Venezuela: The NO Won; Now What?


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“I prefer it this way.  I couldn’t stand a pyrrhic victory.”
— President Hugo Chávez, acknowledging the victory of the NO vote

The stormy waters of the Referendum for a Constitutional Reform in Venezuela have subsided.  A relative calm reigns.  The opposition has scored a victory over President Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, after losing nine consecutive elections and referenda, including a recall referendum, since 1999.

The opposition’s victory is really pyrrhic.  The difference in the two parallel votes cast Sunday, December 2, does not reach 200,000 votes.  In the first bloc of laws, the NO received 50.7 percent of the vote; the YES got 49.29 percent.  In the second bloc, the NO won with 51.05 percent of the votes; the YES received 48.94 percent.

The big winner was abstention.  44.11 percent of the Venezuelans with the right to vote (about 7 million people) chose not to go to the polls.  It is impossible to know whether they were against or in favor of the reforms.  More than 3 million of the abstainers voted for Chávez in last year’s presidential election.  This week, they chose not to participate.  Why?

I think this is the first question that the Bolivarian revolutionaries in charge of mobilizing the people should ask themselves: Why did people who supported Chávez and voted for him last year preferred to abstain this time?  There are several possible answers.  The most logical one is that they did not know the contents of the Constitutional reforms.  That’s not their fault; it’s the fault of the speed with which the referendum was held.

The National Assembly approved the reforms in September.  To the 33 changes proposed by Chávez, the deputies added 36.  The amendments were written in the thick and difficult language of laws, easy for lawyers to interpret but hard for ordinary citizens, who mainly support reforms because they benefit from them.

It’s hard to believe that a reduction in the working hours from eight to six, a guarantee of social security for workers in the informal sector of the economy, paid maternity leave for women in the informal sector, the right to own one’s home, and the right to free health care and education were not to the satisfaction of most of the population.

The opposition media, which account for most of the country’s media, misreported other laws of a socialist nature.  For example, referring to the amendments on property rights — which also appear in the 1999 Constitution — the media intimated that all personal property would be nationalized and that people would lose their homes, cars, and small businesses.  That is false.

Perhaps, as some analysts of Venezuelan reality point out, Chávez was too hasty to talk about socialism, even though it is “21st-Century socialism.”  For decades, the propaganda emitted by the United States and local oligarchies against socialism and communism have instilled among Latin Americans a kind of conditioned reflex, an almost visceral reaction against that word.

It is reasonable to think that, if instead of announcing a road to socialism Chávez had proceeded with the reforms — without calling them by their name — they would have been accepted by a majority of the population, because all were beneficial.

A friend told me recently that, if in Cuba in 1961 the socialist nature of the Revolution had been submitted to a referendum, it might not have been approved.  He’s probably right. That conditioned reflex existed in Cuba, too.

Even parental control (the famous patria potestad) came up during the Venezuelan opposition’s campaign against the reform.  Some media said the government would take the children away from their parents at the age of 2, to teach them the ideas of communism.  At least in this case they couldn’t say that the children would be taken to Russia, killed, and turned into canned hash, as they said in Cuba in the early 1960s.

But other Constitutional reforms may also have affected the propaganda spread by the Bolivarian Revolution to promote the referendum.  It is well known that the Venezuelan states are very regional-minded.  That’s something that has existed for centuries and is very hard to overcome.

One of the reforms granted the president broad powers to appoint vice presidents by regions (formed of several states), whose function it would be to direct and control the plans for the development and operation of the governorships.  For obvious reasons, in a country where governors are the top authority in their regions, that change was not welcome by neither Chávez’s opponents nor Chavistas themselves.

Among the most debated issues was the indefinite reelection of the president.  According to the present Constitution, a president can stay in power for only two consecutive terms of six years each.  The reform established that the president can be reelected as many times as he seeks reelection and the people vote him back into office.  A similar provision appears in the Constitutions of 17 European countries, and it has never been questioned as being antidemocratic.  Nevertheless, that change was criticized by the opposition media and the overseas media to such a degree that it became a Trojan horse against the reforms.

The concern of the Venezuelan oligarchy and its allies in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe is that they don’t have any political figure capable of opposing Chávez.  In nine years of government, despite the tremendous difficulties he has had to cope with, Chávez has done more for the Venezuelan poor than all the previous administrations put together.

Perhaps for that reason — and in addition to their defense of the 1999 Constitution, which they had previously criticized and tried to eliminate with the coup d’état of April 2002 — the oppositionists issued the slogan “Chávez, Yes; Reform, No” at the end of their campaign against the reforms.  That slogan, they figured, might please some revolutionary sectors in the Venezuelan society that were not in agreement with the reforms or feared the intended changes.

That is why we can reasonably reach the conclusion that — despite the calls for a coup d’état, Operation Pincers organized by the Central Intelligence Agency, and other plans that might have plunged the country into a civil war — the opposition’s propaganda was intelligently designed to touch upon each of the topics that might provoke discord.

The outcome is clear to see, and I think that it is up to Chávez and the Venezuelan revolutionaries to learn from this defeat, the first one they have suffered in eight years of government.  It is evident that, although the NO’s margin of victory was small, the opposition will try to use this success to create more problems and weaken the Bolivarian government.

We cannot rule out that the opposition will demand Chávez’s departure or try to promote a military uprising, with the aid of the U.S. government, as they were already doing.  Let us not forget that the Bolivarian Revolution and Chávez are an impediment to Washington’s plans of domination and control of the region.  Let us not forget that Chávez is seen — not without reason — as the principal promoter of the changes taking place in Latin America, thanks to the economic resources he has.

It is not by whim that the campaigns against Chávez in the United States and Europe are increasingly more aggressive and unethical.  The world’s power elite cannot allow — because it runs against its interests — Venezuela, a country rich in oil and other natural resources, to break all the ties that bind it to the world’s neoliberal, globalized economy.

Chávez is, like Fidel Castro once was, the principal enemy in Latin American of the “new world order” that the United States attempts to impose upon the world.  If Washington can keep Chávez from carrying out his plans for social justice, it will do so.  If it can eliminate him, it will do so, too.

Eduardo Dimas is an international analyst for Cuban TV and teaches at the University of Havana’s School of Communications.  This article first appeared in Progreso (6-12 December 2007) in Spanish and English.

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