Venezuelans on Feb. 15 approved a constitutional amendment removing term limits on elected officials. The door is now open for Hugo Chavez to run for a third presidential term in 2012.

The outcome provoked a replay of divergent voices. The New York Times editorialized about a “standard-issue autocrat.” The Washington Post complained of “overwhelming control [by Chavez] over virtually every government institution.” Yet ex-Cuban President Fidel Castro observed, “The destiny of the peoples of ‘Our America’ depends greatly on that victory.”

Coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of the Chavez presidency, the referendum serves as a milestone for changes that have marked the period.

Commentators now see power in Venezuela as resting upon popular mobilization and elections, the latter notable for transparency, efficiency and fairness.

“Venezuelan democracy is the most legitimate in the entire continent, and probably the world,” analyst Pascual Serrano claimed, citing international observers. Another observer heralded “the new political culture” and “pacific and exemplary” behavior of voters.

Atilio Boron sees removal of term limits for those who govern well as a “necessary counterpart” of Venezuela’s capacity to remove sub-par leaders through recall. Mexico’s La Jornada daily commended Chavez for his “respectful attitude towards Venezuelan political institutions.”

Venezuela’s 10-year record of resisting U.S. imperialism and promoting Latin American integration stands as another achievement. Chavez “broke with imperialist colonialism that was wasting Venezuela and condemning the immense majority of its people to economic, social, and political misery,” declared Pedro Antonio Honrubia. The referendum outcome was “very bad news for the empire,” said Boron.

Socialist revolution has brought forth remarkable social advances. Infant mortality dropped from 24 first-year deaths per 1,000 babies to 12; deaths in childbirth fell; poverty plummeted from 60 percent to 26 percent; “extreme poverty,” from 25 percent to 8 percent.

Over half the population enjoys free, first-contact health care from the Cuba-assisted Barrio Adentro system. Most of Venezuela’s 300 hospitals have been upgraded. Since 2003, a total of 4,031 new community health centers have opened.

Vegetable production rose 24 percent in 10 years, cultivated acreage, 45 percent. Big landowner acreage dropped 32 percent. State-operated Mercal stores providing cheap food supply 14 percent of all food consumed.

Now 16 million Venezuelans (population 27 million) are enrolled in schools or adult education. In 1998, there were 28 university students per 1,000 inhabitants; now there are 80. Unemployment dropped in 10 years from 11.3 percent to 7.8 percent. (Data is from Sirio Lopez Velasco (rebelion.org) and Mark Weisbrot (cepr.net).)

Passage of the constitutional amendment stimulated discussion on the future course of Venezuela’s socialist revolution. The Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) weighed in after mobilizing for the campaign. The year before Chavez had demanded its dissolution.
According to the PCV’s Tribune Popular web site, Chavez warrants support for his dedication to national liberation. Approval of the constitutional amendment “signified … ongoing advance toward socialism … a moment of sharpened class struggle.” Yet the Party’s Central Committee, meeting Jan. 24-25, characterized “the popular revolutionary movement as lacking unity, combativeness, and the material force of a vanguard organization of the proletariat.”

After the vote, PCV Secretary General Oscar Figuera applauded “unity of action and leadership of all the forces.” Voters had “deepened the popular sovereignty in the democratic exercise of their rights.” Speaking to reporters, Figuera endorsed the fight against “corruption, inefficiency, and excess bureaucracy” highlighted by Chavez during his victory speech. The remedy would be “strengthening of popular power,” especially in workplaces.

Figuera reiterated an earlier proposal for “the formation of the socialist workers’ councils … to confront these ills.” The PCV called for expanding “collective or social property.” Nationalizing the financial system would be a start, “now during the crisis of capitalism.”

Gregory Wilpert asserted on Venzuelanalysis.com that the Bolivarian Movement’s excessive dependency on President Chavez poses risks. He suggested the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, leading formation of the Bolivarian revolution, must strengthen party structures and develop new leaders. He agreed the government should combat crime, corruption and insecurity. Strategies must be developed to support social programs while oil prices fall. Participatory democracy requires a boost to circumvent incumbent office holders.

Economist Luciano Vasapollo, a leader of the Network of Italian Communists, served as an international observer of referendum voting. Interviewed afterwards by Tribune Popular, the visitor praised the vote as “validating the revolutionary process and reinforcing class-based, worker, and popular democracy.” Time is now available, he explained, to strengthen the PSUV and “construct a popular, class-based government.”

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