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Chavez wins referendum

Marc Becker
August 22, 2004

The defeat of an August 15 referendum to recall Hugo Chavez from the presidency of Venezuela represents a significant victory not only its citizens but for democracy throughout the Americas. At issue domestically was whether resources in the world's fifth largest oil exporting country would benefit a small wealthy elite class, or provide social services to a historically marginalized population. Internationally, the defeat of the recall referendum was a blow to neoliberal economic models and imperialism.

Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez has alienated Venezuela's traditional white ruling elite ever since he won the presidency in 1998. In contrast to previous political leaders, Chavez is an outsider who is proud of his Indigenous and African roots. He is a charismatic and personalistic leader who appeals to those who feel as if they never before have had anyone in power who understood their needs or represented their interests. For these disenfranchised and marginalized people, he is their champion, and they are willing to defend him to the death.

Chavez has implemented wide-ranging social legislation designed to attack endemic poverty which plagues about a third of the population. These programs often take the names of his heros. A literacy program called Plan Robinson is named after the tutor of South American liberator Simón Bolívar, and an agrarian reform program called Plan Zamora is named after a revolutionary nineteenth-century peasant leader. Barrio Adentro (To the Neighborhood) brings Cuban doctors to poor neighborhoods that never before have had medical attention. Other plans provide for subsidized food and education. While Venezuela is in one of its deepest economic crises ever, the beneficiaries of these plans have a sense of hope and optimism.

Together with these social reforms are ideas of a new form of "participatory protagonistic democracy" in which people have a real voice in the political process. It is replacing a "representative democracy" which only served to entrench wealth and power in the hands of a ruling elite. Some Venezuelans contrast their new system to that of the U.S. which they see as a "corporate democracy" designed to disempower rather than empower the people.

Chavez is a career military officer who is the son of provincial school teachers. He first splashed on the political scene in a failed 1992 coup against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. After being captured, he called on his followers to stop fighting and then made two statements that turned him into a folk hero. In a corrupt political system where officials never were accountable for their actions, Chavez took full responsibility for the coup. Secondly, he said that the fight was over "por ahora," for now-implying that he would be back. This was only a temporary defeat; he was not giving up the struggle.

Everything from Chavez's mannerisms and colloquial speech patterns to his social policies and economic priorities make him incomprehensible to Venezuela's small minority that has always held political power and benefitted from the country's rich oil reserves. He appears alternatively as mentally unstable or a traitor to the country who must be removed at any cost. Each of their attempts, however, has met with failure. A coup attempt in April 2002 removed Chavez for two days, but a wellspring of popular support from poor neighborhoods surrounding the capital city of Caracas forced him back into power. An employer strike in the state oil company in December 2002 significantly damaged the economy, but failed to undermine Chavez's popular support.

After failing in their illegal and extra-constitutional efforts to remove Chavez, the elite finally turned to the democratic process in a last-ditch attempt to oust the president. After winning office in 1998, Chavez led a rewriting of the constitution that significantly expanded democratic and civil rights for the Venezuelan people. One of the innovations of the constitution was a provision which allowed for the recall of elected officials midway through their terms. While some observers noted the irony of Chavez's own constitution being used against him and while at first the government fought against holding the referendum, in the end Chavez appeared to relish the fight and welcomed the opportunity to reaffirm the legitimacy of his constitutional mandate.

The Referendum

The 1999 constitution so completely rewrote the structure of state institutions that it required new elections for political office. The presidency is now a six-year term with the possibility of one additional term. The mid-point of Chavez's first term in office was August 19, 2003. After the failure of other efforts to remove Chavez from office, the opposition aggressively pursued a recall referendum. Chavez's supporters fought against the recall with a variety of legal and political arguments. Recall drives against other politicians, especially those with shorter four-year terms of office, were pending, and Chavez contended that those petitions should be acted upon first. In addition, there were questions about when and where signatures on recall petitions could be collected, and Chavez supporters challenged the validity of many signatures. Dead people, duplicate signatures, and people who claimed never to have signed all appeared on the petitions. This led the National Electoral Council (CNE) to establish a "repair" period in which the signatures could be "fixed." These tactics delayed the referendum by almost a year, even though the vote was perhaps eventually inevitable.

The opposition (derisively known as escualidos or the squalid ones by the pro-government chavistas) went into the referendum seemingly confident that they would win. Their polls showed them in the lead, the media is almost universally viral in its treatment of the government, and condemnation of the government is hegemonic in the wealthy neighborhoods where the opposition is based gave them a sense of invincibility. Several interpretations can help explain this gap between expectations and reality. Obviously, the opposition was a victim of listening to is own rhetoric. In addition, their pollsters employed models that no longer match Venezuelan reality. Political participation in marginalized neighborhoods has increased dramatically under the Chavez government, and middle-class neighborhoods no longer determine the balance of political power as had happened under previous governments.

A declining economic situation initially seemed to put Chavez in danger, but skyrocketing oil prices due to the crisis in Iraq in the weeks leading up to the election allowed the government to pump money into social programs shoring up his base of support. Some critics denounced this as an opportunistic move, but supporters noted that these programs were always a priority for the government, and it was only logical to take advantage of record-high oil prices to advance this agenda.

Sunday, August 15

Caracas woke up early on the morning of the referendum to the sounds of bugle calls, fireworks, car horns, music, and slogans with both sides rallying the faithful to their cause. By 5 a.m., voters were already queuing up at polling stations. The opposition encouraged their supporters to vote early in order to skew early exit polls to their advantage. Chavistas were to vote early so that they could hang around polling stations to monitor the progress. A record number of people voted in the referendum which, together with new electronic voting technology, led to a slow process and very long lines. Some people waited up to thirteen hours to vote, and the polls which were initially to close at 6 p.m. were held open until 8 p.m. and then midnight.

Although the CNE had prohibited the release of any exit polls or press statements before they had made an official statement on the outcome, by early evening their was clearly a sense of jubilation in front of Miraflores, the presidential palace where Chavez supporters gathered. Street vendors were rolling out new merchandise that joyfully declared "ˇUh! ˇOh! ˇChavez ya ganó!" (Chavez already won), "ˇUh! ˇOh! ˇChavez se quedó!" (Chavez stayed), or ˇUh! ˇEh! ˇChavez no se fue! (Chavez did not leave), playing on the campaign slogan of "ˇUh! ˇAh! ˇChavez no se va!" (Chavez does not leave). On the other hand, the Altamira plaza in a more upscale part of town where the opposition often congregates for their rallies was almost deserted though a handful of supporters there tried to put a good face on the situation.

By 4 a.m., fireworks and shouts on the streets made it clear that the CNE had declared the victory of the "no" vote. In a pouring rain, Chavistas converged on the presidential palace in downtown Caracas to celebrate and to listen to Chavez deliver a victory speech. Rather than condemning the opposition, he struck a very conciliatory tone as he sought to move the country forward. The victory celebrations continued through Monday night, with caravans of cars and trucks loaded with people waving "NO" flags and honking their horns parading through the streets of Caracas. The sustained energy reflects how important this victory was for the Venezuelan people.

In the end, Chavez earned 59 percent of the vote which is about the same as he has polled in past elections and, according to some analysts, equal to what he will probably garner in the 2006 election. In order to succeed, the vote for the recall needed to win more than 50 percent of the vote and it also had to poll more votes than the president had won in the last election. The recall failed on both counts. The sixteen-point spread in the vote represented a significant victory for the Chavez government, which threw the opposition into crisis. Never unified around a single agenda, ideology, or candidate and held together only by a common hatred for Chavez, they began to turn on each other with incriminations of betrayal and incompetence in what they perceived to be an easy victory.


The opposition responded to their loss with charges that the Chavez government had won through massive fraud. The large turnout simply overwhelmed the system's capabilities, and this slow process led some opposition members to proclaim that Chavez was attempting to choke off a democratic process and discourage people from voting. "No one would wait ten hours in line to vote for Chavez," one opposition leader declared. Others charged that the electronic voting machines recorded "yes" (for the Chavez recall) votes as "no," and that the machines were programed to cap the number of "yes" votes at a pre-determined level.

Meanwhile, international observer missions led by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center declared the election to be the most clean, transparent, and accurate in the country's history. Duplicate systems to prevent fraud including electronic thumb print identification machines and paper printouts of each vote both assured the accuracy of the election as well as significantly slowed the voting process. When pressed by an opposition reporter, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter finally retorted that the process here was cleaner and more legitimate than the 2000 vote in Florida.

At first, opposition members called on Carter to "open your mouth" and denounce the fraud. When Carter refused, the opposition denounced Carter for being complicit with the fraud. They announced that they would only accept a full recount that ended up declaring a victory for the "yes" vote. Although in the face of with an audit of the count hoping that this would defuse the tension, the opposition's stance made it clear that they would only accept a fraudulent and doctored outcome. Oil prices fell the day after the referendum with the news of Chavez's victory, but rose again on fears of political instability due to the opposition's refusal to accept either the election or the audit.

The opposition's refusal to recognize the outcome of the referendum and lack of respect for the democratic process was clear even before the voting started. Whereas Chavez declared that he would recognize the results of the referendum whatever the outcome and accept them peacefully, the opposition never made any similar statements. When they lost the referendum, they called people into the streets to reject its outcome. Increasingly they acted like spoiled children who refuse to take responsibility for their actions, always seeking to place blame elsewhere and screaming when they do not get their way. Even the Carter Center which historically has been antagonistic to the Chavez administration grew increasingly impatient with the opposition, and denounced its tactics of deliberately distributing erroneous information.

Chavistas and the opposition

The referendum allowed only two choices, either to vote "no" and allow Chavez to finish his term in office or to vote "yes" to revoke his constitutional mandate and call for special elections within a month. (As a side note, many analysts believed that partially due to the lack of a viable opposition candidate Chavez could win a subsequent election were he to lose the recall referendum, which undoubtedly gave him much confidence going into the vote.) Venezuela is a deeply fractured and polarized country, but this yes/no vote rather simplifies the current political landscape.

The term "opposition" implies a homogeneity which simply is not there, and in part this explains their failure. A large umbrella gathers those from a violent fascist right to an opportunistic left. The complete discreditation of the two traditional political parties, AD and Copei, which had ruled Venezuela like two heads of the same monster under a power sharing agreement since the 1950s, left a significant power vacuum. Competing interests means that it was highly unlikely that they could have fielded a viable candidate had Chavez been defeated in the referendum, and probably will be unlikely to do so in 2006.

Similarly, not all the "no" votes in the referendum came from hard-core Chavez supporters. "I voted against Chavez in the last election," one voter noted, "but the style and tactics of the opposition are wrong." For such people, their "no" vote was cast not only against the recall but against the opposition. On the other hand, an extreme and sometimes anarchistic left would like to see more radical social reforms and more aggressive repression of the opposition. Rather than conciliation, they would like to see Chavez move to wipe out the opposition. Perhaps similar to the opposition, democracy is not an ideology but a tool that is only useful when it serves their purposes and works to their benefit. But these similarities in tactics should not be overstated. The extreme right wing is ideologically committed to elite privilege and is not willing to give up their class status in the name of national interests. On the other hand, the anarchist left is ideologically committed to social justice as it struggles to shift the country's resources to the poorest and most marginalized classes. Although significant sectors of Venezuela's middle class recognize the fundamental injustice of the current system, the class divide which these politics represent is not easily surmounted and perhaps assures an ongoing conflict.

Ironically, one actor in this conflict that seems to have come to terms with the current situation is the United States. No love is lost between the United States and Venezuelan governments. The Bush administration has been implicated in the failed April 2002 coup attempt and was virtually isolated in its support for Pedro Carmona's short-lived government. Through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the U.S. government helped fund the opposition in their recall effort. For his part, Chavez has stridently condemned U.S. imperialism and neoliberal economic polices as he cozies up with Cuba's Fidel Castro. In particular, he represents one of the most significant blockages to Bush's plans to implement the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2005. Both countries, however, have oil dependent economies-Venezuela relies on its export and the U.S. on its import. Recognizing this reality, despite threats to cut off petroleum exports to the U.S. Chavez has never acted seriously in that direction. With the Iraq situation out of control and oil prices rising to unprecedented levels, the Bush administration is very leery of alienating the world's fifth largest producer and the largest one in the Americas.

While the U.S. State Department stopped short of recognizing Chavez's victory in the referendum, they did indicate that they would recognize the OAS and Carter Center evaluations of the referendum. Once those international observers verified the validity of the outcome, it made it difficult for the Bush Administration to support the opposition's claims. Although not their preferred outcome, a worse scenario for an oil-dependent economy would be increased and continued civil strife that would disrupt the flow of a precious commodity. Increasingly, the opposition appears as a lunatic fringe that is progressively isolated on both domestic and international fronts.

Indigenous and African peoples

Some of Chavez's most die-hard support comes from Indigenous and African peoples who feel that for the first time they have a government who cares for them and defends their interests. Nicia Maldonado, the head of the National Indian Council of Venezuela, notes that although "it is not an Indigenous person who leads the government, we support him because he has lent Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples a protagonistic participation, not in speech but in fact and action." As a result of this opportunity, "the hour has arrived for indigenous peoples in Venezuela to build their own development together with the state." Community activist Alicia Cortez simply notes that "we are in heaven" as a result of Chavez's social programs.

Afro-Venezuelan activist Jesus Garcia noted that the referendum is not just about the figure of one man, but the hope of the people is at stake with all of the related historical contractions. The Chavez government has redistributed 3 million hectares of land and 40 percent of that has gone to African and Indigenous peoples. The Robinson Mission has brought literacy to marginalized communities. If Chavez were defeated, these and other social programs would be ended. "What is at play in this referendum," another person noted, "is our future, our dignity and our hopes as Indigenous peoples to live with dignity and in peace."

When poor people, including Indigenous and African peoples, shout "viva Chavez" on the streets, one almost has a sense that they are not thinking of the man who currently occupies the seat of chief executive but the space he represents for civil society to struggle for and realize their goals. Maria Egilda Castellano, the Rectora of the new Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (UBV) that provides educational opportunities to those with few options, notes that "Chavez is just a leader, but it is the process that is more important." Arguably, a charismatic and energetic figure like Chavez is crucial at this point in building a new society to give direction and coherence to the process, but even Chavez notes that these social changes are much larger than himself. For Indigenous and African peoples, Chavez's defeat would not represent so much the loss of a popular leader as it would the loss of social programs and a government that listens to and cares about them. His victory now provides an opportunity to build broader participation and deepen the political process of building a more humane, more just, and more internationalist culture. "Even with hunger and misery," Castellano noted, "I will stay with Chavez until the end because now there is hope."

Chavez's defense of marginalized and oppressed people has gained him the support of activists throughout the Americas. Jesús García noted that the implications of the referendum was not just for Venezuela, but for all of Latin America. The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela represents an alternative way to organizing society that puts the needs of the people first. At a summit of Indigenous peoples of the Americas in July, a final statement declared their "solidarity with the Venezuelan people and President Hugo Chávez who have defended their national sovereignty in the face of a strong push from the United States government, and we call on them to take action against the referendum scheduled for August 15, 2004."

Nilo Cayuqueo, a Mapuche from Southern Argentina, stated that "for Indigenous peoples in Venezuela this will not be another election or referendum like others because they, through their representatives, have been participating from the beginning in Hugo Chavez's government, and they have achieved in a few years many of the rights that they had been denied for centuries." Ecuarunari, one of Ecuador's Indigenous groups, declared their support for Chavez because "what is at play is a political struggle that concerns not only Venezuelans but all people who struggle for the defense of sovereignty and against imperialism." Ecuador celebrated "the triumph of rebellious and revolutionary Venezuela" because it represented "the triumph of all of the poor people of Latin America." Sebastião Manchineri from the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), declared that "president Hugo Chavez's victory is a defeat of the powerful, those who create human misery." It represented "the consolidation of the principle of sovereignty and independence not only for that country, but also for all Latin America nations."

If the Chavez government is to be evaluated according to the biblical standard of how it treats "the least of these my brethren," it indeed is an experiment to be supported. The defeat of the recall referendum was not only a victory for one man or even for a country, but it is a victory for all who desire a more peaceful and just social order.

Marc Becker teaches Latin American history at Truman State University. He was an observer to the Venezuelan recall referendum in August 2004.

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