Venezuela’s New Constitutional Reform 2009: If Not Chávez, then Whom? PSUV May Not Survive if Chávez Loses the Presidency

– Sunday’s referendum is critical for Chávez’s aspirations to remain in office
– A victory would essentially confirm Chávez’s strategy of holding onto power at least until 2019
– A loss would raise the question: who would be Chávez’s successor for the 2013 presidential elections?
– PSUV party begins to resemble a Chávez personality cult

Hugo Chávez became a regional household name in 1999 when he was elected president of Venezuela. His election, as leader of his self-created party Movimiento Quinta República (Fifth Republic Movement-MVR), broke with the traditional two-party system that had held sway in the country for decades. His subsequent repeated confrontations with Washington, as well as his often sneering style of communication and vituperations against his adversaries, both foreign and domestic, along with his bizarre references targeting various political foes, made Chávez, far more than his party or government, known worldwide as well as a figure of unremitting controversy.

In a few days, Chávez will face another tough challenge, namely the vote to reform existing article 230 of the Venezuelan Constitution (CRBV) that establishes a six-year presidential term, and allows only one immediate reelection. The amendment adopted by the National Assembly on January 14 (to be voted on Sunday February 15), also sets the presidential term at six years leaving the reelection option open-ended. This “small change,” as President Chávez likes to call it, will allow him to run for a third presidential term in 2013 (which would, in turn, permit him to stay in power, if he wins, at least until 2019), resulting in no less than a twenty year monopoly of power. Should Chávez’s reform vote fail to pass, a number of questions arise: Who within Chávez’s party could be nominated as presidential candidate if he is no longer authorized to run again? What would be the future of the MVR, now renamed as the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela-PSUV) without Chávez in charge? Is the PSUV really a one-man show, or could other party leaders rise up and successfully lead the fight to transform the country into Chávez’s vision of a socialist society?

Chávez and his party appear
In 1982, Chávez formed the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement – MBR-200). The original members of the group were military officers who were disgruntled with the corruption and venality of the Venezuelan political system of two strong and thoroughly corrupt political parties. The MBR-200 became a more public society following the February 1989 repression of a social protest uprising known as the Caracazo. More than 300 Venezuelans were killed in the resulting crackdown.

From that incident on, Chávez fused a number of different ideological strands, such as the ones voiced by Simón Rodríguez and Ezequiel Zamora (Venezuelan patriots who fought for independence from Spain) as well as the ideas of Marx, Hegel, and Nietzsche, which were applied to Venezuela in various degrees of intensity. From 1982 to 1997 Chávez went from promoting the MBR-200, to carrying out a failed coup d’état, for which he and his compatriots were convicted and jailed. In 1994 then-President Rafael Caldera, a member of the tainted COPEI party, pardoned him, allowing Chávez the chance to reformulate his political thoughts into the basis of a modern political party (MVR), which would serve as his vehicle to make a legitimate try for the presidency.

The Politics of Hope
Chávez’s electoral victory in 1999 was a historical milestone for Venezuelan politics. For the past several decades, the country had been ruled by one of two parties, Acción Democrática (Democratic Action –AD) or Partido Social Cristiano COPEI (Social Christian Party COPEI). Clearly, most Venezuelans were looking for a different game plan that would provide the nation with a tidal move away from the legendary corrupted politics which these two parties inevitably offered. The idea of an ex-military movement that had unsuccessfully risen against a notorious corrupt and chronically unstable government (February 4, 1992) was enough to inspire many ordinary citizens to feel a sense of hope that things could be different.

One issue which was evident since the founding of his own party before the 1999 elections was that the MVR was, in effect, Hugo Chávez, and vice-versa. Chávez was so entwined with the MVR that the party logo had his face on it. Not much ideology was discerned at that time behind the party, much less history. Generally speaking, it was to be a populist party with socialist, humanist and nationalist roots, and a sprinkling of the ideals that Simón Bolívar had formulated during the wars of independence. Many Venezuelan academics would argue that the Chávez’s Revolution is in constant change, with no specific route to guide it, other than the pursuit of power and the implementation of a socialist state and, theoretically, a high degree of participatory politics. In the beginning, Chávez did not have the opportunity to adequately express his vision. This rhetoric, combined with his view of a strong, central core of beliefs somehow was to mystically reach the country’s lower class, which always has been the cornerstone of Chavista support.

After winning the presidency in 1999, Chávez’s party gained almost complete control of the Senate in the December 2005 elections, after the opposing political parties withdrew from the election because they considered the Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council–CNE) a Chávez-controlled entity. This turned out to be a significant strategic error made by the opposition. The result was that the MVR took control of most major positions in the cities, not to mention a near majority in the National Assembly. Afterward, much would be written about this colossal misjudgment attributable to the nation’s middle class opposition leadership. The lower class masses, for the first time, had a more lasting chance to determine who they wanted to govern the country than in the country’s historical memory.

The Rise of Chávez-style Politics
On December 18, 2006, the then-Minister of Communication and Information, Willian Lara, announced that a letter had been addressed to the National Electoral Council, regarding a proposal to formally disband the Fifth Republic Movement. At the time, Chávez stressed the need for a single, united Bolivarian party, which would be named the PSUV. However, outside of Venezuela, not much was known about some of the key individuals who made up the highest levels of Chávez’s party, whether it was known as the MBR-200, MVR or the PSUV.

Since its inception, Chávez has turned to like-minded individuals to provide leadership to the party’s ranks. These included academics, union leaders as well as serving and retired military officers. From the latter’s perspective, many of the government’s senior staff members were encouraged to join Chávez’s socialist party, and many did so in order to obtain more personal benefits from supporting the “National Cause.” The current vice-president of the PSUV is a retired army officer, General Alberto Müller.

With a few exceptions, many ambitious politicians threw their support behind the president to beneficially position themselves. The result is that today the PSUV is an amalgamation of the PSUV with smaller parties espousing various degrees of a radical ideology. Such coalition components include the Venezuelan Popular Unity (UPV), People’s Electoral Movement (MEP), the Union Party (UP) and the Revolutionary Movement Tupamaro (MRT). At the same time, a number of parties like Homeland for Everyone (PPT), the Communist Venezuelan Party (PCV) and For Social Democracy (PODEMOS) chose for a range of reasons not to join the Chávez umbrella party.

Serving the Chavista cause
The organic link between the PSUV and the socialist movement was carefully spelled out to the citizens when, in the course of the 2008 regional elections, every candidate in support of Chávez’s policies pledged to affiliate with the PSUV. Those who once agreed with it, but subsequently ran on their own tickets, could not expect any direct support from the president. It was then inevitable that those who chose not to follow Chávez, but were still apostles of socialism, found themselves considered outsiders.

The MVR/Chávez government
Upon his election, Chávez staffed his government with party militants, and not necessarily those who chose their own counsel. An example would be the somewhat controversial figure, Nicolás Maduro, currently in charge of Venezuela’s Foreign Relations ministry. His appointment has been questioned a number of times, due to his lack of experience on foreign policy issues. Before becoming the overseer of Venezuelan diplomacy, Maduro was the leader of the Caracas Subway Union, and a devoted servitor of the MBR-200.

Handing over the management of diplomacy to Maduro under a Chávez mandate, could be considered as risky and impulsive. What this meant in practice was turning one’s back on any sustained effort to build a respectable and professional practice of foreign-policy making, represented by such major figures like Rómulo Betancourt, Manuel Pérez Guerrero, Ramón Escovar Salom, among others.

Chávez and his Vice-Presidents
Since the arrival of Hugo Chávez on the national scene, five different vice-presidents have held the position, highlighting the fact, that there is no consistency in the tenure that each of them have served. Occupying this position have been men of stature like Isaías Rodríguez (2000), Diosdado Cabello (2002), Jose Vicente Rangel (2002-2007) and Jorge Rodríguez (2007-2008).

Julian Isaías Rodríguez was vice-president of Venezuela from January through December 2000. In 2001 he became Chávez’s Attorney General, a post he held until December 2007. As Attorney General, he faced events like the April 11 crisis (the attempt to overthrow Chávez from power in April 2002) and the portentous death of District Attorney Danilo Anderson. Isaías Rodríguez has been regarded as a strong ally of the Bolivarian cause (he was a militant of the MVR until 2001) but also as a controversial figure.

Diosdado Cabello, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Venezuelan Armed Forces, has been by Chávez’s side since the 1992 coup. As one of the most important MVR leaders, Cabello accepted Chávez’s invitation to become vice-president of the country in 2002. This designation was seen as a step towards the militarization of the cabinet. His political career did not settle down then, for in the same year he switched over from the vice-presidency to become Minister of Interior and Justice for a year. It was not until 2004 that his career apogee seemed to have occurred when he won the 2004 regional elections for the governorship of the important state of Miranda. Cabello suffered a heavy setback when he lost his office in the 2008 regional elections.

José Vicente Rangel should be considered as one of the most skilled among Chávez’s colleagues. Journalist, lawyer and politician, Rangel has been the only Chávez confederate who has been able to demonstrate marked survival skills by occupying the vice-presidential position for five years. Known as a loyal ally of Chávez, José Vicente Rangel was also Minister of Foreign Affairs (2000-2001) and Minister of Defense (2001-2002). Currently, he is conducting his own television show “José Vicente Hoy,” but he has not completely stepped away from politics; he aided his son, José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, in his election to mayor of the Sucre Municipality of Miranda, which he served as for eight years (2000-2004, 2004-2008). He is considered a strong partisan of Chavismo.

Jorge Rodríguez is a psychiatrist who has been involved in politics since Hugo Chávez’s arrival on the national scene. Rodríguez was part of the CNE, as a director of the National Electoral Junta (2004), in charge of organizing the 2004 presidential referendum. Shortly after, he was appointed by the National Assembly as President of the CNE (2005-2006), Rodríguez openly announced his sympathy for Chávez’s administration, which induced his removal from his duties as president of the Electoral Council, and became the country’s vice-president in the following year. He was mayor of the Libertador Municipality in Caracas in the November 2008 regional elections.

The current Vice-President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is Ramón Carrizales, chosen in January 2008. Venezuelans have not yet seen any particularly noteworthy innovations introduced during Carrizales’ term. Previously he had not served a particularly eventful role as Minister of Infrastructure (2004-2006) or as Minister of Habitat and Housing (2006-2008). Contemporary Venezuelan politics require an ambitious aspirant to be a militant supporter of President Chávez to rise in the ranks.

The Chavista Public Relations Apparatus
The issue of finding a successor if the February referendum fails, is not so much that there is no party member qualified to assume Chávez’s position, but that there is a lack of qualified candidates who are also popular enough with the party’s base to be elected president, even if he or she is personally backed by Chávez.

This is a problem which the Chávez government has not particularly dwelled upon. Chávez, ever the national role model, relishes in making speeches, issuing proclamations, and trying to reach out to the masses. Artful in using the electronic media, Chávez created his now famous talk show Aló Presidente, where he would, on live television and radio, directly answer calls from Venezuelan citizens. Because of the show’s admitted popularity, Chávez has been using it as his own personal vehicle to communicate to his followers his current concerns and actions. The full inventory of his personality cult also includes the president’s face visible on flags, t-shirts, and posters, among other marketing tools. But the same political marketing has not been engaged by other government officials, all of which have been unable to directly connect to a wide political base.

Another communication tool that serves the Chávez cause is the television program called La Hojilla (The Blade) conducted by Mario Silva. This show is considered by Chávez’s foes as a projecting cult format for everything that Hugo Chávez represents. Most importantly, it should be seen as a show conducted by a newly arrived celebrity whose detractors say follows no rules and is constantly attacking with no sense of particular respect for any idea, person or, for that matter, country which is perceived as a threat to the Chávez regime. In 2008 Silva ran for the governorship of Táchira state, but went down in defeat, being rejected by both Chavistas and opposition groups.

The website of the PSUV allows for some insight into the ruling political party. It provides a link to the Venezuelan constitution (one of Chávez’s goals has been to make certain that every Venezuelan, particularly members of the lower classes, had a personal copy of the country’s constitution), as well as interactive webpages like El Muro del Pueblo de Venezuela (The Wall of the Venezuelan People). This page provides a forum where users can write comments that are then posted on the website for everyone to view. Nevertheless, there are two details that are missing from the PSUV homepage. First, there is no mention of the party’s history and origins, nor is there mention of the MVR, much less the MBR-200. Second, there is no page informing the visitor of the PSUV’s ideology. Political parties usually advertise their ideological wares as well as their political roots and goals. There is nothing like this on the PSUV webpage. There are, however, numerous photographs of Chávez and a link to a PSUV musical CD entitled Música para la Batalla (Music for the battle).

Votes in 2007 and 2008
In 2007, Chávez proposed a constitutional reform with amendments to 33 existing articles, including the possibility of unlimited presidential reelection, more powers for the national government to move forward with its plans for “21st Century Socialism,” and existence hedgings of the right of private property. Parliament proposed additional amendments to another 36 articles, and a draft text for a national referendum was prepared.

On December 3 of that year, the constitutional reform package was narrowly turned down by 51 percent of voters (CNE), which signified Chávez’s first defeat at the ballot box in the 11 elections that were carried out since he was first voted in as president in December 1998.

More recently, in November 2008, Venezuelans were called on once again to cast their ballots, this time to choose regional governors and mayors. Chávez’s PSUV party turned out a winning performance, but the victory was not as decisive as in past elections. The opposition scored victories in some of the country’s largest cities, including Caracas and Maracaibo. A partial explanation for these important losses to the opposition is that, currently, throughout the country there are shortages of food staples, high inflation and an elevated unemployment rate (up to 7.2% in June 2008, 6.1% in December 2008). These handicaps generated tinder box conditions that could pose dangers to the “Bolivarian government” placing the PSUV candidates in a difficult position. As a result, the poorer stratum of Venezuelan society are beginning to voice discontent over their deteriorating situation in talk-shows such as “La Entrevista” on RCTV, or “Aló Ciudadano” on Globovisión, both of which are anti-government channels. The ineffective measures taken by the authorities to address the current situation in the country up to now seem to render the allure of the PSUV candidates less appealing to voters.

The losses of important regional seats to the opposition have also been seen as a result of the muffed strategies that have tarnished the image of Chávez as the leader of the PSUV. It is evident that the government can take little comfort in the results because Venezuelans voted for Chávez’s roster of candidates and not so much for the candidates themselves.

The February 2009 Reform Election
The amendment to article 230 of the CRBV was brought forth by Chávez last year, as a way to emphasize democracy in Latin America. The official document acted upon by the National Assembly explains in conformance with his contention that presidential reelection is part of a citizen’s right and therefore should not be limited; moreover the democratic electoral system has to be altered if it is to retain its responsiveness to the citizenry.

“There will be a battle between the government and the opposition to see which side appeals most strongly to the democratic values of the people,” analyst Oscar Schémel, the head of the Hinterlaces polling firm, told an IPS reporter. In early January, Chávez announced that the February referendum to lift presidential term restrictions will also have the same effect on lifting similar limits for governors and mayors. This statement was completely at odds with the declaration Chávez made on July 22, 2007, when in a very tough tone he said “no and no a thousand times, if there is continuous elections … it must be only for the President of the Republic.”

A January 5 Associated Press article mentions that “[a]nalysts have attributed Chávez’s 2007 referendum loss partly to limited campaign efforts by governors and mayors who felt the proposal offered them few benefits.” Hence, Chávez’s move to include them in the referendum is a bid to sweeten governors’ and mayors’ prospects in order to have them back his own goals, and allowing them to theoretically remain in power indefinitely as well. It does not appear that loyalty to Chávez and the PSUV ideals are being counted upon as a reliable propellant of support for the Venezuelan leader.

University Politics
Regardless of the extremely swift decision to hold new elections this month (only a few months after the last elections in November), the Venezuelan opposition will be relying on the student movement, to fight against the amendment that might give Chávez what some may see as a free pass in Venezuelan politics for the rest of his life. Since classes began this year, anti-Chávez students have been mobilizing their ranks to explain the risks of buying into the President’s pro-reelection amendment. In response President Chávez started his campaign on January 17, promoting the amendment by giving a long speech that resorted to sharp name-calling against the student movement and the opposition in general. Alarmingly, the day after a vehicle carrying the president of the Federation of Student Association, from one of the most prestigious universities in Venezuela, Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), was bombed. Additionally, the Academic Rector of the Metropolitan University (UNIMET), José Ignacio Moreno, was contacted by the antiterrorism section of the Special Police Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas–CICPC, and the main universities of Caracas, San Cristóbal, Puerto La Cruz and Maracaibo were suddenly swooped in on by the police. In other countries this action could be reasonably be interpreted as a desire to provide protection against street violence, but in Venezuela it was looked upon by the university community as an unwanted sign of attention as well as a warning and a clear indication that the government was concerned about what students may do. The fact that many university students are looked upon as the children of the middle-class opposition, who are instinctively anti-Chávez, is what sparked the worry.

Following the Bolivarian outline, Chávez has, according to some of his critics, contradicted his own philosophy (not to mention possibly engaging in faulty reasoning in order to justify the amendment). In the words of Simón Bolívar, that one can possibly find the reason why Chávez’s proposal may be so unfathomable “…nothing is more dangerous than allowing the same citizen to remain in power over a long period of time. The people become accustomed to obeying him, and he becomes accustomed to commanding them; this is how power is usurped and tyranny takes root” (Angostura speech, February 15, 1819).

Due to the lack of PSUV officials’ popularity among the majority, the February 2009 referendum does not necessarily represent a real test; the 2010 congressional elections could be the important indicator as to how much acceptance the PSUV and its members and leaders have. The world gas crisis has also profoundly affected Venezuela, and Chávez may be forced to cut back on his “domestic oil politics” that have helped him and his party to remain so popular for so long. According to the National Statistics Institute of Venezuela, the unemployment rate was at 6.1% in December 2008. Therefore, PSUV senators will have to, by large measure, rely on Chávez’s backing, personal charm, hard work as well as a personal reputation for honesty, to be re-elected.

If not Chávez, then whom?
Hugo Chávez has argued on behalf of himself to remain in power at least until 2019 because he is needed in order to consolidate the Bolivarian Revolution and perpetuate his idea of a socialist state that he is so committed to achieve in Venezuela. Being a Head of State for two decades, arguing that this would help consolidate his vision of what the ideal Venezuelan society should look like, borders on what some recalcitrant analysts would define as the snares of “essentialism.” This would mean that he would have to remain in office indefinitely in order to perpetuate his vision.

Arguably, it makes sense that Chávez wishes to remain in power, as no apparent or suitable successor exists from within his party’s ranks or, for that matter, the opposition. Should Chávez fail to continue in power, a possible scenario would be for his PSUV party, which at this point represents a coalition of somewhat divergent radical, populist parties led by the strong figure of Chávez, to break apart into factions. Meanwhile, some political leaders of an often incoherent opposition have stepped forward as possible future contenders who would be prepared to run against Chávez or one of his comrades-in-arms, like ex-Major of Chacao Municipality Leopoldo López or current Miranda Governor Enrique Capriles Radonski.

After all is said, Chávez remains immensely popular, particularly among the poor. At rallies, his supporters continue to faithfully chant “Chávez won’t go!” and “Yes” to the amendment. The upcoming referendum’s outcome is still sufficiently close for his vision to be validated. Another important question that deserves discussion is the nature of Chávez’s possible successor, if the president is disqualified from running in 2013. The November 2008 elections provide the hint that, while the masses love Chávez, they do not love featureless PSUV officials enough to elect one as the mayor of Caracas or Maracaibo, let alone as the next president of Venezuela.