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Poised for a landslide re-election victory
Chávez and the future of Venezuela

December 1, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

LEE SUSTAR looks at the dynamics behind this year's presidential election--and at the shape of the struggles to come.

NO MATTER how convincing a victory that Hugo Chávez achieves in his re-election, the U.S. will be sure to dismiss the results of the December 3 vote as tainted.

With Venezuela's pro-U.S. right-wing opposition discredited and divided, the U.S. will play up every allegation of election irregularities, no matter how trivial. This, of course, is in contrast to the blatant fraud in last summer's Mexican presidential election--which was nonetheless blessed by the U.S. because it will install into office a conservative that the Bush administration supports.

In Latin America and the rest of the world, however, Chávez's victory will be seen as the latest rebuff to the free-market neoliberal agenda orchestrated by the U.S. government and international financial institutions.

Venezuela, once known for its U.S.-style bipartisan consensus and a pro-Washington foreign policy, has given rise to Chávez's "socialism for the 21st century" and anti-imperialist defiance.

What else to read

The best source in English for current news and analysis of Venezuela is the Web site. Readers of Spanish should visit, the widely read, frequently updated and most important Web site of the Venezuelan left.

Of the many books recently written about Venezuelan politics, one of the most useful is Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict, edited by Daniel Hellinger and Steve Ellner. Also key is British journalist Richard Gott's Hugo Chavez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.


Ever since a U.S.-backed coup in 2002 failed to oust Chávez, the Venezuelan president has been Bush's most bitter critic on the world stage.

At the United Nations General Assembly in September, Chávez taunted Bush as the "devil" and denounced U.S. imperialism. "The imperialists see extremists everywhere," he said. "It's not that we are extremists. It's that the world is waking up. It's waking up all over. And people are standing up." Chávez has sought to build Latin American and Third World solidarity against the U.S. as well.

Now, backed by Venezuela's poor majority and with the leverage of an oil-driven economy, Chávez is poised for re-election and the opportunity to consolidate what he calls the "Bolivarian revolution," named for the leader of the 19th century wars of independence.

On the Venezuelan left, however, the political debate has already moved beyond Chávez's expected victory to a discussion of how to achieve "socialism for the 21st century." "We have to defend the [revolutionary] process, because if not, it will slip out of our hands," said peasant leader Roberto Viera.

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TO UNDERSTAND the prospects for a new Venezuela, it's necessary to understand the reasons for the collapse of the old.

The skyline of the capital of Caracas is still dominated by gray concrete towers built during the mid-1970s oil boom, when Carlos Andres Pérez, president of the then-ruling Democratic Action party (AD, according to its initials in Spanish) nationalized the oil industry, creating a state company called PDVSA.

Unprecedented oil revenues also opened the way to big loans from U.S. banks. Venezuela, it was said, would leave the Third World behind and become an international economic success story.

A decade later, however, falling oil prices and rising interest rates had shattered the debt-ridden Venezuelan economy.

In February 1989, another AD government, with Pérez again having been elected to office, instituted austerity measures that raised the price of gasoline and increased bus fares, triggering a riot that become known as the Caracazo. The armed forces put down the rebellion, killing hundreds, though the exact number was never known.

That experience spurred a circle of left-wing nationalist military officers led by Chávez to plot a coup in 1992.

The coup was betrayed and collapsed, but Chávez's televised speech made him a hero--a point recognized by a former president, Rafael Caldera of the conservative COPEI party, who seized the moment to launch a political comeback as an independent. Again elected president, Caldera himself pursued unpopular austerity programs, deepening the political crisis.

Discredited and disintegrating, the AD-COPEI duopoly that had endured since 1958 gave way to Chávez's first election victory in late 1998.

An early focus for Chávez was revamping the political system through a Constituent Assembly, which wrote a new constitution under which Chavez won a second presidential election in 2000. With the economy shrinking, Chávez scrambled to try to make good on his promises to improve life for the poor, including using the military for hastily conceived, and largely ineffective, economic projects.

The ruling class--known in Venezuela as the oligarchy--assembled a political opposition, with the middle class serving as its troops and the corrupt union federation, the CTV, providing political cover.

The Washington-approved military coup of April 2002 sought to abolish the elected government and ban freedom of speech. But the coup collapsed when the mass of Caracas' poor turned out into the streets to surround the presidential palace and an army base across town. Faced with the loss of control over the troops, the military coupmakers backed down and returned Chávez to the presidential place.

Instead of ousting Chávez, the coup had strengthened him politically. The man who once aimed to take power by military means on behalf of the impoverished masses had been kept in power by the action of the urban poor itself.

Next, the oligarchy tried to use economic leverage--its control of the state oil company. A "strike" by CTV unions in PDVSA in late 2002--in reality, a lockout by top executives and technical personnel--pushed the economy to the brink. But the lockout was broken by rank-and-file oilworkers and soldiers who gradually revived production despite widespread sabotage by management.

Again, a move aimed at isolating Chávez had achieved the opposite, activating the previously passive organized working class into a social and political struggle against the right. As a result, the CTV was discredited, opening the way for the formation of a new left-wing union federation, the UNT.

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BY LATE 2003, Chávez had the resources needed to make good on his economic program, thanks to the sharp rise in the world price of oil.

The program took the form of a series of "missions"--initiatives that bypassed the sclerotic, opposition-dominated state bureaucracy to tap the new activism among the poor and the working class. Among the "missions" were literacy and education programs, health care initiatives, subsidized grocery stores for the urban poor, housing construction, restoring land to the indigenous, and economic programs for those in the informal economy.

These programs, along with record economic growth, cut the percentage of the population living in poverty from 44 percent in 1998 to about 34 percent today, according to government statistics. The number of those considered extremely poor dropped from 17 percent to nearly 10 percent.

The missions highlight the dynamics of what the Venezuelan left call the "revolutionary process"--reforms from above that intersect with self-activity from below, giving Chávez a popularity that helped him to an easy victory in the 2004 recall election.

This appeal--plus his attempts to resist U.S. domination and challenge the world's economic hierarchy--sets Chávez apart from the center-left governments that run Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which govern through conventional political methods and have sought to moderate neoliberalism rather than carry out far-reaching reforms. By contrast, Chávez is seeking to consolidate the changes in Venezuela.

His challenger in this election is Manuel Rosales, one of the signers of the coup decree of 2002 and the current governor of Zulia state.

The fact that a prominent coup plotter is free and running for president gives the lie to the Venezuelan opposition's claims that Chávez is ushering in an authoritarian state. In fact, the privately owned Venezuelan media is virulently anti-Chávez and regularly denounces the government.

Right-wing parties function openly, too. Their failure to mount a serious challenge to Chávez in this year's election is the result of internal squabbles and their discredited political past--chiefly, their ties to the U.S. According to the New York Times, the U.S. government has funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups in the past five years, including $25 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Anti-Chávez business leaders are willing to bide their time for now, as booming oil exports spur Venezuela to some of the world's highest economic growth rates--an annual pace of 10.2 percent in the third quarter of this year.

With Chávez's victory a foregone conclusion, the strategy of Rosales and the right is to denounce the elections as unfair, while carrying out sporadic armed street clashes with police, known as "guarimbas," to try to portray the Venezuelan state as repressive.

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WHILE THE possibility of a right-wing coup remains, the Venezuelan opposition for now will likely be forced into a long-term strategy of trying to delegitimize the Chávez government.

For its part, the left is organizing to press for more radical change--and to give a working-class content to Chávez's call for "socialism for the 21st century."

Some 10,000 left-wing activists from labor unions, indigenous peoples, neighborhood organizations and peasant groups marched in Caracas November 20 to both show support for Chávez's re-election and call for deepening the revolutionary process through a decisive turn toward socialism.

The numbers on the march may seem small in comparison to the massive pro-Chávez election rally the following week, but the event highlights growth of a Venezuelan left rooted in the struggles of the poor.

This is in contrast to the 2004 presidential recall election, when the far left had a much weaker profile. Since then, the economic boom has given workers greater leverage to organize, as the UNT has outstripped or replaced moribund CTV unions in most cases.

The UNT itself is divided, with a left grouped into the United Revolutionary and Autonomous Class-struggle Current (C-CURA), based mainly in the private sector, and a more moderate Workers Collective in Revolution (CTR), led by Marcela Máspero of the health workers' union and based mainly on government employees' unions outside the oil sector.

While both wings of the UNT support Chávez's re-election, Máspero's CTR favors closer ties between the labor movement and the Venezuelan state, while the C-CURA stresses the need for independent unions, rank-and-file activism and an aggressive stance in bargaining for both public and private employees.

Key issues include the takeover of closed factories under workers' control and the nature of the cooperative businesses initiated by the government, "Ninety percent of the cooperatives are [the result of] the casualization of labor, outsourcing, political clientelism and a decline in the quality of work," Orlando Chirino, a UNT national coordinator and leader of its C-CURA wing, told a recent interviewer.

The split in the UNT is part of a wider debate on the need for "revolution within the revolution"--the phrase used by the left to protest against pockets of government corruption and cronyism.

Chávez himself has even called on workers and the poor to step up pressure on government officials--and in recent months, they have increasingly done so.

Indigenous activists are calling for greater resources to be spent in poor, undeveloped areas. Peasant groups are demanding more, and faster-paced, land reform, and activists among the urban poor are pressing for programs that go beyond the poverty missions to include economic development with good-paying, long-term jobs.

This pressure from the left underscores the contradictions of the "Bolivarian revolution." On one hand, workers and the poor have been activated by the state's reforms; on the other, the employers have not yet been squeezed, let alone expropriated, by workers.

The implementation of "co-management" in industry hasn't fundamentally changed the relationship of class forces, argues the C-CURA wing of the UNT and the Party of Revolutionary Socialism. And while Venezuela's social programs are transforming the lives of the poor and economic growth is reducing the numbers in poverty, the economy remains dominated by the world price of oil, putting these gains at risk when prices decline.

Government plans for "21st century socialism" remain vague, and the goal of "endogenous economic development" for greater national self-sufficiency is still on the drawing boards. The government also continues to repay foreign debts racked up by the corrupt governments of the past, limiting funds available for social programs.

More generally, what is at stake in Venezuela is the nature of the revolutionary process itself.

For the emerging far left, revolution isn't the culmination of a series of government reforms from above, no matter how radical. Rather, it is the self-emancipation of the working class and the liberation of the oppressed.

According to the UNT's Chirino, it is necessary both to mobilize for the biggest possible vote for Chávez and to deepen the struggle.

"There's no contradiction," he told an interviewer. "We defend the great part of the president's social programs, but we are critical, and we want to go on to a discussion about socialism in the 21st century, which to us means full liberty, equality under the law and benefits. They can't look for votes with a blank check. We want 10 million votes to create a socialist Venezuela, without landlords, without bosses, without criminals, without bureaucrats--and this is a transitional stage in which participative democracy has to function."

As tumultuous as recent years have been in Venezuela, much more struggle is to come--and its impact will be felt across Latin America and around the world.

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