The Climate Debt: Who Profits, Who Pays?

April 16, 2013

On February 4, 1992, when Hugo Chávez launched his failed military rebellion to topple the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez, he was convinced that only an overthrow of what he would later call Venezuela’s “Fourth Republic” could bring about real change in Venezuela. Six years later, however, he had changed his mind about the electoral process and in 1998 ran for and won the presidency of Venezuela. Fourteen years after that, on October 7, 2012, Chávez ran for and won the presidency for the fourth time (with the first term lasting only 18 months due to the implementation of a new constitution), impressively winning with 55% of the vote. This was almost the same percentage he received in 1998, but more than double the raw number of votes, going from 3.7 million in 1998 to 8.1 million in 2012.

Over the years Chávez has seemed to be intensely interested in winning elections by increasingly large margins, which did indeed increase between 1998 and 2006, from 56% to 63%. During the 2006 campaign he even adopted a campaign slogan that explicitly stated that his goal was to win 10 million votes, even though two years earlier, in the 2004 recall referendum vote, he had obtained “only” 5.8 million votes (representing 59.1% of votes cast).

What is it about Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution that engenders the need not only to be ratified in almost annual electoral contests (there have been a total of 16 national elections or referenda in the 14 years between December 1998 and December 2012), but to win by ever greater margins?

The Chavista emphasis on elections and on winning them by overwhelming majorities has its roots in at least three factors. The first is the negative experience that those who are now in government had with electoral fraud in the pre-Chávez era. Concern with fraud was the main reason that Chávez did not consider the electoral route to power in 1992, when he launched his coup attempt. The most notorious example of fraud during this time was the 1993 election, when substantial evidence appeared that Andrés Velasquez of the leftist party La Causa R (the Radical Cause) might have had the election stolen from him. But since the 1958 revolution that overthrew dictator Carlos Andrés Pérez, it has been general knowledge among Venezuelans that the two main centrist parties, Democratic Action (AD) and the Social Christian Copei, divided up votes for smaller parties between the two of them, a practice that gave birth to the Venezuelan saying acta mata voto, meaning that the falsified voting record beats the actual vote.

The Bolivarian movement’s concern with fraud led to the creation of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which became an independent fourth branch of government when Venezuelans approved the 1999 constitution. The CNE is now an important symbol of the changes in the management of elections in the country, having instituted a transformation of the way in which Venezuelans conduct elections.

Between 1998 and 2012, for example, the CNE gradually increased the computerization and automation of the vote-counting process to 100% of votes cast, while also maintaining a duplicate system of paper balloting, so that paper and electronic votes could be compared. This double-vote tallying, along with the use of fingerprint scanners that make sure that no one votes more than once, makes Venezuela’s voting system one of the most secure and fraud-proof voting systems in the world. Also, during the same period the CNE increased both the voter registration rate, which went from 81.5% to 96.5%, and the number of voting booths—especially in the poor neighborhoods—which increased five-fold, thereby significantly shortening the time it takes to vote.

The reason for the combination of electronic and paper ballots, which represents a centralization of vote counting because results are transmitted electronically to Caracas, is to make sure that votes in outlying areas cannot not be stolen when smaller parties lack election observers in these areas. Also, despite frequent opposition criticism of the voting process, the CNE has made an effort to involve the opposition in 15 auditing procedures, before, during, and after every voting process. It is precisely because of this involvement in the audits that opposition officials who are aware of them regularly tell supporters that the voting process is to be trusted.

The second factor leading the Bolivarian movement to place such a strong emphasis on elections and referenda is that these are important tools with which Chávez and his supporters counter the opposition claim that the Chávez government is an authoritarian regime—with an emphasis on the term regime, which the opposition uses in place of the word government. This is also the impression that international media have by and large created of Venezuela during the Chávez era, both among the general public and among foreign academics. Among the latter the favored conception of the Chávez era is to describe it, in the words of the political scientist Javier Corrales, as a “refashioning of dictatorship for a democratic age.”1 The frequent recurrence of verifiably transparent elections in Venezuela effectively undermines the claim that Venezuela is a dictatorship in disguise, even if the more sophisticated version of this claim argues that elections do not matter.

The third factor contributing to the Bolivarian movement’s emphasis on elections is Chávez’s desire to give legitimacy to Venezuela’s transition to “socialism of the 21st century.” That is, according to Chávez and his supporters, elections in Venezuela do not represent merely a choice among politicians and parties, but a choice between two fundamentally different political-economic systems: capitalism or socialism. Since this is a very fundamental choice, Chavistas believe it is absolutely crucial to be certain that the option that wins has the support of a large majority of the population.

This emphasis on an electoral path to socialism is reflected in Chávez’s description of 21st century socialism, as a form of socialism that is different from 20th century state socialism in that it has a political dimension that emphasizes democracy. “Socialism of the political: this has a combination of elements, but one is central: participatory and protagonist democracy. This is the central axis of socialism in the political [realm], democracy from below, from inside, full democracy…”, said Chávez in 2005.2

As this quote and Venezuela’s 1999 constitution indicate, the idea is to create not only a representative democracy in Venezuela, but also what the Bolivarian movement calls a participatory democracy. The most important implementation of participatory democracy has been the creation of tens of thousands of communal councils throughout Venezuela, which group together 150 to 400 families and provide communities the opportunity to work on neighborhood-improvement projects and to coordinate the implementation of various social programs (public housing, community doctors, urban land reform, financial assistance to single mothers, etc.).

It is probably due to these two types of changes, in the electoral system and on the level of communal councils, that Venezuelans rate their democracy higher than citizens of nearly all other countries in Latin America rate their respective systems. According to the opinion research organization Latinobarómetro, in 2011 Venezuelans gave their democracy a score of 7.3, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning the country is “completely democratic.” This is the third highest score, after Uruguay (7.7) and Costa Rica (7.5), with the regional average being 6.4. Similarly, the percentage of Venezuelans who say that they are satisfied with their democracy increased from 35% in 1998 to 59%—the second highest in Latin America—in 2007, which is the greatest increase of any country in that period.

A common complaint, however, is that the communal councils are often used as a mechanism for clientelism, whereby the councils that receive financial support are supposedly the ones that in turn support the government’s political line. It is impossible to know how common this type of clientelism is, since no quantitative research has been conducted on this issue, but there are anecdotes on both sides of the claim. Having said that, though, we also need to be clear that clientelism in Venezuela is nothing new. It used to mostly involve local representative governments and now has the potential of also involving participatory communal governments. Unless the Chávez government tackles this problem head-on by institutionalizing nonpartisan funding mechanisms for the communal councils, this legacy is bound to reappear in the political system.

In an open letter to Chávez early last year, Santiago Arconada, a well-known community organizer in Caracas, gave an example of this problem when he quoted one of the members of a communal council, who complained, “I stopped coming to the Communal Council because it was like being in a meeting of the PSUV [Chávez’s party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela].” Arconada goes on to lament that many PSUV members mistakenly believe that the party can construct socialist hegemony by making sure that communal councils are mostly run by the PSUV, when in reality this kills grassroots organizing and grassroots participation.

These types of complaints have cropped up periodically among grassroots movements, along with efforts to organize an independent coalition of pro-Chávez organizations. The most recent such effort has been the creation of a new grouping of grassroots organizations known as the Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APR), which was founded on May 15, 2012, and includes a variety of independent but pro-Chávez community organizations, peasant organizations, women’s groups, an LGBT group, the community media association ANMCLA, and leftist political currents within the PSUV. The APR’s objective is to bring together grassroots groups and to formulate their interests within the Bolivarian movement, but independently of the PSUV.

In a similar vein, some discontent recently developed among the base of the PSUV because the party leadership unilaterally nominated candidates for the December 16 regional elections of mayors and governors, instead of organizing primaries among the membership. The leadership defended this move with the argument that there was not enough time to organize primaries between the presidential election and the regional elections. A Trotskyist current within the PSUV, known as Class Struggle, issued a statement shortly after the nominations were announced, saying that the nomination process didn’t provide “our membership with the opportunity to grow politically, to develop their ideas and political consciousness.” Rather, the statement argues, “if we want a strong party, we should debate and elect candidates from the grassroots.”

Previously, for the 2008 regional elections, the PSUV did hold party primaries and the party was on its way to become the most internally democratic party in Venezuela (which isn’t saying much, considering how internally undemocratic practically all other Venezuelan parties are). Since then, democratic processes within the PSUV appear to have stagnated and the tension between the party leadership and the party grassroots has increased.

Despite these internal conflicts, within the Bolivarian movement as a whole and within the PSUV, Chávez supporters came together and waged a vigorous campaign for Chávez’s reelection. The enthusiasm among supporters could be seen quite clearly in the massive final rally of the campaign, on October 4, when somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million Venezuelans came out in the pouring rain to support Chávez.

To the extent that Chávez enjoyed “only” an 11-point margin of victory on October 7, which was significantly smaller than his 26-point margin in 2006, this is bound to have been a significant disappointment for Chávez and the Bolivarian movement. Polls that were conducted by pro-government polling organizations had indicated a far larger margin of victory, and in his speeches leading up to the election, Chávez had promised “a resounding victory” (“una victoria aplastante”).

This relatively small margin of victory is primarily a sign of the growing dissatisfaction with the problems of PSUV dominance, bureaucracy, inefficiency, lack of housing, and insecurity. However, the fact that Chávez still won by a comfortable margin indicates that most Venezuelans nonetheless believe that his government has improved democracy in Venezuela and that it has improved the opportunities of most Venezuelans for a better standard of living, for health, and for education. Indeed, all quantitative indicators in these areas indicate that Venezuela has advanced significantly in each one of these areas in the last 14 years.

Of course, the opposition argues that the main reason Chávez won at all was because he took advantage of state resources for his campaign, mainly by deploying state media, by inaugurating new public works during the campaign, and by requiring all TV and radio channels to broadcast these inaugurations. According to the opposition, these practices gave Chávez an unfair advantage over challenger Henrigue Capriles Radonski. This argument, however, ignores the fact that most Venezuelans get their news from the private mass media, which is decidedly pro-opposition and thus slanted its coverage in favor of Capriles.

The bottom line, however, is that Chávez was reelected on the basis of two main campaign promises. First, that his third full term would address the remaining problem areas of insecurity, housing, and state inefficiency. The first two of these areas are already being addressed via new investments in a national police force and in the public housing sector, which aims to build 300,000 new homes per year between 2013 and 2017. If fulfilled, this would represent a nearly 10 fold increase over the housing construction rate during Chávez’s first two terms in office. The plan to address the issue of inefficiency remains unclear, however, beyond the creation of a new government oversight ministry.

The second main campaign promise is to “deepen” 21st century socialism in Venezuela. Exactly what this second promise means is spelled out to some extent in Chávez’s “Second Socialist Plan 2013–2019.” A key element here is the plan’s stated effort to “go past the point of no return” in terms of instituting “21st Century Socialism” in Venezuela. For critics and opponents of Chávez, this probably sounds like confirmation that Chávez intends to dismantle democracy. The plan itself, however, does not outline any such effort. Rather, the plan wants to deepen participatory democracy by making sure that an ever-larger portion of the population is involved in communal councils and that these come together on larger geographical scales. This process would probably weaken the position of mayors, but as long as no changes are made to the constitution, Venezuela will, for the foreseeable future, maintain parallel representative and participatory democratic structures.



Gregory Wilpert is adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College, author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government (Verso Books, 2007), and co-founder of



1. Javier Corrales “Hugo Boss: How Chávez Is Refashioning Dictatorship for a Democratic Age,” Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2006, p. 32-40.



Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2012 issue: "Elections 2012: What Now?"


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