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Fighting with Pinpricks: The Civil War in Venezuela

By Jon Lange

Section: Opinions

December 7, 2007

Early on Monday morning, Hugo Chavez conceded that voters in Venezuela had rejected the constitutional referendum which he championed by the narrow margin of 50.7% to 49.3%. It was the seventh election in Venezuela since Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution began nine years ago and the first loss for the president and his supporters.

I’ve been following the revolution in Venezuela for a number of years with great interest, and when the BBC anchor announced the results over the radio it felt a little like being punched in the stomach. In that moment, I wondered if this is how earlier generations of leftists felt when they heard that striking British coal miners had returned to the mines or that the May 1968 unrest in France had been quelled. Indeed, I wondered if this is what Karl Marx felt when he read that the Paris Commune was brutally suppressed during La Semaine sanglante in May 1871.

For his part, Chavez put a positive spin on his first ever electoral defeat. He warned the opposition that their victory would prove “pyrrhic” and that the revolutionaries “know how to convert apparent defeats into moral victories.” The doyens of the international left tried to sound upbeat as well; Great Britain’s foremost celebrity Marxist Tariq Ali wrote, “If the lessons of the defeat are understood it is the Bolivarians who will win” just hours after Chavez’s concession.

I can’t share Ali’s optimism for the fate of Western Hemisphere’s most successful social revolution in decades. The referendum’s salient articles would have created new forms of social and collective property and represented an important transformation for the revolution. No longer would it merely be a populist movement building a robust capitalist welfare state. Instead, it would become a genuine attempt to reconfigure state, society, and economy, which could serve as a model not just for Venezuela but for the entire world.

With the referendum defeated, it is unlikely that the Bolivarians will be able to build such a new society; they will have to settle for adding more veneer to the old one. The reason is simply a matter of time. Thanks to the referendum’s defeat, Chavez doesn’t have enough of it. Indeed, he was vocal about his desire to remain in office until 2021. Had he accomplished this, his entire presidency would have lasted for 22 years—one year shy of Swedish Premier Tage Erlander 23 year tenure, the longest of any democratically elected leader.

More importantly, it would have given Chavez enough time both to complete his socialist reforms and to build an institutional structure to ensure that they could outlive him. As it stands he will have to leave office with his work unfinished in 2013, after which the Bolivarian camp will likely disintegrate into innumerable warring factions each claiming to be the true heir to the revolutionary project. In short, the Venezuelan revolution died early Monday morning; the next five years will be little more than a long, tortured eulogy.

It pains me to say that. Unfortunately, the best we will be able to say of Chavez’s revolution is what Marx said of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France, that it “will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society.” The Venezuelan revolution was a worthy attempt, whether it is a harbinger is really up us.

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