The Invisible Revolution
The constitutional reform movement of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently compared Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Adolf Hitler. The same week, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) awarded President Chavez the Jose Marti Award recognizing the elimination of illiteracy in Venezuela.
What has Chavez done to exact the wrath of the Bush Administration and win the accolades of many in the international community?
The process (“el proceso”) taking place in Venezuela has remained largely invisible, at least to people in the United States. Throughout Latin America, however, el proceso has captured the imagination of many social reformers who have embraced the mantel of Simon Bolivar as raised by Hugo Chavez to promote a movement of fundamental social uplift in the Americas.
Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper and officer in the Venezuelan army, has been elected or affirmed as president by a definitive majority in six internationally monitored elections. He survived a US-supported coup attempt in 2002, thwarted in part by a massive mobilization of more than a million citizens who surrounded the presidential palace demanding the democratically-elected president’s reinstatement.
After his first election in 1998, Chavez initiated a democratic constitutional reform process in which all political parties participated in drafting the new Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Even Chavez’s staunch opponents applaud the new constitution as durable and used its very mechanisms to mount the unsuccessful 2004 Recall Referendum. (Chavez won 59 percent of the vote; former President Jimmy Carter and staff of the Carter Center verified it as a free, fair, and open election.)
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As a member of a National Lawyers Guild delegation to Venezuela in early February, I had the opportunity to meet with opposition parties, human rights organizations, and government representatives and to walk in poor barrios, cooperatives, and medical clinics. Opposition groups and media representatives reported no government reprisals or censorship based on their anti-Chavez sentiments and activities. In fact, the vast majority of television, radio, and print media are owned privately by wealthy elites who oppose the Chavez presidency.
THE MEDIA HAS FAILED TO DOCUMENT VENEZUELA’S UTILIZATION OF ITS RICH OIL RESOURCES TO INVEST IN HEALTH CARE, EDUCATION, NUTRITION AND OTHER SOCIAL PROGRAMS.
Chavez opponents acknowledge that he enjoys a clear majority of support from Venezuelan citizens and that the constitutional process has invigorated a healthy and unprecedented form of participatory democracy. The opponents lament that there are simply more voters rooted in the ranks of the poor sectors to whom Chavez has directed his reforms.
Despite these electoral odds, opposition groups have drawn on US government contributions channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID’s Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI) to support their anti-Chavez campaigns.
The opposition groups play upon the divisions that persist. Venezuela is divided between rich and poor, between elites and the formerly dispossessed. But “the process” has been largely peaceful.
Even the 2002 coup leaders supported by the US military and Chavez opponents who have admitted receiving US funds in violation of the new constitution have remained free pending court hearings. The new constitution upholds a presumption against pre-trial confinement. As a consequence some of the architects of the failed coup are now residing in Miami.
The US media has highlighted the close relationship between Chavez and Fidel Castro. What the US media has failed to document is Venezuela’s utilization of its rich oil resources to invest in health care, education, nutrition, and other social programs. These programs have been successful in large measure because of the exchange with Cuba of Venezuelan oil for over 20,000 Cuban trained doctors and literacy workers.
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During a meeting in Barrio 23 de Enero, one of the largest and poorest neighborhoods in Caracas, I was told by a mother that before the election of Chavez she had never taken her children to a doctor. Now she boasts with pride of the primary public health clinic in her neighborhood and access to a full range of medical services at no cost.
This new right to health care is codified in the constitution, as are the rights to nutrition, education, employment and a living wage for all. The new constitution also codifies the right to equality of indigenous people in all forms of democratic participation and social services. And the text of the new constitution is gender-inclusive, incorporating the use of “he/she” throughout.
Compared to the plight of the growing number of poor in Latin America, Venezuela’s social investment programs create a stark contrast to failed neo-liberal economic policies among its neighbors. President Chavez has referred to Venezuela’s new economic relationships as a “Bolivarian alternative” to those proposed as part of the Bush Administration’s efforts to secure a NAFTA-like treaty to encompass the Americas. The new economy is described as one built upon cooperation (not competition) while promoting the needs of the poor, children, and working people as paramount.
On Feb. 4, a national Dia de Dignidad (Day of Dignity), we witnessed the mobilization of over 1 million Venezuelans who marched in the streets of Caracas in support of the Chavez government and “the process.” People from all over the country arrived in buses wearing t-shirts featuring names of their schools, cooperatives, businesses, and associations. Perhaps most striking was the enthusiasm and pride people seemed to take in what they view as their accomplishments, not those of Chavez or any one individual. As one marcher stated to me, “They could kill Chavez tomorrow, but they can’t turn back what we have started. Now we have dignity, they can never take that away.”
WILLIAM W. MONNING is an attorney and professor of international negotiation and conflict resolution at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and director of the Mandell-Gisnet Center for Conflict Management at the Monterey College of Law. He is a member of the National Lawyers Guild’s International Committee.