On December 2nd Venezuelans voted on a number of amendments to their constitution. Generally speaking the proposals have been portrayed in the media as the next step on the road to dictatorship.
That's because the mainstream media generally abandons quaint notions of balance and objectivity when reporting on Venezuela. Curiously, this often extends to left-of-centre newspapers not known to slavishly follow the Bush administration's lead when reporting on other oil states where regime change is either sought, Iran, or in process, Iraq.
The biggest fuss this time seems to be the amendment that would abolish term limits for the presidency.
Perhaps it is because I am from Chicago, and had only one mayor from the time I was born until I graduated college, that I am unable to see this as the making of a dictatorship.
Not to mention that if Hillary Clinton is elected next year, we will have Bushes and Clintons as heads of state for a full consecutive 24 years, and possibly 28.
President Lula da Silva of Brazil defended Venezuela last week, asking why "people did not complain when Margaret Thatcher spent so many years in power". He added: "You can invent anything you want to criticise Chavez, but not for lack of democracy." Lula has repeatedly defended Venezuela's government as democratic, but these comments are never reported in the English language media.
Chavez is also castigated for proposing to get rid of the independence of the Central Bank, which is inscribed in the 1999 constitution. This is portrayed as just another "power grab." However, there are sound economic reasons for this amendment.
Central Banks that are not accountable to their elected governments are not altogether "independent" but tend to represent the interests of the financial sector. In the trade-off between growth and employment versus inflation, the financial sector will always opt for lower inflation, even if it means stagnation and unemployment.
The increasing independence of central banks, and the resultant overly-tight monetary policy is very likely one of the main reasons for the unprecedented long-term growth failure in Latin America over the last quarter-century.
There is also an amendment that would provide Social Security pensions to workers in the informal sector, which would be a major anti-poverty measure, given that this includes about 41 percent of the labor force.
Another would reduce the working week to 36 hours. This is being reported in the media as a 6-hour day, but more likely it will be interpreted as four eight-hour days plus four hours on Friday.
There are also amendments that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or physical health; provide for gender parity for political parties; guarantee free university education; make it more difficult for homeowners to lose their homes during bankruptcy. It is hard to argue that these are punishing or repressive measures.
Another amendment would reverse the 1999 constitutional provision protecting intellectual property. This would not abolish patents or copyrights but would allow more flexibility for the government in addressing the enormous economic inefficiencies caused by state-protected monopolies, e.g. in areas such as patented pharmaceutical drugs. This is difficult to argue against on economic grounds.
There are other amendments that are more controversial, most of them added not by Chavez but by the National Assembly (Chavez cannot veto amendments added by the Assembly; these have to go to the voters).
For example, one amendment would allow the government to suspend the "right to information" (but not due process, as reported in the international media) during a state of national emergency. Another would allow the President and the National Assembly to create new federal districts and provinces.
Some of these provisions have drawn opposition even among Chavez's supporters. If they are approved, it will likely be because the majority of voters trust Chavez and the government not to abuse their powers.
And there is some basis for this trust: the National Assembly earlier this year gave Chavez the power, for 18 months, to enact certain legislation by executive order. The pundits screamed about Chavez "ruling by decree," but in fact this power has not been used much at all, except in dealings with foreign corporations.
In any case, the voters will decide, with a far stronger opposition media than exists in the United States proselytising against the government. Venezuelans have not lost civil liberties the way people in the U.S. (or even the UK) have in recent years, and ordinary citizens continue to have more say in their government, and share more in its oil wealth, than ever before. It is doubtful that the referendum will reverse these changes, regardless of the outcome.
This column was published by New Statesman(UK) on November 21, 2007.