Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

20 December 2007 Edition

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Venezuela - the revolution has only just begun

In recent years Venezuela has been a beacon of hope for those who know that another, more just political and social order is possible. The Bolivarian revolution has overseen a huge redistribution of Venezuela’s oil wealth, primarily focusing on significant levels of social spending in the areas of public health, education and nutrition projects.
With the defeat of a right wing coup and a string of stunning election victories, President Hugo Chavez looked unstoppable until the defeat this month of his constitutional reform referendum. Here, An Phoblacht’s DARA Mac NIALL looks at the implications of the latest developments in Venezuela.

No sooner were the results of Venezuela’s most recent referendum made public than the inevitable and thoroughly predictable ‘commentators’ and ‘analysts’ began posing the same thoroughly predictable questions: Is this the end for Chavez? Is the Venezuelan Revolution Over; Is Venezuela in Crisis?
And, unfortunately, this predictable wittering was not confined to the political Right. Stupidity and crass arrogance may indeed be endemic, if not congenial, amongst those who inhabit the colder end of the political spectrum, but unfortunately it is not confined to those quarters.
In right-wing circles, much of this is simple wish fulfilment. Since 1998, when Chavez first came to power, the rich and privileged in Venezuela have been engaged in one long act of self-delusion, born of years of unbroken and unquestioned control over a resource-rich society. They cling fast to the childish illusion that one day the ogre Chavez will be gone from amongst them and the natural order will be restored.
Over the last nine years, faith in this delusion has been badly shaken as Chavez has won not one, but some 12 battles of the ballot box. And on each occasion that Chavez has put either himself or his programmes to the electoral test, he has emerged with an even greater mandate. Quite simply, in the history of modern electoral democratic societies, Chavez is a phenomenon without precedent.
Included in this array of victories is the fact that he has also been elected to the presidency on three separate occasions (most recently, in 1996, with 63 percent of the vote) and was also victorious when the opposition ‘organised’ (if those terms are not mutually exclusive) a recall referendum.
So, at one level, you can almost understand the childish delight displayed on December 2, in the well-heeled quarters of Caracas. After years and years and years of shutting their eyes really, really tight and wishing the ogre away, they open them on this one occasion to find he has been forced into a small, temporary retreat.
But as night follows day their dream will be short-lived and may even have the effect of strengthening the very thing they hope to destroy.
It is important to put the 2 December result in some much-needed and generally absent context, obviously lost amidst the triumphalist whooping of ‘democrats’ the world over.
There is no doubt, the Chavez camp made some strategic blunders in the referendum campaign. Chavez himself – the most popular vote getter – was out of the country for large parts of the campaign and failed to recognise how close the vote could be. There was also a failure to tackle recent shortages in basic foodstuffs, which hurt Chavez voters the most.
These, it now appears, resulted from a deadly combination of high inflation and government price controls on such essentials as milk, meat and beans that ‘discouraged’ producers from raising output to meet demand. It is also now clear that the shortages also partially resulted from producers withholding goods from market, with the encouragement and connivance of the business lobby, Fedecamaras that lead the No vote campaign.
In addition, some of the Chavez camp appeared less than enthusiastic about the referendum, such as mayors and governors, as the referendum proposed strengthening local councils and citizens groups at their expense.
Equally, the wholehearted opposition of the deeply conservative Venezuelan Catholic hierarchy and church played a significant role – the same people caught on camera celebrating the 2002 coup, quaffing wine in the company of then newly-installed dictator, Pedro Carmona (he lasted 24 hours).
And then there was the role played by our friends in Washington. On November 26, the Venezuelan government made public a memo dispatched by a Caracas-based US Embassy official to the head of the CIA, Michael Hayden. The memo – whose authenticity was not disputed by the US – revealed the existence Operation Pincer, of which the aim was to defeat the referendum and undermine the popular regime.
It is also known that the US government, through bodies such as USAID, provided serious funding for opposition groups, as they did in the run up and aftermath of the coup.
Against this backdrop, the referendum was lost by a margin of 1.4 percent, from nine million people who voted. Most telling, however, was the numbers who stayed away – some 45 percent of the electorate abstained. Compare the 49 percent plus, won by Chavez on December 2, with the 63 percent won in the 2006 presidential election.
Also take into account the fact that his own poll ratings remain very high and the referendum becomes one that was narrowly lost because over three million people, who voted for his programmes in 1996, stayed at home on this occasion. After all, the exultant right only managed to increase their share of the vote by some 300,000, despite the national and international resources at their disposal. Thus, the regime’s support base remains reasonably solid.
Twelve electoral victories in a row might conceivably have induced a certain laxity into the approach to this referendum and defeat can in no way be represented as a mortal blow to the ongoing process of change and progress in Venezuela.
Indeed, the manner in which Chavez calmly accepted the result and graciously congratulated his opponents, on the night of December 2, stripped the US backed opposition of the last great weapon in its armoury. Remember, they have been working ceaselessly for years to caricature Chavez as a dictator and a demagogue.
However, by their nature, dictators and demagogues don’t tend to accept defeat in referenda, let alone hold them, as the US would know only too well from their long battle against democracy in Latin America.
If anything, 2 December gives the Bolivarian Revolution a more enhanced international relationship and makes assaults on its democratic credentials all the more absurd. Is the Venezuelan Revolution over? It’s barely started.  

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