Venezuela : The Revolution Stumbles

Richard Gott
Comment Is Free
The Guardian

Putting a brave face on a major electoral setback [1] early on Monday morning, president Hugo Chavez quoted from a Guardian editorial [2] that had referred to Venezuela's "vibrant democracy". The result of Sunday's regional elections, Chavez suggested, had been "a great victory for the country, for its constitution, and for its political system".

And indeed it was true that his recently created United Socialist Party [3] of Venezuela had won the governorship of 17 states, whereas the conservative opposition to his Bolivarian Revolution had only secured five. Yet the president of the National Electoral Council [4], close to tears, had announced earlier that the Chavez government had lost the city of Caracas and its outer suburb of Miranda, as well as the important western state of Zulia, on the Colombian frontier. Later results showed that the Chavistas had also lost the state of Carabobo and Tachira, as well as the municipality of Sucre (which includes the vast working class town of Petare in the eastern outskirts of the capital).

Although the former vice-president Jorge Rodriguez won the state of El Libertador, in which two million people live in shanty towns of western Caracas, Venezuela's most important urban centres - Maracaibo, Valencia, and Caracas - are now in the hands of the opposition. This appears to follow the recent trend in Latin America, where the right have won great cities like Buenos Aires in Argentina and Sao Paulo in Brazil. As a result of this unfavourable vote in the urban areas, Chavez has lost the services of important long time colleagues, including Aristobulo Isturiz, Jesse Chacon, and Diosdado Cabello.

Yet in spite of this electoral reverse, this is a country that remains in a state of revolutionary change, a vast upheaval involving politics, culture, patterns of work, or new ways of thinking, the relationship between men and women, the adoption of new technologies, the explosion of community media, the revival of historical memory, and the mobilisation of millions of people to overcome the tedium of daily life.

New schools, new posts for medical assistance, and new cultural centres have been springing up in every shanty town throughout the country. Health and education have been a priority in other Latin American countries in recent years - an area of social transformation which Cuba has long been in the lead - yet only in Venezuela has the prosaic task of providing people with the basic necessities of life been accompanied by this revolutionary awakening of the people to the possibilities of what they themselves can do to achieve improvement, betterment, and change.

Sunday's elections took place in a disciplined atmosphere of suppressed excitement as people rose to the task of bringing out the vote and thereby ensuring the continuity of the revolutionary process, yet as the day wore on a more sombre mood prevailed as people began to contemplate the possibility of defeat.

It is true, of course, that half the population - for reasons of class or race or family upbringing - remains adjacent to this unique revolutionary process, and prefers to remain on the sidelines of history. Yet many Venezuelans, after 10 years of upheaval under the leadership of Hugo Chavez, remain solidly supportive of the project of which they see themselves to be an integral part.

All this is now under threat. The Chavez government was expecting to lose three or four states in Sunday's elections, since the opposition had foolishly called for an electoral boycott at the last regional elections four years ago, but the loss of the principal cities is a huge blow; the analysis of what happened and why has already begun. One failing today seems obvious: although the Bolivarian Revolution [5] has gone a long way towards addressing the problems of health and education throughout the country, a number of specifically urban phenomena have not been adequately tackled. Crime, housing, transport, and rubbish collection are all areas where the Chavista [6] governors have failed to produce results - and their candidates have paid the price.

Opposition politicians, some of whom supported the anti-Chavez coup in 2002, face the challenge of trying to deal with the mess, inherited from way back before the Chavez era. Antonio Ledezma, the new mayor of Caracas [7], has already mentioned the introduction of neighbourhood policing to tackle the crime wave. Yet in a country that remains deeply polarised, the new urban authorities are faced with an superhuman task, while the Chavistas will look on in dismay.

Victory for Venezuela’s Socialists in Crucial Elections – November 2008

James Petras

The pro-Chavez United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 72% of the governorships in the November 23, 2008 elections and 58% of the popular vote, dumbfounding the predictions of most of the pro-capitalist pollsters and the vast majority of the mass media who favored the opposition.

PSUV candidates defeated incumbent opposition governors in three states (Guarico, Sucre, Aragua) and lost two states (Miranda and Tachira). The opposition retained the governorship in a tourist center (Nueva Esparta) and won in Tachira, a state bordering Colombia, Carabobo, and the oil state of Zulia, as well as scoring an upset victory in the populous state of Miranda and taking the mayoralty district of the capital, Caracas. The socialist victory was especially significant because the voter turnout of 65% exceeded all previous non-presidential elections. The prediction by the propaganda pollsters that a high turnout would favor the opposition also reflected wishful thinking.

The significance of the socialist victory is clear if we put it in a comparative historical context:

1. Few if any government parties in Europe, North or South American have retained such high levels of popular support in free and open elections.

2. The PSUV retained its high level of support in the context of several radical economic measures, including the nationalization of major cement, steel, financial and other private capitalist monopolies.

3. The Socialists won despite the 70% decline in oil prices (from $140 to $52 dollars a barrel), Venezuela’s principal source of export earnings, and largely because the government maintained most of its funding for its social programs.

4. The electorate was more selective in its voting decisions regarding Chavista candidates – rewarding candidates who performed adequately in providing government services and punishing those who ignored or were unresponsive to popular demands. While President Chavez campaigned for all the Socialist candidates, voters did not uniformly follow his lead where they had strong grievances against local Chavista incumbents, as was the case with outgoing Governor Diosdado Cabello of Miranda and the Mayor of the Capital District of Caracas. Socialist victories were mostly the result of a deliberate, class interest based vote and not simply a reflex identification with President Chavez.

5. The decisive victory of the PSUV provides the basis for confronting the deepening collapse of world capitalism with socialist measures, instead of pouring state funds to rescue bankrupt capitalist banks, commercial and manufacturing enterprises. The collapse of capitalism facilitates the socialization of most of the key economic sectors. Most Venezuelan firms are heavily indebted to the state and local banks. The Chavez government can ask the firms to repay their debts or handover the keys – in effect bringing about a painless and eminently legal transition to socialism.

The election results point to deepening polarization between the hard right and the socialist left. The centrist social-democratic ex-Chavista governors were practically wiped from the political map. The rightist winner in Miranda State, Henrique Capriles Radonsky, had tried to burn down the Cuban embassy during the failed military coup of April 2002 and the newly elected Governor of Zulia, Pablo Perez, was the hand picked candidate of the former hard-line rightwing Governor Rosales.

While the opposition controlled state governorships and municipal mayors can provide a basis to attack the national government, the economic crisis will sharply limit the amount of resources available to maintain services and will increase their dependence on the federal government. A frontal assault on the Chavez Government spending state and local funds on partisan warfare could lead to a decline of federal welfare transfers and would provoke grassroots discontent. The rightwing won on the basis of promising to improve state and city services and end corruption and favoritism. Resorting to their past practices of crony politics and extreme obstructionism could quickly cost them popular support and undermine their hopes of transforming local gains into national power. The newly elected opposition governors and mayors need the cooperation and support of the Federal Government, especially in the context of the deepening crisis, or they will lose popular support and credibility.


There is no point in expecting the mass media to recognize the Socialist victory. Its effort to magnify the significance of the opposition’s 40% electoral vote and their victory in 20% of the states was predictable. In the post-election period, the Socialists, no doubt, will critically evaluate the results and hopefully re-think the selection of future candidates, emphasizing job performance on local issues over and above professed loyalty to President Chavez and ‘Socialism’. The immediate and most pressing task facing the PSUV, President Chavez, the legislators and the newly elected Chavez officials is to formulate a comprehensive socio-economic strategic plan to confront the global collapse of capitalism. This is especially critical in dealing with the sharp fall in oil prices, federal revenues, and the inevitable decline in government spending. Chavez has promised to maintain all social programs even if oil prices remain at or below $50 dollars a barrel. This is clearly a positive and defensible position if the government manages to reduce its huge subsidies to the private sector and doesn’t embark on any bailout of bankrupt or nearly bankrupt private firms. While $40 billion dollars in reserves can serve as a temporary cushion, the fact remains that the government, with the backing of its majorities in the federal legislature and at the state levels, needs to make hard choices and not simply print money, run bigger deficits, devalue the currency and exacerbate the already high rates of annual inflation (31% as of November).

The only reasonable strategy is to take control of foreign trade and directly oversee the commanding heights of the productive and distributive sectors and set priorities that defend popular living standards. To counter-act bureaucratic ineptness and neutralize lazy elected officials, effective power and control must be transferred to organized workers and autonomous consumer and neighborhood councils. The recent past reveals that merely electing socialist mayors or governors is not sufficient to ensure the implementation of progressive policies and the delivery of basic services. Liberal representative government (even with elected socialists) requires at a minimum mass popular control and mass pressure to implement the hard decisions and popular priorities in the midst of a deepening and prolonged economic crisis.


The Larger Meaning of the Venezuelan Elections of November 23, 2008

James Petras
Global Research
November 20th 2008

James Petras is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York.
The Venezuelan gubernatorial and municipal elections, taking place on November 23 of this year, are the most polarized and significant in the country's history. A great deal has changed for the better since my first teaching invitation at the Central University over 40 years ago: The Chavez government has build hundreds of medical and educational facilities serving the vast majority of the poor, vastly reduced underemployment, subsidized food for the slum residents of the ‘ranchos' and raised living standards for ordinary Venezuelans. Equally significant, this year a new pro-Chavez political party, the Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV), with a formal membership of over a million members is facing its first test - in action in 23 states and over 300 municipalities. The elections and their results will tell us a great deal about the popular response to two conflicting versions of the recent past: Whether the government's positive efforts toward building socialism compensates for local political and economic deficiencies or whether the pro-US/capitalist-led opposition with its control of the mass media and its new ‘grass roots' strategies have penetrated and influenced at least some sectors of the Chavista mass base. The elections are in effect a judgment of the performance of the great majority of state and local governments ruled by Chavista incumbents as well as a political statement about the support and ‘drawing power' of President Chavez. The outcome of these elections will have a profound impact on the future political direction of the Chavez government's transition to socialism as well as on the possibilities of a future referendum allowing for Chavez' re-election.

Equally important, the electoral outcome will have an important impact on the policies of the incoming Obama regime: A decisive victory or defeat of the Chavistas will entail important tactical and strategic adjustments in the new Administrations policies.

Contrasting Electoral Campaign Strategies: The Government and the Opposition
The right-wing, pro-Washington opposition has dramatically changed their electoral strategy in these elections. Instead of focusing on personal insults of the President or spouting ideological bromides, they have concentrated on local issues, officials and the inefficiencies in delivering services. The opposition and its mass media have launched frontal attacks on deficiencies in garbage collection and the accumulation of rotting waste in the popular neighborhoods, increasing personal insecurity due to crime, unresponsiveness of some officials to individual/community petitions, corruption and, above all, inflation, which is running at 30%. The opposition has downplayed attacks on Chavez and his popular macro-social programs: The "misiones," the popular brigades promoting literacy and health care; the community based councils, the municipal universities, government-sponsored municipal banks and access to soft credit. Instead, the opposition has criticized the implementation of these programs by an inefficient or inadequate local administration. Above all, the opposition has done everything possible to avoid polarizing the vote between pro and anti-Chavez, since the President has popularity ratings above 60%. The PSUV-led campaign has generally taken a different approach emphasizing national policy successes; the recent nationalization of steel, cement, banking enterprises; pay raises for public sector employees; the end of food shortages and above all, emphasizing the close links between local candidates and President Chavez, whose photo is present next to the local candidates on most electoral posters.

A substantial increase in government spending on local programs, the completion of immediate impact programs, the rapid implementation of local public lending policies to thousands of co-operatives in the ‘ranchos' has in the last weeks of the campaign improved the poll results of government candidates. Each side has tried to exploit the others' weaknesses and overcome internal problems. The key problem for the opposition is their inability to unite behind a single candidate in several states and municipalities, dividing the right-wing vote and opening up the possibility of a Chavista victory with less than 50% of the electorate. The right wing cannot count on the massive abstention of 3 million Chavistas, which allowed them to squeak by with a 1% victory in the November 2007 referendum. The Chavista mass is expected to turn out en masse. The higher turn out is expected to favor the Chavistas. The opposition cannot exploit the expected negative impact of the world economic crisis, which, thanks to the government's reserves, has not yet hit Venezuelan voters. An election a year from now would have adversely affected the Chavista vote.

On the government side, the rising rate of inflation has deteriorated living standards of the poor: The wage and salary increases of the poorest sectors have not kept up with prices. Crime and local predators have increased insecurity and government anti-crime programs have not been effectively implemented - by lax, corrupt or complicit local police and political officials. The biggest threat to the Chavista candidate slate and local majority comes form the ineffective officials who have not solved ‘local problems'. A big question is whether unpopular Chavista governors and mayors can return to power on the coattails of the popular President Chavez.

The Complex and Contradictory International and Domestic Context of the Elections
The international political and economic context of the elections is complicated, but mostly favorable at this moment for the government and the PSUV candidates. The world economic recession and financial crash is just at the beginning phase and has not yet impacted on the daily life of most voters - luckily for the government. Cushioned by the $40 billion dollars in foreign reserves and high levels of public expenditures, the falling price of Venezuelan oil (from $146/barrel in mid-2008 to $52/barrel in November) has not cut deeply into living standards or social programs.

Venezuela's new and growing economic, military and cultural ties, especially with China, Russia and Iran, and its improved relations with the European Union and Center-Right and Center-Left regimes in Latin and Central America has isolated the US, and undermined its diplomatic campaign against the Chavez Government.

The US is tied down in wars in the Middle East and South Asia, and the severe downturn in its economy has eroded Washington's economic levers and military resources for any direct military intervention. It appears that the Pentagon's assets in the Venezuelan National Guard and military are too weak to organize a new coup and they do not appear capable of carrying out a full-scale offensive without direct US intervention or support from Washington's Colombian surrogate, President Alvaro Uribe, who, despite tactical gains against the guerrillas, now faces a huge upsurge in popular mobilizations especially among the indigenous movements and their allies and from millions of defrauded lower middle class ‘investors' of pyramid schemes.

Though the international climate today is favorable to the Chavistas, the immediate future is a different story. Venezuela will suffer from the fall of oil revenue and the world recessions; capital flight despite capital controls is rampant; and private capital is disinvesting or withholding credit despite massive incentives. The government cannot continue large-scale financing of public social and economic projects and still subsidize private exporters, agro-business and, especially, luxury importers.

The year 2009, by necessity, is the year of hard class decisions: Either the government cuts spending for the capitalists or the workers and peasants. Either social programs are drastically reduced or state subsidies to private business are ended. The vast army of publicly-funded (and unproductive) employees are put to work in the productive sector or they will be laid off. In any case, the business elite, the army of importers of high status automobiles and luxury items, and their consumers will be adversely affected and aroused into an adversarial frenzy. When the full impact of the world recession hits Venezuela, the class polarization will explode and spill over and out of the institutional/electoral channels.

Domestic Correlation of Forces
The PSUV has organized a vast electoral organization with some success; the pro-Chavez trade unions in some sectors have been strengthened and advanced, especially through Chavez nationalization of basic industries. The Chavista cultural and social programs and their mass media have deepened and extended the influence and support of the government in many sectors of the urban and rural poor. Yet there are troubling issues: The trade unions represent no more than 20% of the workforce. Few in the contracted and informal sectors are organized. The union members are largely ‘economistic' (focused on wages) and not politically active. The official TV outlet (Telesur) has not succeeded in securing a mass audience - its reach is only a fraction of that of the private right-wing television stations. The Right almost totally dominates the daily print media. The majority of the military and security establishment still supports Chavez, but there is a strong minority contingent in the National Guard, police and army, which is allied with the big landowners, big business and the Pentagon. Above all, there is a large sector of the population - lower middle class, public employees, small business informal workers -- who are of wavering political loyalties and allegiances. They support the Chavista candidates when the economy is booming, public expenditures are soaring, cheap credit is readily available, incomes outpace inflation and imports flood the market. What is unknown is how this wide sector of the voters will react when these conditions change for the worse. Much depends on how the government confronts the world recession and the internal measures, which it adopts. Can an oil-dependent government sustain and deepen the advance toward socialism or will the crisis force it to retreat toward greater austerity and accommodation to capitalism at the expense of its mass base?

In the end, the world recession will greatly impact the Venezuelan economy and force upon the Chavez government and PSUV the most difficult political decision: either the socialization of the strategic economic sectors to channel investment toward domestic production and popular consumption (the Bolivarian socialist option) or the transfer of scarce public resources to bailing out the private sector (the Obama/Wall Street solution). There does not appear to be any ‘third ways'-the center-left economic position of Chavez' current allies in Latin America are fast disintegrating.

The outcome of the November 23 elections is a very important determinant of the future direction, which the Chavez government will or may take. Big advances by the Right will increase pressure against Chavez re-election hopes and a socialist response to the coming economic challenges. A big Chavista victory will make more likely the adoption of a socialist response to the capitalist crash.


Bolivia: Compromise and advance

Pablo Stefanoni & Ricardo Bajo
Green Left Weekly
14 November 2008

(La Paz) The ominous clouds that seemed to indicate the worst of storms, and which tend to hypnotise analysts inside and outside of Bolivia, dissipated following a political agreement that has set January 25 as the date for a referendum on the draft for a new constitution.

The partners were not the “pro-autonomy” prefects in the east — who maintain an intransigent position, halting the negotiations — but rather the debilitated opposition Podemos parliamentary bench that continues to hold an important institutional weight.

Once again the “particular” interests of these relics played an involuntary but effective role in aiding the consolidation of the left-wing government of indigenous President Evo Morales.

If the August 10 recall referendum, in which more than 67% of voters endorsed Morales’s mandate, the president’s support expanded the length and breadth of the country, then the political agreement reached between the government and Podemos on October 21 has allowed the government to concentrate all initiatives in its hands.

Opposition divisions

It made clear the lack of strategy and strength of the opposition in the so-called half moon departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija in Bolivia’s east.

These forces lack the means to dent the support of a national government protected by its 80% vote in the western Andean region and a solid base of more than 40% in the most hostile zones of the country.

From now until January 25, Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party and the government apparatus has set itself the task of raising support for the process of change in the east — aiming to “reach 90%” approval for the new constitution.

Various elements explain the current breaking-up of the opposition.

Firstly, an underestimation of Morales’s leadership, which expresses a truly national movement equivalent to that of Bolivia’s 1952 National Revolution, and that is deeply embedded in the Bolivia that was always invisible to the accommodated classes — the impoverished, indigenous majority.

This includes the half moon, where the intensity of the 2000-2005 cycle of mass struggle was much lower than in the west.

Secondly, the lack of political experience among the half moon leaders — whom the more “political” Tarija prefect Mario Cossio attempted without success to redirect away from their delirious actions — meant that they gambled away the political capital won on August 10 when their mandates were ratified in referendums, due to their violent take over of state institutions and the massacre of unarmed peasants in Pando during September.

And thirdly, the regional factor. Other South American nations took a strong stance in favour of institutional stability, denying legitimacy to the violent campaign from the “pro-autonomy” forces in the half moon.

Once again, it was made clear that Bolivia is governed from its capital based in the west, La Paz.

The crisis of the right has deepened. One part of the opposition will vote in favour of the new constitution, while those that decided against doing so will be left in the uncomfortable situation of rejecting a constitution that legalises autonomies and supporting, by default, a the current constitution that is ferociously centralist.

The demoralisation of the conservative forces has reached such a level that its leaders now rely on the hope that the global economic crisis will have a devastating effect on the government — something its erratic strategies have failed to do. Instead, they have helped to consolidate the government.

The attempts to reconstruct a right out off the ashes of the current Santa Cruz elites brings with it the danger of a negative response from their own bases and provoking social isolation and/or a radicalisation without a clear destination.

The emergence of new leaderships among the regional right wing, especially in Santa Cruz, will take time, as it will need to find new faces that haven’t been “burned”. In particular, they need new banners to shield themselves and work out a political program that could be presented as an alternative, in the medium or long term, to “Evismo” and its effective banner of left nationalism with an indigenous face.

In an unexpected way, under this banner, the government has been able to construct a new national-popular hegemony — perhaps not entirely in line with the aspirations of the government’s eclectic base.

But it is what exists.

Limits of constituent assembly

However, all the victims of the political agreement cannot be placed on the right. The tally of the damage is broader.

The triumph of a “compromise outcome” over the “revolutionary” road, fuelled by the intransigence of the half moon prefects, also dealt a blow to the illusions of the “new left” and its belief in the re-founding of the country via a constituent assembly that was to put into action the power of the “multitudes”, materialised in the form of a plurality of “social movements”.

Right from the beginning, it was clear that the assembly lacked any real power, not only to draft up the new constitution without (excessive) interference, but also to reach political agreements that would allow for the construction of a majority with moderate sectors of the opposition, isolating the hard right that was wagering on a boycott.

As opposed to the experiences of Colombia or Ecuador, the assembly did not want to, or could not, temporarily assume the functions of the Congress.

Bogged down with formal debates (such as over two-thirds consensus that chewed up many months) it also could not — or did not want to — generate a truly national debate that reached beyond certain union elites, NGOs and political leaders.

It ended up getting bogged down over the demand to make Sucre the “full” capital, a demand plucked out of a hat and supported in an opportunist manner by the “half moon” in order to muddy the playing field and impede the assembly from achieving its mission.

Neither are the complaints of the “radicals” from El Alto (an impoverished city on the outskirts of La Paz) worth much: during the two years that the assembly met, this city, that when it mobilises is unstoppable, only came out onto the streets to chant, in a corporative manner, that “the headquarters will not be moved” (i.e.: La Paz should remain the capital).

At no time were there any important mobilisations in defence of the assembly or against the destabilisation of the regionalist right.

The rhetoric of the theoretically and practically inconsistent “left of the left”, opposed to the “change of more than 100 articles”, could not resist the first wave of a foreseeable militant and media-based campaign by MAS to close ranks in “defence of the process of change” and its proud baby: the new Political Constitution of the State.

Conceived of as a horizon of resistance in the middle of neoliberal hegemony, the assembly was a victim of the successes of the popular movements: time sped up and the assembly delegates were faced with the expectation that out of the assembly would emerge a new generation of cadre.

Assembly delegates were only able to partially achieve their objectives.

Despite the wishful thinking of many “anti-systemic” intellectuals, during the congressional negotiations Morales acted as he always has: a popular politician with strong doses of realism and a reluctance towards projects involving the revolutionary taking of power.

Morales also maintains a complex relationship with the peasant unions that combine, not without contradictions, autonomy with “verticalism” by its leaders.

On the other hand, would it have been desirable — and sustainable in time — for the left to close down Congress and force through the constitutional referendum in a “bonapartist” manner; that is, based on the support of the streets but above all the Armed Forces?

Because that is what it would have been, not the indigenous and anti-Western revolution that the pachamamaist indigenists — many of them middle-class mestizos — had imagined.

Despite the concessions, the new constitution has everything that Morales needs to construct his project for power: reelection, greater spaces for state intervention in the economy and certain instruments to use towards a “decolonialisation” understood as social equality.

New challenges

But the consolidation of the “process of change” will perhaps have another auspicious consequence: without the spectre of a conspiracy by the right — which acted as a shadow over the nape — the popular state of alert may begin to be relaxed, allowing space for some much needed constructive criticism.

Such criticism is as necessary as it is absent from the government ranks (and a renewed left, that is, if a left exists in Bolivia today).

With clearer skies, a possibly more difficult stage begins (without the enemies that, at the same time as threatening the government, helped unite and cohere its bases). This stage involves transforming the aspirations for change — drawn up in the proposed new constitution — into public policies that begin to change the living conditions of the majority of Bolivians.

Health, education, housing, new gas exploration and exploitation, and rural development all require strong and efficient institutions to become a reality.

All this in a new context: the world no longer has to pay the price of gold to be the beneficiaries of our primary materials. Rather it is awash in a sea of doubts about the future, darkened by a crisis, for now, without a light at the end of the tunnel.

With the “enemy” drawing back, at least for the moment, the postponed demands can begin to take the form of new challenges to a power that the popular sectors perceive as their own.

This article was translated by Federico Fuentes, with permission. It is abridged from the November issue of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, of which Stefanoni and Bajo are the director and sub-director, respectively.