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Walsh: Venezuelan Vote a ‘Victory’ for Democracy

Interviewee: John M. Walsh, Senior Associate for the Andes and Drug Policy, Washington Office on Latin America
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 3, 2007

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John M. Walsh, an expert on politics in the Andean countries of South America at the Washington Office on Latin America, says the failure of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's constitutional reform proposal on December 2 represents a “heavy defeat.” The reform called for roughly seventy changes to the constitution, the most notable of which would have allowed him to be reelected beyond his two terms. Walsh says that “a lot of Venezuelans, including probably a lot of his own supporters—people who had voted for him and would vote for him again—were afraid of such power in one person’s hands.”

As a veteran observer of Venezuelan politics, were you surprised as much as I was that Chavez’s various proposed changes were rejected?

I was surprised, given Chavez’s stellar record of never having lost a vote. This is the first time in eleven opportunities that he has ever lost. On the other hand, it had become especially clear in the week leading up to the vote that his reform proposals were in trouble. I think he knew that as well.

What caused his main troubles?

His main trouble was that he went too fast. These reform proposals almost sunk of their own weight. There’s a sort of grandiosity about them. People didn’t see the need for that level of change so quickly. Keep in mind that he had just won a resounding reelection last December [2006], with 63 percent of the vote. He controls the executive, his allies control the congress, and he has firm control over the judiciary. It was unclear to people what further powers he needed in order to promote his agenda.

The proposal that got the most attention, at least in this country, was the one that would change the constitution so that a person could run for reelection forever. Now that’s not such a shocking thing in the United States, where we had the possibility to elect the same person endlessly until the passage of the Twenty-second Amendment in 1951 after Franklin D. Roosevelt had won four elections in a row. But I guess the proposal conjured up an image of a president wanting to be elected “dictator for life,” right?

And it wasn’t hard to imagine, because he said he wished to be. He hasn’t retracted this. He wants to be in power until 2050, for another forty years or so, so it wasn’t guesswork that this was his goal. You could argue the virtue of term limits, one way or the other.  You could come down in principle that they’re either antidemocratic or not. You can say that people should be free to choose their own leader, there shouldn’t be any term limits, and you can make that argument that it’s more democratic. On the other hand a lot of Venezuelans, including probably a lot of his own supporters—people who had voted for him and would vote for him again—were afraid of such power in one person’s hands.

Now there’s also been a lot of attention in the media to economic problems in Venezuela, and Venezuela of course makes a lot of money from its oil exports, mostly to the United States. How is it that there’s such shortage of things like milk?

This shortage has come about because of price controls imposed that make it uneconomic for local producers to bring things to market. The interesting thing about that issue is that part of this proposed reform was a funded pension that a lot of people found nothing wrong with. But some people had doubts that a government that couldn’t help them get milk was going to be able to fund a retirement pension.

And milk is important in particular because the national breakfast drink is coffee and milk, right?

Yes, café con leche.

Now, the vote was very narrow. Do you think he’s going to try something to reverse this soon?

He has indicated already that, as far as he’s concerned, these proposals still live, and that he may try by decree to implement some aspects of it, which of course will provoke a lot of opposition. It’s very important to remember, and this is part of his miscalculation, I believe, that people who support him and want him, still have him as president. He still occupies the presidency, his forces still dominate the National Assembly. He still has a lot of room for maneuver. What he doesn’t have and what he needs to attend to now, is mending fences within his own movement.

You mean people like the former Defense Minister Raul Baduel who turned against him?

Exactly. It may be that some of those relationships are irrevocably damaged. On the other hand there is a strong base of support that Chavez maintains, and this is where he miscalculated on this particular vote. People knew that he’ll still be their president, even if they don’t vote for these reforms, and that nothing he has done for them is going to suffer as a result.

Let’s backtrack a bit to the question I had asked earlier about milk. Now of course we were really talking about agricultural products in general. Do you think it’s likely there will be any changes in that system of regulation?

I don’t think that’s likely immediately. There’s going to have to be some taking stock by Chavez and his advisors about what dragged this down and what went wrong. They’re not going to be likely to go out immediately and visibly correct something that will give fuel to the opposition.

Now another thing that struck me was that a major driving force of the opposition was the students; that is, university students by and large. The cliché in the world is that university students are to the left and this seems to be counterintuitive. What caused that?

The interesting thing about the student movement is, and they say it in their own words, is that it is a really eclectic mix of politics that they’re coming from: Some very much are on the left, particularly by U.S. standards, and some are more on the right or more in the center. Their interest was not so much in taking the fight to Chavez, but looking past this vote and looking towards some reconciliation. One thing that Chavez has been a part of and exacerbated but has not been solely responsible for, is an intense polarization within Venezuelan politics. It’s really nasty, and this campaign brought a lot of that out.

What a lot of students were saying was that, “We may support you, Chavez, but we don’t support this proposal.” A really interesting aspect of his defeat is that a lot of chavistas decided either to stay at home or even to vote against his proposal.

Was it the unlimited ability to run for president that was a major issue, or were there some other amendments that were not noticed here?

That was a major one. It’s hard to say without detailed exit polls exactly why people voted as they did. One of them was generally a sense of, “Chavez is leading us where we are not ready to go. We are not ready to give this much power to one person.”  Part of it was that was that the proposal would have given Chavez the authority to create new entities within the government, sort of a new government superstructure, and name the people who would be in charge.

A lot of Venezuelans, including probably a lot of his own supporters—people who had voted for him and would vote for him again—were afraid of such power in one person’s hands.

There were also troubling provisions about giving the president more leeway to declare a state of emergency. There were a whole series of reasons why—and the bottom line is chavistas could vote against it or not vote and not have to fear that their president, whom they still revered, many of them, is going to be removed.

In recent years, Chavez has almost reveled in his verbal attacks against the United States, particularly against President Bush. More recently he got into a controversy with the king of Spain, who told him to shut up. He broke off his mediation to free the hostages in Colombia, causing bad blood between these two neighbors. Did foreign policy play much of a role in the vote?

Toward the end, Chavez tried to inject that nationalistic element into it, by lashing out at Bush, but on the whole I don’t think that foreign policy played a big role in the vote. It was a sign of Chavez realizing that he was in a tough spot that he played the nationalist card so vividly towards the end. And the truth is that it had served him quite well in the past, and it showed how he was trying to rally his base.

The United States hasn’t said very much since the results were in, except, I guess, praising Venezuelan democracy. Is it possible that there will be any rapprochement between Venezuela and the United States in the remaining year of the Bush administration, or do we have to wait for the next president? The two countries, of course, are already very dependent on each other in the oil business.

I don’t think that the Bush administration and Chavez can have anything beyond some small confidence building, but not on a major scale, I don’t think either side is actually interested in that.

It’s, in all senses, a victory, and once again a show of the Venezuelan support for democracy.

But the oil trade is actually a separate matter. And again, it speaks to Chavez’s pragmatism and the reason why the United States has toned down rhetoric in recent years. Despite all that’s been said, Chavez relies heavily on sales of Venezuelan oil to the United States to actually fund his revolution. He’s often threatened to cut off oil, but actually cutting off the oil could do more damage to Chavez than to the United States.

Now again, I guess Venezuelan oil is of a certain quality that can only really be refined in the United States right now. Is that correct?

“Right now” is the key phrase there. U.S. refineries, especially those owned by CITGO, are geared towards the refining the heavier, more sulfurous grade of crude that Venezuela exports. One of Chavez’s projects has been to look to diversify markets of Venezuelan crude, and that is something ongoing. He sees China as a potentially very important and lucrative market, and that’s obvious. But that can’t happen overnight, and for now, Venezuela remains very heavily dependant on the U.S. market, and the United States, for its part, remains very dependant on Venezuela.

There are geographic reasons for that. Venezuela is very close to the United States, obviously much closer than the Middle East. And there are those refineries geared towards using Venezuelan crude.

Where does Chavez stand right now?

He was dealt a heavy defeat. If he had won today, he would seem invincible. He would be making plans to run for reelection at the end of this term; he still has five years to go for this term.

That said, the opposition, which is disparate, needs to be clear not to overreach too. They won, but they didn’t win by much. And it’s one thing to defeat the proposal, another thing to have a positive platform and win over people who have supported Hugo Chavez. There are major, major challenges for both sides coming out of this vote. What has been redeemed and proven again, and one of the most important outcomes here, is the extent to which Venezuelans participated, voted their choice, and that the results were upheld.

It’s, in all senses, a victory, and once again a show of the Venezuelan support for democracy.

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