Chavism received a serious blow in the parliamentary elections this last Sunday, December 6. The strength of the blow is such that the movement is still reeling. The Venezuelan opposition, loosely organized in an electoral bloc called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), achieved not just a majority of seats in the National Assembly but also the qualified majorities needed to call for referendums, initiate constitutional reform, and reorganize the judicial branch. The long-term consequences of this setback, which are likely grave and possibly disastrous, will depend on the Chavist movement’s capacity to both maintain internal order and also renovate itself.
Faced with these electoral results, President Nicolás Maduro has been among the first to call for self-critique and renovation in Chavism. This is something the late leader Hugo Chávez tried to launch with the “3Rs” campaign (Revision, Rectification, Re-impulsing) some five years ago. Yet serious self-criticism has always eluded the Bolivarian movement. More than an ethical issue, it is a problem of organization: who will critique whom and with what force? History has shown the difficulty in balancing democracy and centralism within the left’s universally subscribed framework of democratic centralism. Effective critique usually comes only when a new internal force emerges, such as the Chinese Red Guards of the mid-1960s, typically supported by some fraction of the old guard. No such thing has ever happenned in Chavism.
Self-criticism also has to face facts and interpret them without prejudice. The key fact is that Sunday’s well-attended election’s saw two million more voters opting for the opposition bloc than for Chavism. Is this because, as President Maduro has said, there is an “economic war” against Venezuela and against his government? At best the explanation is partial. An economic war, such as the ones carried out against Salvador Allende’s Chile or Revolutionary Cuba, is not necessarily successful. If Cuba has resisted more than 50 years and with fewer resources, then the Venezuelan government’s conduct facing its own economic war must be erroneous. The key factor is surely that, despite the government’s constant alerts about economic aggressions, it has never proposed a coherent strategy to defeat them. That would mean clearly defining the enemy, locating its headquarters, and then organizing actions to attain a strategic victory.
The fact that Maduro has proposed no such strategy is likely the main reason that so many working-class voters, including those in historically Chavist sectors such as the famed 23 Enero barrio of Caracas, voted against Chavism last Sunday. The Venezuelan people have shown their resilience and loyalty in situations that were far more grueling such as the Oil Stoppage of 2002-3, but when there is no end in sight because the leadership lacks a strategic plan, then it is almost impossible for leaders to preserve credibility and followers to maintain faith.
During the upcoming year, Venezuela’s serious economic problems, which are structural and have much to do with the global economic crisis, will continue, despite the Democratic Roundtable’s false promises that voting in their favor would lead to a rapid resolution. This means that 2016 will be marked by a discursive battle over who is responsible — in a split-power situation — for the persistence of the economic difficulties. Here Chavism will start out with a disadvantage, since as the recent voting result indicates, it is presently held responsible. Yet as the opposition’s false promises come to light — along with its internal division and incoherence, to say nothing of its profoundly fascist and genocidal tendencies — it will come under greater scrutiny and criticism by the masses.
Chavism will have to look to preserve its most treasured advances and legacies. These include the social programs and expanded democracy, which will all come under attack. Yet just as important are the ideas and the political example. These must not be allowed to be buried under the detritus of a hundred compromises and retreats, if the Chavist legacy is to continue inspiring people worldwide. The recent campaign saw Chavism engaging in miserable clientist practices (giving away phones and cars) and a fear campaign (“The right-wing will take your house and your computer”) that paradoxically resembled the opposition’s anticommunist propaganda against Chávez in 2006-7. It should be remembered that the opposition and imperialism want not only to defeat Chavism on the ground but also to erase its legacy. The latter is best achieved through an involution of the movement, as happened when European socialist movements became first “social-democractic” and then neither socialist nor democratic. For that reason, Chavists should work to resist such degeneration, even at the risk of losing state power.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.