Friday, September 28, 2007

La Reforma. Or, yet another (self-imposed) Opposition defeat

I am still not sure where I stand on the issue of the up and coming Constitutional Reforms to the Bolivarian Constitution (which I'm sure is keeping a lot of folks up at at night in Miraflores). As I have said before, I think it dramatically heightens the dialectic between the president and the populace in a way that can either deepen democracy in Venezuela and push the revolution to its most radical potentials or reproduce in a more robust form the centrality of the executive which has defined past regimes.

What I can definitively say at this early point in the proceedings (the public will vote on the reforma this upcoming December 2nd) is that the Venezuelan opposition is doing its normal shoddy job of organizing and furthering their position. On the one hand, they have allowed themselves to be forced into the position of defending the 1999 constitution, which brought about the advent of the ‘5th Republic’ of the (now renamed) ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ – a document they have heretofore cited as an example of Chávez’s abuse of power and the fraudulent basis of the Bolivarian Revolution. Furthermore, the strategy they have been pursuing is doing rather little to make me (or, so it seems, many others) want to see their side of things.

(an interesting comparison: Opposition anti-Reforma propaganda (on the left) using a familiar Chavista motif (below). The world bubble and the red in both images are almost always exclusively signals to the observer that the message or meaning to the propaganda are associated with Chávez or Bolivarianismo.)

Predictably, the organized political opposition is substantively focusing on the proposed indefinite reelection of the President (which would not extend to other elected officials). Much like the RCTV fiasco earlier this year, this particular issue is a ready-made ‘winnable’ issue for the anti-Chavista parties, at least in terms of international opinion. That is to say, it fits into the (Washington-made) international perception of Chávez as a megalomaniacal dictator in actuality or in waiting. According to this narrative, the Bolivarian Revolution comes not from actual historico-political conditions (the collapse of the Venezuelan political system at the end of the 20th century, the excesses of neoliberal structural readjustment and exacerbation of the gap between the poorest and richest Venezuelans throughout the 1980s and 90s, and so forth), but rather from the cult of personality around one Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías.

(It should be noted that Chávez himself has not done much to hinder this perception. He has repeatedly stated that he will stand for no changes nor additions to his 33 proposed reforms in any manner whatsoever. The Reforma occupies a prominent place among the ‘5 motors’ of the path to Bolivarian Socialism, and since he ‘is not here to do anything by halves’ they are absolute, to be voted in a bloc, and not to be adulterated in any way whatsoever.)

This has proven to be a bit problematic for reasons other than the top-down manner in which the reforms have been handled. For example, proposed changes to labor laws, which would reduce the working day to 6 hours and the working week to 36 (which, as I have pointed out, could have potentially little impact in an economy so dominated by the informal sector) have been written vaguely enough so as to allow employers to extend the (albeit 36 hour) workweek to 7 days. Bolivarian trade unionists have demanded clarifications to the reform to keep the working week 5 days long at maximum, and to guarantee workers days where they do not have to sell their labor in order to survive. Chavista legislators and others in support of the reforms have stated that no one intends for this particular reform to be used to harm workers, but this is of course the problem with relying so heavily on the laws and constitutionalism to bring about social change. The danger here is, in much the same way as RICO laws in the US were originally intended to attack organized crime but are more often used against activists and labor unions, laws can remain in place long after their original time and context have passed.

But like I originally mentioned, the opposition has not been using these opportunities to their advantage. Yesterday provided us with a clear example. Manuel Rosales (president of Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), governor of Zulia state, 2006 candidate for president), who is seen as many as the ‘head’ of the opposition held court in the Portuguese embassy with representatives from all European Union (EU) ambassadors in the country. His line: “Chávez’s perpetual reelection will harm your interests and your liberty in this country.”

He also complained that the opposition doesn’t have the same influence over the population as the government and insisted that they are not forming a ‘plan B’ as was widely circulated around the 2006 elections. (Far-right politicos and websites such as made many ominous statements in the lead up to the elections such as ‘December 3rd [election day] is not as important as what we do on December 4th [the day after what the opposition announced avant la lettre would be a fraudulent election].’ The plans included among other things the return of opposition ‘guarimbas’ –violent street blockades and destabalization efforts— which played a prominent role during the bosses' strike of 2002-3. For more detail, see George Ciccariello Maher's analysis in 'Plans B, C and D' at As always, however, Rosales here gives the lie to himself. Venezuelans sympathetic to the Bolivarian Revolution often see the opposition as both 1.) so without domestic support that they must depend on foreign allies such as the United States, the Vatican, and etc; and 2.) culturally made up either of European immigrants brought over during the dictatorships and the oil booms to fill an immediate need for highly skilled in the petrol and financial sectors of the economy OR (and perhaps more importantly) as a self-styled elite demographic centered in Caracas and Maracaibo who see themselves as White, European, and entirely above the mestizo and black majority of the country.(Coup-Monger Rats! The Pueblo will not forget!)

(it must be noted that both of these perceptions are, one has to admit after study and reflection, by no means without warrant. In this blog I have provided numerous accounts of this phenomenon. When one looks at the cultural imaginary elite Venezuelans project of themselves in the mass media, for example, one is presented with an image of Venezuela as a white republic of European ‘moderns.’ Eva Gollinger’s work (author of ‘The Chavez Code’ and ‘Bush vs. Chavez’) has definitively highlighted the anti-Bolivarian link between Washington and Venezuelan ‘Civil Society.’ More on this another time.)

So…how does Rosales rectify this situation? He holds a meeting with foreign diplomats and warns them that their interests are in danger??!?!?!??!?!!?!?!?!

Rosales has also (perhaps understandably) raised concern with the reform’s remapping of the political map of Venezuela and the introduction of the President’s ability to name special officials in charge of regions, tasks, or emergencies. For Rosales, this signals the end federal autonomy for states vis-à-vis the central government and further limits the ability of the opposition to win any toehold on power. However, coming from a man who has openly sided with Zulia-secessionists and sought US-backing for an ‘independent’ Zulia (see one of my first entires ‘Opposition Games’), this comes off as self-serving and disingenuous to most.

Primero Justicia (PJ), the Washington-founded opposition party has been focusing on the ostensible constitutionality of the reforms being voted en-bloc rather than one-by-one. Their position is that the supreme court needs to rule on the ambiguously worded Article 344 of the existing constitution which allows for the reform to be voted upon in either manner. They have conducted national surveys, held rallies, marches, press conferences – the normal course of events in a political campaign – missing the opportunity to actually debate the issues of the reform.

In the absence of any actual opposition criticism of substance to the reform, debates have been occurring within the Bolivarian bloc. The Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV) recently announced the proposed reforms they are in accordance with and suggested some reforms of their own (including reducing the voting age to 16), as has Patria Para Todos (PPT) (including the extension of potentially perpetual reelection to all elected officials). Trade Unions are pointing out the inconsistencies or vagueries in labor-related proposals. In the absence of properly ‘political’ leadership, business groups have made entreaties to the Asemblea Nacional to strengthen protections for private property in the face of the reform’s introduction of social and communal property-forms into the constitution. In short, not only is this moment deepening the democratic potentials of the Bolivarian Revolution, it is also exposing the extreme baselessness of opposition claims that the ‘dictatorship’ has stifled ‘civil society’ and ‘dissent.’

If the Reforma is rejected this December, it will have little to do opposition attempts to win over the population. Rather, it will ironically have come about as a result of the democratic energies unleashed by the revolution itself. (‘Only the Pueblo can save the Pueblo, Homeland, Socialism, or Death.’ The image of one fist pounding into another is that of the Unidad Popular de Venezuela, an ultra Bolivarian party headed by Lina ‘you can’t have a revolution without violence’ Ron. Ron has taken it upon herself to organize the ‘malandros’ (hoodlums, more or less) and outcasts of Venezuelan society to defend the Revolution by any means necessary.)

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