Just after 9pm last Sunday a crowd erupted into cries of joy in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. They were gathered on Urdaneta Avenue, the street that runs alongside the presidential palace, and had just heard the announcement that President Hugo Chavez had won a hard-fought referendum on a constitutional amendment.
The amendment, which removes the limit on the number of times the president and all public officials can stand for re-election, won just under 55 percent of the vote – around 6.5 million votes. The No campaign, which claimed that this was the road to a personal dictatorship, gathered some 5 million votes.
President Hugo Chavez had put his personal reputation at stake, and had effectively presented the referendum as a vote of confidence in him, both as president and leader of the Bolivarian revolution. For over two months the campaign has absorbed huge amounts of media time and newspaper space. Most public officials abandoned their day jobs to campaign for the Yes vote.
Why was the campaign necessary, just after major elections for governors and mayors that Chavez won? After all, the next presidential elections will not happen until 2012.
In November 2008 the right made significant gains, winning five important state governorships and several mayor’s posts, including Greater Caracas. This gave the opposition renewed confidence, and it immediately showed that it would willing to use violence as well as sophisticated campaigning techniques to bring Chavez down.
Government supporters were attacked, Cuban doctors threatened and public resources destroyed wherever opposition candidates took power. At the same time, a well-organised right wing student movement led a campaign against what it called a “dictatorship of the left”.
The November elections also suggested widespread concern among Chavez supporters around two issues. One is corruption, which is widespread and reaches into the very heart of the Chavez state.
Many of those closest to the president, like former vice president Diosdado Cabello, have profiteered from the revolution – and that is common knowledge.
The other problem is the scale of drug-related violence, especially in the poor barrios. It is a violence that has claimed the lives of over 400 community and trade union leaders, murdered by gunmen mostly at the service of wealthy patrons.
It is also clear to most people that the infrastructure is in crisis – rubbish is piled up in the streets, the roads are neglected and many social programmes have stopped working.
For Chavez, faced with the real possibility of deepening economic problems in the coming year, with inflation running at well over 30 percent and the price of oil in a downward spiral, the vote was crucial to consolidate his authority. And he has clearly done that.
Yet that has not resolved the problem. In some ways, it may have made it worse. Many of those most involved in corruption remain at the heart of his government, and the loss of oil revenue means that the only way to maintain the new welfare state and the reform programme will be to make the bourgeoisie and the wealthy middle classes pay their share. These are people who have suffered no loss in their living standards until now.
The fury of the right gives a hint as to how those wealthy sectors will respond.
The people celebrating in the Urdaneta Avenue, blowing their megaphones and waving their flags, were not partying over a simple election victory. They were expressing their support for a Chavez who symbolised revolution, redistribution of wealth and above all a new kind of power – a popular democracy.
Chavez continues to represent that hope, despite the compromises that his government has made and despite the people who surround him.
There were moments in the campaign when Chavez’s great skill in interpreting that popular will seemed to desert him, and he did begin to sound like someone who had become convinced that he alone could carry through the victory of Venezuelan socialism.
If he is to justify the enormous amount of faith and energy that the majority of Venezuelans have placed in him, and if he is to consolidate the gains that have been made so far, then the initiative has to pass to the grassroots, the popular organisations that on one occasion after another have saved the revolution from its enemies.
The enemies of revolution are not only among the venomous right-wingers whose hatred of Chavez carries so many echoes of the Chilean bourgeoisie that supported the 1973 military coup. There are also those within the state and government who have acquired power as well as wealth from the revolution that they will not surrender easily.
The only guarantee for the future is the strength of a movement from below which must become the driving force in the months to come. After all, that was the promise that Hugo Chavez made when he first came to power ten years ago. It is that promise that won the vote and brought the crowds in red T-shirts onto the Avenue in their thousands.
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