El ‘No’ Ya Lo Tienes

Which means, you’ve already got ‘no’ for an answer.

The Guardian’s shamelessly bad reporting of the Venezuela referendum has ended with a flourish, perhaps in the manner of a referee who awards a dodgy penalty to make up for a similarly dodgy prior decision:

  • Venezuelans back leader’s attempt to extend powers
  • Exit polls predict victory but turnout is low

President Hugo Chávez appeared to have won a narrow but convincing victory yesterday in a referendum on constitutional reforms which would cement his power in Venezuela.

Two government exit polls suggested most voters approved sweeping revisions to abolish presidential term limits and enshrine socialism. The opposition was sombre but did not immediately concede defeat.

That’s what it read first thing this morning anyway.

In fact, Chávez lost, and conceded defeat. I await the updated Guardian verdict. Something along the lines of ‘that’s the mark of a dictator, see: you hold a referendum, the people vote against you and you concede defeat.’ seems appealing. GUARDIAN UPDATE: Chávez loses bid to rule until 2050 The boy done good.

Personally speaking -and this does not make me any less correct on this if I decide to change my mind in future- there is a bright side to the ‘No’ vote, which is more a product of abstentionism than of any radical change in the course of Venezuelan politics.

Many of the proposed changes seemed like good ideas (reducing voting age to 16, strong anti-discrimination provisions, six-hour working day, prohibition on obligatory overtime, equal attention in special needs educational provision, autonomy of universities, greater local power in politics) but I also think that presidential power in any form should be constrained as far as possible.

In so far as the proposed changes gave the office of presidency greater powers -but still lesser institutional powers than those of the president of the United States- the ‘No’ vote is a good result, and there will be further opportunities for the introduction of the good ideas.

Had there been a marginal ‘Yes’ victory, there would have been a consolidation of US-approved pressure on Venezuela (the CIA funded the opposition for the purposes of the referendum, to the tune of $8m: that probably did not have much of an effect, but a reciprocal move would be to allow Chávez to donate $300m to his US presidential candidate of choice), with potential for further crippling oil strikes, destabilizing violence and stagnation – events that only serve those who wish to bring the Venezuelan poor -whom Chávez mainly represents- to heel.

But what of Chávez? Although he has recognised the No vote unreservedly, his international image as a sort of ranting dictator, thug, clown, demagogue, and so on is unlikely to change much, if the English-language coverage of Latin America is anything to go by. Internally, it is hard to tell at this distance. He isn’t going anywhere for another six years, and he is intelligent enough to successfully turn circumstances to his advantage.

Here’s an example of the quality of coverage of Venezuela in general and Chávez in particular. Pre-referendum outcome, British MP Denis MacShane, who predicted a victory for Chávez, had this to say:

To submit Chavez to the same critical analysis that other leaders have to put up with is to produce instant denunciations from those who search for the shining path to socialism in Latin America.

Denis MacShane is member of the British Labour Party, whose leader came to internal power uncontested and now enjoys the post of unelected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

There is an old rule in writing pieces about Latin America, one which I never tire of citing. To affect a greater deal of expertise about your subject than you actually have, you should make a reference to Gabriel García Márquez. This one here, – the president in his labyrinth – has the virtue of being germane enough, since it’s about Chávez and Bolívar, referring to GGM’s novel The General in His Labyrinth, despite the fact that the content of the piece is hysterical. MacShane is more direct:

Probably Gabriel Garcia Marquez got it right when he wrote that there are ‘two Chavezes’. One might perform wonders for Venezuela. The other was ‘just another despot.’

For Gaba, whose left credentials are unchallenged to describe Chavez in such Jekyll and Hyde terms shows the deep doubts across the Latin American left and intellectual world about the Venezuelan president’s credentials and ambitions.

A critical reader will recognise the appearance of ‘unchallenged left credentials’ or similar phrases as a bad faith argument from authority. And anyway García Márquez -a friend of Castro, (and, ah, Shakira)- wrote that piece eight and a half years ago. His broader ignorance of García Márquez is manifest in the use of ‘Gaba’: supposedly the Colombian writer’s nickname. But it’s Gabo, as anyone remotely acquainted with that writer’s public persona, let alone his books, will know.


3 Responses to “El ‘No’ Ya Lo Tienes”

  1. 1 Donagh December 3, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    A tour de force of a post, Hugh. I agree with you that the No vote was a good result, ultimately. It doesn’t take away from what Chávez has already achieved and the speed with which he conceded gives a sort of moral victory, although Conor Foley made the suggestion that there was ‘some behind the scenes arm-twisting’. Now why would he stick that in?

    Also, it seems that almost all referendums, when the voting public is asked to decide yes and no one a subject, even a relatively straight-forward subject (and considering the number of changes to the constitution this certainly wasn’t), they will say no nine times out of ten. Take in account the other factors, which you mentioned, the fact the Chávez is particularly popular with the poor who tend to vote less than the middle classes, who hate him and you can see he actually did quite well.

  2. 2 Hugh Green December 3, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    Cheers Donagh. No idea why Foley put that one in, since Chávez publicly accepted the result well before a substantial proportion of the votes were counted, accepting the verdict of the electoral commission that the trend already appearing was irreversible. He would have been entitled to stick to his guns until the bitter end, but said that even a victory by a small margin would not have been sufficient.

  3. 3 Hugh Green December 3, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    and considering the number of changes to the constitution this certainly wasn’t

    Yes, loading the proposal with so many changes was a mistake. It’s very hard to hold people’s interest to sell something like that, especially when for a ‘no’ vote all you need is the simplest of counter-arguments. In fact, you don’t even need a counter-argument.

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