Caracas was strangely quiet on Saturday. The campaign around the constitutional reforms proposed by President Hugo Chavez ended officially the day before, with a massive demonstration of red T-shirts sporting the “yes” slogan. Friday’s marches in the capital’s central avenues outnumbered the previous day’s demonstration by the opposition. Among Chavista activists the talk was of a slim victory for Chavez.
The Sunday of the vote was again a quiet day – surprisingly so, given the level of activity in previous weeks. Student demonstrations and protests had forced the main universities in several cities to close. The shortages of basic goods – sugar, flour, eggs and milk – added to the growing sense of instability and crisis.
Rumours of sabotage on a large scale persisted – and there were violent incidents like the burning down by opposition students of the school of social work at the central university in caracas
But by the Sunday evening it was obvious that Chavez had lost the vote on the reforms. The National Electoral Council announced that the no vote had won by 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent. It was the first vote that Chavez had lost since he was elected to the presidency in 1998. And he was quick to acknowledge his defeat, in a brief and dignified television statement.
The most significant figure, however, is the level of abstention. Some 45 percent of voters did not vote (compared with less than 30 percent when Chavez was re-elected as president in 2006). Since the intense campaign of the right brought out its vote in larger numbers than before the only possible conclusion is that Chavez’s own support declined. And some of the reasons for that are to be found in the constitutional reforms themselves.
The more than 130 clauses revising the Bolivarian constitution of 1999 covered several different areas. But from the beginning Chavez insisted that they must be voted on as a single block. Many of the clauses were obviously progressive – the extension of social security to the self-employed, the reduction of the working day to six hours, new clauses against discrimination on grounds of religion or sexuality.
The reforms also gave more power to the Communal Council established in 2006 and to the Missions – the programmes for social services like health and education set up after the bosses’ strike of 2002-3. The term ‘Popular Power’ was enshrined in the new constitution, and presented as the guarantee of “21st century socialism”.
A number of the other clauses, however, massively extended the powers of the presidency – placing the military and the police and the state sector of the economy under direct presidential control, for example, and allowing the indefinite re-election of the president.
This was in direct contradiction to the promise to shift real social power towards the grassroots organisations. The right wrongly cried “dictatorship” – but for many on the left too, this concentration of power in Chavez’s hands was deeply disturbing and flew in the face of the rhetoric about people’s power and a deepening democracy.
The reforms to the economy created three economic areas: a social economy of cooperatives and “popular enterprises” which could include about 10 percent of the total, a private sector – guaranteeing private ownership – of around 45 percent and the rest a social property sector controlled by a state increasingly centralised under the direct authority of Chavez. This hardly amounted to what the right wing TV stations like Globovision described as “the abolition of private property and the advent of communism”.
In the end, the right used its weapons well – its domination of the media, its ability to create artificial shortages of basic goods, its capacity to mobilise students from the private and more technocratic universities around slogans about dictatorship. And it won some important allies – none more so than the retired General Baduel who just a few months ago had been proclaimed as the guarantor of the Bolivarian Revolution. His denunciation of Chavez at a critical moment exposed divisions within the army that had long been denied.
This undeniable setback does not mean that the Bolivarian project has been rejected by a population whose overwhelming majority would benefit from it.
But it does suggest a deepening scepticism about how far the promises have been fulfilled and will be kept in the future. Many of the social programmes have failed to reach their targets. The number of houses built have been fewer than promised, the health provisions rightly seen as an achievement of the revolution have not reached many of the people who had expected them, funds for social programmes like education have often not reached their recipients. This is not just the result of inefficiency. It is the consequence of the massive corruption that has always characterised Venezuelan political life, and which the Bolivarian Revolution has failed to deal with. And while the shortage of goods has intensified during the no campaign, they were already a major issue for the poor in Venezuela long before.
Against that background, Chavez’s increasingly radical stances in international relations did not compensate for the frustrations and disappointments felt by many ordinary people.
For them democracy, a true 21st century socialism, must involve the building of a genuine people’s power, a possibility that Chavez expressed and symbolised so well, but which his promised reforms did not seem to advance at all.
Those Venezuelans who have so enthusiastically supported Chavez have no illusions about the old ruling class. They know that if it returned to power it would take its terrible revenge just as the Chilean ruling class did in 1973. The referendum vote is a call from below and a signal of the kind of society they want to see – a society founded not on the power of any individual, but on the right of the mass of working people to govern their own lives collectively. In other words, a socialist society.