Rebel Resource

projections for a revolutionary century || rebel cinema

Posted by Carlos on December 5, 2007

Failure: Chavez’s Masterplan?

Last week, he was a dictator blessed with fanatical support
and tainted by accusations of electoral fraud. What’s changed now?

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Since President Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, the politics in Venezuela have been the most active and engaging in the world, with the radical new direction of the country fiercely contested. On Sunday, a large section of Chavez’s supporters chose to abstain from voting on a broad array of proposed constitutional reforms, leaving them unapproved and raising the very real, and honest question: Was it his intention to lose all along?

Only one year ago, Chavez was decisively reelected with a record 63% of the vote and only a quarter of the electorate abstaining. There have since been a handful of controversies, any of which could potentially have alienated a small minority of his support. However, Sunday’s vote was lost through the abstention of a crucial segment that still supports Chavez, yet wasn’t ready for radical landscape changes in order to bring about full-blown “21st century Socialism”.

One commentator has blamed this mass abstention on “tiredness” resulting from excessive rhetoric and not enough action. This can’t be the case, as those who abstained must represent the more conservative, moderate wing of ‘Chavismo’. A more realistic argument is that the opposition’s scare tactics and disinformation made this sector wary of certain individual proposals. If there had been a significant ‘NO’ vote over and above the opposition’s known electoral capacity, perhaps this would ring true, but there was not; and in any case, propaganda from the ‘other side’ is rarely taken seriously. The mass abstention suggests moderate ‘Chavistas’ were simply behaving rationally under the odd circumstances of the entire affair.

The proposed reforms were, as Chavez quickly admitted, too early and too ambitious. Most commentators would go further and say they demanded far too much consideration in too short a space of time. Just months into Chavez’s final six-year term, an initial reform package of 33 proposals quickly ballooned into a total of 69. They represented an Aladdin’s Cave containing everything Chavez and his more radical support could have wished for. But moderates saw that few, if any, of the important proposals were urgent, that most simply did not require constitutional status, and that the whole package was desperately overreaching and thus risky.

Chavez is a savvy character, and it is rather implausible that he could have compromised this electoral contest (and contradicted his own style of governance) through such extreme miscalculation or greed. To submit this raft of significant changes to a public vote in the space of a little more than a month seems out of step with the modus operandi of a leader who has been the epitome of patience itself, and who knows the key to long-term success is consistently rising public approval. Of course Chavez’s political capital was high, but he is well aware that the revolution cannot progress in earnest with highly visible drops in popular support.

It would have been straightforward to advise Chavez on exactly how to achieve maximum votes: Streamline the reform package into a tidy mix of social benefits, executive and popular power; try to avoid anything that is not strictly necessary, that can be achieved by other means, or that gives the opposition an opportunity to scare the electorate. Float the ideas around for a few months before the campaign begins some time after the Christmas period. Make sure there are no international engagements during the campaign and be sure to participate in public debates.

Just as importantly, Chavez would have been duly advised to campaign in the same non-controversial fashion that had won him reelection last year. Curiously, this time he insisted on utilising a strange form of blackmail by asserting any ‘NO’ votes would be against him personally, even for George W. Bush. That meant if you didn’t want to vote ‘YES’, you’d better abstain – otherwise you’re an imperialist/oligarchical lackey. Surprise, surprise: abstention jumped from 25% in last December’s general election to nearly 45%, with the increase almost exclusively comprising Chavez voters. In retrospect, was this ‘blackmail’ really designed to secure the ‘YES’ vote, or to minimise the ‘NO’ vote? Despite repeated appeals to discourage abstention, this must have only served to increase it.

If a detective was investigating the conspiracy theory of a purposefully lost election (let us not speculate that the election result could have been manipulated in favour of the opposition, despite the agonising wait after the polls had closed!), the motives, means and opportunity all fit like gloves – but especially the motives. Tellingly, the only alternative explanation for such a stunning failure is gross and uncharacteristic misjudgment, not to mention elementary errors of political campaigning. Most people would think Chavez has enough experience to know better.

To attempt to drive this truckload of reforms through en masse with, say, 55% of the vote, which is what many were expecting and what could theoretically have been achieved, would only have caused increased anger and civil strife in the country. At this important stage of the revolution, Chavez’s ‘loss’ has in fact done the complete opposite, swiftly ensuring peace and stability in Venezuela by effectively tranquilizing an opposition student movement that was close to boiling point. Their most frequent message was that they “just wanted peace”, and now they have it. On the other hand, Chavez has lost nothing and gained everything.

It now bodes extremely well for his international image in particular. Aside from quelling all dictator/fraud charges for the foreseeable future, his reputation as a dignified democrat and conciliatory statesman has increased tenfold, with fawning praise from most regional leaders. Meanwhile, the basic manifesto for his current term has been articulated in full, thereby initiating an informal process of debate that will continue over months if not years. Though the reform proposals were hardly grassroots choices, the method and style of the entire process gave an important lesson to the population, who are presumably now expected to make use of their constitutional power to initiate their own proposals (having been given enough ideas).

Of course Chavez wants to deepen the revolution, and it should be emphasised that nearly half of all voters were ready to grasp “21st century Socialism” with both hands. However, to conclusively legitimise the journey onwards, the essential ‘moderate wing’ needs to be picked up, or “taken on board”, as Chavez said himself during a call-in to state TV the day after the vote. What better way to identify and address this moderate wing than to set up an electoral test which the moderates are not going to approve? Chavez now knows exactly how many remain to be convinced of an all-out socialist project, and presumably even who they are and where they live.

Chavez is an outstanding statesman with a powerful ability to build consensus for his ideas and policies, and what he proposes to achieve is no secret: in thousands of hours of media appearances his visions of social justice, true popular power and a diversified economy have been well explained. Clearly not all have been sufficiently persuaded, but the most important step with which to enable an systematic process of persuasion has now been achieved through losing this election. The crucial signs are that Chavez’s base of opposition has not expanded, and those sympathetic to Chavez remain open to further persuasion.

We can now be sure that Chavez’s supporters are far from mindless sheep. Those that voted ‘YES’ were fully informed and ready to go ahead with the reforms. We can assume they are willing to dispose of capitalism and try a different experiment. Meanwhile, those that abstained were of sufficiently firm disposition to disassociate the reforms from Chavez, in spite of his contrary efforts, and thus made a neutral decision based on their perceived benefits/potential pitfalls in relation to the current state of Venezuelan society.

Venezuela is ripe for socialism, but to be a truly demonstrative international example, slim majority support will not suffice. “21st century socialism” may be based on popular power, but even that cannot be achieved without democratic consent. In fact, increasing executive power will be necessary in order to overturn the politics, economy and society into a revolutionary landscape of real grassroots decision-making. In the present society, overflowing with disposable income and increasingly catered for by rapidly expanding social missions and the largest oil reserves on the planet, moderates are liable to ask: How much better can it really get? Do we need to change a bunch of other things? Might that not be a risk?

The sector of Chavez’s support that has yet to acknowledge the inherent problems with the capitalist model, or alternatively the inherent benefits of socialism, might well overlap neatly with the sector that abstained in this constitutional reform vote. Perhaps they need to be convinced of the need for increased executive power and the democratic/other benefits of eliminating presidential term limits. Whatever their concerns, we know that Chavez’s excessive rhetoric has been incapable of alleviating them – the answer now appears to be diversified means of education targeted directly at the ‘uncertain moderates’, and demonstration by example wherever possible.

Clearly, the overriding failure of the reforms was not any individual proposals but the general intensity, scope and pressure of the package in the given circumstances. Chavez still has decree power for the next six months at least, and will surely use it to effect the most urgent proposals. The opposition still has the constitutional power to strike down any legislation if the electoral weight is behind them, though the election results show that they remain a limited minority. Practically all ‘NO’ votes came from the long-established block of stridently anti-Chavez, pro-capitalist views which may represent only a third of the entire Venezuelan population.

Though the opposition feels empowered, it will prove to be an illusory experience and the position of the socialist movement with five years of Chavez’s (provisionally final) term remaining is even stronger than before. In the ambience of reduced attacks from both domestic and international opposition, many of the intended advances will inevitably be achieved under the banner of real democracy (imagine a successful popular initiative to eliminate presidential term limits), and positive results will almost certainly ensure the big hullabalooza: Chavez’s reelection in 2012. “For now”, Chavez says, Venezuelans have to “mature further, and continue constructing our socialism”.

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13 Responses to “”

  1. mcr2 said

    I totally agree. He comes out way ahead with a gracious loss that proves there’s a democracy. He knows that in the next five years everything is going to change and change again. There will be other opportunities and no one can now attack him for being a demagogue. He’s honored the will of the people.

  2. Ned Land said

    “Venezuela is ripe for socialism, but to be a truly demonstrative international example, slim majority support will not suffice.”

    No kidding! Is an economy increasingly based on consumption of consumer goods with low investment, and promoting deindustrialization and food dependency “ripe for socialism”? BTW, what do you mean by socialism?

    “In fact, increasing executive power will be necessary in order to overturn the politics, economy and society into a revolutionary landscape of real grassroots decision-making.”

    How come? I know, you’re being “dialectical”. But in the sense of vindicating Hegel’s “world-historical individuals” (see Reason and History) and his praise of the Prussian State (with capital s). Please elaborate your “contradiction”.

    “In the present society, overflowing with disposable income and increasingly catered for by rapidly expanding social missions and the largest oil reserves on the planet, moderates are liable to ask: How much better can it really get? Do we need to change a bunch of other things? Might that not be a risk?”

    Do the words “inflation” and “food shortage” ring a bell for you?

    “Practically all ‘NO’ votes came from the long-established block of stridently anti-Chavez, pro-capitalist views which may represent only a third of the entire Venezuelan population.”
    See:

  3. Carlos said

    Ned Land,

    I am aware of the percentages. But how many more voted for ‘NO’ than voted for Rosales? That is the relevant question.

    When I speak of socialism I mean a popular alternative to capitalism.

  4. Eugene said

    Your scenario is one possibility, but I doubt that Chavez did not really want the right to be re elected. Can he get around that particular setback?

  5. Carlos said

    Eugene,

    The people can initiate whatever they like, and will certainly try to get rid of presidential term limits providing that they would prefer Chavez to continue in 2012. It looks far better for all concerned if it is a popular proposal, anyway.

    In fact, most of the 69 proposals would surely pass a popular vote on an individual basis even if later rather than sooner, which makes the likelihood of the vast majority being passed one way or another in the next 5 years extremely likely.

  6. Is calling the oppo vic -the votes of 4.5 million venezuelans- a shit of a victory part of the masterplan?

  7. Carlos said

    Mario,

    It was surprising to me, but he still has wins all over the park, whether he planned it or not, and whether he made that comment or not.

  8. Henry Dubb said

    It seems to me that it was was western and American democratic ideals that were rejected. From following this sympathetically from afar it seemed the lack of term limits and Patriot Act powers were the motivating factor of defeat.

    I also think the no vote is a big victory for Chavez. It legitimizes the democratic basis of his socialism that was always a question until now. It also gives him an opportunity to create a sustainable socialism that goes beyond the man.

  9. Carlos,

    The main concern I have about your argument of Chavez intentionally setting it up to lose the constitutional vote is that he would have been playing with fire.

    The actual result was quite close. If the result had been 50.7 yes to 49.3 no, can you imagine how de-stabilizing that would have been (just the opposite of what you otherwise argue).

    So, I think your argument requires an amendment neither you nor I would want to include — that the vote count itself would be manipulated, if necessary, to be negative.

    I stick with an interpretation that it was a miscalculation, with an attempt at economic ‘bribes’ being attached to increased executive powers, and failing for the time being.

    A more honest proposal would have separated the progressive economic measures from the increased executive power issues. The latter included eliminating that ‘democratic’ provision of the 1999 constitution to limit the term of the President — twelve years being enough for the Bolivarian process to place other leaders onto the platform.

    Paul Zarembka

  10. Ned Land said

    Carlos said:
    “Ned Land,
    I am aware of the percentages. But how many more voted for ‘NO’ than voted for Rosales? That is the relevant question.
    When I speak of socialism I mean a popular alternative to capitalism.”

    211,888 people. So what?

    You haven’t address my main questions about the economy and on how do you justify a super executive power.

    I’m curious: what is a “popular alternative to capitalism”?

    Ned

  11. Carlos said

    *Ned Land, I cant answer all your questions, just the most important ones. That the NO vote is based essentially on the Rosales vote suggests that there remains 60% or more of the electorate that is in favour of formalising a popular set of reforms containing a lot of what Chavez wanted.

    Power has to be justified, and Chavez has used his powers until now in responsible and correct ways. To go forward in building new models of econ.poli.soc in Venezuela, he needs other executive powers. This is all a matter of opinion, of course. Popular alternatives to capitalism, meanwhile, include anything not based on the traditional capitalist-wageslave relationship. True democracy should imply economic models that empower and enrich more than a slim minority – that seems plain enough to me.

    *Paul Zarembka, that is also a fair analysis. But I don’t think manipulation of the vote is out of the question. It in no way implies that the government would dare to manipulate it the other way. The system is perfectly verifiable, and I would think that even if the opposition higher order found out that SI actually won, they would keep quiet and claim their victory. Let us remember that the required ‘manipulation’ may have only required leaving certain tables uncounted.

    As for mixing up the proposals, that would have been the only way (in a desired loss scenario) to ensure that the moderates would abstain entirely, while preventing the country from seeing clearly, for example, that social benefits were apparently popular while executive powers were not.

  12. Gabriel Cisneros said

    Dear Carlos,
    I have to say that I disagree completely with your premise that this was a deliberate loss. By all nonofficial media accounts (http://www.noticias24.com/actualidad/?p=10292) Chavez on 2/12 was furious when it became clear the the earlier trends for the SI were veering irrevocably toward the NO. Most observers in Venezuela also believe that it was only the negative pressure of the military (we will not repress in defense of a fraudulent result) that brought Chavez to his senses. Many also believe that the NO actually won by 56% but that a reduction was made in negotiations with . . . (??) in order to move Chavez into accepting defeat. It has also been reported that Chavez destroyed the contents of one of the rooms in the Presidential Palace (oops) while “meditating” for a few hours on whether to accept defeat. (You can see the swelling of his hand in the post election appearances.) Naturally these are all anecdotal illustrations but they tend to indicate, taken as a whole, that Chavez was not at all happy and amazingly unprepared for the outcome. Finally, what Chavez lost – his aura of invincibility – is too great a value to play with simply to identify his soft support.

    The other point you make that “his reputation as a dignified democrat and conciliatory statesman has increased tenfold” is also utterly off mark. He proved himself a buffoon at the Iberoamerican Conference and people here in Spain can’t get enough of the rebuke he received from the King. He called the victory of the NO vote “Shit” four times on TV in front of the HIgh Command. “Dignified” far from it. This is a man who wants credit and praise for doing what the law and common ethics already compel him to do. Look to see how many heads of state turn their backs on him tomorrow at the investiture of Christina Kirtchner.

    Thanks for opportunity to post this reply to your comment.

  13. Carlos said

    Excellent points Gabriel. Of course you must accept, though, that for international commentators in particular to paint Chavez as an autocrat after this event is much harder than it was before. That the “shit” comments have been jumped upon with such glee is illustrative of how eager the private media are to quickly reconstruct the image that in his heart he does not favour democracy. Knowing this, one should be very wary of believing stories about Chavez’s behaviour on the night in question.

    Aside from a few of his more typical outbursts his attitude has been on the whole very dignified, unlike the King of Spain who was the exact opposite. Certainly Chavez should be more than happy when taking into account the extremely favourable outcomes I describe in the article, especially in consideration that he might have had to implement his ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of reforms with the opposition screaming that only 30% of the electorate were in favour of them. Could you imagine the “dictator” cries in that scenario, and the unstable ground upon which the revolution would have been forced to advance?

    In specific response to the story that Chavez was annoyed that results were heading for the ‘NO’ – the statistics on abstention would have been very clear from the beginning, and so I would have expected him to be pleased the vote was looking like sparing him the scenario described above.

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