What is at Stake in Venezuela’s Reform Referendum?
On Sunday December 2, Venezuelans will return to the voting booths to ratify or reject two slates of constitutional reforms, 33 of which have been proposed by President Hugo Chávez and 36 additional reforms made by the National Assembly. Included in the proposed reforms to Venezuela’s 1999 constitution are an increase in the presidential term from six to seven years and a removal of the two-term limit, a shortening of the work week to 36 hours, the suppression of the right to information during national emergencies, the elimination of the autonomy of the central bank, increased funding for communal councils, the creation of new forms of collective property, the requirement of gender parity in positions of public office, and the recognition of Afro-Venezuelan groups, in addition to indigenous groups included in the previous reforms.
This mixed bag of proposed reforms has provoked polarized reactions across the country, and from international observers. The familiar cries of “dictadura” (dictatorship) coming from the opposition camp are no surprise, but the student protests coming out of the main public and private universities of Caracas, and the renegade voices within Chávez’s own administration have caused some confusion over where the fault lines lie. Some social movements supporting Chávez have been concerned that retrogressive proposals are mixed together with progressive reforms, making it difficult to campaign and vote on the issues as a bloc. What is at stake in Venezuela’s upcoming reform referendum? Does the outcry over the reforms signal yet again the frustrations of a thwarted opposition in its ongoing tussles with the government, or is there something more at play?
It is important to understand the anatomy of the various social forces who have thrown their hat into the ring. The long-term anti-Chavista camp, opposed to the proposed reforms, is divided over what strategy to take to the reform referendum. Some opposition parties, including Primero Justicia, Un Nuevo Tiempo, and the Christian Democratic COPEI have begun a campaign to encourage people to vote “No” to the reforms. By contrast, the National Resistance Command, which includes opposition parties such as Acción Democrática (AD), Alianza Bravo Pueblo and Bandera Roja called for a boycotting of the referendum and have mobilized people in the streets for their cause, although the AD retracted this position and joined the “No” campaign just a few days later. Like in earlier moments, the opposition’s indecisiveness and its inability to come to a united decision about how to confront Chávez has weakened its political impact.
In a surprising move, Chávez’s former Defense Minister Raul Isais Baduel who had played an important role in restoring Chávez to power during the 2002 coup, also came out against the constitutional reforms and urged people to vote “No” in the upcoming referendum. The former army commander described the changes as a “coup d’état” that would concentrate further power in the hands of the president, saying that there was no need to overhaul the 1999 constitution. Some were concerned that the defection of a senior military personnel could have an impact on the armed forces, but so far there is no indication that this should be the case. It also seems that Baduel’s opposition stems from his concerns over the proposed changes to Article 328, which would require changes to the structure of the Armed Forces.
Resistance to the reforms has also come from opposition-identified student protesters from the large public Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), as well as private institutions such as the Andrés Bello Catholic University and the Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB). During October and early November, students marched four times to the National Assembly, the National Electoral Council (CNE), and the Supreme Court to demand that the referendum be stopped. The students attacked security forces with rocks and bottles, breaking down security barriers, and starting fires, and the forces responded with tear gas and water cannons, producing violent clashes in the streets that received national and international coverage. Pro-Chávez students organized counter rallies to protest in support of the reforms. The pro and anti Chávez student activists are divided along class lines, with aspiring upwardly mobile or privileged elite students forming the core of the large demonstrations that are opposing the reforms.
The violence between anti-Chávez and pro-Chávez students reached a climax on November 7, when a group of opposition students returning to the UCV from a rally surrounded the School of Social Work, a traditionally left wing division, and held a siege of the building where 123 pro-Chávez students and staff had been making posters and planning their activities for the “Yes” campaign. In the opposition-controlled media, the events were falsely reported as a case of masked gunmen who opened fire on peaceful opposition student protesters.
On the day that the National Assembly approved that the set of proposed reforms go before a public referendum, José Manuel González, the president of Fedecámaras, the Venezuelan business association, announced that, “Venezuelan democracy was buried today.” Opposition parties and media, the business federation, General Baduel, and opposition-identified students all frame their disapproval of the reforms as a concern that democracy is being eroded. This framing is consistent with the charges that the opposition has leveled at the Chávez government from the start, and is in keeping with their limited notion of democracy as procedural democracy.
Procedural democracy, derived from Western experiences of representative government, is based on the rule of law, free and fair elections, and a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and the judicial branches of government. At the time of the drawing up of the 1999 constitution, opposition critics complained that the executive branch was being expanded at the expense of other branches. The opposition expressed concerns that Chávez has threatened judicial autonomy by intervening in the court system through disbarring judges and increasing the size of the Supreme Court, and that he has unduly increased the power of the military. They continue to make the same charges against the current proposed reforms to expand the presidential term by a year and the removal of limits on holding office, saying that this concentrates power in the executive.
Yet this focus on procedural democracy functions as a means of protecting hierarchies of existing power. The abstract concepts of the rule of law, separation of powers, and procedure inherent in liberal discourse assume the participation of rational, autonomous individuals who share equality under the law, without taking into account the tremendous inequalities in Venezuelan society. For marginal sectors, the liberal logic of procedural democracy can not be easily reconciled with histories of discrimination in a class and racially stratified landscape. Some have argued that the greater power being given to the executive may indeed be necessary in order to bring about the redistribution of social wealth and property that could alter the entrenched class structure.
At the same time, some in the Chavista camp are also uneasy about the reforms, albeit for different reasons. In October, community media activists from the National Association of Free and Alternative Media (ANMCLA) had expressed concern over the proposed changes to Article 337, which would remove the right to information of citizens during states of emergency. The move was justified by the Chávez government as a response to the manipulation by the media that took place during the 2002 coup. But activists from ANMCLA see the proposed restrictions on the right to information during times of emergency as dangerous recourse to a tool that has been used by powerful sectors throughout Latin American history to detain, persecute, and silence the population. The revolution should not be defended through censorship, argue ANMCLA, but rather through millions of voices on the air, as demonstrated during the 2002 coup.
The Agency of Alternative News (ANA), the ANMCLA agency that provides an alternative news source to the government-controlled Bolivarian Agency of News (ABN), also circulated a piece written by UCV Sociologist Javier Biardeau that questioned the route of constitutional reform as a means to effect changes in Venezuelan society. Referring to reforms in the legal arena as a “minefield,” Biardeau argues that constitutional reforms are a limited means to transform the state in a transition towards socialism. He concurs with journalist and blogger José Roberto Duque, who acknowledges that the constitutional reform is an attempt to accelerate and deepen the revolutionary process, but that for the moment it has only succeeded in sparking some dramatic exchanges without really touching any powerful interests.
The path of constitutional reform by plebiscite that has been taken by the Chávez government has also closed off other, more inclusive forums for the discussion of changes to the constitution. Rather than having a small group of representatives decide on the proposed reforms and then put them to the people in a referendum, Biardeau argues that it would have been preferable to convoke another Constituent Assembly to allow for a public debate and the broad participation of a range of social movements and popular groups. Through the proposed reforms, argues Biardeau, 21st century socialism is being decreed from above rather than democratically debated and given substance from below.
As can be seen from the criticisms coming from social movements and commentators supportive of the Chávez government, it is possible and necessary to criticize the state’s attempts to monopolize power, not in the name of a procedural democracy, as the free-market proponents of the opposition would have it, but rather in the name of a substantive democracy that puts decision making power in the hands of people organized within communal councils, assemblies, and popular organizations. On this account, “participation” is not limited to campaigning and mobilizing people to vote in the recall referendum on articles that have already been decided by a small group of representatives. It aspires to a local level of decision making that would have people themselves determine the content of their laws and institutions.