Monday 3 December 2007

Venezuelan referendum: setback for the revolution

The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has suffered a setback, with an extremely narrow victory by the right-wing opposition over Government-sponsored constitutional reforms. The referendum was in two parts: one vote on constitutional reforms proposed by President Hugo Chavez, and another on additional reforms suggested by the National Assembly. The first block was defeated by around 50.5 to 49.5 percent of the vote, the second block defeated by a slightly larger margin. On one hand, the proposals would have extended and deepen the social gains of the revolution – cut the working week by 8 hours, lower the voting age to 16, put the Central bank under democratic control, defend rights for gay and lesbian people, and guarantee state funding to the grassroots Communal Councils. On the other hand, the proposals would also have extended more powers to the office of President, allowing Chavez to run again when his current term expires in 2012, and giving the presidency more powers over state and local government. While the right-wing opposition and some union leaders described this as “dictatorial” or even “Stalinist”, Chavistas argue that, with communal power still in its infancy and grassroots organizations still weak and divided, the presidency is the key to defending the Revolution against conservative forces in the bureaucracy and opposition-controlled local governments. Several opinion polls released before the vote showed the “No” vote ahead by a large margin. However, in the last week of the campaign, the Venezuelan government released a document which they claimed had been intercepted from the American embassy. This document, apparently a memo from CIA operatives, discussed a campaign of psychological warfare against the Chavez administration. High on the strategy list for this campaign was the issuing of bogus opinion polls to cast doubt on the fairness of the referendum victory and give strength to preparations for a coup. The memo also pointed to the "great success" of protests led by students at elite private universities against the reform proposals. What this "success" actually meant was demonstrated on November 7th, when pro-Chavez students were barricaded in a university building by anti-Chavez protestors and narrowly escaped being burned to death. Not so lucky was José Anibal Oliveros Yépez, a 19 year old worker who was shot in the back and killed by anti-Chavistas on November 26th. It is still unclear whether the referendum result would mean the end of opposition attempts to destabilise Venezuela and provoke another right-wing coup. Word had it that opposition student groups had already started distributing T-shirts labelled “FRAUD” in anticipation of a campaign of civil disobedience aimed at toppling Chávez. Whether the opposition will accept their victory, or think that perhaps now is the time to end the Revolution once and for all, remains to be seen. The biggest factor in the future of the Bolivarian Revolution will be the success of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela in mobilizing and empowering grassroots political activists, enabling more of the initiative to come from below rather than from the Presidency. Only this will ensure the sustainability of the gains of the revolution, and enable a final victory against the Venezuelan corporate classes.

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