01 December, 2007

Again Venezuela

Sunday, December 2 -- tomorrow -- Venezuela will vote yea or nay on a slew of constitutional reforms. It seems that both sides think that Chavez's political future, and the future of the Bolivarian experiment, rides on the outcome. There is so much going on here the best I can do is direct you to where those more qualified than I are carrying on the debate.

A brief introduction: earlier this year, Chavez proposed 3o-some amendments to the 1999 constitution. The National Assembly, completely controlled by Chavistas (largely because the opposition boycotted the elections), took him up on this, and added some of their own, coming to a total of 69 amendments. These have been passed by the Assembly, but to become law they must be approved by a majority of Venezuelans in an up or down referendum, i.e. tomorrow's vote.

The amendments address a wide range of topics. According to this little sheet of paper I got at the Venezuelan Embassy, Article 64 reduces the voting age to 16. Article 67 prohibits political candidates from receiving foreign funding. Article 113 would -- socialismo! -- prohibit monopolies. Article 318 would politicize the Central Bank, which spencer frowns upon because "it relegates elite interests to a less powerful position." And, of course, Article 230 would lengthen the presidential term to 7 years (from 6) and abolish term limits.

Much like in our own country, the debate has little to do with the substance of the reforms. Depending on your rabidly held political views, the reforms mean either a) the salvation of the holy socialist revolution or b) the utter destruction and defilement of democracy -- either way, not much to debate. So, the discussion turns to who will win, and what that will mean for Chavez. Opposition Caracas Chronicles, in between its theorizing on the Habermasian public sphere, analyzes the possible scenarios, the chances for voting fraud, and the polls that are showing an impending "No" victory.

Meanwhile, moderate Oil Wars, while questioning those polls (whose owner once publicly opined that the only solution was to kill Chavez), and challenging the mainstream news coverage that has blamed recent student violence on Chavistas (whom was barricading whom in the university building?) finds himself divided. On the one hand, a "Yes" vote will advance Chavez' consolidation of power and reward his increasingly aggressive "you're with me or you're against Venezuela" mentality. On the other hand, the opposition is less than democratic itself -- the last time they took power, remember (after ousting Chavez in a 2002 coup), they closed parliament, instated martial law, and began to round up Chavez supporters. Oil Wars fears that a "No" vote will embolden the opposition to attempt the un-democratic route again.

Will the opposition finally score an electoral victory over Chavez? The skeptics point out that the opposition also used dubious poll numbers to claim the advantage in the 2004 and 2006 elections, only to be crushed by reality. There are signs, however, that Chavez is beginning to alienate his less ideological supporters. In a huge defection, the Venezuelan army Commander-in-Chief Raul Baduel very noisily moved to the ranks of the opposition earlier this month. The reforms themselves are not very popular, and their success will largely depend on how well Chavez has been able to conflate them with him personally.

This has been a long post, but it is an important topic. I have tried to lay out the issues clearly, and point to some resources on the topic. Please please please don't rely on our media to get your Venezuela news. The blogs I have listed, once one understands their ideological position, will serve you much better than a faux-objective regional reporter trying to squeak in 500 words under a snappy headline.

Finally, I will add my two cents: it is clear reading opposition blogs (and especially the less restrained comments sections) that the opposition still feels somehow entitled to be in control of the political system. The source of their arrogance, and the salt in their wound, stems from an implicit belief that Chavez somehow cheated them out of that entitlement by mobilizing the people the system since 1958 was designed to exclude.

In this context, Chavez's populism has done something that a half-century of formal democracy was not able to do. It has attached consequences to those in power, and it has made it impossible for Venezuelan elites to continue ignoring 80% of their countrymen and women. If they want their power back, they are going to have to do it the hard way, through organization and democratic contestation. We'll see if the oligarchs can learn to be democrats. Let's hope they do before Chavez takes Venezuela -- for lack of a better alternative -- someplace it doesn't want to go.


spencer said...

I don't know enough to agree or disagree with what you have said. But a few things seem clear.

Many of the reforms seem bad. For example, handing the central bank over to whoever happens to be in charge of the executive is something that has infallibly resulted in poor outcomes. Since political leaders are subject to popular opinion, they tend to pursue inflationary banking policies that are good for the economy in the short run, but cause inflation in the long run.

And a relaxation of term limits seems bad as well. Other things, like prohibiting monopolies, seem good, but it is unclear why you would want them in a constitution, a primarily procedural document.

In any case, it appears that the "reforms" have been defeated.

Elliot said...

Yes, many of the reforms were bad. It seems few but the most die-hard Chavistas wanted them to pass. Many were frustrated by the all or nothing approach that forced them to reject the good with the bad.

As for specifics such as the anti-monopoly in the constitution, I think you can chalk that up to the Latin American context. Given the lack of consensus and the often extreme power of the president, laws are very easy to overturn or ignore on a whim. Thus, matters that in the US would be policy more often find their way into foundational documents. In Chile, if I am not mistaken, it has been inserted in their constitution that the budget must always be balanced.

Chavez, however, still has some time left of his "rule by decree" powers (about a month, I think), so we shall see how many of these reforms he enacts anyway.

spencer said...

Good point about foundational documents as commitment devices.