Reading the Defeat
On December 2, 2007, Venezuela voters rejected President Hugo Chávez’s proposed constitutional reform. That reform, broadened by the National Assembly to encompass a total of 69 articles, would have led Venezuelan society at an accelerated pace towards “socialism of the 21st century.” With 94% of the results reported, the National Electoral Council’s second bulletin announced that slightly more than half the voters had chosen “NO” in opposition to the Chávez proposal. The specific vote was against “Bloque A,” a proposal that combined the Chávez proposal with a number of the National Assembly measures. The vote against Bloque A came to 4.521.494 votes, 50.65% of the total, as opposed to 4.404.626 votes (49.34%) in favor of “SI.” The difference between the “NO” and “SI” votes was 1.31 %. In Bloque B, an option that included all the National Assembly reform proposals, the difference was slightly higher.
To put the situation in perspective, the vote in support of the Bolivarian revolution had declined 14 %, almost three million votes, from the 2006 presidential elections. The opposition increased its share of the vote by only 211,000 votes. More than a triumph for the opposition forces, the vote was a defeat for the forces of Bolivarianism, opening a political game with uncertainties and contradictions.
How to Read the Defeat
In their first reactions, Chávez’s close supporters reflected uneasy concern and unbridled emotions. However, the president and his allies are now reading the election in a way that has begun to express itself through concrete actions. These measures increasingly point to the idea of recovering lost support through a strategy which, while not essentially altering the goal of advancing towards the model of socialism proposed last year, in tactical terms, includes some actions and words of moderation and political aperture.
For example, on December 31, Chávez granted pardons and signed a broad amnesty law that ceased to press charges against the majority of those involved in the 2002 and 2003 insurrectional activities. Changes were also made to the cabinet in the areas of security, food administration, housing, communications and liaisons with popular organizations, areas that had been weakened and had thus affected electoral results. These changes appeared to respond to a quest for more efficiency rather than signify a modification of government policies.
On January 6, Chávez introduced what he called “the three R’s policy”: revision, rectification and re-impetus. He called upon his grassroots supporters to prepare themselves for the governors’ and mayors’ elections next month (November) and declared that the candidacies “should arise from the decisions of the grassroots base and not as a product of meetings in clandestine smoke-filled rooms, agreements of one party with another, to be finally stamped with the Chávez seal of approval” (El Nacional, June 6, 2008).
That same day, Chávez also announced the relaunching of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela/PSUV) through preparation of its foundational congress. He also proposed reviving the Polo Patriótico, the coalition formed in 1998 for his first presidential election, as a signal that he was resigned to the permanence of other parties in his political platform, a measure to which he had been aggressively opposed throughout 2007, when he pressured his allies to dissolve their membership in other political parties or risk exclusion from the government. He now explained that he wanted to encourage “a grand alliance, not only of revolutionaries” in order to “attract the business sectors, the middle class, who are the essence of this project.” He said that all sectors had to be welcomed into the alliance and that sectarianism and extremism had to be fought “because the revolution has to open itself up.”
On January 11, the president gave his 2007 State of the Union address to the National Assembly, in which he presented the most significant statistics of what he considered his outstanding achievements in his nine years in power (statistics published on the website www.aporrea.org and in the newspapers El Nacional and Últimas Noticias). Towards the end of his speech, Chávez alluded to the three roles that he had played since coming to power, and formulated a self-evaluation of each of those roles. These reflections seem to reveal his own reading of his defeat and how he plans to make a comeback.
He considered his performance as chief of state as positive. From his perspective, this dimension encompasses actions to situate Venezuela firmly on the international stage. In this context, he enumerated initiatives such as ALBA, Petrocaribe and other efforts to strengthen Caribbean and Latin American integration. He also expressed satisfaction with his role as leader of the revolution. He considered that socialism had been sown in Venezuela and nothing would hold it back. He declared that the revolution had been made peacefully, respecting human rights and cultural diversity, with a predilection for dialogue and appreciation for participatory democracy. Where he said he displayed weakness was in his role as head of government.
Chávez talked frankly about what he considered the multiple defects of his government. He mentioned insecurity, food shortages, lack of planning, the bad situation in the jails, impunity, corruption and the sluggish bureaucracy of public administration. All of these defects—he recognized—were making people lose confidence in the government. But Chávez did not talk about the perverse political polarization that has persisted throughout these years, with its heavy burden of intolerance towards his political adversaries and domestic dissidents that was readily fomented by his confrontational discourse.
He also failed to indicate a recognition of opposition sectors that have come to accept the rules of the political game, asking for a dialogue with the government. This opposition, which has made efforts towards unification and, at the same time, to separate themselves from the anti-democratic actors of the past, includes middle-class professionals who could help to contribute to the elevation of political quality of the present democracy, as well as to the improvement of the debilitated and inefficient public sector. But pluralism has not been a value for the president, and polarization has paid off. It seems that he still is not prepared to abandon his policy of polarization.
In general, then, the speech, delivered a month after his defeat, reveals the conclusions that the leader had reached during that period. He seeks to recuperate his losses in 2008 through more efficient administration, but without changing his basic goal of socialism. One example of this is his promise to call for a revocatory referendum in 2010 against himself, if the opposition does not do so, with only two questions: 1) Are you in agreement that Hugo Chávez should keep on being president of Venezuela? 2) Are you in agreement with a small amendment to the constitution to permit indefinite reelection? (linking the two questions), as described in Últimas Noticias on January 13, 2008.
The ideas that Chávez formulated after his defeat in the constitutional referendum allow us to understand some of his recent actions. In foreign affairs, for example, they explain his ongoing conflictive stance toward the United States and Colombia. During his presentation of his annual report to the National Assembly, he publicly asked Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s government to grant belligerent status to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN), a recommendation that provoked strong tensions in the following days with the neighboring country.
This request had the effect of canceling out the positive international impact that Chávez had obtained the previous day when, for the first time in years, the FARC agreed to liberate a group of hostages. The clumsiness with which Chávez made the request to the National Assembly contributed to an increase in Uribe’s popularity in Colombia in the following weeks. Chávez’s demand did not receive the backing of any Latin American country, not even Cuba. In March, after the Colombian Army attacked a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory, Chávez also made a series of declarations that could have been interpreted as favorable to the guerilla group. Following conversations with other Latin American governments, the president softened his tone and his antagonism, permitting the Group of Rio and the Organization of American States to register a victory over the forces in the region that seek to torpedo Latin American integration and enhance bellicose tendencies.
In regards to the PSUV, the latest decisions suggest only weak modifications to strengthen the collective and democratic dynamic. Congressman Luis Tascón, considered a member of the extreme wing of Bolivaranism, was expelled first from the Block for the Change of the Assembly ( Bloque por el Cambio de la Asamblea) and later from the organization that evolved into PSUV. His expulsion came about as a result of complaints he had made to the Assembly’s Oversight Commision about irregularities in David Cabello’s performance in the Ministry of Infrastructure. Cabello, along with some family members, is part of the group that is closest to Chávez and is considered by the leftist currents within Bolivarianism to head up the “endogenous right.” Assembly President Cilia Flores criticized the fact that Tascón made his complaints in a public space and to the media.
At the same time that it tried to silence Tascón’s accusations, the Foundational Congress of the PSUV, meeting in Caracas in February, approved a mechanism based on an election for delegates to select the party’s national leadership. In addition, another slate was introduced in which presidential preference significantly reduced the list of candidates before the delegates’ election. Even so, the election of the PSUV National Directorate gave Bolivarianism a relatively legitimate and grassroots collective channel based on party militancy.
Some Final Words
November’s regional and local elections will be an important barometer to determine whether the strategy of the president and his allies has worked to recover his strength or, conversely, has led to the continuation of the decline of his force. Meanwhile, the government is increasing its efforts to achieve a steady food supply, above all in the area of staples such as milk, bread and rice, which had experienced shortages in the marketplace because of a combination of factors, including lack of planning and inefficiency and insufficiency of the agricultural development policy. Venezuela continues to import close to 70% of everything that is needed to feed and clothe its population. At the same time, polls in recent years indicate that the popular sectors have increased their consumption as a result of a more effective distribution of the petroleum-derived income through missions and other public policies. However, today as yesterday, this is only sustainable through oil income, the highest per capita that Venezuela has received in its entire history, according to Asdrúbal Baptista in Bases cuantitativas de la economía venezolana (Caracas, Fundación Empresas Polar, 2007).
In this sense, the Bolivarian revolution revives once more the “magical state” which for much of the 20th century maintained illusions about a modernization that was sustained only through the surplus that the oil industry extracted from the international energy market, without any domestic counterpart (Fernando Coronil, The Magical State, Chicago University Press, 1997). Now it finances a vague “socialism.” When this income drops for some reason, or is thought to be insufficient, Venezuela returns to its real situation: a country with resources but without capacity to create wealth. Thus the fantasies collapse. To conclude, a chart that illustrates how, in structural terms, almost ten years of Bolivarianism have not been able to build an economic structure that avoids repeating the same vices of the past: from the mid- 1950’s, production and consumption do not have any relationship with each other. The gap between the two is satisfied by the oil income.
Margarita López Maya is a historian. She holds a doctorate in social science and is a research professor at the Center for Economic Development at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. She is author of Del viernes negro al referendo revocatorio (Alfadil, 2005, Caracas) and Lucha popular, democracia, neoliberalismo: protesta popular en América Latina en los años de ajuste (Nueva Sociedad, 1999, Caracas), among other books.