Posthegemony has an excellent analysis of the Venezuela referendum and what the results might say about constitutions, constituted and constituent power, and related. Coincidentally, I have been reading up on the referendum the past few days, as I was busy with other things when the vote happened. I think Jon correctly emphasizes the massive abstentions, which are especially significant in that Chavez more or less staked the future of the Bolivarian revolution on the passage of the referendum. “To vote ‘yes’ is to vote for Chavez and the revolution, to vote ‘no’ is to vote for George Bush,” he reminded the country before the vote, and while the chavistas are now downplaying the significance and extent of their defeat, it’s clear that, as Jon says, their “project is seriously frayed around the edges,” especially as three million “natural” Chavez supporters sat this one out. “[I]f people are happy not to vote or to vote ‘no’ even when the choice [is given] in terms of the defense of national sovereignty, then chavistas have reason to worry.”
It is precisely this relation to sovereignty that has framed the international left’s response to the referendum. One focus of the northern left was the role of the U.S. in the vote, especially its interference with the voting process and its media’s portrayal of Chavez’s putative dictatorial tendencies. Such meddling was invariably portrayed as a violation of Venezuela’s democratic autonomy. Protests of this register, then, represented the explicit defense of Venezuela’s national sovereignty.
Less explicitly, though more relevantly, discourse around the referendum exhibited how the northern left largely views Venezuelans’ desire for social transformation as more or less coterminous with the health of Venezuelan sovereignty. It is, perhaps paradoxically, Chavez’s “critics” that revealed this most clearly. After the referendum’s defeat, the chavistas were faulted for many things: for presenting it in too complex of a manner; for not explaining its contents enough; for tolerating a too-cumbersome bureaucracy; for failing to distribute food and services adequately and widely enough; etc. Some of these are, of course, mere quibbles, while others are more substantive, but nowhere is it suggested that Chavez’s model of Bolivarian development and national sovereignty could in itself be the problem. The great revelation of the referendum’s defeat for the left, repeated ad nauseam, seems to be that democracy can’t exist at the behest of one man. But, well, duh. It’s not 1550 anymore. That’s why we say “sovereignty,” not “the sovereign.”
More importantly, however, left critics seem unable to account for the mass abstention rate. Or rather, their interpretations of it posit a reactive response that expressed dissatisfaction with certain features and failures of the Bolivarian revolution but not its essence, with Chavez’s administration of the state but not with statehood. Enacting an escape from sovereignty is inconceivable. Venezuelans’ power is, to use Jon’s terms, constituted, never constituent.