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Venezuela: no to socialism for the 21st century

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Wednesday, 12 December 2007


In a surprise result, it was announced on December 3 that Venezuelan voters have rejected the 69 reforms to the national Constitution proposed by President Hugo Chávez and the National Assembly.

The proposed reforms, to further what Chávez often calls “socialism for the 21st century”, were divided into two blocks. In the first block, which included Chávez's 33 proposed changes to the 1999 Constitution, the “no” vote won by 50.70 per cent to the “yes” vote's 49.29 per cent.

In the changes proposed by the National Assembly - which is dominated by Chavistas because of the opposition's abstention during the 2005 elections - the “no” vote won again with 51.05 per cent of voters voting against the reforms, 48.94 in favour and a surprising abstention rate of 44.39 per cent.

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So, why did Chávez lose the referendum, despite his almost unstoppable political momentum since winning the presidency in 1998?

Two determining factors come to mind. The first is the high level of absenteeism.

Political analyst and Chávez watcher Gregory Wilpert argued before the referendum that considerable confusion about the reforms had already translated itself into voter apathy with a "large segment of the population" unwilling to vote for or against the Constitutional amendments. "In the end," wrote Wilpert, "it all boils down to which side mobilises more supporters".

Given Chávez thrashed right-wing candidate Manuel Rosales in last year's presidential election - 62.9 per cent to 37.9 per cent - doubling their support for the President from 3.7 million votes in the 1998 elections, to 7.3 million in 2006, many Chavistas may have grown overconfident. A victory seemed assured and thus it was safe to give voting a miss.

In fact, until now, Chávez and his supporters have been unacquainted with the words "electoral defeat" - even when opinion polls have predicted a tight result.

The second determining factor behind Chávez's defeat may simply be that many Venezuelans did not agree with the proposed changes to the 1999 Constitution which Mary Robinson - former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - once described "excellent".

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Leaving aside misrepresentations in the mainstream media, such as Roger Cohen's comments in the New York Times on November 29 about Chávez making a "grab for socialist-emperor status", most admirers of the Caracas administration have hitherto been unequivocal in their support for changing the Constitution.

Mark Weisbrot in the New Statesman last November 21 highlighted many of the positive aspects of the reforms but hardly elaborated as to why many Chavistas had serious issues with certain proposals.

Edgardo Lander - a sociology professor at Caracas University - was an exception. An organiser of the World Social Forum and a former part of the Venezuelan government's negotiating team that helped defeat the US's Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Lander, in a paper for the Transnational Institute, noted that many of the constitutional amendments which claimed to establish a socialist economy were ambiguous and without practical substance. (A point also raised by Wilpert who wrote that the "inclusion of the term "socialist" in many parts of the referendum seems unnecessary, other than to give a label to something that has not been proven to deserve this label.")

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First published in New Matilda on December 6, 2007.



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About the Author

Rodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. A recipient of Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales, he was also runner up for Open Prose in the Unsweetened 2007 Literary Journal. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs and has presented seminars at various Australian universities on political developments in Venezuela, as well as other Latin American countries.

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