Supporters of democracy should be watching Venezuela this weekend. Has respect for the rule of law and constitutional government truly taken root in Latin America or will traditional ruling elites and their backers in Washington bring us more of the same old “respect for the electoral process, but only if you vote the way we want” you to vote?
In 1992 a young Venezuelan army officer named Hugo Chavez unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow a widely unpopular government. This Sunday the same man will have his six-year presidency put to a popular referendum.
In 1998 Chavez won the presidency with 56 percent of the vote. A year later Chavez spearheaded constitutional reform, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate. For the first time in Venezuelan history the constitution recognized the rights of indigenous people, guaranteed equality between the sexes and provided a mechanism to recall the president–in other words, one of the most democratic constitutions in our hemisphere. To further demonstrate his commitment to democracy Chavez resigned from office early and held new elections under the new constitution. He won the 2000 election with an even bigger majority. Fifty years of corrupt two-party “democracy” ended when Chavez won. But during his first years in office Chavez did little to tackle Venezuela’s tremendous economic and social inequality. The poor majority, generally of mixed indigenous and African blood, continued to live in abject poverty while the wealthy, usually of European ancestry, maintained their control over the country’s oil wealth.
By the end of 2000 programs to expand school attendance were underway. A year later 49 controversial laws were passed including agrarian reform and a hydrocarbons law, which increased the government’s income from foreign energy companies.
The opposition, with funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and after a crucial meeting in Washington, responded by orchestrating a short-lived military coup in 2002. During their 48 hours in control the coup plotters suspended parliament and abolished the constitution.
But, they weren’t able to convince all factions of the military that such a blatant disregard of the democratic will was a good idea. At the same time hundreds of thousands of the poor majority who elected Chavez surrounded the presidential palace demanding his return. While most governments in Latin America denounced this affront to democracy Ottawa took its cue from Washington and said nothing about the overthrow of an elected president.
The unsuccessful coup gave Chavez the chance to purge disloyal military officers. It also strengthened his commitment to the poor, his base of support. Since then a literacy campaign has helped one million poor adults learn to read. Even more successful is the Barrio Adentro national health care program, which is made up of neighborhood clinics in under-serviced city slums and poor rural regions.
In December 2002 and January 2003 the opposition returned to the offensive. They shut down most of the formal economy for a couple of days. The economic disruption culminated in a strike/lockout at a bastion of opposition power, the state oil company PDVSA. The strike/lockout was a catastrophic failure. It turned many people against the opposition; it led to the dismissal of 18,000 oil workers and the opposition lost control of PDVSA.
To feed the poor during the economic disruption, the Chavez government opened government-run food stores and kitchens. Thousands of street children, homeless, retired people and pregnant mothers are now happy to get free meals from the government.
Since the start of this year Chavez has spent lavishly on social programs. After last year’s nine percent drop in GDP, caused by the opposition’s economic disruption, the economy has turned around. Buoyed by the high price of oil the Chavez administration is doing what no elected Venezuelan government has ever done: spend its huge oil revenues on the country’s poor.
Not only have the poor benefited from social programs, but they are also active participants in the country’s democratic transformation. Tens of thousands of “Bolivarian circles”, named after Latin America’s liberator Simon Bolivar, have sprouted up across the country. These groups of seven to twenty residents work collectively to improve their neighborhoods. In the face of an overwhelmingly pro-opposition private media, community media has flourished.
Since being elected Chavez has done what international aid agencies and Western governments claim they want to do; improve the living standards of the poor and empower them. By any fair estimation he’s been a model democrat, which the recall referendum proves. Polls, even ones paid for by the opposition media, predict Chavez will win.
Still the U.S. has funded a hostile opposition and tried to isolate Venezuela diplomatically. The U.S. also harbors anti-Chavez dissidents such as former president Carlos Andres Perez who last month told the Venezuelan daily El Nacional that “I am working to remove Chavez [from power]. Violence will allow us to remove him. That’s the only way we have.” He went on to say that Chavez “must die like a dog, because he deserves it.” On Tuesday Spain’s El Mundo newspaper reported on a Central Intelligence Agency meeting held in Chile to prepare a contingency plan in the likely event that Chavez wins the recall.
All of Latin America is watching. Will the U.S. respect the democratic will of the people of Venezuela?
YVES ENGLER is author of the forthcoming book playing Left Wing: From Hockey to Politics: the making of a student activist. He’s traveled extensively in Venezuela. He can be reached at: email@example.com