Venezuela: Chavez vindicated massive victory in ‘recall’ referendum

Despite all the efforts of the US-backed, business-led opposition, President Chavez soundly defeated his opponents’ demand for his removal in the recall referendum of 15 August. This is the first in the history of Venezuela. It was the most democratic vote ever conducted in the history of Latin America. Voting took place over 20 hours, with 8.5m voters – 75% of the electoral census – making it the greatest-ever turnout.

Venezuela’s customary abstention rate is around 40%. On 16 August, the National Electoral Council calculated from 94.49% of the votes, that 3,576,517 (41.74%) wanted to remove Chavez, and 4,991,483 (58.25%) voted for him to complete his term of office until 10 January 2007 – a majority of over 1.4 million votes. As President Chavez said this was ‘a triumph for all the people of Latin America and the Caribbean…who fight against the savage neo-liberalism that Washington wanted to impose on us’. The victory over the opposition was a great victory against ‘violence, coup d’états and fascism’, it was ‘an example to the world’.

Since 1998 the bourgeois opposition has repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to defeat President Chavez. The attempted coup in 2002, the oil sector strike that followed and now the attempt to remove Chavez through the recall vote have all been defeated by the government moving with the working class and oppressed against the ruling class and its middle class supporters. This victory must hearten the Venezuelan masses and encourage them to mobilise and deepen the anti-imperialist social process in their country and Latin America.

With 8,395 voting stations and measures taken to ensure that voters were free from the opposition intimidation seen in previous elections, it was an incontestable victory for all the poor in Venezuela. Of course the opposition, the ‘Co-ordinators of Democracy’, rejected the results as a ‘gigantic fraud’, demanding an ‘international hearing’. They called a demonstration in the Plaza Altamira, the habitual site of Anti-Chavez protest, where provocateurs killed one and wounded four others, and then accused Chavez (yet again) of assassination! Although the Organisation of American States (OAS), the Carter Centre and other observers agreed with the result, they had to calm their opposition allies by undertaking a further check on polling booths before confirming the result. Cesar Gaviria, outgoing president of the OAS, spoke against the result personally, again revealing his true colours.

The next battle
Writing an explanation of ‘What really happened in Venezuela?’ in The Economist (4 September 2004), J McCoy, Director of the Carter Centre observer mission, throws mud over this extraordinary success, shamelessly bleating that ‘Divisive rhetoric and intimidating tactics from ‘Chavistas’, and the opposition’s still (sic) unsubstantiated claims of fraud, have exacerbated Venezuelans’ cynicism towards elections. It will take a huge effort by both sides to restore trust in this fundamental democratic right before next month’s election for governors and mayors.’ Here is the rub! Between 2000 and 2004, four million newly-registered, mostly young voters have entered the scene. They have ended 40 years of bi-party rule by the wealthy and their corrupt politicians sharing government and booty. Venezuelan students receiving free education and training in Cuba returned to Venezuela to help mobilise the poorest communities and to encourage them to vote: they succeeded.

The enormous enthusiasm shown for politics that are really democratic is what the Carter gang fear. The National Electoral Council (CNE) has chosen 31 October as the date for state and municipal elections – the third delay in this election. The mandate of governors and mayors, as well as representatives in local legislative councils among others, has expired already. Campaigning began on 18 September and will continue until 28 October. The voter registries were open from 4 to 8 September, so citizens who reach the voting age by 31 October can register in time for the upcoming elections. Continued massive voting for Chavez’s government and the new constitution will help undermine the regional and local power of the landowners and big business. Of the eight states now run by the opposition, five voted for Chavez in the recall referendum by a wide margin, the three others by smaller margins.

The small opposition parties, Alianza Bravo Pueblo and Un Solo Pueblo have said that they will boycott the regional elections. But unlike the former ruling parties, Accion Democratica and Copei, they have no governor or mayoral posts to lose.

The state and municipal elections
On 17 August President Chavez said he wanted a ‘participatory and protagonistic democracy...a true social revolution to return to the people what was taken away, in order to guarantee all Venezuelans their fundamental rights: education, health; on the economic side, to transform the capitalist model into a post-capitalist model, a humanistic, productive, diversified model that generates a situation of equality, consequently social justice and peace.’ Nothing could worry the bourgeoisie more, especially the ‘global’ players!

It is true, for the moment, that the desperate desire by international business for oil price stability means that President Chavez’s spectacular victory has moderated their attitude. Oil supplies will not now be interrupted. ABN Amro Asset Management in London declared that international investors wanted him to win. In Venezuela banks made net profits of $842m in the year to August of 2004 from public debt issue. The economy is recovering rapidly from the employers’ strikes last year, up 30% in the first quarter of this year. But in truth US capital especially wants ownership of Venezuelan oil – it will be its most important source for the next 40 years, in size and proximity. In addition, it wants all the other resources of the country and the market itself. $46 billion has been removed from the country this year alone. The fact is that they still want to stop Chavez!

The ‘Gaceta de los Negocios’ (Business Gazette) 17 August called the electoral victory ‘disturbing’ – ‘the weight of the inheritance of Chavez, is the funding of destabilising forces in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and including Argentina.’ Oil money ‘far from serving to raise the standard of living of the population will be used to export examples and revolutions’. In brief, the capitalists are losing control of oil revenues and fear the example of real democracy! The landowners are threatened! Reduced unemployment would weaken the effect of the reserve army of labour on wages (on top of the new minimum wage). One third of Cuba’s oil is sourced from Venezuela. What a fearful example for the oppressed peoples of the world!

The State and Municipal elections present a nightmare for the latifundistas, the large landowners (with over 5,000 hectares) who run so much of Venezuela. Despite their obstruction, over five years about 130,000 families have been settled on more than two million hectares of land. These need a basic rural infrastructure and credits to farm anew. On 29 August Chavez announced that ‘the time has arrived to democratise the land in Venezuela …in this new stage of the revolution’. The 2001 Land Laws arising from the Constitution have now to be applied more than ‘superficially’. Unproductive land will be expropriated. The President ordered the Unified Armed Forces Command (CUFAN) to provide within two weeks a map of all the large estates in the country to speed up agrarian reform and guarantee the food production of the country. At the moment 70% of household food is imported. President Chavez asked owners of idle land to sell it to the state and thereby avoid expropriation: ‘We are going after idle land to put it to work and promote agricultural activity to make Venezuela an agribusiness country and exporter’.

The challenge for the workers is not only to promote these changes, but also to obstruct capitalistic use of the land, create co-operatives, guarantee crop diversity and food for the poor. At the moment Chavez’s Ministry of Food is distributing imported food at subsidised prices. This has to be changed. Polar, the biggest processor of food and drinks in the country and strongly anti-Chavez, will be required to enter discussions on these changes. The Association of Agro-businesses (FEDEAGRO) has rejected discussions. The opposition immediately declared that the government was encouraging ‘invasions and attacks on property...instead of protecting the producers, it protects the bandits’. What shameless cynicism! In the state of Zulia alone, governed by Manual Rosales, an opponent of Chavez, local small peasants and workers have been constantly attacked by paramilitaries who have killed dozens of local workers’ leaders in recent years.

New departments of state
The government has begun to change the character of the state. It has created the Ministry of the Popular Economy, to replace the previous Ministry of Social Economy. Headed by Elias Jaua, the former president of the Venezuelan inter-governmental fund for decentralisation (FIDES), it will incorporate the National Institute for Rural Development (INDER), the development bank for micro-finance (FONDEMI), the Woman’s Bank, the People’s Bank, the Co-operatives Institute (Sunacoop) and the National Institute of Co-operative Education (INCE). A new Ministry of Financing for Development will be created, which will control the National Bank of Development (Bandes), the Industrial Bank of Venezuela (BIV), and the Development Bank of the Andes (Banfoandes).

$170 million for the ‘Vuelvan Caras’ mission has been announced. This is a social programme designed to create employment through community development projects working closely with 2,067 co-operatives. The goal is to work with more than five times that number within three months. There are 287,000 people currently enrolled in the programme and this number should reach 408,000 by the end of September.

The recently created Strategic Nutrition Program (Proal), the Corporation for Autonomous Services (Casa), and the Mercal programme, which sells basic food products at subsidised prices in poor communities, are tackling malnutrition. Seven new ‘Supermercales’ (local markets) are being introduced across the country (bringing the total to 26), 12 new medium-sized and 95 smaller ‘mercales’ are also being established to sell food cheaply. In two months time the government will open 1,974 small ‘mercales’ bringing the number of the smallest discount food stores to 6,423. With 70% of the population of 25 million in poverty (with the same income as in 1958) and 800,000 people in extreme poverty, Chavez also announced the opening of 1,830 new food relief kitchens. This brings the total number of kitchens providing prepared meals for the poor across the country to 2,886.

In an attempt to dismiss him and his determination to redirect resources to the poor, an ideological assault is being made on Chavez. Spending on social projects is denigrated as large bribes for electoral purposes, devoid of economic value, and doomed to undermine the economy once oil prices fall. In fact Chavez aims to reconstitute the land ownership system, create employment there, and to reduce food imports from the USA. In defence of food sovereignty, the President had already announced a complete national ban on genetically modified crops and ended talks with Monsanto.

Alvaro Michaels

FRFI 181 October / November 2004


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