Progressive Change in Venezuela and Latin America
"He had faults, like other men; but it was for his virtues that he was hated and successfully calumniated."
-- Bertrand Russell, on the American revolutionary Thomas Paine.
The defeat of the Venezuelan government's proposed constitutional reforms last Sunday will probably not change very much in
Chavez's proposal to scrap term limits was defeated, but he has more than five years to try again if he wants. But even if this is his last term, the changes underway in
Most importantly, the character of the political battles in
For these reasons, in the past eight years there has been very little progressive or even liberal political opposition to the Chavez government in
The referendum shifted these political dividing lines only very slightly, and very likely temporarily. Some within the pro-government coalition opposed the reforms; and it appears that the amendments failed mainly because a great many of Chavez's supporters didn't vote. But there is no indication that these people have shifted to the opposition camp, and polls show that Chavez and the government remain highly popular. And the opposition to the government is still a right-wing opposition, despite the addition of a mostly-well-off student movement that is more ideologically mixed - including the student opposition leader Stalin Gonzalez, who recently defended his namesake in the Wall Street Journal.
With regard to democracy, there has always been a clear difference between the two sides. Chavez's immediate acceptance of a razor-thin margin of defeat - 50.7 percent against - before all the votes were even counted should cut through all the media hype about a "strongman" and a "dictator." Chavez congratulated his opponents on their victory. As in previous elections, he had publicly committed to accepting the results before the vote, and had called on the opposition to do the same.
On the other side, the opposition tried several oil and business strikes, and a military coup in April 2002, to win what they could not gain at the ballot box. The first act of the short-lived coup government was to abolish the constitution and dissolve the Supreme Court and the elected National Assembly. The coup was reversed due to massive pro-democracy street demonstrations, but eight months later the opposition once again tried to topple the government with a devastating, management-led oil shutdown. Unlike in the
Only after all extra-legal means failed to dislodge the government did the Venezuelan opposition resort to the ballot box, exercising their constitutional right to a recall referendum on the presidency in August 2004. They lost by a margin of 59-41, and promptly refused to accept the result. Although vote-rigging was nearly impossible under the dual electronic-plus-paper-ballot voting system and the result was certified by the Carter Center and the OAS, the opposition - which has its own media and invents its own reality - to this day holds to conspiracy theories(1) that the referendum was stolen by a fantastic electronic fraud. In December 2005, seeing that it would lose congressional elections, the opposition boycotted, despite the OAS and European Union observers' condemnation of the boycott.
The opposition did finally accept their defeat in the December 2006 presidential elections, which Chavez won with 63 percent of the vote and the highest turnout ever. And now that they have finally won at the ballot box, there is a possibility of an opposition emerging that is more willing to play by the democratic rules of the game. The student movement seems to have more elements that favor democratic means of challenging the government, and may have played a role in convincing others in the opposition to vote in the referendum. But they have not transformed the opposition into a democratic movement.
With regard to class, polls sponsored by the opposition and the government show that poor and working people are overwhelmingly pro-Chavez, and the upper classes against him. There are obvious reasons for this class divide: the Chavez government has provided health care to the vast majority of poor Venezuelans, subsidized food, and increased access to education. Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person has increased by 314 percent over the eight years of the Chavez administration. The proportion of households in poverty has dropped by 38 percent - and this is measuring only cash income, not other benefits such as health care and education.(2) Interestingly, the upper classes have also done pretty well, but appear to oppose Chavez for mostly ideological reasons, including his commitment to "21st century socialism." The Chavez administration has also provided the poor with more of a voice in government than they have ever had previously.
On the questions of national sovereignty and empire, the lines are also clearly divided in
The Bush Administration has remained committed to this day to regime change in
Latin American racism, especially outside of that directed against indigenous groups, is different than in the United States because "race" is less well-defined; but institutional racism is no less prevalent, as the noticeable difference in skin color between the white elite and the poorer classes throughout the region makes very clear. In
Indigenous supporters outside
What about the charges that
One can go through the list, but the point is that one does not have to agree with every decision of the Venezuelan government to see that there is little or nothing to back up the absurd image of "authoritarian rule" that the Chavez-haters have created. Unfortunately they have gotten help from politicized groups such as "Reporters Without Borders," which receives funding from the "National Endowment for Democracy" (which has funded groups involved in the overthrow of elected governments, including Venezuela  and Haiti ); the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is funded by big media owners; and other organizations who are generally more autonomous but whose independence seems to weaken under pressure with regard to Venezuela. Bottom line: no reputable human rights organization has claimed, nor would they, that civil liberties or human rights have deteriorated under the Chavez government - or that it compares unfavorably on these issues with the region.
A historic transformation in underway in
A more truthful and accurate reporting and analysis of these events is sorely need.
1.See Mark Weisbrot, David Rosnick and Todd Tucker, "Black Swans, Conspiracy Theories, and the Quixotic Search for Fraud," Center for Economic and Policy Research, September 2004. [http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/venezuela_2004_09.pdf]
2.See Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, "The Venezuelan Economy in the Chavez Years," Center for Economic and Policy Research, July 2007. [http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/venezuela_2007_07.pdf] Poverty figures here updated for first half 2007.
3. See Mark Weisbrot, "
4. See e.g., Michael Fox, "Indigenous March in Support of Chavez in
5. See Gosman, Eleonara, "Lula: "Nadie Hará que Discute con Chávez, es mi Amigo," Clarín, July 7, 2007; and Mark Weisbrot, "President Bush's Trip to Latin America is All About Denial," Center for Economic and Policy Research, March, 2007
6. See Robert McChesney and Mark Weisbrot, "
7. See Mark Weisbrot, "Latin America: The End of an Era," International Journal of Health Services, Volume 37, Number 3 / 2007, also available at [http://www.cepr.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=374&Itemid=8]
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in