Participatory Democracy in Venezuela
The Opposition Doesn’t Really Want a Recall Referendum Because Chávez Remains Popular
By Charles Hardy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
October 17, 2003
CARACAS, VENEZUELA; OCTOBER 2003: There is a beautiful little section in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela: It says that every elected official can be removed from office half way through his/her term of service (Article 72). The Constitution became the law of the land after being given a 70% voter approval in December 1999.
The Article specifies that if twenty percent of the registered voters ask for such a referendum, it must be held. In the referendum, if the number of voters in favor of removing the official equals or exceeds that which he/she received when he/she was elected, the person is removed from office unless even more voters said no to the removal.
The referendum is a good example of the “participatory democracy” which the Constitution mentions several times. I never paid much attention to the concept before a security guard at a city office called it to my attention. He heard that I was a foreign journalist and took advantage of a quiet moment to bend my ear.
He asked me if I knew the difference between representative democracy and participatory democracy. I didn’t. Democracy was democracy. Since I was old enough to vote my parents insisted that I vote in every election which meant that every two years I could help elect our U.S. representative, every four years our president and every six years another senator. Federal judges were beyond my control. I don’t think I have ever missed a national election. My immigrant parents and Catholic school teachers taught me well what democracy meant. Or, so I thought.
That, said the security guard, is “representative democracy.” “What we have in Venezuela is ‘participatory democracy,’ and went on to clarify the matter. I was impressed with his explanation and he taught me something about democracy that my parents and teachers had not.
I had always been under the impression that democracy meant that we had the right to elect our representatives but that, once elected, you had to live with the decision of the electorate until the next election. The only way to get rid of an elected official was by impeachment and that could happen only if the person had committed some horrible crime.
I didn’t know about the forthcoming California referendum at the time but the election of George W. Bush seem to be a good current example of what I saw of United States democracy. Once the Supreme Court voted him into office, the nation was stuck with him for the next four years.
But the idea of participatory democracy is more than just referendums. It means that citizens have the right to hold their elected officials accountable throughout their tenure and also an obligation to be involved in the governing process.
Article 62 reads:
“Every citizen, male or female, has the right to freely participate in public matters, directly or through their representatives.
“The participation of the people in the formation, execution and control of public matters is the means necessary to accomplish the protagonism that will guarantee their complete development, both as individuals and collectively. It is the obligation of the state to facilitate the most favorable conditions for the practice of this.”
Nevertheless, while 70-percent of the electorate was in favor of the new constitution, 30-percent was not. The old constitution favored the traditional political parties and their lackeys. This has meant that since the adoption of the new constitution there has been a continual attempt to get rid of it and of President Chavez who campaigned on the need for a new constitution.
On August 20, Chavez reached the midterm of his mandate and a referendum can now be held if sufficient voters call for it. But the opposition couldn’t wait for that date. As far back as December 2001, a national strike had been called in the hopes of ousting him. It was really a lockout of the common worker who is the basis of Chavez’ support. In a very strange marriage of convenience, the central labor union (the CTV) and the representatives of big business (FEDECAMARAS) joined in their efforts.
Having failed in that attempt, another “strike” in April 2002 led to the coup that lasted about 48 hours. In those few hours, the self-appointed dictator Pedro Carmona eliminated the Congress, the Supreme Court, all other elected officials and most of the constitution. He even changed the name of the country that, since the adoption of the 1999 constitution, included the name of Simon Bolivar.
While the elite was celebrating the disappearance of Chavez, the little Venezuelan was weeping. But it was the weeping masses that poured out into the streets and, with the help of loyal military, returned Chavez to power.
The next try to oust Chavez came last December and January. Once again it was a lockout but, when the highly paid petroleum executives and workers did strike, the matter became extremely serious. Not only did Venezuelans have no Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola as the doors of the bottling plants were closed, but there was no gasoline in the country that is the world’s fifth largest exporter of petroleum. Sabotage and destruction of equipment made it difficult to quickly restore the flow of the “excrement of the devil” (the term used by the indigenous to describe oil).
I don’t know if the strike was ever called off. It simply fizzled. Today there are now about 15,000 less petroleum employees, production is back to normal and one of the buildings formerly occupied by executives and secretaries is now a public university.
At the end of the fizzled effort, however, there was a “firmazo” or “great signing.” The opposition invited people to sign their names on a variety of proposals, all aimed against the government. The documents were poorly prepared and, since the organizers were not sure exactly what they wanted, included everything from support for the ousted petroleum workers to the immediate removal of Chavez. One also asked for a referendum, but its validity was always in question: the National Electoral Commission (the CNE) in threw it out in September.
It should be noted for the foreign reader that the principal opposition group calls itself The Democratic Coordination (Coordinadora Democratica). However, there is very little democratic about the organization. It is simply a self-appointed group that says it speaks for all those who are unhappy with Chavez. Who can belong to it, how decisions are made and where it gets its tremendous funds to finance its propaganda and events are all somewhat mysterious. Some of its past leaders have fled the country.
As of the current moment, the opposition has formally submitted a proposal for a presidential referendum to the CNE and government supporters have presented various proposals to remove mayors, governors and congressional members in opposition to the government. These proposals have been accepted and, although the dates have not yet been set, the Venezuelan voter will soon have the opportunity to call for such referendums. If there are sufficient signatures, the CNE will the set the date for the referendums.
The opposition has made a case in the local and international press to show that Chavez is against the referendum and is doing everything possible to undermine the efforts. On the one hand Chavez has no obligation to promote a referendum against him. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that he would not abide by any decision that is carried out in conformity with the Constitution. In reality, it is the opposition that has tried for the past two years to avoid the referendum using any means they can to vent their anger against Chavez and to oust him.
The questions now are: 1) will they be able to gather enough signatures to call for a referendum (about 2,400,000); and if they do, 2) will they be able to gather enough votes to oust Chavez (at least 3,757,775).
Both of the possibilities are problematic. In the past the opposition claimed they collected more than three million signatures, but even they admit that there were invalid and duplicated signatures, although this seldom appears in the press.
But of even more concern for the opposition should be the information I have gathered traveling throughout the country. I regularly ask people for whom they voted in 1998 and for whom they would vote today if elections were to be held. I find very little change in voter preference, which leads me to believe that Chavez is still the choice of about 60% of the population, in spite of the published polls that show him with only about 30% support.
For months I have written that there will not be enough votes to remove him from office. A few days ago I read in a local newspaper that Fitch Ratings now has the same opinion and says investors should expect Chavez to remain as president until 2006.
Whether Chavez does or does not remain in office, the saddest part of all this is the time, energy and income the country has lost because of the attempt of the elite to sabotage the efforts of the government for the past four years. It also provides a warning to the world of the extent to which some wealthy and powerful will go in order to retain their control.
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