Chávez landslide

After Chávez's victory in the presidential election, Venezuela is at the crossroads, writes Nick Rogers. The working class must assert its political independence

With tens of thousands of jubilant supporters - most sporting red shirts and many the trademark red beret - cheering his every word, Hugo Chávez announced from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace the arrival of "a new era, a point of departure and a point of advance". What is more, "The fundamental strategic line is the deepening and widening of the Bolivarian revolution towards socialism."

On December 3 Chávez won his third presidential election with 63% of the vote. This was several percentage points higher than his margin of victory in 1998 and 2000, but - despite the 70% turnout by the 16 million-strong electorate - almost three million votes short of the 10 million Chávez had set as his campaign target.

Still, the victory is emphatic and, for once, the opposition candidate - on this occasion, Manuel Rosales of the non-traditional party, Nuevo Tiempo (New Time), and governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia - has not called foul. He conceded defeat relatively gracefully as soon as the result became obvious. A year ago the opposition withdrew from congressional elections just a few days before the vote, claiming the voting system was rigged. Then Chávez supporters ended up with pretty much all the seats. This removed any legislative block to the progress of the "Bolivarian revolution", but allowed the Venezuelan opposition and, significantly, the Bush White House to continue to paint the Chávez regime as presiding over an authoritarian state. This time round, some of the traditional political parties, such as Democratic Action (AD), continued to call for a boycott of the political process - no doubt realising that Chávez would not be beaten.

The election campaign of Rosales resorted to scaremongering. At his final election rally on November 25 Rosales claimed that "Socialism of the 21st century" (the declared objective of Chávez) was an attempt to "control the life of the Venezuelans, tell them what to eat, how much to eat, how to study, so that we all depend on the state ..." He went on to repeat that constant refrain of the Venezuelan middle classes and bourgeoisie that Chávez is heading towards "Castro communism" and the "Cubanisation of Venezuela". Several months earlier in an interview with a Miami TV station Rosales had made an ill-advised, if illuminating, comment that was interpreted as an attack on Venezuela's poor, the main recipients of Chávez's welfare programmes. Referring to "the 33% of what they call Chavismo", he dubbed the majority of them "parasites who live off the government and are subsidised by the state".

The Rosales rally attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. Chávez's rallies mobilised equally large numbers, demonstrating that Venezuelan society continues to be highly polarised. Chávez, of course, survived a military coup in 2002 that for 48 hours removed him from office; a two-month employer lock-out that closed down most of the oil industry; and in 2004 a recall referendum. Rosales had signed the so-called Carmona decree, promulgated by the 2002 coup leaders that dissolved the national assembly and supreme court - a fact he has been frequently reminded of over the last few months, but which he now describes as a "mistake".

Despite the acrimony that always accompanies tests of power between Chávez and the bourgeois opposition, some within the government are keen to put out conciliatory feelers. José Vicente Rangel, writing in his regular newspaper column, on December 4 advised: "The faction of the opposition that has reacted sensibly to their defeat and demonstrated its democratic vocation should be taken into consideration. Chávez needs interlocutors beyond Chavismo."

The Chávez regime has consistently shown a reluctance to drive home a decisive political advantage. In April 2002 Chávez was swept back to the presidency on a human tide of protest descending from the shanty towns that ring Caracas. Mass protests erupted in other Venezuelan cities. This was the first time during the Chávez presidency that the mass of the working class and poor had become active participants in the "Bolivarian revolution". Chávez's response was to announce that he was "sheathing" his "sword" and to call on his supporters who were occupying the streets of central Caracas to return to their homes. The people Chávez had appointed to the board of the state oil company, precipitating the social crisis at the beginning of 2002, were sacked. Yet several months of official negotiations (overseen by the Organisation of American States) through 2002 led directly to the fierce two-month-long struggle for survival during December-January 2002-03, as Venezuela's bourgeoisie attempted to close down the economy.

Eventually, Chávez did assert his control of the state oil industry (see 'Working class project for Spanish America' Weekly Worker December 1 2005). And once again the working class and poor mobilised to defeat an offensive by the bourgeoisie - the lock-out. The subsequent flow of funds from the oil industry has allowed a massive increase in spending on education, health, housing and other areas of social provision (taking government spending from 19% to 31% of GDP). Much of this has been delivered via missiones that circumvent the traditional ministries and in some cases allow for a degree of working class self-organisation. And, since the beginning of 2005, a handful of factories have been nationalised (usually following occupations by their workers). Elements of workers' self-management have been introduced in these and some other state enterprises - the most far-reaching probably being in the state-owned aluminium company.

But what remains most striking after eight years of the "Bolivarian revolution" (and two years of "21st century socialism") is how little the structure of the state and the economy has been transformed. The degree of obstruction to popular initiatives within the state bureaucracy, including by government ministers, is a constant refrain. Tackling outright corruption was one of the themes of the election campaign. All talk of grassroots, participative democracy - often encouraged by clauses contained within the new constitution, drafted and overwhelmingly approved by referendum in 1999 - will leave no secure, permanent mark, as long as the traditional centres of (essentially undemocratic) power are waiting in the wings to seize back the political initiative.

The economy remains manifestly a capitalist one. The Chávez government has launched no major wave of nationalisation. And, as the economy has rapidly expanded in recent years on the back of the oil boom, the capitalist class has been amongst the beneficiaries, leading some commentators to speak of a boli-burguesia (Bolivarian bourgeoisie). An article in The Financial Times (not usually a journal that is overly supportive of Chávez) carried a headline on August 17 boasting, "Venezuelan bankers get rich from Chávez revolution". Venezuelan finance capital is in fine fettle. The FT reports that bank assets rose from $29.3 billion to $39.8 billion in 2005 and "the consumer load portfolio has increased by about 200% over the past two years". Despite this good fortune, Venezuela's banking fraternity express hostility to new regulations forcing them to roll out micro-credits and lend to farmers at below-market rates. Undoubtedly, the financial section of the boli-burguesia followed their class instincts and backed Rosales.

Rosales was obliged to make a pitch for the votes of poorer Venezuelans. He spoke of himself as "a new president for the new social democracy" and came up with his own plan for spreading the oil wealth more evenly. He proposed a debit card scheme - labelled Mi Negra (my black one) - that would pay a basic monthly wage for the unemployed among the poor and "lower middle classes" of between $280 and $460, depending on the price and level of production of oil.

Accompanying this proposal was a populist critique of Chávez's use of oil to buy diplomatic influence around the world, and to try and cement an alliance of nations prepared to stand up to the United States on the world stage. Rosales alleged that Chávez had squandered some $36 billion on ventures such as subsidising the sale of cheap oil products to the poor of the United States (through the Venezuelan-owned Citgo chain of petrol stations).

Certainly Chávez has been engaged in an intensive round of diplomacy that has taken him across Africa and to Byelorussia, Russia, Iran and China. Venezuela withdrew its ambassador from Israel in protest at the invasion of Lebanon. Diplomacy paid off in terms of an arms deal with Russia, a joint car plant with Iran, and investments in the oil industry by China. Across Latin America in 2006 perceived Chávez allies have won elections in Brazil, Nicaragua and Ecuador. In Peru and Mexico the candidates backed by Chávez were less successful - although in Mexico Là³pez Obrador is contesting the outcome of the presidential election.

Many of Chávez's hopes for a breakthrough in 2006 were focussed on securing a non-permanent place for Venezuela on the United Nations security council. Chávez returned from his travels seemingly confident that he had secured enough votes in the general assembly. However, in the exhaustive ballots (in which votes are cast in secret) Venezuela led only once and ultimately Panama emerged as the successful compromise candidate. Chávez's speech to the general assembly, in which he likened Bush to the devil and complained of the stench of sulphur, is cited as the moment when the tide turned against Venezuela's candidacy.

The salient point, however, is that an 'anti-imperialist front' with the likes of Iran, Byelorussia, Russia, China and Zimbabwe, all of whose presidents Chávez has hailed as brothers in arms, is a very poor substitute for building solidarity with the oppressed and exploited working classes of these countries - and with the working class of Latin America. A platform on the UN's security council would do next to nothing to advance this objective. That is to confuse diplomacy (necessary even for a workers' state) with a genuine revolutionary solidarity - which is built by revolutionary organisations and parties, rather than state to state.

But then it is far from clear that Chávez and his closest political allies understand "21st century socialism" to mean more than the development of a strong national capitalism sustaining a generous welfare state in a multi-polar world where the hyper-imperialism of the United States is held in check.

Earlier in the year the independent trade confederation, the UNT, was thrown into crisis when the factions closest to Chávez refused to countenance electing an executive (formed in 2003, the federation is yet to democratically elect its leadership). Their spurious (and as it turns out, futile) justification was that all efforts must be turned to securing 10 million votes for Chávez.

Chávez's election platform was given the title of the Simon Bolivar National Project. Its key themes were a new socialist ethic against corruption; a new socialist productive model; revolutionary participative democracy; the "Bolivarian ideal of supreme social happiness"; balanced internal economic development; the promotion of a multi-polar world; and the further development of the Orinoco heavy-petroleum belt to make Venezuela a global energy power.

For all the socialist rhetoric of the platform, it is two political initiatives promoted by Chávez during the election campaign that require a response from Venezuelan socialists and working class activists. First, at a rally on September 9 Chávez called for a single united political party of the Bolivarian revolution "to represent the republic and the revolution to the world and establish the strongest connections with the greatest revolutionary parties throughout the world". The party, which will presumably unite Chavez's own MVR movement with the various parties that represent factions of the left in the governing coalition, is scheduled to be launched next year.

How will the groups discussing the launch of a Party of Revolution and Socialism orientate towards the new formation? For that matter, how will the parties of government, including the 'official' Communist Party, take up Chávez's challenge? It is striking that the MVR has failed to hold any kind of democratic selection process for most of its congressional and other candidates. Candidate lists are handed down from on high, thereby breaking specific provisions of the Bolivarian constitution.

Second, Chávez has continued to give very broad hints that he intends to change the constitution to remove the two-term limit for presidential candidates that was introduced in the 2000 constitution. That provision, which also extended the term of the presidency from five to six-years, replaced the previous one-term limit. It looks as if Chávez intends to hold a referendum midway though this presidency to allow him to stand again in 2012.

It is now that the Venezuelan working class must assert its political independence. By 2012 Chávez will have been in office for 14 years. A revolutionary process that is dependent on one man is headed towards bureaucratisation - or counterrevolution.

The working class needs its own independent political party prepared to take up the revolutionary tasks that confront it. The revolutionary left and working class militants should demand a general redrafting of the constitution - not just a change to extend the power of Chávez. The presidency itself should be abolished - along with state governors and city mayors. An elective monarchy (along with lots of petty monarchs for each state) is not a framework within which working class, let alone socialist, revolution can be made.

Political institutions should be established at the national, state and municipal levels that involve annual elections and the right to recall representatives at any time - not just midway through their term, as is the position in the current constitution. The regular army should be replaced with a popular militia.

By emphasising extreme democracy the working class can recast the balance of political power in Venezuela. Then it will be in a position to build alliances across Latin America and the globe that could really contribute to building a new world.