A Post Mortem And Its Aftermath
James Petras Site
constitutional reforms supporting President Chavez’s socialist
project were defeated by the narrowest of margins: 1.4% of 9 million
voters. The result however was severely compromised by the fact that
45% of the electorate abstained, meaning that only 28% of the electorate
voted against the progressive changes proposed by President Chavez.
While the vote was a blow to Venezuela’s attempt to extricate
itself from oil dependence and capitalist control over strategic financial
and productive sectors, it does no change the 80% majority in the legislature
nor does it weaken the prerogatives of the Executive branch. Nevertheless,
the Right’s marginal win does provide a semblance of power, influence
and momentum to their efforts to derail President Chavez’ socio-economic
reforms and to oust his government and/or force him to reconcile with
the old elite power brokers.
deliberations and debates have already begun within the Chavista movement
and among the disparate oppositional groups. One fact certain to be
subject to debate is why the over 3 million voters who cast their ballots
for Chavez in the 2006 election (where he won 63% of the vote) did not
vote in the referendum. The Right only increased their voters by 300,000
votes; even assuming that these votes were from disgruntled Chavez voters
and not from activated right-wing middle class voters that leaves out
over 2.7 million Chavez voters who abstained.
of the Defeat
the issue of a socialist transformation is put at the top of a governmental
agenda, as Chavez did in these constitutional changes, all the forces
of right-wing reaction and their (‘progressive’) middle
class followers unite forces and forget their usual partisan bickering.
Chavez’ popular supporters and organizers faced a vast array of
adversaries each with powerful levers of power. They included: 1) numerous
agencies of the US government (CIA, AID, NED and the Embassy’s
political officers), their subcontracted ‘assets’ (NGO’s,
student recruitment and indoctrinations programs, newspaper editors
and mass media advertisers), the US multinationals and the Chamber of
Commerce (paying for anti-referendum ads, propaganda and street action);
2) the major Venezuelan business associations FEDECAMARAS, Chambers
of Commerce and wholesale/retailers who poured millions of dollars into
the campaign, encouraged capital flight and promoted hoarding, black
market activity to bring about shortages of basic food-stuffs in popular
retail markets; 3) over 90% of the private mass media engaged in a non-stop
virulent propaganda campaign made up of the most blatant lies —
including stories that the government would seize children from their
families and confine them to state-controlled schools (the US mass media
repeated the most scandalous vicious lies — without any exceptions);
4) The entire Catholic hierarchy from the Cardinals to the local parish
priests used their bully platforms and homilies to propagandize against
the constitutional reforms — more important, several bishops turned
over their churches as organizing centers to violent far right-wing
resulting, in one case, in the killing of a pro-Chavez oil worker who
defied their street barricades. The leaders of the counter-reform quartet
were able to buy-out and attract small sectors of the ‘liberal’
wing of the Chavez Congressional delegation and a couple of Governors
and mayors, as well as several ex-leftists (some of whom were committed
guerrillas 40 years ago), ex-Maoists from the ‘Red Flag’
group and several Trotskyists trade union leaders and sects. A substantial
number of social democratic academics (Edgar Lander, Heinz Dietrich)
found paltry excuses for opposing the egalitarian reforms, providing
an intellectual gloss to the rabid elite propaganda about Chavez ‘dictatorial’
or ‘Bonapartist’ tendencies.
coalition headed by the Venezuelan elite and the US government relied
basically on pounding the same general message: The re-election amendment,
the power to temporarily suspend certain constitutional provisions in
times of national emergency (like the military coup and lockouts of
2002 to 2003), the executive nomination of regional administrators and
the transition to democratic socialism were part of a plot to impost
‘Cuban communism.’ Right-wing and liberal propagandists
turned unlimited re-election reform (a parliamentary practice throughout
the world) into a ‘power grab’ by an ‘authoritarian’/’totalitarian’/’power-hungry’
tyrant according to all Venezuelan private media and their US counterparts
at CBC, NBC, ABC, NPR, New York and Los Angeles Times, Washington Post.
The amendment granting the President emergency powers was de-contextualized
from the actual US-backed civilian elite-military coup and lockout of
2002-2003, the elite recruitment and infiltration of scores of Colombian
paramilitary death squads (2005), the kidnapping of a Venezuelan-Colombian
citizen by Colombian secret police (2004) in the center of Caracas and
open calls for a military coup by the ex-Defense Minister Baduel.
of the right-wing led counter-reform coalition focused on distinct and
overlapping groups with different appeals. The US focused on recruiting
and training student street fighters channeling hundreds of thousands
of dollars via AID and NED for training in ‘civil society organization’
and ‘conflict resolution’ (a touch of dark humor?) in the
same fashion as the Yugoslav/Ukrainian/Georgian experiences. The US
also spread funds to their long-term clients — the nearly defunct
‘social democratic’ trade union confederation — the
CTV, the mass media and other elite allies. FEDECAMARAS focused on the
small and big business sectors, well-paid professionals and middle class
consumers. The right-wing students were the detonators of street violence
and confronted left-wing students in and off the campuses. The mass
media and the Catholic Church engaged in fear mongering to the mass
audience. The social democratic academics preached ‘NO’
or abstention to their progressive colleagues and leftist students.
The Trotskyists split up sectors of the trade unions with their pseudo-Marxist
chatter about “Chavez the Bonapartist’ with his ‘capitalist’
and ‘imperialist’ proclivities, incited US trained students
and shared the ‘NO’ platform with CIA funded CTV trade union
bosses. Such were the unholy alliances in the run-up to the vote.
In the post-election
period this unstable coalition exhibited internal differences. The center-right
led by Zulia Governor Rosales calls for a new ‘encounter’
and ‘dialogue’ with the ‘moderate’ Chavista
ministers. The hard right embodied in ex-General Baduel (darling of
sectors of the pseudo-left) demands pushing their advantage further
toward ousting President-elect Chavez and the Congress because he claimed
“they still have the power to legislate reforms”! Such,
such are our democrats! The leftists sects will go back to citing the
texts of Lenin and Trotsky (rolling over in their graves), organizing
strikes for wage increases . . . in the new context of rising right-wing
power to which they contributed.
and Structural Weakness of the Constitutional Reformers
was able to gain their slim majority because of serious errors in the
Chavista electoral campaign as well as deep structural weaknesses.
Campaign: 1) The referendum campaign suffered several flaws. President
Chavez, the leader of the constitutional reform movement was out of
the country for several weeks in the last two months of the campaign
— in Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, France, Saudi Arabia, Spain and
Iran) depriving the campaign of its most dynamic spokesperson. 2) President
Chavez got drawn into issues that had no relevance to his mass supporters
and may have provided ammunition to the Right. His attempt to mediate
in the Colombian prisoner-exchange absorbed an enormous amount of wasted
time and led, predictably, nowhere, as Colombia’s death squad
President Uribe abruptly ended his mediation with provocative insults
and calumnies, leading to a serious diplomatic rupture. Likewise, during
the Ibero-American summit and its aftermath, Chavez engaged in verbal
exchange with Spain’s tin-horn monarch, distracting him from facing
domestic problems like inflation and elite-instigated hoarding of basic
activists failed to elaborate and explain the proposed positive effects
of the reforms, or carry house-to-house discussions countering the monstrous
propaganda (‘stealing children from their mothers’) propagated
by parish priests and the mass media. They too facilely assumed that
the fear-mongering lies were self-evident and all that was needed was
to denounce them. Worst of all, several ‘Chavista’ leaders
failed to organize any support because they opposed the amendments,
which strengthened local councils at the expense of majors and governors.
failed to intervene and demand equal time and space in all the private
media in order to create a level playing field. Too much emphasis was
placed on mass demonstrations ‘downtown’ and not on short-term
impact programs in the poor neighborhoods — solving immediate
problems, like the disappearance of milk from store shelves, which irritated
their natural supporters.
two basic problems which deeply influenced the electoral abstention
of the Chavez mass supporters: The prolonged scarcity of basic foodstuffs
and household necessities, and the rampant and seemingly uncontrolled
inflation (18%) during the latter half of 2007 which was neither ameliorated
nor compensated by wage and salary increases especially among the 40%
of self-employed workers in the informal sector.
like powdered milk, meat, sugar, beans and many other items disappeared
from both the private and even the public stores. Agro-businessmen refused
to produce and the retail bosses refused to sell because state price
controls (designed to control inflation) lessened their exorbitant profits.
Unwilling to ‘intervene’ the Government purchased and imported
hundreds of millions of dollars of foodstuffs — much of which
did not reach popular consumers, at least not at fixed prices.
because of lower profits and in large part as a key element in the anti-reform
campaign, wholesalers and retailers either hoarded or sold a substantial
part of the imports to black marketers, or channeled it to upper income
was a result of the rising incomes of all classes and the resultant
higher demand for goods and services in the context of a massive drop
in productivity, investment and production. The capitalist class engaged
in disinvestment, capital flight, luxury imports and speculation in
the intermediate bond and real estate market (some of whom were justly
burned by the recent collapse of the Miami real estate bubble).
half-way measures of state intervention and radical rhetoric were strong
enough to provoke big business resistance and more capital flight, while
being too weak to develop alternative productive and distributive institutions.
In other words, the burgeoning crises of inflation, scarcities and capital
flight, put into question the existing Bolivarian practice of a mixed
economy, based on public-private partnership financing an extensive
social welfare state. Big Capital has acted first economically by boycotting
and breaking its implicit ‘social pact’ with the Chavez
Government. Implicit in the social pact was a trade off: Big Profits
and high rates of investment to increase employment and popular consumption.
With powerful backing and intervention from its US partners, Venezuelan
big business has moved politically to take advantage of the popular
discontent to derail the proposed constitutional reforms. Its next step
is to reverse the halting momentum of socio-economic reform by a combination
of pacts with social democratic ministers in the Chavez Cabinet and
threats of a new offensive, deepening the economic crisis and playing
for a coup.
Government absolutely has to move immediately to rectify some basic
domestic and local problems, which led to discontent, and abstention
and is undermining its mass base. For example, poor neighborhoods inundated
by floods and mudslides are still without homes after two years of broken
promises and totally inept government agencies.
under popular control, must immediately and directly intervene in taking
control of the entire food distribution program, enlisting dock, transport
and retail workers, neighborhood councils to insure imported food fills
the shelves and not the big pockets of counter-reform wholesalers, big
retail owners and small-scale black marketers. What the Government has
failed to secure from big farmers and cattle barons in the way of production
of food, it must secure via large-scale expropriation, investment and
co-ops to overcome business ‘production’ and supply strikes.
Voluntary compliance has been demonstrated NOT TO WORK. “Mixed
economy” dogma, which appeals to “rational economic calculus,”
does not work when high stake political interests are in play.
structural changes in production and distribution, the Government is
obligated to control and take over the private banks deeply implicated
in laundering money, facilitating capital flight and encouraging speculative
investments instead of production of essential goods for the domestic
reforms were a step toward providing a legal framework for structural
reform; at least of moving beyond a capitalist controlled mixed economy.
The excess ‘legalism’ of the Chavez Government in pursuing
a new referendum underestimated the existing legal basis for structural
reforms available to the government to deal with the burgeoning demands
of the two-thirds of the population, which elected Chavez in 2006.
In the post-referendum
period the internal debate within the Chavez movement is deepening.
The mass base of poor workers, trade unionists and public employees
demand pay increases to keep up with inflation, an end to the rising
prices and scarcities of commodities. They abstained for lack of effective
government action — not because of rightist or liberal propaganda.
They are not rightists or socialist but can become supportive of socialists
if they solve the triple scourge of scarcity, inflation and declining
is a particular nemesis to the poorest workers largely in the informal
sector because their income is neither indexed to inflation as is the
case for unionized workers in the formal sector nor can they easily
raise their income through collective bargaining as most of them are
not tied to any contract with buyers or employers. As a result in Venezuela
(as elsewhere) price inflation is the worst disaster for the poor and
the reason for the greatest discontent. Regimes, even rightist and neo-liberal
ones, which stabilize prices or sharply reduce inflation usually secure
at least temporary support from the popular classes. Nevertheless anti-inflationary
policies have rarely played a role in leftist politics (much to their
grief) and Venezuela is no exception.
At the cabinet,
party and social movement leadership level there are many positions
but they can be simplified into two polar opposites. On the one side,
the pro-referendum dominant position put forth by the finance, economy
and planning ministries seek cooperation with private foreign and domestic
investors, bankers and agro-businessmen, to increase production, investment
and living standards of the poor. They rely on appeals to voluntary
cooperation, guarantees to property ownership, tax rebates, access to
foreign exchange on favorable terms and other incentives plus some controls
on capital flight and prices but not on profits. The pro-socialist sector
argues that this policy of partnership has not worked and is the source
of the current political impasse and social problems. Within this sector
some propose a greater role for state ownership and control, in order
to direct investments and increase production and to break the boycott
and stranglehold on distribution. Another group argues for worker self-management
councils to organize the economy and push for a new “revolutionary
state.” A third group argues for a mixed state with public and
self-managed ownership, rural co-operatives and middle and small-scale
private ownership in a highly regulated market.
ascendance of the mixed economy group may lead to agreements with the
‘soft liberal’ opposition — but failing to deal with
scarcities and inflation will only exacerbate the current crisis. The
ascendance of the more radical groups will depend on the end of their
fragmentation and sectarianism and their ability to fashion a joint
program with the most popular political leader in the country, President
and its outcome (while important today) is merely an episode in the
struggle between authoritarian imperial centered capitalism and democratic
Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University,
New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser
to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author
of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). His latest book is The Power
of Israel in the United States (Clarity Press, 2006). His forthcoming
book is Rulers and Ruled (Bankers, Zionists and Militants (Clarity Press,
Atlanta). He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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