PAUL JAY: On Sunday December 2nd, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was handed his first electoral defeat since coming to power eight years ago. Nine million Venezuelans voted on sweeping constitutional reforms which would brought the country one step closer to what Chavez calls "21st century socialism". The referendum would have removed term limits for President Chavez, and strengthened emergency powers, and introduced many other constitutional reforms. The referendum was voted down by a tiny margin, about 2%. To help us understand why, The Real News speaks with Gregory Wilpert, editor of the web site Venezuelanalysis.com, and author of a new book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. Gregory, the polls were showing Chavez ahead right up until the very last day. Even early in the voting, exit polls were suggesting it was a victory for the pro-referendum forces. What happened?
GREGORY WILPERT: Well, actually, going into the referendum I noticed that the polls were very mixed. In the past, just before the vote, polls tended to converge, and this time they were really far apart. And so that indicated to me that it was going to be a fairly unpredictable result and probably very close.
JAY: But certainly when President Chavez decided to call this referendum, he was rather confident at the time of a victory. Was this a bit of Bolivarian hubris?
WILPERT: Yes, I think so. They didn’t realize, Chavez and his supporters didn’t realize, just how much confusion the referendum or the constitutional reform had caused in the population, because we’re talking about sixty-nine articles that were going to be reformed, and it was not very clear what they all really meant, especially because the messages coming from the opposition camp and the Chavez camp were diametrically opposed, were saying completely different things, and there was no middle ground to really figure out who was saying the truth about the matter.
JAY: Well, who was saying what? What was the most substantive idea that seemed to coalesce pro and con?
WILPERT: Well, against the referendum, the most substantive idea that seems to have caught on was this idea that the reform would make expropriations easier and would practically eliminate private property. And so this is what the opposition was saying with advertisements. They had a TV ad where they were showing a shop owner, and somebody comes in and says, "Now your store is government property." And a lot of people got scared by that and confused by that. And that was a very strong message that really seemed to reach a long way in the population.
JAY: And was there any truth to that? Did this constitutional reform give the state this kind of power?
WILPERT: No. The method by which expropriations would be done is exactly the same as it was before: only if it’s in a preponderant public interest would things be expropriated, and then only with indemnization just like it was before. There was no real change. What was different—and this is what confused people—was that new forms of property were being introduced in addition to private property, which was collective and social property, and it wasn’t completely clear to people what that really meant.
JAY: What was the fundamental reason for calling this referendum? Was the issue of eliminating term limits so Chavez could run in other, new elections? Was that the real motivating factor? ‘Cause I don’t understand why most of what was in this referendum couldn’t have been passed in the form of laws by the National Assembly anyway.
WILPERT: Yes, a large chunk of it could have been passed in the form of laws, but not everything. Certainly one of them was the term limit, the elimination of those limits on re-election. Other issues were more of a technical issue, such as, for example—and this does touch, actually, on the expropriation issue—that when there’s a land reform, right now people cannot occupy, and people who are beneficiaries of the land reform cannot occupy that land as long as the reform is being tied up in court. And the reform, that is, the constitutional reform, would have gotten rid of that and allowed people to cultivate land, even if it was tied up in court. So that’s just one example. There’s a couple of others, but they really make only a handful of issues compared to the other issues where, actually, a constitutional reform was probably not necessary.
JAY: The way that the western media is covering this is that the essential question facing Venezuelans was do you want Hugo Chavez to have more power? And do you want a president with more power to be able to run over and over again for President? Was that in fact what it all came down to? And did people then reject the idea that President Chavez should have such power?
WILPERT: Well, yeah, that’s certainly the message that was given by the international media and by the opposition media here in Venezuela. However, if you examine the reform in detail, the vast majority of the proposed changes actually didn’t have anything to do with President Chavez’s power; they had to do with issues such as deepening participatory democracy in Venezuela by strengthening the communal councils here, giving them a larger role. Another one, aspect, a whole slew changes would have affected, including marginalized sectors of the population, such as lesbians and gays. Women, for example, also would have benefited. Also, the self-employed, the informal labor market would have benefited. There’s many parts. And then another one, a whole section would have affected the government’s development policy. The reform would have gotten rid of autonomy of the central bank, for example, and would have strengthened the state’s role in some aspects of the nationalizing and of directing the national economy.
JAY: But there was two resolutions in the referendum—and I think they’re numbers 337, 338—that allow the president to declare a state of exception, which is pretty much like a state of emergency, I assume, which suspends the right to information, specifically, which I guess gives the President the right to close down television stations and newspapers, or at least to restrict what they can say; and it also seemed to lift any limits on this power as long as it’s endorsed by the National Assembly. It seems like it can go on indefinitely. There’s no built-in review process in terms of how long this state of exception might last. It’s also, as far as I understand, not very defined what might be a state of exception. It’s not just linked, for example, to a foreign invasion. It seems to be it could just be declared by the President and the National Assembly. Why was such open-ended legislation necessary? And then, two, isn’t that part of why people rejected this referendum?
WILPERT: Yes, I think that was one of the more controversial elements that swayed people to vote against the referendum, at least the people who studied it, and it was certainly one that the opposition was able to campaign very well on. Whether it was really necessary, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it. But people in the government here felt like, well, if they had had this type of power during the coup attempt and during the shutdown of the country’s oil industry, then they might have been able to prevent other disasters that both of those incidents turned out to be. In other words, the existing state of exception in the Constitution basically doesn’t do anything, and therefore it needed to be strengthened in case something like that happened again.
JAY: The fact that this went down to defeat shows a certain misjudging, at least, of Venezuelan public opinion. Is there a kind of disconnect between the culture of the Presidency and those around him and at least certain large sections of Venezuelan society that they sure couldn’t have expected this as the result?
WILPERT: Yes. Well, obviously, they didn’t expect it, given how confident they were going into this. But, yeah, I think there was a bit of a hubris on the part of Chavez, thinking that, well, you know, if he ties it to his own popularity, it would go through. And I think they also didn’t count on how focused the opposition campaign would be, and how confusing the entire reform process was actually going to be. So there was a number of miscalculations on the part of Chavez and his supporters.