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What does Chávez have in store for Venezuela?

August 24, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

LEE SUSTAR looks at the debate over President Hugo Chávez's proposals for sweeping constitutional reform.

A SERIES of constitutional changes proposed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez seeks to squeeze the wealthy oligarchy by radically expanding what Chávez calls "popular power"--while strengthening the authority of the presidency, consolidating state control over oil and natural gas, and centralizing the armed forces.

Together, the reforms will speed Venezuela's transition to "socialism of the 21st century," Chávez says. "This proposal aims to finish off the old hegemony of the conservative oligarchy" and "give birth to a new, humanist, socialist system," he said, citing the Italian revolutionary Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

"We have broken the chains that subordinated political society to the civil society of the oligarchic bourgeoisie of the past, and this has already generated a schism, which is necessary, but not sufficient," he added.

"The process must continue, breaking the chains, transforming the oligarchic and alienated civil society into a new society, with a new state as its partner, because the new society must be the fundamental base of a new political society."

What else to read

The International Socialist Review regularly covers struggles and political developments in Venezuela. Lee Sustar's "Where is Venezuela going?" is an extensive and in-depth look at Hugo Chávez and the meaning of 21st century socialism. Also, UNT national organizer Orlando Chirino in an interview on "Trade Unions and Socialism in Venezuela."

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.

Tariq Ali's book Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope studies the rise of Hugo Chavez's challenge to the neoliberal consensus and U.S. foreign policy, in the context of a continent-wide shift to the left.

One of the most useful books on Venezuelan politics is Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict, edited by Daniel Hellinger and Steve Ellner. Also helpful is British journalist Richard Gott's Hugo Chavez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.


Predictably, the U.S. media focused on one of Chávez's proposed changes--the removal of the two-term limit for the office of the presidency, and the extension of the presidential term from six to seven years. They charge that Chávez, a former lieutenant colonel who led a failed military coup in 1992, is now carrying out a new seizure of power in constitutional garb by making himself "president for life."

In fact, a number of Western countries have no term limits on their chief executive, including Britain, France and Germany. And the provision in the Venezuelan constitution allowing the recall of elected officials halfway through their terms--a feature initiated by Chávez in 1999--will remain.

While the double standards of the hostile U.S. media and politicians can be dismissed, the proposed constitutional changes, which must be debated by the National Assembly before going to a popular vote, will in fact sharpen the ongoing debate in the Venezuelan left over the nature of socialism, and the role of Chávez's newly created United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, according to its initials in Spanish).

At issue is the question of revolutionary agency: Will the working class lead the transition to socialism and expropriate the capitalist class, as the classical Marxist tradition has it? Or is Chávez correct in his recent statements that the ideas of Marx and Lenin are outdated, and that private property has to be preserved in a socialist Venezuela?

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FIVE YEARS ago, the question was whether Chávez's government would survive at all, faced with a coup attempt and a bosses' "oil strike" in the state oil company, PDVSA that crippled the economy. Pro-Chávez mobilizations defeated both, and today, the government's position is transformed.

Venezuela's economic growth rate has been among the fastest in the world, thanks to high oil prices. This funded the expansion of government "missions" to provide health care to the poor via Cuban doctors, teach more than 2 million adults to read, expand higher education, implement land reform, expand social programs for the indigenous population, and much more.

Chávez's Venezuela has broken from the so-called Washington consensus, the neoliberal doctrine of privatization, deregulation and "flexible" labor policies. After 30 years of assaults by international capital aimed at dismantling the welfare state and rolling back social progress, Venezuela has moved defiantly in the opposite direction--with Chávez emerging as the leading critic of the U.S. on the world stage, using oil wealth to pursue Latin American economic integration outside Washington's orbit.

In early 2005, Chávez declared that his aim was not simply to break from neoliberalism, but to build "socialism for the 21st century." Following his reelection in December 2006, he obtained from the National Assembly the right to issue decrees to nationalize key sectors of the economy--including renationalizing the main telecommunications company and taking state control of sectors of the oil industry that were not already controlled by PDVSA.

At the same time, Chávez called for the creation of a new party, the PSUV--in which leftist and center-left parties that had been allied with him could either join, or, he said, be counted among the opposition.

Now come constitutional reforms that, if enacted, will shake up political life still further.

They can be roughly grouped into seven areas: (1) the designation of four forms of property--social, collective, mixed and private--intended to expand state and popular control of the economy while preserving the role of private enterprise; (2) the creation of regional vice-presidents, who will replace state governors and become part of the executive branch of government; (3) the extension of "popular power" by redrawing the political map so that cities, comprised of self-organized communes, "will constitute the basic space and indivisible nucleus of the Venezuelan Socialist State," with additional councils created for workers, peasants, students and other social groups; (4) the integration of the social missions, originally parallel to the old government bureaucracy, into the state; (5) the assertion of state power over natural resources, including an outright prohibition on the large private landholdings known as latifundia, and government control of the exploitation of hydrocarbons; (6) the integration and centralization of the various branches of the Venezuelan military, which would also gain the ability to exercise the administrative and investigative powers currently limited to the police; (7) and the extension of the presidential term and removal of term limits.

By simultaneously launching both the PSUV and constitutional reform, Chávez is maximizing political pressure on both the left and the right.

If the reforms are approved, for example, opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who ran against Chávez for president, would see his position as governor of the state of Zulia disappear. But boycotting the constitutional referendum and/or the elections to follow--as the opposition did in the last legislative elections--would simply guarantee a victory for Chávez.

If the right is in a bind, the left faces hard choices of its own. The creation of the PSUV has led to defections in many groups, with a section of the Communist Party entering the new party. The Party of Socialist Revolution, whose activists play a key role in the class-struggle current of the National Union of Workers (UNT) federation, C-CURA, has also split, with many leading labor activists choosing to join the party.

The argument for entering the PSUV is that it gives an opportunity to engage in debates with large numbers of militants who have so far lacked any political organization.

"For the workers and leading trade unionists that have joined the PSUV, it is very important that there exists the possibility of building socialist battalions by social sector," that is, according to class," wrote Gonzalo Gómez of the Marea socialist tendency in the PSUV, arguing for a revolutionary current that struggles for the PSUV "to become a real revolutionary party that expresses the interests of the working class, that fights for socialism without bosses, bureaucrats and corrupt elements. That is the only way to socialism of the 21st century."

Yet the PSUV itself, which claims about 5 million members following a summertime mass recruitment campaign, will have to grapple with the issue of major constitutional reform even as it holds its founding conference this autumn. Already, left-wing critics inside and outside of it complain that the PSUV is dominated by bureaucrats and business types in the orbit of PDVSA and with other lucrative connections to the government.

All this takes place against a backdrop of class polarization. While economic growth has stimulated a major boom in consumption by the upper middle class and the wealthy, the resulting inflation has squeezed workers and the poor--despite a big increase in the minimum wage and sharp falls in the poverty rate from 55 percent to 34 percent. Moreover, the state-subsidized grocery stores are often short of staple goods, owing to sabotage by agribusiness companies and speculation by traders.

A major flashpoint for organized labor and the left is Sanitarios Maracay, a bathroom fixture manufacturer that had been run under workers' control since last November when the employer abandoned negotiations.

After a police attack failed to dislodge the occupying workers months ago, the boss finally succeeded August 10 in rounding up former workers to oust the occupation. The government, which had blessed some earlier factory occupations by nationalizing the plants involved, refused to nationalize Sanitarios Maracay under workers' control, because the factory isn't "strategic."

As occupying workers got the cold shoulder from the government, Oswaldo Vera, a National Assembly member and leader of the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Front (FSBT) current in the UNT, floated the idea that constitutional reform creating "workers councils" would replace trade unions--although officials later retreated under criticism. Chávez himself, quoting the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg out of context, declared that trade unions should be subordinated to the socialist party--i.e., the PSUV.

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SUCH COMMENTS, taken together with the creation of the PSUV and his proposals for constitutional reform, give some idea of what Chávez means by "socialism for the 21st century."

The vision is of what used to be called a "mixed economy" of state and private ownership of the means of production, an expanded welfare state and participatory democracy--all guaranteed not by workers control of the factories and offices, but by strengthening what Chávez calls the "patriotic" military.

In fact, Chávez's remarks on trade union independence echoed his effort to use his first constitutional reforms in 1999 to abolish the old, corrupt CTV union federation, and replace it with his labor allies in the FSBT (then called FBT).

Then, he backed down under pressure. Today, the FSBT controls the Ministry of Labor. A supposed workers' leader in the PSUV, Vera is accused by critics in the UNT/C-CURA of trying to foster a state-dominated labor movement, run by his own faction of the UNT.

"What type of party is the PSUV, where the main leaders, without consulting with the base, even passing over the decisions of its comrades, insist that the UNT is not the representative of the workers and must be liquidated?" said the main leader of UNT/C-CURA, Orlando Chirino, who has remained outside the PSUV. "These authoritarian methods of those at the top are incompatible with the criteria of union democracy that we authentic socialist revolutionaries claim as our right."

He added: "For Oswaldo Vera and for the government, as President Chávez has presented it recently, the working class is not the leading force, and should submit to the decisions of a government and of a state that they all recognize has not yet broken with the inheritance of the Fourth Republic," that is, the pre-Chávez governments.

To pressure the labor minister, José Ramón Rivero, 40 leading UNT/C-CURA officials held a mid-August sit-in in his office to demand a labor agreement for public employees, whose last contract expired nearly three years ago.

There are other major points of conflict between the class-struggle unions and the government--chief among them foot-dragging by PDVSA's management, which is trying to push through a deal with small unions, freezing out the dominant union, Fedepetrol, which is now aligned with C-CURA.

In response to this pressure, Chirino's C-CURA has aligned with another current of the UNT led by Marcela Máspero to push for elections in the UNT.

Created in 2003 out of the ruins of the discredited CTV, the UNT has never moved beyond a provisional structure because of factional rivalries among its five currents, not least between Chirino's and Máspero's supporters, who came to blows at a conference last year. Their realignment on the basis of trade union independence is an important step towards strengthening the UNT as vehicle to fight for workers' interests.

So while Venezuelan political life will be dominated in the weeks ahead with constitutional reform and the founding conference of the PSUV, another debate within the labor movement will also take place--one with major consequences for the development of independent working-class organization and the struggle for socialism in Venezuela.

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