The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 71/No. 48      December 24, 2007

Venezuela constitutional referendum
fails amid high abstention
(front page)
Voter abstention was high in a December 2 referendum on proposed changes to Venezuela’s constitution. The referendum was defeated 51 to 49 percent, with just 56 percent voter turnout.

The 69 amendments to the constitution, which were proposed by President Hugo Chávez and his supporters, were voted on in two groups. The changes included a range of measures that would have expanded the scope of the president’s powers and established political, territorial, and military structures—tied to supporters of Chávez—parallel to existing state structures. The proposals also included a reduction of the workday to six hours with no cut in pay, the integration of the self-employed into the state social security system, and banning job discrimination against gays, among many other measures.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the U.S.-backed opposition to the Chávez government launched a campaign of mobilizations against the constitutional changes. Daily marches, often led by students from the capital’s elite private universities, were a feature of this campaign.

Some prominent government supporters broke with Chávez over the amendments. Among them was Raúl Baduel, a former commander in chief of the Venezuelan army who implied that the armed forces would split if the referendum passed.

While the opposition used the campaign to regroup their forces and test their strength against popular support for the Chávez government, they gained few new voters.

On the other hand, 40 percent of those who voted to reelect Chávez in presidential elections last January—about 3 million people—stayed away from the polls.

For example, in Petare, a working-class neighborhood in Caracas that has been a base of government support, 62 percent of voters opposed the referendum, while 38 percent voted in favor.

“I voted for Chávez last time but I will not vote at all on Sunday,” garment worker Betty Rojas told the Financial Times before the elections. Rojas lives in La Pedrera, a working-class neighborhood in Caracas that was hit by landslides in November. She pointed to a slow government reaction to the destruction of homes there as part of the reason for her abstention.  
Economic squeeze on working people
Venezuelan oil prices have risen seven-fold since 1998, when Chávez was first elected president. The government has used the revenues to fund social projects such as a literacy campaign that has taught more than a million workers and peasants to read and write; free clinics in working-class neighborhoods, staffed by volunteer Cuban doctors; and free, open universities in the former offices of the national oil company.

Such programs have increased working people’s expectations. Popular mobilizations to expand access to land, housing, and jobs have exploded in recent years, heightening the political consciousness and confidence of the working class.

At the same time, Venezuela has the highest rate of inflation in Latin America today—21 percent since November 2006. Inflation of food prices over the same period is 29 percent. U.S. dollars trade at nearly three times the official exchange rate on a rampant black market. Shortages of milk, cooking oil, meat, and sugar are widespread. About 60 percent of items consumed in Venezuela are imported, a continuing result of imperialist underdevelopment.

“If this government cannot get me milk or asphalt for our roads, how is it going to give my mother a pension?” Ivonne Torrealba, a hairdresser in the working-class Caracas neighborhood of Coche, told the New York Times.

According to William Barreto, vice president of the Caracas Municipal Youth Institute, the shortages are a result of hoarding—often by officials in the military or government institutions. “There are many people who say they are with the revolution but they are motivated by personal gain,” Barreto said in a December 10 telephone interview with the Militant. The government has passed antihoarding laws, but black market stands selling meat, sugar, and milk at several times the government-set prices are common throughout Caracas.

“There’s a lot of unhappiness with the leadership of some mayors and ministries,” said Barreto.

In a December 6 public appearance, Chávez blamed such discontent for the high abstention rate in the referendum. Former vice president José Vicente Rangel called for the government to carry out a “cleaning-up” of the bureaucracy.

Speaking of government supporters who didn’t vote because they say they don’t like the mayor or the governor, Chávez said, “Those are excuses of the weak, of the cowards, and of the lazy.” He said, “They have a debt to me.”  
Government campaign
But discontent with local officials wasn’t the only reason millions of working people stayed away from the polls.

“I abstained,” said William Ilardo, a graphic designer, in a December 11 phone interview. “I didn’t agree with all the reforms and I sincerely couldn’t vote ‘no’ because that was what the opposition was calling for and I want nothing to do with them.”

Ilardo said he was most opposed to a proposed amendment that would have eliminated presidential term limits. “The president can already rule by decree. That’s enough.” Even on articles such as the shorter workday, Ilardo said he wasn’t convinced.

“I’m a worker, so of course I’d like a shorter workday,” he said. “But why not reduce it by half an hour or an hour, with so many problems in the economy now?”

“I talked with my friends and relatives all over the country, and many of them didn’t vote,” said Ana Julia Zumlave, a peasant in the state of Cojedes, in a phone interview. “Many of them believed what the opposition was saying, that if the reform passed then Chávez was going to take away your children or your house.” She said the government campaign for the referendum “should have communicated more with the public about what each of the articles meant.”

Instead, the main campaign slogan was “SIgue con Chávez,” a play on words that means “Yes, continue with Chávez.” After weeks of opposition mobilizations, government supporters launched an educational campaign only in mid-November. Students and others stationed themselves at intersections, in parks, and other public areas to discuss the contents of the package with people.

“When we should have been on the offensive, explaining things, we were on the defensive,” said Barreto.

“There wasn’t enough time,” said Zumlave. “I voted yes. But I didn’t have time to read all the articles. The way I see it, the president has supported us, so we have to support him.”
Related articles:
U.S.-Colombia ‘free trade’ pact would bolster U.S. influence in South America  
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