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Venezuela: Electoral Victory or Opportunity?

Dimas Castellanos

In Latin America, the combination of social injustice, violence, and administrative corruption, together with failed attempts at policies of economic development, neo-liberalism and the Cuban attempt at real socialism, explains why significant sectors of society in the region place their hopes with the political left.

An instructive example is that of Venezuela where, following his frustrated attempt at a military coup in 1992, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez turned to ‘bourgeois deomcracy’ and in 1998 stood for election and, on a populist ticket, won nearly 57% of the votes cast. An electoral victory which was nothing but an opportunity to set in train structural changes and to turn Venezuelans into economic subjects: that’s why to speak of triumphs without change is to confuse popular support in the face of a loss of hope with the kind of unconditional support which nurtures dictatorship.

In July of 2000 when he was re-elected for a new six year mandate with nearly 60% of the votes cast, Chávez announced a “profound transformation of the country’s economic and social structures”. On the basis of this supposed goal, he sought from the recently created National Assembly special powers to legislate by decree on economic, social, and public administration matters, powers which were granted to him. In August 2004, confirmed in office by the outcome of the recall referendum,  Chávez convened a constitutive assembly to reform the Carta Magna [constitution] thus strengthening his presidential power, and he eliminated the Senate, emptied legislative power in the single chamber National Assembly, and established greater state control over the media and economic activity: a concentration of power that can only be compared to that of the dictatorship of General Juan Vicente Gómez between 1908 and 1935.

When he won the presidential election in 2006 he called for a new referendum whose objective was to make him a constitutional dictator. However, the will of the people came down on the NO side. Of the roughly 15 million voters, fewer than 28% supported Chávez’s measures. Recently, in the February 2009 constitutional referendum, of the 11 517,632 Venezuelans who went to the ballot box, the Yes votes were 6,319,636 (54.86%) , the No votes were 5,198,006 (45.13%),  and there were 4,954,958 abstentions.

Eleven years of constant elections and referendums hold an important lesson: Venezuela has definitively stepped back from violence to the ballot box, to configure a political situation which surpasses its frontiers. Viz:

    1. Efforts to achieve power through the ballot box in order from there to set in train a revolution headed towards totalitarianism lack perspective, since on emerging from the ballot one has to seek re-validation over and over again, by the same means, where popular sovereignty and civil society are calling the tune and although Chávez managed to limit civic spaces, processes, and institutions in order to accomplish this goal, he didn’t succeed in sweeping them away. This reality was apparent with the defeat in the 2006 referendum when he told voters: “A Yes vote is a vote for Chávez and a No vote is a vote for Bush”, an electoral argument which backfired on him: the majority didn’t vote Bush, but they didn’t vote Chávez either.

    2. Short term measures aimed at distributing resources and services from the seat of power to the less well off have their limits. In spite of all the resources employed over the course of more than a decade, the division of those going to the ballot box – a ratio of approximately 60% and 40% – hasn’t changed, which gives legitimacy, within Venezuela and across the world, as much to the president as to the Opposition. This means that neither party can claim to speak for Venezuela but only to do so on behalf  of the people who support them, and this also demonstrates that re-election depends on the will to transform revolutionary populism into real change, something which implies democratisation, freedom, and guarantees, and not seasonal theatre. A lesson valid as much for the Government as for the Opposition.

    3. The most significant transformation to have occurred in Venezuela centres on the change produced in the political culture of the popular sector. In favour of Chávez or against him, Venezuelans have learned to use the mechanisms of democracy. If they get it wrong in one election, they can learn from the mistake and they can put it right at the next opportunity, something which is impossible when civic space is swept away by revolutions.

    4. The contradiction of a Cuban government which supports electoral processes overseas whilst at the same time denying them to its own citizens is all too evident for Cubans. In any event the access of millions of Venezuelan citizens to political participation will without doubt have a positive effect on the future of the South American country and of the region to which we belong.

Thanks to civil society – an indispensable instrument for popular participation, parallel and autonomous with respect to the State – the attempt to install a “constitutional dictatorship” is leading to the strengthening of the mechanisms which empower the sovereignty of the people.

Havana, the 5th of March, 2009

Translated by RSP