[Marxism] Petras on the upcoming Venezuelan referendum

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Tue Jan 13 12:38:51 MST 2009

Venezuela: Socialism, Democracy 
and the Re-Election of President Chavez

James Petras - January 8, 2009


On February 15, 2009, Venezuelan voters will go to the polls in order
to vote on a constitutional referendum, which would allow for the
indefinite re-election of the President. The vote on the
constitutional amendment has raised fundamental questions about the
relation between electoral politics and democracy. The proposed
constitutional change, and specifically the constitutional amendment
allowing for the indefinite re-election of the President requires an
examination of two basic concepts: electoral systems and democracy.
The distinction between these two concepts dominates the political
conflict between the supporters (pro-Chavez) and opponents
(anti-Chavez) of the amendment.

Electoral Systems and Democracy: Substance and Structure

A democratic political system involves at a minimum: (1) Free and
equal competition for political office and (2) access to the means of
communication and (3) competing ideas and freedom to act without
physical or psychological coercion. Procedures and conditions leading
up to elections, which violate these norms, are incompatible with the
notion of democracy. The most obvious case is Colombia whose state
terror against opposition groups is practiced in every recent
election. Electoral processes are necessary but not sufficient
conditions to define a democratic system. In other words there are
numerous examples where electoral processes are embedded in
institutional structures (oligarchy-controlled mass media) and
preceded by political conditions (threats, patronage and corruption),
which violate the basic norms of democracy. In other words, we can
have non-democratic (authoritarian) as well as democratic electoral

The most common authoritarian features of electoral systems, which
deny its democratic character include:

1. Restricted access to the mass media because of monopoly ownership
denying freedom of expression and undermining equality of

2. Unlimited spending on electoral campaigns favoring the moneyed
classes capacity to monopolize electoral campaign spending and
biasing the competition to favor candidates who amass the greatest

3. State violence and repression of opposition parties, candidates
and electoral constituencies during the electoral campaign. This
nullifies any claims to a legitimate outcome based on 'an honest vote
count' on election day.

4. Large scale financing by external foreign powers of the internal
electoral process, drastically undermining internal competition and
distorting free and equal competition. Important organizational and
financial links between foreign multinational corporations,
intelligence agencies and foundations to domestic parties,
personalities and NGOs introduce non-democratic, non-elected actors.

Taking account of these possible structural constraints, we see that
there are numerous non-democratic variants of electoral systems.
These include:

1. Death-squad electoral systems in which long-term, large-scale
state violence against dissident civil society organizations (trade
unions, peasant movements and human rights groups) is practiced prior
to election day. Colombia is the prime example in which, over the
past decade, the military and paramilitary groups murdered over 2500
trade unionists and 4 million, mostly peasants, were driven from
their homes and communities.

2. Imperial-collaborator electoral regimes in which there is a mass
infusion of political financing by European/US state entities to
incumbent regimes and parties to counter growing mass popular
opposition. Nicaragua, El Salvador and Dominican Republic are prime
examples of electoral regimes, which have experienced 'externally
controlled political processes'.

3. Oligarchic electoral systems are the most common type of
authoritarian systems, many emerging from the crisis of military
dictatorship of the 1970-80's. They resulted from a political pact
between economic oligarchs, political party elites and the military.
The usual pattern is a two-party or modified three-party political
system or coalition where the parties compete for the vote in order
to represent competing ruling class interests. Mexico, Chile, Uruguay
and Brazil represent this type of oligarchic electoral system.
Electoral Systems in Flux

Authoritarian electoral systems are not static: Old oligarchic
parties collapse and new ones emerge. Some oligarchic parties begin
by adopting populist postures to gain office and then pursue and
deepen oligarchic ties, co-opting and corrupting the emerging
insurgent social leaders and aborting the democratic process.
Authoritarian electoral systems are subject to the pressure of
non-electoral parties and movements to modify or reform repressive
practices and the privileging of economic inequalities.

Equally significant in challenging oligarchic electoral systems,
major economic crises and political uprisings can displace oligarchic
regimes and lead to the emergence of plebian-based democratic
movements. Regimes can emerge, which attempt to 'mediate' or
'balance' between the mass democratic movements and oligarchic ruling
classes. In recent years, mass popular movements and uprisings have
led to the overthrow of oligarchic electoral regimes. Such events
have taken place in Bolivia, Argentina and Ecuador. In addition,
established oligarchic electoral regimes have been defeated because
of mass mobilizations in Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. As
a result, some of the authoritarian political constraints have been
temporarily reformed, while the economic ruling classes remain
intact. The inequalities in economic resources and access to the mass
media remain in place or are, at best, merely modified.

In other words, in recent years a process of democratizing the
electoral system has been underway. However this process is not
linear, homogenous or irreversible. Promising democratic beginnings
via mass mobilizations have been cut short or even reversed once the
democratic 'reformers' take office. Democratic reformers frequently
retain the repressive state apparatus, limiting changes in
authoritarian structures and repressive practices. In summary,
electoral politics, and not democracy, resulted from the transition
between military to civilian rule.

Over the past eight years the democratization of electoral politics
advanced with the breakdown of the neo-liberal political-economic
system, the rise of popular mass movements and the defeat of abortive
oligarchic uprisings designed to restore strict authorization rule.

Venezuela represents the most exemplary case of a sustained effort to
democratize electoral politics. Venezuela, during the Chavez
Presidency (1999-2008), represents a unique case of an effort to
combine the democratization of electoral politics with the
socialization of the economy, deepening and extending democratic
politics into the sphere of the economy. Venezuela: The Transition to

Venezuela is the one country in Latin America that best exemplifies
the transition from oligarchic electoral politics to democracy.
During the preceding 40 years (1959-1998) the country was ruled by a
two-party elite (Democratic Action and Social Christian - COPEI),
which competed to represent the petrol-rentier oligarchy, powerful
importers, and the real estate-financial speculative elite. The two
parties were dominated by a predator political class, which pillaged
the public treasury. The economic collapse during the infamous decade
of 1989-1998 resulted in a 10-fold increase in poverty, which led to
the mass uprising and state massacre of 1989 known as the 'Caracazo'.
This, in turn, paved the way for the election of President Chavez in
1999. President Chavez took the first steps toward reforming the
authoritarian electoral system through a referendum and subsequent
new constitution. Chavez's opposition to Washington's imperial 'War
on Terror' was part of a foreign policy designed to end US tutelage
and affirm Venezuela's national sovereignty. The colonial oligarchy
sought to regain power and return the country to its authoritarian
past via a US-backed civil-military coup in April 2002. The coup was
defeated. Chavez was restored to power by a popular uprising backed
by loyalist military officials. The President dismissed the coup
participants within the government and arrested their civilian
collaborators. As a result, authoritarian organizations in civil
society and the state were weakened. A subsequent lockout was led by
an elite group of petroleum executives who sought to sabotage the
economy and overthrow the elected president. They were defeated by a
joint effort of the Government and the petrol workers. This victory
further weakened the colonial oligarchs in the strategic oil
industry. The defeat of the strategic pillars of authoritarian
electoral power led to the effective nationalization of the petroleum
industry. Through these victories President Chavez strengthened the
process of democratization of the state and civil society.

Under the leadership of President Chavez the petroleum industry
became more responsive to the social needs of the majority of its
citizens. Under democratic leadership the PDVSA (the national oil
company) financed a vast number of citizen educational programs
enhancing democracy. With a powerful electoral mandate after his
re-election and vast increases in public revenues through public
ownership and high world oil prices, President Chavez pursued
policies, which encouraged citizen participation through elected
community councils providing a new dimension to the process of
democratization. Democratizing the electoral process and dismantling
the oligarchic electoral system took several directions:

1. The encouragement, promotion and financing of a vast array of
neighborhood cooperatives, peasant organizations and trade unions,
which increased the power and political influence of the working
class and informal workers. Freed from upper class patronage and
control, the new social organizations equalized the effective role of
the poor in the political process. Greater freedom and equality
provided essential ingredients in the strengthening of democratic

2. The weakening of the linkages between the oligarchic political and
economic elites and the military/Pentagon diminished the power of the
authoritarian state over civil society. Electoral outcomes were less
subject to the intervention by undemocratic imperial agencies.
Conversely the new mass organizations increased the importance of
internal democratic processes. While the US and EU continued to
channel funds into opposition oligarchic NGOs this is countered by
domestic mass social movements and social programs funded by these
democratically elected public institutions.

3. Publicly financed television stations and the proliferation of
popularly controlled community radio stations have broken the
oligarchy's media monopoly. The result is more pluralistic, balanced
and diverse sources of information. Better-informed citizens can make
more rational political decisions.

4. Freedom of speech has been greatly enhanced by the proliferation
of political forums not controlled by the oligarchy. More diverse
opinion leaders have greater access to more organized groups and
media outlets than ever before.

5. Civil society has been enriched by the growth of multiple trade
unions and community-based groups. Competing voter lists in social
movements have greatly increased internal democracy in civil society
organizations. Electoral competition within civil society has been
greatly enhanced. Civil society has been strengthened in relation to
the state. The democratization of civil society movements has
strengthened public debate and the electoral processes.

Continuing Obstacles to Democratization

In contrast to past oligarchic electoral regimes, Venezuela has moved
decisively toward the consolidation of its democratic transition.

Nevertheless, numerous and serious authoritarian impediments to the
full consolidation of democracy still exist. Principally, they are
found in the continuation of vast concentrations of oligarchic wealth
and ownership of strategic banking, mass media, real estate,
agricultural lands, distribution networks and the manufacturing
sectors. Concentrated private economic ownership and wealth results
in vast social inequalities, which translate into the continuation of
political inequalities in the form of unequal competition for
political influence, despite the government's and civil society's
countervailing power.

To consummate and complete the process of democratization requires
the equalization of socio-economic conditions in society and the
introduction of democratic reforms in the state and within publicly
owned enterprises.

The full realization of democracy requires the implementation of a
socialist transformation in which elections take place in the work
place and through a program of re-distribution of wealth, land and
financial resources. Democratic Socialism and the Re-Election

On February 15, 2009 Venezuelans will vote on a constitutional
amendment, which will permit the electorate to re-elect an incumbent
President without term limits. In the past, many democratic analysts
were opposed to 'presidential re-election' for several reasons.
According to their critique: 1. Re-election was a method used by
dictators to provide pseudo-legitimacy to regimes, which repressed
democratic freedoms of speech, assembly, and access to mass media. 2.
Re-election allowed incumbent regimes to utilize the state apparatus
to engage in fraud and violence, perpetuating authoritarian
oligarchic rule and undermining free and equal competition. 3.
Re-election allowed the incumbent president to monopolize the mass
media and deny the opposition equal access to campaign resources. 4.
Repeatedly re-elected presidents concentrated and accumulated state
power while weakening popular social organizations in civil society
and strengthening the links between the state and the oligarchic
civic and economic organizations.

These were legitimate criticisms of presidential re-election in past
historical contexts, but are not applicable to the case of Venezuela

The historical record of the past decade and the present realities in
Venezuela today demonstrate that democratic principles and practices
have deepened and extended following each election and re-election of
Hugo Chavez. For example: 1. The mass media are much more diverse;
access is more equal and there is a greater variety of competing
socio-economic paradigms under debate. 2. Civil society contains a
greater number of free and independent competing and organized social
classes than ever in the history of Venezuela. Between 1999-2009
competing neighborhood groups with diverse social perspectives have
flourished. 3. Electoral campaigns and procedures are less subject
state corruption, intervention and violent manipulation than ever
before. 4. Citizen participation and defense of democratic freedoms
was never more widespread and intense as was witnessed by the massive
popular mobilization defeating the US-oligarchy-military coup of
April 2002, and the restoration of the elected President (Chavez),
the Congress and the Venezuelan constitution. 5. The nationalization
of foreign and oligarchy controlled strategic enterprises has made
key economic enterprises subject to legislative and executive
oversight by elected public representatives. 6. The re-election of
President Chavez has resulted in politics which lower socio-economic
inequalities, increased social expenditures for the poor, the working
class and peasantry thus increasing their stake in democratic
institutions, their interest in electoral campaigns and provided them
with greater time and resources to participate in social and
political organizations.

Contrary to previous historical experiences, in Venezuela under
President Chavez, there is a positive correlation between his
re-election and the extension and deepening of democratic
institutions and practices as well as a richer civic culture. In the
40 years prior to the Chavez presidency (1959-1998) during which
re-election was prohibited, the alternating Presidents perpetuated a
profoundly authoritarian oligarchic electoral system which
effectively disenfranchised the mass of low-income voters, offering
few choices and subjecting them to a corrupt party patronage system.

The key is to view re-election versus single-term presidencies in
their historical context and in terms of the political practices and
pragmatic consequences of each. For example, the 're-election' of
Alvaro Uribe means the perpetuation of death squads and forced
dispossession of millions of peasants. The limits on re-election of
presidents in Mexico has not altered highly authoritarian rule, vast
inequalities, foreign control of all strategic sectors of the economy
and the power of the capitalist class to replace one oligarch for

Approval of the constitutional amendment allowing for the re-election
of President Chavez is essential for the continuation of the
democratic process and social welfare of Venezuelans. Because of
President Chavez' audacious and courageous defense of world peace and
humanitarian justice, his re-election is especially important in the
face of imperial wars and genocidal colonial wars in Iraq,
Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere.

Approval of the amendment will result in the continuation of vital
socio-economic reforms, which provide free education, health and
subsidized food for the vast majority of Venezuelans.

Particularly in a time of worldwide capitalist recession/depression,
only a democratic-socialist government will give highest priority to
protecting social welfare programs over and against bailing out
bankers, industrialists and export elites. All alternative capitalist
candidates in Venezuela would follow the practice of the North
American, European and Asian rulers of cutting social programs to
save the ruling class.

The re-election of President Chavez would facilitate the
democratization of the economy through nationalization and
socialization. The defeat of the re-election amendment would abort
and reverse the process leading to the privatization of strategic
economic sectors, which would lead to foreign capitalists arbitrarily
making all key economic decisions. The privatization of the mass
media would lead to oligarchic monopolies, eliminating the diversity
of political views. Conclusions

With the onset of the world recession/depression, the collapse of the
neo-liberal model and the incapacity of capitalist economists to
offer any viable alternative, there is all the more reason to
re-elect President Chavez who backs a socialist, publicly directed
and controlled economy, which protects and promotes the domestic
market and productive system.

At a time of Israel's genocidal war, backed by the US and at a time
when newly-elected Obama doubles military spending and troops for
wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly Iran, the world looks to
President Chavez as the world's foremost humanitarian leader, the
outstanding defender of freedom, peace and self-determination. The
approval of the re-election amendment is not only a vote for
Venezuelan democracy but equally a vote in defense of the billions of
oppressed Third World people who regard President Chavez as their
principled leader: The only President who refuses to support
Bush-Obama's imperial 'war on terror'. The only President who ousted
Israel's ambassador in righteous repudiation of Israel's genocidal
assault on the people of Gaza.

Much more is at stake on February 15, 2009 than a constitutional
amendment and the re-election of a president. With the outcome rides
the future of democracy and socialism in Venezuela and the hopes and
aspirations of hundreds of millions who look to President Chavez as
an example in their revolutionary struggle to overthrow militarists
and depression-racked capitalist states.

     Havana, Cuba
     Editor-in-Chief, CubaNews
     "Cuba - Un Paraíso bajo el bloqueo"

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