For over a year they had been agitating for it, and finally they got it: the Venezuelan opposition, having tried and failed to overthrow President Hugo Chávez first by a military coup and then by paralysing the oil industry, turned to a constitutional device introduced by Chávez himself, the recall referendum.
Since Chávez' Bolivarian Constitution allows for such a referendum against any elected official at mid-point in their term of office, theoretically it was possible to throw him out by popular vote. To do this it was necessary to first collect the signatures of 20% of the electorate (roughly 2.4 million under the old electoral register), and then in the actual referendum to get more votes for a recall than Chávez had received when elected (some 3.7 million), and also more than the number of pro-Chávez votes in the referendum.
After months of procedural wrangling and arguments over fraudulent signatures, in June the National Electoral Council (CNE, Consejo Nacional Electoral, an independent body) announced that the opposition 'Coordinadora Democratica' had obtained slightly more than the necessary 2.4 million signatures, and set 15 August as the referendum date. Many commentators, deceived by opposition propaganda, saw this as a body-blow to Chávez" "Bolivarian Revolution" as they took at face value the highly unreliable opinion polls conducted by the ferociously anti-Chávez Venezuelan private media. As polling day approached, however, independent assessments gave Chávez a growing lead of anywhere from 5 to 20%.
Once again crying fraud long before the actual vote, the opposition demanded changes in the voting procedure and for verification by the U.S. based NGO Carter Centre for Human Rights, the OAS (Organisation of American States) and other international observers - all of which they got. In the event the procedure was one of the most rigorous in the world, with new computer software supplemented by paper print-outs, and an updated and greatly expanded electoral register. For the last 20 years Venezuelan elections have been characterised by massive abstention rates of 35 to 50%, but on 15 August long queues of voters began to gather from the early hours, many standing in the hot sun all day to cast their ballots.
What resulted was the biggest voter turn-out in the country's history, an unprecedented show of civic enthusiasm - and unlike previous elections, violent incidents were few and far between. The polling hours were extended to midnight to accommodate people waiting to vote, and when at about 3 am on Monday 16 August the CNE announced provisional results (on the basis of a 94% count, about 8.5 million votes it became clear that Chávez and the revolution had scored another great victory, the eighth in six years: the "No" (to recall) had 58.25%, against 41.3% "Yes" (for recall). Later figures, that were still incomplete, showed an even more decisive chavista victory: nearly 60% "No" to only a little over 40% "Yes".
Opposition sour grapes
Predictably, the opposition (well described by Chávez as the 'Undemocratic Discoordinator') reacted by crying fraud and persisting in this position despite the certification of the results by all the international observers. Indeed, when in response to further opposition demands the CNE, the Carter Centre and the OAS agreed to a supervised audit of 150 polling station counts selected at random, the opposition refused to attend the audit. This show of sour grapes became so ridiculous that it soon led the international media - in a dramatic change from their previously anti-Chávez position - to condemn the opposition. Indeed, establishment papers like the "New York Times", "El País" of Spain and Canada's "Toronto Star" commented that the opposition's attitude was dangerously anti-democratic, and that they should recognise that they do not represent the majority of Venezuelans and accept their minority status.
With this eighth electoral triumph, the way is clear for Chávez' so-called "Bolivarian Revolution" to enter into a new phase. On August 21, William Izarra, Director of Ideological Development for Chávez' Fifth Republic Movement, declared that 'It will be necessary to revise the structure of the revolutionary process in order to consolidate it'. The ratification of the process by almost 60% of the electorate 'will make it possible to deepen the political changes and overcome the structural obstacles which have held up the progress of this revolution'. Izarra went on to say that the "Missions" - the social programmes such as the literacy campaigns, the neighbourhood health clinics, etc - would be broadened and opened to all Venezuelans, not just the poor. There would also be a 'deepening of the theoretical aspect' with the participation of the entire people in Centres of Ideological Preparation.
Chávez, while showing an openness to dialogue with the opposition and a desire for reconciliation, has also been insisting on the advance of the revolutionary process. Talking to the foreign press on 18 August he proclaimed that 'With the referendum the birth of the Fifth Republic is complete' and that the period of transition was over. He also said that it was necessary to carry out 'the integral transformation of State institutions, including the Justice system' in order to end corruption and class bias.
Then on 20 August in a message to the nation, he insisted on the importance of the 49 'Facilitating Laws' passed by decree in November 2001 (but still only partially implemented) which laid the basis for the agrarian reform, the new petroleum law and other fundamental changes. These laws, he said, had begun to put the fine words of the new Constitution into practice. He put special emphasis on the results of the Hydrocarbon (oil and gas) Law, which meant that for the first time the oil revenues were being invested in the country's overall development, and on the Electrical Industry Law which stopped the privatisation of that sector. He also stressed the recovery of control over Venezuelan territorial waters, including the modernisation of the country's naval bases.
Bold nationalist moves
Those on the left who criticise Chávez for not nationalising key industries should consider that in today's neoliberal context, the mere halting of privatisation of two of the country's major resources is a bold move and everything suggests that the Bolivarian government is preparing itself to defend national sovereignty on all fronts. Although international recognition of the referendum victory was almost universal, in the case of the U.S., the State Department hedged its recognition with concerns about the accuracy of the vote, echoing (although less hysterically) opposition cries of fraud - which suggests that it may discreetly favour the violent and destabilising tactics of extreme opposition sectors.
Chávez has adopted the intelligent approach of trying to separate the opposition's extremist leaders from the opposition's popular base, insisting that the majority of their voters do not identify with these leaders who have deceived them. But this will not prevent certain groups, with clandestine U.S. support, from attempting destabilisation. State and local elections are due on 27 September, and are likely to result in the opposition losing most of the 9 state governors it still has. The context is favourable to further advances of the revolutionary process, but constant vigilance and international solidarity will be more important than ever.