After the constitutional referendum:
“It is just as fraudulent to endanger a democratic revolution in the interest of purist niceties as it is to allow that revolution to consume itself in pseudo-revolutionary silence”
A promise becomes complicated
Setting Venezuela on a course to socialism was the electoral promise that carried President Chavez to his spectacular victory in December 2006. From then on, meeting that promise was nothing less than a matter of political honesty. The formula he used of constitutional reform, however, raised more questions. Certainly there were unquestionable advantages in holding a Constituent Assembly as this would ensure a more profound debate. However, this also had two disadvantages: firstly it would mean dissolving the Assembly, with its Chavist majority as a result of the withdrawal of the opposition in the December 2006 elections; secondly, it would mean such a profound change of political model, that it would be insufficient to base it on decrees without the acceptance first of Venezuela’s citizens. It is always interesting to reinforce the idea that one creates a new social contract as part of a process, and even more so when that new consensus is to be built on legality and constitutional legitimacy. The final and politically correct decision was to take gradual steps to socialism through reform: the road to Socialism is made by walking.
Nevertheless, it was obvious from the outset, and it was confirmed during the three weeks of debate, that this reform was complicated in form and extremely unclear in its expression. Despite the fact that the President himself admitted he had received reports questioning some aspects and even the very advisability of the reform, the project finally arrived in the hands of an devotedly obedient Congress which did very little to make people fall in love with the proposal.
As has happened on previous occasions, the opposition’s traditional approach of using any excuse to try and upset the Bolivarian process, supported by a Church that is as far from God as it is close to the United States, forced positions to be simplified. The proliferation in Venezuela of irate and ill thought out repetitions of the President’s statements, characterised by converting every presidential comment into an article of faith, ended up clouding the debate. Once again, the opportunity to open up discussion within the Bolivarian revolution, that would have allowed a high-level of citizen commitment similar to that of the most critical moments such as the constitutional debate in 1999 or the coup or the Presidential recall, was lost.
Although from the outset it would have seemed sensible to opt for simplifying the text of the constitution, instead the decision was made to persist with the Flutgesetz (the tide of legislation typical of our time). The resulting final list of what turned out to be many reformed articles, along with the use of complicated, obscurantist language, created confusion. The haste with which some of the drafts were written; the lack of care taken with the constitutional technicalities; the increasingly stringent requirements for participation; the failure to detail the new political geometry (delayed for later legislative action); the reinforcement of the Executive; or overcoming problems with the traditional decentralisation: all these issues required better explanation, and perhaps (as some also argued from within the Chavist camp) also really required a Constituent Assembly. The argument that all the reforms should be considered as a single block did not help people embrace the proposal. As the volume of reforms increased it became harder and harder to find a common logic on which to base them all.
The reform strengthened the President of the Republic. However, instead of explaining this as something necessary and parallel to popular empowerment (seating Gramsci at Montesquieu’s table), the debate was distracted by other issues that looked like excuses and offered no arguments to counter the catastrophic warnings of the opposition. Adversaries of the Bolivarian process took to muddying the waters and ultimately managed to confuse even those approaching the reform process with patience and sound information. The tardy and humourless explanations given could not compete with the opposition’s opportunist simplifications.
Of Assemblies and deadlines
As if there were not enough already, the 33 articles soon became 69, as they went through the parliamentary process. A parliament that had had to start the process of street parliamentarianism to give itself legitimacy, as barely two in ten Venezuelans had voted for it, clung onto the presidential proposal in order to reinvent the reform. Then there were appeals, which gave the Supreme Court an important role to play in this story. Things became increasingly confused. The calendar for approval was absurdly rushed in order to fit in with Christmas dates, the deadlines given for popular discussion became yet tighter, making it very difficult to hold a measured debate that could repeat the experience of 1999, and at the same time, debunk the lies being spread in the media. Hoping that appealing to people to support the President would suffice as a last resort for overcoming these deficiencies is to misunderstand the politicisation achieved by the Bolivarian process. Three million Chavists made this discrepancy felt by not supporting the reform, without implying any withdrawal of their support for the President. This is proof that we are faced with a revolution that is beautiful, precisely because it has politicised and not indoctrinated people.
It is perhaps difficult to analyse the timing of this call for reform. Was now, not even half way through the Presidency, the ideal moment? Were Venezuela’s citizens not still carrying the burden of their massive efforts in December, where barriers to participation were broken and President Chavez won seven million votes? Was it realistic to even attempt to achieve these results with a referendum, given that they traditionally receive less participation? Could progress not have been made using the possibilities offered by the Constitution as it stood? Was it not a case of ‘take it or leave it’, to incorporate the word socialism into the reforms without offering any definition of what was meant by it?
Excessive complacency marked the moment. In the end, in the absence of a clear conceptualisation of socialism, the opposition had fertile ground for spreading their deceitful thesis of what was meant by the proposal: the elimination of private property, the absence of political pluralism, the perpetuation of the leader in power or the loss of parental rights of authority over their children.
Confusion reigned everywhere, and the Chavist ranks did not have the arguments ready to defend the reform. Their basic argument was simply wrong: with the reform, we will build socialism. If that were so, did it not imply the need for a Constituent Assembly, rather than a reform, as it would change the definition of the state? If, however, it was not a case of bringing in socialism, but of taking some steps in that direction – which is what I believe is the correct reading – then it was important not to argue otherwise, and thereby increase the confusion. It seems from listening to the arguments of many advocates of the YES vote that only the President was really sure of what the reform actually consisted of.
Inconsistencies in participatory and protagonist democracy
A variety of issues, with differing levels of impact, combined to create an avalanche of suspicions. Firstly, the bad methods used to create the proposals were bound to lead to confusion. From the outset, participatory democracy was sidelined, and responsibility for the reform project was given to a hand picked committee and subject to strict confidentiality. Secrecy is rarely a good way to generate support. One Committee member vehemently defended the option of a Constituent Assembly, in such a way as to make their now equally vehement defence of the reform option not entirely convincing. A further example of this lack of openness was the unexpected multiplication of reformed articles in the Assembly, which were as many as they were unexplained.
Another relevant issue was the fact that from the outset, the President himself emphatically insisted that “not a single comma” of the project be changed. This idea was echoed by the government, warning against crimes against the revolution. Nevertheless, sooner rather than later, substantial aspects of the project began to change: the National Guard, the working day, property rights. This created the impression of haste, and suggested that everything depended (whether or not that was actually the case) on the decision of a single person.
In the middle of this process, the opposition re-found its feet and found, in the reform, a new lever with which to attempt to topple the Fifth Republic. They identified the weaknesses, and created a new social actor, one which had not yet burnt its boats: students, primed to rebuild a revolution of colour [US strategy using NGOs, media, religious leaders and other social organisations to deal a “soft coup”]. This new opposition, like a terrier, bit and grabbed on to a fallacious and simple, but very effective discourse. Chavism, out of pride or incompetence, allowed itself the luxury of refusing to debate with the opposition, and therefore lost the opportunity to understand its own weak points. This made it impossible to counteract the opposition discourse. Particularly because the opposition’s communications media have a monopoly on the construction of reality (it is no use having public channels if you do not understand the logic by which a Hollywood movie will still be better circulated than all the movies made in Africa).
Once more it is true to say that when the Gods want someone to be lost, first they make him blind. From within the Bolivarian ranks the internal critiques were likened to the critiques of the opposition, and thus capacity for internal adjustment was lost. As I have said elsewhere, this was the first battle won by the opposition. With this attitude, all concerns about the problems the reform could create were rejected out of hand, as though they came from declared enemies of the process.
A significant part of the defeat should be attributed to all those who presented any disagreement as betrayal, weakness, or the abandoning of the revolution. Growing discontent with the bureaucratic drift of the Bolivarian revolution, that goes hand in hand with authoritarianism, corruption, cronyism and economic and administrative inefficiency (with the terrible effect of an increase in insecurity) completes the picture. An excess of Fourth Republicanism hidden under a red beret has been making use of the spaces of power. They are using the Government, the administration, the PSUV (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela), public or politically protected companies, to repeat the abuses that bore Chavez to power in 1998. Moreover his promise to eradicate these abuses still forms part of his strong support.
Perhaps, with all these impediments, the surprise is that four million Venezuelans still strongly supported a road to socialism, or that three million did not decide to support the opposition. This is a sign that the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution are, and are perceived to be, real.
Even good comes out of bad
However, despite this, Chavez’s defeat brings with it the possibility of a more profound victory. Both the 50 per cent of the electorate who have shown their support for a socialist future, and the abstainers who would not even consider supporting the opposition and voting NO, encourage this view. It is worth noting that the mistake of calling for constitutional reform at this precise moment, quickly recognised by President Chavez himself, has helped to show how much political consciousness has grown in Venezuela: the new political culture is here to stay. However, the positive aspects do not end there. They are many. Indeed, it would not be out of place to speak of President Chavez’s hidden victory.
It can be considered a victory that the opposition could only win by clinging to the 1999 Constitution, that is, the Constitution pushed by Chavez, and which the opposition had always fought against. On the one hand, this recognition on the part of the opposition, of the Fifth Republic, could open the way for a democratic normalisation. If, on the other hand, the opposition only accepted the Bolivarian constitution as an electoral strategy, it would demonstrate once again that they have not understood anything about what is happening in this country.
The results also remind Venezuela, Latin America and the world how the people, who were invisible only yesterday, today demands that what they think be taken into account. In other words, the people are capable of continuing to support Chavez (who retained between 60% and 70% support), and at the same time, give a resounding NO when they do not agree with or do not understand something. Chavez is a leader who, more than any other, leads by obeying. In other words, while he speaks the same language as his people, he does not order anything other than that which his people really want to do. He does, however, make mistakes, just like anyone else, when guided by improvisation, insufficient information and a lack of reflection (all problems linked to bad teamwork), and when he makes decisions without the people. This is what has led on the one hand to support for Chavez which has broken barriers and changed situations. This has happened in important electoral processes, such as when the people recovered their President, kidnapped by some of those who are today celebrating the victory of the NO vote. But on the other hand, we have what happened in the last elections to the Assembly (generating an unacceptable 75% abstention rate) and what has happened now with the constitutional referendum, where three million of Chavez’s support base did not see sufficient reason to go to the ballot boxes.
However, perhaps the greatest victory of Chavism is precisely linked to the reflection demanded by this defeat. In recent years, there has been a notable lack of self-criticism with Chavism. It has built up a naive and painful complacency. Communication of information has been absolutely awful, particularly outside Venezuela, frivolously forgetting that Venezuela’s problems become problems for the Left across the continent. Punishing lies is one of the principal signs of democratic health. As the referendum results show, too many people have lied to President Chavez.
In this sense it is time to ask ourselves: how is it possible that there are more PSUV candidates than people committed to the reform? Was no one responsible for checking that commitment? Are they not repeating the behaviour of the emperor in the story, naked in the eyes of children and dressed in expensive new clothes in the eyes of the Court?
In a recent episode of Aló Presidente, Chavez fiercely confronted a citizen who argued that perhaps he was badly informed. Something that many people in Venezuela believe (to put it another way: they do not think that the President is aware of some things that are happening in the country). The credit given to the President could however quickly expire if the same mistakes are repeatedly made.
Sooner or later someone will have to explain why the reform, a firm step towards socialism, received less votes than there are members of the Socialist Party of Venezuela. The party is an essential tool in the process of change, even though it is still a mere skeleton with, as yet, no statutes or ideology, but with an efficient disciplinary tribunal. It would not have been a bad idea if the reform had been born as a proposal from the emerging PSUV, or better still, as a result of popular participation, and not presented by the Executive, based on a restricted and disempowered committee. It should not be forgotten that when people participate in proposals, they believe in them more.
However, despite the depression initially displayed by some people, the outlook gives cause for optimism. It is not out of place to suppose that this set-back could help the necessary self-criticism that will enable President Chavez to see that before expanding socialism, it is a good idea to correct past mistakes and establish the cultural base on which to build his project. It is important to insist that there cannot be socialism without socialists, or, as we have often repeated, the new man is the old man in new circumstances. As the classics teach us, in the realms of the possible it is a good idea not to skip stages. It is not possible to pass to the next stage of a socialist society without public consciousness. Socialism’s implied proposal of deepening democracy cannot take place without first having opened up the bottlenecks of inefficiency and corruption; broken down the comprehension that treats that which is everyone’s as belonging to no one; and resolved the lack of institutional foresight that has provided an unprofessional bureaucratically unstable system. In the same way, the response to these ills cannot be that the President ends up checking everything, down to the bills for the brooms and the electricity in the Palace. To use Gramsci’s expression, a metastasis of Caesarism, albeit democratic, creates more problems than solutions. The idea of everything for the people, without the people does not correspond to the times, and even less to the expectations of a citizenry that has accepted President Chavez on the understanding that it retains constituent power.
It requires a new generation of politicians and the framework to create a new public ethics, characterised by political commitment and a well-trained State administration. The existence of these new frameworks will be the most effective antidote to what is already known as the bolibourgeoisie: this nomenclature that has managed, in the space of less than five years, to appropriate enormous richness and acquire unanimous popular disapproval. Obscene voraciousness, Hummers, blue-label Whisky, luxury apartments in the East of Caracas or other privileged areas, control of businesses, sumptuous celebrations. Their vertiginous rise and their culpable incompatibility with the revolutionary discourse, reminds us of the institutionalised robbery during the Fourth Republic that looms large in the Venezuelan popular imagination.
Error breeds errors
Treating all criticism as being driven by counterrevolutionary intent has been shown to impede the capacity of the process to adjust internally. Of course, there are greedy monopolists who are responsible for limiting supplies, just as government imports are increasing. Of course, it is true that there are mayors and governors who did not campaign either this time (or who may even have campaigned for a NO vote). Of course, the media, the church and the private or privatised universities have sown doubts in the country, taking advantage of North American advisors and their communications strategies. Of course, the international neoliberal hegemony in the U.S., Europe and certain Latin American countries, has done its work to demonise President Chavez’s reforms. Never has a single country experienced so many of the techniques used by the United States to topple governments (coup de etat, employers strikes, economic sanctions, street violence, the creation of paramilitary groups, international isolation, intense communications propaganda, the creation of internal dissidence, etc.). In the eyes of the European Left, Chavez assists this strategy with his style, but whoever puts the two things on the same plane is falling into arguments that do not sit comfortably with democracy. Pressure will of course tire you out, but convictions must stand on more solid ground.
However, whatever the form, and despite all these attempts to bring an end to the Bolivarian process from the outside, it is no less true that there have been other situations in which they have resoundingly failed in the attempt. The time has therefore come to look inwards, to our own responsibilities.
The unilateral making and voicing of decisions, the lack of a government chorus, with a multitude of voices, the absence of a collegiate structure of political leadership, the lack of consolidation of the party, or a growing authoritarianism branching into broad sectors of the administration and the government cannot be resolved by extremist discourses, accusations of betrayal or disloyalty or by high-sounding declarations. Beyond all these issues and beyond the adversities of foreign policy, and the accompanying fear of constructed isolation, there are internal decisions that have weakened the process. It is time to remind William Blake that the roads of excess do not always lead to the palace of wisdom.
The way the convenient refusal to renew the RCTV channels licence was emitted will not pass into the annals of good political strategy. A channel that supported a coup will of course drop off the public airwaves when its concession is up in any country of the world. Was it necessary to announce it six months in advance as part of a military act and a political decision, rather than simply an administrative one?
In the same way, the authoritarian aftertaste left at some points in the creation of the PSUV – the hand-picking of key figures, the work done by some Governors, the creation of a disciplinary tribunal when there were still no statutes or programme – will also fail to receive grand eulogies in the history of Latin American democracy.
Finally, a constitutional reform thought up in a confidential deliberative group is not an adequate way to take steps towards socialism. As Marx reminds us, this higher phase in the history of humanity requires large doses of consciousness and therefore, participation. It is not enough to say that socialism cannot be done by decrees and then attempt to decree it. Not with a people who have carried the 1999 Constitution in their pockets for so long.
Conclusion: don’t let Che Guevara go back to Bolivia
There is a moment in every revolution, when the un-kept promises, the symbolic jail so often woven by bureaucrats, the substitution of the old privileged classes with new ones (who as well as keeping the money, also want the glory, monopolizing a discourse that they fail to live up to), the temptation to negotiate with a regime at the cost of the poor, or, at the other extreme, the recreation of a personality cult, which Chavez himself warns against, or the increased threat to those near and further away, mean that the real revolutionaries leave, and try their luck elsewhere. Even if that means having their chest pumped full of lead in a tiny school in a lost town somewhere.
The significance of Bolivarian Venezuela in the global emancipatory context means that anything other than the successful deepening of the road set out on decades ago, when the starting pistol was fired with the uprising of a repressed people in the Caracazo of 1989, is unthinkable. Bolivarian and socialist Venezuela is now the vanguard of Latin American emancipation and must be cared for like a precious treasure. Those who wish to differentiate between a vegetarian and a carnivorous Left are fooling themselves. What was barely valid in Chile cannot be applied to the rest of a continent coming from a different history, and without a balcony overlooking the Pacific. Each country will pay the Latin American social debt as best it can. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are trying new roads that break with the privileges of the past. That is why they are meeting so many obstacles. As the quote at the beginning of the article says: Let’s politically stain our hands when circumstances require it, but not allow our silence to contribute to the processes devouring themselves.
Notwithstanding the fact that in the future it may be the people who decide the form of their new social contract and mobilise so that President Chavez can continue this task, today’s discussion must be a different one. We should not forget the fact that Chavez himself has said that in 2012 he will go. How many words will those who so frivolously express their opinions about his commitment to democracy have to swallow! Will they recognise that they have collaborated in the deterioration of a country in which democracy was fully functioning?
Five years of government lie ahead, based on everything that has already been constructed and with a credibility of leadership without parallel anywhere on the continent. As well as the will demonstrated by the Venezuelan people, and the effective leadership of President Chavez, Venezuela has two valuable tools: on the one hand, one of the best constitutions in the World; on the other, an emerging party that could become a point of reference for the entire continent if it manages to create itself as a structure born and articulated from the grassroots.
This should not lead to naive analyses. There are still great difficulties. The internal and external attacks will intensify, in order to extend the defeat of the referendum in this moment of weakness. We are not going to hear the bulk of those commentators who have accused Chavez of being a dictator, an autocrat, a manipulator, a gorilla, or a Castro-communist, offering any mea culpa because the President accepted the adverse result immediately and without any hesitation. Despite the insults and slander of politicians, socialites, columnists, editorialists or self-referencing bloggers, all members of that global cartel of communications mercenaries, the National Electoral Council was not manipulated, nor was the electronic voting fraudulently monitored using Russian and Chinese satellites; it was a resounding falsehood that those in charge of the ballot boxes were ultimately answerable to quotas set by the government, that the census was manipulated or that civil servants were obliged to vote for what Chavez told them.
The army, contrary to what was claimed in a pathetic explanation after the event, has shown that far from being the President’s praetorian guard, it is the guardian of the Constitution and will be subject to that Constitution. This same army that has – to me, with my culture of insubmission, unfortunately – assumed the phrase “Fatherland, Socialism or Death” as a salute, did not use its weapons to impose the reform. Nor did they, as was suggested in a desperate attempt to explain the normal development of the referendum, have to force the President to accept the result (Why does this peculiar neofascism feel such a need to deny Chavez’s democratic commitment!). If only the armies of Colombia, Mexico or Guatemala (to name but a few countries on this continent) would show such institutional loyalty.
The campaign to topple Chavez will not stop despite the fact that he has once again demonstrated his full commitment to the democratic process. It is already known that for a significant part of the global Right, which contaminates a Left already contaminated by conservative arguments, democratic honesty is something they only demand of others. The European Left should ask itself how many times it has criticised Chavez, and how many times its conversation has touched on support for government paramilitaries in Colombia, the absence of a democratic rule of law in Mexico, Central American repression, the jailed Mapuche in Chile, disappearances in Kirchner’s Argentina, the framework of political and economic corruption in Lula’s Brazil. How often do they remember the Florida elections that invented Bush? Vegetarian Left and Carnivorous Left.
Chavez has repeatedly insisted that the “revolution within the revolution” should begin. The positions of “Chavism without Chavez” are going to get worse, with Dieterich’s theoretical proposals, with the erratic behaviour of General Baduel, with the tardy criticisms of those within Chavism who desire to keep their positions of power, with opportunist politicians of the opposition who call for reconciliation. Now is the time to establish the basis for the revolution, to lay profound foundations on which to build its structures. Now is the time to take great care of the democratic capacity of the PSUV, turning around a strategy that has put quantity before quality, that has prevented the grassroots from finding a real tool for their emancipation. It is time to make internal discussion a democratic requirement, to multiply dissidence, to open a thousand schools in order to allow the thousand flowers of pluralist thought to bloom. It is time to nip corruption in the bud; to bring an end to insecurity that principally affects the poor and builds a new and silent genocide; to demonstrate that the State apparatus breathes through different wounds than those opened in the Fourth Republic; to practice what is being preached, with the government providing an example of the socialist austerity that will be required while some people’s basic needs are still going unmet. However, this cannot be organised without a new citizenry. It is time to make the formation of new frameworks at all levels a priority aim of the Fifth Republic.
It is difficult for leaders such as President Chavez to emerge. Therefore, no one has the right to squander them, as their failure would condemn the continent to delays in emancipation. Not even Chavez himself can trivialise the importance of Hugo Chavez, the symbolic point of reference that has risen. The lesson of the referendum is clear: the successes – and the mistakes – of the future must be attributable to more actors.
Not one Chavez, but a thousand Chavezes will be the best legacy left by the President for the new Venezuela. From 3 December onwards, the revolution requires a new course that can only be denied if there is a lack of commitment to radical social change needed in these countries. Bertold Brecht said: it is the peoples with convictions that have hope. The revolutionary conviction of the Bolivarian people and of President Chavez therefore have the task ahead of them to continue to sow the hope that will be harvested on the horizon of inclusion that continues to illuminate the Latin American continent.
Translated by Kate Wilson