Venezuela – Referendum Defeat Strengthens the Right

In the early morning of Monday December 3 – when President Hugo Chávez conceded the defeat of proposed changes to Venezuela’s constitution – the mood in the capital Caracas depended on whether you were rich or poor. Outside the Miraflores Palace, thousands of red-shirted Chávez supporters “collapsed into stunned silence. Some began to sob.” By contrast, “middle-class areas of Caracas erupted in jubilation. Housewives leaned out of windows banging pots, cavalcades of cars honked horns and couples danced salsa in the streets.”[1] For the first time since the election of Chávez in 1998, the rich in Venezuela had something to celebrate, and the repercussions are still unclear.

The vote itself could not have been closer – 4,504,354 votes against, (50.70%) and 4,379,392, (49.29%) for the proposed changes. Importantly, this result did not represent a sharp increase in the numbers of people opposed to Chávez. The “No” vote was only 100,000 more than the votes against him in the 2006 presidential election. The real story was the decline in those voting with Chávez. The “Yes” vote was 2.8 million fewer than the numbers who voted for Chávez the previous year.[2] In other words, the referendum was defeated – not because of a sharp growth of right-wing forces, but because of a sharp decline of those willing to back the Chávez referendum initiative.

And at one level, it is not a defeat at all. In accepting the decision of the voters, Chávez made it very difficult for his opponents to call him undemocratic. The process itself was remarkable as an exercise in public participation. According to Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Ambassador of Venezuela to the U.S.: “from August 16 to October 7 – some 9,020 public events were held … Over 10 million copies of the reforms were distributed to the public, and one poll found that over 77 percent of the Venezuelan people had read them.”[3] Further, the constitution up for amendment, was already an extremely progressive Chávista document – the product of a 1999 popularly elected Constituent Assembly. According to respected Venezuela commentator Maria Paez Victor:

It guarantees the rights of women as well as children; full rights over land, culture, and language to Aboriginal peoples, includes environmental rights, and enshrines public participation. It also guarantees social human rights such as the right to health care, education, work, and food. And thus, it has given the state a role not just as guardian, but also as a promoter of civic and social rights. It is unique in that it recognizes the right of housewives to social benefits, it specifically uses both female and male nouns and pronouns – thereby asserting the active role of women – and it gives constitutional parity to all international human rights treaties signed by Venezuela.[4]

But Victor and all other serious commentators agree that the vote was a defeat for the revolution, and the reason this defeat has to be taken seriously is not because of electoral considerations (counting the number of votes), but because of the social dynamics the vote has revealed. Specifically, the campaign against the reforms created a context in which the right-wing in Venezuela could unite and effectively mobilize – really, for the first time in a decade. This newly unified opposition included some prominent individuals and organizations, including Chávez ex-wife Marisabel Rodriguez, the social democratic party Podemos, and former defence minister Raul Baduel.[5] The unifying of an anti-Chávez opposition – especially one with the connections to the military represented by Baduel – is an event to be taken very seriously indeed.

The opposition was able to take advantage of the complexity of the referendum. August 15 2007, Chávez presented 33 amendments. The National Assembly then held a three round debate, and proposed an additional 36 amendments for a total of 69. The reforms ranged from decreasing the working week to institutionalizing funding for the new communal councils, to ending limits on the presidency. This complexity was clearly a problem. The merits of individual reforms were easily lost in the sheer magnitude of what voters were being asked to decide on. In this confusion, the right-wing seized on the proposal to end limits to the presidency, seeing in this an attempt by Chávez to stay in office in perpetuity – a silly point, given the fact that in any parliamentary (rather than presidential) democracy, there are often no limits on the term of office for the head of state. A good example would be, well, Canada.

On top of the complexity, there was the question of time. The official campaign lasted from November 2 to December 3 – an amazingly short time given such a complex question. At one level it is incredible not how many people stayed away, but how many people showed up to vote, in spite of these obstacles.

Greg Wilpert insists, however, that the vote reflected deeper problems. He argues that there has been a “souring of the mood” among the poor and workers who are the base of the Chávista movement. Many of Chávez’ supporters believe:

… the government’s public administration had become inefficient and many of the president’s supporters wanted to send him a message. As the human rights group Provea reports, the social programmes, the missions for community health care, literacy training, high school completion, public housing, subsidised food, land reform, and employment through the creation of cooperatives, have all been deteriorating in the past year. While pro-Chávez poor Venezuelans appreciate the increase in social programmes and spending over the past four years, they are disappointed and frustrated at the inefficiency with which these programmes are managed. It did not help that there was a severe milk shortage in October and November, which made it almost impossible to find fresh milk, and hard to find powdered milk.[6]

This is a dangerous situation. Chávez has massively raised expectations, talking about “21st century socialism.” But the reality is, socialism is not on the agenda any time soon in Venezuela. The country is massively poor, handicapped by the terrible legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and facing an extremely powerful enemy in the shape of Imperialist North America (including both the United States and Canada). The Chávez project has accomplished many things – but they are at the level of reforms and the assertion of national independence. If these are painted with the gloss of the struggle for socialism, the potential for massive demoralization is very real, as the grim everyday reality of oppression and exploitation grinds on for Venezuela’s impoverished millions.

Having raised expectations too high, Chávez now has put out signs that he may be turning in the other direction, and setting them too low. In a confusing televised address January 6, 2008, Chávez on the one hand said that “we’re going to continue to move forward in creating a socialist fatherland,” but that at the moment would mean a sharp change of pace. “We couldn’t expand the framework, we couldn’t increase the perspective and we couldn’t accelerate the pace” he said. “I’m obligated to put on the brakes.”[7] If the brakes need to be put on, it is of abstract talk about “socialism” in the face of the bitter reality of class society. In terms of pushing for reforms of that society, the gas pedal is required, not the brake pedal.

One week after the referendum defeat, a huge step towards Latin American integration took place with the announcement of the “Banco de Sur” – the new South American development bank. This was a joint initiative of the governments of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay,[8] and is designed to continue the process of freeing Latin America from the underdevelopment clutches of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This is a fantastic assertion of regional independence, and is in line with Venezuela’s moves to become a full member of the trade alliance, Mercosur.

One of our jobs in the solidarity movements of the Global North is to defend these assertions of independence from imperialism. But in themselves, they are perfectly compatible with capitalism. It is interesting that a senior member of Brazil’s government sees the referendum defeat as being a useful event, something that “for the purposes of inclusion” into Mercosur, the referendum defeat could actually help.[9] From the standpoint of the social movements, this is a terrible logic. A defeat which partially demobilizes the mass movement, and gives confidence to the right wing is not a useful event even if it greases the wheels of a business deal like Mercosur. Too far down the road of mass demoralization and right-wing unification, and increased violence against the revolution cannot at all be discounted. The history of Latin America is littered with examples of attempted revolutions where a demobilized mass movement has been left vulnerable to counter-revolution.

We build solidarity for the Chávista stand against imperialism for what it is – the assertion of sovereignty and independence. But we do that solidarity work no service by “painting it in communist colours” to borrow a phrase from the Russian Marxist Vladimir Lenin. In this, we can take heart in the fact that in all revolutionary processes such as that unfolding in Venezuela, there are thousands who move towards a vision of a future based, not on electoral considerations, but the self-activity and self-organization of the poor and the working class.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Rory Carroll, “Shock and celebrations as voters stall the Chávez revolution,” The Guardian, December 4, 2007,
[2] Information taken from Alan Woods, “Venezuela: The referendum defeat – What does it mean?”,, December 4, 2007
[3] Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, “Reforming Venezuela’s Consitution,”, November 20, 2007
[4] Maria Paez Victor, “Mr. Danger and Socialism for the New Millennium,” ZNet, March 29, 2006, . To read a copy of the constitution, see
[5] Gregory Wilpert, “Venezuela’s Revolution Checked,” ZNet, December 24, 2007
[6] Gregory Wilpert, “Venezuela’s Revolution Checked”
[7] Matthew Walter, “Venezuela’s Chavez to ‘Put Brakes on His Revolution (Update1)”,, January 6, 2008,
[8] Jude Webber, “S America launches Banco del Sur,” Financial Times, December 11, 2007,
[9] “Referendum results to Help Venezuela Enter Mercosur,”, December 7, 2007

2 thoughts on “Venezuela – Referendum Defeat Strengthens the Right”

  1. this is, without a doubt, the single best piece of analysis on the Venezuelan referendum i've seen yet.

    the notion of working class self activity is key here – and the way forward for Venezuela, as well as for broader struggles against imperialism globally is to fight for reforms where possible, of course, but using those reforms in a manner which allows them to be implemented, not by the bureaucratic state apparatus but by working people and the poor themselves, organized in the form of democratic worker's councils.

    This necessarily brings people into conflict with more than imperialism, it brings them into conflict with capitalism itself, rendering talk about 'socialism' much more meaningful than the vague way that Chavez often uses the term, even if the necessary preconditions for actual socialism don't exist in Venezuela now.

    one interesting thing about Venezuela is that, in a very limited, weak sort of fashion there already exists a kind of dual power situation, yet not at all similar to anything in history i'm familiar with – certainly not analogous to the dual power that existed in 1917, yet there is, at the very base of Venezuelan society already developed, and still developing, a network of community and workplace associations, "Bolivarian circles", etc – which can serve to both act as a way to transmit government policy down to local levels as they do now, as well as potentially develop in a way that renders the existing state apparatus as no longer necessary for the implementation of reforms – which in itself is a revolution far beyond the Chavez model thus far.

    But such a development also requires, not as a precondition for its start, which may emerge spontaneously – but rather for its survival – the formation of a revolutionary organization dedicated to bringing these elements to the forefront and fighting relentlessly for a worker's agenda.

    the defeat of the referendum, while a setback, is by no means a final defeat.

  2. Fantastic article, Paul. I always appreciate how you clearly and concisely explain political events of such complexity.

    I also think this is easily one of the best short analyses of what happened in the referendum.

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