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|The Elections of Venezuela and Bolivia: A Step Forwards|
The recent successful elections in Bolivia and Venezuela are being heralded as an important step forward for Latin America, signalling the increasing decline of US influence and a further triumph in the region for economic independence, social equality and redistributive policies.
24th February 09 ~ STWR
In the space of three weeks, Bolivia voted in a new constitution that marked the "refoundation" of the country on the basis of justice for the impoverished indigenous majority, soon after which the Venezuelan public granted Hugo Chavez his wish of potentially being a president for life - thereby furthering his grand ambitions of building a '21st-Century socialism' in Venezuela. In the wake of these historical landmarks, new questions are being raised about the region's changing relationship with Washington, as well as the new forms of political system that are taking shape across the continent.
On 15 February 2009, 56 percent of Venezuelans secured the lifting of Presidential term limits after Chávez made an unsuccessful attempt at implementing the reform in 2007. In the article below, Julia Buxton explains that the difference in this year's result lies in the fact that voters were only agreeing to the amendment of five articles that together lifted the two-term limit, rather than the long list of amendments Chávez proposed in 2007. She also points to the weakness and disarray of the opposition. Whilst Chávez' critics have condemned the reform as a challenge to democracy, Buxton argues that it is entirely democratic, since Chávez will still have to face election in 2012 and beyond.
In an event of similar significance, 61 percent of Bolivians approved the country's new constitution on 25 January 2009. Gonzalo Villanueva stresses below that in enhancing the rights of the impoverished indigenous minority and promising the universal securing of health care and basic services, it is a veritable victory for the people of Bolivia. However, in the resource rich eastern states of the country where Morales' fierce opposition holds sway, only between 33 percent and 43 percent of voters agreed to the new constitution. Members of the elitist opposition argue that the constitution is not legal since it was not voted in by all states, and they are likely to block reforms through their positions in the Senate.
As US influence on its southern neighbours diminishes, Obama's election at the end of 2008 has also fostered new hope for the rekindling of constructive relationships between Latin American and US governments. State Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid has described Bolivia and Venezuela's recent referendums as "democratic". As Laura Carlsen points out, this marks an important improvement in hemispheric relations: a change indeed from the active hostility between the Bush administration and Chávez's government in particular.
The electoral results in both Bolivia and Venezuela are likely to serve as an example to other progressive Latin American governments and their electorate, with Chavez's lead in reforming the limited liberal-democratic political system now likely to be followed in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. These significant electoral landmarks in both Bolivia and Venezuela mark the increasing political and economic independence from international and particularly US institutions, and emphasise a clear message to the United States; that the days of US-backed coups and neoliberal politics are at an end in Latin America. The current financial crisis originating from the US is a further signal that three decades of neoliberal trade policies, once dominant across the South American region, are being replaced by a new form of politics that prioritises the democratic and socio-economic rights of its majority people.
20th February 09 - Open Democracy, Julia Buxton
The Venezuelan electorate is bent on using democratic mechanisms to fuel the demagogic ambitions of its populist president, Hugo Chávez. The voters have backed him and his party in thirteen of the fourteen elections and referendums held in the country since Chávez was inaugurated in February 1999. Now, on 15 February 2009, a majority of them went so far as to grant him his wish of being president for life: for in the referendum on that day 56% voted to lift term-limits on elected officials, thereby eroding a noble Latin American tradition of safeguarding democracy by limiting incumbency.
The distant hope
So argue Hugo Chávez's opponents at home and overseas - particularly in Washington, were the anti-Chávez lobby is striving to maintain the disproportionate influence it had under George W Bush into the Barack Obama administration. After the 15 February referendum, media and academic commentators have painted a frighteningly dystopian vision of Venezuela's political future. It all amounts to significant pressure on the new Democratic administration to follow the Bush policy of isolating and destabilising Chávez.
There had been high hopes in Washington that the opposition would build on its defeat of Chávez in the referendum in December 2007 on lifting term-limits held, as well as on gains made in the November 2008 regional elections (including the capture of the municipal capital, Caracas). A further defeat for Chávez would have chastened the president's grand ambition to build "21st-century socialism" in Venezuela. Along with the declining price of oil, the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy, and domestic turbulence preoccupying Russia and Iran - Venezuela's partners in building a multi-polar world order - a second referendum defeat would have made Chávez a weakened proposition.
So why did the electorate ruin this scenario by turning out in significant numbers (the turnout was 66%) to approve this major change? The government's opponents and critics point to the usual problems: the administration's abuse of public spending, violation of election laws, intimidation of the opposition, manipulation of voters, even anti-semitism. A Spanish deputy from the European parliament - in Venezuela as an international election observer - was moved to violate all norms of election observation by condemning dictatorship in Venezuela as soon as he landed in the country.
The terms of victory
The reality is more complex, democratic - and worrying for Chávez's opponents. The decision by Venezuelan voters to lift term-limits is of regional as well as domestic significance. It merits cool-headed scrutiny by the new United States state-department team ahead of the expected meeting between Chávez and Obama at the fifth Summit of the Americas on 17-19 April 2009 in Trinidad.
The "yes" vote won - fairly and freely according to international observers - for three reasons, which have nothing to do with intimidation or fraud. First, Chávez learnt from past defeat. Instead of the unwieldy sixty-nine proposals that bewildered voters in December 2007, there was just one question in the new proposal: should five articles in the 1999 constitution be amended in order to lift the two-term limit on officials serving in elected office?
Chávez, a formidable campaigner, expended significant energy mobilising his supporters and explaining why lifting term-limits - and opening up the prospect of his re-election in 2012 - was in the interest of the Venezuelan people. Unlike December 2007, he did not take success for granted. And in contrast to the messy infighting over candidacies in the ruling PSUV ahead of the November 2008 regional elections, the Chavistas unified around a single proposition and a single figure: Hugo Chávez.
Second, the Chavistas' success also reflected the ongoing weakness and disarray of the opposition, dashing critics' hopes of presenting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with a viable alternative to Chávez. In theory, Chávez could now outlast Obama. There was no opposition campaign to speak of other than disruptive protests by belligerent students, feted and funded as democratic freedom-fighters by America's libertarian right. Key opposition leaders were outfoxed by the extension of the term-limit issue to all elected officials (not just the presidency); and they relied on the old (and repeatedly unsuccessful) formula of branding Chávez a demagogue in recycling their ever-negative campaign message.
The context of change
The third and and even more important issue underlying the referendum result relates to how Venezuelans understand and interpret democracy, and the type of democracy that they want to see in their country. A majority of voters did not support lifting term-limits because they were misled or manipulated by Chávez or because they have an authoritarian political streak. Rather, as the much respected regional Latinobarometro survey has shown on an annual basis, Venezuelan public opinion is one of the most democratic in the region and strongly opposed to autocracy. Venezuelans consistently express a high level of support for their political model, and confidence in the democratic system is constantly above the regional average. While critics may see Chávez's Bolivarian revolution as an authoritarian project, majority opinion in Venezuela judges it democratic.
In this broader context, the fundamentals of democracy are not altered by the lifting of term-limits. If anything, they may be enhanced. Whether or not Chávez intends to be president for life, he still has to face the electorate in 2012 if he wants to remain in power; and even then there is no guarantee that he will win a third term and retain the presidency. To do so, he needs to respond to popular concerns relating to crime, insecurity, corruption and inflation - or he runs the risk of defeat.
Moreover, the Venezuelan constitution provides for mid-term "recall referendums" on elected officials, thereby maintaining checks and balances on government at national, regional and municipal level. Term-limits have traditionally been deeply destabilising in Venezuelan politics, producing factional power struggles and lame-duck presidents. This can now be avoided, while allowing the electorate to stick with their preferred candidate - a democratic innovation. True, incumbency brings undoubted benefits; but they are delivered only if voters are contented with the performance of ruling officials and the opposition fails to present a viable alternative.
In the liberal-democratic model, term-limits are viewed as essential for the checking and balancing of executive power. But this emphasis on procedural mechanics and ideal-types does not match popular understanding or expectations of democracy at the grassroots of Venezuelan society. Most Venezuelan voters are clearly of the view that term-limits are not the only, or necessarily an invaluable, mechanism for restraining power. A host of other parliamentary systems have survived without limiting prospects for re-election. Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, is among those who has highlighted the democratising potentialities of lifting term-limits.
Venezuela has taken the regional lead in implementing projects of major social transformation that challenge the power and vested interests of minority elites. Hugo Chávez argued that the opportunity to run for a third term was essential for the consolidation of his Bolivarian revolution. His lead is now likely to be followed by Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Each of these heads of state are considering lifting term-limits on the basis that this will allow for continuity and the institutionalisation of change. In a region traditionally characterised by instability and fragile institutions, this may prove to be a good thing.
The clear message to the United States state department is that South American societies want to mould their own unique political systems and break with a rigid and limited liberal-democratic model that minimises popular input. Variation and innovation in this context amount to pluralism not authoritarianism.
13th February 09 - Gonzalo Villanueva, Green Left Weekly
The historic struggle for national liberation, economic sovereignty, and the “refoundation” of Bolivia on the basis of justice for the impoverished indigenous majority achieved an important milestone on January 25, with the approval of the new Political Constitution of the State (CPE) by 61.43%.
On February 7, President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, officially promulgated the CPE. Some reports estimate as many as 1 million people attended the event in the popular city of El Alto to celebrate the new constitution. Social movements and trade unions had an overwhelming presence at the event.
“Brothers and sisters of Bolivia, on this historic day, I proclaim enacted the new Political Constitution of the Bolivian state, the validity of the united plurinational, social, and economic state, and the communal socialism to begin from the promulgation of the new constitution”, Morales stated.
In conjunction with the constitutional referendum, Bolivians also voted on the amount of land that could be privately owned, with 80.56% voting to limit it at 5000 hectares.
Bolivia has been marked by a struggle over land between poor indigenous campesinos (peasants) and predominantly white large landowners and powerful agribusiness interests.
However, as a result of negotiations last year between the right-wing opposition and the Morales the law will not be retrospective — that is, it will not apply to existing land holdings. However, all landownership is subject to government review to establish whether it is used productively or not. Under existing law, unproductive land may be redistributed.
The concessions reached in the negotiations were seen by some government supporters as necessary to ensure the passage of the bill for the constitutional referendum. However, some sectors viewed this as giving up too much and argued that the proposed land reform had been compromised.
The new constitution marks a historic victory in the struggle of Bolivia’s indigenous and working people.
With extreme neoliberal policies implemented in the 1980s and ’90s resulting in widespread impoverishment, the December 2005 election of Morales was preceded by three popular uprisings (in 2000, 2003 and 2005).
Morales was elected on a platform that included the mass movement’s key demands of nationalising the nation’s gas reserves (carried out in 2006) and creating a new constitution to begin to reverse the oppression of indigenous people and neoliberalism.
Although a constituent assembly was elected to draft a new constitution in 2006, repeated violent protests by the right-wing opposition stalled the process and threatened to derail it.
However, a combination of mass mobilisations from the indigenous and other social movements, and negotiations by the government succeeded in securing the January 25 referendum.
The preamble of the constitution poetically summarises the background of social struggles that gave birth to the CPE: “The Bolivian people, of a plural composition, from the depths of history, inspired by past struggles, in the anti-colonial indigenous rebellion, in the independence [struglle], in the popular struggles for liberation, in the indigenous marches … in the struggles for land and territory, and with the memory of our martyrs, we construct a new state.”
Enhancing the rights of the 32 indigenous nations within Bolivia, including autonomy over territory and the right to use their own language and traditional customs, the CPE also states universal health care is to be free and accessible; it is the responsibility of the state to provide basic services to the people; telecommunications are considered a fundamental right; and access to water is considered a human right and cannot be privatised.
Raul Prada, a former delegate to the constituent assembly argued in an article published on Bolpress.com that the new constitution redefines the conception of the state according to a “plurinational, multicultural and comunitarian logic”.
“Thus”, he continues, “it gives way to the notion of a state overseer, protector of natural resources, welfare, even institutionally incorporating forms and practices of the original peoples, constituting itself as a tool for equitable, sustainable, and sovereign development”.
In a sign of the government’s intentions, Reuters reported on February 9 that the government is “gearing up to nationalize foreign-owned electric power companies” with the aim of bringing back under state control energy companies privatised by previous neoliberal governments.
However, the project of refounding Bolivia takes place in the context of a polarised country.
In resource-rich eastern departments, with a much larger white population, that are strongholds of the opposition (the “half-moon” region of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija) the “yes” vote only achieved between 33% and 43%.
The result, consistent with previous elections, reflects the hegemony, consolidated by the private media, that the opposition has in the half-moon urban centres.
The corporate media carried out a campaign of disinformation and manipulation against the new constitution over issues such as religion, the family and private property.
“Choose God; vote no to the constitution”, was one slogan, promoted by the Catholic Church.
In the aftermath of the referendum the opposition, once again displaying its rejection of the democratic decisions of the majority of Bolivians, emphatically claimed that the constitution referendum was only legitimate if it had achieved a majority in all departments.
Alternatively, they claimed it was a legal victory but without legitimacy, or else that the result was a “technical tie”.
As has been demonstrated in the past, there is a difference between winning government and exercising state power.
The power of the old elite, especially in the east (where the opposition-controlled authorities helped launch a violent coup attempt against Morales in September last year) has, at times, debilitated the authority of state institutions and may plague attempts to implement the measures in the new CPE.
Some of the changes are due to be decreed by Morales, such as an increase in the salary for education and health workers by 14% and 12% for the public sector and the military.
Other fundamental laws required for the transition to the new constitution may reach a stalemate due to the opposition majority in the Senate, which blocked a gamut of progressive laws in the last few years, such as the increase in salaries, frustrating government projects.
However, with general elections expected for December, a new parliamentary relationship of forces may be created when the newly created “plurinational legislative assembly” comes into being.
Sectors of the opposition have responded to the referendum results by raising the idea of “dialogue” to achieve a “new national pact”.
Undoubtedly, the opposition will be seeking to implement the “departmental autonomy” that is written into the new CPE for the departments it controls.
However, discrepancies remain between the opposition departmental authorities and the Morales government as to what type of “departmental autonomy” is to be applied.
The version of the “half moon” authorities is nothing less than a strategy to circumvent the authority of the national government and the CPE.
Morales has emphasised that any such “pact” would only be to ensure the fluid application of the CPE.
While some have argued that such a “pact” would help avoid a resurgence of regional conflict, various social movements that support the government stated that the government should not make any concessions to the opposition, stating they would be prepared to mobilise to assure the implementation of the CPE.
18th February 08 - Laura Carlsen, Americas Program
There are early signs of change in the Obama State Department. In response to significant political victories by former Bush nemeses Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, State Department spokespersons praised the democratic processes in these countries, indicating a more open attitude toward the growing independence of Latin American nations.
Chavez won his referendum on lifting term limits for elected officials on Feb. 15 by a solid 54% at last count, with a 70% turnout. State Department spokesperson Gordon Duguid stated that, "For the most part this was a process that was fully consistent with democratic process."
Last week spokesperson Robert Wood established the administration's position on the referendum by calling it "an internal matter." When asked for his opinion on the Venezuelan vote, Duguid echoed that position saying it "was a matter for the Venezuelan people."
A similar response came out of the State Department following the Jan. 25 vote on Bolivia's new constitution. Approved by 61%, the vote culminated a reform process that nearly tore apart the nation and left several dead in its wake due to the violent opposition of anti-Evo factions.
The day after the vote, Wood congratulated the Bolivian people on the referendum and stated, "We look forward to working with the Bolivian Government in ways we can to further democracy ..." When asked if he believed the referendum furthers democracy, he replied, "A free, fair, you know, democratic process certainly does contribute positively."
These might seem like standard-issue statements from a government commenting on matters pertaining to neighboring countries. But if the votes had taken place under the Bush watch, the response would have been much different.
The Bush administration kept a pouty silence following President Morales' resounding victory in a recall referendum Aug. 10 as congratulations poured in from other nations. It remained similarly mute after the massacre of at least 25 peasants, supporters of the president, by opposition forces. After the U.S. ambassador was expelled, Bush cut off trade preferences to the country.
In the case of Venezuela, the active hostility against the Chavez government was well known and heavily broadcast by the mainstream press. From not condemning the ultimately failed coup against Chavez in 2002 to frequent name-calling, the administration's relations with Venezuela reflected a permanent enmity that tended to be expressed in infantile, personal terms.
In general, Latin America has welcomed President Obama with a combination of relief—Bush had a dismal approval rating throughout—and signs of good faith, suspending judgment as the new government defines its polices toward the region. Hopes for constructive engagement with the U.S. Government rekindled after the 2008 elections, especially within the countries deemed the bad guys under the Bush division of the hemisphere.
The response to the referendums will bolster optimism that the government will move toward what Clinton, in her confirmation hearing, called a foreign policy based on "principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology."
There have been some other not-so-good signs though. Whether it's a lack of consistency among high-level diplomats, or the inertia of Washington, or indecision, members of the administration have also mimicked at times a paternalistic tone toward Latin America that characterized U.S. policy for far too long.
Clinton and her second in command, James Steinberg, have on occasion described the continent as a "playing field" where a supposed lack of leadership on the part of the United States recently must be corrected so as not to cede ground to Hugo Chavez. The idea that maybe the continent's diverse nations don't need tutelage from anyone is absent. This is old-school thought—southern countries as geopolitical objects and not subjects in their own right. It doesn't live up to the promise for a "new face on U.S. diplomacy" that was promised for the region.
President Obama faces a choice: to build good neighbor relations in the hemisphere or to actively oppose the democratic changes toward greater sovereignty, equality, and decolonization that are taking place. Obama and the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela have declared a willingness to sit down and talk to one another. It is important to insist on direct diplomacy, based on mutual respect, so that the promised "change" leads to an improvement in relations that have been allowed to deteriorate for too long.
Translated for the Americas Program by Laura Carlsen. Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org) is the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy.
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