The campaign to reshape Venezuela’s 1999 constitution toward a socialist future ended Dec. 2 in a narrow defeat for the government of President Hugo Chavez.

Hours after polls closed on the vote for two referendums that collectively represented 69 changes to the constitution, the country’s National Electoral Council announced that in each case about 51 percent of the electorate had voted no, and 49 percent yes. A low turnout rate of 56 percent contributed significantly to the defeat, analysts said.

On national television, Chavez praised Venezuela’s democratic institutions, accepted the “photo finish” and asked that “roads toward violence and destabilization be forgotten.”

Noting that a long battle still lay ahead, he said, “This is not any defeat — this is another ‘for now,’” a reference to his use of those words on national television en route to jail in 1992 after a failed military coup. He was elected president in 1998 and re-elected twice after that.

While Chavez acknowledged that more needs to be done to convince Venezuelans, particularly those who abstained from the vote, that his “21st-century socialism” is in their interests, he assured television viewers that “the rhythm and the government’s program will continue on course.”

Some of Chavez’s supporters were buoyed by the fact that half of the participating electorate, or about 4 million people, had for the first time explicitly affirmed their support for a socialist path.

Oscar Figuera, general secretary of the Communist Party of Venezuela, said the country’s wealthy oligarchy waged an “infernal” media campaign depicting Chavez’s proposals as “a supposed threat to property, to the family and to religion,” preying upon “ancestral fears and historical prejudices.” These fears, combined with some voter uncertainties about the details of the constitutional reform measures, neutralized some of Chavez’s otherwise enthusiastic supporters, he said.

Election observers from 39 countries, including several from the NAACP and the National Lawyers Guild in the U.S., testified to the calm and transparency of the vote.

The referendum campaign had been advancing since December 2006 when Chavez won re-election with a 63 percent majority. On Aug. 15, he submitted 33 constitutional changes to the National Assembly, which subsequently added 36 revisions of its own. Opposition parties were absent from the Assembly’s deliberations, having withdrawn from the 2005 parliamentary elections.

During the campaign, the Venezuelan, U.S. and European corporate-dominated media spearheaded attacks on the proposals, particularly those removing presidential term limits. They did so although democratic heads of state worldwide take for granted open-ended possibilities for re-election and few face the contingency, as Chavez does, of a recall vote.

The corporate media and right-wing forces also hammered on provisions to let the government take emergency measures toward the media in a time of crisis. Chavez’s supporters, however, pointed to media complicity in the 2002 U.S.-backed coup against his democratically elected government.

Largely left unmentioned in such media attacks were measures that would have benefited most Venezuelans, including cutting the standard workweek from 44 to 36 hours, providing social security to workers in the “informal economy,” granting homeowners bankruptcy protection, guaranteeing free education, and extending new rights to Afro-Venezuelans, gays and lesbians.

“Popular power,” Venezuela’s grassroots democracy, also stood to gain under Chavez’s proposals, with 5 percent of the national budget going to community councils and women’s, student and workers’ councils. Agrarian reform would have been streamlined, the central bank would have become a state function, and worker-controlled factories would have received additional support.

The corporate media’s focus on Chavez’s supposed use of constitutional changes to cement personal power was incessant, however, and it underscored Venezuela’s sharp class divide. His policies were denounced at raucous, occasionally violent demonstrations staged by middle- and upper-income sectors of the population and students from mostly private universities.

Retired Gen. Raul Baduel, formerly a Chavez supporter and defense minister, appeared Nov. 5 at an elaborately staged press conference to denounce Chavez’s supposed power grab and express reservations about socialism. A recent article on by Jose Sant Roz sketches out Baduel’s ties with U.S. intelligence officials, cultivated over a two-year period.

Among other manifestations of right-wing skullduggery was a brief CNN image of Chavez flashing across television screens over the words, “Who killed him?” The government also obtained a videotape of a meeting in a Caracas Catholic church from which the call went out for “pockets of resistance” in the event of a “yes” victory.

On Nov. 28, lawyer Eva Golinger publicized a communication from U.S. Embassy official Michael Steere to CIA head Michael Hayden. The letter, supposedly waylaid by Venezuelan counterintelligence, described U.S. support in 2007 to the tune of $8 million for opposition demonstrations, literature, anti-Chavez media coverage, student organizing, and artificial food shortages. It called for the creation of dissident military enclaves situated in U.S. bases along Venezuela’s border with Colombia and in Curacao.

Relying on documents provided by the National Security Archives, the Washington Post reported Dec. 1 that from 2003 on the Bush administration has supplied Venezuelan university students with $216,000 for “conflict resolution” and “democracy promotion.”

Commenting on the referendum vote, the Mexico City daily La Jornada noted that President Chavez has another five years left under his current term and that “Chavismo comes out of the crisis strengthened and adorned with a moral authority that its adversaries have to acknowledge.”