By Paul Hampton
Hugo Chávez comfortably won the referendum on his presidency in Venezuela last month, strengthening his hold on power until the next presidential election in 2006.
Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that nearly five million (59%) voted “no” to a recall presidential election and to keep Chávez in power in the referendum on 15 August. The “yes” option obtained three and a half million votes, just under 41%.
More than 400 international observers went to Venezuela to monitor the elections. Both the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS) declared that the results were fair and should stand. However, the opposition coalition, known as Coordinadora Democratica (CD), refused to accept them and claimed a huge fraud had been committed.
The opposition does include some of the older leftist parties, such as the MAS and La Causa Radical, but it is essentially a product of the bureaucratic elites and big business interests from the old regime, which ruled Venezuela for decades before Chávez came to power in 1998.
The opposition charges about the election are spurious. Even a delegation from the international trade union confederation ICFTU, which backs the opposition and the old, discredited trade union centre, the CTV, said the election had been run properly and that the opposition should accept the result. The US State Department has also accepted the results.
International capital also chimed in with recognition of Chávez’s victory. In a press conference on 12 August, Chávez quoted Nicholas Field, who manages $750 million of emerging-market debt in London, who apparently commented that “Chavez seems to be the only one who can maintain stability”. According to another City firm, Lehman Brothers: “an increasing number of bond-holders have learned to trust the disposition of the Chávez government to pay its obligations — we don’t think that in the short term the situation will necessarily improve if Chávez is defeated”. Oil prices fell after the result was announced, and even newspapers hostile to Chávez such as the New York Times recognised the referendum results almost immediately.
The whole process was riddled with irony. Chávez only had to submit to the referendum because he had insisted that the right of recall was in the constitution he promoted in 1999. The opposition opposed the right of recall at the time. Only after it had failed to oust Chávez in April 2002 by military coup and failed again in December 2002–January 2003 through a lock-out, did the recall referendum become its strategy to oust Chávez before the end of his term.
The opposition’s plan has clearly backfired. The recall referendum win represents the eighth electoral victory for Chávez or his party in the last six years, and will undoubtedly strengthen his position. On the other hand, despite its sizable vote, the opposition seems to be in disarray. The next electoral test will be the state and local elections scheduled for the end of September.
Much of the international left has fallen in uncritically behind Chávez. For example, Tony Benn, Tariq Ali and others signed up to a manifesto in support of Chávez, entitled “If We Were Venezuelan, on August 15th, 2004, We Would Vote for Hugo Chavez”.
But before they get carried away, they would do well to read what Chávez says about himself and the limitations of his own politics. Apparently, he told Tariq Ali recently:
“I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so. But if I’m told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labour — and never forget that some of it was slave labour — then I say ‘We part company’. I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don’t even like paying taxes. That’s one reason they hate me. We said ‘You must pay your taxes’. I believe it’s better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing… That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse… Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it’s only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias.”