An ironic kind of mandate: Why the loss of Chavez’ constitutional reforms means full-speed forward for the Revolution

[A grown-folks analysis. Better late than never.]


Initial Considerations

So the constitutional reforms proposed by President Chavez and the Venezuelan National Assembly failed to pass by referendum on Dec. 2. It is widely understood that the outcome was secured by widespread abstention by those who voted for Chavez in the last referendum. About as many detractors, for intents and purposes, voted “No” this time around, while Chavez supporters dropped out by nearly a few million.

This being said, nobody seriously denies that Chavez retains the basic support of a basic majority of Venezuelans, even beyond the abstaining contingent—or that a “No” vote means anything to the contrary. Presidential approval percentages far outstrip the razorslim margin of “Yes” over “No” voters. On the probabilistic assumption that the pro and anti-reformers will draw roughly equal percentages of their supporters to rallies, the Chavista base is many times greater than that of the opposition. Indeed, the CIA’s “Hayden memo”—more on this below—shows that the opposition assumed the reforms would pass and concentrated their efforts on post-vote destabilization, to discredit these and prime the ground for their reversal. (To minimize the “Yes” vote, they actually tagged their literature with the slogan, “Chavez, Yes, Reform, No!,” pretending to endorse the president they had ousted by coup, and the original constitution they suspended, back in 2002.) The same memo cites polls taken by US intelligence which indicate high majorities favoring the reforms.

In this light, the failure of the reforms is puzzling on its face. It is not what was expected by anyone. Thus, it stands as in need of special explanation as any other puzzling phenomenon. And like all hypotheses invoked to explain puzzling phenomena, the explanation is to a degree speculative.

The reform items have been at least hinted at by Chavez for many years, and are, arguably, logically continuous with those features of the Bolivarian revolution already enacted. They don’t represent some sharp, unpredictable character turn in “Chavismo,” nor is there evidence of wide disenchantment with the elements Chavismo has already yielded—quite the contrary. Pre-vote polling suggest the abstainers would have voted “No” had they been, say, forced to choose.

A Template for Analysis

But if (a) Venezuelans are mostly Chavistas, and (b) the ballot represents no serious break with (this) Chavismo, then: The respective “links” between these elements and the outcome they would be prima facie expected to yield have, in a sense, “artificially” broken down. That is, either the basic support of the majority failed to register “through” the forms of bourgeois procedural democratic forms, or the understanding by this “basic majority” of the balloted items—that is, of their own real, if implicit, support of these—failed to so register. (Or possibly both.) We can explore these aspects in turn.

(a) Limitations of the Electoral Form

It is possible that the extent to which Chavez “overplayed his hand” politically with the vote reflects his opting for the referendum format rather than any specific measures on it. Had the reform measures been left to the National Assembly—which is, in a real sense, forced to show up while “the people” aren’t; and which has, again, voted for measures of a spirit with those on the referendum; and which has itself been voted in by the same “contingent” to decide upon just such measures—they would pass nearly unanimously, and we would hear no howls of opposition to this outcome apart from the Americans and the domestic ruling-class mass media (who is always howling anyway).

Having voted Chavez in on a particular platform, and his having enacted prior reforms through avenues other than popular referendum, it is plausible voters were confused or unconvinced as to why they had to vote again for the balloted measures. In 2000, Chavez was extended “rule by decree” powers through an enabling act of the National Assembly; this he used to enact significant reforms. He still very much controls this body and could use it so again. Thus, it is plausible that voters were unclear as to why they had to vote again for the same sort of thing.

Relatedly, it may be that a significant number of Chavistas are not especially driven to turn out for votes in which Chavez’ presidential position is not immediately in question. By analogy, I might be very pressed to vote to continue my marriage, if the alternative is its dissolution, yet not so pressed to vote in favor of any particular action affecting our lives together—if the alternative is just that my wife and I will proceed to act upon the matter later, in some (possibly that same particular) way. I would trust we would decide the matter in a way consonant with the values “embodied” in the initial decision to marry; the condition of being married in the first place preempts the need to “pin down” the decision formally, in advance, along a timetable imposed from outside. Likewise, Chavistas may just expect Chavez to act in a way consonant with values already “embodied” in his election and past record. (Indeed, low voter turnout is historically the norm for all Venezuelan elections except for those deciding the president.)

I dare say it is easier to accept that these considerations were decisive than that millions of Venezuelans are happy with Chavist reforms but don’t want any more of them. But as yet, it remains (very) speculative and in any case insufficient to explain all of the abstention numbers.

(b) Referendum? What Referendum?

Exploring the second “link”—between the voters and their comprehension of the specific reforms—a fuller picture is yielded:

It is unclear, to paraphrase Chomsky in the wake of Bush’s reelection, that Chavez lost the referendum because it is not clear that any referendum actually took place—that is, if by “referendum“ is meant a forum in which people choose between options they grasp clearly, in concert with their own interests and values.¹

This was made possible by the sheer number of reforms on the ballot—33 at first, quickly ballooning to 69—and the typical dense legalese in which they were drafted. Voters had only a short time—a month—to digest and debate these. This was especially problematic as certain items were complicated and unfamiliar. For example, the “new geometry of power” named a plan to redistrict municipalities to decentralize power. These would have various, new and interrelated functions, including the right to create, by vote, still other various, new political entities—councils, communes, unions—and the right to join these with others of the same and different type. These reforms can be quite in the interests of the voting majority without being intuitively or readily apparent as such. Finally, the presentation of the reforms in two large “up or down” blocks meant that one had only to disagree with any single item to reject the whole thing.

Beyond its brevity, limitations in the “Yes” campaign compounded matters. The reform side—perhaps overconfident in light of their twelve straight electoral wins since 1998—failed to adequately articulate the content of the reforms to social layers beyond its Chavista core. To a degree this was unavoidable: A key role was naturally delegated to the PSUV, the new merger party formed out of all the old Bolivarian groups. The party is young and its organizational network, disunified and underdeveloped. The job of education and the inspirational “whip” fell largely to the president himself—who was either abroad or distracted with matters (such as the abortive negotiations for FARC hostages) not directly related to the vote.

Effectiveness in this arena was needed to counteract the disinformation campaign by the reform opposition. Virtually every private mass media organ set its considerable resources to this project, around the clock. Normally for-purchase airtime was made free to the opposition. It was widely “reported” that the reforms would allow the state to seize virtually anything as its own property—small businesses, houses, cars, animals, clock radios. A twin-page spread in Ultimas Noticias, contender for the biggest newspaper in Venezuela, added children to the list, charging the state would remove these from the home at two years of age to be raised in state boarding schools. As in the States, the proposal to remove term limits from the presidency—bringing Venezuela in line with most of the world’s formal democracies—was presented as a vote to crown Chavez “president for life.” Major newspapers ran falsified copies of the proposed reforms. The state neither received nor—for good or ill—demanded, “equal time” in these venues.

Unsurprisingly, the same US agencies that helped organize the failed presidential coup in 2002—the CIA, USAID, and the American embassy in Venezuela—had hand in all of this. (NED is not mentioned in the memo but has been funneling money to opposition groups throughout Chavez’ administration and remains in the mix.) Nor was this role limited to “information.” The aforementioned memo was addressed to CIA Director Michael Hayden by embassy leader Michael Steele. It describes a multi-faceted anti-reform campaign implicating these groups. Tactics range in varying levels from the deceitful to the illegal and—though mostly “outsourced”—violent. The memo comes in the middle of the plan’s implementation and recommends its final phase, called “Operation Pincer” (or “Pliers”). The program allots millions of American tax dollars to fund false reporting, attack ads and bogus polls to discredit the reforms and notably, the credibility of the election process itself. It cites success in organizing affluent and ultraleft-sectarian college students to physically attack government offices, election officials and pro-Chavez demonstrators—actions which in fact led to the deaths of a handful of reform supporters. “Pliers” culminates in plans for a second coup against Chavez, originating in the National Guard; this is presented as a contingency for “Yes” vote they were sure would (still) come, but remains on the table.

Note also the role of Fifth Column sabotage: The “new geometry” shifted various powers from regional ministers, mayors and governors, to unprofessional communal groups; this has inspired some of the former to defect, not wanted to cede or share authority. Likewise, sections of the “Chavist” federal bureaucracy, seeing their interests as tied to a “stable” state, have no interest in supporting anything perceived as too radical and resisted organizing.

(c) Economic Concerns: Decisive, As Always

Of course, the outcome we would “prima facie expect” in light of what we know of our voters’ politics, and the soundness of electoral forms to translate this into policy, is not the whole story. It is possible that the limitations described by (a) and (b) were “overwhelmed” by considerations entirely beside those matters.

Venezuelans in Chavez’ “natural base”—wage workers and peasants—are plagued by a serious shortage of staple foods, including milk and meat, and other commonplace consumer goods. They also suffer under high inflation, nearly 18% in so many months. This didn’t come from nowhere, but as a result of rising earnings for all classes of Venezuelans, which increased effective demand—in itself a key gain of previous Bolivarian reforms which could have stayed that way. While the state attempted to tame this dynamic with price controls, the response of large sections of the capitalist state—partly to lessen the impact of decreased profits, partly as a protest against the controls—has been to restrict supply: Producers of scarce goods tamped down on production while large retailers hoarded the stocks they already held. Venezuelan finance capitalists withheld investment or relocated it to foreign enterprises, or turned to “nonproductive” enterprises altogether like real estate or bond speculation. Large distributors—wholesale “middlemen” and direct retailers—bypassed the price controls by funneling to the burgeoning black market. (Chavez has thought that flooding the country with imports would help also—but imports, it appears, can be hoarded and funneled underground just as well as domestics.)

These strategies were not just the initiatives of individual capitalists but a very open, deliberate and key plank in the reform opposition strategy as organized by (among others) FEDECAMARAS, the Venezuelan Chamber(s) of Commerce. (This is essentially a union for big capitalists, and fiercely anti-Chavez—their own then-president replaced him as interim president during the ‘02 coup.) This has succeeded in demoralizing the populace—the goal of the opposition leaders who called for it—even while growing consumption levels maintain: It is not that so many Chavez sympathizers have grown hostile to Bolivarian reforms, but rather tend toward apathy and disillusionment as very real, admitted gains are (subsequently) neutralized by higher prices and scarcity. This is precisely the mood, historically speaking, that engenders electoral abstention rather than the outright rebellion of voting-against or -out.


Were economic considerations decisive to the vote? Certainly, all “sides” in the reform issue—Chavistas, the opposition, and the abstainers—credit it as such, whether they agree on (or admit) the root causes of the economic troubles. In brief, we have only to assume that this discontent has cut into the numbers of less “fired up” Chavistas in the miniscule proportion needed to account for “No’s” over “Yes’s”—a reasonable (if strictly unprovable) assumption. (The reforms missed because just 1.4% more voters negated than affirmed.)

To the extent that economic factors were decisive, the idea that the reforms failed because Chavez politically “overreached” or “moved too fast” in a revolutionary direction is backward. It is precisely because the expropriations [of capitalist land and factories] have been so halting and partial, and that Chavez has been content—or felt forced—to trust the good will of the capitalist class to maintain supply, that the shortage-inflation dynamic has been permitted. The ballot failure should not be interpreted as a call for braking, or deferring, the revolution, but for pressing it much further—immediately. This entails, minimally, large-scale expropriation in local agribusiness, as well as heavy state investment therein, to ensure supply, as well as state administration of food distribution to prevent hoarding, enforce price controls and close back-doors to the black market (which would itself probably require expropriations).

There is nothing here that hasn’t been done before under worse circumstances, and nothing which can’t be ultimately placed under popular oversight and direction. But it has to be done quickly, for all of the reasons, by analogy, that you cannot “skin a tiger paw by paw”: You have to “totalize” the project to overwhelm the possibility of a counter-productive reaction. Finally, it is in the sense that such a programme can be said to logically “fulfill” the reforms—or their “spirit,” as it were—that one can call the latest failure of partial reforms an ironic mandate for the same—or much, much more.


¹ I’m assuming here that the reforms were “in concert with the interests and values of the voting majority, or at least addressed their major stated concerns.” That universal free education, expansion of social security benefits, and reduction of the workweek to 36 hours (for same pay), are not a good bet makes sense only on neoclassical economic theories that no regular Venezuelans buy into, or the view that the other items on the ballot are such a bad bet that their negative prospects outweigh the benefits of the others. Again, this isn’t the main point, but an argument of the second type would probably cite the right of the executive to suspend elements of the constitution in times of national emergency. In brief, if the former reforms—or any other significant achievement—are worth making, they are worth defending, and such “national emergencies” have occurred in recent history and are brewing now, as the opposition runs calls for a new coup on national TV and sends cash to Colombian death squads to kidnap and murder union leaders.


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