The Red hurricane begins to sweep through Venezuela
Submitted by Fred Fuentes on November 15th, 2007.
Following Chavez’s call to not “leave the streets for one single day in the 27 days that remain” of the campaign to approve the proposed constitutional reform, the Yes campaign has kicked into gear. Within the space of a week there has been a dramatic change in the mood here in Caracas, as the “red hurricane” has unleashed itself across Venezuela. In the eye of the storm are the PSUV militants, members of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela, who are the motor force behind the campaign.
One got a really sense of this shift in the mood last Sunday, when Chavistas gathered at the airport and along the drive to Miraflores to greet the president returning from his battle in Chile. Whilst the majority went to the airport to greet him, I stayed with some of the activists from my local socialist battalion (the grassroots units of the PSUV) to hold up signs along one of the main street which Chavez would drive down.
Holding up Yes signs, and with music comprised of revolutionary songs and campaign tunes, we talked to passerbys, as cars pulled up to grab posters to stick on the side the car and on their windscreen. Horns beeped, and drivers and passengers yelled “Si, Si”, and “Que vive Chavez”. We danced, and talked and gave away posters for several hours, with a continuous flow of traffic, with more and more of the cars drving by covered in red posters or with red flags waving, beeping up and down the main avenue.
This was a sharp change from earlier in the week. On Wednesday, an opposition students march went through Caracas. Unlike the one the week before this time there was no violent acts by the students during the march, but clearly some of them were looking to help create tensions and violence. Not content with a simple march those students returned to the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and began to attack chavista students. They ended up surround students in the social work department, throwing rocks at the windows and burning the doors and a nearby bus, with some 150 students inside with no avenue to escape.
In some respects, this march seems to have marked a the end of any real opposition campaign. It came on the back of a sizeable rally the Saturday before and the surprising announcement by ex-Minister of Defence, Raul Baduel, called on people to opposed the reforms. However, the march laid bare that the opposition was running out of steam, and despite the media spin, very few did not have an impression of the opposition students as fascist thugs. The Saturday just gone, the opposition organised a dismal march, and two days later around 50 people turned up to their “mass mobilisation” to block of city streets. What little base they had which they could mobilise seems to have become demoralised or put off by the opposition campaign.
On reflection of this was the second public declaration by Baduel this Monday just gone. Besides essentially repeating his last speech he had two new points to note: firstly, he was not longer just calling for a No vote, but asking for the reform to be withdraw (having realised that a No vote would not win) and secondly he at least tried to sound like he was still in the Bolivarian camp.
Whilst it is true that someone with the stand that Baduel has within chavismo could have really caused a stir, most people I have talked to agree that his first speech was so similar to that of the opposition that it impact amongst grassroots chavistas was tiny. If anything it further spurred them on to campaign for Yes, as they saw that their president could for the first time in a while possibly face some stiff competition.
In contrast, tens and hundreds of thousands have flocked to the Yes cavalcades that have been organised across the country. No matter where you go in Caracas, you cannot but walk past people in red handing out the constitutional reform, encouraging everyone to read them and vote.
During the afternoon of that same Sunday when Chavez returned from Chile I had once again attended one of my local socialist battalions, where local activists were discussing the Yes campaign. Here everyone was clear on the necessity to win the biggest vote possible, and what it would require.
One of the participants pointed out that in the last week or so cooking gas had suddenly become very hard to find. Discussion quickly moved to how to deal with this. One man explained that the government had nationalised a number of gas distribution companies but not the one that supplied this area. A woman recalled how they had survived the 2 months bosses lockout at the end of 2002 without cooking gas, and how this was clearly part of the opposition plan to provoke discontent but it wouldn’t work because the community was more conscious and organised now.
The battalion, in a demonstration of the powerful dynamic that has emerged from these meetings of local revolutionaries, resolved to organise a meeting with other local battalions, community councils and gas workers to debate the problem out and seek a solution – including demanding nationalisation if necessary.
In the process of explaining how the battalions would be structured for the purposes of the campaign, the local organiser got a call to say that Chavez would be arriving back to Venezuela soon and that we should go and greet him on the streets (where I live is between the airport and Miraflores, through which the president would have to travel).
A discussion began: what to do. Everyone was aware of what had happened in Chile, the dignified actions of Chavez and the provocation by the King of Spain. Chavez had spoken for the majority of the world at that summit and we all felt we need to let him know that we were behind him. But discussion had not finished on the organisation of the battalion for the campaign. In the end the decision was to finish this discussion as it was crucial for the next few weeks of campaigning and that as soon as possible we would mobilise to greet Chavez.
The spokesperson from the battalion explained how the restructure would occur, incorporating discussions that had happened in the socialist circumscription (which group together 10 battalions). A problem arose: the circumscription had reorganised itself along the lines that were first sent down from the national promoters committee. This was later changed (due in part to the fact that local experience had shown it would not work out) meaning their the local battalion was stuck between still having the old structure at the circumscription level, with less activists available at the local level to fill the designated spots on the command which are made up of elected heads of commissions. The battalion resolved that one of the activists elected to be part of the campaign structure and the circumscription level would be integrated into the local battalion structure instead.
Once ready we parted for the streets, not before an announcement was made that each day at 3pm activists would be meeting to go door knocking and cover the area in Yes material, and that next Sunday there would be a cultural act in the main plaza organised by the local PSUV circumscription. There a tent would be set up for those with questions about the reform to find out more and get information.
Later, speaking to some the activists they noted that one problem they had continually come up against was that in many cases the general lines coming from above did not fit the reality of what was occurring below. This had create unnecessary confusion, but that over time this was being resolved and that the grassroots were making their presence felt.
On Wednesday, I tagged along with activists from another battalion, this time in 23 de Enero, as they went around their local neighbourhood door to door to distribute the reform. As they were quick to point out they were not just any battalion, but the one that Chavez belonged to. As is usually the case, the overwhelming majority were women, ready to hit to streets to defend the revolution.
The response was once again overwhelming “Si, Si”, although this perhaps should not have been so surprising given 23 de Enero is a militantly chavista area. With each positive response the group would break out into song, singing one of the many campaign tunes which echoed through the streets, in some cases with other neighbours joining in.
My sense has been that many of those who only a week ago had doubt on the reform or where unsure, have now come solidly into the Yes camp. Seeing the true face of what an opposition victory would mean with the violence at UCV, and the impact of the red hurricane that has been unleashed, the Yes cavalcades and the Chavez's intervention in Chiles, many have begun to be swept along.
However there is still a dangerous road ahead. Key is ensuring that the biggest possible vote is obtained. The course of the Venezuelan revolutionary process has been one of attempting to legitimise every further step forward by the masses with a democratic mandate emanating from the ballot box. Perhaps like no other this referendum aims to be a gateway through which the masses want to drive though in order to give the revolution a massive impulse forward. Each side understands what is at stake, hence the reaction of the right wing opposition, the conservative elements of the chavista camp and the revolutionary masses headed by Chavez.
Whilst there is much to be optimistic about given the beginning of the campaign, this also means that Venezuela has entered into a new more dangerous phase. I think even the opposition know they will lose, but they also know that perhaps more is at stake now than in any other electoral process until now. This means they will try everything – including acts of violence and terrorism – to try and impede the referendum going ahead. They also want to affect the vote to help create the basis to prolong their campaign post the referendum, basing themselves on the spurious argument of adding no votes and abstention to justify their “real” support. That is why local activists here are preparing themselves for an possible action, all the while remaining alert and on the streets.