Progressive Change in Venezuela and Latin America

December 07, 2007

Mark Weisbrot, December 7, 2007  

En español

See article on original website

“He had faults, like other men; but it was for his virtues that he was hated and successfully calumniated.”
— Bertrand Russell, on the American revolutionary Thomas Paine

The defeat of the Venezuelan government’s proposed constitutional reforms last Sunday will probably not change very much in Venezuela. Most of what was in the reforms can be enacted through the legislature. This is especially true for the progressive reforms: social security pensions for informal sector workers, free university education, the prohibition of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. The negative elements, such as expanding the government’s powers in a state of emergency, probably wouldn’t have changed much if they had passed. The Chavez government has never declared a state of emergency, and did not invoke any special powers even when most democratic governments in the world would have done so, e.g. during the oil strike of 2002-2003, which crippled the economy and almost toppled the government for the second time in a year; or after the April 2002 military coup. (It is also worth noting that even if they had passed, the amendments wouldn’t have given the Venezuelan government the authority to commit the worst infringements on civil liberties that the Bush administration has made in its “war on terror.”)

Chavez’s proposal to scrap term limits was defeated, but he has more than five years to try again if he wants. But even if this is his last term, the changes underway in Venezuela will not likely be reversed when he steps down.

Most importantly, the character of the political battles in Venezuela has not changed. The popular presentation of this contest as between pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez forces is misleading. It is a struggle of left versus right, with the two sides divided and polarized along the lines of class, democracy, national sovereignty, and race.   

For these reasons, in the past eight years there has been very little progressive or even liberal political opposition to the Chavez government in Venezuela – just as there were no progressive or liberal organizations in the United States that supported President George W. Bush for re-election in 2004. Venezuela is politically polarized – much more so than the United States.

The referendum shifted these political dividing lines only very slightly, and very likely temporarily. Some within the pro-government coalition opposed the reforms; and it appears that the amendments failed mainly because a great many of Chavez’s supporters didn’t vote. But there is no indication that these people have shifted to the opposition camp, and polls show that Chavez and the government remain highly popular. And the opposition to the government is still a right-wing opposition, despite the addition of a mostly-well-off student movement that is more ideologically mixed – including the student opposition leader Stalin Gonzalez, who recently defended his namesake in the Wall Street Journal.

With regard to democracy, there has always been a clear difference between the two sides. Chavez’s immediate acceptance of a razor-thin margin of defeat – 50.7 percent against – before all the votes were even counted should cut through all the media hype about a “strongman” and a “dictator.” Chavez congratulated his opponents on their victory. As in previous elections, he had publicly committed to accepting the results before the vote, and had called on the opposition to do the same.

On the other side,  the opposition tried several oil and business strikes, and a military coup in April 2002, to win what they could not gain at the ballot box. The first act of the short-lived coup government was to abolish the constitution and dissolve the Supreme Court and the elected National Assembly. The coup was reversed due to massive pro-democracy street demonstrations, but eight months later the opposition once again tried to topple the government with a devastating, management-led oil shutdown. Unlike in the United States, where we have three sets of labor laws that would have put the leaders of such a strike in jail, the Chavez government allowed the strike to run its course, with the economy crippled in the process.

Only after all extra-legal means failed to dislodge the government did the Venezuelan opposition resort to the ballot box, exercising their constitutional right to a recall referendum on the presidency in August 2004. They lost by a margin of 59-41, and promptly refused to accept the result. Although vote-rigging was nearly impossible under the dual electronic-plus-paper-ballot voting system and the result was certified by the Carter Center [1] and the OAS, the opposition – which has its own media and invents its own reality – to this day holds to conspiracy theories [2] that the referendum was stolen by a fantastic electronic fraud. In December 2005, seeing that it would lose congressional elections, the opposition boycotted, despite the OAS and European Union observers’ condemnation of the boycott.

The opposition did finally accept their defeat in the December 2006 presidential elections, which Chavez won with 63 percent of the vote and the highest turnout ever. And now that they have finally won at the ballot box, there is a possibility of an opposition that is more willing to play by the democratic rules of the game emerging. The student movement seems to have more elements that favor democratic means of challenging the government, and may have played a role in convincing others in the opposition to vote in the referendum. But they have not transformed the opposition into a democratic movement.

With regard to class, polls sponsored by the opposition and the government show that poor and working people are overwhelmingly pro-Chavez, and the upper classes against him. There are obvious reasons for this class divide: the Chavez government has provided health care to the vast majority of poor Venezuelans, subsidized food, and increased access to education. Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person has increased by 314 percent over the eight years of the Chavez administration. The proportion of households in poverty has dropped by 38 percent – and this is measuring only cash income, not other benefits such as health care and education.[3]  Interestingly, the upper classes have also done pretty well, but appear to oppose Chavez for mostly ideological reasons, including his commitment to “21st century socialism.” The Chavez administration has also provided the poor with more of a voice in government than they have ever had previously.

On the questions of national sovereignty and empire, the lines are also clearly divided in Venezuela. Leading opposition groups, including some who were involved in the coup, have received U.S. funding and other support. Washington’s involvement in the coup is well-documented and much deeper [4] than the vast understatements and euphemisms used by the major US and international media describe the US role. The Washington Post reported this week that the Bush Administration has been funding unnamed student groups, presumably opposition.

The Bush Administration has remained committed to this day to regime change in Venezuela, through destabilization and de-legitimation, although there are differences within the State Department. Its tacit support for the completely unjustified opposition boycott of the December 2005 congressional elections is a good example of this strategy: giving up about 30 percent of the Venezuelan congress just for the propaganda advantage of having the media report on “a congress completely dominated by Chavez.” While the media focuses on Chavez’ rhetoric, such as his notorious UN speech in which he referred to President Bush as the devil, his confrontation with Washington has been inevitable and not of his choosing.

Latin American racism, especially outside of that directed against indigenous groups, is different than in the United States because “race” is less well-defined; but institutional racism is no less prevalent, as the noticeable difference in skin color between the white elite and the poorer classes throughout the region makes very clear. In Venezuela, this difference of complexion is also quite visible between the anti-Chavez and pro-Chavez demonstrations. Perhaps more importantly, those who are aware of and against racism – including indigenous and anti-racist groups – are overwhelmingly pro-Chavez, partly because of his government’s actions on behalf of indigenous rights, including land reform and land titling, and constitutional rights.[5] Needless to say, the opposition to Chavez – who is proud of his African and indigenous heritage – also contains overtly racist elements.

Indigenous supporters outside Venezuela include President Evo Morales of Bolivia, a close friend and ally of Chavez. Other progressive Latin American presidents also have close relationships with Chavez and see him as a very important ally: Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and although the international media is always trying to deny it, President Lula da Silva of Brazil. Lula heads a divided government, but he has consistently defended Chavez.[6] All of these leaders understand the historic nature of what is happening in Latin America – the majority of a region once known as ”the United States’ backyard” now has governments that are more independent of the United States than Europe is. Chavez has played a huge role in this process, most importantly through the Venezuelan government’s billions of dollars of lending and grants to governments – made without policy conditions. Until a few years ago, Washington’s main avenue of influence in Latin America was through control over credit, which was exercised through a creditors’ cartel headed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The collapse of this cartel in recent years is the most important change in the international financial system in more than three decades, and one that has drastically reduced U.S. influence. Venezuela’s provision of an alternative source of credit has helped other democratic governments to try and deliver on their electoral promises without the threat of economic strangulation from abroad that, just a few years ago, may have doomed them to a short life. It is thus helping to promote democracy in the region.

What about the charges that Venezuela under Chavez has been moving toward “an authoritarian state’? The denial of a broadcast license renewal to a TV station that participated in a military coup and several other attempts to topple the government, and that would not get a license in any other democratic country, is hardly inappropriate [7]; it was also defended by other democratic presidents in the region, including those of Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Venezuela’s media is still dominated by the opposition, and remains the most anti-government media in the hemisphere. Then there is the controversial “enabling law,”  which gives Chavez fairly broad temporary authority to make certain legislation by executive order, subject to revocation by the congress or referendum. But as the US State Department’s top official for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, commented when the Venezuelan congress passed the law in January, “It’s something valid under the constitution. As with any tool of democracy, it depends how it is used.” And Chavez has hardly used the enabling legislation at all – only to extract more concessions from foreign oil companies.

One can go through the list, but the point is that one does not have to agree with every decision of the Venezuelan government to see that there is little or nothing to back up the absurd image of “authoritarian rule” that the Chavez-haters have created. Unfortunately they have gotten help from politicized groups such as “Reporters Without Borders,” which receives funding from the “National Endowment for Democracy” (which has funded groups involved in the overthrow of elected governments, including Venezuela [2002] and Haiti [2004]); the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is funded by big media owners; and other organizations who are generally more autonomous but whose independence seems to weaken under pressure with regard to Venezuela. Bottom line: no reputable human rights organization has claimed, nor would they, that civil liberties or human rights have deteriorated under the Chavez government – or that it compares unfavorably on these issues with the region.

A historic transformation in underway in Latin America. After more than a quarter century of neoliberal economic reform, and the worst long-term economic growth failure in more than a century, a revolt at the ballot box has elected leaders who are looking for democratic alternatives that will restore economic growth and development, and reduce poverty and inequality.[8] The U.S. government is opposing these efforts; a key element of its overall strategy is to demonize Chavez and de-legitimize the democratic government of Venezuela. The U.S. and international media have enthusiastically embraced this agenda, with journalism that makes Judy Miller’s worst articles in the run-up to the Iraq war look fair and balanced by comparison.

A more truthful and accurate reporting and analysis of these events is sorely need.


[1] See Observing the Venezuela Presidential Recall Referendum,” The Carter Center, February 2005.
[2] See Mark Weisbrot, David Rosnick, and Todd Tucker, “Black Swans, Conspiracy Theories, and the Quixotic Search for Fraud: A Look at Hausmann and Rigobon’s Analysis of Venezuela’s Referendum Vote”, September 2004.
[3] See Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, “The Venezuelan Economy in the Chavez Years”.(Poverty figures here updated for first half 2007.)
[4] See Mark Weisbrot,  “Venezuela’s Election Provides Opportunity for Washington to Change its Course”.
[5] See e.g.: Michael Fox, “Indigenous March in Support of Chavez in Venezuela” , 11 June, 2006.
[6] See Gosman, Eleonara, “Lula: “Nadie Hará que Discute con Chávez, es mi Amigo”, Clarín, July 7, 2007; and Mark Weisbrot, “President Bush’s Trip to Latin America is All About Denial”, Center for Economic and Policy Research, March, 2007
[7] See Robert McChesney and Mark Weisbrot, “Venezuela and the Media: Fact and Fiction” “Venezuela and the Media: Fact and Fiction”; Mark Weisbrot, “Eyes Wide Shut: The Media Looks at Venezuela.
[8] See Mark Weisbrot, “Latin America: The End of an Era”, International Journal of Health Services, Volume 37, Number 3 / 2007.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.

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