Daily Log From Eyewitnesses: (2) "Si o No?": Two Vignettes of the Referendum Debate

The second high point of our tour notebook: "Si o No?": Two Vignettes of the Referendum Debate

November 22. On streets around downtown Caracas, the debate on Venezuela's constitutional referendum is heating up. Many stalls and "red points" are distributing copies of the 69 amendments to the 1999 Bolivarian constitution, which will be adopted or rejected in voting December 2.

Broadly speaking, the changes aim to update the constitution to take account of the forward march of the revolutionary process since it was adopted eight years ago. Among major changes are: institutionalization of peoples power - that is, direct political control by peoples committees; social security for all working people and housewives who do not have formal jobs; the six-hour working day; expansion of the "protection of property" clause to include various forms of communal ownership as well as private property; inclusion of the anti-imperialist goals of foreign policy; and removal of the two-term limitation on presidential tenure.

We got some insight into thinking on these changes when we went into the main civic administration building, a handsome structure from the early republican period built around a generous treed courtyard. In one corner we found a man reading a history of Caracas, who offered to explain the reasons he intended to vote against the reform.
He made these points:

* The vote is rigged in advance; the results will be phony.
* The "missions" (government special programs to provide urgent help for the poor) are a fraudulent vote getting scheme. We never had them until Chavez started holding all these elections. They are a giant pinata spending the oil revenue rather than using it productively.
* Venezuela is becoming more and more dependent on oil and the rest of the economy is lagging.
* Agriculture is weak because of the unsettled conditions.
* People are happy because they are buying things, but everything they buy is imported.
* There are ten times as many kidnappings as 10 years ago, being carried out by gangs from Colombia, drug traffickers. This is new. Before Chavez we had no problems with Colombia.
* There are many more armed attacks in the cities, and the criminals are getting their guns from the armed forces.

We wandered over to the opposite corner of the courtyard and introduced ourselves to Carmen, a cleaner on the municipal staff who is for the reform. She explained that above all it is good for poor people. Before Chavez we had all kinds of problems with basic things like electricity, gas, and water, she said, but now these and other things are going much better for us. We asked what clause of the amendments was most important to her. She replied:

* The most important article is on the university, which is now going to be democratic. Now a professors' vote is worth that of 45 students; with the reform everyone's vote will be equal. And the universities are being opened up. Before they were only for the people at the top, but now its open to everyone.

* Also, there is the problem of bureaucracy. Right now, when you have a problem, the bureaucrats send you from one office to another (she pointed to various offices around the courtyard) and you never get it settled. With the reform, we will have peoples power. The communal councils will have the power to get around the bureaucracy and make decisions directly. Participation in government - that's the main thing in the reform.* There will be no more monopolies. Like the banks: they refuse to lend to poor people, and when they do lend, its at 28 percent interest. Now we can go forward with peoples cooperatives.

Most of those we talk to are for a "yes" vote in the referendum. They know the reforms well, frequently referring to specific articles. But opinion is sharply divided, and several "yes" supporters have told us they believe support for the reform is so far not as strong as support for Chavez in last years presidential election.

The opposition has taken heart from the fact that a number of well-known figures on the right wing of the Bolivarian movement have chosen this moment to break with Chavez and go over to the opposition. Meanwhile, some right-wing figures are making ominous threats that suggest a replay of the 2002 coup attempt. There is a big disinformation campaign in the media, which pro Chavez forces are trying to counter.

On Tuesday we participated in a magnificent student demonstration of 60,000 that marked what many consider to be a rebirth of the revolutionary student movement. It was many times larger than the unruly and provocative actions of ultraright students that have troubled Caracas in recent weeks. We carried a banner in the Tuesday demonstration that read (in Spanish) "Canadians in defense of the Bolivarian revolution. Venezuela We Are With You Coalition" and included the CVEC website. Our banner was met everywhere by a joyous response.

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