Oooh, oooh! "Venezuelan President’s Power Grab Fails" screamed the teaser for the AOL version of this AP story earlier this week:

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And here’s the first few grafs:

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez suffered a stinging defeat today in a vote on constitutional changes that would have let him run for re-election indefinitely and solidify his bid to transform this major U.S. oil provider into a socialist state.

Voters Sunday rejected the sweeping measures by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent, said Tibisay Lucena, chief of the National Electoral Council, with voter turnout just 56 percent.

She said that with 88 percent of the votes counted, the trend was irreversible.

Oh, no! Chavez wanted to dump term limits! (Just like the Republicans want to do whenever somebody like Ronald Reagan is in power.)

Oooh, that was a lucky escape! The Evil Dictator has been thwarted! Yippee! (But wait: 51 percent to 49 percent? That’s a rather close margin, right? Yet from the triumphalism in the US press you’d think that it was a landslide defeat.)

Hmmm: Could it be that there are some things the US press isn’t telling us about either Chavez or the proposed changes to his country’s constitution?

Why, yes, yes, there are. Let’s look at the proposed changes first, courtesy of Gregory Wilpert:

The Venezuelan government’s effort to create "21st century socialism" is moving ahead full-steam with the December 2nd constitutional reform referendum. While tensions and confusion about the reform are rising in Venezuela, it is important to realize that this reform will mean both less and more than most outside observers seem to think. That is, as usual, many pundits, such as from the Venezuelan opposition and from so-called international experts, are painting a picture of a Venezuela that is about to finally slip into "Castro-communism," a picture that could hardly be further from the truth and that has been falsely predicted for Chavez’s entire presidency of now nine years. While there are negative or not-so-good aspects of the reform, which for the most part involve giving the president some more powers, the Venezuelan president, even after the reform, still does not have as much institutional power as the U.S. president. On the other hand, in the process of focusing on the centralizing aspects of the reform, most observers willfully miss the ways in which the positive aspects of the upcoming reform have the potential to make Venezuelan political life more in tune with the interests of the country’s mostly poor majority.

Huh? You mean our wonderful GOP/Media Complex might be — gasp! — getting things wrong here? Apparently so:

In one of the greatest departures from the 1999 constitution, the reform proposal introduces a new level of government, the "popular power" (art. 136 of the reform proposal). This power is in addition to the municipal, state, and national powers of the political system. The popular power represents the "lowest" level of government, in that it is the organization of communities in forms of direct democracy. Because of this, the reform states, "The people are the depositories of sovereignty and exercise it directly via the popular power. This is not born of suffrage nor any election, but out of the condition of the human groups that are organized as the base of the population."

The opposition has tried to twist the meaning of this article, claiming that it lays the groundwork for dictatorship because it supposedly means that the authorities of the popular power are named from above, since they are not elected.[3] This, however, represents a willful misunderstanding, as the popular power is supposed to be the place where democracy is direct, that is, unmediated by elected representatives. This is not to say that there wouldn’t be any elections at this level, but that those who are elected are not representatives, but are delegates of the community, who are to execute the community’s decisions. Currently this popular power takes the form of the citizen assemblies and their communal councils. According to the reform, it would also take the form of worker, student, youth, elderly, women, etc. councils.

Hey, this sounds an awful lot like direct democracy of the hallowed New England "town meeting" style, doesn’t it? People at the local level making decisions, instead of lobbyist-bought representatives.

Like so much of the proposed changes, it doesn’t sound evil so much as unwieldy, nebulous, and perhaps not all that well-thought-out. Then again, the unwieldiness of the "town meeting" style of government is a big reason why it didn’t become our default governmental template as America grew. But Venezuela’s a lot smaller than the US, in area and in population, and maybe in the age of the internet, this might indeed be do-able assuming Chavez can get rural areas wired up.

The second area that the constitutional reform deepens is social and political inclusion by giving all citizens the right to equal access to city resources ("right to the city," art. 18),[5] prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and health condition (art. 21), including young people in the political process by lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years (art. 64), requiring gender parity in candidacies for elected office (art. 64), protecting people from having their primary home expropriated due to bankruptcy (art. 82), introducing a social security fund for self- and informally employed Venezuelans (art. 87), guaranteeing free university education (art. 103),[6] recognizing and promoting the culture Venezuelans of African descent (art. 100), and giving university students parity in the election of university authorities (art. 109). These are all forms of social and political inclusion that, if realized, would place Venezuela at the forefront in the world in this regard.

This is about giving the average Venezuelan the same sort of goodies — political power, education, exposure to the arts — that throughout the country’s history have been the exclusive province of the rich minority. Whether it’s achievable as written is definitely up for debate, but again, it’s a laudable goal.

Next, the reform would move Venezuela further along a path of non-capitalist economic development.[7] That is, the effort to deepen non-capitalist and perhaps socialist development is centered on strengthening democratic control over the economy while weakening private sector control. For example, the central bank, which is normally under the sway of international financial institutions, would no longer be independent (art. 318, 320, 321) and the state may turn food producing and distributing businesses over to public or collective control in order to guarantee food security (art. 305). Also, the state oil company PDVSA will face stronger restrictions against privatization (art. 303).

Fans of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine will recognize that this reform is intended to prevent the Chicago Boys from coming in profiting from disaster by using it as an excuse to pillage public institutions and replace them with privatized versions that are designed to make money and exclude the poor.

Reducing the workweek from 44 to 36 hours per week would give workers more power, vis-à-vis employers (art. 90).[8] Workers rights are also strengthened in that the reform opens the possibility for greater workplace self-management, via worker councils (art. 70, 136) and directives that publicly owned enterprises should involve greater self-management (184 no. 2).

Also, eliminating intellectual property while maintaining authors’ rights to their creations, makes it more difficult for companies to profit from the creative work of others, while still protecting authors’ rights over their productions (art. 98).

In addition to strengthening the position of the state and of workers relative to private capital, the reform would also strengthen the position of domestic business relative to international business because it removes the requirement that foreign companies be treated the same as national companies (art. 301).

Aha! The first signs of Socialism! Eliminating the concept of intellectual property! RELEASE THE HOUNDS!!!

Erm, except that what Chavez is actually proposing is closer to what the Creative Commons people are doing, where authors have more control over their works, and they, not a company, get to determine who profits from their work. Oops. Besides, what the critics really object to is the shortening of the work week (can’t let those unwashed peasants have any free time — they might learn to read!) and the removal of the provision that puts foreign companies on the same legal footing as Venezuelan ones (what, you mean we can’t sell out our country’s assets to some carpetbagging mercenary?).

Finally, we come to what is called in the reforms package "The New Geometry of Power":

The "New Geometry of Power" is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of the constitutional reform. The opposition and the oppositional media consistently interpret it as a blatant effort to give President Chavez dictatorial power over states and municipalities. Indeed, the reform lends itself to this misreading because it says the president may designate a variety of new politico-geographic areas, such as federal territories, federal municipalities, federal cities, and "functional districts," and may name the respective authorities, without defining the power of these authorities or the function of these new territorial divisions (art. 16).

… Rather, the main purpose of this new geometry of power, according to government representatives, is to allow the president to designate national resources and presidential powers to particular areas. That is, the idea is to concentrate national attention and resources on specific areas, regardless of their existing politico-geographic boundaries, that are in need of such attention because of their poverty or their unused human or physical resources. Existing local power structures would remain untouched and unaffected by the designation of these areas, other than in the sense of receiving more national government attention. If anything, the reform implies that communal councils can form governing structures at the city-wide level, thereby moving power down to the communities, rather than up to the president.[11]

Wow — I thought dictators only were for centralizing and consolidating power within their own person, and only for their own benefit. This Chavez guy sure isn’t acting like any dictator I’ve ever seen.

This last point, about the reform giving the president the power to reorganize municipal boundaries, touches on the larger issue of the reform slightly strengthening the president’s powers in a variety of ways. Of course, the oppositional media (including the international pundits) consistently present this as "sweeping new powers," without backing this up. The most controversial changes in this regard include the removal of the two-term limit on serving as president (art. 230). However, over half of the heads of government in the world have "sweeping power," including some of the world’s most respected democracies, such as France, Germany, Britain, and Italy.

And America used to allow its presidents the "sweeping power" to be reelected as often as the people wished. Then the Republicans, smarting after Franklin D. Roosevelt won four elections in a row, rammed through a law forbidding any future presidents from running for a third term — a law which they start talking of repealing whenever a Republican is in the White House.

Removing the limit on the number of reelections and extending the presidential term from six to seven years (art. 230) are meant to strengthen the presidency in order to carry out the long-term project of Venezuela’s political and economic transformation from capitalism to socialism. In a way, opponents ought to be grateful that Chavez is not proposing a transition within his current presidential term (which lasts another five years), but a transition with a much longer time line, which would be far less traumatic and thus gives the opposition far more opportunities to reverse the project.

Extending Chavez’s presidency (if reelected) is a mixed problem, though. On the one hand, Chavez supporters are right to say that it is more democratic if citizens are free to elect whomever they choose, as often as they choose, without artificial limitations. On the other hand, supporters of this principle ought to address the main reason such unlimited reelections are often prohibited, which is that presidents tend to accumulate power and can use the advantages of their office to make it more difficult for challengers to eventually win the presidency. This would mean placing strict restrictions on using the office of the president in one’s presidential campaign. Currently limitations of this sort are rather limited in Venezuela.

The other controversial strengthening of the office of the president is the reform’s toughening of states of emergency. According to the reform, the right to being informed would be suspended during a state of emergency, which implies that censorship may be used in such situations (art. 337). The rationale for this is that the April 2002 coup attempt was based on manipulating the media to fabricate events that ended up justifying the coup. A state of emergency, according to Chavez supporters, would have to take such a course of events into account. Contrary to most news reports, though, the state of emergency still includes the right to defense, to a trial, to communication, and not to be tortured. This is more than one can say for the current situation in the U.S., where the president has the authority to arrest people without due process, according to the recently passed Military Commissions Act.

This rates being emphasized: Even under Chavez’ proposed strengthening of the Venezuelan laws concerning states of emergency, Venezuelans would still have more civic rights than Americans do right now.

Another area where the office of the president is being strengthened is in his ability to promote all military officers, not just high-ranking ones, as was previously the case (art. 236 no. 8). While this strengthens the president’s control over the military and will probably increase the premium placed on loyalty to the president, it is not a "sweeping power" that will turn Venezuela into a dictatorship. Rather, this is something that ought to be within the purview of the military’s commander in chief, even if it might not be the wisest way to handle promotions.

Somewhat silly micromanaging? Could be. Signs of imminent dictatorhood? Only if you dislike a civilian president being commander in chief of a nation’s armed forces, as is the case in the US.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering why Chavez keeps talking about 1) needing to guard against a repeat of the April 2002 coup and 2) warning the US to stop meddling in his country’s affairs, wonder no more — Bush backed the abortive 2002 coup against Chavez.

Ironically enough, one proposed change (to Articles 71 through 74) that does actually seem to hinder democracy — one that makes it more difficult to start referenda — is one that the anti-Chavez people like, which is why you never heard them bleating about this change (and probably never heard about it at all until you saw my post today).

To sum up: There’s much that’s good, a lot that’s redundant or even silly, but not much that’s actually out-and-out bad — and nothing as bad as how it’s being painted in the US press. The one really bad thing was that Chavez and his allies overestimated the depth of the support they had for such changes — which may well turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as they can now return to working on a) refining the proposed changes and b) building popular support for them.

I’ll let my good friend Charles Utwater, one of my Mercury Rising co-bloggers, have the last word. Emphases are mine:

Hugo Chavez, once again proving himself to be so much classier than his opponents, has conceded defeat in the reform of the Venezuelan constitution. The margin is so close (1.4%) that he thinks that the remaining ballots might win it for him, but he said that he didn’t want to put the country through an experience like the US in 2000. The country had indicated that it wasn’t enthusiastically for the reforms, so he would accept their verdict.

So, ok, anti-Chavistas, you keep saying he’s a totalitarian, but you’re still the people who do coups. You say he’s disloyal to the country, but you’re the ones who run to the American government when you don’t get the vote to go the way you want. You have a much better president than you credit him for… and a much better president than the US has.

I am not at all sad to see these reforms go down. Maybe it will convince Chavez’s cohort that they need to start building leadership that can carry their movement after their leader has stepped down.

Exactly. The very fact that Chavez decided to concede the count rather than to attempt to seize even a flawed mandate seems to indicate that he himself recognizes this. (By the way, my co-blogger Charles has taken it upon himself to translate Chavez’ speech for us. Judge for youself if the man’s a scary evil dictator. Chavez, that is, not Charles.)