Monday, January 14, 2008

Chavez's retreat.

A while ago, Chavez announced a cabinet reshuffle, with the explanation that he was taking the radical edge off his government. The occasion for this is obviously his defeat by 1.3% of the vote in the recent referendum. The problematic nature of some of the policies, the fact that they were presented on a take it or leave it basis, and the haste with which they were taken to the polls, left many of Chavez's erstwhile supporters alienated. 3 million of his voters stayed home. Gregory Wilpert, the author of the excellent Changing Venezuela By Taking Power, has assessed the problems that dogged the reform attempt:

There appear to be four main reasons why the reform initiative failed: the way the campaign was conducted, the defection of long-time supporters, the mood in the country and the process through which the reform was developed. At first this process took place entirely within a closed circle of Chávez advisors. Then, when the National Assembly debated the proposal, legislators held public meetings to get outside input, but the process was rushed, covering 69 articles in two and a half months, so the discussion was superficial.


Opposition literature was characteristically packed with hyperbole and distortion, and the right-wing cried that dictatorship was afoot. Chavez tried to use his popularity to sell the proposals, but hitherto allies criticised the measures and many supporters were angered by the ineffectual way in which the previous reforms - welcomed as a rule - were delivered. Wilpert hoped that Chavez would find fault in the top-down process through which "socialism in the 21st Century" was being elaborated". Sadly, it looks as if Chavez has drawn the conclusion that the referendum defeat was a defeat for socialism in the immediate term, and therefore he will concentrate on winning over middle class Venezuelans and the national bourgeoisie. Stephanie Blankenburg, writing in The New Statesman, points out that this conclusion is probably not merited. The opposition did not gain votes, but Chavez lost them. One of the main reasons, she suggests, is the pressure exerted on the Chavistas by the state in which they are operating, which has conservatizing and corrupting tendencies. Many of the Chavistas, Blankenburg argues, are now effective opponents of a radical socialist agenda, and have used their position to block reform even where they publicly favour it. The effective boycott by 3 million voters may have been a protest by the "Chavista street" against the "Chavista elite". And the trouble, if this is true, is that Chavez may further alienate his popular base, and boost the confidence of the opposition, for whom Chavez's greatest protection is the willingness of millions of Venezuelans to mobilise in his defense. He was far wiser when he decided in 2002 that moderation and making nice to the opposition only emboldens them further.