Venezuela: Where are Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution heading?

The Current Political Context

Johan Rivas, Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Venezuela)

The Venezuelan Bolivarian Revolution has once again reached a crossroads in the forthcoming Presidential elections. For the first time in a long time there is a real electoral threat by the right wing. The growth of the right wing, organised and ‘united’ under a loose electoral formation, united by one common objective – to defeat Chavez – reflects the failures and weaknesses of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. The biggest weakness since Chavez came to power has been the failure to overthrow capitalism and introduce a genuine democratic socialist alternative.

There have been key moments during the last 13 years when this would have been possible. Although today raised by the Chavez government only as a radical discourse empty of content, the working class and the majority of ordinary working people in various moments have actively raised the need for and demanded a socialist transformation of society. Unfortunately, these demands were and continue to be held back or played down by sectors of the government in whose interest it is to maintain a capitalist system and their own personal wealth and power.

The attempted coup by the USA backed right wing 10 years ago in April 2002 was clearly one of these extremely favourable moments. The magnificent display of courage from the majority of Venezuelans who marched from the barrios into the historic centre of Caracas to demand the reinstatement of Chavez knew that they may have been killed for doing so. Many demanded arms in order to form peoples militias to defend the democratically elected government and what it represented. Their demands were refused. This, and the ‘Bosses Lockout’ of 2003-2004 dramatically raised the demands of the working class and masses. It pushed Chavez to radicalize his own rhetoric and in words he started to back the call of the masses for socialism. Despite numerous reforms, many of which brought significant changes to many people. However, the idea of a ‘dual or parallel system’ that would run concurrently with capitalism, ‘eventually’ overthrowing it, according to many on the left at the time, failed as we warned it would. Capitalism has consequently continued.

The demands of the working class remain today as they did back then. As we have always stated in our articles and publications about the Bolivarian Revolution: ‘No social, political or economic reform will be totally successful and be maintained while the old structures of the bourgeois, capitalist state are maintained’. Chavez himself in various speeches has also said this.

Advances and retreats, reform or revolution

At the same time, during these 13 years, workers, the poor and those exploited by capitalism have achieved important steps forward in the growth of political class-consciousness. This is partially due to the debates about capitalism and socialism, workers control, the expropriations and the nationalisations, the character of private property, popular power, civil rights demands etc. Although many times these debates and discussions have been distorted and manipulated by reformists inside the Chavez movement, as well as the ferocious attacks from the bourgeoisie, they remain one of the most relevant elements of the Venezuela political process.

Without a coherent democratic revolutionary leadership and organisation such democratic debates and discussions have often not been channelled in the most effective way to advance the struggle and often people have not drawn the correct conclusions of how to bring about a successful socialist transformation.

At the same time, the conscious political reformism of Chavez has proved incapable of breaking with the capitalist system. The failed attempt to reform the constitution by the government in 2007, although with left-leaning progressive democratic bourgeois politics, exemplified the attempts of Chavism to continue to lead the “revolution” without replacing capitalism.

Chavism has permitted the ruling class, via their right wing organisations, to increasingly recover and threaten to re-take power. This time however, not via a coup but through the same bourgeois democratic electoral structures that brought Chavez to power. It is the same right wing, defeated by the workers and the people during the revolutionary processes of 2002-2006 that we unfortunately see today, rebuilding and recovering their position.

In recent elections, the ruling class has increasingly strengthened its position. In 2008, during the regional elections, the right wing increased their votes and positions at a national level. They won seats in many main cities of the country, not only where the majority of the population is but in major industrial zones. In 2009, during the parliamentary elections to elect the new National Assembly for 2010-2014, the right again made significant gains in areas that had been previously lost due to their own errors and as a result of the strength of the movement in favour of the Bolivarian Revolution. In 2009, the right actually won more votes then the government. However, due to changes in representation in different states, it won fewer seats in the National Assembly.

These have all been symptoms of the retreat and stagnation that has gripped the Bolivarian Revolution in the last few years. Political reformism has been expressed as a counter revolution from inside the Revolution itself. This counter revolution is lead by the bureaucratic civil-military layer that has hijacked the leadership of the Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV) that today is led by the government and the Venezuelan state machine.

The changed tactics of the right wing

It has been some time since the right wing changed their tactics. Unlike previously, they do not enter into direct confrontation with Chavism and its leaders, especially not with Chavez. They now concentrate on attacking the inefficiencies of the government and on social issues. Despite official government propaganda and spectacular announcements regarding enormous investments and agreements with other countries for various missions, including in housing, work and agriculture aimed to attack these specific problems, the government has not reaped any electoral benefit. It has been in these fields that the right wing has launched its attacks.

The right wing also continues to ferociously attack the government as a “communist regime”. Based on historical experiences of the former Stalinist states’ in some countries, and also Cuba, the right wing openly defends capitalism as the system, that despite some weaknesses and limitations, is the best for the population and the system that offers democracy, peace etc. This was exemplified in the proposal of a candidate in the primary elections of the opposition who touted the slogan ‘popular capitalism’. The campaigns during the right-wing primaries demonstrated that the right are not only gaining confidence in themselves but that there is also a layer of Venezuelan society, particularly youth, who are drawn to the opposition through their ‘democratic rights’ campaigns and rhetoric. The right have obviously taken full advantage of this and linked the breach of democratic rights whenever possible to the government and its policies. Clearly in doing so, they have tried to hid their own history of reactionary policies and the systematic violation of human rights that occurred in Venezuela for 40 years during the so-called ‘democratic’ era.

Today the right wing are wolves dressed as lambs with supposed new leaders with ‘progressive-democratic’ discourses, capitalising in an efficient manner on the mistakes, corruption and inefficient bureaucracy within the government. It is this bureaucracy that is, more and more, handing the right wing opportunities to make further advances electorally. The government, for example, for a long time denied that there was a problem of crime in Venezuela. They actually stated at one time that media reports of the high levels of crime where false and a tool of ‘imperialism’. After a year of this the government then publicly announced that there were worryingly high levels of crime and violence. Similarly this denial also occurred in the health sector. For three years the right wing, opportunistically denounced the crisis in public hospitals and the corruption within them. The governmental bureaucracy denied that there was a problem. This was until 2010, when Chavez publicly recognised that there was a crisis in the public health sector and that there had been ‘failures’ in the management of financial resources destined for it.

The right wing now portrays itself as a democratic force that can accommodate all political ideologies from the extreme right to the centre left. They have achieved this by masking their differences through the ‘Table of Democratic Unity’ (abbreviated as MUD [Mesa de Unidad Democratica] in Spanish). Within the MUD they have been able to not only artificially keep all the egos and reactionary forces in check but also bring together wavering and opportunistic political groups that move from left to right with regularity. Even so called ‘lefts’ such the MAS (Movement to Socialism), PPT (Patria Para Todos), Bandera Roja and Podemos, which previously where part of Chavism and passionately defended it.

Intensification of political propaganda and polarisation

Thus far the climax of this ‘everyone against the regime’ coalition was the primary elections that took place on 12 February. They achieved what seemed impossible – the election of one right wing candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, to confront Chavez in the presidential elections on 7 October this year [1]. The unity of the right wing will further intensify the political polarisation that already exists in Venezuela. As a result of this polarisation, workers and ordinary people are being subjected to a brutal psychological campaign of propaganda by both sides that will undoubtedly worsen in the next few months. On the one hand the right wing presents the country as in severe crisis and magnifies the weaknesses and faults of the government. The government, on the other hand, portrays Venezuela as developing and advancing in leaps and bounds. Critics within the popular, revolutionary movements are censored as the government hides its own errors and scandalous corruption and presents Chavez as the only saviour of the people. These tactics are not unlike those used under the Stalinist regimes. At the same time, the government tactically uses the demands of the masses and the working class, which as mentioned have not changed significantly, as though it only had been power for a short time and been unable to satisfy these demands.

The Venezuelan economy maintained under the logic of capitalism

Aside from some advances through social and political reforms, Venezuela continues to be dominated by the logic of capitalism. This is reflected in the fact that 70% of GDP remains in the hands of the bourgeois (old and new). [2]

The Venezuelan capitalist economy is in atrophy and unable to achieve growth as in other Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Even today, there are vestiges of feudal relations such as those expressed in the ’latifundo’ system. The economy is in a backwards form of capitalism that has only advanced in some central sectors such as in petroleum and its related industries. This has not lead to growth in the productive forces. [3]

90% of the economy and profits of the state are made through the petroleum industry, despite the enormous potential that Venezuela has to develop other areas of the economy. At the same time, 60% of this is used to import foods and manufactured goods that could easily be produced in the country. This reflects the character of the national bourgeoisie and the limitations of Bolivarian ‘socialism in the 21st century’.

In 2009, when the effects of the Global Financial Crisis officially arrived in Venezuela, the economy suffered 2 years of recession. Venezuela isn’t so far removed from world realities and the global capitalist system, although the government might state otherwise. In 2008, the government stated that Venezuela would not be affected at all by the world downturn.

The effects of the global financial crisis were a turning point in the sense that they reflected the class character of the leadership of Chavism that controls the state apparatus. The response of the government to the recession was almost the same as in other capitalist countries – an increase in taxes, social cuts and a concealed austerity program. For three years, the government’s annual budget has been planned with a significantly reduced price of crude oil (the set price in the budget is just $40 a barrel). This allowed the government to accumulate parallel funds and in doing so they have attempted to mark a difference between their response to the global financial crisis and that adopted by other countries. In the last year, they have been able to use these funds for populist programs in housing, work and agriculture. Additionally, these funds enabled them to set up a partial social security system that provides for pensioners and families living in extreme poverty.

The different scenarios and perspectives for the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’

In our analysis, we do not want to commit the same error that many on the left have committed of either capitulating uncritically to Chavism and stating that everything is perfect or alternatively stating that nothing is happening and the situation is the same as previously. Things are not so black and white. In this complex situation a balanced Marxist analysis is key to draw out possible perspectives.

The political process in Venezuela has involved both, pre-revolutionary, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary elements and periods. As a result of the enormous mass movement and the pressure of this on the Chavez government, the first years of the Bolivarian government saw the implementation of economic, political and social policies that had a profound effect on the population.

But at the same time, these reforms and the populist radical nationalist politics of the Chavism are limited. Furthermore, the need for conscious and independent revolutionary organisations within the movement of the masses and the working class is crucial. Such organisations would serve to not only to pressure the government, maintain the reforms that have been achieved and improve them but also importantly to break with the capitalist system and fight to replace it with genuine democratic revolutionary socialism. Of course this must be linked with the need for socialism in Latin America and Internationally. [4]

The wearing out of the leadership of Chavism and the ebb of the popular revolutionary movement

The “Bolivarian Process” has lead to a profound wearing out of the Chavez model and of Chavez himself. Recent polls state that Chavez retains more than 60% support, but these are carried out by groups that are in favour of the bureaucracy. Although, as we will discuss shortly, we should not underestimate the popularity of Chavez.

There has been a certain atomisation of social movements and left groups that honestly desire a socialist revolution. At the same time the crisis of leadership of the left has deepened, there is no clear representation of the working class.

This phenomenon is also a product of the conscious political process of co-opting emerging activists from popular movements into the bureaucracy. These people were absorbed in a great part by the bureaucratic state machine. Cadres were co-opted under the premise that the ‘Bolivarian State’ was a ‘workers and peoples state’. This political error left many of the popular and revolutionary movements without autonomy and without leadership and explains in many ways what has occurred today amongst sections of the masses and independent left movements.

Nevertheless, paradoxically as a product of the current situation, as outlined, there is a process of reorganisation of revolutionaries at a grass roots level. This process is very slow and will be long, traumatic and disadvantaged by the consolidation of the reformist counter-revolutionary bureaucracy and the advancing right wing.

The programme of Chavism is reaching its limits. They have not resolved the structural problems of poverty and exploitation. As we have emphasised, the capitalist system is intact and the current politics of the government, absorbed and diverted by its own bureaucracy, indicate that it will remain so.

Chavez’s illness and its influence on perspectives in the next period

Adding to this is Chavez’s illness that has changed the political perspective and has obliged both forces to change their tactics. After announcing at the end of the last year that he was ‘cured’, Chavez has recently announced that the cancer has in fact returned. The possibility of death or of his exit, temporary or permanent, from politics has raised various possibilities for future developments.

What is certain, however, is that Chavez and Chavism have a serious problem of continuing their political model and maintaining power if Chavez isn’t physically able to confront the right wing. A right wing, that for the first time in a long time, may actually have a possibility of winning and achieving a historic defeat of Chavism. If it does, it will deliver a hard slap in the face to the working class and the left.

With Chavez or possibly without him, the government remains the first option for the masses to win the presidential elections. There is a significant emotional and spiritual connection between the masses and Chavez, as witnessed during his recent trips to Cuba for chemo and radiotherapy. It would not be untrue to say that historically Venezuelan elections are highly emotional events and that decisions are influenced by as much a ‘connection’ with a person as their politics. It is however possible that the differences inside Chavism will deepen which may produce further atomisation at a grass roots level which may influence the masses and could facilitate the triumph of the opposition.

It is certain that the right wing want to defeat Chavez- but their interest isn’t in defeating the government without Chavez. They want Chavez alive, if not well. The figure of Chavez is a factor that maintains a unifying cohesion in both Chavism and also the right wing – although they would not admit to it. The very unity of the MUD revolves around Chavez and his defeat. Without him it would be difficult for the right wing to continue in a coalition – their own differences would tear it apart.

In the case that Chavez recuperates and wins the elections, he will be challenged to radicalize the revolution or assume a more open reconciliatory turn towards the moderate sectors of the opposition and the national bourgeoisie. The latter is likely the most probable due to the fact that there are regional and local elections in December this year and in April 2012. The prospect of significant wins for the right are strong and, if played out, will oblige the government to reconcile further and in doing so diminish the chances of radicalisation

The absence of a revolutionary alternative

Despite the contradictions in Chavism and the figure of Chavez remains the alternative for many workers and ordinary people. Its clear that despite trying to present themselves as being progressive and friends of the masses, the right wing do not represent their interests. Nevertheless, time is ticking and the situation of Chavez’s illness and the ability of the right to present a united candidate puts the masses and the working class once again at a crossroads.

The electoral panorama isn’t certain, although Chavez has the best possibility of winning with 13 years of government, a consolidated bureaucracy, a populist agenda and support at a grass roots level. A potential right wing government will have great difficulties not only because in theory it has some state structures against it (such as the community councils) but also because they won’t be able to resolve the problems that exist in Venezuela or deal with them any better then Chavez has done under capitalism.

Moreover, the social and political instability that would be generated by a right wing government on a national and continental level is not something that would currently be favoured by the international ruling class, especially given the pre-revolutionary upheavals in many parts of the world and Venezuela’s position as one of the key oil producing nations. Despite the rhetoric of US imperialism, Chavez does offer them a certain degree of stability.

The political situation, as in all countries of the world, is influenced by the absence of an independent revolutionary organisation of the working class with a political program that can take the struggle forward and defeat capitalism. Only such an organisation would be capable of breaking with the current political bind between the right wing on one side and Chavism on the other. Both of these are now presenting themselves as the only forces to represent the masses.

Despite the retreats of Chavism the majority of people and the working class still prefer to vote for Chavez, although more critical then previously, than abstain or switch sides and support the right. Their intuition and history tells them that under Chavez there are possibilities to make advances whereas under the right these do not exist.

But at the same time, it would be an error to underestimate the right, with their first united candidate. As Marxists we can’t discount the possibilities of this and need to prepare for it. It would be a mistake, even with all the contradictions of the political situation to see only one possibility in the situation. We must be flexible and conscious that in Venezuela multiple possibilities exist although some are more remote than others.

In the election we will say, ‘A vote for Chavez is not sufficient…without defeating capitalism and assuming the tasks of the socialist revolution’. We critically support the option of a vote for Chavez. However, this will not be sufficient to defeat the counter-revolution or to deepen and push forward the current political process. There should be no more blank cheques to Chavism or illusions that the only way forward is via one leader – Chavez. We must expose the hypocrisy of the right wing and for the need of workers and the masses to rise above Chavez’s ‘Great Patriotic Pole’ as an electoral front, and fight for a revolutionary party to fight for socialism and the need to construct an authentic revolutionary alternative of workers and ordinary people.

For full nationalisation of all multinational and leading national companies as well as large land-owners without compensation or on the basis of proven need. For the democratic control of the economy by the majority so that it can be developed according to the real needs of society in a way that protects the environment and the future.

A fair wage, working conditions and the immediate implementation of collective agreements for all workers based on their needs and demands. For permanent work and an end to outsourcing and contracts.

  • For accessible, quality housing with essential services based where people are located!
  • For free, quality education for all. For the immediate extension of the education missions and for just pay and conditions for the teachers employed in them.
  • For an accessible, free and quality public health service and the immediate completion of works on public hospitals under the control of the workers and public. End the government multi-million investment in private health in Venezuela!
  • An end to racism, sexism, homophobia and all forms of discrimination. For the legalization of abortion and the right to decide!
  • For access to quality foods.
  • Free, accessible, quality public transport run by its users and not the bureaucracy!
  • For a planned, democratic centralized economy under workers control and committees elected through popular assembles of workers, the poor, farmers and the indigenous peoples. Such committees must uphold the right of recall of individual delegates and have regular rotation of roles.
  • The establishment of independent democratic defence committees located in workplaces, in the country and the barrios to lead the struggle for socialism by the masses and not just for them.
  • For a federation of socialist, democratic countries in Latin America!

Note: We suggest you read the following documents and archives:

(1) “La Oposición de derecha logra candidato único…” 13-02-2011.

(2) “La Economía Venezolana-Como la Burguesía Hurta la renta petrolera y el 71% del PIB”, Manuel Sutherland ALEM (Asociación Latinoamericana de Economista Marxistas), 19-09-2011.

(3) “la Formación de las Clase Sociales en Venezuela 1964, y la economía minera petrolera en Venezuela UCV1973”, Ensayos de Salvador de la Plaza.

(4) (Venezuela revolución y contrarrevolución)