On Aug. 15, 2004, the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, faced his opponents in the first and only recall referendum against a sitting president in modern world history. The opposition parties were confident they would win. They assumed they would naturally recover the positions of power they had lost.
Venezuela Recall Referendum
That didn't happen. Chavez won with a clear majority of 58 percent to 42 percent. The opposition insisted there had been fraud, perhaps because they genuinely couldn't believe they were in the minority. They produced no evidence for their claim, and all international observers, including the former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, said the vote had been clean.
It was a big defeat for the right. Support for the opposition fell further to barely 15 percent in polls a year later. Chavez seized the opportunity to set the Bolivarian Revolution on course towards a new kind of socialism—what soon became known around the world as “socialism of the 21st century.”
Venezuela's opposition parties, and the old elite that stood behind them, had made the same miscalculation before.
Chavez had been elected almost six years earlier with widespread support among Venezuela's middle class. They were fed up with years of unbridled corruption. For two decades, living standards—including their own—had been falling. Their traditional parties were discredited and in disarray.
That began to change in 1999, when the new Bolivarian Constitution radically reduced the elite's control over Venezuela's institutions, and even more in 2001, when a package of 49 laws, including land reform, banking reform and oil industry reform, made it clear that Chavez wanted to carry these changes through into the economy as well. The elite launched a vitriolic and largely successful media campaign to win back the support of the middle class, with outlandish tales of their children being shipped off to Cuba and the like. This laid the ground for their attempt to topple Chavez in a coup in April 2002.
What the elite did not understand—and in a sense, never has—was that just as the middle class began to move away from Chavez, so the Venezuelan poor—a clear majority who had been marginalized from political life for so long—began more and more to organize to support him. So it was the poor who came down from the shanty towns on April 12 and, along with key sectors of the military, defeated the coup.
At the end of 2002, the elite tried again to bring down Chavez' government with a shutdown of the oil industry. Again it was workers in the oil industry, along with community organizations and soldiers who mobilized together to keep the industry, and the economy as a whole, from collapsing.
After these two failures, the Venezuelan opposition had little option but to go for a legal alternative. They decided to exercise the right to a recall referendum that the Bolivarian Revolution had given them in the new constitution of 1999, as part of its commitment to a more participatory democracy. It was a right that existed in no other country in the world at the time. Indeed since then, only two other countries have included the right to recall the president into their constitutions, Ecuador and Bolivia, though neither has yet used it.
After several false starts, the Venezuelan opposition made their successful request for a referendum to recall President Chavez on October 1, 2003. The whole process lasted more than 300 days. It was a bruising campaign, with endless rows over procedure and fraudulent signatures, big confrontations on the streets and ferocious propaganda in the private media presenting Chavez as the “red devil." First the opposition had to collect at least 2,436,083 signatures in favor of the referendum. In November, they collected 3,832,493. But when the Electoral Council checked these in January and February, it said it could validate only 1,832,493. Some of the others were definitely false, it said, because they were in the name of individuals who were dead or didn't exist. Many more were in doubt because, for example, there were sheets and sheets of names filled out in the same handwriting. In the end, the Electoral Council reviewed 876,017 of these doubtful signatures at the end of May and decided that the opposition had enough signatures to call the referendum, which was set for August 15.
It was this tense and confused process that led Venezuela's electoral authorities to adopt in 2007 a much clearer and more rigorous set of procedures for future recall processes, procedures which the opposition are so impatient with now, in their current call for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro.
With all this confusion and uncertainty over the validity of the process, in the end it was a political decision by President Chavez to take up the opposition's challenge and let the people decide, whether or not there were really enough valid signatures in favor. Chavez understood only too well what the Venezuelan elite had once again failed to grasp. In the year since the oil shutdown, the support of the poor for Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution had only grown stronger. This had much to do with the new social missions that for the first time brought primary health care and literacy to Venezuela's poor communities, as well as the opportunity to complete elementary, secondary and even higher education to adults who had missed out in the past. It wasn't just the benefits themselves, which were obviously popular. It was also because these missions had become the focus for a new wave of organization by these same communities, who set up their own health committees, water boards and similar bodies to help run these social programs.
This was the basis for Chavez' confidence that he could win, when he called for people to join the campaign, which he called the “Battle of Santa Iñes,” a reference to a 19th-century peasant struggle against Venezuela's oligarchy. In the early hours of August 16, in his victory speech to the crowds from the balcony of the presidential palace, Chavez said, “With this victory we have only strengthened participatory democracy.”
It is at least ironic that world leaders like Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and Mariano Rajoy are now so concerned about the Venezuelan opposition's right to a vote to remove President Maduro. Last week, 15 countries in the Organization of American States signed a letter to this effect. Yet not one of their countries enjoys such a right. Participatory democracy is not part of their vocabulary.