Author and activist Chesa Boudin reflects on why the defeat of the Venezuelan referendum is a victory for Hugo Chavez, what JFK can teach the United States about respecting revolutions, the myth of the Chavez dictatorship, the now-obsolete "fraud" T-shirts preprinted by the opposition, and the good, the bad and the ugly (and the pretty) of Venezuela.
Last Sunday, Venezuelans voted against reforms put forth by President Hugo Chavez. The vote against Chavez’s proposals for constitutional reform was surprising and extremely close, 51 percent to 49 percent. And yet both the United States and Chavez hailed the result of the referendum as a sign of Venezuela’s democracy.
Looking for an on-the-ground account of the referendum and insights into the results, I spoke to journalist and activist Chesa Boudin, author of The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions and 100 Answers. Boudin lived in Venezuela while researching Latin American public policy as part of his master’s degree from Oxford University and is back in Venezuela working on a new book about Latin America’s shift to the left and his own political awakening.
In a phone interview from Caracas with AlterNet, Boudin reflected on why the defeat of the referendum is a victory for Chavez, what JFK can teach the United States about respecting revolutions, the myth of the Chavez dictatorship, the now-obsolete "fraud" T-shirts preprinted by the opposition, and the good, the bad and the ugly (and the pretty) of Venezuela.
Katie Halper: What is it like in Caracas right now?
Chesa Boudin: It’s very calm here. Of course you have the normal violent crime and criminal activity in Venezuela. That is constant. If you had asked me last week, I would have said that Chavez’s referendum would have passed. But by the end of Sunday, before they announced the results, I knew that it wasn’t going to win.
Halper: Why did it fail?
Boudin: First of all, there were real problems with the content of the reform. Second of all, there were problems with the process through which they tried to get the reform passed. And third of all, there is general discontent with certain aspects of the government that weakened voter turnout even though the government remains very popular, and Chavez in particular is extremely popular.
Halper: What were your reservations?
Boudin: I was concerned about the centralization of power, indefinite terms and expanded emergency power. I was concerned about the vague nature and confusing way many of the articles were drafted. And I was also concerned about the government’s capacity to put into practice some of the articles that were on their face excellent. Like the expanded guarantees for social security for taxi drivers, street vendors, etc., is a great law. But in practice the government doesn’t have the ability at this stage to put that into effect. Many of the changes they were making could have been made through simple legislation; they didn’t need to be constitutional.
Halper: Why do you think Chavez wanted to do away with term limits?
Boudin: There is no question that Chavez wanted to get rid of term limits. I think that was one of the main motivations for the reform. I think they chose this year rather than four years from now, for two reasons. One, so they don’t need to worry about training new leadership. I think they need to change the leadership. I would encourage Chavez to stay in the government until his term ends and then train new leadership. He should allow somebody else to take charge for a change to see what good comes from the sharing of power. I think the other reason is because Chavez is a military man, and he had a very powerful successful electoral cycle last year when he won with almost 20 percent over the opposition. I think he saw the opportunity to steamroll forward through elections. And I think it’s a good thing that there is a check on that. Chavez does command the loyalty of the masses. But it’s not a blind loyalty. And it’s good that there be a check on executive power in any country.
Halper: Do you agree with Chavez’s claim that this is proof of Venezuela’s democracy maturing?
Boudin: Yes. I think the government was overconfident and took the popular support for granted. And this will force the government to realize that the grass-roots and popular support is contingent and cannot be assumed or taken for granted. There are people who will go out there and vote simply because Chavez says they should do. And they were able to get basically 50 percent of the vote. However, there were a lot of people who simply weren’t convinced because it was rushed, because they had reservations. And this will force the government to win, on a daily basis, the support and respect of the masses. That’s an important thing for any government, not just this government.
It will also force Chavez and his inner circle to reevaluate the information they get. The new political party that Chavez founded a year ago has roughly 5 million members, but Chavez didn’t even get the vote of all the people in the party. He got 4.5 million votes, less than 4.5 actually. So clearly there is a problem. The people around Chavez are telling him what they think he wants to hear. I think Chavez does a much better job with keeping in touch with the people than Bush does. And this will be a wake-up call for Chavez and the whole political establishment and, hopefully, a very positive thing.
Halper: How do the results of the referendum relate to the opposition’s claim that Chavez is a dictator?
Boudin: Calling it "the opposition," as people do both internationally and in Venezuela, makes it sound like it one homogenous group. It’s a very diverse group that happens to be unified by their hatred of Chavez and his model. But there’s a wide range, some of which, in the United States, would be considered liberal, or mainstream. And then there are right-wingers. Some of the opposition doesn’t call Chavez a dictator, but most of them do. And certainly the U.S. media tends to describe him in terms that suggest dictatorship.
But the point you’re getting to is how does his accepting the results change the position of the opposition. I’m one of the people who identifies with the Bolivarian revolution, who thinks the outcome was pretty much perfect. I personally had, as did almost every Venezuelan I talked to, serious reservations about reform, even though it had lots of good things.
If this victory had been the other way around, if Chavez had won by one percentage point the opposition would have been in the streets crying fraud. They already had the T-shirts printed. This loss gave Chavez the opportunity to take the high road. Thus far, at least, he has humbly recognized the opposition’s victory. And as long as he continues to take the high road, I think it’s proof to Venezuela and to the world that Chavez is not a dictator, that Venezuela is democratic, that the popular will of the people is what matters.
The claim that Chavez is a dictator is based on nothing but media hype and propaganda. He has more of a democratic claim than Bush. He continues to have the support of the majority of the country, which Bush never had. Chavez has been supported multiple times through elections, recall referenda, and he’s won with huge margins. And the elections were monitored by the EU, the Carter Center, the International Lawyers Guild.
People accuse Chavez of executing people. There are executions in Venezuela, but not by the state. The police are incompetent, the prison system is atrocious; people are killed all the time through gun violence. But that’s not the same thing as the government executing people. That’s not the same thing as the government promoting death squads, which they do in Colombia, a country we support. But violence is there, and access to guns is a real problem.
Thus far the opposition has been the most responsible that I’ve ever seen it. Again, the opposition is a diverse group, but historically, during the Chavez era, it has played a very negative anti-democratic role, starting with the coup in 2002, boycotting elections regularly, crying out fraud when they couldn’t get out votes, trying to undermine the democratic process. This is proof to them and the world that this is a democratic system and that they do have a chance to win gains if they go about it democratically.
Halper: Can you talk about the alleged CIA memo that was circulated outlining the U.S. plan to intervene in Sunday’s elections?
Boudin: I’m not an expert on CIA memos, but the version that I saw was not plausible. It was only in Spanish, it was a Word document, not a real document that had been scanned. It may have been based on some real U.S. intervention. There’s no question that the U.S. government and its subsidiary grant-giving agencies like U.S.A.I.D. and National Endowment for Democracy were sending money to opposition groups. That’s public information. But whether this particular CIA plan was a reality, I highly doubt. In Venezuela, there is constant accusation of U.S. intervention and, more often than not, it’s rumors.
I want to be perfectly clear that there is a real risk of intervention. The U.S. participated in the coup and has overthrown dozens of governments in Latin America over the years. But since the coup of 2002, the main form of U.S. intervention and destabilization has been through political and electoral means, investing millions of dollars in opposition groups that advocate against the government in the media and civil society. The U.S. is trying very hard to unify the opposition and find candidates to defeat Chavez. If they do choose to increase intervention, all the analysts I’ve read, including ex-CIA agent Philip Agee, who wrote a report on this a few years ago, suggest it will be through a low-intensity paramilitary intervention, not a direct U.S. army intervention like we see in Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration doesn’t have the political capital to invade another country, and if they did it would be Iran.
I think Venezuela should prepare against intervention, but not against a U.S. military invasion, because it’s not likely and because there’s nothing you can do about it if they bring out the big guns. Venezuela is much better off preparing against political electoral intervention and the possibility of a paramilitary destabilizing force, which was used in Nicaragua with the Contras.
Halper: Not that the Contras weren’t a formidable enemy.
Boudin: Yes, but Nicaragua was a very poor, easily starved country. Venezuela has billions of dollars coming in every year from revenue and a fairly up-to-date military arsenal and 26 million people. So it’s much bigger than Nicaragua. But I think it’s important to differentiate between interventions like the Contras or the paramilitaries in Colombia or Blackwater intervention, which I think are possibilities, and an Iraq style intervention.
Halper: What do you want Americans to know about Venezuela?
Boudin: Venezuela’s political process is a democratic one, one in which the majority of Venezuelans have cast their vote repeatedly. And it’s incumbent on the U.S., which advocates for democracy at least rhetorically, not to intervene or destabilize the Venezuelan political process. Venezuelans should be free to choose their own path and to make their own mistakes. As Americans, we can learn from the good and the bad of what happens in Venezuela. You have a peaceful revolution in Venezuela. John F. Kennedy said, "Those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent revolutions inevitable." The quote applies to Venezuela perfectly.
At the same time that there is corruption and there are problems, there are also revolutionary programs that provide food, housing and free healthcare, which is not only more cost-effective but more humane than what we have in our country. And rather than condemning it because Hugo Chavez and George Bush both have a tendency to talk too much and say stupid things, people should come and see Venezuela for themselves.