A collective discussion is occurring throughout the revolutionary movement led by President Hugo Chavez following the defeat of the proposed constitutional reform proposals — that were intended to deepen the revolution to help open the way towards socialism — in the December 2 referendum.
Defeated by the narrowest of margins, the result took both sides by surprise. A cocky Chavista camp that had won 11 straight election victories was sent into a tailspin. The US-backed pro-capitalist opposition was forced to think up a new strategy, as the next stage in its well-orchestrated destabilization campaign — taking to the streets against supposed electoral fraud — had to be postponed after Chavez graciously accepted defeat.
“For now we couldn’t do it!” explained Chavez in his concession speech.
Discussion and debate has exploded as the battalions of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) — initiated by Chavez to unite the grass roots leaders of the process of change — convened to debrief. State television has hosted wide-ranging discussion. Left-wing websites such as Aporrea.org were flooded with opinion pieces.
Chavez gave his first sign of things to come on New Year’s Eve, announcing a decree giving amnesty to the 400 people who had signed the infamous “Carmona decree” that dissolved all public powers during the April 2002 right-wing coup against Chavez.
A few days later, speaking on state television, he noted: “We need to improve our strategy in regards to alliances. We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged along by extremist currents. . . . No! We have to seek out alliances with the middle classes, even with the national bourgeois.”
Chavez explained on his first Alo Presidente TV show for the year on January 6 that “I am obliged to slow down the pace of the march. I’ve been imposing on it a speed that’s beyond the collective capacities or possibilities; I accept that, it is one of my mistakes.”
U-turn on Socialism?
A “U-turn on socialism” is how Stephanie Blankenburg described it, writing in the January 8 New Statesman. Chavez “had decided to abandon his socialist agenda ‘for now'” because the country was not “ready” for “his socialist project.”
Yet, argued Blankenburg, the December 2 vote “was essentially a protest vote by the ‘Chavista street’ against the ‘Chavista elite.'” Chavez’s “strategy of a shift to the ‘right'” — which she argues gives a “free reign to the ‘Chavista elites'” — was “unlikely to boost [his support] with the popular base.”
Alex Callinicos, a central leader of the British Socialist Workers Party wrote in the January 19 Socialist Worker that these moves were “cause for alarm” and “dangerously reminiscent” of those taken by the left-wing Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 when he “sought to make a deal with the right” while the right wing were preparing to violently overthrow him and place General Augusto Pinochet in power.
Callinicos writes Chavez’s shift is based on acknowledging popular discontent with food shortages, inflation, and corruption, but argues that dealing with these problems involves
not slowing down the revolutionary process, but accelerating it — breaking the hold of private capital on the economy.
Corruption can only be rooted out by dismantling the existing state apparatus and replacing it with institutions of popular power. But Chavez is moving in the opposite direction.
However, how accurate is this analysis of Chavez’s change of tact?
It is clear that Chavez has listened intently to the wide-ranging criticisms of his government in order to formulate his response. His most thorough statement on the situation was his speech to the National Assembly on January 11.
He pointed to a number of issues confronting the revolution: the weight of the corporate media and lack of strategy to counter it; crime; food shortages; and especially the crippling problem of bureaucratism, inefficiency, and corruption.
The latter has led to a weakening over 2007 of the social missions — which represent significant gains for the poor majority — and in particular the health care Mission Barrio Adentro and the cheap food distribution Mission Mercal.
Chavez raised the “harm done to the confidence of the people . . . being done everyday with a certain type of publicity, coming as much from local governments as the national government over which I preside; deceitful publicity, demagogic publicity, which many times contradicts the reality that the people live everyday. . . .”
Part of the problem is presenting inflated figures that give an exaggerated view of the gains being made.
For instance, at the end of 2007, the government claimed there were 30,000 communal councils (grass roots bodies of popular power), but at the start of this year revised the figure to 18,000. Attempting to meet the arbitrary target of 50,000 councils in one year led to many problems as the process was rushed, rather than focusing on ensuring the councils were being formed correctly and at a pace appropriate to people’s ability to ensure they function properly.
Similar problems were associated with the PSUV — which signed up 5.7 million people last year, with more people listed as joining in some states than had voted for Chavez in the previous election. Official figures for ongoing participation in PSUV brigades were put at 1.5 million, which was clearly inflated and probably at least double the real figure.
Chavez pointed to the “contradictions between the discourse of the leader and the reality of bad management or bad political practices. . . . The revolution needs to strengthen the confidence of the people. . . . We have to convince and demonstrate at the same time.”
Chavez insisted: “This year, which I want to declare the year of ‘revolutionary impulsion,’ must be a year of solutions of the small problems, the concrete problems of the people.”
It is partially true, as Blankenburg argues, that one factor in the referendum defeat was a protest vote against the bad management by different tiers of government.
Also there is no doubt a section of the Chavista camp and the state bureaucracy, whose privileges have been threatened by the push for socialism, worked to sabotage the campaign. How else can you explain the fact that problems such as the food shortages were allowed to continue for several months without serious action by government or state institutions to tackle it?
This suggests that rather than attempting a rapid deepening of the process while confidence of the people has been undermined on the one hand and serious political weaknesses exist within the Chavista camp on the other, the correct course is to prioritize overcoming these twin problems in order to lay the groundwork for the necessary significant advances.
This appears to be the essence of the plans set out by Chavez for 2008.
The strategic error, Chavez said and took full responsibility for, was that “it was not the moment to launch this new attack . . . we needed to have consolidated, we needed to have launched, re-launched, government projects, sought more efficiency. . . .”
Chavez described the referendum defeat as like a boxer being dealt a blow but not knocked out. The boxer remains on his feet. The revolution did not advance, but neither did it go backwards.
Reaffirming “that the only and true road to the definitive liberation of our homeland is the path of socialism,” Chavez said: “I call on everyone to make this a year of more advances.”
Chavez has set plans to bridge the gap that grew between him and the people, leading to the loss of nearly 3 million voters who backed him in the presidential elections but abstained in the referendum. The aim is to find the ways to combine measures to solve the problems facing the mass of people with ways to raise the level of organization and consciousness.
Doing this will inevitably bring the process into conflict with capitalist interests, as it already has. However, it doesn’t mean a forced march into a decisive battle without allowing for the necessary preparation of the working people.
Rather than giving free range to the “Chavista elite,” Chavez sent a clear message in his recent cabinet reshuffle: ministers have to be effective.
The clearest example of this is the new vice president, Ramon Carrizales, who is known for the fact that more houses were constructed last year with him as housing minister than in any previous year under the Chavez government.
He is also known for having led the successful project to rebuild the vital bridge between Caracas and the international airport in record time while he was infrastructure minister.
In a sign that the cabinet reshuffle doesn’t represent a fundamental political shift, the former vice president Jorge Rodriguez, who was seen as a radical, has been freed up to focus full time on heading up the PSUV — the key political instrument to take the revolution forward.
On the January 13 Alo Presidente, a number of ministers came under fire for not moving fast enough on projects, a further signal to them and the people that the government is intent on making real changes.
The call for seeking agreements with middle-class opposition supporters and national capitalists is partly due to a common complaint among the poor that Chavez’s rhetoric is often too confrontational and risks unnecessary conflict.
The amnesty for some of those involved in the coup was in response to the campaign by the opposition around supposed “political prisoners” and does not include those involved in crimes against humanity or those who fled the country to escape responsibility — in other words the key coup leaders are excluded from the amnesty. In this way, Chavez has undercut the opposition campaign — leaving them defending those who cannot be defended.
Popular Power and Political Organization
In the same speech in which Chavez mentioned an alliance with the national bourgeoisie, he also called on people to read V. I. Lenin, emphasizing that the central priority has to be deepening the social and political organization of the people — principally through the communal councils and the PSUV.
Declaring the promotion of communal power a central task, Chavez said: “The issue of the communal councils cannot limit itself to the transfer of resources. . . . The most important thing is that you organize yourselves, become conscious of the social battle, and go forward in consolidating the community. . . .”
“In order that December 2 never happens again,” Chavez said at the opening speech for the PSUV founding congress on January 12, it is necessary to go on the offensive with the PSUV “as the spearhead and vanguard” of the revolution. “We have arrived here to make a real revolution or die trying.”
Federico Fuentes is a frequent writer for the Australian socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly and maintains the blog Bolivia Rising. He is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a tendency within the Australian Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared in the Green Left Weekly.