“What’s the rationale for allowing Chavez to govern by decree?” Why such a “precipitous approach”? As the apparent resident apologist (or, let’s just say, on-site interpreter) for the Bolivarian Revolution, I get questions like this regularly from friends who don’t know much about Venezuela but do know what they don’t like (from reading the always unbiased and objective capitalist press). Of course, I’m not alone in this respect: others here get the same questions from outside: How can Chavez do this? How can you justify this? The implicit question, of course, always is — how can I (the enquirer) continue to say (and think) nice things about the Bolivarian Revolution when HE does this? How can I (the enquirer) justify the process to my friends (colleagues)? A single party, rule by decree — isn’t this the road to Stalinism and to the gulag?
As some of the dismay over the idea of a unified party of the revolution dissipates with Chavez’s stress upon the need to build it from below and to make it the most democratic party in Venezuela’s history, attention now has focused upon his request to the National Assembly for an Enabling Law that would allow him to introduce laws in specific areas directly rather than taking these through the National Assembly. Reminded that designation of such time-limited special powers is nothing new in Venezuelan history, predating Chavez and also essential in his own introduction of 49 Laws in 2001 (laws on cooperatives, fisheries, hydrocarbon tax, etc), friends ask — but why now? After all, given the opposition’s brilliant manoeuvre in boycotting the National Assembly elections (once it was apparent they would be overwhelmed), there is no opposition present to delay matters in that body. So, what’s the hurry?
It’s a question not only posed by progressive observers outside but also by their counterparts among some Venezuelan intellectuals. Can this be democratic, they ask? Doesn’t this reflect the verticalism of the military rather than democracy, authoritarianism and personalism in place of the deliberations of the National Assembly? It is the point posed recently by a well-known Venezuelan academic, Margarita Lopez Maya, when she noted that the tempo for democratic procedures is not at all the same as that for military operations. “It’s not clear,” she indicated (and, not surprisingly, this was the headline in the opposition newspaper, El Nacional, to which she gave the interview), “if chavista socialism will be democratic.”
This concern about the tempo is an entirely legitimate question from the vantage point of a traditional intellectual. There is no question that tempo can be the enemy of democratic processes. But, this is not the only vantage point worth noting.
I had dinner last night with two friends (one a first-time visitor), who had spent a full day talking with people active in communal councils in two Caracas neighbourhoods (one extremely poor). And, they were telling me about the frustration and anger of so many with local and ministry officials who were holding back change — and about their identification with the impatience of Chavez, whom they trusted. Not surprisingly, this led us to a discussion of the Enabling Law and of Lopez Maya’s interview. No, they said, the people they saw weren’t worried about that at all — they agree with the need for speed. You mean, I asked, that the people are in a hurry? Yes, they readily assented (to my surprise), and one commented that they are less interested in democracy as process than in democracy in practice.
There should be no surprises there. After all, in a country with an enormous social debt, where people have basic needs for sewers, electricity, water, jobs, housing, etc. and where they are being encouraged to take things into their hands through communal councils, cooperatives, and other forms of collective self-activity — and where everywhere they come up against the long-standing patterns of bureaucracy, corruption, and clientelism — should we be surprised that the people are impatient? Should we be surprised at how few people answered the Opposition’s call to demonstrate against the Enabling Law? Should we be surprised that the people are in a hurry?
The real question that needs to be posed is one to traditional Venezuelan intellectuals and their counterparts abroad: why aren’t you in a hurry, comrade?
Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, winner of the Isaac Deutscher memorial prize for 2004, and Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, just published by Monthly Review Press.