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As Chávez Falters: Raising the Stakes for South American Left

In the wake of President Hugo Chávez’s stinging defeat in Sunday’s constitutional referendum, it’s incumbent on the South American left to take stock of events in Venezuela and learn from the Chavistas’ mistakes. It’s the first time that Chávez has lost an electoral contest, and the Venezuelan President no longer looks as invulnerable as he has in the past. Foreign policy hawks in Washington will surely feel emboldened by yesterday’s electoral debacle in Venezuela; they may see it as an opportunity to go on the offensive and to turn back many of the progressive accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution. It’s a dangerous time for the South American left, which must guard against U.S. machinations as well as its own domestic right opposition while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of demagogic populism.

Having recently won reelection to a six year term by a wide margin, Chávez had the opportunity to deepen the process of social and economic change occurring throughout the country. But his constitutional referendum confused voters with a host of contradictory measures. The opposition did not increase its voter share, but was able to squeek out a tiny margin of victory when some of the Chávez faithful grew disenchanted and failed to turn out to vote. True, the U.S. Agency for International Development funded vocal anti-Chávez students who campaigned against the referendum and the CIA could have played a role in helping to strengthen the opposition. But no matter how much the Venezuelan President railed against the United States and outside interference, ultimately the Chavistas lost because of their own tactical missteps. What went wrong?

Though Chávez and his followers had already enacted a new constitution in 1999, the President claimed that the document was in need of an overhaul so as to pave the way for a new socialist state. Chávez sought to reduce the workweek from 44 to 36 hours; to provide social security to informal sector workers such as housewives, street vendors and maids; to shift political power to grassroots communal councils; to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or health; to extend formal recognition to Afro-Venezuelan people; to require gender parity for all public offices; to formalize the right to adequate housing and a free public education; to protect the full rights of prisoners, and to create new types of property managed by cooperatives and communities. The progressive provisions, certainly glossed over in the mainstream American media, would have done much to challenge entrenched interests in Venezuela and encourage the growth of a more egalitarian and democratic society based on social, gender, racial, and economic equality.

Unfortunately, Chávez sabotaged any hope of success by simultaneously seeking to enhance his own personal power. Over the past few years, the fundamental contradiction of the Bolivarian Revolution has been the constant tension between grassroots empowerment, on the one hand, and the cult of personality surrounding Chávez, on the other. In pressing for his constitutional referendum, Chávez played right into the hands of the opposition. Under the provisions, Chávez could declare a state of emergency and the government would have the right to detain individuals without charge and to close down media outlets. Chávez’s own term limit would be extended from six to seven years, and he would be allowed the right to run indefinitely for president. On the other hand, inconsistently, governors and mayors would not be allowed to run for reelection. Perhaps, if Chávez had merely backed the progressive provisions within the referendum and not tried to increase his own power, the vote would have tipped the other way. But by backing the retrograde measures, Chávez gave much needed ammunition to the opposition.

It’s a severe setback for Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, but does not necessarily represent a total rout. Chávez still retains the presidency until 2012, and the Chavistas control the National Assembly, state governments, and the courts. While opposition media such as Globovisión routinely attack Chávez, the government has been able to level the playing field somewhat through sponsorship of state media. What’s more, the opposition, which has historically enjoyed little credibility, still lacks a charismatic leader who might rival Chávez in stature and popularity.

On the other hand the opposition, having sensed victory, might launch another recall referendum in 2010, halfway into Chávez’s term in office. Meanwhile, for the Venezuelan President prominent defections from within the Chavista ranks such as General Raúl Baduel must come as an alarming sign. It would be tempting for the State Department to try and pry off former Chavistas in an effort to derail the Chávez experiment (if it hasn’t already tried). If a well known figure such as Baduel or an ex- Chavista like him should emerge, he might garner more of a popular following than polarizing figures from the more traditional opposition. A more moderate ex-Chavista politician, if he or she ever succeeded in coming to power, could do a lot of damage by derailing radical reform under the guise of reconciliation and bringing pro- and anti- Chávez forces together.

In order to head off political disaster, Chávez must take immediate measures to ensure that yesterday’s victory doesn’t turn into a future rout. While the cult of personality around Chávez helped to solidify his movement in the early years, his demagogic populism and centralizing tendencies have now become a serious liability and must be jettisoned as soon as possible. If he follows through on promises of fostering greater "participatory democracy" through the more progressive measures called for under the referendum for example, then he may be able to prevent the opposition from turning the clock back on the Chávez experiment.

Failure to do so would almost surely have dire political consequences for the entire region. For all its internal contradictions, ridiculous missteps and even failures, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution remains the most progressive hope for change in the hemisphere. If it should sputter or get somehow derailed, then Brazil would become the dominant South American player and would advance a much more conservative social agenda. As I describe in my upcoming book, Revolution! South America and The Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April, 2008), there is now a kind of battle for hearts and minds in the region; it’s a contest to see which nation can have the most influence on the smaller countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Right now Chávez, who seeks to reverse U.S.-style "neo-liberal" economic initiatives, enjoys warm economic and political ties with Bolivia and Ecuador, two nations which are advancing a more radical political and social agenda. In contrast to Chávez, Brazilian President Lula favors something called the "Santiago Consensus," a kind of watered down neo-liberalism with a human face and some social protections. The idea of Brazil taking the regional lead with help from U.S. ally Chile is a depressing prospect. On the other hand, if Chávez can learn from yesterday’s debacle and successfully re-energize his political movement, then Venezuela could still represent a strong countervailing force within South America. If he fails, then Bolivia and Ecuador, chronically unstable nations facing strong domestic right wing opposition, will be isolated and the prospects for spearheading a more radical social agenda throughout the hemisphere will be greatly reduced.

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