James Petras: Venezuela: Between Ballots and Bullets


Richard Moore

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Venezuela: Between Ballots and Bullets
by James Petras / November 13th, 2007

Venezuela¹s democratically elected Present Chavez faces the most serious threat 
since the April 11, 2002 military coup.

Violent street demonstrations by privileged middle and upper middle class 
university students have led to major street battles in and around the center of
Caracas. More seriously, the former Minister of Defense, General Raul Isaias 
Baduel, who resigned in July, has made explicit calls for a military coup in a 
November 5th press conference which he convoked exclusively for the right and 
far-right mass media and political parties, while striking a posture as an 
Œindividual¹ dissident.

The entire international and local private mass media has played up Baduel¹s 
speeches, press conferences along with fabricated accounts of the oppositionist 
student rampages, presenting them as peaceful protests for democratic rights 
against the government referendum scheduled for December 2, 2007.

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC News and the Washington 
Post have all primed their readers for years with stories of President Chavez¹ 
Œauthoritarianism¹. Faced with constitutional reforms which strengthen the 
prospects for far-reaching political-social democratization, the US, European 
and Latin American media have cast pro-coup ex-military officials as Œdemocratic
dissidents¹, former Chavez supporters disillusioned with his resort to 
Œdictatorial¹ powers in the run-up to and beyond the December 2, 2007 vote in 
the referendum on constitutional reform. Not a single major newspaper has 
mentioned the democratic core of the proposed reforms ‹ the devolution of public
spending and decision to local neighborhood and community councils. Once again 
as in Chile in 1973, the US mass media is complicit in an attempt to destroy a 
Latin American democracy.

Even sectors of the center-left press and parties in Latin America have 
reproduced right-wing propaganda. On November the self-styled Œleftist¹ Mexican 
daily La Jornada headline read ŒAdministrators and Students from the Central 
University of Venezuela (UCV) Accuse Chavez of Promoting Violence¹. The article 
then proceeded to repeat the rightist fabrications about electoral polls, which 
supposedly showed the constitutional amendments facing defeat.

The United States Government, both the Republican White House and the 
Democrat-controlled Congress are once again overtly backing the new attempt to 
oust the popular-nationalist President Chavez and to defeat the highly 
progressive constitutional amendments.

The Referendum: Defining and Deepening the Social Transformation

The point of confrontation is the forthcoming referendum on constitutional 
reforms initiated by President Chavez, debated, amended and democratically voted
on by the Venezuelan Congress over the past 6 months. There was widespread and 
open debate and criticism of specific sectors of the Constitution. The private 
mass media, overwhelmingly viscerally anti-Chavez and pro-White House, 
unanimously condemned any and all the constitutional amendments. A sector of the
leadership of one of the components of the pro-Chavez coalition (PODEMOS) joined
the Catholic Church hierarchy, the leading business and cattleman¹s association,
bankers and sectors of the university and student elite to attack the proposed 
constitutional reforms. Exploiting to the hilt all of Venezuela¹s democratic 
freedoms (speech, assembly and press) the opposition has denigrated the 
referendum as Œauthoritarian¹ even as most sectors of the opposition coalition 
attempted to arouse the military to intervene.

The opposition coalition of the rich and privileged fear the constitutional 
reforms because they will have to grant a greater share of their profits to the 
working class, lose their monopoly over market transactions to publicly owned 
firms, and see political power evolve toward local community councils and the 
executive branch. While the rightist and liberal media in Venezuela, Europe and 
the US have fabricated lurid charges about the Œauthoritarian¹ reforms, in fact 
the amendments propose to deepen and extend social democracy.

A brief survey of the key constitutional amendments openly debated and approved 
by a majority of freely elected Venezuelan congress members gives the lie to 
charges of Œauthoritarianism¹ by its critics. The amendments can be grouped 
according to political, economic and social changes.

The most important political change is the creation of new locally based 
democratic forms of political representation in which elected community and 
communal institutions will be allocated state revenues rather than the corrupt, 
patronage-infested municipal and state governments. This change toward 
decentralization will encourage a greater practice of direct democracy in 
contrast to the oligarchic tendencies embedded in the current centralized 
representative system.

Secondly, contrary to the fabrications of ex-General Baduel, the amendments do 
not Œdestroy the existing constitution¹, since the amendments modify in greater 
or lesser degree only 20% of the articles of the constitution (69 out of 350).

The amendments providing for unlimited term elections is in line with the 
practices of many parliamentary systems, as witnessed by the five terms in 
office of Australian Prime Minister Howard, the half century rule of Japan¹s 
Liberal Democratic Party, the four terms of US President Franklin Roosevelt, the
multi-term election of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in the UK among others. 
No one ever questions their democratic credentials for multi-term executive 
office holding, nor should current critics selectively label Chavez as an 
Œauthoritarian¹ for doing the same.

Political change increasing the presidential term of office from 6 to 7 years 
will neither increase or decrease presidential powers, as the opposition claims,
because the separation of legislative, judicial and executive powers will 
continue and free elections will subject the President to periodic citizen 

The key point of indefinite elections is that they are free elections, subject 
to voter preference, in which, in the case of Venezuela, the vast majority of 
the mass media, Catholic hierarchy, US-funded NGO¹s, big business associations 
will still wield enormous financial resources to finance opposition activity ‹ 
hardly an Œauthoritarian¹ context.

The amendment allowing the executive to declare a state of emergency and 
intervene in the media in the face of violent activity to overthrow the 
constitution is essential for safeguarding democratic institutions. In light of 
several authoritarian violent attempts to seize power recently by the current 
opposition, the amendment allows dissent but also allows democracy to defend 
itself against the enemies of freedom. In the lead up to the US-backed military 
coup of April 11, 2002, and the petroleum lockout by its senior executives which
devastated the economy (a decline of 30% of GNP in 2002/2003), if the Government
had possessed and utilized emergency powers, Congress and the Judiciary, the 
electoral process and the living standards of the Venezuelan people would have 
been better protected. Most notably, the Government could have intervened 
against the mass media aiding and abetting the violent overthrow of the 
democratic process, like any other democratic government. It should be clear 
that the amendment allowing for Œemergency powers¹ has a specific context and 
reflects concrete experiences: the current opposition parties, business 
federations and church hierarchies have a violent, anti-democratic history. The 
destabilization campaign against the current referendum and the appeals for 
military intervention most prominently and explicitly stated by retired General 
Baduel (defended by his notorious adviser-apologist, the academic-adventurer 
Heinz Dietrich), are a clear indication that emergency powers are absolutely 
necessary to send a clear message that reactionary violence will be met by the 
full force of the law.

The reduction of voting age from 18 to 16 will broaden the electorate, increase 
the number of participants in the electoral process and give young people a 
greater say in national politics through institutional channels. Since many 
workers enter the labor market at a young age and in some cases start families 
earlier, this amendment allows young workers to press their specific demands on 
employment and contingent labor contracts.

The amendment reducing the workday to six hours is vehemently opposed by the 
opposition led by the big business federation, FEDECAMARAS, but has the 
overwhelming support of the trade unions and workers from all sectors. It will 
allow for greater family time, sports, education, skill training, political 
education and social participation, as well as membership in the newly formed 
community councils. Related labor legislation and changes in property rights 
including a greater role for collective ownership will strengthen labor¹s 
bargaining power with capital, extending democracy to the workplace.

Finally the amendment eliminating so-called ŒCentral Bank autonomy¹ means that 
elected officials responsive to the voters will replace Central Bankers 
(frequently responsive to private bankers, overseas investors and international 
financial officials) in deciding public spending and monetary policy. One major 
consequence will be the reduction of excess reserves in devalued dollar 
denominated funds and an increase in financing for social and productive 
activity, a diversity of currency holdings and a reduction in irrational foreign
borrowing and indebtedness. The fact of the matter is that the Central Bank was 
not Œautonomous¹, it was dependent on what the financial markets demanded, 
independent of the priorities of elected officials responding to popular needs.

As the Chavez Government Turns to Democratic Socialism: Centrists Defect and 
Seek Military Solutions

As Venezuela¹s moves from political to social transformation, from a capitalist 
welfare state toward democratic socialism, predictable defections and additions 
occur. As in most other historical experiences of social transformation, sectors
of the original government coalition committed to formal institutional political
changes defect when the political process moves toward greater egalitarianism 
and property and a power shift to the populace. Ideologues of the ŒCenter¹ 
regret the Œbreaking¹ of the status quo Œconsensus¹ between oligarchs and people
(labeling the new social alignments as Œauthoritarian¹) even as the ŒCenter¹ 
embraces the profoundly anti-democratic Right and appeals for military 

A similar process of elite defections and increased mass support is occurring in
Venezuela as the referendum, with its clear class choices, comes to the fore. 
Lacking confidence in their ability to defeat the constitutional amendments 
through the ballot, fearful of the democratic majority, resentful of the immense
popular appeal of the democratically elected President Chavez, the ŒCenter¹ has 
joined the Right in a last ditch effort to unify extra-parliamentary forces to 
defeat the will of the electorate.

Emblematic of the New Right and the ŒCentrist¹ defections is the ex-Minister of 
Defense, Raul Baduel, whose virulent attack on the President, the Congress, the 
electoral procedures and the referendum mark him as an aspirant to head up a 
US-backed right-wing seizure of power.

The liberal and right wing mass media and unscrupulous Œcentrist¹ propagandists 
have falsely portrayed Raul Baduel as the Œsavior¹ of Chavez following the 
military coup of April 2002. The fact of the matter is that Baduel intervened 
only after hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans poured down from the 
Œranchos¹, surrounded the Presidential Palace, leading to division in the armed 
forces. Baduel rejected the minority of rightist military officers favoring a 
massive bloodbath and aligned with other military officials who opposed extreme 
measures against the people and the destruction of the established political 
order. The latter group included officials who supported Chavez¹ 
nationalist-populist policies and others, like Baduel, who opposed the 
coup-makers because it radicalized and polarized society ‹ leading to a possible
class-based civil war with uncertain outcome. Baduel was for the restoration of 
a Œchastised¹ Chavez who would maintain the existing socio-economic status quo.

Within the Chavez government, Baduel represented the anti-communist tendency, 
which pressed the President to Œreconcile¹ with the Œmoderate democratic¹ right 
and big business. Domestically, Baduel opposed the extension of public ownership
and internationally favored close collaboration with the far-right Colombian 
Defense Ministry.

Baduel¹s term of office as Defense Minister reflected his conservative 
propensities and his lack of competence in matters of security, especially with 
regard to internal security. He failed to protect Venezuela¹s frontiers from 
military incursions by Colombia¹s armed forces. Worse he failed to challenge 
Colombia¹s flagrant violation of international norms with regard to political 
exiles. While Baduel was Minister of Defense, Venezuelan landlords¹ armed 
paramilitary groups assassinated over 150 peasants active in land reform while 
the National Guard looked the other way. Under Baduel¹s watch over 120 Colombian
paramilitary forces infiltrated the country. The Colombian military frequently 
crossed the Venezuelan border to attack Colombian refugees. Under Baduel, 
Venezuelan military officials collaborated in the kidnapping of Rodrigo Granda 
(a foreign affairs emissary of the FARC) in broad daylight in the center of 
Caracas. Baduel made no effort to investigate or protest this gross violation of
Venezuelan sovereignty, until President Chavez was informed and intervened. 
Throughout Baduel¹s term as Minister of Defense he developed strong ties to 
Colombia¹s military intelligence (closely monitored by US Defense Intelligence 
Agency and the CIA) and extradited several guerrillas from both the ELN and the 
FARC to the hands of Colombian torturers.

At the time of his retirement as Minister of Defense, Baduel made a July 2007 
speech in which he clearly targeted the leftist and Marxist currents in the 
trade union (UNT) and Chavez newly announced PSUV (The Unified Socialist Party 
of Venezuela). His speech, in the name of ŒChristian socialist¹, was in reality 
a vituperative and ill-tempered anti-communist diatribe, which pleased Pope 
Benedict (Ratzinger).

Baduel¹s November 5 speech however marks his public adherence to the hard-line 
opposition, its rhetoric, fabrications and visions of an authoritarian reversal 
of Chavez program of democratic socialism. First and foremost, Baduel, following
the lead of the White House and the Venezuelan Œhard right¹, denounced the 
entire process of Congressional debate on the Constitutional amendments, and 
open electoral campaigning leading up to the referendum as Œin effect a coup 
d¹etat¹. Every expert and outside observer disagreed ‹ even those opposed to the
referendum. Baduel¹s purpose however was to question the legitimacy of the 
entire political process in order to justify his call for military intervention.
His rhetoric calling the congressional debate and vote a Œfraud¹ and Œfraudulent
procedures¹ point to Baduel¹s effort to denigrate existing representative 
institutions in order to justify a military coup, which would dismantle them.

Baduel¹s denial of political intent is laughable ‹ since he only invited 
opposition media and politicians to his Œpress conference¹ and was accompanied 
by several military officials. Baduel resembles the dictator who accuses the 
victim of the crimes he is about to commit. In calling the referendum on 
constitutional reform a Œcoup¹, he incites the military to launch a coup. In an 
open appeal for military action he directs the military to Œreflect of the 
context of constitutional reform.¹ He repeatedly calls on military officials to 
Œassess carefully¹ the changes the elected government has proposed Œin a hasty 
manner and through fraudulent procedures¹. While denigrating democratically 
elected institutions, Baduel resorts to vulgar flattery and false modesty to 
induce the military to revolt. While immodestly denying that he could act as 
spokesperson for the Armed Forces, he advised the rightist reporters present and
potential military cohort that Œyou cannot underrate the capacity of analysis 
and reasoning of the military.¹

Cant, hypocrisy and disinterested posturing run through Baduel¹s pronouncements.
His claim of being an Œapolitical¹ critic is belied by his intention to go on a 
nationwide speaking tour attacking the constitutional reforms, in meetings 
organized by the rightwing opposition. There is absolutely no doubt that he will
not only be addressing civilian audiences but will make every effort to meet 
with active military officers who he might convince to Œreflect¹Šand plot the 
overthrow of the government and reverse the results of the referendum. President
Chavez has every right to condemn Baduel as a traitor, though given his 
long-term hostility to egalitarian social transformation it may be more to the 
point to say that Baduel is now revealing his true colors.

The danger to Venezuelan democracy is not in Baduel as an individual ‹ he is out
of the government and retired from active military command. The real danger is 
his effort to arouse the active military officers with command of troops, to 
answer his call to action or as he cleverly puts it Œfor the military to reflect
on the context of the constitutional reforms.¹ Baduel¹s analysis and action 
program places the military as the centerpiece of politics, supreme over the 16 
million voters.

His vehement defense of Œprivate property¹ in line with his call for military 
action is a clever tactic to unite the Generals, Bankers and the middle class in
the infamous footsteps of Augusto Pinochet, the bloody Chilean tyrant.

The class polarization in the run-up to the referendum has reached its most 
acute expression: the remains of the multi-class coalition embracing a minority 
of the middle class and the great majority of the working power is 
disintegrating. Millions of previously apathetic or apolitical young workers, 
unemployed poor and low-income women (domestic workers, laundresses, single 
parents) are joining the huge popular demonstrations overflowing the main 
avenues and plazas in favor of the constitutional amendments. At the same time 
political defections have increased among the centrist-liberal minority in the 
Chavez coalition. Fourteen deputies in the National Assembly, less than 10%, 
mostly from PODEMOS, have joined the opposition. Reliable sources in Venezuela 
(Axis of Logic/Les Blough Nov. 11, 2007) report that Attorney General Beneral 
Isaias Rodriguez, a particularly incompetent crime fighter, and the Comptroller 
General Cloudosbaldo Russian are purportedly resigning and joining the 
opposition. More seriously, these same reports claim that the 4th Armed Division
in Marcay is loyal to ŒGolpista¹ Raul Baduel. Some suspect Baduel is using his 
long-term personal ties with the current Minister of Defense, Gustavo Briceno 
Rangel to convince him to defect and join in the pre-coup preparations. Large 
sums of US funding is flowing in to pay off state and local officials in cash 
and in promises to share in the oil booty if Chavez is ousted. The latest US 
political buy-out includes Governor Luis Felipe Acosta Carliz from the state of 
Carabobo. The mass media have repeatedly featured these new defectors to the 
right in their hourly Œnews reports¹ highlighting their break with Chavez Œcoup 

The referendum is turning into an unusually virulent case of a Œclass against 
class¹ war, in which the entire future of the Latin American left is at stake as
well as Washington¹s hold on its biggest oil supplier.


Venezuelan democracy, the Presidency of Hugo Chavez and the great majority of 
the popular classes face a mortal threat. The US is facing repeated electoral 
defeats and is incapable of large-scale external intervention because of 
over-extension of its military forces in the Middle East; it is committed once 
more to a violent overthrow of Chavez. Venezuela through the constitutional 
reforms, will broaden and deepen popular democratic control over socio-economic 
policy. New economic sectors will be nationalized. Greater public investments 
and social programs will take off. Venezuela is moving inexorably toward 
diversifying its petrol markets, currency reserves and its political alliances. 
Time is running out for the White House: Washington¹s political levers of 
influence are weakening. Baduel is seen as the one best hope of igniting a 
military seizure, restoring the oligarchs to power and decimating the mass 
popular movements.

President Chavez is correctly Œevaluating the high command¹ and states that he 
Œhas full confidence in the national armed forces and their components.¹ Yet the
best guarantee is to strike hard and fast, precisely against Baduel¹s followers 
and cohorts. Rounding up a few dozen or hundred military plotters is a cheap 
price to pay for saving the lives of thousands of workers and activists who 
would be massacred in any bloody seizure of power.

History has repeatedly taught that when you put social democracy, egalitarianism
and popular power at the top of the political agenda, as Chavez has done, and as
the vast majority of the populace enthusiastically responds, the Right, the 
reactionary military, the ŒCentrist¹ political defectors and ideologues, the 
White House, the hysterical middle classes and the Church cardinals will 
sacrifice any and all democratic freedoms to defend their property, privileges 
and power by whatever means and at whatever cost necessary. In the current 
all-pervasive confrontation between the popular classes of Venezuela and their 
oligarchic and military enemies, only by morally, politically and 
organizationally arming the people can the continuity of the democratic process 
of social transformation be guaranteed.

Change will come, the question is whether it will be through the ballot or the 

James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New 
York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the 
landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization 
Unmasked (Zed Books). His latest book is The Power of Israel in the United 
States (Clarity Press, 2006). His forthcoming book is Rulers and Ruled (Bankers,
Zionists and Militants (Clarity Press, Atlanta). He can be reached at: 
•••@••.•••. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

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