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[T]his vote was about the specific issue of term limits, and that made it significantly harder for the Si side to win. Quite a few people support Chavez as President but nevertheless believe that term limits are a good idea, whereas on the opposition side (which has no indefinitely re-electable charismatic leader) there was complete unanimity on the No option. –”RichardCheeseman”, online comment

The 55% majority which secured Sunday’s referendum to remove term limits in Venezuela did not appear particularly impressive in comparison to the 63% that re-elected Chavez back in 2006. It should be recognised, however, that Chavez’s support was partially split. Allegiances have in fact changed very little in the last few years.

Given that the opposition had established a reliable capacity to attract no more than 4.5 million votes in the four previous elections, the sudden jump to 5.2m might be seen in those quarters as cause for celebration. But will the opposition be able to rely on this increased figure in next year’s legislative elections, or the general election in 2012?

It seems unlikely. As many as 700,000 of those who defended term limits last Sunday might still back Chavez for a third term, even though they would prefer him to pass the baton. Add those 700k votes to the total “Si” tally, and you arrive at a figure of around 7 million — slightly less than voted for Chavez in the 2006 general election, and a reasonable estimate of what he could expect against an opposition challenger in 2012.

The balance of evidence suggests that Chavez’s appeal has hardly waned, while the counter-revolution’s fortunes have barely improved. Now that term limits have been eliminated for all elected officials, voters are presented with a dramatic possibility: the revolution continuing in its present form and towards its stated objectives, indefinitely. That’s what Fidel Castro meant in his brief message of congratulation to Chavez: that this victory, “because of its magnitude, is impossible to measure”.

Though it is reasonable to expect a slight diminuition of support for the still-unravelling aims and policies of the Bolivarian revolution in its early years, there is every chance that the wider trend will tell a different story. This is not only to do with a growing population, increasingly less victim to the “truth” as told by private media enterprises. It is also a logical consequence of the positive trends in most indices of development, and the ability of state and local media to publicise them. More than anything, it must be due to the realisation of grassroots political power, in the truest sense of the words.

CLEARING THE PATH AHEAD

Sunday’s result identified a rigid core of support which should guarantee smooth democratic progress during the coming years. This would include the retention of a legislative majority in 2010, the re-election of Chavez in 2012, and the passing of proposed constitutional amendments/reforms along the way. That’s even if all the extra 700,000 votes gained by the opposition’s recent “No” campaign have been irreversibly (and inexplicably) converted into counter-revolutionaries.

One kind of election which doesn’t fit neatly into this analysis would be that of regional officials, whose poor performances on ‘bread and butter’ issues were shown to be punishable by crushing defeat even in the most staunchly Chavista areas last November. One suspects, however, that this lesson has been learnt. All governors/mayors should now be plotting their resources with a clear emphasis on society’s daily needs, but also — with the reward of further re-election in mind — based on a long-term plan to prepare the ground for broader revolutionary goals.

2007 also supplied a useful test case, in which 69 proposed constitutional reforms, presented in just two blocks after a confusing campaign, resulted in nearly 3 million of Chavez’s biggest supporters abstaining from the vote entirely. This experience will surely never be repeated, and future reforms or amendments are unlikely to be as controversial as the one just passed. The benefit of relentless campaigning focused on a single, simple issue is now evident, and smaller handfuls of proposals will be equally manageable.

CHALLENGES AND CHANCES

Looking further into the future, a 45% share of the vote amid low abstention might end up being the historical high point for any opposition campaign in 21st century Venezuela. Despite warnings of Venezuela’s precarious position due to crashed oil prices, we’re actually likely to see a rebound to $100/barrel in a matter of years, if not months. So, even if we concede that Venezuela’s development and prosperity is still overwhelmingly dependent upon its oil revenues, the imminent decline of world production suggests that Venezuela will have a very bright future — and every opportunity to take revolutionary support to unseen levels.

Venezuela has shielded its citizens to a remarkable degree against the gathering storm. Mortgages are now extremely accessible for all, and unemployment is at a record low, partially as a result of heavy restrictions on the ability to sack workers. A large proportion of the workforce is informally self-employed, yet still eligible for benefits and pensions. The minimum wage is raised on an annual basis, and already the highest in Latin America. A national network of subsidised food stores enables the population to avoid price inflation in a large percentage of their expenditure. None of this will be taken for granted as the most powerful economies crash, leaving millions of ‘first-world’ citizens jobless, indebted, and desperate.

Venezuela, with its vast oil/gas reserves and mission to achieve its full agricultural and industrial potential, can easily be described as one of the most promising future world powers. A broad array of measures to reduce domestic crime will eventually demonstrate concrete results, and the tourism industry should grow dramatically as a result. As expanding national production gradually reduces dependence on imports in general, exports in turn will rise. In effect, two of the country’s greatest inherited problems have easily applicable (though far from immediate) solutions.

But the greatest means of increasing support for socialism in Venezuela is the development of real popular power, which will in itself solve many day-to-day issues, and shape communities in a democratic fashion. Once the working day is reduced to permit greater leisure time and political participation, the new “communes” will begin to exercise influence beyond the sum of their parts (the local “communal councils”). A new geometry of power aims to put elected officials directly at the mercy of the grassroots, forced to carry out the popular will, rather than their own manifestos. This is ultimately what will define the new, revolutionary Venezuela.

Chavez, in Sunday’s victory speech, emphasized that term limits are a useful means of hindering the successful transformation of a country. In particular, any effort to phase out a capitalist, market-based economy could be severely compromised by forced changes of leadership. It should be noted that many other countries do not feature term limits — but their populations are generally more docile; their political hierarchies and media systems more adept at blocking the ascension of potential radicals.

When a newly-elected Chavez introduced the possibility of a second presidential term in the 1999 constitution, few could have imagined how important it would be that he serve a third. A perfect replacement candidate cannot exist even in theory, since he or she would lack all the experience Chavez has accumulated throughout a turbulent decade. The decade ahead of us, which he has designated the third “historical period” of the revolution, may be more turbulent still. It could have immense, era-defining implications for the continent and the world, and so we can be grateful that the roadmap has now been made immeasurably clearer.

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bannerelpueblosi2

It could have been better. But it could have been infinitely worse.

This Sunday, just over six million voters established themselves as the most solid base of democratic support ever witnessed for Venezuela’s socialist project. Meanwhile, just over five million Venezuelan voters established themselves as the proportion of the electorate which does not fully understand the importance of — or outright opposes — the socialist project.

This crucial difference of 55% to 45% represents the best estimate so far of the closest the opposition will ever come to defeating the Bolivarian revolution itself (not its policies) in electoral terms.

What was the importance of the question posed in Sunday’s referendum? Broadly speaking, it separated those who would support the current process indefinitely (barring a change in its fortunes) from those who wouldn’t. The result proved that six million Venezuelans comprehend the historic importance of the socialist mission.

That’s enough to retain a majority in the legislature and defeat the opposition presidential candidate in 2012, after which a trend of gradually rising revolutionary support will be very likely to assert itself. They can hope for domestic disaster in the face of the global depression and floundering oil prices. Neither will be the death of this revolution — of that I’m 99% certain.

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THE EVE OF A MASSIVE VOTE

Sitting here with a cold beer from the store down at the bottom of my apartment block (the “Dry Law” obviously being flouted just as subtly as the state ignores certain campaign laws), the ambience around is pretty normal. Thursday’s gran finale for the Chavistas almost certainly wasn’t as big as 2006, but a handful of testimonies suggested that barely anybody knew another revolutionary planning to vote “No”.

I’m expecting between 6.5m and 7m votes for the affirmative, and between 4.5m and 5m for the negative. It would have been idiotic for the government to manufacture signatures, and so it is believable that over 6.5m people signed the symbolic and otherwise meaningless petition.

So although the atmosphere isn’t anything to write home about, that is a logical consequence of holding a second nationwide vote within a matter of months. The good news is that weather will be clear and dry across the country tomorrow, and Venezuelans have a general expectancy that every subsequent electoral event will feature more efficient procedures. In addition, nothing gets Chavistas in the voting lines like a referendum on Chavez. As such, analysing results for 2007 and 2008 is a bit of a waste of time, unless you are an opposition blogger looking to perform some highly optimistic gymnastics. The real parallel is 2006, the general election in which Chavez destroyed his opponent with a majority of 63%.

Though the voter roll is marginally bigger now, it would be a miracle to improve on that result. But all the indicators (including a large amount of the polls) suggest tomorrow will bring an easy victory for the “Si”.

Regardless of the margin of victory, Chavez will have lots of breathing space to make a serious dent in crime statistics and bolster national production of basic foods before the next general election in 2012. The revolution is reaching a stage of early maturity where progress in such areas must surely start to become noticeable. As with any deep-rooted problem, the foundations of the solutions will themselves solve nothing. But measures are indeed being implemented across the board to combat crime and infrequent scarcity of certain food products.

With all this in mind, Chavez must believe that 8m votes are possible in 2012. Before then, one expects the working day will have been reduced to a maximum of 6 hours. Venezuelans will appreciate their luck as they watch industrialised economies flounder amidst global depression and the onset of increasing oil scarcity. The productive development of allied countries in the region (aided in small part by Venezuela’s wealth) will show growing returns.

In short, we shouldn’t be disappointed if the “Si” should win with only 55%. Any apparent dip in Chavez’s popularity at this stage is easily recoverable. But if the “Si” wins with 60% or more, we can celebrate the fact that Venezuelan revolutionaries are practically immune to private media distortions, and so the immediate path ahead will be even easier. We’ll be assured that our increased efforts, whether practical or theoretical, will reap commensurately greater rewards.

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After just over a week getting reacquainted with Caracas, here are some thoughts.

1. Campaigning in the street: the PSUV and other pro-revolution groups are all over the goddam place. The opposition are nowhere. Despite that campaigning can be as cheap as you choose, the oppos either don’t have the manpower, or the willingness to invite ridicule (or confrontation) in the “popular” areas of the city. Those manning the Chavista campaign points are mostly middle-aged, but not retirement age. It isn’t unthinkable that the “NO” campaign might at least try to compete — they’ve got plenty of students, right? This is, after all, Venezuela’s last chance to avoid a generation of dictatorship!

2. With that last point in mind, you’d at least assume the gran finale march for the “NO” would be a show-stopper. It wasn’t anything of the sort. Watching the images on TV, you almost feel sorry for the sunglasses & cap brigade. They’ve never had to agigate, let alone march, for anything in their lifetimes. Now they’ve got to turn out at least once every election to convince themselves Chavismo isn’t taking over the country. Since this election will be the second in nearly three months, you better believe many of the marchers on Saturday were grudgingly going through the motions. Didn’t the sudden and welcome arrival of “the student movement” mean they could stay home and watch the groundswell on Globovision? Nope.

3. No way are all these random attacks (on opposition interests, and a synagogue) the work of Chavismo. This referendum is going to be won by a clear margin — 60% to 40% is a pretty good bet, if you know the numbers from previous elections. Simply put, Chavismo isn’t desperate. It’s winning. We don’t hate Jews or any other religious group. I’d say 95% of revolutionaries here will tell you straight up that Jews living in Venezuela have nothing to do with the policies of Israel, and 5% might give an unambiguous answer (owing to ignorance, not bigotry). So who is behind the majority of these small-scale attacks? Who benefits? Who is shaping up to lose an important vote? Whose campaign leaders went to Puerto Rico for a shush-shush meeting in early January?

4. Next Sunday’s victory for the “SI” will be the biggest setback for the opposition in the revolution’s history. They will be heartbroken to realise that despite defeating a set of reforms in 2007, and gaining important regional posts in 2008, the electoral map of red vs. blue (Chavez vs. the opposition) has barely changed since 2006. I expect a slightly smaller majority than the 63% of 2006, but that isn’t surprising: the early years of serious revolutionary change (in particular nationalizations and the increasing tempo of class conflict) will gradually turn away a small section of earlier support. However, we can expect developments in the next decade to convince an ever-greater majority of a fast-growing population. In effect, Sunday’s result may be the last downward trend, in terms of approval for Chavez, that we’ll see this century. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be close.

5. Of course, despite being a massive setback for the opposition, it’ll be far from the end of the battle. One-way flights to Miami will increase notably, but there will never be a dramatic exodus. Pace of revolutionary change in Venezuela, it seems, will always be steady (though not necessarily slow). And of course Venezuela is not an island in which dissidents can feel trapped. What might be the opposition’s broader plans, after losing this referendum? A recall referendum to put Chavez at the mercy of a popular vote at the mid-point of his term would be so unlikely to succeed (requiring 3m more votes than the opposition has ever turned out) that one can rule it out. A period of calm until Chavez’s possible reelection in 2012, however, is out of the question. There will be National Assembly elections and quite probably a small set of constitution reforms to vote on. In short, voting will have to be recognised as as annual event, whether some believe it to be a hindrance to revolutionary change or not!

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2009: A MASSIVE YEAR AHEAD

So, here’s the rough, unofficial agenda:

1. Remove term limits

The first priority is the removal of presidential term limits. This will eliminate the trouble of selecting and preparing for a new candidate in 2013, and (hopefully) ensure the continuation and strengthening of the revolutionary process for at least another decade.

2. Reduce waste and corruption within the state

The government should be seen to take action (reducing top salaries by 10-20%, giving local budget control to communities) but also tackle problems in a discreet and non-confrontational way. A restricted national budget provides a powerful incentive and excuse to do so.

3. Develop the communes (integrated communal councils)

2009 should be the year that communes begin to exercise real transformational power in the community. Communication between them, and trust in council representatives, are vital aspects. Only by maximising their power will the collapse of the bourgeois state become necessary.

4. Work towards a regional currency

True regional integration must be based on economy and production. To cement the demise of individualist leadership in Colombia and Peru, solid steps towards an honest, continental currency are required. The successful development of poorer nations will ultimately depend on such integration.

5. Advances in agricultural production

This is important not only for the security of the revolution but also for the developing world. With its massive agricultural capacity, Venezuela can gradually reduce the region’s demand for genetically-modified food products as world oil production enters decline.

6. Nationalisation of banking sector

As the world financial crisis worsens in 2009, Venezuela has the perfect excuse to take the national banking industry into public ownership. This will maximise micro-lending possibilities, strengthen Venezuela’s position in the region, and protect the savings of the domestic population.

7. A democratic educational curriculum

Education has taken giant leaps in the last decade, but the first step towards a truly revolutionary educational system is a curriculum written and designed by all Venezuelans. This liberational curriculum can also represent the first serious move against traditional top-down teaching methods.

8. Reduction of the working day

The reduction of the working day to a maximum of 6 hours per day is of vital importance to the development of popular power. It will free up time for cultural advancement, the improvement of family relations, and participation in the growing institutions of participatory democracy.

9. Ban aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup

Many drinks, sweets and other products continue to lawfully substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar in the pursuit of maximised profits. A ban on such ingredients will improve the physical and mental condition of many Venezuelans, and increase consciousness about healthy foods in general.

10. ??? Since I can’t think of a final one, the comments section is open 🙂

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