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Proletarian issue 21 (December 2007)
Narrow defeat for Chávez’s new constitution
Reactionary mobilisation succeeds in defeating the constitution, but the revolutionary process marches on.
On 2 December 2007, Venezuela voted on a new constitution to replace the one introduced by Chávez in 1999; a new constitution designed to facilitate further steps towards establishing socialism in Venezuela.

Nobody can miss the fact that the constitution that imperialism so much decries was actually aimed at increasing popular democracy while at the same time curtailing the sphere of action of the imperialist monopolies. That being the case, the imperialist media of course came up with all kinds of spurious attacks, such as the allegation that its purpose was to establish Chávez’s personal dictatorship.

Curtailing imperialism

The curtailment of the imperialist sphere of action lay first in the government taking control of Venezuela’s central bank, which would in future have had to respond to government policy rather than bow to the demands of the IMF, the World Bank or other foreign interests.

If the government considers it important, for instance, to use national resources to create jobs for people in Venezuela, then the bank could be ordered to use its reserves for that purpose. It would be for the elected government to decide whether it was prepared to accept the inflationary pressure, not unelected bank officials.

Anyone who is objective would consider this measure to be an extension of democracy, not a restriction of it. It would, however, considerably restrict the power of imperialism to determine or influence the Venezuelan Central Bank’s policy.

Article 301 was another measure against imperialism, allowing national businesses to receive preferential treatment over foreign ones. Further, Article 303 removed permission to privatise subsidiaries of the country’s state oil industry.

These measures were designed to enable the government to revitalise the Venezuelan economy as a whole at the expense, if necessary, of foreign investors. The aim was to encourage local economic activity, to create jobs and thus ensure that Venezuela’s wealth, its oil wealth in particular, benefited the broad masses of the population.

Reviving agriculture

It has been a major problem in Venezuela that, while people in the countryside are starving and food is being imported to feed the people in the towns, vast tracts of highly fertile land are lying uncultivated. The new constitution would have allowed idle productive land to be taxed, and also provide the possibility of landowners causing ecological damage to be expropriated.

These measures, too, were berated in the imperialist press, and described as giving the government a blanket ability to “confiscate private property”. The Venezuelan rich and parasitic feudal remnants, who cannot even be bothered to cultivate their lands, are fervent allies of foreign imperialism, to whom they look for protection against the masses whom they condemn to starvation while they live lives of unparalleled luxury. The new constitution began to attack their privileges – which is why it was condemned as undemocratic!

Power to the people

The proposed new Venezuelan constitution recognised that real democracy is not just a question of voting in elections; it is a question of ordinary people having real control over decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. It is also a question of being able to influence what work they do and the conditions in which they do it.

This is real democracy, which unleashes the creative powers of masses of people – a democracy that scarcely exists in any capitalist country.

Under socialism, however, workers are liberated from the master-servant relationship in which they worked under both feudalism and capitalism, and no longer therefore have to accept that only the master, the owner of the means of production, can issue orders. Instead, they are able to participate in the process of determining what the orders should be so as to achieve the common aim of maximising production for the benefit of the people while at the same time protecting workers’ quality of life.

One of the most important provisions of the new constitution in this regard was the reduction of the working week from 42 hours to 36. This has been presented as a bribe to the working masses to get them to vote for the constitution. In actual fact, the reduction of the working week is essential for democracy, in that it would provide workers with the free time that would enable them to participate in the decision-making processes both at work and in their communities.

The new constitution sought to devolve real decision-making power to local communities. To facilitate this, 5 percent of the government’s annual budget was to be handed over to the localities. This would be distributed among communal councils, workers’ councils, student councils, elderly councils, women’s councils, disabled people’s councils, etc.

The function of the councils was to exercise “popular power”, which was not defined, but the councils were certainly designed to ensure that the concerns of the popular masses were both heard and taken into account during the course of national, local and workplace decision-making.

All petrol stations owned by the Venezuelan national oil company were to be handed over to communal councils, so clearly they would have had economic functions and were not intended to be purely talking shops. There were expected to be some 60,000 communal councils in the country, organised into 10,000 communes, which themselves would be organised into 3,000 ‘cities’, and they in turn would be organised into 200 federal districts.

This was clearly a massive extension of democracy, not the abolition of democracy that the imperialist press was claiming.

Emergency powers

It is in the sphere of emergency powers that the imperialist media think they can find erosion of democratic rights in Venezuela. However, if one looks at the provisions themselves, rather than imperialism’s hysterical paraphrases of them, it can be seen that citizens’ rights in an emergency would have been considerably greater than they are in, say, Britain or the US.

Although in a state of emergency the right to due process was to be removed, nevertheless there could be no ‘disappearances’, no torture, no indefinite incarceration. The accused would continue to have the right to a defence and to be heard by his “natural judges”.

In Britain today there are situations where the accused is not even allowed to know the charges that are being brought against him, making defence quite impossible, even though no state of emergency has been declared! Frankly, the US bourgeoisie (known for its torture and indefinite detention of prisoners without trial of any kind at Guantanamo) and the British bourgeoisie (the pioneer of most modern torture methods and internment in northern Ireland) are hardly in a position to criticise Venezuela’s constitutional proposals.

Student protests

It has been alleged that recently the government caused shots to be fired against peaceful student protesters calling for the referendum on the country’s new constitution to be deferred until after the country’s Constitutional Court rules on the legality of the procedure adopted for ratifying it.

Of course, the imperialist media gave massive publicity to this incident in order to portray Chávez as an opponent of civil liberties. The truth of the matter is that the dissident students make up only at most 10,000 of Caracas’ 200,000 student population, and they are registered mostly at private universities, ie, they are from wealthy families.

After a peaceful protest, under the protection of the Venezuelan police that the constitution guarantees to the right of freedom of expression, a group of opposition students returning from the demonstration ran into Chávista students putting up signs in favour of the referendum and decided to attack them.

The pro-Chávez students ran to the Faculty of Social Work nearby where another group of Chávista students happened to be meeting. The opposition students surrounded the faculty, armed with weapons and stones, threatening to lynch the students inside. They fired their weapons and threw rocks at the building and set fire to the front entrance. However, the students inside called for help by telephone, and the helpers arrived armed because they knew that the opposition students were using arms.

The police were not called because neither the police nor the army are allowed by law to enter the premises of the university. If one is honest, it is impossible in the circumstances to claim, as do the imperialist press, that these events are evidence of a government crackdown on dissidents.

Forms of ownership

The new constitution by no means abolished private property. The Venezuelan peasant masses are certainly not yet ready for such a move even if it would be the best guarantee for ending imperialist exploitation.

Instead, new forms of ownership of means of production were to be promoted side by side with private property, including state property, collective property and social property. Certain joint ventures set up with countries such as Iran, China or Brazil in order to bring in higher technology, would belong partly to the Venezuelan state and partly to the foreign partner.

Under this new constitution, the watchword was very much ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. All deployment of means of production, whatever its form of ownership, was acceptable insofar as it created wealth and jobs for the masses of Venezuelans.

This does not mean that Chávez’s claim to be developing socialism is in doubt in any way. So long as the collective forms of operating were properly supported, they would have had the chance of demonstrating their superiority and winning the masses of peasantry over to support for these forms of ownership and thus for deepening the revolution by moving away from private ownership of means of production.

This can only be done when the masses of the people are ready to support such a move.

Further reforms

Other reforms included lowering the voting age to 16, creating a social security fund for the self-employed (ie, most of Venezuela’s peasant population), extending the right to free education to university level education, enabling the national assembly to remove Supreme Court judges by ordinary majority vote (rather than two-thirds majority as previously), etc.

The provision that caused the most hysteria in the bourgeois media was the one removing the provision restricting the number of times a person can be elected President of the country. This is presented in the imperialist media as Chávez making himself irremovable, but in fact the constitution did not abolish elections. Chávez could only have secured a further term in office if people elected him. Here in Britain, for example, there is also no restriction on the number of consecutive terms a given person can be Prime Minister.

Like it or not, Chávez as an individual is important for the continuing progress of the Venezuelan revolution. He has the personal trust and support of the Venezuelan masses and is able to foster a degree of progress that it would be hard for anybody else to achieve in current circumstances.

Referendum lost

Notwithstanding Chávez’s popularity, just as we were going to press, the news came out that by a very narrow majority (just over 49 percent to nearly 51 percent), the referendum on the new constitution was lost, much to the glee of imperialism – perhaps slightly stunted by Chávez’s announcement that he fully accepted the people's democratic will.

Chávez immediately drew the correct conclusion that it had been premature to put forward the new constitution at this stage. This is proved by the fact that the abstention rate in the referendum had been 44 percent. Since those opposed to socialism had been mobilised in force, it is safe to assume that those who abstained were the poor.

Although they have received considerable benefits since Chávez came to power, the Venezuelan poor have also suffered from countermeasures taken by the rich, which reduced employment opportunities, for instance, and from inflation. The defection of General Baduel, who had enjoyed hero status because of his role in defeating the coup against Chávez a few years ago, would also have caused people confusion.

Chávez is putting the proposed constitutional reforms on hold por ahora – for now. There can be no revolution without mobilising the broad masses of the people, and, at the end of the day, it is not sufficient merely to provide them with benefits such as literacy and medical care. The revolution cannot proceed without a confrontation with the reactionary elements, which inevitably will cause hardship to those for whose benefit the revolutionary process is conducted. For this reason, it is the hearts and minds of the masses that must be won over for the fierce struggle ahead, so that they are prepared to fight even in the hardest of conditions.

What Chávez has done up to now has been excellent, but ahead lies a hard campaign to convince the masses to fight for their rights – a campaign in which sabotage attempts must be expected from extremely powerful enemies, both internal and external, who will grow ever-more desperate in their methods as the revolutionary campaign advances.

We firmly expect that Chavez and progressive Venezuelan people will learn th e necessary lessons from his referendum defeat and will continue to lead the way forward to socialism in Venezuela, and we wish them every success in advancing on that thorny road, at the end of which lie the goals of freedom and justice for all.

> Venezuela - progress report - August 2007

> Venezuela - oil nationalisation project completed - June 2007
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