Last week Hugo Chavez lost his referendum which would have made substantial changes to the Venezuelan constitution, forwarding what he considers to be "21st century socialism." The barely restrained glee from the Bush Administration and most of the US news media was obvious. Analysts were very quick to argue that Chavez had been wounded in international affairs and the Bush Administration has begun to pressure Columbia to move forward with a Free Tree Agreement to further stifle Venezuelan influence.
Of course, the gross misreporting of the situation was enough to make Goebbels cringe. According to the US media, the referendum was the latest effort by a dictator and strongman to become even more dictatorial. Focusing almost exclusively on the constitutional changes that would eliminate term limits and expand presidential emergency powers, the US media presented Chavez as trying to use the referendum to make himself "president for life." The level of disinformation was even greater in Venezuela as the opposition, possibly aided by the Orwellian named, and US funded, National Endowment for Democracy, spread unsubstantiated rumors that the referendum abolished private property and would allow Chavez take people's children. At face value, much of this doesn't make sense--since when do dictators have to resort to public referendums to expand their power? And if they do, why would they allow public dissemination of information against the referendum, particularly false information? Such subtleties seem to be lost among the mainstream American press.
The reality is much more complex. The more substantive changes in the constitutional granted more rights to indigenous peoples, protected women and homosexuals from discrimination, shortened the work week, provided for an expanded social safety net, and protected communal property. It is these latter changes which make the proposal so threatening to the US, not the whole "dictator thing." Chavez is offering an alternative model for economic development that is at odds with the US dominated neo-liberal order--and the Bush Administration simply can't have that. The real problem with the referendum for Venezuelans was that it was too broad, to
complicated, and too much to grasp all at one time--in effect mobilizing anyone who opposed any one thing against the entire proposal. On a more practical level, Chavez's support for expanded presidential power is potentially dangerous, although I am less concerned about him than if he were to lose a future election to the opposition--the mechanisms of dictatorship would be dangerously close to reality (for a historical corollary look up the Bruning Administration). Of course, Venezuela was and remains a constitutional democracy, Chavez is not a dictator, and hopefully he has learned a lesson. And even more so, I hope the more redeeming aspects of the the Bolivarian revolution can continue, without unjustified and dangerous expansions of executive power.