Last Saturday two marches started in the huge barrio of Petare, in Venezuela's capital Caracas.
In the morning, a massive demonstration led by student organisations chorused its rejection of the constitutional amendment to be voted on a week from now – ‘No to re-election’.
In the afternoon, President Hugo Chavez, who is campaigning for a change in the law that will allow him and every other public official to stand again for re-election in 2012, led a cavalcade followed by cheering crowds in red T-shirts shouting 'Uh Ah Chavez Si Va' ('Go Chavez!').
The vote will take place on Sunday 15 February.
For nearly two months political life in Venezuela has focussed on this single issue. In January alone Chavez made 48 national TV and radio broadcasts from different parts of the country. Most ministries have virtually stopped working as civil servants are mobilised to run the campaign.
The right wing opposition, encouraged by its victories in the elections for governors and mayors in November 2008, have devoted all their energy and most of their media time to denouncing Chavez as a dictator.
For the right, the issue is one of democracy – a concern that rings false when you remember what it is they want the country to return to. Before Chavez’s election in 1998, Venezuelan oil – while theoretically nationalised – in fact served to make several multinational oil companies and their local agents very rich.
The mass of the population – around 80 percent – lived in conditions of real poverty. It was that majority that voted Chavez in – with well over 50 percent of the vote.
And when sections of that same right wing attempted to remove him in a coup in 2002, it was the masses who took to the streets and defeated the coup-makers in 48 hours. Later that year, the right mobilised all its forces – the people who ran the oil corporation, the factories, the mass media, the banks, the supermarkets – and launched a strike that was designed to bring the economy to its knees. That failed, for the same reason – the active resistance of workers, peasants and the urban poor.
This was the Bolivarian revolution that Chavez proclaimed. It was a promise not just to use Venezuela’s oil wealth to guarantee the living standards of the masses – a significant objective after ten years of savage neo-liberalism – but also a vision of a society in which power was passed into the hands of those masses.
He called it 'people’s power'. And in 2005 he defined this new kind of society as 21st century socialism.
Venezuela in 2009, however, still has a long way to go before people’s power moves from rhetoric to reality. A new layer of powerful bureaucrats has emerged who have used many of those social resources to make themselves rich. Corruption is a reality – but it is more than just a sum of criminal activities. Decisions made are ignored, public resources are channelled into private pockets. Real power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
Yet despite this and the other significant problems the country faces, the likelihood is that Chavez will win the campaign and be able to present himself as the presidential candidate again in 2012.
The right wing in Venezuela, and the opposition to Chavez outside the country, fail to understand that Chavez represents and symbolises something deeper than the charisma of a leader.
While it is true that some of the campaign literature falls into the 'support our great leader' category, for the mass of working people, he speaks with the voice of a popular movement that has fought one challenge after another, and will do so again when the occasion arises.
These same people know what the Venezuelan bourgeoisie wants. They have lived through it before, and they see signs of that old way of life returning. In recent weeks prices of most goods have risen almost daily. Drug-based crime is claiming growing numbers of victims – particularly in the poor barrios – while the security forces are sluggish at best, complicit at worst.
The opposition will do nothing to change that, given their frequent involvement with these same forces. They are carefully media-managed to look pretty and innocent. They present an image of clean youthfulness – most of their election candidates were clean-cut and under 40 – and this campaign has been presented as essentially led by students and young people,. But its purpose is still to destroy a process designed to benefit the majority.
The rising prices in the country benefit big Venezuelan capital, like the manufacturers, distributors or importers of food (something like 85 percent of Venezuela’s food is still imported). While Chavez and his ministers insist that Venezuela will not be affected by the world recession because of its oil revenues, the reality is that the effects are already being felt. The budget for most social programmes has been cut, in some cases savagely, including education, health and funds for cooperatives, and rising numbers are facing redundancy. The oil price over the last twelve months has fallen from a high of $140 a barrel to less than $40 today.
These are the realities the Venezuelan people will have to face in the immediate future. A No victory will, of course, encourage an opposition that wants to ensure it protects its own privileges at the expense of the masses.
A Yes victory will testify to a continuing hope in Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution. But it will not solve the problems faced by ordinary Venezuelans, who have little faith in the people running the state. There are already signs that after the vote is over the mass movement will move into action again, in the first place to address the immediate problems they face – insecurity, corruption, uncontrolled inflation. It is their success in doing that that will shape the future of the Bolivarian revolution, long before the elections of 2012.