Monday, December 03, 2007

Venezuela Hands Narrow Defeat to Socialist Reforms

Venezuela Hands Narrow Defeat to Chávez Plan

New York Times

CARACAS, Venezuela, Monday, Dec. 3 — Voters in this country narrowly defeated a proposed overhaul to the constitution in a contentious referendum over granting President Hugo Chávez sweeping new powers, the Election Commission announced early Monday.

It was the first major electoral defeat in the nine years of his presidency. Voters rejected the 69 proposed amendments 51 to 49 percent.

The political opposition erupted into celebration, shooting fireworks into the air and honking car horns, when electoral officials announced the results at 1:20 a.m. The nation had remained on edge since polls closed Sunday afternoon and the wait for results began.

The outcome is a stunning development in a country where Mr. Chávez and his supporters control nearly all of the levers of power. Almost immediately after the results were broadcast on state television, Mr. Chávez conceded defeat, describing the results as a “photo finish.”

“I congratulate my adversaries for this victory,” he said. “For now, we could not do it.”

Opposition leaders were ecstatic. “Tonight, Venezuela has won,” said Manuel Rosales, governor of Zulia State and the opposition’s candidate in presidential elections last year.

In recent weeks, members of previously splintered opposition movements joined disillusioned Chávez supporters in an attempt to defeat the referendum on constitutional changes. The plan would abolish term limits, allow Mr. Chávez to declare states of emergency for unlimited periods and increase the state’s role in the economy, among other measures.

The defeat slows Mr. Chávez’s socialist-inspired transformation of the country. Venezuela, once a staunch ally of the United States, has become a leading opponent of the Bush administration’s policies in the developing world. It has also taken the most profound leftward turn of any large Latin American nation in decades.

The referendum followed several weeks of street protests and frenetic campaigning over the amendments to the Constitution proposed by Mr. Chávez and his supporters. It caps a year of bold moves by the president, who forged a single Socialist party among his followers, forced a television network critical of the government off the public airwaves, and nationalized oil, telephone and electricity companies.

In Caracas on Sunday, turnout in poorer neighborhoods, where support for Mr. Chávez is strong, indicated that the referendum was drawing a mixed response. Lines were long in some areas and nonexistent in others.

“The whole proposal is marvelous,” said Francis Veracierta, 52, a treasurer at a communal council here, one of thousands of local governing entities loyal to Mr. Chávez that he created this year. After awakening to predawn fireworks, she said she joined a line at 6 a.m. to vote at a school in Petare, an area of sprawling hillside slums here.

“The power is for us in the community,” said Ms. Veracierta, wearing a red shirt, red cap and belt with Che Guevara’s face on it. She said she credited Mr. Chávez’s government for giving her a $3,800 loan to start a small clothing business.

Some of Mr. Chávez’s populist proposals, including an increase in social security benefits for some workers, have been praised even by his critics.

Turnout in some poor districts was unexpectedly low, indicating that even the president’s backers were willing to follow him only so far. Some Chávez supporters expressed concern that if they voted against the measures they might be retaliated against. Turnout of registed voters was just 56 percent.

There was no line in front of the voting center at the Cecilio Acosta school in Petare on Sunday morning, as a few dozen people who had already voted milled about the street. Some volunteers working the voting machines sat idle, waiting for more voters to arrive. Other voting centers in Petare had lines outside, but they were less than half a block long.

“I’m impressed by the lack of voters,” said Ninoska González, 37, who sells cigarettes on the street. “This was full last year.” She described herself as a “Chavista” who voted for the president in last year’s presidential elections, but said she voted against his proposed changes on Sunday.

“I don’t agree with some articles,” Ms. González said. Asked about the measure to pay social security benefits to workers in the informal economy like her, she said, “That’s a lie.”

Confusion persisted Sunday over the amendments, with a major complaint among the president’s supporters and critics that they had too little time to study the proposals.

Unlike in past votes here, this time the government did not invite observers from the Organization of American States or the European Union, opening itself to potential claims of fraud.

The voting seemed to unfold largely without irregularities, though there were isolated reports of fraud and violence in parts of the country. Recounts are allowed under Venezuelan law, but would have to be approved by the Supreme Court, which is controlled by Mr. Chávez’s supporters.

In recent weeks, Mr. Chávez has adopted an increasingly confrontational tone with critics abroad, who have been multiplying even in friendly countries with moderate leftist governments like Brazil and Chile.

In the days before the referendum, Mr. Chávez recalled his ambassador from Colombia and threatened to nationalize the Venezuelan operations of Spanish banks after Spain’s king told him to shut up during a meeting. Mr. Chávez said he would cut off oil exports to the United States in the event of American interference in the vote.

The United States remains the largest buyer of Venezuela’s oil, despite deteriorating political ties, but that long commercial relationship is starting to change as Mr. Chávez increases exports of oil to China and other countries while gradually selling off the oil refineries owned by Venezuela’s government in the United States.

Venezuela’s political opposition, normally divided among several small political parties, found common cause in calling on its members to vote against the amendments. An increasingly defiant student movement also protested here and in other large interior cities against the proposed charter.

In a move that alarmed the opposition, electoral officials over the weekend revoked the observer credentials of Jorge Quiroga, a former president of Bolivia and an outspoken critic of Mr. Chávez. Mr. Quiroga accused security forces here of following him after his arrival in Caracas. “They’ve taken my credential but not my tongue,” Mr. Quiroga said.

Mr. Chávez, whose followers already control many powerful institutions — the National Assembly, the federal bureaucracy, the national oil company, the Supreme Court and all but a handful of state governments — relied on an unrivaled political machine to gather support for the measures.

Uncertainty over Mr. Chávez’s reforms, meanwhile, has led to accelerating capital flight as rich Venezuelans and private companies rush to buy assets abroad denominated in dollars or euros. The currency, the bolívar, currently trades at about 6,100 to the dollar in street trading, compared with an official rate of 2,150.

Venezuela’s state-controlled oil industry is also showing signs of strain, grappling with a purge of opposition management by Mr. Chávez and a retooling of the state oil company to focus on social welfare projects while aging oil fields need maintenance.

Petróleos de Venezuela, the state oil company, says it produces 3.3 million barrels a day, but OPEC places its output at just 2.4 million barrels. And private economists estimate that a third of oil production goes to meet domestic consumption, which is surging because of a subsidy that keeps gasoline prices at about seven cents a gallon.

Still, Mr. Chávez already has unprecedented discretionary control over Venezuela’s oil revenues, valued at more than $60 billion a year. “Because of its oil, Venezuela has global reach in OPEC and the rest of Latin America,” said Kenneth R. Maxwell, a professor of Latin American history at Harvard University.

Jens Erik Gould contributed reporting.


Pan-African News Wire said...

Voters have turned out in numbers in Venezuela's referendum on far-reaching constitutional changes sought by President Hugo Chavez.

The raft of proposed reforms would see the end of presidential term limits and the Central Bank's autonomy removed.

Mr Chavez says the proposed changes would return power to the people, but opponents accuse him of a power grab.

Residents of the capital, Caracas, were woken before dawn by fireworks and loud music, says a BBC correspondent.

It was a rallying call to vote, correspondent James Ingham says, and appeared to have the desired effect, with long queues, several hours long, forming outside polling stations.


The past weeks have seen large anti-reform protests and the defection of several Chavez allies, complaining that his reforms go too far.

Mr Chavez has claimed that the opposition, with the support of the Bush administration in Washington, may try to sabotage the vote through violent protests.

US officials have called Mr Chavez' claims that Washington is conspiring to topple his government, and possibly backing plots to assassinate him, ridiculous.

Indefinite re-election of president, term increased from 6 to 7 years
Central Bank's autonomy ended
Structure of country's administrative districts reorganised
Maximum working day cut from 8 hours to 6
Voting age lowered from 18 to 16
Social security benefits extended to workers in informal sector

Mr Chavez says the package of reforms is necessary to "construct a new socialist economy".

He has proposed 33 changes, and the National Assembly, which is composed of his supporters, put forward a further 36 amendments.

Mr Chavez' opponents have called for close monitoring of the ballot. Opinion polls have suggested that the result could be close, although surveys in the past have tended to underestimate the level of support Mr Chavez enjoys.

The BBC's Americas editor, Emilio San Pedro, says the elections are expected to be as free and fair as all previous ones since Mr Chavez came to power in 1998.

Working week

One proposal is to allow the president to stand for re-election an indefinite number of times.

Speaking on Friday, Mr Chavez said: "If God gives me life and help, I will be at the head of the government until 2050." He would be 95 years old.

Under the current constitution, Mr Chavez would have to stand down when his term expires at the end of 2012.

Other changes up for approval include giving the president control over the central bank, the creation of new provinces governed by centrally-appointed officials, and a reduction in the voting age from 18 to 16.

There are also proposals to expand presidential powers during natural disasters or political

On the social front, changes include establishing a maximum six-hour working day and 36-hour working week, and widening social security benefit to workers in the informal economy.

A number of defections from the president's camp have encouraged opponents, but Mr Chavez has dismissed these one-time allies as traitors.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/12/02 20:10:37 GMT

Q&A: Venezuela's referendum

On 2 December, Venezuelans will decide whether or not to approve a package of constitutional reforms, which include ending the limits on presidential terms.

The changes, which would affect about a quarter of the constitution's articles, were approved by the National Assembly, which is controlled by President Hugo Chavez's supporters.

The referendum is the last step needed for the changes to come into force. Around 60% of voters are expected to take part.

Doesn't Venezuela already have a new constitution?

Yes. President Chavez, who came to power in 1998, introduced a new "Bolivarian" constitution in 1999. He said the old one represented "the interests of the oligarchic sector".

But he now says more changes are needed to complete the transition to a "socialist republic".

The 1999 constitution increased the presidential term of office from five to six years and allowed a president to be re-elected once.

Under the previous constitution, the president could not be re-elected.

The 1999 constitution also introduced provisions for national presidential recall referendums, which means that Venezuelan voters have the right to remove their president from office before the expiration of the presidential term.

What are the main changes proposed?

Mr Chavez initially proposed amending 33 articles of the constitution, but the National Assembly added another 36 changes.

Among some of the main changes are:
Allowing the indefinite re-election of the president - not applicable to any other political post
Increasing the presidential term from six to seven years
Introducing changes to the country's administrative structure
Ending the autonomy of the central bank
Placing the president in charge of administering the country's international reserves
Reducing the maximum working week from 44 to 36 hours

Is President Chavez expected to win?

It is not clear. Unlike previous referendums and elections, when Mr Chavez always looked guaranteed to win, some polls have suggested he might actually lose.

This in itself is surprising, although it is difficult to say how reliable or objective these surveys are.

Does this mean that the opposition has become stronger?

The Venezuelan opposition won the support of 37% of voters at the last presidential election, but it has little power.

The National Assembly is fully controlled by Chavez supporters and the judicial system is heavily influenced by the president as well. The only mechanism the opposition has to voice its positions is the media.

Earlier this year, the most popular television station, RCTV, which in 2002 broadcast calls to overthrow Mr Chavez's administration, did not have its licence renewed.

Why then could Mr Chavez lose this time around?

The marches against the referendum have been led mainly by groups of opposition students, not the traditional opposition parties.

Also, some Chavez supporters are not convinced about the changes he wants to introduce, especially the indefinite re-election of the president.

Some mayors and governors are also unhappy with the administrative regions he wants to create.

Some analysts believe Mr Chavez is alienating his supporters.

General Raul Baduel, a former close supporter who served as defence minister, has likened the constitutional reform to a military coup.

President Chavez, sensing problems within his ranks, has repeatedly asked his allies to decide whether they are for or against him.

What happens if Mr Chavez loses?

His present presidential mandate expires in January 2013. However, this does not mean that if he loses he will be a lame-duck for the next five years.

The National Assembly has granted Mr Chavez an "enabling law" (ley habilitante), which allows him, over the period of one year, to pass laws on specified issues as decrees. The National Assembly could easily keep renewing this law.

But his defeat would nonetheless be a huge boost to the opposition, especially to the student groups which have been leading the marches.

These groups may become the main opposition voice given the disarray of the traditional parties and push for another recall referendum half-way through Mr Chavez's present mandate (in 2010) just like the opposition did in 2004.

President Chavez has said that if he loses it will be time to start looking for a successor. It is difficult to say if he was being serious, but one thing looks certain - Mr Chavez will not go without a fight.

Why does President Chavez have such a strong political base?

From 1958 until 1998, Venezuela was dominated by two major parties, the centre-right Christian Democratic Party (Copei) and the centre-left Democratic Action (AD).

After his victory in the 1998 election, Mr Chavez, who had previously tried to take control of the country in a failed military coup in 1992, set out to destroy this two-party system, which he described as oligarchic.

President Chavez has been working to set up a socialist republic by reforming the political and social systems.

He has nationalised key industries, such as telecommunications and electricity. He has also increased government control of the oil and gas sectors.

He has invested millions of dollars from Venezuela's oil revenues into social projects.

Since 2003, he has maintained a strict price regime on some basic foods like coffee, beans, sugar and powdered milk. This measure was designed to curb inflation, but it has also led to shortages of staple foods.

Today Venezuelan politics is divided between a pro- and an anti-Chavez camp. His supporters say he has given a political voice to millions of poor Venezuelans who were disregarded by the "traditional" political parties.

His opponents describe him as a populist who is looking to entrench himself in power.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/11/30 14:46:40 GMT

Pro-Constitutional Reform Closes Campaign with Massive Rally in Venezuela

December 1st 2007,
by Kiraz Janicke

Caracas, December 1, 2007 ( - In a hard-hitting speech Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told over 500,000 supporters at the final campaign rally in favor of the proposed constitutional reform on Friday, "If the ‘yes' vote wins on Sunday and the Venezuelan oligarchy, playing the [U.S.] empire's game, comes with their little stories of fraud," he will suspend all oil shipments to the U.S immediately. "The U.S. will not receive one drop of oil," he declared. Chavez also warned private media against promoting violence and destabilization after the referendum.

Beginning in the early hours of the morning, a sea of red filled Avenida Bolivar, the capital's principal boulevard and overflowed into Avenidas Mexico, Lecuna, San Martin, and Universidad, dwarfing an opposition rally of around 200,000 the day before, as Chavez supporters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Yes to the reforms' danced and sang as they waited for Chavez who spoke at 5 in the afternoon.

Perusing the crowd through a pair of binoculars, Chavez announced, "The avenida Bolivar is full, overflowing on the north and south, over there avenida Lecuna and avenida Universidad are full. The Bolivarian people are here saying ‘Yes.'"

Chavez told his supporters that the reforms which would reduce the work week to 36 hours, allow for presidential reelection, recognize new forms of property, and give more power to grass roots communal councils, will "open the path to socialism."

He also emphasized that the vote on Sunday represents more than simply a vote on the reforms. "To vote ‘yes', is a vote for Chavez and the revolution, to vote ‘No' is a vote for Bush," he said.

"We are not simply confronting the pawns of imperialism, those that play the dirty game of imperialism here," he said referring to the opposition, "Our true enemy is US imperialism."

"This Sunday we will give another knockout to George W. Bush." he added.

However, Chavez said, "No-one should be surprised if the anti-Chavistas refused to recognize the result," after a video released by Communications Minister Jesse Chacon on Thursday showed opposition leaders calling supporters to reject the results of the referendum on Sunday and create "pockets of protest" all around the country to generate a political crisis for the government.

"I hope this does not happen, but if it does, the revolutionary government will respond like it should, like a revolutionary government, together with the people," Chavez said and called on his supporters to stay mobilized in the streets after the referendum in order to prevent opposition inspired disturbances.

"They say they will only recognize the results if they win ... and they will take to the streets," Chavez told the rally. "Fine. We'll see you in the streets then, we are not afraid."

Amidst fears that Venezuela could descend into violence if the vote is close, including warnings of a potential civil war from Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, Chavez said, "My life belongs the the Venezuelan people. I am a soldier, and if I have to pick up a rifle to defend Venezuela, then I will."

Recalling the 2002 oil industry shutdown by the opposition, which caused an estimated $10 billion loss to the Venezuelan economy, Chavez said he had also ordered the military to secure oil fields and other installations on Sunday night to prevent any acts of sabotage.

He also spoke of the destabilization and misrepresentation of Venezuela by the international corporate media and threatened, "If any international channel comes here to take part in an operation by imperialism against Venezuela your reporters will be thrown out of the country, they will not be able to work here," Chavez said. "People at CNN, listen carefully: This is just a warning."

If the opposition private TV channel Globovision, "takes part in the game of imperialism" and if they violate Venezuelan law by publishing premature or false election results before polls close, they will be taken off air immediately, Chavez said as the crowd responded, chanting, "That is how one governs."

Dr Graciela Angarita, an
orthopedic surgeon who attended the rally also criticized the international media portrayal of Venezuela and told this publication that, "The truth is the majority of people support the president and the reforms."

"The government has done a lot for the people," she said and pointed to the social missions, which provide free education and healthcare. She explained that under previous governments there was a lot of repression and the poor were excluded.

"This is a revolution that is going to spread across all of Latin America," she added.

After the rally Chavez supporters took over Plaza Altimira in the upper middle-class, predominantly opposition suburb of Chacao in a street party that lasted late into the night.

Source URL:

Pan-African News Wire said...

Chávez: the Revolution demonstrated its ethics

By Juan Antonio Borrego—Granma daily special correspondent—

CARACAS, December 3.—The vote on the constitutional referendum yesterday in Venezuela demonstrated the ethics of the Bolivarian Revolution, affirmed President Hugo Chávez in a press conference after the referendum was narrowly defeated.

“For now, we were not able to do it,” Chávez stated, while stressing that the country’s institutional nature was demonstrated. “That points the way for the opposition to stop its leaps into the void and the road of destabilization and violence,” he noted.

“We are made for a long battle,” said the leader early Monday morning after the result was announced by Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council (CNE).

The reform of 69 Constitutional articles and 15 provisional regulations were presented in two blocs. The CNE president stated that 50.7% of electors voted “No” and 49.29% voted “Yes” for the first group of laws, while the second group obtained 51.05% against and 48.94% for the reforms.

“The fact that 49% voted for the socialist project is a great political leap forward and we are keeping up the battle by building socialism within the framework allowed us by the Constitution,” Chávez emphasized. “This program is still alive and we shall follow it by working to attain maximum social inclusion and equality.”

The president commented on the abstention rate of 44.11% and observed that if work had been undertaken with the three million people who voted for him last year in the presidential elections and did not go to the polling stations this year, the result would have been a different one.

“We complied with our Constitution, and with our conscience. We would not in any way have accepted a pyrrhic victory,” he affirmed.

“We are going to prolong, extend and deepen the perspective and content of the process of building a socialist Venezuela in order to increase – as far as possible – the strategic speed of change of a revolution in the process of maturing,” he stated.

Translated by Granma International