The close outcome of Venezuela’s election on April 14 following the death of former leader Hugo Chavez poses challenges for the future of the country’s experiment with “21st century socialism”.

Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, scraped in with a margin of 273,000 votes over Henrique Capriles, the leader of the right-wing opposition coalition. This amounts to a loss of more than 630,000 votes for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) since last October’s presidential election that re-elected Chavez.

Martin Sanchez, of the revolutionary Marea Socialista within the PSUV, said: “If the election had gone on one or two more weeks, Capriles would have won. Even people who have received free apartments from the government in the last few months participated in the pot-banging protests on the two days following the election.”

More than on any occasion previously, the opposition was able to attract support beyond its usual base among the non-indigenous middle class. Capriles has stridently alleged electoral fraud despite having no evidence, and demanded a “vote by vote” recount. The US has refused to even acknowledge Maduro’s victory.

In his campaign, Maduro lent heavily on Chavez’s legacy, yet failed to spell out what carrying the “21st century socialism” project forward will mean for ordinary Venezuelans.

Capriles did not campaign on what he is—a right-wing member of the ruling class that supported the failed 2002 coup against Chavez. Instead, he promised to continue the government’s “missions”, oil-financed programs for housing, food and health care, and promised to increase salaries and pensions.

He even named his campaign headquarters the “Simon Bolivar Centre” after the South American independence leader!

But Capriles won support by tapping into widespread discontent. He focussed on the very real problems of crime, medicine and food shortages, power blackouts, and the corruption that penetrates the Venezuelan state.

Economic troubles

Disillusionment with the ruling PSUV has increased since the government’s recent devaluing of the currency by 32 per cent. Prices on staples from milk to cooking oil are soaring, while salaries have plunged 40 per cent in real terms.

The output of some of the companies nationalised under Chavez has tumbled amid under-investment. Steelmaker Sidor, taken over five years ago to much celebration, is operating at less than half its capacity, while the state oil company PDVSA has cut the contribution it makes to a state development fund that finances infrastructure.

Many of the positive achievements of the Chavez era—reduction in poverty levels and hunger, and soaring literacy rates—have been made possible by Venezuela’s soaring oil revenue.

Although there has been much talk of diversifying the economy by expanding agriculture and manufacturing, the dependence on oil continues. Economist Victor Alvarez, former Minister of Basic Industries and Mining, says that in Venezuela “the characteristics of the rentier economy have become more entrenched…the economy has become more capitalist.”

Pressure

A newly-confident opposition will put Maduro under huge pressure to concede to business and the wealthy. Despite several years of a parliament controlled by the PSUV, the old ruling class still retains its grip on wealth, economic power, the media, and much of education. They will now use the resources at their disposal to try and undermine Maduro.

Maduro now has a choice of whether to look to a radical cleaning out of the Chavista bureaucracy—who have more and more stood in the way of further advance from below—and pushing for more workers’ control of production to challenge capital, or making concessions to it.

There are some worrying signs. Maduro has made overtures to the private sector, announcing vague plans to create “Special Economic Zones” in some areas. While denouncing the US meddling in the election, Maduro broke 14 years of diplomatic hostility by announcing a new charge d’affaires in Washington.

In contrast, the left of the Chavista movement is pushing for a program to tackle Venezuela’s pressing issues from below. An alliance of socialists and intellectuals launched “Patria Socialista” (Socialist Homeland) in the led up to the election to pressure the government to move left. Member Martin Sanchez explained, “Maduro’s campaign talked about deepening the revolution in abstract terms. But what we really need to do is address the impact of food scarcity and power outages. It’s an everyday thing for people.”

The project of continuing and deepening 21st century socialism will need to be driven from below.

The setback in the election arose out of real problems and disenchantment with Chavismo. That dismay will deepen, unless mass working class organisations push for genuine control over society and its radical transformation.

By Mark Goudkamp

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