The end of "21st century socialism"?

Eva María analyzes the disappointing outcome of national elections in Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (Prensa Miraflores)Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (Prensa Miraflores)

VENEZUELA'S RIGHT-wing opposition won two-thirds of the seats in elections for the National Assembly on December 6, giving the right the power to remake the constitution and initiate a recall election against President Nicolás Maduro, the late President Hugo Chávez's successor, before his term ends in 2019.

This is a major reversal for the political process known as the Bolivarian Revolution, which since Chávez's first election in 1999 has reduced extreme poverty and achieved other gains for workers and the poor, while enraging Venezuela's elite and U.S. imperialism. Over nearly two decades, Chavismo has attracted international solidarity and sparked a wide-ranging debate about the meaning of Chávez's call for "21st century socialism."

Chávez and his supporters won a total of 18 elections out 20 conducted over the last 17 years. Those votes were, despite the persistent complaints of the right and the international media, free and fair--according to the Carter Center, Venezuela under Chávez built one of the most secure and transparent electoral systems in the world.

But that evidence never stopped opponents of Chavismo from their ritual smears. Like Felipe González, the former Spanish president and leader of the neoliberalized Socialist Workers Party, who absurdly claimed that people under Maduro's "dictatorship" had less freedom than people in Chile's Pinochet.

Likewise, Barack Obama's decision to place sanctions on Venezuela and criticize the country's progressive reforms as dictatorial is pure hypocrisy considering his and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's shameful support for the right-wing coup in Honduras in 2009 that overthrew the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.

Of course, now that the right has won at the ballot box, Obama and the anti-Chavista opposition has dropped any complaints about the electoral machinery.

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IN FACT, the efficiency of the voting system left little room for doubt that millions of working-class people have withdrawn their support from the ruling party. President Maduro recognized the accuracy of the results and asked for peace in the name of democracy. Later that same night, he said that though the counterrevolution had won this round, "It is not a time to cry, it is time to fight."

The government blames the electoral loss primarily on what it calls an economic war carried out by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and its imperialist backers in U.S. against the Bolivarian Revolution--as well as a "betrayal" or a lack of "loyalty" among poor and working-class Chavistas, who either stayed home or voted for the opposition.

Meanwhile, various supporters of the government internationally insist that the "revolution isn't over." Pro-Chavisa commentators blame the defeat on the same external factors that Maduro mentioned, while also expressing hope for a period of self-reflection and change on the part of the Maduro government.

These analysts explain the retreat from left-wing measures under Maduro as a consequence of opposition from economic elites, but hold out hope that voters will swing back toward the government once the opposition proves unable to solve the country's deep economic and social crises.

Chavismo's basic progressive reforms remain popular, according to this case, and any attempt by the right to turn back the clock will be met with widespread anger. That dynamic would force the Maduro government to return to a more radical set of policies, defending the aspirations articulated by Chávez, rather than just pay lip-service to them.

There is more than a grain of truth in these analyses. Chávez himself was twice saved from right-wing coups by the actions of masses of his poor and working-class supporters rebelling against the coup-makers. But this case fails to get at the reasons why support for the government collapsed in the first place.

First and foremost, the collapse of global oil prices set the stage, drastically reducing state revenues and leading to an inflation rate of 160 to 200 percent in 2015. This factor can't be underestimated. The oil industry has been under state control since long before Chávez was first elected, so any government--whether of the left or the right--would have faced a profound challenge when prices fell from $140 a barrel to under $40 a barrel in recent years.

But there is a deeper problem. Over the last few years, ordinary people trying to get basic groceries have had to wait in line for seven hours a week on average. Worse, the government has downplayed the crisis--for instance, Chavista leader Jacqueline Faría said she thinks of these lines as "delicious," and that real revolutionaries should stop complaining and get behind Maduro.

Comments about the need for revolutionary sacrifice couldn't be more cynical coming from a politician at the top of a bureaucratic state. Faría's comments symbolize how a section of the Bolivarian movement has alienated itself from the everyday lives of the average working person. Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incident, but describes the dominant political trend within the Chavista leadership.

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IN 2007, President Chávez called for the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), with the goal of uniting all forces committed to the advancing the Bolivarian Revolution.

Socialists who supported Chávez against the right, but who remained critical of his bureaucratic methods, were put in a bind: They either joined a top-down party that had the active support of a vast majority of the masses or stayed outside it and lost an important opportunity to work alongside and influence the new mass party's membership.

In the end, most socialist formations agreed to participate, and in no time, the PSUV claimed a membership of millions. The PSUV, however, was not based on the active participation of its members. Instead, it relied on a bureaucratic structure where criticism, open debates and rank-and-file power were more often the exception than the rule.

Though there have been attempts to build popular power through projects related to the concept of participatory democracy more generally--neighborhood communes, workers cooperatives and so on--a lack of participation and democratic control from below by the revolutionary base led down the path of rapid bureaucratization. And in the absence of workers' control and any meaningful rank-and-file power, corruption crossed over from the private sector into the state bureaucracy.

So long as Chávez was alive, his personal integrity and charisma--not to mention the continuing high price of oil--was sufficient to maintain support from below for genuinely progressive measures, discipline the most corrupt sections of the bureaucracy and keep the right-wing opposition off balance.

However, after Chávez's death in 2012, Maduro proved unable to win the loyalty of the party's base. On December 6, millions of ordinary people voted against the government because they could no longer see any advantage in its economic and political policies. Large numbers of people who voted for Chavismo over the past 17 years are telling the government that they don't vote just out of loyalty to a rhetorical project of socialism, but want an end to the deterioration of economic and political conditions.

As revolutionary socialist Gonzalo Gómez--of Marea Socialista, a small socialist group that has long been a left critic of the government--put it: "There are two enemies of the revolution: the bureaucracy and capital. They are two sides of the same capitalist coin at this point. Both compete against each other electorally, but share their briefcases under the table."

This conclusion is starting to ring true for Venezuelans facing challenges on so many fronts.

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SO WHAT is the future of Chavismo? It is too early to tell.

No doubt one section of the Chavista bureaucracy will attempt to come to terms with the right, as happened in Nicaragua when the left-wing Sandinistas lost elections to the right in 1990, after a decade in power following the revolution that toppled the Somoza dictatorship.

After the 1990 defeat, President Daniel Ortega promised a gathering of tens of thousands of supporters that the Sandinistas would "govern from below" in defense of the people and the revolution. Yet in short order, Ortega and many in the upper echelons of the party enriched themselves through corrupt deals with the country's new right-wing government or outright theft of public property, in what became known as la piñata.

Unfortunately, there are already Chavista bureaucrats who have tested these waters. In response to right-wing demonstrations that resulted in 43 deaths in 2014, many in the government called for further negotiations with the right to find common ground between the capitalist class and the government.

Maduro will likely continue to talk radical, while looking for a deal to play for time. Only three days after the elections, he announced the need for a period of deep self-reflection in which all state leaders would agree to resign if necessary for restructuring government positions in order to revive the revolution against the right.

Whether or not this call will translate into a real restructuring of the leadership--and whether it will be along the lines of the "sharp turn" ("golpe de timon") that Chávez announced shortly before his death as a precondition for advancing toward socialism--remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that the chances of any radical changes in Chavismo's internal balance of forces are very low without an upsurge of revolutionary activity from below.

At the same time, it's difficult to predict how the right will operate after its victory--whether the opposition will immediately presses its advantage or play a longer game.

There are significant, mutually antagonistic divisions within the right. If the opposition pushes for a quick recall of Maduro, that might push the majority of people back into the president's camp for the time being. The most likely scenario is that the right will first focus on a campaign to free hardline leader Leopoldo López, head of Voluntad Popular, who is currently serving a prison sentence of 14 years.

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WHAT THE Chavista bureaucracy is willing to concede to the right and what progressive reforms the right will seek to dismantle first will establish the terrain on which the working-class and poor will have to resist.

Unfortunately, the conditions under which this process will take place are turning negative in the region as a whole. The election of the opposition candidate Mauricio Marci in Argentina's presidential vote energized the right in that country and also the movement in neighboring Brazil to impeach Workers Party President Dilma Roussef.

In both Argentina and Brazil, just as in Venezuela, collapsing oil and commodity prices and the spectacular corruption of left-leaning governments are allowing the right to claw its way back into power after more than a decade of Latin America's so-called "Pink Tide" of left-wing governments.

The alternative to allowing Maduro to set the agenda and demand uncritical popular support for his presidency will require a new dynamic of self-organization, with clearly defined independence from the PSUV bureaucracy and the state.

There must be no illusion in short-term solutions. The victory of the right is real, and it is based on a deep divide between the needs of the masses and the interests of the bureaucracy and the state.

Chavismo has a powerful base inside the working class and popular sectors, as well as in the army and among the middle class and bureaucracy. Separating the legacy of rebellion from below and working-class politics from the elements of populism, deference to strongman authority and cross-class alliances with sections of the ruling and middle classes will take time.

Todd Chretien contributed to this article.