Democracy diary

Hilary Wainwright reports from Caracas on Venezuela's referendum - and the next steps towards reform

December 10, 2007 · 16 min read

Referendum day in Caracas began unofficially at 3am with voters letting off firecrackers and sounding horns to celebrate the dawn of the day of decision on the fate of President Chavez’s proposals for constitutional reforms. These reforms contained an ambitious mix of social rights for housing, social security, education and a shorter working week along with proposals for entrenching community councils, formalising Venezuela as a socialist state, giving the president a wide range of emergency powers and allowing Chavez to stand again as president after his second term expires in 2012.

Observing the vote

For me, referendum day began at the more leisurely hour of 7am with donning the grey jacket and baseball style cap of the ‘observación internacional’. We were an international group of around 80 people from academic, media or civil society organisations observing the voting procedures of the referendum. We were allocated to ten mini-vans and dispatched across Caracas and its hinterland. I found myself in Grupo 10 visiting six polling stations in the neighbourhood of Catia La Mar, a lower middle class/working class area near the airport, and returning at the close of polling to observe a manual audit of the electronic votes in a large secondary school in central Caracas.

As we arrived at our first assignment, people were queuing to check their names on lists pinned up on the wall of the polling station to find out to which of up to eight ‘tables’ in the station they had been assigned. They went to the appropriate room with their ID, signed and also marked their fingerprint by their printed name. A treble check on their identity – quite a contrast from the casual polling card system at home in the UK.

They then caste their vote in secret behind a makeshift cardboard screen, or rather they pressed their chosen button on an electronic machine. The same machine then printed out the vote for the voter to check and put in a ballot box as a basis for auditing the electronic voting. A random 54 per cent of machines were audited in this way and later in the polling station in central Caracas we saw 360 or so paper votes from one of these the ballot box being carefully counted and checked against the electronic votes. Much to everyone’s relief they tallied.

Finally every voter had purple indelible ink painted on one of their finger tips as they left the polling station. At one polling station a voter challenged its indelibility and he and the observers were taken through a thorough experiment with bleach and ammonia to put the purple ink, successfully, to the test.

The whole process was conscientiously run by the young staff of the National Electoral Council (CNE) an institution set up as part of the Bolivarian constitution of 1999 with dedicated responsibility for developing and implementing the procedures for running elections. It is autonomous from the government, with a board appointed by the National Assembly of academics, civil society organisations, and the ombudsman. The stations were guarded by equally youthful members of the armed forces – many women as well as men – with machine guns slung over their shoulders. The police evidently are not to be trusted.

Each ‘table’ had a president and a secretary appointed on a random basis from the local neighbourhood and trained to take an active part in the process. Then there were two witnesses, one for the ‘Si’ and one for the ‘No’, who in all the stations that I visited agreed on the fairness of the rules and the integrity and openness of the process. In most cases, these local partisans showed a degree of mutual respect totally at odds with the polarised picture conveyed in the national press and enacted on the streets of downtown Caracas. At one station a ‘No’ witness started ranting against the proposals and at another we heard that the cocky manner in which ‘Si’ voters behaved as they voted had driven the ‘No’ witness away. But otherwise they were all smiles.

State of shock

By the end of the day, the smiles of ‘Si’ supporters were gone and there was simply the glaze of shock. It was widely known that the results would be close but exit polls had indicated a lead of 6-8 per cent for the proposals. We were told the results would all be known by mid evening. (The electronic process was devised partly to ensure speedy results and avoid the tensions of a delay).

We assembled in an extension of the CNE building in downtown Caracas and waited and waited. It was going to be closer than everyone expected. That much was clear.

By midnight still no result. Rumour had it and then television screens confirmed it that opposition militants were storming the CNE building, interpreting the delay as a sign that something dodgy was going on. The truth was that the polling stations had closed late (the rule was to keep the station open beyond the closure time of 4pm so long as there was anyone queuing to vote) and the auditing process had taken longer than anticipated.

Behind the scenes the atmosphere was tense. Only the day before polling there had been considerable violence, including someone killed in political fight. The careful, ever-prepared CNE organisers had planned to take the international observers back to the hotel but it was decided that this would be too dangerous. When on several occasions there was a rush towards the platform, it was easy to think that some kind of attack was underway. But it was just people rushing in from foyers to the main hall thinking an announcement was about to be made. Soon after 1am the president of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena walked calmly on to the platform and, facing a battery of cameras and microphones, quietly announced the results.

Two women hugged each other in front of the stage but generally there was a stunned silence. The international observers were shepherded protectively out to the bus. We walked to the car park flanked on either side by an armed guard. In fact, everything seemed calm (the next morning several people remarked that had the results gone against the opposition, there would have been multiple outbursts of violence across Caracas).

Left critics of Chavez

In the bus we listened to Chavez, humble and confident at the same time. The ‘people have spoken’ he said, noting the way the result strengthened the legitimacy of Venezuela’s democratic institutions. The constitutional proposals were defeated, he accepted. ‘Por ahora’ he added, echoing a resonant phrase, ‘for now’, that he’d used at an earlier moment of defeat that was also a precursor of victory: in a broadcast following the failed military coup he had led in 1992 against the reactionary oligarchs of the corrupt Venezuelan state.

The legacy of these institutions still lives on. Bureaucracy and corruption are still pervasive at every level, blocking Chavez’s ability to get the oil money down to those who need it. For Chavez, the constitutional reforms were aimed at transforming this oligarchic state, destroying its legacy forever. But while support for his presidency continues to be high – the polls indicate over 60 per cent support – his proposals for reform are deeply controversial among many who strongly support the Bolivarian process of democratisation, popular power and the creation of a new kind of socialism.

Indeed, a less comfortable sign of the strength of Venezuelan democracy for Chavez has been the flourishing of debate and criticism among his own supporters. For example, one of Chavez’s most cogent critics from the left is Edgardo Lander, a widely respected socialist academic who was one of the Venezuelan negotiators on ALCA (the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas). Lander stresses his support for the Bolivarian process while criticising the degree to which reforms centralise power in the hands of the president and treat popular power as part of the state rather than as a source of autonomous power over the state. While having no truck with the right wing opposition he also insists that the reforms involved such a thoroughgoing overhaul of the constitution that they should have been subject to a real constituent process of popular participation. (See for a translation of his arguments.)

The view from the barrios

How significant are the arguments of such socialist critics? What is going on among Chavez supporters to explain the rejection of his proposals at a time when support for his presidency rides high?

The best place from which to answer these questions seemed to me to be in the barrios, the poor neighbourhoods of Caracas. It was here in Chavez’s popular base that the decisive shift had taken place. Around 7.3 million voted for Chavez in the presidential elections of December 2006. Only 4, 380,000 voted for his reform proposals. But the 4,504,000 votes for the ‘No’ was only marginally more than the 2006 vote for the opposition candidate in 2006. So it was the abstention of around three million Chavez voters that made the difference. What lies behind this mass abstention?

As Pablo Naverrete (Red Pepper’s Latin American and Venezuela blog editor) and I arrived at the bottom of the barrio known as 23 de Enero, after the mass occupation of the apartment blocks that form its core, on 23 January 1958, a symbol of one factor behind the abstentions hits you in the eye and the nose. Rivers of rubbish.

‘Frustration with the bureaucracy, the lack of a response to our problems from the state, must be one reason why so many Chavistas didn’t vote,’ argues Maryluz Guillen, a critical ‘Si’ voter who is working almost full time to build the capacity of the local communal council to solve these problems or to pressure the municipal state to solve them. Government programmes known as ‘Misiones’, with Cuban help in health and sports training, have been one extremely successful solution to the state’s lack of constructive social capacity as far as education, health and food distribution is concerned. The result, though, is an uneasy dual system and they have limited scope on issues such as housing, sanitation, waste and urban planning, which are in theory the responsibility of state institutions.

Defenders of reform

Defenders of the reform proposals would say that this widespread popular frustration with the state was exactly the reason behind the proposals to transform the state by increasing Chavez’s power to force change from the top and by strengthening the power of popular democracy from below. ‘He’s a good listener,’ says Gustavo Borges, a hip hop promoter and designer who lives in the heights of 23 de Enero. Among many other activities, Borges runs an impressive website and helps his militant Chavista father to produce a smartly designed community newspaper Sucre En Communidad.

‘The reforms were the result of Chavez listening to the people,’ Borges insists, arguing against those who say that, unlike the process of drawing up the original Bolivarian constitution, there was little popular participation (the proposals were published only one month before the referendum). For him the high abstentions must be put down mainly to the failure of the leadership of Chavez’s party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – to explain the proposals and counter the opposition’s ‘terror campaign’ in the media. (The media campaign included adverts stating that the reforms meant the state expropriation of small businesses and taking children away from their families into the care of the state.)

Even so, he cautions against ‘blaming the leadership. The community must take responsibility too. Communal councils must be more than just about management of projects – they must be political too. They should have taken more responsibility for the reform proposals’.

Chavez ‘kidnapped’

Edgar Perez takes the idea of community responsibility further. He’s a gentle community leader in Las Casitas at the top of a neighbourhood called La Vega. We met him in the ‘Casa de Alimentacion’, a centre for distributing food to the poor, beneath Frida Kalho’s famous picture of the woman with lilies.

Las Casitas is a community that announces its self-government on the walls that mark its boundary. Predictably, perhaps, given this militantly self-governing background, Edgar argues that the flaw in the reforms and the reason they failed to convince, lay less in how they were explained and more in how they were made: ‘We should have had a constituent process, the possibility of inputs from every community.’

Certainly, if Perez’s community is anything to go by, there would be plenty of positive take-up to such an idea. He described their struggles, mostly successful, in bending public resources to the needs of the people. As he talked, he distinguished Chavez from the state and its functionaries, pointing to another source of frustration: ‘The president is much less accessible than he used to be. They [the functionaries] have kidnapped him.’

Perez’s comments connect with something written in the web magazine Aporrea the morning after the result by Javier Biardeau, a well respected commentator and academic close to the process (everyone refers to the Bolivarian process, the Chavista revolution, the Venezuelan changes as ‘the process’).

‘The largest share of the responsibility for the defeat lies in those who convinced Chavez that the revolution depends exclusively on his personal figure,’ Biardeau writes. ‘This is an error. Probably without Chavez there would be no revolution, but neither will there be one only with Chavez. There is a need to correct the tendency to minimise the leading role of the people in important deliberations and decisions. The “Chavismo apparat” [the leadership of the PSUV, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela] was defeated. The revolution is built from the bottom up, or it wears down from above.’

Doing away with vanguardism

I first heard of Biardeau’s article when it came up in discussion with a group of young activist intellectuals, self-defined ‘grassroots Chavistas’ and occasional Chavez speechwriters as they chewed over the results at their favourite Chinese restaurant. The minister of communication and information had asked one of them to gather grassroots feedback on the referendum defeat. As they talked they kept returning to Biardeau’s statement, believing it summed up what they wanted to feedback to el presidente:

‘Not only has the maximum degree of social equality to be achieved but of political equality too. The Jacobin vision of revolutions directed from above by vanguards and singular personalities has to be done away with. It is time for profound reflection, time to finish with both the pragmatism of the domestic right and the Stalinism of the domestic ultra-left, time to end corruption and bureaucratism, time to stop the drift towards caesarist-populism and time to renew critical socialist thought. It is also time to ask forgiveness for the many abuses committed and to show some humility.’ It’s powerful stuff. (See the English translation on Red Pepper’s Venezeuela blog.)

Biardeau’s analysis crystallised a common theme amongst the grassroots Chavistas that we met in 23 de Enero and La Vega, whether they voted ‘Si’, abstained or even in a few cases voted ‘No’: the need to shift ‘the process’ back towards popular democracy. Judging by the level of activity and increasingly interlinked organisations in the barrios, the workplaces and the rural areas – the urban land committees, health committees, organisations of the landless, networks of co-operatives, and worker managed factories – the organisational basis, as well as the political desire, is there to be developed and supported.

It has autonomy from Chavez at the same time as being the source of his support. There is in the barrios a love for Chavez. But it is not slavish adoration. It’s not comparable to the passive politics of celebrity and spectacle in the west. It’s based on the material improvements in their lives and on the wider opportunities and space he’s opened up for them to make their own future, to develop their own power. They are occupying these spaces to an extent that those around Chavez do not seem to appreciate.

Democratic tensions

The Venezuelan process illustrates the tension between two understandings of democracy and democratic leadership. On the one hand there is the idea that once a democratic mandate has been won, the people’s will is represented by the victor – the president or the mayor, for example – and leadership is about firmly imposing this will against all hostile forces. On the other hand is the idea that the power of popular mandate needs to be actively deepened and developed through encouraging popular self-organisation in all its plurality and leadership – and that it is about using positions of legitimacy and authority to encourage this self-organisation and deliberation as a deeper, more lasting and creative source of democratic power.

Chavez’s most recent remarks show signs of recognising the value of this latter understanding and strengthening the participatory nature of the Bolivarian process. In an interview following the defeat of his proposals he insisted that the principle objective must remain the transformation of the state but he recognises that ‘this is a moment to begin a true reflection and self-criticism. The Venezuelan people have the power and the right to present a request for constitutional reform before this presidential term finishes, of which there are still five years.’

He is referring to the provision in the constitution that a petition backed by 15 per cent of registered voters would give them the right to present a proposal for constitutional reform. Edgar Perez from Las Casitas and his networks are already on to this one, and have begun to organise. An alliance of grassroots organisations, which came together over criticisms over Chavez’s reforms, could well be the focal point of a new grassroots initiative.

We’ve seen how in response to defeat, Chavez claimed that the vote demonstrated the strength of Venezuelan democracy. He was referring to the electoral processes and the institution of the CNE that I observed on the day of the referendum and of the way the government respected the process.

But as Josh Lerner puts it on the excellent website ‘He may be more right than he realises. Not only did the referendum show that the government respects the democratic process, it also shook people up in a new way. Whereas in the past, Chavez shook people out of complacency and passivity, this time he may have shaken them out of unconditional support and fixed assumptions. More so than ever before, millions of Chavez supporters openly questioned and dissented from their leader’s wishes.’

So while I began my visit as an international observer of the democracy of the election process, finding it in many ways more democratic than our own, I ended up also observing the internal democracy of the Chavista movement itself and finding at its grassroots, an inspiring commitment to pluralism, critical debate and popular autonomy from which we also have much to learn.

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