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VENEZUELA
“No” to reforms
José Orozco
12/13/2007
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Venezuelans turn down Chávez’s sweeping constitutional reform

On Dec. 2 Venezuelan voters rejected President Hugo Chávez’s proposal to overhaul Venezuela’s Constitution by 51 to 49 percent, the leader’s first electoral defeat since taking office in 1999. It was a loss of nearly 3 million votes compared to his re-election victory last December.

The referendum results reflected the electorate’s worries about Chávez’s proposals to scrap term limits and take on wide powers, even though the leader currently controls practically all branches of government.

“Having majority support doesn’t represent a blank check to do as he likes,” said Margarita López Maya, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela. “You can’t impose that vision without a debate.”

The results also expressed widespread discontent, even among Chávez’s supporters, over such issues as violent crime — gun deaths have almost tripled since Chávez entered power from 4,550 in 1998 to 12,257 in 2006.
“Instead of sending officials to march every three minutes, he has to govern,” added López Maya.

Hours before the results were announced, according to opposition daily Tal Cual, pro-Chávez lawmaker Luis Gamargo admitted defeat at the electoral body headquarters in downtown Caracas. Analysts have speculated Chávez may have asked for the results to be delayed to prepare a strategic speech.

A strategic speech
Echoing the speech he made after his failed 1992 coup attempt, carried out when he was an army colonel, Chávez accepted defeat before a national television audience, but refused to give up on his vision of 21st century socialism.

“For now, we could not do it,” said Chávez. In 1992, Chávez told the nation in a live television address that “for now” he and his co-conspirators had not accomplished their mission. He went on to win the presidency in 1998 and enjoys high popularity.

The abstention rate was high in the Dec. 2 vote — 44 percent compared to only 30 percent in Chávez’s landslide re-election last year. Some analysts said many Chávez supporters stayed home rather than vote against their leader. Skilled at using polarization to close ranks against political enemies, Chávez again turned to this tactic late in the campaign.

About a week before the vote, he told supporters: “Whoever says he will support Chávez, but will vote ‘No’ is a true traitor... If you are really with me, vote ‘Yes.’ The person who votes ‘No,’ votes against me, against the revolution and against the people.”

But instead of rallying around their leader, Chávez’s polarization tactic seems to have kept many supporters at home rather than feel they were betraying their leader.

Despite the thinnest of margins, opposition leader Gerardo Blyde sees the abstention reflecting a much broader rejection of Chávez’s political vision.
Among 16 million registered voters, less than 4.4 million supported the constitutional overhaul.

That means only one of every four possible voters supported Chávez’s plans to transform Venezuelan society, according to Blyde, with the other three rejecting what he calls the “authoritarian socialist state.”

Asking for too much?
For Chávez and his most devoted supporters, the constitutional overhaul would have given Venezuelans more power through community councils, which receive state funding for works projects and are envisioned as developing into a new form of local government.

“If there’s a problem, we find the solution,” said Elizabeth Graterol, a 39-year-old widow and single mother in Petare, a sprawling area of shantytowns in Caracas, on the day of the vote.

More specifically, Chávez’s electoral loss reflected widespread doubts on his proposals regarding private property, the scrapping of term limits and even the May decision not to renew the license of RCTV, a private TV network radically opposed to Chávez, according to Luis Vicente León, director of Datanalisis, a leading polling firm.

“Even though a lot of supporters didn’t like the RCTV closing, Chávez did it anyway,” said León. “It was his first unpopular move and created a fracture. Then came the proposal and these people were looking at what direction Chávez wanted to go in.”

During the campaign, Caracas shantytowns were awash in rumors about the overhaul paving the way for expropriations of private property. Many poor slum dwellers build small compounds with several units, making them humble but proud proprietors and encouraging them to aspire to more. Datanalisis polls show a large majority of Venezuelans rejecting incursions on private property.

“Those radical ideological elements are not the basis of his popularity,” said Leon.

That popularity owes itself to Chávez’s social programs whose beneficiaries include Graterol, 39. Along with Mercal, government-subsidized food stores, Graterol has benefited from government programs providing free education and health.

“Thanks to the government, I can be operated on,” said Graterol. “Before, you couldn’t get an operation even if you were dying. How was I going to pay for a costly operation?”

A key factor in Chávez’s defeat was the vigorous and defiant student movement.

A growing student movement
Unlike the opposition’s leaders, the student movement enjoys credibility and has given many Venezuelans something to believe in. The students have repeatedly marched to the country’s parliament, the top court and other symbolic points deep inside pro-Chávez areas, giving the opposition a voice and a measure of respect.

Fiercely independent, the movement has shrugged off the come-ons by opposition leaders eager to capitalize on the students’ political capital.

The students represent a bewildering opponent for the government, which typically dismisses the opposition by calling them coup-mongers. The opposition briefly unseated Chávez in a 2002 coup attempt that sunk their credibility.

Along with the student movement, Chávez allies turned critics like Raul Baduel, a retired general and former defense minister, and Ismael Garcia, the leader of the Podemos party and a long-time Chávez ally, gave the widespread discontent in Venezuela a public face and voice.

No doubt, Baduel and Garcia encouraged moderate Chávez supporters to express that discontent or at least stay home.

Not that Chávez has gone away. He maintains his program.

“I won’t erase a single comma from this proposal, this proposal continues,” said Chávez in his speech accepting defeat. Chávez has over seven months of special decree powers (the National Assembly granted him 18 months to rule by decree last February), which he will likely use to implement some aspects of his program.

But Chávez’s moves will be circumscribed by the 1999 Constitution and will face much more skepticism, including from among his own supporters.


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