Political campaigning before the December 2nd referendum on proposed constitutional reforms has generated intense debate in Venezuela. Marches have taken place in support of and in opposition to changes to the 1999 Constitution that was approved by referendum after President Chavez was first elected.
But the content and process of the proposed constitutional changes in Venezuela are being falsely portrayed by many in the U.S. media as anti-democratic. Many news stories and most editorials give much greater attention to opposition viewpoints than to those sympathetic to the government, despite the fact that repeated election victories indicate that the majority of Venezuelans are more sympathetic to the government rather than to the opposition. These misleading reports have made it harder for Americans to make a fair evaluation of the democratic process in Venezuela.
Deep political divisions characterize Venezuelan society today. The election of Hugo Chavez as a leader in 1998 coincided with the collapse of traditional political parties that had become corrupt and complacent after 40 years in power. Now fragmented, this "old guard" has attempted to regain power through its continued control over business and media, using both to help stage a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002. Despite these resources, these opposition groups have lost every election since 1998 because the majority of Venezuelans see them as attempting to restore and maintain the privileges of the discredited elite.
The Venezuelan government has recently granted some concessions to opposition players. The National Electoral Council divided the 69 proposed constitutional changes into two groups on the referendum ballot instead of presenting them as a single block. The move gives voters more choice by separating the original 33 reforms proposed by Chavez from another 36 written by the National Assembly.
Venezuelan students have been presented as opposed to President Chavez. But the nearly one million Venezuelans currently pursuing higher education are just as divided on the issues as is society at large. Representatives of opposition student groups have been welcomed into the National Assembly to present their demands and debate with students who support the reforms.
It is true that one of the proposed reforms would abolish presidential term limits. But it is silly to say, as some have claimed, that this would be "dictatorial." The President will still have to stand for re-election, and furthermore will still be subject to recall - a democratic provision that is unique in the Americas. The United States did not have presidential term limits until 1951. Was the U.S. previously a dictatorship?
Several proposed reforms would strengthen democratic institutions in Venezuela. If the reforms pass, they would guarantee funding to local community councils. They would also lower the voting age to allow millions more citizens to have access to the ballot, protect diversity and promote non-discrimination, and encourage women's participation in electoral politics.
Polls indicate that the majority of Venezuelan voters may well approve the proposed constitutional reforms on December 2. If they do, the U.S. government and media - and the Venezuelan opposition - should respect the result.