Working class project for Spanish America

Nick Rogers looks at the contradictions in the Bolivarian revolution and calls for the building of workers' unity across the continent to defend and extend the gains won in Venezuela

The seven years since Hugo Chávez was elected president have witnessed titanic political and social struggles in Venezuela. A military coup that toppled Chávez, but collapsed after 48 hours. A two-month long 'strike' - probably better described as a lockout - jointly organised by the bosses' federation and the principal trade union centre, that successfully shut down the bulk of oil production. And last year a recall referendum that the opposition confidently expected to win, but that, much to their disgust, saw Chávez returned to office. Throughout the period the social passions that divide Venezuelan society have been played out on the streets in demonstrations that on both sides regularly number in the hundreds of thousands. On the international stage Chávez has earned the enmity of US neo-conservatives. Hardly surprising, given his vocal opposition to the Iraq war, his ties with the regimes in Iran and China and, only a few weeks ago, his thwarting of Bush's plans for a free trade area for the Americas. His Latin American axis with Fidel Castro is obviously particularly inflammatory. What are socialists to make of the process in Venezuela that Chávez styles the "Bolivarian revolution", and how should we orientate towards it? The question needs to be asked because for most of his political career Chávez has left his ideological position deliberately unclear. While expressing his desire to improve the conditions of Venezuela's impoverished masses and clearly taking an anti-imperialist stand, Chávez until this year refused to hitch his project to explicitly socialist objectives. Indeed, his first speech as president declared: "We are exploring the middle ground, where the invisible hand of the market joins up with the visible hand of the state: as much state as necessary, and as much market as possible." In its first six years Chávez's government nationalised not a single capitalist enterprise and welcomed foreign investment even in the strategically critical oil industry. In 2005 - despite Chávez declaring his allegiance to "21st century socialism" - still only a handful of failing companies have been taken into the public sector. Indeed, in terms of intervening in the country's basic economic structure, Chávez has been much less radical than several previous Venezuelan governments - governments that enjoyed perfectly good relations with Venezuela's ruling classes. The first presidency of Democratic Action's Carlos Andrés Pérez (1974-79), for instance, nationalised the whole oil industry, poured state money into new, nationalised industrial complexes and increased welfare provision without precipitating any kind of social crisis. So why are Venezuela's bourgeoisie and most of its middle classes, along with international capital, so unremittingly, even venomously, hostile to the politics of Chávez? The answer to that question brings us closer to an understanding of both the contradictions within the "Bolivarian revolution" and the strategy required of socialists. The caudillo Hugo Chávez is at the centre of the unfolding political process in Venezuela. It was Chávez's election as president in December 1998 and his inauguration in February 1999 that turned Venezuelan politics on its head. Many from all sides of the political spectrum characterise Chávez as part of the venerable Latin American tradition of the military caudillo. The history of the continent is replete with political strongmen from a military background, often prepared to implement measures of a populist nature in order to curry a loyal following among sections of the working class, peasantry and petty bourgeoisie. Examples range from classic military dictators to the nationalist populism of Juan Peron and his wife, Eva. Many aspects of Chávez's rule fit this profile. His charismatic personality dominates his political movement and the whole of Venezuela. His portrait adorns murals across the country. His photograph accompanies the campaign of literature of the candidates for the ruling Movement for a Fifth Republic (MVR). On television his weekly alo Presidente show, occasionally featuring six-hour-long speeches - along with almost daily appearances on the government TV channel and in government adverts across the networks - helps to counter the opposition's control of the majority of the media. Just a few days ago, his spat with Mexican president Vicente Fox was enlivened when Chávez, adorned with a sombrero, crooned Mexican songs as a sign of his respect for the Mexican people and their culture - a typically public and highly personal diplomatic offensive. This personalised form of politics extends to Chávez's role in holding together the disparate forces within the MVR. Without his constant intervention to pacify rivalries and often effectively impose candidates, his political movement would undoubtedly disintegrate. And, with Chávez, the personal becomes political to the extent that his family is conscripted into politics. His father is elected governor of the Chávez home state of Barinas. His brother, Adán, was minister of agrarian reform and is now ambassador to Cuba. Even his second wife, Marisabel Rodrà­guez, was elected to the 1999 constitutional assembly. Furthermore, colonel Chávez is from a military background. His first attempt to take power (in February 1992) was in a military coup. And his political longevity since his election as president has depended largely on his support within the military, thus blocking the option of a conservative coup against him. The one attempt to move against him from within the military high command was ended within two days. His subsequent sacking of 60 members of the conservative top brass appears to have succeeded in consolidating his support at the apex of the military hierarchy. Chávez has used military resources to deliver crucial parts of his programme of social reform. In the poorest urban shantytowns and rural communities soldiers have been put to work building schools and health centres and completing infrastructure projects. After the December 1999 mudslides that left tens of thousands dead or homeless, the army was mobilised to help with reconstruction as well as immediate relief. Ex-military colleagues have been appointed to important positions in the cabinet and state corporations and have been elected to governorships and other political positions. Nor is there any denying that Chávez has actively engaged with the concept of the caudillo. After his early release from the prison term handed down to him for plotting his 1992 coup, an influential adviser was the Argentinian historian, Norberto Ceresole. Once a leftwing Peronist, Ceresole had moved to the right to the extent of backing the coup against Isabel Peron in 1976 and supporting the 'dirty war' against the left. Seeing Jewish conspiracies behind many domestic and international political events, he embraced a politics that was patently a species of fascism. Yet Chávez was attracted by Ceresole's theorisation of the transforming role a caudillo could play - maintaining a close dialogue with the masses while integrating the army into revolutionary nationalist politics. Ceresole cited the examples of Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru and Omar Torrà­jos of Panama. As a young junior officer in 1974, Chávez was sent on a programme to Peru, where he was enthused by the example of Velasco Alvarado, a populist military leader, carrying through attempts at land reform and social modernisation. During the same period he came into contact with the son of Torrà­jos, Panama's anti-imperialist military leader, whose 1977 canal zone treaty with Jimmy Carter in 1999 not only saw the canal revert to Panamanian control, but the US military's southern command left homeless. Venezuelan Bonapartism? The caudillo is a Latin American version of a universal phenomenon: Bonapartism. And the charge of Bonapartism is often levelled against Chávez - most recently by Paul Hampton of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (Solidarity November 3). Yet, lazily applied, this Marxist category contributes little to the analysis of current Venezuelan politics. 'Bonapartism' describes a type of regime in which an essentially authoritarian figure exercises executive state power outside the norms of bourgeois constitutional rule. The bourgeoisie will generally tolerate an executive state authority that appears to act independently of class interests, in order to resolve a pressing social crisis. The 'resolution' of the crisis is achieved primarily by containing - or smashing - the organisations of the working class. Originally deployed by Marx in analysing the rule of Napoleon III and the acquiescence by the liberal bourgeoisie to his unconstitutional seizure of power, the concept has proved useful in analysing a variety of bourgeois state forms. But Chávez is hardly a classic 'Bonaparte'. Above all, he has acted with careful constitutional propriety - albeit within a constitution that was radically redrafted in the course of 1999. There are no political prisoners in Venezuela. The only political assassinations are those carried out by opponents of Chávez's programme, particularly in the struggle for land reform. No newspapers have been closed, nor any TV channels expropriated - the bulk of the media continues to churn out virulent opposition to every progressive initiative. No political parties or associations are banned. No opposition candidates are proscribed. Even the coup plotters of 2002 remain at liberty, free to justify their actions in TV interviews and in print, after the supreme court ruled that no coup had taken place - rather the intervention by the military high command had filled a political "vacuum". It was Pedro Carmona, the leader of the business federation, Fedecámaras, sworn in as president during Chávez's brief overthrow, who abolished all representative institutions, including the national assembly, and sacked all governors and mayors. A witch-hunt was launched against the supporters of Chávez, with a well-known TV presenter declaring, "If you know their whereabouts, denounce them!" Left influences In other words, a simplistic reference to Chávez's military background and charismatic role fails to describe the extent to which his personal political history is bound up with an important section of Venezuela's left. Even today, Chávez's cabinet and political movement are filled not only with ex-military colleagues, but also with long-serving stalwarts of left politics. By the time Chávez joined the army in 1971 as a 17-year-old, a low-level guerrilla war was coming to an end. The attempt to replicate the Cuban revolution had absorbed the energies of much of the Venezuelan left during the 1960s (as was the case elsewhere in Latin America). As a newly graduated officer on the regulation counter-insurgency mission, Chávez says that the levels of rural poverty and neglect shocked him, as did the corruption and cynicism of the senior officers. By his own account, he began to sympathise with the aims of the rebels he was fighting. Other junior officers had similar experiences. Several subversive cells were established in the Venezuelan military. Chávez's first, in 1977, was the rather grandiosely-named Venezuelan People's Liberation Army. In 1982 he formed the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR-200) - the '200' signifying the 200th anniversary of the birth of Simà³n Bolà­var. MBR-200 remains a tightly-knit organisation of Chávez's most trusted supporters. Close political ties were maintained between these military initiatives and the civilian left that had emerged from the wreckage of the guerrilla strategy of the 1960s. The left that matters in the story of Hugo Chávez emerged as breakaways from the mainstream Venezuelan Communist Party - as described by Richard Gott (Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution 2005). Most were involved, in one capacity or another, with the guerrilla struggles of the 1960s. Luà­s Miquilena, a leader of the bus drivers' union in Caracas in the 1940s, first formed an anti-Stalinist communist party in the 1946. Douglas Bravo, a legendary guerrilla leader, launched the Venezuelan Revolutionary Party (PRV) in 1966. The Movement towards Socialism (MAS), whose most prominent leader today is Teodoro Petkoff, emerged from a 1971 conference. Radical Cause (La Causa Radical), whose leaders were also at the 1971 conference, was formed a few months later. All these groups at one time or another discussed the possibility of a military intervention with Hugo Chávez and like-minded officers. Both MAS and La Causa Radical were to split over the question of whether to support Chávez's 1998 presidential election bid. Chávez's brother, Adán, who was a member of the PRV, introduced Chávez to Douglas Bravo in the 1970s. Chávez broke with Bravo in 1992, when the former rejected a more prominent role for the civilian left in his coup attempt with the remark, "Civilians get in the way". Nevertheless, the influence of this left can be seen on the character of the "Bolivarian revolution". The subversive origins of Chávez's incursion into populist politics were perhaps prefigured in the politics of the clandestine guerrilla focos. The Bolivarian movement's support for small-scale local production is an echo of the green-style politics that La Causa Radical came to espouse. And the lack of a democratic revolutionary party (as opposed to the shambles that is the MVR) was prefigured by La Causa Radical's rejection of formal party structures. Bolivarianism For his political ideology, Chávez did not turn to the classics of the socialist canon. Chávez informed Alan Woods (The Venezuelan revolution: a Marxist perspective 2005, p56) that he had not read enough books by Marx to consider himself a Marxist. Those who inspired him were: Simà³n Bolà­var, Venezuela's native-born national hero; Simà³n Rodrà­guez, who urged Spanish Americans to find original political and social solutions; and Ezequiel Zamora, an advocate of land reform and fierce opposition to the oligarchy. Others on the left had already taken this path. Back in 1969 Pedro Duno, the chief ideologue of Bravo's PRV, had produced a document entitled Marxism-Leninism-Bolivarianism. Bolà­var was clearly a protagonist of the capitalist class of his day. But his vision of the political unity of the South American continent - along with his anti-imperialist strategy with regard to the United States - have still to be realised. In the words of Chávez: "The contradiction in Bolà­var's thought are not the determining factor. What we can see in the period of history between 1810 and 1830 are the outlines of a national project for Spanish America." Bourgeois crisis If the capitalist and middle class opposition to Chávez proved itself in April 2002 more than prepared to resort to Bonapartist politics, one thing is abundantly clear: the Venezuelan bourgeoisie does not see Hugo Chávez as their Bonapartist saviour. And that despite a genuine crisis of Venezuela's political regime that had lasted throughout the decade before the election of Chávez and that cried out for a radical solution to restore Venezuelan capitalism to a stable footing. In February 1989 a spontaneous uprising of the urban poor greeted a package of neoliberal policies pushed through by Carlos Andrés Peréz in his second presidential incarnation - in a complete reversal of his statist, import-substituting policies of the 1970s. The days of street protests and looting carried out mainly by the shantytown dwellers of Caracas in response to a sharp rise in bus fares were named the Caracazo, but this uprising was ended by fierce military repression that left several hundred dead. It was the crucial turning point in the politics of Venezuela that prepared the ground for Chávez's entry onto the scene. The Caracazo and the Chávez coup together marked the collapse of the relatively stable period of bourgeois rule that followed the overthrow of the dictator, Jerez Jimenez, in 1958. Two parties, Democratic Action (AD), left-of-centre and affiliated to the Socialist International, and COPEI, a christian democratic formation, had alternated in political office. For 30 years they had maintained an agreement, known as the Punto Fijo to share the spoils of political office (jobs and appointments) according to their respective shares of the popular vote. The enormous resources provided by oil revenues were the economic basis of puntofijismo. In the 1960s Venezuela played a leading part in the more aggressive stance adopted by Opec and enjoyed rapid rates of economic growth and rising social expenditures. The good times came abruptly to an end in the 1980s, as oil prices fell and interest rates on Venezuela's large debt rose. Carlos Andrés Peréz, after his election for a second time as president in 1988, faced the crunch. Chávez's 1992 coup quickly fell apart, as it failed to meet any of its early tactical objectives. But his one-minute-long appearance on TV - to call on the other coup leaders to surrender - was enough to endear him to large swathes of the Venezuelan population. A charismatic, apparently honest, ex-military officer, speaking the language of the people, condemning corruption and politicians who failed to honour their pledges, was always likely to make a major political impact in the years to come. After the Peréz turn to neoliberalism, the Caracazo and the Chávez coup, neither AD nor COPEI were ever again to win a national election. Peréz was impeached for corruption by his own deputies in 1993. The presidential elections of later that year returned to office the old COPEI leader, Caldera, standing on an independent ticket, having broken with his own party. In the same election the candidate of La Causa Radical received over 20% of the poll, an unprecedented result for a leftwing candidate. And during this period La Causa Radical was to achieve electoral success both at national and provincial level, returning two governors and several deputies. Although Teodoro Petkoff, the leading figure in MAS, joined the Caldera government, neoliberalism remained the order of the day. Petkoff was to be a key figure in the left that opposed Chávez. Reversing neoliberalism The traditional social and political establishment was initially ill prepared for the election of Hugo Chávez. With their traditional political vehicles reduced to insignificance, for a while during the 1998 presidential election campaign they pinned their hopes on a former beauty queen. Chávez's populist election campaign came from behind to sweep all before him. He won with 56% of the vote. For his first couple of years Chávez faced little organised opposition. The elections to the constitutional assembly saw Chávez supporters take an overwhelming majority of the delegates. In fresh presidential elections, organised after the new constitution was endorsed in a referendum, Chávez again won more than half the vote. It was the publication of 49 enabling laws covering a range of social and economic policies that precipitated the formation of an organised opposition to Chávez. Two of the decrees caused particular outrage among the capitalist class and continue to be at the heart of Venezuela's political conflict. The law on land reform prohibited landholdings of more than 5,000 hectares and gave the government powers to take over idle or unproductive land. The hydrocarbons law reiterated the prohibition, enshrined in the new constitution, on the privatisation of the state oil company, Petrà³leos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), placed limits on foreign investment (restricted to joint ventures in which PDVSA took a 51% share) and moved to increase oil royalties to 30%. It was the moves by the Chávez government to take control of oil industry that provoked the most immediate howls of outrage. Oil is crucial to Venezuela's economy and the source of the surpluses controlled by Venezuela's elite - it accounts for roughly a quarter of Venezuela's GDP, 80% of export earnings and half of government revenues. The Caldera government had been moving to privatise the industry, providing manifestly rich pickings for Venezuela's bourgeoisie. None more so than the effectively autonomous executive of the PDVSA - already earning salaries ranging from $100,000 to $4 million - who were strong supporters of oil privatisation. From the day it took office the Chávez government put in place a multi-pronged strategy, led by the energy and mines minister, Alà­ Rodrà­guez - now foreign minister. First, it sought to increase international oil prices. Venezuelan overproduction had been a factor in the fall in oil prices in the 1990s. Rodrà­guez immediately set off on a tour of Opec capitals to announce that the new Venezuelan government would not only stick to its quotas, but urge a more vigorous Opec pricing and production regime. The government had announced a cut in oil production and agreed with other Opec members a $22-$28 target for oil prices (up from a low of $10 during the Caldera government). Second, the government moved to bring PDVSA under ministry control, insisting that it would appoint the corporation's executive. Third, the extensive foreign investment strategy of the PDVSA executive was brought to an end - although PDVSA maintains its existing overseas holdings, including the Citgo chain of petrol stations in the United States. Fourth, government taxation of PDVSA was switched from income to royalties on production. This ended the possibility of the transfer pricing that had seen government revenues tumble, as PDVSA offset less profitable (or loss-making) investments overseas against profits on Venezuelan production. The Chávez government has also looked at diversifying its oil export markets. Venezuela exports 58% of its oil to the US, supplying 14% of total US oil imports. These moves - especially the government's appointment of a new PDVSA executive and managing director - led to the first opposition strikes in December 2001 and then the series of mass demonstrations in April 2002 that provided the cover for the anti-Chávez coup. Again, the December 2002-January 2003 strike/lockout had its most devastating effect in the oil industry. The opposition, organised under the umbrella of Democratic Coordination, brought together a motley, but fairly effective, crew. At its heart were the principal business organisations: eg, Fedecámaras, the employers federation, and Venamcham, the Venezuelan-American chamber of commerce. But a crucial ally was the traditional union centre, the Confederation of Venezuelan Trade Unions (CTV). Founded in 1936, the CTV traditionally had close links with Democratic Action. La Causa Radical had fought to overturn its bureaucratic and corrupt leadership for 20 years, but the bureaucracy had resorted to suspending whole unions in order to block the advance of the left. The last attempt to wrest control from the old CTV regime came in October 2001 - in elections mandated under the new constitution. The representative of Democratic Action, Carlos Ortega, won with 57%. Accusations of ballot-rigging notwithstanding, the result was a fateful one. The CTV was to provide the opposition's shock troops. Ortega was to stand alongside Carmona on the day of the April 2002 coup. The CTV was central to the 2002/03 strike/lockout. Alongside the capitalist-union bureaucracy alliance, Democratic Coordination encompassed a score of political parties and greater number of foot-loose political refugees. These included many an old leftist, including Chávez's political fixer during his first two years as president, Luà­s Miquilena, who insisted the 49 enabling laws be withdrawn when the level of opposition to them became apparent, and jumped ship when Chávez refused. The struggle through 2002 and into 2003 (and reviving in 2004, as Chávez fought a recall referendum) was fierce with no guarantee of survival for the government. The prize of success was to establish a firm foundation for the continuation of his Bolivarian revolution: a healthy flow of resources for the state as a consequence of high international oil prices and the shift to royalties. Government spending has risen from 19% to 31% of GDP. It is the resources provided, above all, by oil which have enabled the sharp rise in social spending, as the Plan Bolà­var of the first years of Chávez has given way to the wide variety of missions. Missions have been established outside the traditional ambit of the state bureaucracy to target spending into the previously neglected communities in the poorest shantytowns (known in Venezuela as ranchos) and the underdeveloped hinterland. Missions promote, for instance, adult literacy, education, community healthcare, low-cost food markets, house building, and community employment schemes. Spending has also been allocated to the concept of endogenous development: integrated local community schemes in urban and rural areas that combine small-scale production with a range of social facilities. Usually funding is for cooperative enterprises. Chávez speaks of his ambition to reverse the flow of population to the cities (mostly located along the coast); even of repopulating the Venezuelan interior. His land reform policies are designed to support this vision. Venezuela is actually a highly urbanised society and only 10% of the population are involved in agriculture. Chavez's government has also transferred property titles to householders in the shantytowns, most of whom were previously occupying state land illegally. What Chávez has not sought to do is expropriate the Venezuelan capitalist class or international capital (a range of US oil companies exploit concessions in the heavy crude belt of the eastern Orinoco). In effect the Bolivarian revolution has re-established the economic basis that underpinned the post-1958 settlement, when strong oil revenues allowed the ruling elite to incorporate at least the most organised sections of the working class into a stable bourgeois regime. The hostility of the present-day Venezuelan capitalist class to the Chávez government is an object lesson in the transformation that has taken place over the last 30 years in the political economy of international capitalism. The state is still expected to support its national capital, but nationalised industries and social provision are now seen as a field for the garnering of monopoly (or semi-monopoly) profits once the state has sold them off. The Bolivarian revolution brought a halt to the privatisations and consequently to the rewards that the richest Venezuelans expected to reap. The impact of neoliberal policies in less-developed economies, whose states exercise little influence in the international arena, can serve to undermine national capital. The lowering of trade barriers and the removal of restrictions on foreign companies have swept away many a national industry. The failure of Venezuelan capitalists or any substantial section of the middle class to rally to the side of Chávez reflects in part the close links that have been established between Venezuelan and US capital. The wealthiest Venezuelans are educated in US universities. They seek to establish businesses that are joint ventures with US capital or are closely interlinked with the US economy. Or they seek jobs with US corporations. Popular participation But neoliberalism does not just serve capitalism's economic interests: it has a political content and objective - the weakening of the organisations of the working class. A strategy of making concessions to the working class becomes less pressing once the capitalist class has won a long-term victory in the class struggle. Chávez's Bolivarian revolution has brought the popular masses onto the political stage and, therefore, threatens the advantage that Venezuela's capitalists thought they had secured. The role of mass organisations in Venezuela's political process is not an unambiguous one. Popular decision-making takes place within a severely restricted arena, but the class struggle has reached new heights. The constitution of 1999 that inaugurated the fifth republic reflects the contradictions in the process. The constitution gives social and economic rights to citizens in relation to health, education and jobs. It makes provision for popular participation in local government and for the recall of all elected officials (a provision the opposition seized on in their struggle against Chávez). It strengthens workers' rights, including the right to strike. Yet at the same time the powers of the presidency are considerably strengthened (with respect to proposing legislation, dissolving the national assembly and making appointments) and its term extended from five to six years. An elected president is now permitted to seek immediate re-election once - a provision which will allow Chávez to stand in next year's presidential election. The paperback version of the constitution is the 'little blue book' of the Bolivarian revolution. Its provisions are examined in community study groups and in discussions on state TV. It is carried on political demonstrations. There is no doubt that it has galvanised into political activity many of those previously excluded from the political process. The key question for socialists is how far the organisations that have been thrown up by the Bolivarian revolution over the last seven years serve to give independent political life to the working class and the poor masses who have sustained Chávez's presidency. Chávez has himself not taken much of an interest in trade union organisation. He has built his political project on the majority of the working class who are unorganised (at the time of his election the CTV organised probably no more than 12% of the workforce) or work within the informal sector. It is possible to see much of the organised working class as a privileged labour aristocracy. Many of the oil workers who went on strike, for instance, earned relatively high wages that were paid in dollars. Eighteen thousand of them were sacked after the defeat of the 2002-03 closure of the oil industry. However, in economies containing large informal sectors, the working class in the major industries will always appear relatively privileged simply by virtue of receiving a regular wage, if nothing more. And even more so if they have won advantages through trade union activity. But the working class remains the social force that can bring the functioning of society to a halt - as the struggles of 2002 and 2003 proved. Even as sympathetic a commentator as Richard Gott refers to the relative inactivity of the Venezuelan poor in the first few years of the Chávez's presidency - interested spectators to the political drama, but not participants. It took the strengthening of the rightwing opposition to spur the inhabitants of the shantytowns to organise themselves. In December 2001, three years after his election, Chávez launched the Bolivarian Circles - designed to combine local development work with political activity. It was the popular response to the April 2002 coup that demonstrated that the social classes that were involved in the Caracazo of 1989 were now a political force to be reckoned with. Hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans filled the centre of Caracas and other cities and, along with loyal regiments, brought the coup to an end. Similar community organisation undermined the lockout of 2002-03. Sections of the oil workers refused to close their production facilities or refineries. The bulk of the working class in the vast state industrial complexes of Ciudad Guyana rejected the strike call and defied managers who tried to force them to abandon their workplaces. Communities occupied schools and insisted that their children's education would continue. Electoral Battle Units formed to defend Chávez in the recall referendum of August 2004 have morphed into Endogenous Battle Units. These decisive political battles have pulled the popular movements to the left and forced Chávez to respond more readily to their demands. From 2003 supporters of Chávez and independent workers came together to launch a new trade union confederation to challenge the CTV. The National Union of Workers (UNT) appears to have dramatically overtaken the CTV, if reports of membership figures, the comparative number of national industrial agreements and turnout at this year's May Day demonstrations are anything to go by. 2005 has seen moves to introduce elements of workers' co-management in state firms with the promise of similar arrangements in the private sector - as a taster for the somewhat ill-defined "socialism of the 21st century". A number of firms whose bosses have tried to run down production and faced occupations from their workers have been nationalised. Prospects The 'Bolivarian revolution' relies heavily on the role of Chávez, combining elements of left populism with a highly personalised style of leadership. However, Chávez's adherence to formal democratic norms provides opportunities for both the rightwing opposition and those seeking to develop independent working class politics. It is the absence of authoritarian methods, that makes it difficult to deliver a verdict of 'Bonapartism'. In essence, an attempt is being made in Venezuela to fashion a version of social democracy behind the protective walls of a supportive military apparatus and state control of the oil industry and the revenue stream it provides. But a social democratic regime in the era of neoliberalism must be a highly unstable form. The polarisation of social forces in Venezuela today is the consequence. So what are the prospects for the Bolivarian revolution? Given the strength of the opposition, the overthrow of Chávez through a successful coup, or more likely assassination, remains a possibility. However, after three unsuccessful attempts to remove him, the opposition is currently suffering from a loss of morale. It may not even succeed in presenting a single candidate in the 2006 presidential election, which, in any case, Chávez is expected to win. The second option is that Chávez does take a Bonapartist turn by making a deal with Venezuela's capitalists to stabilise the social basis of his regime. He would have to roll back many of the social advances the Venezuelan working class has achieved - especially those which encourage popular self-activity. Trotsky described a version of Bonapartism sui generis (a special case) in Latin America, in which a strong leader, in the absence of a viable bourgeoisie, performs the latter's national tasks. Such a leader may well make alliances with a relatively strong working class, while attempting to negotiate a more favourable dispensation for his national capitalism with the dominant imperialism. Ultimately he must neuter the challenge of working class before it takes power in its own right. Chávez has shown a willingness to conciliate. After the 2002 coup attempt, he declared that he would "sheath his sword", and removed the new executive he had sought to impose on the PDVSA. After the 2002-03 lockout he also accepted international mediation. All to no avail. Each attempt to negotiate has been met with a new upsurge of ferocious opposition. It is in fact the bourgeois opposition that has forced Chávez to rely almost exclusively on his mass base and has, therefore, continually pushed the process of the 'Bolivarian revolution' to the left. The third possibility is that revolutionary socialists get their act together and exert greater influence on the course of events. A socialist party around which the most politicised sections of the working class can coalesce is an urgent requirement. Currently a number of mainly Trotskyist groups, plus several prominent UNT leaders, are working to launch the Party of Revolution and Socialism early in 2006. Demands for nationalisation and an extension of workers' control will form an important part of the programme. Chávez has made no move to break the hierarchy within the military - although there is talk of militias and 'asymmetric' warfare. It is the task of socialists to advance the agenda of democratising military power. It is vital that a new party also engages with the democratic content of the political process in Venezuela - socialists should respond to the democratic opening that Chávez has provided. A new political dispensation is necessary. A semi-monarchical form of presidential government (as exists also in the French Fifth Republic or the United States) cannot serve the interest of the working class. Slogans such as "People's power in the hands of a great leader" demean the concept of democracy. A revolution that depends on one man has no serious prospect of success. Socialists should demand a new constituent assembly to draft a constitution that will place executive as well legislative power in the hands of the national assembly and remove all but the most nominal powers from the presidency. The social and political gains of the last seven years can only be defended and taken forward in a sixth republic. Finally, Chávez has placed the issue of Latin American political unity centre-stage. The building of working class unity across South America will be vital for the success of a socialist project on the continent.