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What’s next for Venezuela?

Gregory Wilpert on the Venezuelan referendum (3 of 3)

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: So, what happens now in the next few months? Does life go back to a kind of normalcy? Does the opposition come out in the streets again in the next two weeks? What’s the next step?

GREGORY WILPERT, AUTHOR/JOURNALIST: Well, for one thing, I mean, it’s really good for Venezuela that the no vote won by such a small margin instead of winning by an overwhelming margin or instead of losing by a small margin. If it had lost by a small margin there would have been mayhem on the streets with people calling fraud. They were already all prepared to call fraud without any proof for it. So I think, yes, there is going to be a calm now, and the next storm is actually going to be when Chavez introduces the laws that are part of his enabling law, that is, he has been empowered at the beginning of this year to pass a large number of laws by decree, and he has to do that in the next six months. And he’ll probably do that, just like last time, shortly before that power expires. And when that happens, there’ll be another storm of outrage, of course, from the opposition.

JAY: Why? What are the most controversial of those?

WILPERT: Well, we don’t know yet what they look like. None of them have been presented, except for maybe two or three. So we really don’t know. But Chavez said there were going to be a lot. He even was mentioning that up to one hundred laws would be either introduced new or would change existing laws.

JAY: Is there anything in terms of these laws, Greg, that you know that are coming that are going to be specifically controversial?

WILPERT: It hasn’t really been discussed, and so it’s very difficult to say. Well, one thing that he said would be changed is, for example, Venezuela’s laws involving commerce. So I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it probably has something to do with business taxation and will affect the private sector quite heavily, but that’s the only one that comes to mind right now.

JAY: In some ways this referendum came down to Chavez saying, "Just trust me," and he got an answer back, which is, "No, not that much." What does this do to him and what does this do to his true believers?

WILPERT: Well, that message about "just trust me" came, I think, only when he realized that this thing might not go through. Before that, he was trying to campaign on the issues. But it was only in the last week before the campaign when they probably also had some polling results that said this might not pass. That he started to personalize it, because he saw that he was still very popular. And that was of course a very smart move to try to tie to him and to try to cut through the confusion and the disinformation that had happened until then. But, yes, the people have basically said that, no, we’re not going to trust you blindly. And that is certainly a sign of a mature population, even if they made that decision, I would say, on the basis of a lot of disinformation and confusion.

JAY: But on the whole, maybe a good thing in the final analysis for Venezuela.

WILPERT: Yes, I certainly think so.

JAY: In a kind of practical way, in terms of what Chavez and the government are trying to achieve in reforms in Venezuela, why were these constitutional measures needed anyway? Like, what are some real examples of what they couldn’t do because of the constitution or because of the existing laws? What was blocking them?

WILPERT: Well, certainly the limit on reelection was an important one for Chavez, I think, because he does not think that he can pass; he can carry out this transition to 21st century socialism in the remaining five years that he has in office, so that was an important one. Another one I already mentioned was: the land reform needed change on a constitutional level.

JAY: The final analysis, then, the really most significant pieces of this in a practical way seem to be the term-limit issue and the issue of the emergency powers, and to that Venezuelans have so far said no.

WILPERT: The state of emergency issue I don’t think was ever that big an issue. It was something that was added by the National Assembly, and then it was relegated to the second block, in other words, if people really didn’t like it, they could still vote against that and still vote for the majority of Chavez’s proposals. So I think it was more of an afterthought. The ones that were really important to Chavez were the ones that he had originally proposed, and certainly central bank autonomy was part of that, and the reelection was certainly a part of that. And then there was this whole aspect of creating what they call a popular power, which would have given constitutional rank, essentially, to the communal councils. Now, the communal counsels already exist, But they would have been tremendously strengthened through this constitutional reform.

JAY: Just for full transparency, it was a secret ballot, so you don’t have to answer this. But how did you vote?

WILPERT: I supported the first batch, which included Chavez’s proposal, and I was opposed to the second batch, precisely, because it included the controversial state of emergency provision and also made it more difficult to launch citizen-initiated referenda, to increase the signature requirements for such referenda.

JAY: Right. So you voted for eliminating term limits. You voted against the emergency laws. And also it actually is an important question: why did they raise the bar for a citizen-initiated referendum as such, and sometimes quite dramatically, from 10 per cent to 30 per cent? I mean, to some extent trying to make some of these impossible.

WILPERT: Yes, I think it would have made them practically impossible. The rationale? I think here in Venezuela there’s very little experience with those kinds of referenda. There’s been only one real citizen-initiated referendum. And so people coming from California like myself, who’s lived there for awhile, know a little bit more, I think, about how that works. And here they saw the referenda as being something that should be enabled, but it shouldn’t be too easy, because then it would be abused. And I think there would have been other ways to prevent abuse than increasing the number of signatures. So that’s the only method that they could come up with, and they figured that having these too often would be too expensive for the government.

JAY: Do you think a lesson of modesty will be learned from this?

WILPERT: Yes. I think, there is going to be a lot of reflection in the pro-Chavez camp, and they will probably think of it more systematically as to how to convey the changes that they want to introduce. And if something similar is going to be tried in the future, they will probably try to do it with more consideration and giving people more time for debate.

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