People’s Victory in Referendums in Bolivia and Venezuela

The first two months of 2009 have seen two remarkable instances of democracy in Latin America. Radical agendas promoted by President Evo Morales (Bolivia) and President Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) won convincing victories in popular referendums January and February respectively. 
 In Bolivia, the referendum was held to vote on a new constitution. One feature of this constitution was the unprecedented degree of democratic participation in its making: this is the first constitution in Bolivia to be drafted by a specially elected delegate assembly and be put to a national vote. The last constitution of 1967 came into being entirely without the participation of indigenous people. Indigenous people – a majority in Bolivia, which is one of Latin America’s poorest nations, were only granted the right to vote less than 60 years ago.
Even more remarkable is the content of the new constitution: expanded rights of the indigenous people within a “pluri-national” state, including their right to “self government and the exercising of self-determination”; greater indigenous control over local development and natural resources; reservation in Congress and in the Constitutional Court for smaller indigenous groups; access to water declared a basic human right; land reforms. These policies are totally against the grain of the neo-liberal policy thrust by the ruling class in countries like India: policies of state-sponsored grab of land and water, if necessary killing indigenous people and agrarian poor who stand in the way; privatisation of resources like water; and reversal of poorly implemented land reforms!  
The constitution got great support from rural voters; whereas it was rejected in the eastern lowland areas – dominated by wealthy landowners and businessmen. The latter reportedly campaigned against the Constitution on the grounds that it displaced Catholicism from the privileged position of official religion (by extending the same recognition to the Andean god Pachamama) and promoted “extreme indigenous power.” The earlier Constitution, in contrast, “recognizes and supports” the Roman Catholic Church. The constitution was voted in, winning the support of a whopping 60% over an opposition of 40%.
Now the defeated opposition has raised the demand that Morales ought not to ‘divide’ the country, but ought to go for a ‘compromise pact’ to accommodate the opinion of the minority. In fact, the constitution document as it was passed already reflected a considerable compromise. An earlier version had allowed for expropriation of large estates – a major issue in a country where less than one percent of the population owns more than two thirds of the land. But eventually this feature was dropped, leaving current holdings untouched but somewhat limiting future landownership. 
Bolivia's Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera, in an interview, described the opposition’s call for a pact to ‘heal’ the divisions as “delusional.” He emphasised Morales’ point, which is that “a pact can only be understood within a framework of applying and developing the new constitution.” He described the new constitution as “a national project that is encountering regionalised resistance based on...the dissemination of fear; fear in relation to religion, to the family, to property rights.” 
“Fear is not a political project,” he said, asserting that the right-wing opposition coalition comprised “semi-disappeared political parties, conservative sectors of the church, fascist civic forces, opposition mass media, hard business sectors, all cohered around rejection and not the construction of an alternative.”
Morales’ landslide electoral victory in 2005, and his victory with 67% of the vote in a recall referendum vote moved by the opposition in 2008, followed by this latest popular endorsement of constitutional changes, are clear indications that Bolivia’s mood for radical change, and Evo Morales’ popularity has in no way declined. In a small departure from the policy of preceding US regimes, the Obama Government has congratulated the Bolivian people on the referendum.
In Venezuela, the referendum was to vote on the proposal mooted by the Venezuelan National Assembly at the behest of President Chavez, to allow Venezuelans to elect Chavez to a third six-year term after his second term ends in 2012. Chavez had announced that if his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) so decides through its internal elections, he will be the candidate for the Presidency in 2012. The opposition tried its best to brand this move as an ‘undemocratic’ one, inspired by Chavez’ personal thirst for power. All sorts of underhand measures – through mischievous propaganda as well as violent means – were undertaken to defeat the proposal.
Luis Bilbao, leader of the PSUV, commented that the principal force that neutralized the opposition campaign, even more than the efficient intelligence machinery, was “the mass mobilisations that have been carried out in the function of a precise plan of action designed by Hugo Chavez – and, in fact for the first time, scrupulously controlled in its execution by the president himself, as if it were a military operation – in order to accomplish the task of clarification for the public in the lead up to electoral contest. …the youth identified with the revolution came out onto the streets to neutralise the attempt to make students appear as a compact mass force of opposition and paralyse potential adherents to these counterrevolutionary groups, who saw their actions and mobilisations reduced to a pathetic expression of isolation. Parallel to this, hundreds of thousands of “patrulleros” came out to explain to the population the significance of the vote.” The popular vote (55%) in favour of Chavez’ proposal was eloquent proof that the people of Venezuela see their aspirations reflected in Chavez’ and the PSUV’s project of “21st Century Socialism” – and are determined to do all they can to safeguard this project from capitalist and imperialist saboteurs.