Increasing numbers of people, especially the young, seem disconnected from an electoral process which, they feel, does not represent them. This is part of a general cynicism about every aspect of public life.
Venezuela has many problems, but this is not one of them. Its big trouble - but also its great possibility - is that it has oil; it is the fifth largest exporter. The US depends on it and thus wants control over it. But the Venezuelan government needs the oil revenue, which US multinationals (among others) siphoned off for decades, for its efforts to abolish poverty. Hugo Chávez was elected to do just that in 1998, despite almost all of the media campaigning against him.
Participation in politics especially at the grassroots has skyrocketed. A new constitution was passed with more than 70% of the vote, and there have been several elections to ratify various aspects of the government's program. Even government opponents who had organized a coup in 2002 (it failed) have now resorted to the ballot, collecting 2.4 million signatures - many of them suspect - to trigger a referendum against President Chávez, which will be held on Sunday.
For Venezuela's participatory democracy, which works from the bottom up, the ballot is only a first step. People represent themselves rather than wait to be represented by others, traditionally of a higher class and lighter skin. Working-class sectors, usually the least active, are now centrally involved.
Chávez has based himself on this pueblo protagónico - the grassroots as protagonists. He knows that the changes he was elected to make can only be achieved with, and protected by, popular participation.
Chávez has understood the potential power of women as primary carers. Four months of continuous lobbying got women the constitution they wanted. Among its anti-sexist, anti-racist provisions, it recognizes women's unwaged caring work as economically productive, entitling housewives to social security. No surprise then that in 2002 women of African and indigenous descent led the millions who descended from the hills to reverse the coup (by a mainly white elite and the CIA), thereby saving their constitution, their president, their democracy, their revolution.
In a country where 65% of households are headed by women, it is they who are the majority in government education and health campaigns: who are users as well as those who nurse, train and educate. Again, women are the majority in the land, water and health committees which sort out how the millions of people who built homes on squatted land can be given ownership, how water supplies are to be improved, and what health care is needed.
Despite oil, 80% of Venezuelan people are poor, and the Women's Development Bank (Banmujer) is needed to move the bottom up. Unlike other micro-credit banks, such as the Grameen in Bangladesh, its interest rates are government-subsidized. Banmujer, "the different bank", is based on developing cooperation among women. Credits can only be obtained if women get together to work out a project which is both viable and what the local community wants and needs.
As Banmujer president Nora Castańeda explains: "We are building an economy at the service of human beings, not human beings at the service of the economy. And since 70% of the world's poor are women, women must be central to economic change to eliminate poverty."
In this oil-producing country 65% of basic food is imported. President Chávez has placed much emphasis on regenerating agriculture and repopulating the countryside, so that Venezuelans can feed themselves and are no longer dependent on imports or vulnerable to blockades which could starve them out. After all, you can't drink oil.
Most importantly, the oil revenue is increasingly used for social programs as well as agriculture: to enable change in the lives of the most who have least. People feel that the oil industry, nationalized decades ago, is finally theirs. The oil workers have created committees to work out how the industry is to be run and for whose benefit, even what to do about the pollution their product causes. The government has turned the referendum, regarded by Venezuelans as an imperialist attempt to oust Chávez, into an even wider expression of the popular will. The small electoral squads, again mainly women who know the community and whom the community knows, are checking identity cards to weed out the names of those who have died or are under age, and register all who are entitled to vote, so that this time there will be little opportunity for electoral fraud. The turnout is expected to be 85%. Some, especially the well-off, see the political engagement of the whole population as a threat to the status quo. Exactly. But since, increasingly, people find representative government doesn't represent them, it may be the wave of the present.
Selma James coordinates the Global Women's Strike; she will be one of the international observers at Sunday's Venezuelan referendum
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004