A Different Approach to the Referendum in Venezuela

chavez-wins-feb-09On Sunday, much like in Bolivia, Venezuela as a people made their voices clear. In a referendum proposed by president Hugo Chávez, the people voted to eliminate the term limits for all public, elected officials by a 54.4 to 45.6 margin (11 of Venezuela’s 16 million registered voters participated with 2 million more votes than the first referendum in 2007). The issue is already contentious both within communities within the United States and the world. Much of this is based solely upon Chávez, the man, and not the situation and history of Venezuela. The trouble with the referendum, not so much the move itself but what the referendum brought to fruition, is not that Chávez will become “dictator for life” (if you want a real dictator, see my profile on Alfredo Stroessner, appearing tomorrow) but that his Bolivarian revolution lacks much real clout. We’ll be discussing those issues along with the divisive way the world sees Venezuela (and how Chávez plays into that polarization) and what the future may hold, on this, the first day of the rest of Venezuela’s life.

Caracazo and the Rise of Chavez

Add an “azo” to the end of a word and implies force. Thus, caracazo implies Caracas was hit with a force. In 1989, in retaliation to a price fluctuations imposed by the IMF (see a more indepth review on the 20th anniversary on Feb. 27) Caracas struck back. Like much of Latin America in the dawning days of the 1990s, austerity measures and draconian debt obligations effected the governability for third world leaders. Venezuela was not exception. Caracas is placed under martial law and troops murder unarmed demonstrators. Thousands die.

From that uprising against president Carlos Andrés Pérez, Hugo Chávez emerged. Without going into details one can gather elsewhere, he and a small portion of the armed forces plot a coup against Pérez, which fails. He is inexplicably allowed on national television in his surrender, saying,

Comrades: unfortunately, for the moment, the objectives that we had set for ourselves have not been achieved in the capital. That’s to say that those of us here in Caracas have not been able to seize power. Where you are, you have performed well, but now is the time for a rethink; new possibilities will arise again, and the country will be able to move definitively towards a better future.

He spends the next two years in jail before being released in 1994. Four years later, in December of 1998, Chávez wins 56% (about the same as this referendum) of the vote and become president of Venezuela – a target from day one.


Prior to Hugo Chávez, just like in the United States, Venezuelan politics revolved around two spheres. On the right was the Partido Social Cristiano de Venezuela (COPEI). On the left was Acción Democrática (AD). Since military rule ended in 1958, when Marcos Pérez Jiménez was forced from Venezuela, these two (the right and the left) traded off the backs of the people under 1998.

Using this logic (and many do) this system can become an ire to the people. In the US, some (I do) believe that a two-party system is not the most democratic system available, compound that with the media and the general shallowness of political thought, and you have a population rife with conflict. Yet, our transitions are peaceful. So have Venezuela’s, let’s not get it wrong, but how did an outsider, on the rage of the populace, a third party candidate, emerge as president of a powerful country in South America? That is inconceivable (at least for now) in the US. What happened?

Not to rely too much upon a different set of orientalist tools for the Americas, the systems of Venezuela (and much of Latin America) after WWII into the twenty-first century were corporatist in nature. This has nothing to do with corporations as we know them. It has to do with sectors of a society becoming, in essence, lumped together. In a corporatist system, the head of the government essentially speaks to secretaries from various interests, those secretaries, in essence, speak for you and me. Well, add patrimony and various corrupting influences and one can see how for decades these “secretaries” spoke for no one but themselves and the president. It was here that Chávez emerged. As a change from this corporatist mold, to usher in a new era, a new millennium for Venezuela.

So what happened there?

Two Rigid Dichotomies

We’ll address the future in a moment, but this post is more to get people to think about Chávez and Venezuela critically and not from their gut. Leave preconceived notions behind and travel with me, for a moment, through the two sides outlined above. For this is an essential part in our process.

In a newly released document from The Commune, “The Revolution Delayed: a decade of Hugo Chávez,” the editors spoke to two members of a collective which produces a magazine called El Libertario. One of the members, Isabel, spoke of Chavista and its implications for the future. One quote is apposite to this debate about dichotomies and highlights the certain hypocritical air under which Chávez operates.

But there is all sorts of propaganda about Chavista Venezuela’s leading role in a so-called new movement for anti-imperialist “liberation”. As if this country is in the vanguard of some global upheaval! Always following the old model of the Cold War, bloc against bloc… that is how this government portrays itself to the outside world.

71324471MT002_VENEZUELA_PREThis would be uproarious, if this was not how people see Chávez – as a vanguard of sorts against capitalism (more on the truth below). But this quote illustrates how Chávez uses the East-West, black-white, bloc-bloc divide that, I feel, Americans continue to fall into. Us against them. Chávez is able to capitalize on these divisions – and we sleight him for it.

The future of Venezuela is yet to be written. Often, those who voted Si voted for Chávez because he represents them and their interests, in an obvious way that the old oligarchy could never represent the people.

So, our reality. We cannot preach of democracy, when we don’t know what it even means. Our insistence upon what is right and wrong are powerful forces, and often come from genuine places, but our discourse on Venezuela (like our discourse on Palestine-Israel) is something to break and may take years.

Thus, the people of Venezuela voted, democratically, on Sunday. Yes, there is more to democracies than elections, but I wouldn’t peg Chávez to be the kind of guy who plays completely by Western models and rules. Is he a caudillo and a populist, you bet. Is that such a bad thing? That is a personal choice.

We, and Venezuelans, are stuck between a rock and hard place (or however the saying goes). On the one side, Chávez and a purported revolution in progress, a revolution, like it or not, that uses the poor as its cornerstone. On the other, not so much a genuine opposition, but the forces from the oligarchy that lost out in 1998 and failed in their coup attempt in 2002 and the elections in 2006. That fact that this is term limit issue is a problem has, in part, to do with the right in Venezuela feeling left out for good, for how can they convince the country to return to their old, childish ways? We in the West chide Chávez for lacking democracy, but, as I said, there is more to democracy than elections.

What is next?
What may be the most troubling aspect of the referendum isn’t that names and vague talking points will be ignorantly repeated but that it seems to me that this “revolution” of sorts, even at its most basic resistance to standard “right-left” dichotomies, is in trouble as Chávez views himself, and no one else, capable of furthering his agenda.

Much has been discussed, and I direct readers to a great article on mediaLeft which looks at the nature of Chávez’s regime and its successes thus far.

But, there is dissent in Venezuela. This is where Chávez may find himself arrogantly unprepared. In the same article discussed above on The Commune, Isabel went on to say,

One of the characteristics of South American
populism is its woolly ideology! What is the content of the “Bolivarian process”? It’s totally empty! In reality the whole “process” centres on the Chávez personality cult. When we discuss this with comrades from abroad we always emphasise two points. Firstly, how it is simplistic to see Chavismo as the left and the opposition as the right: the best way of not understanding anything! Second, to take account of the economic context: Venezuela is experiencing one of the richest periods of the last thirty years in terms of oil revenue.

I wrote this to offer a more sensible approach to Venezuela. It does not have to be the Nicaragua or El Salvador or Chile of the 1970s and 80s. There is much debate about Venezuela’s future and one must be able to have an informed, civil debate. This goes for all countries, at all times. One can admonish faults (no one would want to sit down and speak civilly to Hitler in 1942) but Chávez isn’t Hitler, Venezuela is not Germany, socialism is not what it meant last century, some would argue that Venezuela is far from a socialist state, as quoted above.

Bolivia emerged from inside of itself, freed itself from a long strain of tyranny against a specific people. Modern political Venezuela emerged in a backlash against a government and an international money lending conglomerate. Venezuela is not Bolivia. Their referendums are not the same. But, for people like me, Latin American history looks to be interesting and I hope I speak for all when I hope that, whoever is in charge, human decency and dignity should remain at the top of the agenda. That is one criteria we should all uphold.

For more information-
Victory in Venezuela: Chavez, Progress and Media Coverage by C. Edward Anable
Venezuelan term limits: personalismo and success for the “Yes” by George Gabriel
An Important but Risky Victory for Venezuela and for Socialism by Gregory Wilpert
VENEZUELA: Chávez – A Referendum of His Very Own by Humberto Márquez


~ by Daniel on February 16, 2009.

One Response to “A Different Approach to the Referendum in Venezuela”

  1. Gosh, the country is really polarized. Frankly, these days I don’t know what to think. As you have said, there is Chavez, who despite his various faults and empty promises, is willing to help the poor and have succeded, and the old corrupt order. I think the media is making a great disservice around the coverage of things in Venezuela and the complexity of the situation. Indeed, I myself have fallen into some of the media stuffs, and I find having a rational mind about Chavez somewhat hard, especially if there is misinformation everywhere. Also, I find Chavez’s socialism not quiet as socialist. Yes, he finds Fidel Castro as some sort of role model, but so far, he hasn’t gone to that extreme.

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