Suzi Weissman interviews Mark Weisbrot

Suzi Weissman: And Welcome back to BTS, I’m Suzi Weissman. We’re now going to look at the other electoral process that happened yesterday, December 2nd, that’s Venezuela. Hugo Chavez’s defeat for constitutional reforms was quite narrow and came as somewhat as a surprise, depending on what you were watching. I’ve asked Mark Weisbrot to join us to talk about this surprising referendum result. Welcome to BTS, Mark Weisbrot.

Mark Weisbrot: Thank you, it’s great to be back.

Suzi Weissman: Many observers predicted that Chavez would succeed in his referendum for constitutional amendments yesterday, but he lost narrowly – I think the final was something like 50.7% for 49.2% – you can correct me if that’s wrong. And the worry was that the result would be manipulated by the state or, alternatively, by the CIA against Chavez. It appears both worries were wrong and the electorate is narrowly divided. Is that the case?

Mark Weisbrot: Well, yes, I think so, and I was surprised too, to tell you the truth, because the pollster — the one pollster that had been accurate consistently in the past — did show him winning by a sizeable margin.

Suzi Weissman: Right up until half an hour before, in fact.

Mark Weisbrot: No, those were exit polls, I mean the pre-election polls. And so I was surprised, but sentiments were changing towards the end, I think that’s one reason. I mean, the other polls are not really reliable at all. In fact, the one that showed him losing was way off. But in any case, I think that the most interesting result is that how quickly Chavez and the government accepted it, even though it was extremely close, they could have said, “We’re going to go to the Supreme Court.” There are always irregularities in elections. But here it was, with not even all the votes counted, and 50.7 percent for the opposition, and Chavez said, “Okay, you’ve won, go celebrate.”

Suzi Weissman: And he also held up the Constitution and declared that he would continue his move to socialism, but with loyalty to the constitution. And I think, that this is quite interesting because these votes have been quite clean for Chavez. And we have, on the one hand, the Bush administration pushing pro-democracy in Russia, and liking Putin with some reservations, but absolutely calling Chavez a demagogue, an anti-democrat, a strongman, a Castro, et cetera.

Mark Weisbrot: Yes, and the media have pretty much gone along with that, if you read the reporting. You could hardly read an article that didn’t say something about communist Cuba, you know, there were comparisons to Pakistan, and you know, power grabs and all these things. Obviously there are criticisms (to be made of) the reforms. But the media didn’t report it at all in an objective way, and for years they have created the impression among most Americans, and the international press in general, that this is some kind of dictatorship.

In fact, I think what this showed – well, it is a democracy. In fact, their voting system is very secure, I wish we had something like that here. The way it works — and this is why the government just immediately accepted the result — is because it’s very hard to have any significant electoral fraud there, unlike in the United States where you vote electronically and there’s’ no paper trail.

In Venezuela, there’s not just a paper tail; you push a button, so that’s your electronic vote, and then you get a paper ballot, which is printed out, and you have to look at it, and then you put it — if you make sure it says the same thing as your vote — you put it in a ballot box, and at the end, they take a large number of the ballots and they compare them to the electronic records. So if you were to try to commit fraud, you would have to rig the machine, and then stuff the ballot boxes to match them. It’s very very difficult, if not an impossible thing to do.

Suzi Weissman: I want to raise one problem though, and that is that these constitutional reforms included many very positive and progressive social reform measures, but they were combined with this ending of term limits, and the increase of presidential power. And I think that’s what created the opposition, especially among his own constituency, if that’s what it is. And I wonder why you see the international left, ldisregarding that danger of amalgamating social reform with this presidentialism. And i know you write about Argentina a lot, and it sounds sort of Peronist, doesn’t it?

Mark Weisbrot: I’m sorry?

Suzi Weissman: It’s sort of a Peronist kind of history to do that. And I would like to hear what your thoughts are on this.

Mark Weisbrot: Well, first of all, it’s a very weak state in Venezuela. So, even if you have more power shifting to the executive, it’s not an executive that has the kind of power that the United States executive has, nothing like when, for instance, Republicans had all three branches of government. There just isn’t that much power, which Is one reason I don’t see it as a major threat.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to vote for some of these things, especially here in the United States. But just to explain why people might vote for it there — for example, the Assembly gave Chavez the power to rule by executive order for 18 months on a whole set of issues. And of course, it was grossly exaggerated in the media; they said Chavez was going to rule by decree. Well, what’s happened — and this is most of the year already — is that he hasn’t used it at all. He’s only used it against the foreign oil companies and other companies.

So, you know, there’s no real track record of the presidency usurping the powers of other branches of government under Chavez. Now, of course, you still maybe wouldn’t want to give him some of these powers, and I think that’s maybe why they voted against it. But I don’t think it’s changed very much at all — the changes would have been creating Social Security for people who were informal laborers.

Suzi Weissman: My next question, of course, is what you’ve just started to talk about, the progressive agenda that was in those constitutional amendments — and you mentioned the expansion of Social Security. There’s also the 36-hour work week, there were also measures to create more democratic power at the base. What’s going to happen to those measures now?

Mark Weisbrot: I think they can pass these things as law through Congress. A lot of this really didn’t have to be a constitutional process at all. It was mostly symbolic, Chavez wanted to get a mandate in the Assembly, they wanted to get a mandate for moving the country more towards socialism — which is of course what they voted for in the last election. I mean, he ran on this, and even recently the polls show a plurality — something like 40-35% with the rest in the middle — in favor of socialism.

By the way, I don’t think they would move that quickly anyway, they haven’t moved in eight years, you know, the private sector is still as big as it was as a share of the economy before Chavez took office. So you’re talking about reform, and social democracy is what it really is, but it’s revolutionary for the region, in this context.

Suzi Weissman: And it would be here too. And I wanted to ask you because – many observers worry that Chavez will kind of pull a Putin and try to preserve his power through the Parliament, because of the term limits on his presidency. What do you think?

Mark Weisbrot: Well, I think he doesn’t have to do that. I mean, he’s got five and a half years left. If the Assembly wanted to give him another term, they can bring in a constitutional amendment again at another time. And if they just do that one, it’d probably pass.

Suzi Weissman: Do you think that possibly there was some discontent because the economy has been slow? There are of course widespread shortages, at least if we read our press, and there’s a problem with inflation, and some say that even though he’s have measures that have improved the life of the poor, it hasn’t improved that much or enough.

Mark Weisbrot: No, I don’t think so. The economy has grown over 80% in the last four and a half years, which is not only the fastest in the region, but one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Unemployment has dropped over that period from 18.4 to 7.2 percent, and by any indicator you look at, it’s been a phenomenal economic recovery since the government has gotten control over the national oil industry. So that’s a huge success, and that’s why he won by a landslide just a year ago.

I think that any current circumstances played a role, you look at the polls and the #1 issue people care about is crime. There’s a serious crime problem there that the government hasn’t been able to clean up — and that’s because it’s not an authoritarian government, by the way, that’s another indicator. They really couldn’t do it. The Metropolitan Police in Caracas is terrible, and they’re not powerful enough to really reform. They’re trying, you know. And the shortages are a recent problem, and I think they’ll probably have to deal with that.

It’s not like the old Soviet Union or something. They could deal with the shortages very quickly and as much as they want to, simply by allowing in more imports.

Suzi Weissman: Right. Well, we don’t have very much time, and I just wanted to ask you because you’ve talked about some of his policies, or his program to move toward socialism that’s been called the Bolivarian process — and is it the case in Venezuela that there’s no one else that can carry it through? Is it dependent only on Chavez, and if that’s the case, who might there be as a candidate in 2012?

Mark Weisbrot: Well, this is the reality, you know, everybody views it — look at the Evo Morales government in Bolivia, where their Constituent Assembly just voted to get rid of term limits. President Correa will have to remove at least some of the term limits there, and he certainly will. The Kirchners (In Argentina), of course, are trading off between husband and wife right now. So you see this everywhere.

I don’t really have a strong opinion on this. I think it’s a weakness, but I don’t think it’s a terrible thing. It’s a sign of weakness, in other words, you know, that these things are dependent on the leadership, and there’s such a shortage of leadership. In part, it’s a media phenomenon — you know, this charismatic relationship with politicians, with people. You see this everywhere, where there’s change, and — I mean, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times in the United States, and the Republicans who hated him, in a backlash against him, to make a statement against him, passed the term limits in the United States in 1951.

So it is a weakness, and it could be that this will stimulate the government of Venezuela to start institutionalizing things and relying less on the charismatic, you know, very charismatic leader. I think there’s a shortage of people who can play that role.

This is a time of transition in Latin America, so that people will — remember, these leaders don’t do it by themselves, they have their thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who support them through political parties or otherwise. And most of these people are pretty left — they don’t believe in the leadership of individuals so much as they do in their own selves and organizations.

But they’re willing to support this style of leadership because it’s getting the job done for now, and they realize it’s going to take time to build the institutions to do something about it. I mean, that’s the case, at least from what I know, in for instance, Bolivia and Venezuela, and I think Ecuador is more recent.