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The Venezuelan Referendum of 2009 pt. 1

September 23, 2009

Here is an analysis of the national referendum to abolish term limits for all elected officials in Venezuela that I wrote earlier in the year.  Although it has been published elsewhere I thought it would a good place to start in our ongoing look at the Bolivarian process underway in Venezuela.  The second part will forthcoming soon.


The people of Venezuela voted yesterday (02.15.09) in a national referendum to abolish term limits on all elected governmental offices. First, a quick breakdown of the numbers and how the day passed. According to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council about 70% of the 16 million eligible voters took part in the vote. The final vote in favor was about 55% to 45% against. In contrast to a national referendum that took place in 2007 which included 69 other constitutional changes, yesterdays vote was limited to the sole issue of term limits. International observers, as well as the opposition, have declared the vote legitimate and transparent, with the Paraguayan representative asking that Venezuela help provide technical support in installing a similar system in Paraguay. The transparency is based on a dual system of electronic voting along side a paper vote to ensure a material record of the vote making it virtually impossible to tamper with the ballots. On top of the dual vote is open overseeing of the vote counting by both supporters of government policy as well as members of the opposition. In other words, the Venezuelan people have clearly spoken their minds on the issue of term limits and a clear majority are in favor of the abolition. The real question is what implications arise from this referendum and what interests stand to gain from it.

The abolition of term limits for elected officials is in itself not inherently undemocratic. If fact the argument for the opposite, that term limits are in their nature undemocratic, can be more easily made. One only has to look to the many parliamentary democracies of the North to see multiple examples of this in action. Leaving aside the various criticisms of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution in the mainstream media around the world as having authoritative and dictatorial tendencies, the changing of the constitution to allow Chavez to run for a third term of office in 2013 and Venezuela’s unique historical development certainly brings up concerns worth thinking about.

The development of socialism through democratic means was attempted in various counties in the world to some degree throughout the twentieth century. The case of Venezuela is really no different except for the epoch in which it is taking place, the twenty first century. After the collapse of the USSR and world Communism, the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism was proclaimed by the imperial apologist and liberal theorists as the “end of history.” There were suppose to be no alternatives to the cure-all prescription of neoliberal economic policies, at least to those proponents of TINA and a unipolar world. Out of this imperialist worldview came the revolt of the dispossessed peoples of the South. In the past, social democratic states were established in Europe following the mass immiseration of the general population that was the result of WWII. The basic reforms that were undertaken in Europe in the 1940’s and 50’s are, in substance, very similar to the direction that Venezuela is heading today, although they differ in form. Private capital is being left in place by the state and it is still flourishing in ‘socialist’ Venezuela. It is perhaps the form of Venezuela’s path towards a social democratic state that makes the question of term limits a divisive issue not only in the country but also in the world. This of course is due to divided opinion about the leadership of Hugo Chavez.

Adjectives such a flamboyant, charismatic, polemical, outspoken may all justifiably be applied to Chavez in one way or another. Certainly his opponents, and there are many of them in Venezuela and abroad, do not approve of his policies or his actions. They loath to see their final chance to rid themselves of him as president at the end of his current term in 2012 be wiped away by a popularly backed and transparent vote. The prospect of Chavez’s reelection and the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution is at this time very likely and it is understandable that the opposition raise all manner of objections to it, some valid some not. These are to be expected and deserved to be examined, but I believe the real examination needs to come not from the opposition but from the supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution.

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