TOPICS : Chavez’s revolution cannot stand still

What happens in Venezuela now matters more than at any time in the country’s history — not just for Latin America, but for the wider world. Since the leftwing nationalist Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, his oil-rich government has not only spearheaded a challenge to US domination and free-market dogma that has swept through the continent. It has also led the first serious attempt since the collapse of the Soviet Union to create a social alternative to the neoliberal uniformity since imposed across the globe. That has become even clearer since the Venezuelan president committed his “Bolivarian revolution” to introducing a new form of “21st century socialism” .So it’s hardly surprising that Chavez’s wafer-thin defeat in the constitutional referendum at the weekend has been seen as more than a little local difficulty. The proposals would have allowed him to stand again after his term as president expires in 2012, formalised Venezuela as a socialist state, entrenched direct democracy and introduced a string of progressive reforms, from a 36-hour week and social security for five million informal workers to gay rights and gender parity in party election lists.

Their defeat by 50.7% to 49.3% was hailed by George Bush and greeted with dismay by supporters at home and abroad, not least in countries such as Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua which rely on Venezuelan support. At the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas in the early hours of Monday morning, the shock among ministers and activists was palpable.

But since Chavez came to power, the poverty level has been slashed from 49% to 30%, extreme poverty from 16% to below 10%; free health and education have been massively expanded; subsidised food made available in the poorer areas; pensions and the minimum wage boosted; illiteracy eliminated; land redistributed; tens of thousands of co-ops established and privatised utilities and oil brought back under public ownership and control.

It might be imagined that such a record — for all its weaknesses — combined with the clear demonstration of Venezuela’s democratic credentials this week would attract more sympathy among some of those in the west who claim to care about social progress. Presumably concerns about Chavez’s fierce opposition to US imperial power bother them more than the reality of life for Latin America’s poor. But there’s little doubt that the fate of the Venezuelan experiment will have an impact far beyond its borders. So far, the cushion of oil has allowed Chavez and his supporters to make rapid progress without challenging the interests of the Venezuelan elite.

The dangers of the movement’s over-dependency on one man — not least from the threat of assassination — were underlined by the referendum experience. What is certain, however, is that the process cannnot stand still if it is to survive — and to judge by Chavez’s response to his first poll defeat, he is in no mood for turning back. We weren’t successful, he told the country, “por ahora” — for now. — The Guardian