Recall Referendum in Venezuela, recent events

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro force their way to

On Thursday, state-level courts in Aragua, Bolivar, Carabobo, and Monagas which do not seem to have the authority to sanction on electoral matters, issued injunctions against the presidential recall referendum. The claim is that there were significant irregularities in the first step, the collection of 1% of registered voters’ signatures necessary to begin the recall referendum process. Later the National Electoral Council (NEC) would state that the referendum couldn’t proceed in these states, until responsibility for the fraudulent signatures had been addressed. After many months of stalling, the referendum was about to enter its next step, now seeking 20% of registered voters’ signatures across the country. The NEC had in fact decided that the 20% would be collected in each and every state, thus further complicating things for those who back the recall. This next step was going to to take place this week, between Wednesday 26 October and Friday 28 October.

On Sunday, the Venezuelan National Assembly scheduled a special session to address these politically charged events. The National Assembly essentially declared that the constitutional order in the country had been broken. During the parliamentary session, which was likened by government supporters to the parliamentary coups of Brazil and Honduras, a large group of government supporters stormed the building and disrupted the session. Still, amid all this the oppossition-led legislative was also able to come back to some of its absurd talking points, like its ongoing gripe about Maduro’s nationality (!?). Though it’s exciting to see everyday Caraqueños breaking through the gates and entering parliament, the significance of these events remains unclear to me. The Mayor of Libertador, Jorge Rodriguez, not a virtuous person, may have either been involved in spurring on the event or, at least, in demanding that government supporters leave the parliamentary building.

Local and state elections, which would nortmally be scheduled this year, have been suspended until next year by the NEC, because it was concentrating on the recall referendum. This hasn’t been much discussed, but putting the referendum on hold, turns the attention back on local and state elections. In fact, this may be the government’s strategy, to force the opposition to focus on these lower-level elections, and to offer these in exchange for a deffered recall referendum.

Critical chavismo, as represented by former socialist ministers, Marea Socialista and a ‘Platform for the defense of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s Constitution’, have come out strongly against these recent moves by the government-controlled National Electoral Council and the courts backing it, which have put the recall referendum indefinitely on hold. I myself did not think that the Maduro government would close down the path for the referendum on Maduro’s presidency. Rather, I could see the benefit for the Maduro’s government in stalling and not facilitating the process, and in this way changing its outcome. I still think this is the case, stalling puts the government in a better position, and also offers Chavismo-in-government a stronger hand in its negotiations with the opposition.

As things stand, the government’s play seems to have given it the political initiative, and the situation backs its call and version of ‘political dialogue’. President Maduro, who has been on a ‘lightening trip’ to reach a deal on oil prices with OPEC and non-OPEC countries, made a quick stopover in Rome, and met up with Pope Francis in order to signal to the country and the various regional and international organsiations and observers who have taken a keen interest in Venezuela, that the government is willing to sign-up to a Vatican-backed dialogue between the parties. But this meeting and announcement also puts the Venezuelan opposition on its back foot. Both President Maduro, and Hector Rodriguez, the government leader in the National Assembly and, Elias Jaua, an important PSUV leader and former vice-President under Hugo Chávez, have all come out in favour of a renewed ‘dialogue’, that is, they appreciate that political negotiation in the current context is a necessity. So, these recent moves by the National Electoral Council, state courts, and the presidency, can be seen as steps taken to ensure a better bargaining position for the tricky political negotiations to come, now endorsed or ordained by the highest powers possible.

For the last couple of months, an ongoing UNASUR backed dialogue had accompanied the Venezuela crisis. A UNASUR commission with former PSOE Spanish Primer Minister José Rodriguez Zapatero, and the former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, have attempted to push through some kind of arrangement between Maduro’s government and opposition. But nothing much had come from this. The Venezuelan opposition is very weary of the fact that calls to further dialogue and never-ending discussions, may simply be used as a way to stall and undermine the impetus that the opposition seems to have around the referendum. It is clear that a great majority of Venezuelan citizens see the plebiscite as a path to overcome the complex crises the country faces. The opposition’s next steps will now be to take people out on the streets in order to put pressure on the government and state institutions. Large rallies will be held throughout the country on Wednesday 26 October. As regards the negotiations, these will now pick up in intensity as they ‘officially’ begin on 30 October.

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Politics/Economy

As might be apparent to researchers who are conversant with Marxist critical theory and Marxist-inspired critical scholarship, the categorical distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘economy’ is neither prevalent in such inquiry, but nor is it truly overcome. This itself may have to do with the fact that the Marxist and Hegelian traditions, historically the main store of theoretical wealth for critical scholarship, tend to address in negative terms the now common bifurcation in Anglo-American and European academia of political economy into politics (later, political science) and economy. As Venezuelan philosopher and political economist, Enzo del Bufalo, has put it, Marxist critique concerned as it is with revealing ‘las relaciones de poder que tejen las prácticas sociales’; the very commitment to ‘esta intención de la critica marxista le confiere su carácter desmitificador e impide su reconstitución como una filosofía o una teoría económica’ (p. 21).

The many Marxisms, despite their diversity, have fundamentally disputed the bifurcation of the discipline and the constitution of separate objects of study (or critique) as dependent on self-same scientific methodologies guaranteeing by means of shared positivist or empirical ‘rules of access’ the objects and objectivity of economics.[1] But this difficulty within the Marxist critique should refer us to the need to readdress the ways in which the distinction is drawn in particular and contingent situations, therefore, it is key to have present ‘the deeply discursive nature of the realms of politics and economics’, given the fact that the distinction’s deployment, constitution or enactment will have been achieved by means of discourse, technical artefacts and practice in distinct historical and textual sites.[2]

This bifurcation in Latin America proper is much more recent than would seem. Not only is the continent’s best known theoretical ‘IPE-like’ export, la teoría de la dependencia, critical of the merits of such a disciplinary distinction, but, indeed, the institutionalisation of academic departments dedicated to one or the other, politics or economy, is a mid-20th century phenomenon. To take note, the earliest courses in economics and the departments teaching the latter were established in the region in the early 1930s.[3] Normally, this ‘fact’—the belated specialisation of social sciences—is accounted for in terms of a narrative of underdevelopment and academic backwardness. And yet, one might convincingly read this fact in terms of hegemony and the distinctive experience of reality in the periphery. Many Latin American intellectuals encountered a different reality that simply could not be grasped in terms of the grounding theoretical assumptions that would allow for the political economy split, but would nevertheless later be compelled to shift into specialisation given the arguments, resources and technical knowledge of hegemony in the metropole in favour of bifurcation.[4] This problematic is interestingly highlighted by Roberto Schwartz, a Brazilian Marxist literary critic, in his discussion on ‘misplaced ideas’ in Latin American.[5] Economics and politics, we might say, as separate endeavours are necessarily misplaced.

[1] See Barry Hindess, Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences. Sussex: Harverster Press, 1977.

[2] de Goede, 2006, p. 5.

[3] See the various histories of economic thought and political economy developed by the the Latin American intelelctuales Victor Urquidi, Arturo Uslar Pietri and Enzo Del Bufalo.

[4] It is interesting to note that the ‘Programa de Formación de Grado en Economía Política’, one of the few in Venezuela and in the region, was established with the creation of the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela as a strongly critical and Marxist-inflected program. The UBV offers no ‘economics’ degree, but rather incorporates the ‘micros’ and ‘macros’ into a historicised teaching curriculum whose framing of ‘economics’ as subsumable into political economy is, nevertheless, ambivalent.

[5] See Roberto Schwartz, ‘Misplaced ideas’. See alo my ‘Misplaced IR / IR fora do lugar. Politics and Emancipation in Latin America’ (2015).