez Government abso­lu­tely has to move imme­dia­tely to rec­tify some basic domes­tic and local pro­blems, which led to dis­con­tent, and abs­ten­tion and is under­mi­ning its mass base. For exam­ple, poor neigh­bo­rhoods inun­da­ted by floods and mud­sli­des are still without homes after 2 years of broken pro­mi­ses and totally inept govern­ment agen­cies.

The Government, under popu­lar control, must imme­dia­tely and directly inter­vene in taking control of the entire food dis­tri­bu­tion pro­gram, enlis­ting dock, trans­port and retail wor­kers, neigh­bo­rhood coun­cils to insure impor­ted food fills the shel­ves and not the big pockets of coun­ter-reform who­le­sa­lers, big retail owners and small-scale black mar­ke­ters. What the Government has failed to secure from big far­mers and cattle barons in the way of pro­duc­tion of food, it must secure via large-scale expro­pria­tion, invest­ment and co-ops to over­come busi­ness ‘pro­duc­tion’ and supply stri­kes. Voluntary com­pliance has been demons­tra­ted NOT TO WORK. ‘Mixed eco­nomy’ dogma, which appeals to ‘ratio­nal eco­no­mic cal­cu­lus’, does not work when high stake poli­ti­cal inter­ests are in play.

To finance struc­tu­ral chan­ges in pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion, the Government is obli­ga­ted to control and take over the pri­vate banks deeply impli­ca­ted in laun­de­ring money, faci­li­ta­ting capi­tal flight and encou­ra­ging spe­cu­la­tive invest­ments ins­tead of pro­duc­tion of essen­tial goods for the domes­tic market.

The Constitutional reforms were a step toward pro­vi­ding a legal fra­me­work for struc­tu­ral reform, at least of moving beyond a capi­ta­list control­led mixed eco­nomy. The excess ‘lega­lism’ of the Chavez Government in pur­suing a new refe­ren­dum unde­res­ti­ma­ted the exis­ting legal basis for struc­tu­ral reforms avai­la­ble to the govern­ment to deal with the bur­geo­ning demands of the two-thirds of the popu­la­tion, which elec­ted Chavez in 2006.

In the post-refe­ren­dum period the inter­nal debate within the Chavez move­ment is dee­pe­ning. The mass base of poor wor­kers, trade unio­nists and public employees demand pay increa­ses to keep up with infla­tion, an end to the rising prices and scar­ci­ties of com­mo­di­ties. They abs­tai­ned for lack of effec­tive govern­ment action – not because of righ­tist or libe­ral pro­pa­ganda. They are not righ­tists or socia­list but can become sup­por­tive of socia­lists if they solve the triple scourge of scar­city, infla­tion and decli­ning pur­cha­sing power. Inflation is a par­ti­cu­lar neme­sis to the poo­rest wor­kers lar­gely in the infor­mal sector because their income is nei­ther indexed to infla­tion as is the case for unio­ni­zed wor­kers in the formal sector nor can they easily raise their income through col­lec­tive bar­gai­ning as most of them are not tied to any contract with buyers or employers.

As a result in Venezuela (as elsew­here) price infla­tion is the worst disas­ter for the poor and the reason for the grea­test dis­con­tent. Regimes, even righ­tist and neo-libe­ral ones, which sta­bi­lize prices or shar­ply reduce infla­tion usually secure at least tem­po­rary sup­port from the popu­lar clas­ses. Nevertheless anti-infla­tio­nary poli­cies have rarely played a role in lef­tist poli­tics (much to their grief) and Venezuela is no excep­tion.

At the cabi­net, party and social move­ment lea­der­ship level there are many posi­tions but they can be sim­pli­fied into two polar oppo­si­tes. On the one side, the pro-refe­ren­dum domi­nant posi­tion put forth by the finance, eco­nomy and plan­ning minis­tries seek coope­ra­tion with pri­vate foreign and domes­tic inves­tors, ban­kers and agro-busi­ness­men, to increase pro­duc­tion, invest­ment and living stan­dards of the poor. They rely on appeals to volun­tary co-ope­ra­tion, gua­ran­tees to pro­perty owner­ship, tax reba­tes, access to foreign exchange on favo­ra­ble terms and other incen­ti­ves plus some controls on capi­tal flight and prices but not on pro­fits. The pro-socia­list sector argues that this policy of part­ner­ship has not worked and is the source of the cur­rent poli­ti­cal impasse and social pro­blems. Within this sector some pro­pose a grea­ter role for state owner­ship and control, in order to direct invest­ments and increase pro­duc­tion and to break the boy­cott and stran­gle­hold on dis­tri­bu­tion. Another group argues for worker self-mana­ge­ment coun­cils to orga­nize the eco­nomy and push for a new ‘revo­lu­tio­nary state’. A third group argues for a mixed state with public and self-mana­ged owner­ship, rural co-ope­ra­ti­ves and middle and small-scale pri­vate owner­ship in a highly regu­la­ted market.

The future ascen­dance of the mixed eco­nomy group may lead to agree­ments with the ‘soft libe­ral’ oppo­si­tion – but fai­ling to deal with scar­ci­ties and infla­tion will only exa­cer­bate the cur­rent crisis. The ascen­dance of the more radi­cal groups will depend on the end of their frag­men­ta­tion and sec­ta­ria­nism and their abi­lity to fashion a joint pro­gram with the most popu­lar poli­ti­cal leader in the coun­try, President Hugo Chavez.

The refe­ren­dum and its out­come (while impor­tant today) is merely an epi­sode in the strug­gle bet­ween autho­ri­ta­rian impe­rial cen­te­red capi­ta­lism and demo­cra­tic wor­kers cen­te­red socia­lism.

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