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Polarized Politics Again in Venezuela

By: Daniel Hellinger

President Hugo Chávez has called Venezuelans to the polls in support of his quest to construct “21st century socialism.” On December 2 they will vote on two packages of amendments to the 1999 Constitution, which already lays out an innovative blueprint for government, mixing principles of representative government with participatory democracy.

Most of the media has focused on revisions that would expand presidential powers to limit speech and detain individuals during states of emergency and would extend the presidential term from six to seven years, permitting indefinite re-election as well. Mayors and governors would still be subjected to term limits, and critics ask why the national executive should operate under different rules. Although the bar would be raised modestly, Venezuelans would still have the right to petition and force a recall election after the midpoint of a presidential term is reached.

The emergency provisions are not radically different from those found in many other constitutions and were added by the chavista-controlled National Assembly because of the complicity of the media in the short-lived coup of April 2002. Some chavistas worry that the broader emergency powers might be turned against them someday.

Political violence is rising, with the international media too quickly believing accounts laying blame on government supporters and failing to report attacks on pro-Chávez demonstrators. In this polarized climate the contest once again becomes revolves around Chávez and less on the issues. A large block of voters (roughly 40 percent) identify with neither side, but their votes have usually broken favorably for the president. More likely enough Venezuelans will feel compelled once again to support Chávez, but his margin of victory may be narrower than in recent years. Rejection of one or both sets of reforms cannot be ruled out, however, especially since retired General Raul Baduel, a hero to chavistas for his actions to defeat the coup of April 2002, has spoken out strongly against the reforms, equating them to a coup.

The referendum comes at a time when neo-cons and anti-Castro figures entrusted with Washington’s Latin America policy are seizing on Venezuela’s economic and diplomatic accords with Iran as pretexts for intervention. These militarists darkly warn of Iranian “terrorists” using Venezuelan territory for safe haven. Increasingly, they feed a compliant media “analyses” painting Chávez as “crazy” or, worse, a bloody tyrant. As the end of Bush’s term nears, we can expect them to ratchet up the propaganda machine against Venezuela.

Provisions ensuring equal representation of women on party ballots, outlawing discrimination, and giving the vote to young people have attracted scant attention in the media compared to coverage of changes to the presidential term, emergency powers, and new articles dealing with forms of property.

Echoing opposition voices, the international media wrongly presume that the amended constitution threatens private property. Private property in fact is given equal status to forms of state or collective ownership of the national oil company, cooperatives, micro-enterprises, co-managed or worker managed firms, etc.

The most ambitious parts of the reform are those attempting to redesign the “geometry of the state.” These articles create a new branch of “popular power” consisting of councils composed of representatives (voceros, or spokespersons, is the preferred chavista term) of local, grassroots community organizations that will directly allocate funds for projects. These councils will be organized on the level of “communes” within municipalities; their funds will come directly from the executive, bypassing mayors, governors, and state and municipal legislatures.

Why this change? President Chávez hopes through this mechanism, and through the re-organization of his supporters in the new Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to strengthen direct, “protagonistic” democracy, which in his view and that of many of his supporters has been repeatedly co-opted by opportunists and professional politicians. The communal councils and grassroots alternative economic structures will have to co-exist with capitalism and the political institutions of representative democracy, but over time they are to expand their presence and influence, flowering eventually into “twenty-first century socialism.”

Observers of Venezuela can easily find reason to be optimistic or pessimistic about this project. Several of the government “missions” in areas of health care, urban land reform, cooperatives, sanitation and water have produced inspiring examples of participatory democracy at the grassroots. However, corruption and cronyism continues to plague the cooperative movement, the subsidized "Mercal" markets, and the administration of community grants. Politicians with personal connections to the government can displace genuine grassroots councils merely by obtaining certification of themselves as “authentic” representatives. Venezuelan socialism will for the foreseeable future be less about democratizing control over the means of production than about democratically distributing a bounty that springs from the subsoil -- oil.


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