Venezuela: Reality versus reporting

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by Patrick Leet •The NY Times is, once again, doing their best to lead the corporate media spin campaign in-progress, constructing a consensus on Venezuela according to pre-conceived conclusions, and not according to the realities on the streets in Venezuela.

The spin – in all corporate media I’ve read – has been:

1) Chavez tried a slight-of-hand “power grab” (this is repeated over and over) via a constitutional reform.

2) Venezuelans, recognizing his authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies, rejected his attempts to be Preident for life, voted against the proposed changes, demonstrating that the population does not support his crazy proposals.

3) Democracy wins, Venezuelans celebrate, and we all live happily ever after (unless the villain Chavez tries another trick, he-he-hoo-hoo-ha-ha… stay tuned noble democracy-supporters!)

While it makes a nice and tidy story (and short enough to fit into articles), this does NOT coincide with reality in Venezuela.

World Views publishes stories, reflection and analysis with an international perspective and a Minnesota connection. This story comes to us from Patrick Leet, a Minnesotan currently living in Venezuela. He has worked for Witness for Peace and currently serves as the Venezuelan correspondent for MIRAc – the Minnesota Immigrants Rights Action Coalition.

Why not?

1) It is incredibly simplistic to say this was about a Chavez power-grab, as both the process and content of the proposed reform were complex. The process itself was a 3-tier process that included an initial proposal of 33 articles by Chavez, a “parliamentary in the streets” open period of proposals from social organizations and the people, and an additional 36 articles added by the National Assembly (which included the “street parliamentary” stage).

If this were about an abusive power-grab, Chavez – who holds a significant majority in the National Assembly – could have simply pushed it through for a vote in the Assembly w/out a popular vote, knowing it would be rubber-stamped. Why didn’t he just do that?

2) This power-grab President-for-life theory seems the biggest concern to the international press. It was of concern to some and discussed in Venezuela for sure, but the discussion went much deeper (although not nearly deep enough). The final proposal was very complex, including:

* Providing a social-security fund for workers in the informal economy.
* Making illegal descrimination based on sexual orientation (as well as other things, but this was the most controversial amongst the anti-discrimination clauses, given that Chavez has very strong support amongst evangelicals, and is himself quite socially conservative on several issues.)
* Removing the autonomy of the Central Bank.
* Creating new forms of property, including Collective Property, Public Property, Mixed Property, and Social Property (both direct and indirect). …all this in addition to “recognizing and guaranteeing Private Property”.
* Creating gender parity in state institutions
* Reducing the work day to a maximum 6 hours, the work week to a maximum 36 hours
* Creating parity in the voting system in universities (currently a professors vote counts for 40 student votes, and university workers can’t vote. This would change to include students, workers, and faculty as equals)
* Altering the character of the army such that it is “popular” and “anti-imperialist”
* Lower the voting age from 18 to 16
* Creating new forms of local government, including something like a confederation of cities based on the “commune”, which would have been a constitutionally recognized local entity
* The creation of by-appointment Vice-Presidents who would oversee newly designated (rural) areas to ensure they are part of the national distribution of resouces, decision-making, etc.

And these are only amongst the most heavily discussed. There were 69 articles in-all.
Every single one merits much discussion, even if in most cases they reflect popular will.

Confusing, right?
Exactly.

THIS is what kept abstention high and lost the vote – confusion – and not a rejection of Chavez. This confusion was, of course, fed by a reported $8 million in US funding of opposition propaganda and student groups that, sadly, had an impact. By the Dec. 2 vote the rumors of “if it passes the state will take my house” were widespread, and not accidental.

People – many, many people – decided simply not to vote rather than betray Chavez and vote their concerns about one or another article, even if they support the bulk. Chavez still has a roughly 65% approval rating (according to polls conducted over the last week). Again, 3 million people (8 million in-all voted Dec. 2nd) who voted for Chavez a year ago simply did not vote. Yes, some who have voted for Chavez did vote against the proposal, but it is considered a relatively small percent of the overall vote, and not the massive anti-Chavez upheavel we’ve been hearing about.

4) In addition, the “President-for-life” claim is worth questioning. The proposed article #230 reads in its entirety: “The Presidential Period is 7 years. The President of the Republic may be reelected.” (En espanol: “El periodo presidencial es de siete anos. El Presidente o Presidenta de la Republica puede ser reelegido o reelegida.”)

What this means is that presidential elections would be held every 7 years, and any opposition group would be able to put the president’s office up for a recall vote (as determined by anohter article) at the mid-way point of every 7 year term. Chavez stays in office if and only if he is re-elected every 7 years by direct popular vote.

5) In reality, if this article – eliminating presidential term limits – is taken-up by the population and re-submited as a single-issue popular referendum (a bottom-up initiative is permitted by the Venezuelan constitution) it would likely receive far greater support than the reform proposal as a package, and likely pass. Again, despite media reports, there is broad support for Chavez as a leader amongst a large majority of the population, and most want him to continue beyond 2013, despite a minoroty whose voice is amplified greatly by international press in the name of “the Venezuelan people”. The divisions are based largely on class and, like most countries, the wealthier classes represent a significant minority.

What many see as most hopeful – and most often ignored by international media – is the tremendous bottom-up participation in neighborhoods across Venezuela, also challenging media-constructed myths. As of a few days ago, people across Venezuela are beginning to collect signatures to to re-submit parts of the referendum. This would seem to be completely spontaneous and without much organization/coordination, and will likely NOT be a successful electoral strategy unless it is better organized, but demonstrates the popular nature and bottom-up support of this process. Again, this will of course not be reported widely by international press, doing their best to paint Venezuela as a dictatorial state.

6) While we may or may not support term limits (many international followers have questions about a process so dependent upon one person), this is something for the people of Venezuela to determine. Unless there are gross violations of Human Rights (such as is the case in Colombia, for example), it would seem it is our job to support their sovereign decision.

7) Lastly, reports in the international press are absent of any context and filled with eurocentric racism and double-standards:

When can we expect outcries about France’s political system, where there are no term limits and the president alone can dissolve the French National Assembly?

When will the NY Times claim “dictatorship” in Italy, where the parliament and representatives from regions elect the president (i.e. NOT a direct popular vote), and there are no term limits?

When will we gasp out loud and call “crazy” (as Chavez is called) the anti-democratic traditions in the UK, where there are no term limits, where the prime minister holds office “at Her Majesty’s pleasure”, and where it is custom to kiss the hand of the monarch of the day, before being recognized as Prime Minister. Even the opposition is referred to as “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.”

In addition, the claims that abounded of “no election monitors” negate the presence of more than 100 organizations and individuals, including the NAACP and officials from organizations in multiple African countries. It would seem you need to be white and/or linked to the OAS (Organization of American States) or the Carter Center to be considered a legitimate election monitor.

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