Venezuela: Bolivarian masses anger at referendum decision

In spite of the blatant fraud of the opposition, the decision has been taken to go ahead with the recall referendum in Venezuela. This has disappointed some layers of the Bolivarian movement and enraged others. Many have gone along with it out of their loyalty to Chavez. The decision is a serious mistake. Jorge Martin looks at the what the movement should do now.

On Thursday, June 3, the Venezuelan National Electoral Commission (CNE), basing itself on preliminary data, announced that the opposition had collected enough signatures to force a presidential recall referendum. The opposition needed the support of 2,436,083 voters, in order to trigger a recall referendum, and according to the CNE they have collected 2,451,821 signatures, which is barely 15,738 signatures above the required amount.

The last part of the process by which the opposition was trying to force the recall referendum was the so-called "repair" process in which doubtful signatures were being ratified or denied by the people and this took place over the weekend of May 28 to 30. This process was fraught with irregularities. Large numbers of forged ID cards were found by the police at different locations. A computer, scanner, printer, repair forms, and forged IDs were found at the local headquarters of the opposition party Accion Democratica in El Valle, Caracas, where people who were being pursued by the authorities sought refuge, and 600 ID cards were also found in the Accion Democratica headquarters in the Caracas district of El Paraiso.

In these police raids they also found leaflets inciting violence and calling for a repeat of the riots that took place in February (a full account of irregularities can be found in this excellent article by Gregory Wilpert and Martin Sanchez). There were also instances of workers sacked by their bosses for refusing to re-verify their signatures, as was the case at the Coca-Cola plant in Antimano, where 50 workers were threatened with the closure of the plant. The Venezuelan Coca-Cola subsidiary is owned by media magnate and opposition leader Gustavo Cisneros.

Some 1.2 million signatures had been sent to this "repair" process, and the opposition managed to re-confirm only 614,968. This in itself gives an indication of the scale of the fraud that went on in the whole signature collection process. Also 74,112 people did not acknowledge their signatures, which means that these had been used without their consent.

There is also the issue of some 50,000 people who should have been excluded from the electoral register because they were already dead, but the data had not been updated. According to CNE board member Jorge Rodriguez, this was due to deliberate sabotage.

For all these reasons on Sunday night, Bolivarians were pleased and confident and came out on the streets spontaneously to celebrate the defeat of the opposition, as it seemed clear that with so many irregularities, the CNE could never concede a recall referendum. But even at that time many were not sure of what would happen. In the run up to the repair process there had been extremely harsh pressure on the part of US imperialism and the opposition to say that if the referendum was not called, then this meant Chavez was a dictator and measures would be taken (economic embargo and military intervention included). The local agents of this pressure were the Carter Centre and the Organisation of American States, which were allegedly "observing" the repair process. In reality from Monday on they started interfering directly with the work of the CNE and making public statements that coincided almost word by word with the statements of the main opposition leaders, to the effect that enough signatures had been re-certified and that the government was stalling the process. This was another way of piling more pressure on the CNE and on the government itself.

By Wednesday it was becoming increasingly clear that the CNE would rule that there should be a referendum and there was a lot of pressure on the government to recognise such a result, despite all the irregularities. Joy turned into anger amongst the ranks of the revolutionaries. They could see in front of their eyes how, once again, a victory had been turned into defeat. The National Workers Union (UNT) rejected the calling of a referendum based on fraud, and the National Coordination of the Bolivarian Circles issued a joint statement with the Bolivarian Workers Front on the same lines. The same position was taken up and down the country by many revolutionary organisations. At the Central University a meeting of revolutionary organisations of teachers, students and workers (amongst them the Revolutionary Marxist Current and the Revolutionary Left Organisation) passed a resolution opposing the referendum and calling on all people and revolutionary organisations to mobilise against it. At 5 pm, an improvised rally with 3,000 revolutionaries from about 14 different neighbourhoods in the capital took place in Plaza Caracas, outside the CNE building. There was a lively discussion and many resolutions were passed, amongst them "1) to strongly reject the fraud and declare that it would not be accepted under any circumstances, 2) To reject any possibility to allow the fraud to be validated through political negotiations at the top, 3) expel the Carter Centre and the OAS for meddling with the process and not being impartial observers, 4) not to accept that electoral crimes are left unpunished (as happened with the crimes committed by those who organised the coup on April 13th, 2002)".

Prior to this rally there had been mass meetings of revolutionary activists in many neighbourhoods to discuss the situation. The resolutions that came out of them were extremely angry and strongly worded. "The Bolivarian people of Caricuao" in a meeting on June 1st, passed a resolution which started by saying clearly: "we refuse to accept this repair process which is fraudulent", and then went on to explain that "we will not accept any referendum, they will use all sorts of tricks in order to win: getting dead people, foreigners and under aged children to vote, etc" and correctly pointed out that "if we win the referendum they will invent something else to get rid of you Mr president, that is the only thing these criminals want." The mood of the resolution was very bitter: "how long are we going to allow them to f**k around so that they cannot call us dictators or violent, when they have committed all sorts of crimes against us, from spitting at us to killing us and organising military coups and bosses’ lock outs". And the resolution ended with an appeal to the president: "The people support you, president, we do not want a referendum, send the Ayacucho Command [which coordinates the leaders of all pro-Chavez parties] to hell. We do not believe in anybody else, president, we believe in you, do not be afraid. It does not matter if they call you a dictator, after all the people know that you are not, and that you are more of a democrat than all of them put together through a food processing machine. Do not fail us president, we support you. We are not asking for anything for ourselves, just a little bit of justice and democracy for us, is this too much to ask? Ask the people, president what we want. Meet with the Popular Movement, break the siege around you".

The revolutionary masses, as always, realised very clearly what was going on behind the scenes. Strong pressure was being applied on the president by all the reformists and the moderates within the Bolivarian movement (many of them to be found in key positions in the leadership of the parties of the movement, the Comando Ayacucho, and amongst the presidential advisers). The idea was that a referendum should be allowed to go ahead, regardless of the signatures, since the opposition will be defeated in it and this would give the president and the revolutionary movement more international legitimacy. The clearest expression of this article can be found in the statement of a Bolivarian activist quoted in a article: "We would win the recall referendum by a wide margin, and that would be an excellent opportunity to re-legitimize the [revolutionary] process. U.S. imperialism wants the CNE to declare that there were not enough signatures for the recall, so they can say that Chavez prevented the opposition from exercising their democratic rights. It's a trap to label Chavez as a dictator, invoke the OAS Democratic Charter against Venezuela and isolate us," he said (quoted in Venezuela Leader to Face Recall Referendum).

But this kind of argument was strongly rejected by the rank and file activists of the Bolivarian movement. They argue, correctly, that one should not make any more concessions to the opposition which after all is responsible for the April 13th military coup and the failed coup of December 2002. The leaders of the opposition should be in jail paying for their crimes and not collecting fraudulent signatures for the recall of the president. Furthermore, if during the signature collection process hundreds of thousands of fraudulent signatures were used, then these are hundreds of thousands of electoral crimes for which someone must pay. Any concessions made in the past to the opposition have resulted not in the opposition turning towards exclusively democratic means of political action, but rather in them preparing new counter-revolutionary attempts. As for imperialism, they already maintain there is no democracy and an authoritarian populist ruler in Venezuela, and their opinion will not change. They will simply look for any other excuse to "justify" an intervention.

In any case the opposition will not be prepared to recognise the results of the referendum if this does not give them victory. They will immediately start a new campaign of pressure and imperialist meddling, threats, and all sorts of dirty tricks, and then if Chavez is reaffirmed as a president, they will say that the referendum was rigged and this proves Chavez is a dictator. The opposition is lead by the oligarchy, the rich and the bankers, the owners of the means of production and is closely linked to the interests of imperialism. They see their fundamental interests threatened by the revolution which is developing in Venezuela. They will not cease in their attempts to put an end to it by any means necessary. Their use of democratic means (like the recall referendum) is just a small part of their strategy which includes the use of paramilitary forces, riots in the streets, sabotage of the economy and eventually foreign intervention. Making any type of concessions will only strengthen their counter-revolutionary activities and it can cause, at a certain point serious demoralisation amongst the revolutionary masses.

This is exactly what happened in Nicaragua. After years of a low intensity war, with imperialist financed guerrillas constantly attacking the country, with permanent sabotage of the economy, with diplomatic pressure (through the Contadora Group of Countries, represented in Venezuela by the Group of Friends and the Carter Centre and OAS observers), etc, finally the Sandinista leadership accepted the call for an election. The election took place against this background, and with the tiredness and demoralisation of ten years of revolutionary struggle, with all sorts of pressures and dirty tricks on the part of imperialism, and finally it was lost. The insistence of using only purely "democratic" means and staying within the limits of capitalism faced with a counter-revolutionary opposition which was prepared to use all sorts of undemocratic means to overthrow the government and put an end to the revolution, finally led to the defeat of the Sandinista revolution.

The anger of the rank and file of the Bolivarian movement led some of its most radical elements to take to the streets on Thursday 3rd, clash with the opposition controlled Metropolitan Police, burn vans belonging to companies known to have supported the coup, etc. Later on thousands gathered outside the presidential palace in a rally called to show support for the president and the revolution. It was here that Chavez announced that he would respect the decision of the CNE, that had been announced only hours before, and that there would be a recall referendum. For the reasons explained we think that this is a mistake. The reactions of the people present could be divided roughly into three main groups: those who accepted the argument that a referendum would give more democratic legitimacy to the revolution and the president and that this was the right decision; those who were angry and opposed to the decision but accepted it out of loyalty to Chavez; and finally those who are opposed to the decision and still want to fight to try and change it. They are calling for a rally today, Friday 4th, but they will also participate in the mass rally in support of the revolution which has been called on Sunday. That will be a good opportunity to see what the real mood of the masses is regarding this decision.

What is clear is that a lot of the criticism has been centred on the role of the Comando Ayacucho. This was set up a few months ago and is composed of the leaders of all Bolivarian parties (MVR, PPT, PODEMOS, PCV, LS). The revolutionary masses rightly feel that this unelected body is largely useless and out of touch with the workers and the people. They confidently promised that enough signatures had been collected to trigger recall referendums against 20 opposition MPs which had been elected on Bolivarian lists. They could only narrowly trigger 9 of those referendums and only after a "repair" process. They confidently announced that 200,000 people had not acknowledged their signatures to the presidential recall referendum, and in the end only 74,000 had done so. And this is not for lack of popular will or enthusiasm, but mainly because of lack of organisation and incompetence of this body. On top of this the Comando Ayacucho in many towns, cities and states, has imposed candidates for the forthcoming council and regional elections without any consultation with the rank and file and in many cases in complete opposition to them.

This is probably one of the more acute problems facing the Bolivarian revolution at this juncture: that of its leadership. As a leaflet distributed ine these days by the Revolutionary Marxist Current argues, there is the need for a National Revolutionary Assembly of Delegates elected and with the right of recall from all the local revolutionary organisations and assemblies. Only a genuine democratic leadership of the revolutionary process can replace the Comando Ayacucho and set the basis for a genuine revolutionary policy. Such a structure could take over the running of the state and industry in order to replace the capitalist state structure which is still in place in Venezuela (in the ministries, the judiciary, etc).

In order to defend the revolution, some basic self-defence measures need to be taken. All those responsible for crimes committed during the counter-revolutionary attempts in the last few years should be put on trial and sent to jail. The properties, factories and land of known counter-revolutionary conspirators should be expropriated without compensation and put under workers’ control and management. Workers control and management should be implemented in publicly owned companies, in order to prevent corruption and bureaucratisation and use their resources to the benefit of the majority of the people. All know agents of imperialism (including the Carter Centre and the OAS "observers", and the US ambassador) should be expelled from the country. There should be an immediate default on all payments of the foreign debt so that this money can be used to the benefit of the people. As announce by Chavez, workers’ and peoples’ militias should be set up in order to guarantee to defend the revolution from imperialist aggression. All these measures would go a long way to strengthen and defend the revolution and advance it towards socialism.