Venezuela referendum victory strengthens socialist revolution

By Marcus Pabian

On February 15 some 6.3 million Venezuelans, 54.86% of voters, approved a constitutional amendment that allows all public officials to be re-elected more than once, thus enabling Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez to stand in the next presidential election in 2012. Retired Cuban president Fidel Castro praised the vote as “a victory that due to its magnitude is impossible to measure”. Indeed, Venezuela’s US-backed capitalist opposition attempted to defeat the amendment and avoid future electoral contests with Chavez, which they have repeatedly lost since 1998. Addressing supporters following the vote, Chavez declared: “Those who voted ‘yes’ today voted for socialism, for revolution.”

Unable to provide any convincing evidence of fraud in the aftermath of the referendum, the opposition-controlled Venezuelan mass media and US corporate media outlets have sought to discredit the result by arguing that Chavez’s referendum victory was the result, as the February 25 Washington Post put it, of “a populace manipulated by an omnipresent government”. The Post added: “Over the past decade, Chavez has taken control of the Supreme Court, the lower courts, the state oil company, the armed forces, and all investigative and oversight agencies, including the attorney general’s office. The National Assembly is also under Chavez’s control, because opposition politicians boycotted elections in 2005 and promptly lost every seat — a costly blunder those government foes publicly lament.”

The March 2 Washington Post Company-owned Newsweek magazine ran an article by former Mexican foreign secretary Jorge Castaneda in which he claimed that Chavez had “used every conceivable instrument of the state, every imaginable subterfuge, every trick in the book, to stack the deck in his favour and against his opponents”, and that Chavez “is likely to continue to govern in an authoritarian fashion”. US President Barack Obama has made similar attacks on Chavez. Addressing the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation last May, Obama claimed that “Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected leader. But we also know that he does not govern democratically. He talks of the people, but his actions just serve his own power.”

Some left-liberal supporters of Chavez’s revolutionary working people’s government have also fallen into this line of criticism. Two days before the referendum, George Gabriel argued on the Venezuelanalysis website that: “use of the state’s generally large and powerful resources” in the referendum “contest violates its norms, especially that of fair competition. The state is to be competed over, not through.” Gabriel outlines a number of examples where state resources were used in favour of the “yes” campaign — the Caracas metropolitan train station repeatedly playing only pro-amendment songs on its PA-system; the state TV channel was used for the “yes” campaign; and workers in the governments’ social missions were directed to help the “yes” campaign.

A few days after the referendum, Venezuelanalysis website co-editor Gregory Wilpert also argued against the use of the state machinery by the Chavistas to gain re-election, suggesting the need for “better legislation to protect against using one’s office for re-election”. Yet neither Gabriel nor Wilpert can cite any country that acts within this “principle”.

These supporters of Chavez’s Bolivian socialist revolution hold to the liberal view that the state is, or must be, independent of “politics”. But this does not exist in practice anywhere in the world, nor history — it’s a fiction based on the liberal refusal to recognise that politics is fundamentally about the use of state power to defend or advance class interests. In every society divided into social classes, into exploiters and exploited, the institutions of state power exist to impose, defend and promote the interests of one class in opposition to those of antagonistic classes, including using state resources to win electoral contests.

For example, in Australia the two alternate governing parties of the capitalist ruling class directly and legally fund their election campaigns with public money. In 2007 the ALP received over $20 million and the Liberal Party over $17 million in public funding. But since Australia’s capitalist class is an ally of US imperialism, the US corporate media never campaigns against this use of state resources as an “undemocratic” contravention of the Australian federal state’s “independence”.

The use of state resources by the Chavez government was made possible following the defeat of the April 2002 US-backed military coup, which briefly overthrew the elected Chavez government and installed opposition leader and business federation leader Pedro Carmona as Venezuela’s president. Carmona’s supporters — the Venezuelan capitalist oligarchy — had used the core institution of state power, the army, to oust Chavez from office because he had sought to bring the capitalist state-owned PDVSA oil company under his government’s control so as to use its huge revenues to fund social programs in the interests of the working-class majority.

The coup was defeated within 48 hours when the majority of officers and soldiers joined with hundreds of thousands of working people in an insurrectionary revolt against the top military brass and the Carmona regime, returning Chavez to office. The split in the army brought into being a new state power, with a different class character — a working people’s government based on a working people’s army, largely purged of the pro-capitalist officers who supported the anti-Chavez coup.

The Chavez leadership’s use of state power since then has produced a raft of social gains for the poor and working-class majority which clearly demonstrate that it governs in their interests. These social gains are documented in a report released on January 30 by the Venezuelan Ministry of People’s Power for Communication and Information. According to the report, the proportion of Venezuela’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen from 42% in 1998 when Chavez was first elected president to 9.5% last year. General poverty has declined from 50.5% in 1998 to 33.4%. Unemployment has been halved over the last 10 years, falling to 6.1% by early 2009. (By comparison, the official US unemployment rate is 7.2% and rising). Venezuela has the highest minimum wage in Latin America (US$372 per month). In addition, workers receive a food bonus each month worth more than $186. Pensions now equal the minimum wage.

With the support of socialist Cuba, the free healthcare system known as Barrio Adentro has established 6531 health centres, 479 integral diagnosis centres, 543 integral rehabilitation centres, 26 high technology centres, 13 popular clinics, 459 opticians’ clinics and 3019 facilities providing medical and dental care. Almost 90% of Venezuelans have benefited from Barrio Adentro. Nutrition levels have improved through the setting up of 15,000 subsidised food markets.

According to UN standards, illiteracy was overcome in 2005. Free education has expanded significantly, as have enrolments, with the Chavez government organising Mission Robinson II and Mission Ribas to target people previously excluded from education. There are currently 571,917 students in free university courses. While tens of thousands of new public houses having been built, there are now plans to end the housing shortage completely with the construction of 1.6 million new public housing units by 2016.

Rather than criticism, the Chavez government deserves support for using state power to defend and promote the working people’s interests in the face of hostility from the Venezuelan capitalist class and the US imperialist rulers.

The referendum victory was won not only with the use of state resources but, more importantly, the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of working people through an estimated 100,000 “yes” committees that campaigned in favour of the constitutional amendment. The campaign was launched by thousands of members of Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) on December 11 when they took to the streets, establishing “red tents”, which collected 4.5 million signatures in favour of the amendment in just one week. These were presented to the Venezuelan parliament on December 18.

The 6.3 million Venezuelan’s who voted for the amendment were not “duped into democratically authorizing dictatorship” as John Thomson and Norman Pino claimed in the February 22 Washington Times. Rather, they were convinced to extend their own democratic right to elect the leader of their revolution, Hugo Chavez, to future presidential terms.

Speaking from the balcony of Miraflores, the presidential palace, following the announcement of the referendum victory, Chavez set out the next challenges facing Venezuela’s socialist revolution: “We have opened the gates of new horizons and those new horizons really need institutions that can hold and guarantee the future. It’s necessary that we finish building and refounding the institutions of the republic”, Chavez said.

“This democracy”, Chavez said, “must be more and more revolutionary, authentic, participative and popular … Government, party [PSUV] and people, I’d like us to re-take, with all our strength, in all areas of the government, that policy of the 3Rs [revision, rectification, and re-launch of the revolution].” Pointing to the depth of defeat for the opposition, Chavez commented that, “from now on; the predators of the people and the Venezuelan homeland are finished … These were the predator groups that granted the country to imperialism and shared the richness among few hands. This is over in Venezuela.”