Anyone who follows political events in Venezuela knows that the government of Hugo Chavez narrowly lost a referendum to reform the constitution. If you read the American press, though, you’d have a hard time understanding anything more than that.
Mainstream U.S. media have consistently portrayed Chavez as a “would-be dictator” and and “authoritarian”. Never mind that he has consistently won elections that outside observers called free and fair. The run-up to the referendum was no different: see here for a New York Times editorial about Chavez’s “plan to become president for life”. Never mind that if you look at the actual referendum, you see that what was being proposed was merely to eliminate term limits for the President. I guess this means that by the standards of the Times, France, which also does not term-limit its Presidents, is a scary emerging dictatorship.
When Chavez lost the referendum, he graciously congratulated his opposition and accepted defeat (which is better than you can say for some recent American elections I could name). This puts his detractors in an odd position: on the one hand they would like to celebrate the defeat as a repudiation of Chavez’s left-wing “Bolivarian revolution”. On the other hand, it’s hard to portray someone as a crazed authoritarian when they are willing to calmly accept electoral defeat. The events surrounding the referendum certainly make people like Timescolumnist Roger Cohen–who compared Chavez to fascist dictator Francisco Franco–look pretty silly.
I’m generally supportive of Chavez and his Bolivarian movement, although they are certainly not without their flaws. But I’m not enough of an expert to be able to say for sure what the defeat of the referendum means. My impression is that the referendum itself was a mix of some good ideas and some bad ones, and that it was probably a political mistake to mix so many proposals together in a single package. If Chavez and his allies take their defeat as an opportunity to reflect on their mistakes and correct their errors, then the defeat could turn out to be a positive development for them and for the Venezuelan people. In particular, maybe this will move the Bolivarians away from a reliance on Chavez and his personal charismatic leadership, which has always seemed like a weakness of the movement to me.
- Venezuela Analysis, a website that provides news and analysis from a pro-Chavista perspective.
- Znet, which has a "country watch" on Venezuela.
- Tariq Ali, who is usually a trustworthy analyst, has an article up about the referendum.
- Robin Hahnel, the left-wing economist, has another take.
That's just for starters. Anyone with additional sources, please leave them in the comments.
UPDATE: The Nation has a forum on Venezuela up on their site. The pieces by Weisbrot and Grandin are especially recommended