Saturday, December 8, 2007

Why Chavez Won by Losing

This week in Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's referendum, which had received international attention in the past weeks, failed to pass by a slim margin of 51% (against) to 49% in favor. Newspaper headlines by the opposition, and their global allies in places like the US, have trumpeted this defeat as a grand loss for Chavez. His detractors have seized on it as evidence that the socialist revolution in Venezuela is now in decline. However, contrary to such gleeful wishes, Chavez may emerge from this setback more popular than ever. And here's why...

Term Limits

Read any newspaper or listen to a news story in the US, and all you learned about the referendum put forth by Hugo Chavez was that it would do away with term-limits. The opposition in Caracas--wealthy white elites who despise Chavez's appeal to the poor classes, mostly of color--howled this would mean the man they so villified, and once overthrew in a briefly aborted 2002 coup, would be able to retain power forever. While the issue of doing away with term limits is no doubt problematic, and worthy of debate by the citizens of Venezuela, it was greatly over-blown both by the opposition and their foreign allies. First off, the referendum did not mean Chavez would be president for life. What it would have done is allow him to run more than the current two term limit provides. He would therefore have the option to seek the presidency again, but could lose to a worthy candidate. Thus it was doing away with term limits without doing away with democratic principles. Now the whole issue of how long any politician should be allowed to run for office is certainly up to debate. But before anyone engages in it, let's keep some things in perspective. There are many stable democracies in the world that do not have strict term limits like Venezuela. Margaret Thatcher of Great Britian served three terms (one more than Chavez will ever be able) as Prime Minister; John Howard of Australia served four terms as Australia's president. Last I checked, though I abhor boh Thatcher and Howard's politics, neither were the authoritarian dictators that Chavez, in his bid to expand his terms, has been demonised as. In the greatest irony, the most vocal international critics of Chavez have been none other than the current occupants of the White House--whose own electoral authenticity remains deeply convuluted and controversial. Yet it was not until the 22nd amendment in 1944 that the idea of a two-term limit presidency came into existence. Before that, a U.S. presidential candidate could run for the office as many times as he could get elected. Franklin D. Roosevelt would serve a total of four times between 1932 and 1944. Many have even questioned whether Roosevelt's New Deal policies, that so drastically altered America for the better, would have been possible were he limited to only two terms.

Beyond Term Limits- the Rest of the Referendum

Contrary to media reports, there was much more to the referendum posed by Chavez than simply term limits. In fact, the referendum in full dealt with over sixty changes to the nation's constitutions. Some of these included everything from creating forms of communal ownership to allow landless farmers to acquire property, to cutting the workday from eight hours to six. There was a bid at universal social security coverage for much of the informal sector (street vendors, domestic servants, etc.) who make up at least 40% of the labor force. There were even civl rights guarantees for homosexuals and Venezuelans of color, especially those of African descent. Other reforms hoped to stem the long-standing institutional corruption and obstructionism which Chavez has blamed for stalling his reforms. All of these important matters took a back seat to talk of term limits, which Chavez's detractors at home and abroad seized upon in a well-funded propaganda campaign.

The Opposition- Democratic Idealists or Elitists

While news media reports often speak of Chavez's opposition as mere college students or concerned citizens, the truth is a bit more complex. Those opposing the referendum were an amalgam of everyone from Trotskyites to extreme rightists. The main thrust behind the opposition, that has long villified Hugo Chavez, remains the upper and middle-class Venezuelan elite. Owning most of the media and many businesses, Chavez's appeals to the poor and his socialist principles threaten their power. And they constantly paint him in newspapers and other outlets as a mad dictator. With American backing, these forces managed to carry out a coup in 2002 that pushed Chavez from power--until his supporters (the poor majority of color) took to the streets to defy the coup leaders and place their elected president back in power. Contrary to their cries of dictatorship, Chavez did the unthinkable and never rounded up or arrested many of the leaders of the coup. And except for refusing to renew the license of a TV station that participated in the coup and regularly calls for overthrowing the government, for the most part Chavez has allowed his critics to voice their opinions--which they have done quite often, and at times violently. Thus far, there are no Guantanamo prisons for the opposition in Venezuela. And what of those much touted college students who the NY Times portrayed as fighting for their liberties? Most are upper class and elite, and receive direct money from groups tied to the Bush administration in the U.S.---hardly a grassroots wellspring of democracy. There is also an element of racism in the opposition which many observers within and without Venezuela have noted, including Chavez himself. On more than one occassion, they have portrayed Chavez as a caricature of a primate--and made derogatory remarks to his multi-racial African and indigenous heritage.

Chavez the "Dictator" Accepted Democracy

Though the opposition in Caracas is putting on a face of joy, beneath they must be seething. Their entire premise, as that of the US, has been that Chavez is a dictator and strongman. Yet after only narrowly losing the referendum, Chavez accepted defeat, congratulated his opponents and said that even had he won, with such a narrow margin, it would have been a pyrrhic victory. Hardly the words and actions of a dictator. The many t-shirts the opposition had printed to begin a mass propaganda campaign against the Venezuelan "dictator" had to be shelved, when Chavez showed them how a democracy actually works. Perhaps those lovers of democracy among the opposition will once again show their respect for the rule of law with another coup attempt.

Beyond Chavez: Mistakes, Lessons and the Future

The hard reality here is that in many ways, even taking into account the propaganda of the opposition, Chavez overreached. The term limit issue was easy fodder for his opponents to grab onto. And placing over sixty sweeping changes on one referendum was probably too much for his base to comfortably engage with. By accepting defeat, this does not mean Chavez socialist revolution has come to an end. Rather the lesson here is to play the political game more carefully. What's more, all such revolutions, even when they mean well, can easily fall into the trap of a cult-of-personality. Chavez, no matter his desire to create change, did not rise to power by himself and cannot complete the changes he'd like to see come about by himself. Rather than attempting to retain the seat of power, new institutions that can create new leadership for the future is needed. As noted by Mark Weisbrot in Alternatives International:

"The popular presentation of this contest as between pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez forces is misleading. It is a struggle of left versus right, with the two sides divided and polarized along the lines of class, democracy, national sovereignty, and race."

And long after Chavez has exited the political stage, that battle will need to be fought.


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