Venezuela: Local Reactions to the Re-Election Reform

Following close on the United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s (PSUV) electoral victory in the November 23 regional elections, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez re-proposed a constitutional reform that would allow indefinite re-election.  The first attempt, bundled with various constitutional amendments that would have accelerated economic restructuring, was defeated 51 to 49 percent in December 2007.

Predictably, a furiously anti-Chávez foreign press corps and commentariat recoiled at the idea, denouncing the Chávez presidency as so much “authoritarianism and incompetence” and Chávez as a “strongman” and “caudillo.”

For the moment, let us ignore such commentary.  Unlimited re-election is not precisely an import from Planet Stalin.  England and France, reputed to be democracies, have provisions for indefinite re-election, while New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg’s call for a third term was not said to be the forerunner of fascism in New York.  And as Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recently pointed out, “No one is asking [Colombian President Álvaro] Uribe why he wants a third term.”

Chávez’s recent suggestion that indefinite re-election be extended to all elected posts alongside the already-existing mechanism for recalling all elected officials (rarely do recall referendum mechanisms have such enormous scope) suggest a wide space for purely electoral democratic participation.  Such tools — alongside a mobilized and educated citizenry — are valuable ones.

Still, re-election could pose problems for the Venezuelan process.  Some argue that the call for indefinite re-elections is symptomatic of existing problems, such as excessive personalism and the failure to cultivate new leadership.  Thus far more fascinating than Western or world reaction, and far more important for understanding Bolivarian Venezuela, has been the native reaction.

The first observation is that the re-election proposal’s proponents and detractors have not split along the by-now-familiar lines of the Venezuelan class system.  Polls vary widely: support ranges from 53 to roughly 30 percent, opposition from 61 percent to 42 percent, with the undecided making up the rest.  But all suggest some chavista disapproval of the reform; or at best, attenuated support.  This includes the “yes, but” position, which supports the amendment but has a distinct political program.

Fiercely pro-Chávez writer Henry Escalante offers a gushing defense of the reform and Chávez’s axial role in the Venezuelan revolutionary process, naming him as the begetter of so much that has been good in Venezuela in the last decade: initiatives towards regional integration, the PSUV, the new constitution.  Suggestive, too, are the parallels Escalante makes with another leader — echoing Trotsky’s assessment of Lenin — arguing, “Lenin’s role could not have been duplicated.”

Venezuelan radical sociologist Javier Biardeau gives voice to one of the most sophisticated stances of critical approval, in noting, “When a revolution depends on one leader, it depends, simply, on a precarious, fragile, and skinny thread.”  Nonetheless, he maintains that support for the amendment is important, not so that Chávez can be eternal leader, but so that by keeping Chávez, the people secure a space and buy time for the emergence of “collective leadership, organically structured.”  Biardeau goes on to say that “there must be a qualitative jump in consciousness and organization.”

Anarchist journalist Jose Roberto Duque neatly complements the argument, suggesting that Chávez’s continuance in power merely constitutes so much scaffolding and protection for the project.  Duque sees the project as revolutionary, but unlike most he sees it as largely occurring outside the sphere of the state.  Under the Chávez government, writes Duque, the population “has conquered space to organize and self-govern.  So I prefer a democrat like Chávez for 20 years in Miraflores” to the old two-party system of alternating COPEI and AD malgoverance.

Others sharing the “yes, but” position have other perspectives.  Venezuelan intellectual Luis Fuenmayor Toro, writing in the leftist daily Últimas Noticias, supports Chávez because the population does, viewing Chávez’s personal popularity as a political vehicle capable of slamming down the opposition in frontal electoral contests.

Whereas Biardeau and Escalante note Chávez’s other qualities, Toro reduces the phenomenon to pure charisma, affirming that Chávez is “indispensable,” but not because of “the inexistence of persons with superior talents and knowledge of how to run the country.”  (Escalante bombards this argument, citing it as so much diluted anti-revolutionary sentiment.)

So the range of opinion extends roughly from pure Leninist messianism, to a sophisticated understanding of the Chávez government as incubator of a far more radical project, to a resigned pragmatism.

And the “No” vote?  Caracas Chronicles, an opposition blog, gives voice to an often even-tempered opposition sentiment.  There, Chávez is described as “sounding halfway between desperate and deranged,” as he pushes for the amendment.  One of the blog’s contributors adds, “The real reason indefinite re-election does not mark France or Britain as dictatorships is that those countries have functioning, stable, independent institutions.”  The tacit assumption is that Venezuela does not, a frequent and discredited fiction often bandied about by the Venezuelan opposition.

The tacit conclusion is that the specter of indefinite re-election marks Venezuela as a dictatorship.  This is wrong in two respects.

One, Venezuela is, as Human Rights Watch concedes, “a relatively open society.”  The congress and the judiciary are institutionally independent.  They simply are not controlled by the hard-right opposition.  There is, in a word, no pluralism.

And two, as Venezuela scholar Julia Buxton notes, there is something “fundamentally wrong in thinking that democracy is judged through reference to the procedural mechanics of liberal democracy,” which is often understood as demanding pluralism, in which the opposition controls some political levers.  Buxton argues that democracy simply is not measurable using the yardstick of mainstream U.S political science, and that it should be understood as popular control of decision-making and popular engagement within the society as a whole.  On those scales, Venezuela is no lightweight.

Meanwhile, the only effective counterweight to Venezuela’s more revolutionary processes is what George Ciccariello-Maher calls the “endogenous right.”  He defines this group as a “well-known bloc of moderate, centrist, bureaucratic-minded Chavistas, landing a series of body blows to more leftist elements, threatening internal democracy and the radicalism of the Revolution in the process.”  These “chavista” officials are not remotely interested in radical change, speaking in the name of the Revolution but subverting it at every step.

Meanwhile, what of the groups that engineered the 2002 coup d’état, closed congress, and installed a real dictatorship?  They are far from power, and won’t regain it without a political program more detailed than calling for the use of the guillotine on Chávez.  Boohoo.

Max Ajl is a writer and activist based out of Brooklyn, has written on Latin American politics and economics for the New Statesman, the Guardian, and NACLA, and blogs at Jewbonics.  This article first appeared in NACLA on 26 January 2009, and it is republished here with the author’s permission.