Chavez Loses in Venezuela, so has Democracy Won?

by Rick Rockwell

What do all those folks who have mistakenly labeled Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez as a dictator have to say today, now that Chavez has lost at the polls?

For those who may have gone to sleep waiting for results, early this morning Venezuela’s electoral council ruled Chavez had lost in his bid to remake his country’s constitution.

The controversial referendum would have lifted term limits for the presidency, extended the length of presidential terms, and consolidated more executive power. Some analysts said if the reforms had passed, Chavez’ rule would certainly have begun to take on the cast of dictatorship. However, the intended outcomes of the constitutional reforms were also highly debated. Venezuela’s Ambassador to the U.S. Bernardo Alvarez Herrera even went so far as to call out The Washington Post about its editorializing and noted that much of the U.S. media were analyzing the reform movement incorrectly.

If anything, today, the Post should be even more embarrassed that it opened the newspaper’s columns to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, so he could criticize Chavez and call him a tyrant on the day of the vote. (And why does the architect of the failed Iraq War have any credibility weighing in on Venezuela? Do the neo-cons have another front for the U.S. to open up after they scratch Iran off their invasion list?) The results of the vote and how Chavez has handled himself speak volumes about the condition of Venezuelan democracy. At least, for now.

In what dictatorship does the tyrant ever lose at the polls?

Although Chavez is surely disappointed, his loss gives more credibility to his Bolivarian Revolution. Leftwing news agencies, such as China’s Xinhua trumpeted the fact that 50 nations sent electoral observers to Venezuela. What they saw was a fair election. What they saw was a curious failure in Chavez’ organizational efforts. What they saw was democracy working in the face of strong centralized power, something that Chavez still wields.

Part of the defeat was due to key desertions by provincial governors who were longtime allies. The constitutional reform would have allowed Chavez to replace governors at his whim. Low voter turnout was another reason for the defeat, which is odd given that Venezuelans have gone to the polls numerous times in the past nine years for Chavez.

For those who haven’t kept track, Chavez has actually revitalized Venezuela’s democracy. In the pre-Chavez era, although Venezuela was hailed as a bastion of Latin American democracy, the truth was it was only a democracy for the elite. Without a power-sharing agreement signed at Punto Fijo in 1958, Venezuela’s key parties in the 20th Century might have devolved into violence like their Colombian neighbors. But in effect, that political pact disenfranchised much of the Venezuelan electorate, which since 1998 has looked to Chavez for answers. The vote on the constitutional reforms could be a signal that Chavez has pushed Venezuela as far as it wants to go toward socialism. Or it could just be that voters are tired.

In 1998, they elected Chavez, someone who led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. In 1999, they went back to the polls twice. First, to decide if the country’s constitution needed rewriting. Next, to elect delegates to a constitutional convention, which rewrote how the Venezuelan democracy works, and also extended presidential terms and allowed for limited re-election. Under that new constitution, Chavez was elected to the presidency again in 2000. After Chavez survived a short-lived coup in 2002, the Venezuelan opposition used procedures to recall the president in both 2003 and 2004. In a vote in 2004, Venezuelans rejected attempts to recall Chavez. Then last year, Venezuelans gave Chavez a new term until 2013. With that history, is it any wonder that the Venezuelan electorate is a bit fatigued?

However, the end result is also an electorate, which has been very engaged in how Venezuela steers its new course. Whether Chavez wins, loses, or goes away quietly, his real legacy is engaging all classes in a discussion about the country’s direction. Isn’t that democracy?

Of course, Venezuela still has more than five years with Chavez at the helm. And even in his concession speech, Chavez repeated a rallying cry that made him popular while he was being defeated militarily in 1992. He noted several times, the constitutional reforms were done “por ahora.” For now.

Until the next round in the polarized politics of Venezuela, the country’s democracy has come out a winner. Por ahora.

For other select pieces on Venezuelan politics, please see:

(The photo of President Hugo Chavez voting is by Wilson Dias of Agência Brasil, the Brazilian news agency, which allows use of its photos through a Creative Commons License.)

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