The New York Times
December 06, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 5 — President Hugo Chávez’s political movement, once considered largely above internal criticism here, is being consumed by recrimination and soul-searching after his proposal to transform Venezuela into a socialist state was rejected by voters over the weekend.
Mr. Chávez, who had cordially accepted the defeat, took the offensive at a news conference on Wednesday, lashing out at his opponents, whose victory he dismissed with an obscenity. He insisted he was “not finished” with his self-declared revolution for Venezuela and would reintroduce proposed constitutional changes to augment his powers.
At the same time, he acknowledged, “This is the moment to start a real period of reflection, of self-criticism.” That process had already begun to divide even his ardent supporters.
Some of Mr. Chávez’s most vociferous loyalists, among them the lawmaker Iris Varela, called on him effectively to ignore the referendum results and enact some of the proposals by using the decree powers granted to him by the National Assembly this year.
But in an explicit rejection of the authoritarianism and widening cult of celebrity that characterized Mr. Chávez’s movement in the last year, others are calling for his followers to embrace a more pluralistic path.
“Chávez is a human being who makes mistakes,” said Luis Tascón, a lawmaker in the National Assembly, which is controlled almost entirely by the president’s supporters, including Mr. Tascón.
“If Chavismo is to consolidate its historical relevance,” Mr. Tascón, 39, said in an interview at his modest apartment here, “it has to be more than about one man.”
Such a statement from within Mr. Chávez’s movement would have been nearly taboo in the days before the referendum on Sunday, when accusations of treason were leveled by Mr. Chávez and senior officials against anyone who opposed the sweeping constitutional changes he had put forward. But no longer.
Dissent among Chavistas, as the president’s supporters here call themselves, and former Chavistas can now be heard on the floor of the National Assembly, after the release of voting tallies that showed that the proposals had lost in Petare, La Vega and Caricuao, sprawling slums in this city that were pro-Chávez bastions a year ago.
Losing such support in such emblematic strongholds has been a shocking revelation for Chavismo, a movement that has long been centered on the president himself and that is hard to define in ideological terms.
At the start of his presidency, in 1999, Mr. Chávez imbued his nationalist thinking with adulation of Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century South American liberation hero who was born in Venezuela, combining it with measures aimed at helping the poor.
After his brief ouster in a 2002 coup Mr. Chávez tilted leftward and strengthened an alliance with Cuba. He began to describe himself as a socialist, sprinkling speeches with references to Lenin, Fidel Castro, the Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci and even Jesus.
Now Mr. Chávez, 53, finds himself in the position of defending his commitment to a variety of socialism that would have abolished term limits on the president and allowed him to decree unlimited states of emergency and appoint rulers for new administrative regions, some of the proposals rejected by voters.
He reappeared on national television here on Wednesday with a barrage of verbal attacks. He was dressed in an olive drab uniform and accompanied by his military advisers. He criticized his ex-wife and the former first lady, Marisabel Rodríguez, who is now a vocal critic of his policies. He sang a brief song mocking the Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe, with whom he had a spat, claiming Mr. Uribe resembles President Bush.
Most forcefully, he lashed out against Hernán Lugo-Galicia, a journalist at the daily newspaper El Nacional who wrote an article this week claiming that the armed forces intervened on Sunday after the referendum to press Mr. Chávez to accept the results. Mr. Chávez rejected Mr. Lugo-Galicia’s reporting, calling him a “short-story teller.”
Finally, Mr. Chávez said he would pursue another offensive to reform the Constitution, explaining that it might be better to have a simplified version proposed by “the people.” The original proposal of 69 amendments was conceived by Mr. Chávez and the National Assembly.
Some of Mr. Chávez’s supporters say they would back another attempt to overhaul the Constitution. But others are seeking to review what went wrong before proposals are put forward again. Aporrea, the country’s most influential pro-Chávez blog, has been filled with entries this week on the different views.
Of those, one of the most withering critiques of the president’s movement came from Heinz Dieterich, a political scientist based in Mexico who has been one of Chavismo’s leading theorists in recent years.
Chavismo, Mr. Dieterich argued, was suffering from a rubber-stamp National Assembly and cabinet, a callous new political class, a presidential staff comprising sycophants and an aversion to serious debate over pressing issues like inflation, which surged 4.4 percent in November.
If Mr. Chávez does not accept a greater role for others in decision-making, Mr. Dieterich warned, “He will destroy the process he has helped to construct.”
“It is not only certain the saying that revolutions devour their children, but also that revolutionary leaders, when they convert themselves into unilateral conductors, devour their revolutions,” Mr. Dieterich said.
Much of the internal criticism among the Chavistas has to do with Mr. Chávez’s efforts to forge a single Socialist party among his followers. He began this project after winning a re-election bid last year, but critics questioned whether its leaders would use the party to stifle dissent.
Some of those fears have materialized. Mr. Tascón, for instance, was expelled from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela on the eve of Sunday’s vote after voicing his opinion regarding a top military official who broke with Mr. Chávez last month.
Other Chavistas claim the party’s leadership, many of whom lead privileged lives, has grown out of touch with the president’s base of support in the slums and impoverished countryside.
“Many of those who led the yes campaign are so bureaucratic that it was impossible for them to convince the Chavista base to vote yes,” said Stalin Pérez Borges, a union leader.