The sweeping constitutional reforms proposed by President Hugo Chavez that would “open the path to 21st century socialism” were rejected on Sunday’s dramatic referendum in Venezuela. But the devil, of course, is in the details, largely overlooked by global corporate media. The “Yes” lost to the “No”, as Chavez himself identified, essentially because of a low turnout. According to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council the No got 50.7% and the Yes 49.3%, with a 44% abstention.
Crucially, what this means is that roughly one-third of Venezuela wants to forge towards democratic socialism no matter what; one-third prefers to remain under the standard liberal capitalist system; and one-third has not made up their minds yet, or was just too busy surviving to bother to vote. This de facto three-way tie, in itself, is also a major political earthquake. In virtually every country in South America, except fierce US ally Colombia, a similar referendum might yield similar results. The world is definitely not flat.
The (red) devil will bounce back. Chavez, perhaps more than anyone, knows how the radical but peaceful battle for more social justice – not only in South America, but globally – will be a long and winding road. After suffering his first defeat in no less than seven elections spanning almost nine years he could not but concede, sensibly, that his sweeping reforms were stalled, “for now.” At the Miraflores palace in Caracas, he said he would never be satisfied with such a Phyrric victory, with the slimmest of margins. Add to it his graceful acceptance of the popular verdict. No rigging. No attempts at disenfranchising voters. No “hanging chads”. No soap opera in a Supreme Court to overturn a result. No military coup.
Me rich, you poor, and that’s it
Global corporate media’s monomaniac, hysterical blitzkrieg was that a victory of the Yes would have allowed Chavez, a “power-hungry autocrat”, to be re-elected for life. If the Yes had won, that’s the proof there’s no democracy in Venezuela. But the NO has won – to global corporate media’s thunderous embarassment. This means only when Chavez loses there’s democracy in Venezuela.
The presidential re-election for more than two terms was just one among 69 constitutional reform proposals to socialize political and economic relations in Venezuela. The reforms would have given more power to communal councils; reduced daily working hours from 8 to 6 hours (thus creating 200,000 extra jobs for “informal” workers); enshrined an array of social programs in the constitution; and allowed pensions to housewives and informal workers. Any progressive individual in any global latitude and under any political regime is able to recognize that these Venezuelan reforms were a huge step ahead in terms of social inclusion, participatory democracy, alternative (non-neoliberal) economic development, and a more effective central government. Reform, not revolution; the Chavez government itself stressed this was a “transition” towards “21st century socialism”, not the end of the road.
The overall purpose of the revised constitution was wealth redistribution: more state money to develop poor or neglected parts of the country – while fighting back against local corruption. This is something huge masses in South America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East can easily relate to. The dozens of thousands of “people’s councils” would be empowered. They are actually the basis of Venezuela’s democratic socialism – instrumental in empowering the huge masses of up-to-now excluded blacks and Indians, referred to by local elites as “monkeys”.
No wonder the elites had to be afraid, very afraid. Venezuela’s political class, be they self-styled “social democrats” or demo-christians, has traditionally been among the most savage, vile, crass and corrupt in the whole of Latin America. This simple fact alone explains why almost 70 % of the population of a country so rich in natural resources was poor when Chavez was first elected in 1999. The difference is that now the poor – in Venezuela and elsewhere in South America – have understood true democracy has nothing to do with what they had experienced in the past.
To the horror of Milton Friedman acolytes, Washington Consensus cheerleaders, structural adjustment practitioners and assorted “disaster capitalism” neocons, Venezuela is a country where peasant collectives are evolving into cooperatives. Article 112 of the proposed new constitution said the state would promote “different kinds of economic enterprises” – private, mixed, or run by a local community – with the target of “collective and cooperative construction of a socialist economy.” If Chavez was Salvador Allende in 1973 Chile everybody knows how Washington would “liberate” him.
Another article stated that at least five million independent workers – up to now totally unprotected – would have access to a guaranteed minimum wage, social security, pensions and paid holidays. This concerned masses of peasants, fishermen, taxi drivers, hairdressers, housewives and domestic servants.
What the elites were terrified of was not so much the possibility of Chavez being re-elected for years; what they needed to defeat at any price was the constitutional status of the ongoing social justice/wealth redistribution project.
President Lula in Brazil, as well as his Workers Party – one of the largest political parties in the world – were very much in favor of the Yes, in spite of marked differences with Chavez’s strategy and non-stop “attack mode” political style. Lula is always branded by Wall Street and US power elites as the “acceptable” face of a progressive South American leader, in contrast to (red) devil Chavez.
When King Juan Carlos of Spain – who forgot that he reclaimed the monarchy thanks to fascist dictator Francisco Franco – told Chavez to “shut up” at the recent Ibero-American summit in Chile, Lula tried to smooth things over by praising the “democratic” character of the Bolivarian Republic. For Lula, it’s perfectly acceptable for a President (or a Prime Minister) to remain in power for more than a decade. He has referred to European parliamentary democracies and long mandates by Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Felipe Gonzalez.
Lula’s opinion anyway was drowned by the vast corporate, center-right anti-Chavez front in Brazil, which counts on Washington’s enthusiastic support and tries by all means to frustrate the official Venezuelan entry to the regional Mercosur common market.
Green and Red Zones
This time Chavez had to fight not only powerful business tycoons, financial capital, the landowning class, the Catholic Church, corrupt union leaders and myriad manifestations of US muscle – mirrored in the formidable demonization-of-Chavez global corporate media blitzkrieg; in sum, as Gramsci might put it, a coalition of all the forces pertaining to the Old Order.
He also had to fight the inevitable erosion of an ongoing, slow revolutionary process; the skepticism and most of all apathy of “light Chavistas”, who were not sufficiently informed on what Bolivarian socialism would look like; corruption charges against sectors of the state apparatus; some high-profile defections like his former Defense Minister Raul Baduel and his ex-wife Marisabel Rodriguez; and most of all a young, upper middle class, formerly apathetic student movement.
There was nothing about “the conscience of a country” in these vocal student protests. A few students hailed from public universities but most come from elite private universities such as Andres Bello, the top Catholic university in Caracas. Mirroring the color-coded revolutions in the former Soviet sphere, student groups were lavished with funds from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) under the cloak of “conflict resolution” or “democracy promotion”. But as much as the Bush administration may be eager to instrumentalize them, the fact is the absolute majority of university students in Venezuela still support Chavez.
The polarization of the whole country is more than glaring in Caracas, with upper-class Altamira, who voted overwhelmingly No, contraposed to the hilly, crowded January 23 neighborhod, who voted overwhelmingly Yes. It’s the perfect metaphor of a world divided into Green Zones and Red Zones. In the Green Zone people are avidly consumerist and their idea of paradise is Miami. In the Red Zone people benefit from the work of a mision – a social program to bring secondary education to poor areas.
In the Red Zone – with most of its walls painted red, splashed with pictures of Bolivar, Chavez and Che Guevara, and teemig with self-described “social militants” – a victory of the No is interpreted as a defeat for all of Latin America. In the Green Zone it’s interpreted as the last gasp to stop the revolution – equaled to dictatorship – in its tracks. Had the No lost most of Altamira would have boarded the first flight to Miami.
So many enemies, so little time
Argentine political scientist Atilio A. Boron has characterized the referendum as a “baptism of fire” to see how crucial transformations in Latin America – the most unequal region in the world in terms of social justice – may be implemented: peacefully or violently. We’re not there – yet.
If Chavez – at least for a while – lost basically to voter apathy, a ruthless Plan B was already in the works, echoing the dark days of the US-backed or engineered 1970s dictatorships. Less than a week before the referendum the CIA-orchestrated Operation Pincer was unmasked by Venezuelan intelligence, with its emphasis on instantly disallowing a majority Yes vote by claiming fraud and then pushing towards a coup. As Boron stresses, “imperialism does not admit changes, either by the insurrectional or the institutional way”.
Before the referendum Chavez had insisted that “To vote ‘yes’, is a vote for Chavez and the revolution, to vote ‘No’ is a vote for Bush”. This might have been essentially true to many (not only in Venezuela but all over Latin America) but tactically it was a huge mistake. Chavez may have insisted “Our true enemy is US imperialism” but in fact he made no effort to convince at least part of what he terms “the pawns of imperialism” – corrupt Venezuelan elites.
The elites for their part made the best use of a lot of propaganda money from the US embassy in Caracas (US$ 8 million, according to an intercepted embassy memo), unlimited free time on right-wing media, the power of the Church, and the I-love-Miami student crowd while Chavez and the government machine were not able to convince a lot of people that the reforms would not benefit Chavez more than they would benefit the people. Thus a new political phenomenon was born – the Chavista who votes No (estimated at a huge 8 percentual points in the week before the vote, according to the Datanalisis polling firm).
As late as October the Yes was winning. But then the opposition started banging on the Holy Grail – the article restricting private property. On top of it Chavez had no political opponent to battle with (“Imperialist” Bush, after all, is a foreigner). So he fought Colombian President Alvaro Uribe instead – a US-backed visceral right-winger, very close to extreme right-wing paramilitaries, who unilaterally terminated Chavez’s mediation to liberate hostages in power of the Marxist FARC guerrillas in Colombia (the Bush administration would never allow Uribe to allow Chavez such a worldwide PR success). The problem is there are one million Colombians living in Venezuela. They may well have been the masses that tilted the vote towards the No.
I’ll be back
Then again, this is just a skirmish in a very long battle. Chavez, even in defeat, emerges as the leader of a true democratic republic (even people in France are comparing him favorably with Bonapartist Nicolas Sarkozy). Chavez will take the package to Parliament approval and may call another referendum after 2010 (the new presidential election is in 2012). Washington also won’t quit. The CIA didn’t have to deploy Operation Pincer – at least for now.
As usual the CIA was relying on bad HUMINT: the agency was counting on a Yes victory by 57%, with 60% abstention. Anyway the US destabilization effort this time was way more subtle than in 2002 when, after the US and Spain-supported coup against the elected Chavez government, the local elites forced an oil industry shutdown in which US$ 10 billion of the Venezuelan economy went up in smoke.
Chavez remains so popular all across the developing world because he’s the man who spells out what everyone is thinking. Take, for instance, the recent OPEC summit in Riyadh, where he was side by side with another “devil”, Islamic revolutionary and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad: “The empire of the dollar is crashing”. The next day, in Paris, after he discussed with Sarkozy his mediation in the Colombian hostages drama, he says that “Iran is a power and Venezuela is becoming one. We want to create a bipolar world. We don’t want a single power.”
Most of all Chavez is so dangerous for Washington and right-wing comprador elites in Latin America because he is pushing, no holds barred, towards democratic socialism. For Washington and Wall Street elites this is way worse than the spectre of totalitarian communism branded throughout the Cold War. Everyone in Latin America remembers how Allende in the early 1970s was demonized as a Stalinist dictator by a CIA-funded propaganda campaign. But it was Henry Kissinger who got the whole point, when he told then President Nixon how Allende had to be taken out because he was such a bad example for the rest of the developing world. Chavez is the 21st century Allende. He has already survived a US-backed coup, in 2002. And he knows others – the sons of Operation Pincer – are in the works. Still, even if the Yes had won, he would not have as much institutional power as George Bush.
Meanwhile, expect the (red) devil to be routinely pillored by global corporate media. Of course there is crime, corruption and government waste in Venezuela – like anywhere else. But the most important point, from a global perspective, is to examine how the Chavez experiment evolves, as a trial-and-error revolutionary process, and if and how social justice is spreading.
According to the UN, in 2006 alone poverty in Venezuela fell from 37.1% to 30.2%. Extreme poverty fell from 15.9% to 9.9%. Venezuela is on the way to reach its first Millennium Development Goal. The No vote has not reversed what eminent US Latin American expert James Petras describes as “the most promising living experience of popular self-rule, of advanced social welfare and democratically based socialism.” The resistance – or micro-resistances, on individual and small collective levels – continues. That’s how the liliputians will eventually topple the neoliberal Gulliver. You cant’ beat a (red) devil that easily.
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times (www.atimes.com). He’s the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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