Next month’s referendum in Venezuela –set for August 15 –is shaping up as a decisive moment in the recent history of Latin America, and also as a test for a more mature yet still nebulous movement against war and Empire. Next month's vote will either mark yet another ratification of Hugo Chavez's radical, democratic project known as the Bolivarian Revolution, or it will mark a victory for the oligarchy in Venezuela and their backers in Washington, D.C.
The April, 2002, coup d'etat against Hugo Chavez's democratically elected government was greeted with a shameful and deafening silence by most of North America's "progressive" organizations, politicians, academics and even activists. More than two years later, the process in Venezuela enjoys greater international understanding and solidarity, which will be critical to responding to the outcome of next month's referendum. The fallout after August 15, sure to be fuelled by the corporate media –win or lose for Chavez –will definitely raise the potential of international pressure and even intervention against the government in Caracas.
The increased awareness is due, in part, to the extraordinary documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (www.chavezthefilm.com), produced in association with the Irish Film Board. In vivid and extraordinary scenes, the film shows us a country divided between decadent wealth and grinding poverty; coup plotters whose greed is only matched by their overconfidence, class-blindness and tactical clumsiness; and an enraged and mobilized people, that, against the odds, helped to restore their president to power. The opposition in Venezuela was so hysterical about the film that they began an international campaign to shut down screenings. Shamefully, Amnesty International bowed to threats of physical violence and removed the film from their 2003 festival here in Vancouver.
Intellectuals, as well as NGOs, have also been shirking their responsibility –at least as defined by the likes of Noam Chomsky. University of British Columbia professor Maxwell Cameron has focused his criticism on Chavez, accusing him of conducting a "slow-motion constitutional coup," an interesting and insidious formulation, to say the least. The assertion is that the Venezuelan leader is using democratic mechanisms to undermine ‘democracy.’ Mechanisms employed include elections and referenda: In 1998, Chavez won the presidency with 56% of votes cast; in 1999, the new, Bolivarian constitution was approved by 71%; and, in 2000, Chavez won another presidential vote with 59% support.
A radical process of social transformation is indeed underway in Venezuela, undermining the old system, a formal democracy with entrenched class divisions that systematically excluded the majority in that oil-rich country. Millions of poor, marginalized people have been brought into political participation for the first time –a dangerously democratic process to some.
Dr. Cameron, while focusing on the case against Chavez, laments the opposition's heavy-handed tactics after briefly seizing power in 2002, and suggests that Canada needs to take a more prominent role in questioning the legitimacy of the Caracas government:
"The United States is in a weak position to challenge the constitutional or democratic credentials of the Venezuelan government since it supported the April coup that briefly deposed Chavez... That leaves it up to countries like Mexico, Chile and—why not?—Canada to suggest that the emperor has no clothes."
(Maxwell A. Cameron, The Slow-Motion Constitutional Coup in Venezuela, Informed, April, 2003)
Why not? The example that comes to mind immediately, among others, is that the government of Canada has, earlier this year, just helped engineer a coup d'etat against Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. In fact, the topic of regime change in that impoverished Caribbean country was discussed at a January 2003 conference of la francophonie in Ottawa. The United States and European Community had representatives present. The government of Haiti was not invited.
Further, Canada failed to speak out forcefully during the coup in 2002 against Chavez. A quick check of news releases by the ministry of foreign affairs for that year (http://www.fac-aec.gc.ca/) reveals no official statement against the coup, though the government in Ottawa did stop short of endorsing (the real naked emperor) Pedro Carmona, the big business leader and president for 48 hours.
The Canadian government cannot be counted on to be an impartial player with respect to Venezuela; the real question is how prominent a role they will play in the campaign against Chavez. NGOs and the academy specializing in the region seem largely unwilling to condemn U.S. aggression and destabilization in Latin America and the Caribbean, let alone expose Canadian complicity. Real solidarity with the people of Venezuela, then, will have to be built the hard way: through alternative forms of media, and through activist and labour networks.
August 15 is sure to mark a turning point in the Bolivarian Revolution, and all those opposed to Empire in all its manifestations need to be aware and alert, ready to defend the right of Venezuela’s people to determine their own destiny.