Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Big Vote: What the Constitutional Reforms are Really About

About a thousand people turned out in Sanare to march in favor of the Reforms last Friday afternnoon.

The opposition in Venezuela is desperate once again. The country is moving toward a new kind of socialism in an entirely democratic way, and they are screaming, “Democratic Dictator! Constitutional Coup d’etat!”

Why are those in the opposition so desperate? Why are they making these absurd claims that sound like they were manufactured by boneheads in the U.S. State Department? Because they lost the last election in December of 2006 by a huge margin (63% to 37%), and this December they are likely to lose another election that will give a popular seal of approval to sweeping constitutional reforms.

What’s their real problem? The huge majority of the population still likes their President: nearly three quarters of the Venezuelan people think that President Chavez is doing a fairly good to excellent job.

Who are the opposition? Many of the spokespeople and financial backers are members of the “oligarchy,” a small upper class that controls most big business and all private media in Venezuela. They think they are supposed to be “the ruling class,” but they only have the support of between one quarter and one third of the population. They are losing the class war. No wonder the rich have always feared direct democracy.

I have attempted to construct a rough estimate of the way that the rich and poor are divided when it comes to voting. This is a totally unscientific estimate, for I know of no poll by political scientists (who are pracititioners of a very murky “science” to begin with) that tries to estimate voting behavior by income groups in Venezuela. Still, I think the following numbers can illuminate the political and social struggle that is taking place right now, and should be useful for debate and discussion.

Among the upper and middle classes
According to a study commisisioned by the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, the upper class and upper-middle classes (income groups A, B, C+) make up 2.4% of the population. The lower-middle class (income group C-, made up mostly of technical professionals, small business owners, and bureaucrats) comprise 18% of the population. Together these four groups at the top of the income scale represent 20% of the Venezuelan people. About 4 out of 5 of these people, or 16% of the total population, are likely to oppose Chavez; this would leave one out of five in these groups (4% of the total population) that support him.

Among the lower classes
The poor (34%) and the nearly poor (46%) make up the remaining 80% of the Venezuelan population. About 4 out of 5 people in these groups, or 64% of the total population, support Chavez. This would leave one out of five in the lower classes (16% of the total population) that oppose him.

This adds up to overwhelming support of Chavez[1]

Chavez supporters: 4% + 64% = 68%
Chavez opponents: 16% + 16% = 32%

These total numbers correspond fairly well with the mood of the country about a month before the vote on the constitutional reforms: “According to a recent opinion poll reported by Venezuela's largest circulation paper Últimas Noticias …72% of Venezuelans evaluate Chavez's job performance as being good to excellent, versus 25% who evaluate it as being bad to terrible.”[2]

Women have gained a lot from the Bolivarian Revolution, and so have these medical students in Sanare.

The election for the constitutional reform may be closer than these numbers suggest since the turnout will probably not be as high as the presidential vote in 2006, when a record 75% of eligible voters turned out at the polls. Generally, in countries like the United States (where the best turnouts are only slightly more than half of the eligible voters), rich and middle-class voters vote in much greater percentages than the poor and working classes. This is not so true today in Venezuela, but there may a slight edge for the well-to-do since it often easier for them to get to the polls and register their vote quickly. On the other hand, many opposition voters were talking about abstention two months ago, before ex-General Baduel joined their forces and gave some impetus to the “no” vote for a short time.[3]

There’s another factor that could make the vote close. The same opinion poll by Últimas Noticias that showed high popularity for Chavez also demonstrated that the support for the constitutional reform was a bit weaker, “46.6% of Venezuelans believe that the reform is necessary, while 35.0% oppose it.”
It should be noted that nearly 20% of the people polled above did not express an opinion. This may have changed by now, since there has been a tremendous amount of publicity and information circulating about the reforms. In the last month, the public meetings and marches by the pro-reform forces and students who support the government have dwarfed the earlier efforts at public demonstrations by the opposition.

The Media and the Reforms
Opposition media, which still dominate the dissemination of news, continue purveying fears – “the communists are coming to take everything away from you” – that have little to do with the realities of daily life in Venezuela. Every large city in Venezuela has at least one right-wing opposition newspaper, and in Barquisimeto, the city of one million that is the capital of the state of Lara, it’s El Impulso. This paper devoted the entire first page of Section C on October 28, 2007 to an interview with Guillerno Zuloaga, the president of Globovision. Globovision is the all-news cable TV station that collaborated with the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002, and has continued with all-out attacks against him and his government ever since.

Guillermo Zuloaga is a the grandson of the founder of El Universal, the most influential opposition newspaper in Venezuela, and he’s also the owner of businesses and corporations outside of Venezuela. In El Impulso, Zuloaga claimed that “The reform is the greatest threat that Venezuela has had in its history” and that Chavez has a “marxist-communist vision” of the future. According to him, Chavez’s “socialism of the 21st century” is a step backward because “we’re returning to the communism of the 20th century.”

On other pages of Section C in El Impulso, other Venezuelan opposition figures expressed their displeasure with the government. On behalf of the ultra-conservative Chruch hierarchy, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino warned that if the reforms were approved and Venezuela is organized as a socialist country, “this would be going against political liberty, pluralism, and the freedom of thought.”
Since at the present moment there is more “freedom of thought” in Venezuela than in almost any other country on earth, this argument is not likely to shake the faith that most people have in Chavez. If most Venezuelans are concerned about government control, it may be because they want more of it. Their two biggest worries, expressed over and over again in public opinion polls, are crime on the streets and corruption in local bureaucracies. These are the result of many decades of neglect by previous governments that had little desire to curb these kinds of public disorder. In the future, if the Chavez government loses favor with the common people, it will be because it has failed to deal with these problems.

On the other hand, most citizens are not likely to be concerned about protecting the financial and business oligarchy, and would favor the constitutional reforms that attack the latifundios (large rural estates) and monopoly ownership of production. This is one reason that the opposition usually avoids detailed analysis of the reforms the government has proposed: the rewritten articles are, for the most part, very democratic, for they expand the powers of the people.

Yes, It’s true, now you have the proof that this is not an unbiased website. My son Ari was recently seen helping the cause of the “Si!” in Sanare by putting the message on cars and motorcycles.

A quick review of some important Articles
First, there is Article 230, the one that’s emphasized the most, but it’s probably not so important: there are no term limits for the President. This was a measure that used to be found in the U.S. Constitution and allowed Franklin Roosevelt to be elected to four consecutive terms. In 1951, conservatives in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures were successful in passing an amendment that limits U.S. presidents to two four-year terms, but this has certainly did not lead to an increase in democracy in the United States. In recent years, countries that have democratic parliaments and no term limits, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, have decided to give multiple terms to their elected prime ministers Thatcher, Blair, and Howard. We must note, however, that they were greatly assisted in their rush toward neo-liberal, neo-conservative policies by the very undemocratic assistance of Rupert Murdoch’s media monopolies.
It could be argued that the term limits gave more power to elite financial interests in the U.S. which wanted to make sure that a president who was opposed to their interests, and very popular with the electorate, could not be in office for too long. In this sense, the people of Venezuela may be gaining more freedom if they can choose to elect Chavez, who is not supported by any oligarchic/monopolistic forces, to as many terms as they want. Furthermore, Venezuela continues to have the unique, and very democratic “recall” provision in its constitution that allows the people to “unelect” a president, or any other elected official, half way through his or her term of office.

When opponents of Chavez argue that the Constitution will make Hugo Chavez a dictator, what they are really saying is that they think he wants to become a dictator. If this should happen, whether under the rule of Chavez or any other president in the future, it would be because the president does what dictators always do: suspend the laws, abrogate the constitution, and impose personal authoritarian control.

Most other proposed changes to the Articles of the Constitution are remarkably democratic and would be a healthy addition to the United States Constitution. Some like Article 21, guarantee freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, health, age, ethnicity, religious and political persuasion, and social condition. Article 100 recognizes and protects the cultural contributions of the indigenous people of Venezuela, the Afro-Venezuelans, and those descended from Europeans, then states specifically that the nation will actively promote indigenous and afro-Venezuelan cultural initiatives.
Another, Article 67, declares freedom of political association and includes a provision that must stick in the craw of the U.S. Department of State since we have been so active in supporting the political opposition in Venezuela; it prohibits funding of the political process by foreign governments and by organizations and private entities outside of Venezuela.

Then there are the Articles that many privileged members of the opposition are worried about, especially those who hope to re-establish rule by a political and financial oligarchy in the future. The reformulated Article 328 states that the Armed Forces will always be “at the service of the sacred interests of the Venezuelan people” and never at the service of “some oligarchy or foreign imperial power.” To put some teeth in this sentiment, and to restrict the economic power that makes oligarchic rule possible, Article 113 has been beefed up to say that “Monopolies are prohibited,” while Article 305 follows suit by declaring that “Latifundios are prohibited because they are contrary to the interests of society.” Article 115 continues to guarantee the rights of private property holders, but in its new version also guarantees other kinds of social and communal property.

For Venezuelans who are not trying to protect economic and social privilege, the future looks much brighter. There are millions of people who currently are not covered by labor laws and social security who will now be provided with protection and old-age pensions under Article 87. Their number includes independent workers, small farmers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and even housewives, whose work has been judged to be just as valuable as everyone else’s. Furthermore, in Article 90 the mandatory work week, that which large employers can impose on their employees, is shortened to thirty-six hours for a six-day work week (the previous number was 44 hours.) The rationale is that many people, especially poorer people, must travel for considerable amounts of time to get to work and should have some additional hours free to pursue cultural and educational pursuits as well as take care of family responsibilities.

Article 109 is too democratic for some people, at least for the university students who support the opposition. It guarantees democratic governance at the universities, one person/one vote, to all people associated with a university, including professors, clerical and service workers, technicians, part-time teachers, and students. This is something some of us old-timers campaigned for in the 1960s and 1970s on U.S. campuses.

Finally, there are the goals that sound utopian, at least compared with the rest of the world, that are now enshrined in the Venezuelan Constitution. In Article 305, the State vows to promote agricultural ecology as the overarching principle for caring for the land and natural environment, with the goal of making Venezuela independent, self-sustaining, and ecologically sound in all its food production.
Article 184 is perhaps the most ambitious of all, for it delineates a system of direct democracy that is based on small communities meeting in community councils (the consejos comunales.) These in turn will form larger organizations called communes (comunas.) When the communes form larger entities called “ciudades” (literally ‘cities,’ or places controlled by “ciudadanos” or ‘citizens,’ which will also be formed in rural areas), they will replace the top-down political control that has historically been wielded by state and municipal governments.

This quick sketch of the reform package is not comprehensive, but it should allow the reader to recognize two things. One, the proposed reforms are intensifying the revolutionary commitments of the 1999 Constitution, and two, they are doing so in a way that generally reinforces and deepens democracy. Whether they will work remains to be seen. Certainly the major powers in the world thought the U.S. Constitution was a ridiculous travesty in 1789. The fact that the major capitalist powers and the major capitalist media are dismissing the Venezuelan Constitution today should be taken as a compliment, and as an acknowledgment that it really does have revolutionary potential.

[1] Since this is a rough estimate, and since a considerable number of middle-class people support the Bolivarian process, and since many lower class people may be confused about the reforms, we can also look at the effect of a much more conservative 30-70% split that may be a more accurate reflection of the coming vote: 21%vs. 9% in the upper classes, and 21% vs. 49% in the lower classes, or 42% anti-Chavez vs. 58% pro-Chavez.
[2] Venezuelanalysis.com, November 5, 2007.
[3] Kiraz Janicke, “Former Venezuelan Defense Minister Baduel Denounces Constitutional Reform,”November 6th 2007

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