Venezuela: Revolution stalled?

After recent elections showed a drop in enthusiasm for Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution Ernest Price and Ian Rintoul look at where the revolutionary process is heading.

Disappointment at the slow pace of change, and a resurgence of the right, have combined to deliver a significant setback to Hugo Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) at the September 26 National Assembly elections.

The PSUV’s legislative majority shrank from 147 to 99 seats. Following the trend of the 2008 mayoral elections, increasing numbers voted for the right, although Chavez still won a small majority of the overall vote—5.45 million to 5.33 million.

However, the PSUV now lacks the two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional reforms and make governmental appointments. Potentially the social spending that characterised the early years of the Chavez government could also be under threat, although the new numbers in the Parliament don’t come into effect until 5 January. More importantly, it represents the erosion of confidence from sections of the working class and poor in the role that the PSUV plays in challenging the old order in Venezuela.

Spokesperson for the right-wing opposition coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, claimed the election, “…demonstrated that the country has an alternative.” In reality, the opposition offers nothing except the prospect of winding back the advances in health, education and housing that have occurred over the past 12 years. These opposition forces are the ones responsible for the series of coup attempts since Chavez took power in 1998.

The right has gained traction because Chavez and the PSUV have allowed the old ruling class to retain economic control as well as a grip on the media and education.

Rising inflation and growing levels of crime have created a sense of instability and uncertainty that the right-wing media and their foreign allies have exploited to the full. But that doesn’t mean that the problems are all the invention of mouthpieces for US imperialism.

The PSUV’s election campaign asked voters to decide if they were “for or against” the Bolivarian revolution. But the PSUV was unable to instil a sense of confidence in the revolutionary process.

Inflation and crime rates have been growing, whilst the popular movements that fought the 2002 coup and capital strike in 2003 have been demobilised. The impact of the global economic crisis has limited what Chavez is able to spend on health, education and the like—and as such, the hopes of those who have fought for the revolution continue to be disappointed.

There is a need to go back to the roots of the process and remobilise the working class organisations that have driven the process of change in the past.

Gains of the revolution

Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution has brought significant social change. Between 2003 and 2008, the proportion of Venezuelans living below the poverty line fell from 62.1 per cent to 31.5 per cent. Likewise, the number in extreme poverty dropped from 29 per cent to 9.1 per cent in 2008. Literacy rates have dramatically increased.

Many of these gains have come through the Missions—nationwide programs set up to implement the goals of equality that were enshrined in the Constitution. The Missions have made free secondary and tertiary education available to all, and provided literacy programs to those who were denied an education. However, the private education system remains untouched, leaving a significant gap in the education between rich and poor.

Since 1998 Chavez has nationalised (with sometimes generous compensation) a large number of firms in the electricity, telecommunications, steel, food, cement and banking sectors. Yet, despite these nationalisations, the private sector’s share of gross domestic product actually increased from 64.7 per cent in 1998 to 70.9 per cent in 2008.

Chavez and the PSUV have used Venezuela’s oil revenue to expand healthcare and food distribution systems. The Misiones Barrio Adentro, for example, created a free public healthcare system for the poor, relying on doctors trained in Cuba in exchange for oil.

The Misiones began as important projects directed at the grassroots level—but their character changed over time. By 2005, the Misiones collapsed as expressions of popular power and their leaders became integrated into the state machine, producing a new layer of bureaucracy more concerned with its own interests than spending on health and education.

In addition, as Eric Toussaint, from the Campaign to Eliminate Third World Debt, points out—as long as the private sector remains intact, public spending can actually reinforce the position of the old ruling class. Capitalist companies still import the goods and capitalist food companies produce and market the food that is consumed by the mass of the population. The money put into circulation through public spending and workers’ wage increases still fills the coffers of private banks.

Problems

The global economic crisis has meant falling export revenue as the price of oil fel from around $150 to around $70 a barrel. The economy has been in recession and inflation has hit 30 per cent. The social spending that the government relies upon to sustain its popular suppport has been curtailed. This, combined with the increasing bureaucratisation of the Misiones and reports of significant corruption has seriously damaged the credentials of the Bolivarian project.

In recent months, workers pushing for wage increases to deal with the growing inflation have been denounced by government ministers as “counter-revolutionary”.

The significant changes in Venezuelan society since Chavez took power have been undermined in recent years by growing corruption and the role of the PSUV itself. There have been reports of the reselling of public food stocks, widespread corruption in the state agencies and bribes for public contracts. The culture minister Jesse Chacon resigned earlier this year, when his brother was implicated in corrupt bank dealings. The term “Boli-bourgeoisie” is now used to describe the section of Chavista leaders who take advantage of their position.

While the PSUV remains popular, with around six million members, the party was created from above, rather than from the grassroots. Control is firmly in the hands of the leadership appointed by Chavez, and critical voices are quickly silenced.

A conference of intellectuals organised by the Miranda International Center in mid-2009 concluded, “What is the future of a party whose base rarely gets the opportunity to have their say? … Is this non-separation between State and party merely repeating a mistake of the 20th century socialist model? Was the PSUV created as a top-down structure out of a political necessity felt by the government, rather than a necessity felt by the base?”

Worse, as former Vice Planning Minister Roland Denis says, “Some regional governments have behaved murderously as soon as there is the possibility of the working class radicalising against transnational corporations in Venezuela. These have very clearly been involved in the murder of shop stewards such as Argenis Vásquez in Sucre state. Hundreds of popular grassroots leaders have been assassinated in this way,” yet the governor of Sucre hasn’t been expelled from Chavez’s PSUV.

Eight workers were shot on picket lines in 2010 alone and up to 400 peasant activists were murdered in struggles against big landowners, yet Chavez himself has characterised indigenous activists protesting mining projects and union activists as undermining the Bolivarian revolution.

It is the disillusionment of ordinary people with these significant roadblocks to change that is a serious threat to pushing the Bolivarian revolution forward.

Possibility for change

The blueprint for reasserting the revolutionary impulse lies in the mass response from below in 2002. When the ruling class launched a coup against Chavez’s moves to nationalise the oil industry, it was consistent mass mobilisation that returned Chavez to power. Similarly, in December the same year it was organisation from below that defeated efforts by the old order to shut down oil and food supplies.

Yet, Chavez and the PSUV have left the old structures of the state and the economy intact, giving the old ruling class the power and legitimacy to continue to mobilise.

The serious error here, in failing to confront the ongoing existence of the capitalist system, has caused both the increasing support for the right-wing opposition and a crisis of confidence in the revolutionary movement.

Luis Primo, a militant from the Regional Union of Workers, says, “From my perspective, we are not really in a transition to socialism. Rather, we have a progressive government that has been promoting important reforms, especially through the social missions, such as in health, education and the provision of subsidized food. These reforms are fundamental—they are needed to resolve the material conditions of the population.

“But this is not enough. These missions tend to lose their momentum after a number of years. There is a problem with continuity and permanence. And while the progressive government confronts the bourgeoisie on some issues, the state remains totally capitalist because the social relations of production remain capitalist.”

There are militant networks of workers organising to build power at the grassroots, but they are repeatedly coming up against the hard hand of the bureaucracy.

Ángel Navas, president of the Electricity Sector Workers’ Federation (FETRAELEC), told the media during a demonstration by some 3000 workers in Caracas on 25 September 2009:

“We the workers are in touch with users in the neighbourhoods. We know how we can solve the crisis… We have to change the bureaucratic structures and the structures of capitalist management into structures with a socialist vision. We must change production relations and do away with all this bureaucracy which is killing the company.”

During the first half of 2009 Hugo Chávez told a public meeting with worker managers that he was favourable to a law to elect the managers of nationalised companies, but nothing has happened to put this into practice.

As the PSUV and Chavez come under attack from an emboldened right, it is going to be crucial for the left to mobilise and rebuild the grass roots power of the movement from below.

The future of the revolutionary process can only be secured if that movement controls the state to make sure it acts in the interests of the majority.

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