Making Sense of Venezuela’s Referendum


Chávez holding Venezuela's 1999 constitution. (ABr, CC)

How should the narrow defeat of the referendum to amend Venezuela’s 1999 constitution be interpreted? Does the fact that 50.7% of voters rejected the omnibus package of 69 proposed constitutional amendments indicate that Venezuelans as a whole are tired of Chávez and wary of going any further along the path towards “socialism of the twenty-first century”?

Gabriel Hetland

Chávez holding Venezuela's 1999 constitution. (ABr, CC)

How should the narrow defeat of the referendum to amend Venezuela’s 1999 constitution be interpreted? Does the fact that 50.7% of voters rejected the omnibus package of 69 proposed constitutional amendments indicate that Venezuelans as a whole are tired of Chávez and wary of going any further along the path towards “socialism of the twenty-first century”?

Does the vote indicate that Venezuela’s opposition, which just this summer seemed to be in tattered disarray, has reconstituted itself as a significant force? What of the mass abstention by millions of chavistas who chose not to vote at all? In short, should the defeat be seen as a decisive alteration in the balance of forces, or merely a temporary setback “for now,” as Chávez himself suggested?

For the time being, the December 2 vote seems to offer more questions than answers. Part of the difficulty in interpreting the result stems from the omnibus nature of the referendum, in which Venezuelans were asked to give a simple up or down vote on a package of 69 proposals of varied scope and import. The international media has focused almost exclusively on a handful of the proposals, specifically those to end presidential term limits and some that increased powers for the president. But it remains unclear exactly what those who voted against the referendum were rejecting.

It seems likely, and hardly surprising, that most (perhaps almost all) of the 4.2 million (37%) who voted against Chávez in the December 2006 presidential election, rejected the referendum this time around. For die-hard anti-chavistas the referendum offered a golden opportunity to once again affirm their opposition to all things Chávez.

More surprising is that the opposition managed to increase its vote by 500,000 compared to December 2006. The much higher rate of abstention in the referendum vote, 45% as compared to less than 30% last year, is also puzzling. Together, the increase in the opposition’s vote and the abstention of millions of Chávez supporters meant that the votes in favor of the referendum (4.4 million) were nearly 3 million less than the 7.2 million Chávez received in the December 2006 presidential election.

Does this indicate that Chávez supporters have become less excited, or even disillusioned about his program? Or was it that voters were unwilling to support the referendum because of selective opposition to specific proposals rather than a complete rejection? Although the opposition and international media are likely to support the first interpretation, the second cannot be discounted, though at this point it is difficult to tell which held sway over voters.

Although the full meaning of December 2 is unclear and likely to remain so for some time, certain relatively unambiguous conclusions can still be drawn. The vote clearly represents a defeat for Chávez and a victory for the opposition. In hindsight, Chávez’s timing for the referendum appears to have been a strategic mistake. Not only did the referendum provide the opposition an opportunity to mobilize and unify their splintered forces, but the outcome has also provided them with their first political victory in nine years.

Although it seems unlikely at present that the opposition will be able to paralyze the country as it did in 2002 and 2003, with the coup and oil strike, the referendum victory will no doubt embolden them and may well lead to greater polarization and strife in the short term.

While the referendum loss is undoubtedly a setback for the “Bolivarian Revolution” and the process of change in Venezuela, Chávez’s reaction to the vote is an unambiguously positive outcome of the vote. By quickly and graciously conceding defeat, Chávez has effectively taken away one of the main weapons used against him by the Venezuelan opposition and Bush administration alike: the claim that he is a dictator. Although it is likely that the “strongman” epithet will continue to be slung at Chávez, his actions certainly provide substantial proof of his “democratic credentials.” Regardless of the overall interpretation of the vote, this is certainly one of the most important results.

Still, the question remains of how to interpret the rejection of the referendum’s various proposals. In response to critics who claimed that the referendum was merely a presidential power grab, Chávez and quite a few commentators have repeatedly pointed out that many countries, including France, Britain, and Germany, do not have term limits for executive office. Critics might counter that the less than stellar record of strong executives within modern Latin American history bathes the issue of presidential power in a slightly different light in this context. Given their concern with this issue, many U.S. progressives, and even some chavistas within Venezuela, may see the rejection of the referendum as not entirely unwelcome.

Such a stance, however, must also confront the rest of the proposed changes that were rejected, not to mention the already mentioned boost the result gives the opposition. Other referendum proposals included constructing new forms of “socialist property,” limits on the autonomy of the Central Bank, and the consolidation of communal councils on a nation-wide scale, among several others. For those excited about the participatory democratic potential of communal councils, and/or anxious to see whether, and to what degree, the political changes that have swept over Venezuela under Chávez might translate into socioeconomic transformations, the rejection of the referendum points to an uncertain future.

A hopeful possibility is that this uncertainty will be channeled in a productive way. For instance, it could force Chávez and his supporters to take a closer look at some of their weak points. It is possible that the loss will spur chavistas to think more seriously about the problem of relying too heavily upon a single leader. It could also open up more space for internal dissension within the Chávez camp, which has often seen any criticism of Chávez as tantamount to treason.

If the referendum vote leads in this direction, the outcome may not be so bad for the long-term possibilities of social justice and participatory democracy in Venezuela.

Unfortunately, the loss could also lead to further polarization and a hardening of stances among pro- and anti-Chávez sectors. Such an outcome should not be lightly dismissed and should be vigorously fought against, especially now, when the Venezuelan opposition, the U.S. government, and the international media will attempt to mould the interpretation of the vote to serve their interests. The full meaning of the December 2 referendum will largely depend upon how the vote is interpreted and which path Venezuelans are able to embark upon from this point forward.


Gabriel Hetland is a PhD student in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on U.S. labor, development, and Latin America, particularly Venezuela and Bolivia. Comments can be sent to ghetland(AT)berkeley.edu.
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