PRESIDENT HUGO Chavez has won a resounding victory in a referendum designed to topple him and the government of Venezuela—a government hated by the rich and powerful in both Caracas and Washington.
After the threats and ultimatums, nearly five million Venezuelans, just over 58 percent, backed Chavez in the referendum of 15 August. In 2000, 3.8 million first elected Chavez president. In 2004, that number increased by over a million.
The referendum was the latest attempt by the right to unseat Chavez.
An attempted coup in April 2002 failed when the masses took to the streets in support of the “Bolivarian Revolution”.
Eight months later oil executives and business people launched a “bosses’ strike”, supported by the big media moguls (the so called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). The “strike” failed.
The next stage was the collection of two million signatures to call a referendum.
Under the new Venezuelan constitution framed by Chavez himself, a president can be removed from office when half his term has run.
The condition is that the vote for his resignation has to be a majority and greater than the number of votes cast for him in the original presidential elections.
Despite all the efforts of the oligarchs who control much of the Venezuelan media, and despite the entreaties of CNN, the right failed miserably to win a majority.
Now, of course, the right wing is crying “fraud”. But former US president Jimmy Carter and the other international observers don’t agree.
They have confirmed the results, and the turnout of over 90 percent. (It’s worth comparing that with the 40 percent who voted for Bush or Gore in 2000.)
Their deep hatred of Chavez comes from the fact that he provided free education for a million of the country’s poorest children—many from the shanty towns—and attempted to tackle illiteracy.
He also began providing healthcare and university education for the poor—modest steps, but enough to make the right wing seek to unseat Chavez by any means necessary.
Of course, the right will not give up. For years they enjoyed the gravy train of oil profits at the expense of Venezuela’s poor. For years these same people ran political life through graft and corruption.
On the other hand, their US government friends have been making some unexpected noises recently, having supported the enemies of Chavez for several years.
It is oil that is making them change their mind. Venezuela’s oil reserves are only slightly less than Iraq’s. It exports 1.4 million barrels a day to the United States.
In recent weeks, as the Iraqi resistance has successfully and repeatedly stopped the flow of oil and as tensions grew in Venezuela, the price of oil kept on rising. The current $46 a barrel is the highest it has reached in over 20 years.
Whatever Bush’s plans might have been, the reality is that Iraq is a quagmire where the US military will be stuck for a long time to come. The US economy is far from healthy, and the November elections are likely to be dominated by a growing disillusionment with Iraq.
The last thing Bush needs now is rising petrol prices.
The referendum has shown beyond any doubt that the vast majority of Venezuelans want oil profits to be used to improve their lives—to finance health and education programmes, and transform the miserable housing so many of them live in.
Their support for Chavez is based on the promise that his “Bolivarian Revolution” will bring those changes, and in turn change the face of Venezuelan society.
Up until now the Venezuelan national oil company was virtually a state within a state. Its managers are as rich as any oil executive, and growing richer as they make deals with multinational corporations.
This vote was much more than simply an expression of support for Hugo Chavez himself. His revolution has up until now produced a lot of promises but only limited changes. And, after the vote became known, Chavez’s first declarations offered open doors to the opposition.
The US government for its part is suggesting that it will have to learn to work with this oil-rich country. And Chavez himself is very keen to build alliances and coalitions with other Latin American states, to lobby and negotiate with the international financial agencies.
For those on the ground who mobilised to win, the referendum victory is a major step forward. But it should also demonstrate that in the end it is what those masses do that will shape the future.
After the failed coup of 2002 Chavez thanked the people and asked them to return home while he continued making the revolution. This time they should build on what they gained on 15 August and drive the “revolution” from below.
Their allies are in the movements in Bolivia, Ecuador and the popular assemblies of Argentina. Their victories against imperialism were won by mass struggles and mobilisations.
That will be true of Venezuela too, though this referendum victory should give a huge boost of confidence. For now the right are on the run—they should be forced to keep on running.