Chavez Loses One, What’s Next for Venezuela
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ constitutional reform proposal —billed as a fast track to socialism— lost in a close vote on Sunday. It was a battle the charismatic president may have lost over how the reforms were presented to the voters and several side conflicts.
The existing 1999 Constitution has been Chavez’ guiding light, used by the leader time and time again to strengthen Venezuelan democracy and citizen participation. He often holds up a compact copy on his weekly TV program to emphasize the legality of his actions as president to favor the poor majority.
While Chavez saw the dozens of new reforms as a well thought out integral package, the articles themselves could also be seen as a hodgepodge of controversial and non-controversial issues. Grouping them together gave Chavez’ detractors the opportunity to fixate their rejection on some of the reforms, and in doing so, throw a bucket of cold water over all of them.
For example, one would think that granting social security pensions to the self employed, free public university education, a 36-hour work week, dropping the voting age from 18 to 16, and protecting people from losing their homes to confiscation over bankruptcy or other legal proceedings were popular measures.
Meanwhile, removing term limits for a president, greater presidential control over the Central Bank and its foreign reserves, empowering the “Popular Power” councils as the driving force of Venezuelan democracy and allowing a president to declare a state of emergency without a time limit, were highly controversial political reforms.
Despite losing, Chavez said it was encouraging that 49 percent of the voters favored his “audacious” fast track path to socialism. He said he would continue on that road guided by the rules of the existing constitution.
TOO MANY BATTLES AT THE SAME TIME
To spread fear and envelope him in never-ending controversy, the media labeled Chavez as dangerous and unstable. Instead of putting out the flames, a combative Hugo may have fed the fire.
Coming up to the vote, Chavez was riding high on a 60 percent plus popularity and a surging national income from near US $100 barrel oil. However, in a very short period of time he allowed relations with Spain and Colombia, two leading trade partners, to be severely strained and upped the ante in the battle of words with the White House.
By lumping everyone opposing the reform package into the same basket, and calling them either traitors, oligarchs, lackeys of the US and/or enemies of his country’s peaceful revolution, Chavez may have turned off a percentage of the electorate who support him as Venezuela’s president.
Now the question is what’s next for Chavez and his core supporters. One way out would be to only blame the local and foreign media and the United States for the setback and not take a critical look at the campaign failures.
The more self-critical approach would be to recognize that much political work must be done to consolidate his newly formed United Socialist Party and clearly define the so-called 21st century socialism project.
Things have been moving fast in Venezuela, especially since the failed right wing US-backed coup in April 2002. Numerous big-time economic investment projects and wide-reaching social programs aimed at benefiting the country’s vast majority are underway and will continue with or without the new reforms. Chavez landslide 63 percent reelection vote in 2006, with 7.3 million votes of the 11.8 million total, indicated the general agreement with those programs.
In Sunday’s vote the National Electoral Council announced that the YES on the constitutional reforms received just over 4.3 million of the nearly 8.9 million valid votes. The turnout was reported as 55.9 percent compared to 74.7 percent in the 2006 presidential race.
One of the vote’s main lessons is that the greater ideological battle that Chavez wants to wage to transform Venezuela from being a capitalist, consumer society to a socialist nation that prioritizes the common good, is not going to be won overnight.
But no one should sell Chavez short. In his concession speech early Monday, he made it clear that he’s “in it for the long haul.”