]The referendum to be held on 15 August in Venezuela on whether to oust Hugo Chávez from his Presidential office is the latest attempt by the US Administration and the corporate interests they represent to overthrow a truly popular democratic government. Venezuela is the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter. It has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East and is among the top four suppliers to the US. Before Chávez was elected, two political parties representing the white élite and their US friends ruled Venezuela for 40 years. Torture, disappearances and corruption were rife. Only 24 per cent of revenue from its nationalized oil reached state coffers. As a consequence, 80 per cent of the country’s population (who are mainly people of African and indigenous descent) are living in poverty despite its oil wealth.
Chávez – who was elected with overwhelming majorities in 1998 and 2000 – steered through constitutional reforms in 1999. The rewritten Constitution opposes oil and water privatization. It also prioritizes food autonomy: an important development in a country where 65 per cent of basic foods are imported. This effectively reverses World Bank and IMF policies that have forced Third World populations to depend on food imports.
The new Constitution opposes discrimination, recognizes the rights of indigenous people, strengthens workers’ rights and, uniquely, recognizes women’s unwaged caring work as productive, entitling housewives to social security. These reforms have strengthened grassroots movements inside the country, creating a ‘participatory democracy’ where people themselves act rather than delegate power to a wealthy minority. Thus, women who head over 65 per cent of the country’s households are now the majority in campaigns on water, housing and education, and in a campaign that has brought free healthcare to the poorest.
Chávez – a former army officer – has trained the army to build homes and distribute food. Following the implementation of laws like the Land Act, which hands over idle land to small rural co-operatives, Chávez faced a coup by the élite backed by the US Administration. In April 2002 he was kidnapped, and the Constitution and National Assembly were abolished. Millions, led by women from the poorest areas, took to the streets and called on loyal troops to act. The soldiers Chavez had trained responded and returned him to power.
In late 2002 the CIA, oil executives and corrupt trade union leaders tried to bring Chávez down by staging an oil coup aimed at paralyzing the industry and starving the country. Working round the clock for months, oil workers restored production. With the community and the military, they then formed Guide Committees to discuss how workers can manage the oil industry for the population and prevent oil production from fuelling war and environmental devastation.
Twice defeated by the grassroots, the Opposition had to take the Constitutional route, collecting the 2.4 million signatures needed to trigger a referendum about whether the President should be recalled. The process – orchestrated by the corporate media, the Organization of American States and the Carter Centre – was riddled with fraud.
Women have once again taken the lead in pushing for a Chávez victory in this month’s referendum. Street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, in towns and villages, groups of 5 to 10 people (mostly women) register voters and check identity cards to prevent fraud.
As Nora Castañeda, President of the Women’s Development Bank, explains: ‘The referendum is only a tactic: it’s US military intervention they want? The US wants our resources – not only oil and gas, but [also] the water from our large rivers and our Amazon. What is at stake here is a just and peace-loving society versus unbridled capitalism and death. What is at stake is humanity.’