Saturday, August 21, 2004

August 23, 2004

The result of the August 15 referendum, said Jose Clavijo, the affable and articulate Charge de Affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in the Philippines, "was not totally unexpected, even though the margin of victory was larger than what many predicted." [1]

The question posed by the Venezuelan referendum was simple enough and answerable either by a 'yes' or a 'no': should the mandate of the Chavez administration be revoked? Of the 14 million registered voters, 8.6 million turned out to cast their vote. The final tally: a 59-percent embrace of the Chavez government and its radical social program.

There can be no doubt, asserted Clavijo, a furtive smile forming on his face. "The mandate of President Hugo Chavez has been unequivocally affirmed." Likewise, the Venezuelan brand of participatory democracy, where the ballot seems only to be a first step.

Elected in 1998 and re-elected under the new constitution in 2000 to serve till 2007, Chavez knew that the referendum was but the latest in a long list of schemes hatched by the alliance between the Venezuelan oligarchy and the U.S. government to overthrow him. According to the new Venezuelan Constitution that was re-written in 1999 at the behest of Chavez, and which created the possibility of activating a recall referendum for elected officials, if 'yes' had prevailed elections would have been held 30 days after the referendum.

But Chavez had abundant confidence in direct democracy: he put his trust in the people by empowering them. "And they responded generously."

"I am pleased to be the first president to submit himself to the people's judgment halfway through his term and to be ratified" in office," said a triumphant President Chavez after the result was announced. Taunting the Bush administration, which had openly backed a failed coup against him in 2002, and using terminology from baseball, his country's national sport, Chavez likened his win to a homerun. "[T]he ball must have fallen right in the middle of the White House," said Chavez. "It's a present for Bush." [2]

Rather than unseat or weaken Chavez, which was the intention of the opposition parties driven by the Venezuelan elite - which enjoys a near monopoly ownership of the country's media, the referendum fortified the standing of Chavez and the possibilities of sweeping social change that his government signifies within and far beyond the Bolivarian Republic.

For many, the nature of the change that Chavez is driving has become the central reason behind the sustained attempts to undermine the Chavez government. The disparity of agendas is glaring. The opposition continues to promise, for instance, a return to free market economic policies, a platform welcomed by international financial leaders and institutions like the International Monetary Fund; Chavez is opposed to it.[3]

"We are building an economy at the service of human beings," said Nora Castaneda, the president of Banca Mujer (Women's Development Bank), of the Chavez administration's goals, "not human beings at the service of the economy."

For the first time in Venezuela's history, government authority has been established decisively over how the Venezuelan oil industry - the fifth largest exporter in the world - is to be run and for whose benefit. Oil money is now re-channeled towards financing immeasurable employment, health, education and literacy missions throughout the country for the destitute of Venezuela, specifically for women.

At least 65 percent of Venezuelan households are headed by women and the Chavez government during the drafting of the 2000 constitution ensured that this fact was reflected in Venezuela's framing document. Among it's progressive provisions, the constitution recognizes women's unwaged caring work as economically productive, entitling housewives to social security.

It was no surprise, Selma James noted, that in 2002 women of African and indigenous descent led the masses who descended from the hills to reverse the elite-sponsored and U.S.-backed putsch which briefly ousted Chavez, "thereby saving their constitution, their president, their democracy, their revolution."[4]

Over 250,000 children now have access to secondary education - children "whose social status excluded them from this privilege during the ancien regime." In poor districts, 11,000 neighborhood clinics have been established, the health budget has tripled and 10,000 Cuban doctors have been fielded to boost health care services in impoverished areas. There is also an ongoing campaign to provide citizenship to thousands of long-term immigrants.

"Chavez has based himself on the pueblo protagonico - the grassroots as protagonists," James adds. The iconoclastic Chavez "knows that the changes he was elected to make can only be achieved with, and protected by, popular participation."

And yet, despite his belligerent attitude towards the Bush administration, despite his glaring differences with the U.S. government concerning Latin American hemispheric economic integration, despite his government's openly expressed dissenting position on geopolitical issues such as the war on Iraq, the U.S. government continues to do business with the Chavez government and import 14 percent of its oil - equivalent to 1.5 million barrels per day, which was the average even before the election of Chavez - from Venezuela.

Once perceived by his neighbors as "a bit of an oddball," Chavez "now appears more like a Latin American statesman. Up and down the continent he has become the man to watch."[5]

"I don't believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don't accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that everyday," said Pres. Chavez in an interview with the eminent intellectual Tariq Ali.[6]

"Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society?" Chavez continued. "I don't think so. But if I'm told that because of that reality you can't do anything to help the poor . . . then I say 'We part company'. I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don't even like paying taxes. That's one reason why they hate me. We said 'You must pay your taxes'. I believe it's better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing . . . That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse . . . Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it's only a millimeter, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias."

That is why he won, Tariq Ali concludes.

Obviously so.

[1] Interview by the author with Jose Clavijo, Charge de Affaires, Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Makati City, Philippines, August 19, 2004.
[2] "International observers ratify Chavez's triumph in referendum," Humberto Marquez, IPS, August 16, 2004.
[3] "Opposition unveils 'free market' program," Roberto Jorquera, Green Left Weekly, July 21, 2004.
[4] "An antidote to apathy," Selma James, The Guardian, August 13, 2004.
[5] "Why Hugo Chavez is heading for a stunning victory," Richard Gott, The Guardian-UK, August 7, 2004.
[6] "The importance of Hugo Chavez: why he crushed the oligarchs," Tariq Ali,, August 16, 2004.

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