The narrow 51%-49% defeat for Hugo Chavez in a referendum on the constitution is a potentially dangerous moment for Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. Emboldened by their victory, the anti-Chavez movement will undoubtedly look to the United States for support in yet another attempt to overthrow the president.
The vote represents the first major electoral defeat for Chavez after nine years in which he has won three general elections and two referendums. During this time, Chavez has tried to develop an accountable state that could facilitate a process of transition from reform to revolution. Sunday’s referendum was intended to approve Chavez’s plans to run for re-election indefinitely, give him increased powers and create the structure for what he called a socialist state in Venezuela. The reforms also included stronger powers for the president to seize private property and to censor the media during emergencies. There were also proposals to cut the working day from eight hours to six, extend social security benefits to informal workers, such as street vendors and lower the voting age to 16.
While the middle class in the shape of some students, business groups, opposition parties, the media and the Roman Catholic Church all lined up against Chavez ahead of the referendum vote, his support amongst the poor and the working class failed to be mobilised in sufficient numbers. There were reports that his own supporters were more concerned about soaring crime, inflation and food shortages. In the end, about 56% of voters turned out.
The political stalemate in Venezuela is connected to the unwillingness by Chavez to acknowledge the strategic necessity of a qualitative break with the capitalist state and its replacement with truly democratic alternative structures in the hands of the masses. Impressive reforms in education and health, and the curbing of big business, have led to the notion that the state can be transformed into an instrument of the revolution. But the basic objective fact is that the economy remains dominated by the role of the transnational corporations and global capital. At best, Chavez has been able to negotiate better terms with the TNCs, which have indeed brought benefits to the people, but the basic domination of capital over labour remains intact.
The ruling class of Venezuela is disgruntled because they perceive the state to be no longer acting in their overall social interests. They have been prepared to give support to various attempts to overthrow the Chavez regime in order to regain control of the state. So, what we have is an extremely complex and dialectical situation whereby the capitalist state is weakened, and yet in the last analysis it still remains a bourgeois state. For the revolution to consolidate its gains, this is what has to change. The democratic constitution has to be transformed from a formal document into a reality by the mass action of workers and peasants. People should not wait for a lead from Chavez. The same goes for the issue of challenging capital. If the state is unwilling to challenge the power of the TNCs, the working class should take a lead and develop real workers’ control, the revolutionary alternative to co-management.
The calling of a representative conference to develop a strategy for implementing the constitution in a complete way, could show that its aims can only be realised through the overthrow of the power of the TNCs. There is no doubt that Chavez’s reforms have increased workers’ confidence in their abilities, and sense of material well-being. But these advances can only develop further if the limitations of utilising the existing state are understood and a conscious struggle for revolutionary change is prepared.
AWTW communications editor