In Venezuela, All We are Saying is Give us a Chance

I don’t remember what year it was and I don’t know where I was at the time. Was I in a church, a park, an outdoor amphitheatre, or standing alongside the Union Pacific railroad tracks in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as a white train passed by carrying nuclear warheads? All I remember is holding the hands of others and swaying together as we sang the words from John Lennon’s song, “All we are saying / is give peace a chance.”

Today, almost forty years after Lennon first wrote those words, I hear a similar refrain echoing in my mind in Venezuela. President Hugo Chávez has proposed a series of changes to the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela with the hope of creating a socialist state. The changes affect about 10 percent of the document but the opposition, aided by the national and international mass media, have focused most attention on one item: the possibility of unlimited presidential terms and, as they would see it, the danger of Chávez becoming a dictator.
In 1999, Chávez proposed a seven-year presidential term, increasing it from the five-year term that was in effect. The Constitutional Assembly lowered that to six years with the possibility of one re-election.
But since his election Chávez has said for years that he plans to be around until the year 2021. The comment was seen as a joke and interpreted that he would be active on the Venezuelan political scene until that time—although not in the role of president. A few years ago, a Venezuelan congressman proposed the idea of unlimited successive presidential terms and Chávez said that he was not in favor of such an idea. Two terms were enough.
But later I saw a comment by the vice-president at that time, José Vicente Rangel, saying that Chávez would be president as long as the people wanted him to be president. I sensed a change in attitude was happening. Now Chávez himself is arguing for the idea. Why?
My guess is that Chávez thought the direction of the country could be changed within two seven-year terms, reduced to twelve by the new constitution. Reality has set it. You can’t change the course of a speeding ocean liner 180 degrees in a few minutes and you can’t change the direction of a country in a few years either.
The opposition has been saying that Chávez has had his chance. He’s been president since 1999. In reality, he has never been given a chance. Following his election in 1998, the opposition was in a state of shock. For the first ten months of his presidency they didn’t know what hit them nor what they should do. They weren’t giving Chávez a chance. They were simply floundering.
Then December 15, 1999, they got their chance. Yes, the new constitution was approved that day, but it was also the day that massive landslides took place along the coast and in Caracas. While Chávez was dreaming of a new republic he was quickly awakened to a new reality. Hundreds of thousands of people were suffering as lives and homes were shattered. Added to forty years of neglect of the infrastructure, ideology had to be set aside and physical reconstruction had to become the priority.
Meanwhile the opposition was not sleeping and twenty-eight months later were ready to overthrow Chávez’s government by means of a coup d’etat. They haven’t let up since then. They have never really given the government a chance.
So that is why I hear the words of government supporters today singing, “all we are saying / is give us a chance.” I place emphasis on the word “us” because I refuse to say this is Chávez’s project. Chávez has power today only because he is expressing the yearning and ideals of a multitude of people who are tired with the way the world has been run up to the present. I have a Venezuelan friend, Ledys. Recently a foreign visitor asked him if he were “a Chavista.” His reply? “No. I consider Chávez to be “a Ledysista.”
Something that I think the opposition, the U.S. government, and Chavez supporters all realize is that this is not a battle between Chávez and some opponents; this is a battle between the ordinary people and those who have dominated them. The same would be true of the current situation in Bolivia and Ecuador. I don’t think the international community in general realizes this.
Another item that should be noted is that for 162 years there was no limit on re-election of presidents in the United States. And, when the senators and representatives in Congress proposed an amendment to that item in the Constitution, they didn’t include themselves! Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska has been in the Senate for thirty-nine years. Many other countries in the world have the possibility of unlimited terms of election for their presidents or prime ministers. In itself, it says nothing about the quality of democracy in a country.
Chávez has been portrayed as a painter who has started a work of art and needs time to finish it. I think he would be better portrayed as a painter’s brush, and the painter is the people. I’m not a painter of works of art, but I have painted many rooms in my life. When I have a brush I like and that does an excellent job, I don’t throw it away. I take good care of it in the way I use it and in the way I clean it. For me, Chávez is simply “the people’s brush.”
There is going to be a period of consultation. Since Chávez, as president, is the one proposing the reforms, it will have to be Chávez himself who decides which recommendations to accept before the proposed changes are brought before the people as a block. The opposition would like the people to vote on the matters item by item—a bit like evaluating one of Van Gogh’s works square inch by square inch. At the end of the process, it will be the people who decide whether to accept or reject the changes.
Maybe what is happening here is simply the dream of a Camelot and a round table, but in a world of warmongers, someone has to start dreaming. To many people this dream is also coupled with the fear that if it doesn’t happen here and doesn’t happen now, it is not going to happen for generations to come.
So is there risk in letting Chávez being elected for more than two terms and having additional powers as president? Yes. But to those who feel they are involved in the creation of a participative democracy within a socialist (people-centered) system, there is greater risk if he doesn’t have the possibility of being re-elected president.
Charles Hardy is author of Cowboy in Caracas: A North American’s Memoir of Venezuela’s Democratic Revolution, published by Curbstone Press. Other essays by Hardy can be found on his personal blog Cowboyincaracas.com . You may write him at cowboyincaracas@yahoo.com.

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