Venezuela at a turning point?

With President Hugo Chávez suffering from severe health problems, what does the future look like for Chavismo in Venezuela? Lance Selfa explains.

Hugo Chávez (in blue and white) joins in a mass rally in CaracasHugo Chávez (in blue and white) joins in a mass rally in Caracas

SINCE WINNING re-election to Venezuela's presidency in October 2012, Hugo Chávez has been absent from the public eye. Chávez is being treated for cancer in Cuba and was unable to attend his planned January inauguration. In his place, Vice President Nicolás Maduro serves.

This situation has fed rumors that Chávez may be permanently incapacitated and close to death. For Venezuela's right-wing opposition, this will be cause for celebration and maneuvering to return itself back to power. But for supporters of Chávez and the "Bolivarian Revolution" that he has embodied, his possible demise has raised the question of whether the calls for "21st century socialism" can survive without him.

To answer those questions, we have to step back and review recent Venezuelan history.

Chávez, a popular army coronel, won a landslide 1998 victory in a populist campaign against the bipartisan elite that controlled Venezuelan politics for half a century. Initially, Chávez concentrated on constitutional and political reforms to eviscerate the two elite parties, the center-left Acción Democrática (AD) and center-right COPEI.

In 2002-03, the old elite--with U.S. backing--struck back. First, it organized a coup and kidnapped Chávez. Second, the bosses of the nationalized oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDvSA) and other businesses locked out workers in a "bosses strike." In both instances, mass mobilizations of Venezuela's working class and poor defeated the bosses and kept Chávez in power. The right tried one more time to unseat Chávez with a recall referendum in 2004. Chávez defeated the recall in a landslide.

With the right divided and on the defensive, the Chávez government embarked on an ambitious program to use Venezuela's oil wealth to address the many pressing social needs of the mass of the population. Revenues from PDvSA boomed after the bosses' strike and before the world recession hit Venezuela in 2009, helping the government to finance an array of "social missions" around housing, education, food subsidies and health care.

Chávez called this program "socialism." It wasn't workers' power, as SocialistWorker.org would define socialism, but it did represent an alternative to the free-market "Washington consensus" that dominated the Americas during the previous generation.

And it has had a material impact on the mass of Venezuela's workers and poor. Since 2004, poverty in Venezuela has been cut in half and extreme poverty has been reduced by 70 percent, according to official government figures. A more conservative estimate puts the decline in "income poverty" at 21 percent, according to the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America.

Unemployment, though still high at around 8 percent, is half of what it was a decade ago, and millions now have access to health care and education that they never had before. Compared to the 20 years before Chávez took office, when per capita income fell, living standards have improved. Inflation, estimated at about 18 percent, is high, but it runs about half the rate it did in pre-Chávez days.

All of this runs counter to the standard narrative we hear about the Venezuelan economy in the mainstream U.S. media, which, writes Mark Weisbrot:

has been promoted by the Venezuelan government's opponents--including most of the international and Venezuelan media--for 14 years. Like the plagues that God brought to the Egypt of the Old Testament, economic collapse will deliver Venezuelans from the evil dictator that they somehow keep re-electing by a wide margin. Disaster has always been just around the corner, but it never quite happened.

There have only been two recessions during the past 14 years. One was directly caused by the opposition itself, in the 2002-03 oil strike that was organized to topple the government. The other was during the world recession of 2009, when most countries in the hemisphere went into recession.

The reason Venezuelans keep re-electing Chávez is clear. In both historical terms, and compared to what came before it, Chavismo has delivered for millions of people who previous political regimes scorned.

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THIS BACKGROUND provides perspective on the current situation in Venezuelan politics--as well as an antidote to the nonsense that passes for analysis of Venezuela in the mainstream media.

Nevertheless, and despite the obvious achievements that successive Chávez governments can claim, the "Bolivarian project" is not guaranteed to continue after Chávez. To understand why, we need to look inside the "Bolivarian Revolution" and understand its internal dynamics.

The first data point to consider is the result of the October 2012 election itself. Chávez won with 55 percent of the vote over Henrique Capriles Radonski, the consensus opposition candidate for the Unified Democratic Roundtable (MUD, by its Spanish initials).

In most cases, an 11-point victory in a two-candidate race with 80 percent of eligible voters turning out would count as a landslide. But in Venezuela, where Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were used to vanquishing the opposition by 2-to-1 margins, this represented an erosion of support. Venezuelan commentator Manuel Sutherland, a supporter of the president, estimated that Chavismo lost about 1.5 million votes from Chávez's previous national showing in 2006.

Capriles, a millionaire businessman with links to the sectors that supported the 2002 coup against Chávez, ran on a neoliberal, anti-working class platform. But his MUD coalition enlarged on the right's traditional base of support by playing on discontent with persistently high inflation, stubborn unemployment and high crime rates that have fed a sense of unease in the country, especially among the middle-class and white-collar workers.

Sutherland pointed out that large numbers of university students were active in the Capriles campaign and that Capriles may have gained a substantial chunk of his vote from newly registered young voters. The right increased its vote in many of the country's major cities.

The right also exploited the sense, even reaching into the ranks of Chavismo, that the state is corrupt and bureaucratic. Since the mid-2000s--when Chávez started to institutionalize the "missions" and his political movement through formation of a political party, the PSUV--careerists and capitalists looking for their cut of the country's oil wealth have moved into the state bureaucracy.

Venezuelan socialists denounce what they call a "Boli-bourgeosie" that feeds off the state. At the same time, in the service of Chavismo's electoral goals, the political structures of the Bolivarian state and the PSUV have stifled grassroots movements among workers and poor communities.

As Sutherland put it:

[T]he PSUV has been built as an electoral machine whose function is to relay orders from the top of the state to Chavismo's base. The PSUV serves as an organ of discipline where the state elite is used to ordering the base to lower its criticism of the government...and to subordinate workers' demands to the government's higher interests (for example, not to protest so as not to give the right "talking points").

Trade unions, especially those representing government workers, have found the Bolivarian state to be a tough negotiator. And the government has tried to contain a nascent movement for workers' control inside major Venezuelan industries, such as the state-owned steel plant SIDOR, so as not to incur the wrath of the private capitalist class. In the wake of the October election, Chavista functionaries talked more openly about conciliating with private and transnational business inside the country's state capitalist political economy.

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ALL OF this suggests that elements of rot exist within the Bolivarian project. Without Chávez as a unifying and popular factor, careerist and anti-working class forces inside the party and state may move even more decisively to the right. And if the government seeks more conciliation with the opposition, it will have done the opposition a favor.

Gonzalo Gómez, a leading member of Marea Socialista, a socialist current working inside the broader Chavista umbrella, noted in a post-election interview:

If we analyze the trend of electoral growth for the right and take into account the uncertainty generated by the possibility that the right will not have to confront Chávez in the next election, we cannot rule out the possibility that what happened to the Sandinistas at the end of the 1980s, when the bourgeoisie returned to power, could happen here.

If we do not advance anti-capitalist measures and if the bureaucratization continues, if we do not build a collective, popular and working-class leadership of the revolutionary process, if the extreme dependence on Chávez continues...the erosion may be irreversible.

For Venezuelan socialists, Gómez argued, the means to protect against a reversal of Chavismo's gains is to push the struggle forward:

We increasingly insist on the need for a radical left current in the revolutionary process. While the government spoke recently of the need for a "responsible right" with which it is possible to have a dialogue, we--and a good part of the radical activists--believe that what is needed is a consistent revolutionary left able to push for a change of direction.

It must be a force able to guide the implementation of the policies that will complete the break with capitalism, to allow us to go beyond the "mixed economy" schema and facilitate the transition to socialism. The construction of the new society has been slowed by bureaucracy, thus delaying the solution of problems both urgent and structural.