As early as 3am on Sunday, August 15th, Venezuelans started camping outside schools and public buildings, waiting hours to cast their vote in a referendum to decide not only the future of President Hugo Chavez, but also of the Bolivarian revolution that he has spearheaded. Despite the lines and the heat, the mood was almost universally festive.
The result was a remarkable mobilization amongst the poor that countered global trends towards reduced electoral participation and reflected a deepening of democracy beyond mere representation. This mobilization was itself a reflection of Chavez's decision not only to campaign against neoliberalism electorally but actually to govern against neoliberalism.
At 4:05 in the morning, August 16th, 2004, Venezuela's National Electoral Committee (CNE) announced the referendum result: "4.2 million or 41.5 per cent of Venezuelans voted 'Yes' to Chavez's recall, while a clear majority of 5.9 million or 58.4 per cent voted 'No.'"
The streets erupted in celebration.
How do we explain this result? A report in the August 14, 2004 edition of The Economist goes some of the way to answering this question. The report compares responses between the mid-nineties and the present to the question whether "Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government" (for the full report, see www.latinobarometro.org). Among all the 17 countries surveyed, it is Venezuela that has seen the fastest growth in support for democracy since the mid-nineties.
The most important reason for these results is that the Chavez government has bucked the trend in Latin America, breaking with the previous two decades of neoliberal political and economic policy.
Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution have made a commitment to radically increasing social investment at a time when social spending is being cut everywhere else in the region. Moreover, Chavez has not only expressed his resistance to the neoliberal project (something imitated in Argentina and Brazil), but (unlike Argentina and Brazil), he has actually begun to offer an alternative.
Though still in the developmental stages, the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) points to a different model of regional integration. In this sense, it opposes itself to the dominant model spearheaded by the U.S., the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). According …