The Venezuelan Referendum

The inexperienced soldier thinks everything lost when he is once defeated because he hasn’t yet learned from experience that courage, ability and perseverance correct bad luck.

— Simon Bolívar, Cartagena Manifesto

With the defeat of the Constitutional reforms at the polls on December 2, the Bolivarian Revolution has undeniably lost a battle in its long struggle to create a more just and humane society, but it has also proven that democracy is alive and well in Venezuela. Chavez’s upbeat and ready acceptance of the results and his congratulations toward those who had waged an undeniably dirty campaign against the reforms, earned him an unexpected compliment from CNN commentators who referred to his “magnanimous” acceptance of the results. More to the point, despite outright lies and fabrications of the capitalist mass media in Venezuela and internationally, psyops brewed in the labs of the CIA and U.S. State Department, Chavez has managed to maintain and protect a pluralistic democracy, in itself a refutation of the “democratic” pretensions as well as the charges made by the opposition that he’s a dictator and there is no freedom or democracy in Venezuela.

Indeed, the lies and black propaganda reached absurd levels, with some ads proclaiming that the reform would “take children away from their parents” and expropriate homes from their rightful owners. (The reform, in fact, would have guaranteed precisely the opposite, making it more difficult for people to lose their homes in case of bankruptcy.) However, the most universal mischaracterization of the reforms was the constantly repeated lie that they would “make Chavez president-for-life.” Once again, in the US and Venezuelan opposition press, we were led to believe, falsely, of course, that this reform was all about Chavez and not the Venezuelan people. This fiction was repeated so often and so forcefully that the other 69 articles of reform in the two slates proposed, one by Chavez himself, and one by the National Assembly, got little or no coverage. Those much-neglected articles included guaranteeing social security for workers in the informal economy; lowering the voting age from 18 to 16; lowering the work week from 44 to 36 hours; prohibiting discrimination based on disability or sexual preference and requiring gender parity in political parties; giving five percent of tax revenues disbursed to the states directly to the community councils; guaranteeing free education to all Venezuelans through the university (yes, that would include PhD’s), and making organic agriculture the “strategic basis of integral rural development.” Because the media reduced the entire Reform to this one issue, they presented the defeat of the Reforms as a “defeat for Chavez” rather than a temporary setback for greater democracy, social justice and the struggle of the working people and middle class of Venezuela who stood to gain from the reform. After all, Chavez still has five years left in office, a National Assembly and, according to polls, a majority of the people on his side.

Even the President of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, acknowledged that the media was weighted against Chavez and the reforms when she pointed out that, in the month of November, the media dedicated 59 percent of its coverage to the opposition and 41 percent to supporters of the Reforms. This fact has led intellectuals like Jose Sant Roz, Professor of the University of the Andes and author of over 20 books on Venezuelan politics, to call for the creation of a national revolutionary daily since the only pro-government daily paper, Diario Vea, is of relatively small size and circulation compared to the half-dozen or so newspapers of the opposition.

The defeat of the Reforms has raised other issues and prompted much critical internal reflection already among Chavistas. The commentaries flood in by the hour at, and reveal the insight and profound reevaluation that the referendum has induced.

First, some have criticized the management and organization of the referendum on the reforms, asking why the Electoral Battalion Units (UBEs) that were so successful in the 2004 referendum on the Presidency of Chavez had been disbanded after that political moment and not, rather, extended, empowered and built upon.

Others, like Venezuelan writer and analyst at, Franco Munini, have argued that “we put all our eggs in one basket” with all 69 articles in two slates rather than having the option available to vote article by article. It’s likely, contrary to the views expressed in the opposition/imperial press, that term limits on the presidency would have been eliminated, and some of the other popular measures would also have passed if such an approach to the vote on the Reforms had been allowed.

There have also been criticisms within the Bolivarian movement that not enough has been done to push the social agenda forward. Dr. Steve Ellner of the Universidad de Oriente of Venezuela writes today that there had been “the lack of sufficient attention to concrete, tangible problems and an overemphasis on lofty ideals. I’m referring to issues that range from garbage collection and shortages of staples to corruption.” Related to this has been a common criticism that not enough has been done to weed out corruption, especially within the Chavez movement and the government itself.

In the end, the defeat was ambiguous as a “defeat.” While it appears that it might slow down Chavez’ momentum (unlikely), it may have only reflected a slowdown on the part of the activists at the base, given the very low turnout. Last year 70 percent of the voters turned out with a majority voting to re-elect Chavez. By contrast, only 56 percent turned out yesterday for the referendum. This is certainly one of the most distressing aspects of the December 2nd referendum on the Constitution: that a revolution priding itself on its pilgrimage from “bourgeois representative democracy to participatory, protagonistic democracy” seems to be backsliding. This fact should motivate activists in the party to think carefully about what they will need to do in the future to push forward and reactivate the enthusiasm and commitment that has brought Venezuela so far so quickly and it appears that Chavez is already considering this to be the crucial lesson here. This referendum, moreover, may have the effect of finally convincing some in the opposition that the Bolivarian Process is what it always claimed to be: Democratic and liberatory. As Venezuelan political analyst Franco Munini sees it, “(Bolivarians) won in the end because the opposition said, in voting down the reforms, that it didn’t want any changes to the constitution that we wrote in 1999. Which is to say they’re finally coming around to where we were seven years ago.”

Clifton Ross can be reached at clifross1(at) His most recent book, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia (2016, AK Press) is a memoir of his experiences among revolutionary movements in the Americas, including the Bolivarian process of Venezuela. Read other articles by Clifton.

7 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Ormond Otvos said on December 4th, 2007 at 11:33am #

    Excellent article. Could have used examples of which reforms would likely be voted in, and which were not as well received. It looks as if polling has been poisoned for a while. Were the students who protested the rich ones, worried that poor people might actually outwork them at school?

  2. Dave Watson said on December 5th, 2007 at 1:10am #

    The Washington Post, a week before the referendum, revealed that USAID had been financing these student organisations for some time.

    The Bush administration is always on the look out for new actors to keep the pressure up on Venezuela.

    There is a pattern here very reminicent of the efforts to destabalise Nicaragua in the 1980s, nd many of the same people who were discredited by the Iran-Contra affair are now comfortably in place again working in Bush’s section for regime change in Venezuela.
    Nothing is left to coincidence.

    Dave Watson

  3. Laurence Schechtman said on December 5th, 2007 at 6:58pm #

    The defeat of Chavez’s constitutional amendments is actually a VICTORY for socialist progress in Venezuela, because now the movement will be forced to rely on its own diverse grass roots.
    Venezuela’s economic problems call out for socialist solutions. Food price inflation and shortages can be overcome by speeding up the turn-over of non-productive land to farmers’ co-operatives, and by expropriating corporations which hoard food to deliberately drive up prices and destabilize the government. And talk of 21 Century Socialism is mostly rhetorical until workers in each factory and office can vote for their own version of workers’ control.
    If Chavez had concentrated the referendum on socialist democracy he would have won overwhelmingly. But instead he muddied the waters of socialist progress with plans for a possible lifetime presidency, even speculating about remaining in office til 2050 for God’s sake; and with presidential appointment of local officials (creeping Putinism). Has there ever been a better example of leading with your political chin? Considering the fact that his current term continues until 2013, raising the issue of term limits now, before dealing with economic empowerment, is a sure sign that his ego has outrun his political judgement. If people had been allowed to vote for issues separately, they could have approved of democratic socialist reforms and deep sixed the Bonapartism. (Socialism yes, immortality no?) Presenting the issues all together on a “you’re with us or against us” basis is an insult to the intelligence of the electorate and a short circuiting of communal debate.
    We can be deeply grateful to Chavez for mobilizing people and using oil revenues to lift millions out of poverty. But power and adulation are hard to handle. Now that Chavez has received his necessary spanking I think he will have enough integrity to rely more on the intelligence of Venezuela’s working classes. Have we learned nothing from the history of Russia and China? Real socialism cannot be handed down from on high. It has to be won from below.

  4. Max Shields said on December 5th, 2007 at 8:54pm #

    Laurence, good points, but I’d have stayed away form the “spanking” stuff. I don’t know of another living leader who has helped to make the deep seated changes that Chavez has. But a leader is not enough. You must have many many leaders to have a sustained revolution.

    Organized complexity – patterned after life itself which is self organizing.

  5. Dave Watson said on December 6th, 2007 at 2:04am #

    We are all agreed, I think, that revolutionary change is a long (not to say permanent) process. Political change may be achievable in a shorter period, but social change is a long term project, unachievable without popular participation.

    We have to therefore separate the tactical, short term goals, from the long term strategic goals.
    I feel therefore that Schechtmans’ claim that the defeat is really a victory is a little misplaced.

    Yes the social revolution will eventually (and hopefully) be a grassroots revolution with workers taking control of economic decision making through control of the means of production and addressing human need not profit. But in the meantime in Venezuela there is a more urgent tactical task. That is to consolidate the gains so far and make it progressively more difficult to reverse these gains with a shift of power.

    Here have we again a parallel with Nicaragua. When the Sandinista regime lost power (although by a so small margin) the Chamorro government and their US advisors managed to reverse all the gains of the Sandinista revolution (many similar to those gains in Venezuela today but without the economic benefits of oil) in a very short time.

    The opportune current situation that enables baking into the Constitution so many of the social and political gains of the Bolivarian revolution as possible may not present itself again. The left has total control of the national Assembly and therefore the two thirds majority necessary for passing important legislation such as constitutional change.

    If the left should lose the next election, it will almost certainly be by a small margin. With the majority of the Bolivarian infrastructure (misiones, poder popular etc) irreversibly written into the constitution the left will have a favourable starting point to build from when they eventually regain power.

    It is also here that the lifting of the limits on re-election is a tactical attempt to hinder a reversal of the revolutionary process and allow it to deepen. Schechtman falls into the trap of accepting the opposition’s propaganda that Chávez desires to hold power indefinitely (the jibe about staying in power until 2050 was a joke which just the humourless opposition are incapable of understanding, even Fidel Castro doesn’t aim to be in power when he is 96 years old).
    But Chávez is the glue that holds together the diverse small left wing groupings, at the same time as he represents a bridge to the popular movements who trust him, but not necessarily the those parties in the coalition. He is also a long way to the left in that coalition, and his authority and influence gives the impetus for a continual deepening of the process. In the period before a presidential election, the power vacuum on the left without Chávez could lead to infighting and a total collapse, risking all the gains of the revolutionary process.

    This is what Chávez and many of his supporters are most concerned with. Yes, it is not an ideal situation to have so much power concentrated in one person. But pragmatic reasoning tells us that in the short time span until the next presidential elections the conditions for a mature sustainable revolutionary process, based on political, social and cultural consciousness are unlikely to be in place.

    If the choice therefore is between an extra term in office for a popular leader (who up till now has not shown any signs of betraying the principles of the Bolivarian revolution) or giving the election to the opposition on a silver platter and setting the process back by several years, then I think the majority of those truly engaged in supporting the Venezuelan process will opt for the former.

    Dave Watson

  6. Max Shields said on December 6th, 2007 at 4:46pm #

    It is abasolutely essential that oil be very carefully utilized as a means of bankrolling anything in Venezuela. History is replete with countries that have tried to leverage one unsustainable resource to buy their way into a stable and self-suffient economy – nearly all have – Iran (under the Shah) and Uraguay in the early 1950s come to mind, but these are just 2 of many who have gone before (and after) and failed miserably.

    It has nothing to do with socialism or capitalism. It is the nature of how fundamental economics works. I sense Chavez knows this which is why he is realizes the precariousness of both leading and following – being a true servant learder and letting the grass-roots through deep economic and sustainable change take hold. Let’s hope – because TINA is kaputz!

  7. Laurence Schechtman said on December 7th, 2007 at 4:57pm #

    Dave Watson and I agree. We want “a grassroots revolution with workers taking control of economic decision making through control of the means of production.” But the way to do that is to do it; not necessarily all at once, but starting NOW.
    Increasing the powers and funding of the Communal Councils is an important step because 1) the Councils are a training ground for collective self management which can be applied to the workplace and because 2) many of the Councils already function as a home ground for workers’ co-operatives.
    And that is what is so frustrating about Mr. Chavez’ election package. The Communal Council provision, and the other progressive economic measures, would certainly have won if Chavez had not tied them to the growth and centralization of his own power. Not just the elimination of term limits (which didn’t have to be an issue for another three or four years), but, probably more important, presidential appointment of local governors in not yet defined new districts. (Which is close to what that great socialist Vladimir Putin has done in Russia.) As for the “joke” about staying in power til 2050, there are certain things one doesn’t say in the middle of an election campaign. Chavez gave his enemies a whole armory of ammunition with which to defeat the democratic socialist component of his reforms.
    And now let’s talk about the “tactics” necessary to hold onto present gains. “Baking social and political gains into the constitution” won’t impress the next coup plotters, who can only succeed if the working classes become demoralized. And if the electorate is so demoralized that they vote for right wingers, which could happen, they can also quickly vote to change the constitution. The only way to “bake in” workers’ power, so that it is more than just rhetorical camoflage for bureaucrats, is to see that every worker has an individual stake in it – through growing material wealth, through direct control of one’s environment and workplace, and, not least, through the cultural and spiritual renaissance which always accompanies an eruption of communal power. (Berkeley in the 60’s was a small foretaste.)
    Chavez has promised that he will present his reforms to the electorate one by one. Good for him. Will he start with measures which will directly enhance community and workers’ power? That is how we will know whether or not he has learned from last week’s lesson.