Analysis of the Venezuelan Referendum: Time for Economic Strategy

On Sunday, Feb. 15 2009, after a ferociously fought campaign, the Venezuelan electorate voted to allow indefinite re-election for all Venezuelan political offices. The vote was not close: according to the second official bulletin, with 99.57 percent of the votes counted, “Si” had garnered 6,310,482 votes—54.85 percent of the total. The “No” got 5,193,839 votes—45.14 percent of the total.


Venezuelans line up to vote. Photo: Tamara Pearson/

On Sunday, Feb. 15 2009, after a ferociously fought campaign, the Venezuelan electorate voted to allow indefinite re-election for all Venezuelan political offices. The vote was not close: according to the second official bulletin, with 99.57 percent of the votes counted, “Si” had garnered 6,310,482 votes—54.85 percent of the total. The “No” got 5,193,839 votes—45.14 percent of the total.  

Of 11,710,740 cotes counted, 11,501,321 were valid; 206,419 were null. Abstention rates were at 29.67 percent—which means overall participation was a fraction above 70 percent. Quickly, compare that to the Nov. 23, 2008 regional rounds, erroneously described as a “major electoral setback” by the nearly-fossilized Richard Gott: in that election, the opposition got 43 percent of the votes, and PSUV candidates, 53.5 percent. So one can see a slight increase in support for the Bolivarian process, merely by numerical tally. 

Furthermore, the 10 percent lead—over a million votes—may well undercount Chavista support, since surely some Chavistas have little problem with the process, but quite like term limits. 

Demographically, the cities remain bastions of relative opposition strength, while the “Si” vote hammered the “No” vote in rural regions, often by huge percentages. Birth-rates and poverty-rates in the country-side are far higher than they are in the cities, too, suggesting built-in structural-demographic advantages for chavismo. 

Meanwhile, the turnout was somewhat higher than in the 2008 regional elections: 70 percent vs. 65 percent—and markedly higher than the 56 percent for the 2007 constitutional reforms that would have made the presidency subject to indefinite re-election, as well as accelerated the socialization of the economy (those measures were defeated by some 2 percentage points). 

Note, too, what international observers said about the vote: Brazilian delegate Max Altman commented on the secrecy of the vote.  “I was very impressed by how the Venezuelan electoral system is totally reinforced and how well-secured the voting is…I hope this democratic feeling persists in Venezuela, as well as in all our countries in the region.” Paraguayan, Nicaraguan, and Greek observers agreed. Venezuelan support for democracy consistently ranks among the highest in the region, according to universally respected polling service Latinobarometro 

The US State Department, sharply veering from the Bush path of unremitting belligerence towards Venezuela and Chavez, called the vote “fully consistent with democratic process,” although it would be too much to hope for a complete rupture—it cited “troubling reports of intimidation.” We needn’t tarry on the absurdist spectacle of American politicians saying other countries electoral procedures are imperfect. 

So what do the numbers means for chavismo? Long-time community organizer and radical intellectual Roland Denis gives one answer: “Chávez means NO to the return of our political enemies to power and nothing more.” Denis emphatically suggests that the true force that can make “the process” live up to its ideals resides neither in Chávez nor in the state: “No one can take the place of a people in its own dream, not even Chávez himself. And be careful, for if the people’s fury remains unexpressed, to paraphrase the Zapatistas, that SI could be our own tomb.” 

Denis does not quite leave the context unsaid, but he embeds its meaning fairly deeply. The point is not that the referendum win would have been unimportant (Denis was writing over two weeks before the vote). Indeed, in Venezuela‘s ideological class war, control over the state could never be meaningless. Chávez is far better than the return of the “escualidos,” the squalid ones. But he is no Savior.  

Denis, over three years ago, called for a deepening of the process, to avoid the trap of a messianic populism taking sway over the Venezuelan people. The PSUV’s leadership problems and over-reliance on Chávez are by now obvious to even the most sympathetic observers. As long-time Venezuela observer Greg Wilpert observes, “even though Chávez is the best guarantor for socialism and progressive social change in Venezuela today, his movement’s dependency on him was strengthened by the referendum victory, which is an Achilles heel for the movement.” William Izarra, one-time Chavista minister, adds, “direct democracy does not emerge by decree.” 

Argentinean writer Josefina Payro, writing on the website of the radical 23 de Enero barrio, comments on the latent dangers if “the mechanisms that permit the growth of popular power are not deepened, if there is no strengthening of the popular organizations.”

Meanwhile, radical economist Ana Esther Ceceña writes in a seldom deployed register, emphasizing both the importance of the state in alleviating material hardship and illiteracy and educational deficits—efforts which the Center for Economic and Policy Research has summed up as vast and admirable—as well as the need to transcend the usual discourse on late-development and, indeed, capitalist development in toto.

As she puts it, “A debate about another economy must be opened, questioning the developmentalist paths that merely reproduce, with a temporarily less aggressively and apparently native face, the basic lines of a capitalist economy.” As she adds, what is necessary is “self-management as the base of emancipatory political forms.” Such rhetoric echoes classical 19th and 20th century anarchism.

One should add that the Chávez government has attempted to go beyond this, with its cooperative experiment, but as Venezuela expert Steve Ellner notes, the “balance sheet for the government’s new worker cooperatives is mixed.” Some endure. Some simply sucked funds out of the oil-state, and disappeared.

The electoral victory also clears the way for addressing problems with which the state can and must contend—social problems like the explosive crime rate in the cities, the lawlessness in the countryside, where peasant activists are murdered routinely, and the subsidization of imports like cars and whiskey, consumer goods only accessible to the upper-middle and upper-classes (Not, to be sure, Chávez’s main constituency).  

Crime in the barrios is partially a problem of poverty. But it is also a problem related to narco-trafficking. Despite the haphazard deployment of words like “autocrat” and “dictator” to describe Chávez, as Stanford political scientist Terry Lynn Karl emphasizes, Venezuela is actually exhibiting the typical “weak capacities of petro-states,” relative to their legal mandates. Paramilitary violence, often linked to a brutal and corrupt metropolitan police force—which this author will attest to personally—is a great source of insecurity. These thuggish, anti-social forces will have to be placed into the kennel. Police forces that are more focused on shaking down gringos for pocket change or assisting cocaine dealers in protecting their turf, than on policing the cities, will perforce be ineffective. 

The problem of filth, too, is related to corruption and the weakness of the central state apparatus. It is one thing to merely vote a Chávez into office when one is surrounded by piles of refuse; one does so in order to get it removed. It is another to speaking of deepening a revolutionary process when a “revolutionary government” can not remove piles of garbage from the streets. The state must get its own house in order. 

And then there is the problem of economic development strategy. The Chávez government should stop subsidizing the rich by allowing them to buy dollars at preferential rates for overseas travel—a step it appears to be taking. It should encourage native production, not subsidize imports to the detriment of the local manufacturing base. And it must deepen the land reform and try to encourage migration from over-crowded cities, where the poor perch on precarious hillside ranchos 

This last point is crucial. Venezuela is the only country in South America that is a net food importer. Land reform creates an internal market, and encourages development, as the experiences of the East and Southeast Asian governments have proven. The government is taking steps to advance the process. But to do so, it must emplace the rule-of-law in the countryside. There can not be impunity for the murderers of the over 200 peasant leaders gunned down thus far in the struggle for agrarian reform. There are credible allegations that link large land-owners to these murders, using hired assassins as their emissaries. Reform will proceed only fitfully amidst wanton violence.

The government can not make the revolution—of that we can be sure. But that does not mean it is powerless, and economic development strategy is a place it can make a real difference, even as the world cascades into depression.

The time to do so is now.

Max Ajl is a writer and activist, and has written on Latin America for the Guardian, the New Statesman, and NACLA, and blogs about Venezuela and Israel/Palestine at his blog, Jewbonics [], and can be reached at max.ajl(at)