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Mark Weisbrot: The constitutional referendum and the media’s “anti-Chavez” slant

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: On Sunday, December 2, Venezuelans will go to the polls to vote on sweeping changes to their country’s constitution.


Pro-Chavez rally

HUGO CHAVEZ, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): On the constitutional reform … We are all going to vote “YES!”

Anti-Chavez rally

SPEAKER: All of us, always, will vote “NO!” to the reform!


JAY: The reforms to the legal system and the economy are far-reaching, creating conditions for what Chavez calls “socialism of the 21st century.” The world’s media has mostly focused on only one of sixty-nine amendments. This provision will remove term limits for the country’s president, prompting the opposition, as well as most newspaper and television news reports, to call the constitution referendum a power grab by President Hugo Chavez. To help us understand the issues, we are joined by Mark Weisbrot in Washington. He’s an economist, an analyst for the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, and has written extensively criticizing American media coverage of President Hugo Chavez. Mark, you’ve been critical of American media in the past, and particularly so now, leading into this referendum. Tell us why.

Via broadband from Washington, D.C.

MARK WEISBROT: Well, they’re presenting a very one-sided view, as they have for several years now. For example, they’re trying to make this look like it’s the making of a dictatorship.


REPORTER: Dictatorship through democracy.



FOX NEWS PRESENTER: Reelected to as many presidential terms as he wants.


WEISBROT: And, of course, there’s nothing in this reform that says people have to or should reelect Chavez. You know, all Europe, that I know of, does not have term limits—you know, England, France, Germany, Spain. In the United States, Franklyn Roosevelt was elected four times. And it was only after that, in 1951, that the Republicans, in a direct rebuke to Roosevelt, managed to pass term limits.

JAY: A possibility of recalling Chavez during his term, in terms of referendums, referendums on constitutional change: one of the provisions in the new constitutional amendments is to raise the vote that is necessary for citizens’ referendums, some cases from 20-25%, but in some cases from 10-30%, depending what the citizen-initiated measure is. Why does the government feel the need to make it more difficult to have these citizen-initiated referendums?

WEISBROT: Well, yeah, I think that it would be a little bit harder to get things on the ballot but, you know, again, there’s no other country in the world that even gives its citizens the right to recall their president. You’ve got to remember the media portrays it, you know, some of the editorial boards in this country, you know, they actually call Chavez a dictator and call this a dictatorship. And in fact one of our major commentators here, Fareed Zakaria, who writes for Newsweek and is on the Sunday talk shows every week, you know, said that that Chavez was worse than Musharraf. The reporting and commentary is all out of proportion. The coverage of Venezuela is probably worse than anything you see in the world today. It’s been just completely one-sided, I mean, where reporters don’t even feel the obligation as they would even when covering, you know, a dictatorship in other parts of the world.

JAY: Articles 337 and 338 talk about suspending the right to information during what they call “states of exception,” which I assume is like a state of emergency. The amendment now allows this state of exception to be declared without any limit as long as it’s approved by the national assembly. I don’t understand why this is necessary.

WEISBROT: Yes. I wouldn’t support that either. I think the reason it’s there, though—again, it’s not as it’s portrayed, that Chavez is trying to establish a dictatorship—in fact, this comes overwhelmingly from the national assembly and from the people who voted for them, because during the coup in April 2002, that was actually led by the media, and the media faked film footage in order to convince the country and the world that the government was actually shooting down people in the streets. Also, the government has never declared a state of exception or emergency, even during the oil strike of 2002, 2003, which any country in Europe and certainly the United States would have used all kinds of legislation to throw the leaders of that strike in jail.

JAY: There’s dozens of other provisions in these constitutional amendments. What are the highlights? And what’s being missed here?

WEISBROT: Well, I think the big thing that people are going to vote for is social security for the informal labour force, which is about 41% of the labour force, including taxi drivers, street vendors. Really, everybody who’s working will have social security coverage. That’s a very big anti-poverty measure. The reduction of the work week to thirty-six hours is probably popular as well. There’s anti-discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.

JAY: There’s a provision for what some people have said is eliminating the independence of the central bank. What is that about? Why is Chavez doing this?

WEISBROT: I’m glad you mentioned that because the media is making that look like it’s another power grab. But, in fact, central banks throughout the world have not always been independent, and many of them still are not. And this making the central bank an autonomous institution, as it is in the United States, for example, has not been a good thing in Latin America at all, in my opinion as an economist. What it does is it makes the central bank not accountable to the electorate; but they are very accountable to financial interests, and those financial interests, in every country, the financial sector tends to favour slower growth, higher unemployment, and anything that produces lower inflation.

JAY: This Sunday is the vote on the referendum. First of all, what results are expected? And what kind of day is expected? Is it going to be a peaceful day of voting or a day of conflict?

WEISBROT: Oh, it’s very hard to tell, but, you know, I think that the government will probably win and in the events up to the polling day that I’ve seen. My biggest fear, I think, is that there will be a repeat of what happened in 2004, when the opposition used fake polling data, fake exit polls that were done by the very influential U.S. polling firm Penn, Schoer & Berland. Mark Penn has been in the news recently because he’s a top advisor and pollster for Hillary Clinton, and he was the head of that firm and in charge of those fake exit polls. And those polls showed that Chavez lost 60-40. It was on the day of the vote. In fact, he won 59 or 58 to 41. And I’m afraid that they might try something like this this time, because you don’t have the big international observer mission that they had the last time. And so I think there is a real danger that these kinds of deceptions that they used repeatedly in the past will be used to provoke some kind of violent demonstration.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy” (2015, Oxford University Press).