Whither Venezuela?

This December, Venezuelans will vote on whether to amend the constitution and expand the powers of President Hugo Chavez. What does this referendum mean for the future of democracy in the country?

In contrast to the rapt attention paid to previous confrontations between the Venezuelan government and those opposed to it, there has been little media coverage here of an intensifying cold civil war that could culminate around a particular day in December, when the Venezuelan people vote in a second referendum, this time on constitutional amendments that would considerably expand President Hugo Chavez's power.

On Thursday, thousands of university students marched through the streets of Caracas to protest the referendum. Some clashed with authorities and were dispersed with tear gas. Last week, the legislature approved the constitutional amendments, paving the way for the referendum vote.

Unsurprisingly, global apathy has met Chavez's steady acquisition of power. So far, the Venezuelan narrative has been repetitive: The Venezuelan president's serial intrusions on democratic practices and institutions are ineffectively challenged by the opposition. What's more, Venezuela is flush with oil wealth, thereby insulating Chavez from broader discontent.

But circumstances are changing, making the countdown to the referendum risky for the oil-rich nation, which provides the United States with about 11 percent of its crude oil imports. Unlike the recall referendum of August 2004, which Chavez won with 59 percent of the vote and was preceded by vigorous mediation by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, there are no significant mediating parties this time around. Yet the positions of opposition leaders have hardened considerably.

Rafael Alfonzo Hernandez, who is the former chairman of Venezuela's Chamber of Commerce and was a representative of the private sector in discussions with the Carter Center, is mobilizing politically through grass-roots civic organizations. "We are telling people to take to the streets," he said. Rather than participate in the referendum, as the opposition did broadly in the 2004 referendum, Mr. Hernandez is telling Venezuelans to "abort the process, and not legitimize it through their vote." In a democracy, Mr. Hernandez said, "you can't vote to have your rights taken away."

Mr. Hernandez acknowledges that he has not been able to convince many of his colleagues in the business community to mobilize as he has. "There is fear of retaliation" from the government, he said. "But I tell them, if you don't take risks now, we could lose everything."

Some experts on Venezuela are similarly alarmist. William Ratliff, a fellow at Stanford's University's Hoover Institution, said "democracy is being used on a frustrated population" in Venezuela to establish a "populist dictatorship of uncertain ferocity and indefinite duration," adding that the situation there demonstrates that "democracy is not in and of itself always a blessing."

In addition to ending Central Bank autonomy and expanding the president's term from six to seven years and allowing Chavez to run for re-election again in 2012, the amendments would further develop and fund state-controlled neighborhood councils that, according to Ratliff, "smack of the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution." Also, the amendments would prevent "political" organizations from receiving foreign funds. Ratliff says "this will deprive NGOs defending human, civil and other rights of support." Also, Chavez will get new power to declare and maintain a state of emergency, which would in turn allow him to put limits on press freedoms and detain citizens without charges.

Interestingly, Chavez is also including a number of popular proposals, such as shortening the workday, extending social security benefits to street vendors and allocating oil revenue towards free health and educational programs for the poor. If Venezuela holds the referendum on December 2 as planned, Chavez is expected to prevail once again. It remains to be seen how the opposition will then respond, and if Venezuela's repetitive narrative changes abruptly.

 

Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.