All power to Chávez?

Nick Rogers analyses the sharpening contradictions within the process known as the 'Bolivarian revolution'

Hugo Chávez is emphasising more strongly than ever the "socialist" nature of the revolution he is leading, having first introduced the concept of "21st century socialism" at the beginning of 2005.

At his inauguration on January 11 of this year, he declared: "Fatherland, socialism or death - I swear it"; and added for good measure: "I swear by Christ, the greatest socialist in history". He has gone as far as announcing, "I'm very much of Trotsky's line - the permanent revolution".

On the other hand, despite a plethora of supposedly grassroots organisational forms, even more power is being concentrated in the hands of the presidency amid worrying signs that autonomous working class organisations are being consistently undermined.


Certainly, Chávez has delivered on the promises made around the time of his inauguration to nationalise the largest privatised electricity and telephone companies: "All of that which was privatised, let it be nationalised ... The nation should recover its ownership of strategic sectors." The targets were Electricidad de Caracas (EdC), owned by the US corporation AES, and CA National Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV), effectively a subsidiary of US Verizon Communications.

Following initial capitalist fears that little or no compensation would be paid for these companies, and a subsequent sharp fall in the value of their shares, the Venezuelan government paid the market price for a sufficient number of shares to gain majority ownership, greatly reassuring investors in the country's buoyant stock exchange that the bark of Chávez is often worse than his bite.

The renegotiation of the stakes of the foreign oil corporations in the Orinoco heavy crude belt, also promised by Chávez, went less smoothly. If the more optimistic forecasts about the reserves of oil in the Orinoco region - albeit of oil that is more difficult to process - prove at all well-founded, Venezuela will find itself sitting on the first or second largest reserves in the world (lifting it from its current fifth place).

These stakes have never been the exclusive preserve of PdVSA, Venezuela's state-owned oil company, being worked by a variety of US and other foreign oil majors. Chávez has always recognised the importance to his revolution of controlling oil revenues, allowing a massive increase in social spending and a highly activist foreign policy, most recently proposing withdrawal from the IMF and World Bank.

One of the key issues that led to the military coup against Chávez was his attempt to curtail the independence of the PdVSA board of directors and replace it with his own supporters. This year Chávez has moved to take majority control in the Orinoco projects. At the end of June PdVSA increased its stake from an average of 40% to 78% in the four most significant oil projects - with a combined total of at least $25 billion. The US majors, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil, decided to pull out. Negotiations are continuing with Chevron, Total, BP, and Norway's Statoil.

But extending state control of the economy - although a fairly unique phenomenon in a world where neoliberalism has held increasing sway over the last couple of decades - does not equate to socialism, 21st century or otherwise. The crucial measure of the socialist credentials of the 'Bolivarian revolution' is whether the political and social power of the working class is being expanded.

Different forms of 'workers' management' and 'co-management' were introduced in a number of mostly state-owned companies two or three years ago. The process appears to have stalled. Chávez is now talking about launching workers' councils. The role these bodies will take on is not clear. What is known is that calls to give oil workers a say in the running of their industry have been resisted due to the 'strategic' nature of the industry. And in neither CANTV nor EdC (nor a number of smaller electricity companies the state has acquired) has changing the worker-management relationship been a major concern.

Chávez has also made clear that he has no intention of eliminating the private sector: "We do not have a statist model that everything will be of the state. Is it possible that there are private businesses in socialism? Yes. I would even say, in Venezuela it is not only possible, but necessary."

But Chávez is prepared to use the threat of nationalisation to achieve strategic economic objectives. In May he demanded that the steel company Sidor - privatised in 1998 - and Venezuela's banks cooperate more readily with national economic plans on pain of being taken into state hands. Sidor is majority-owned by a consortium of Latin American companies, in which the predominant voice is the Argentinean firm, Techint. Sidor's workers organised protests supporting nationalisation - and complaining about the worsening of their conditions since 1998.

However, as expected by most business commentators, especially after the intervention of Argentine president, Néstor Kirchner, on behalf of Techint, a deal was reached in which Sidor lowered steel prices for the Venezuelan market, switched some output from exports to the domestic market and paid a higher price for the iron it buys from the state-owned company, Ferrominera. A similar solution is expected within the banking industry.

There is a tradition of state-led national development in Venezuela. Wartime president Medina Angarita, anti-communist dictator Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s, and would-be social democrat Carlos Andrés Pérez in his 1970s incarnation (before he launched Venezuela's neoliberal phase in 1989 and provoked the Caracazo uprising in the process) all carried out nationalisations and poured money into state-led industrial project. None of these strategies were designed to empower Venezuela's working class. Rather their aim was to foster national economic development and a national capitalism.

Many of Chávez's economic measures fall into a similar corporatist paradigm - combined at times with what sounds to British ears like a Thatcherite imperative to create a popular capitalism. In the course of this year the Venezuelan government has issued a number of bonds to raise money and to remove 'excess liquidity' from an economy suffering 20% inflation. The new finance minister, Rodrigo Cabezas, has hailed these as a "democratisation of capital" and boasted that "there are 300,000 savers who are beginning to understand the culture of capital markets".


The most explosive political issue to confront Chávez so far this year has been the reaction to his decision not to renew the broadcasting licence of Radio Caracas Televisià³n, which expired on May 27. RCTV, running for 52 years - longer than any other TV station - offers a diet primarily of game shows and soaps and consequently is very widely watched. For several weeks after its closure large demonstrations, mostly by students from Venezuela's private universities, seemed to presage a revival of the mass mobilisations of the opposition that were a feature of Chávez's presidency until he decisively took the wind out of the sails of the opposition by winning the recall referendum in 2004.

RCTV was heavily implicated in the April 2002 coup that led to Chávez's removal from power for 48 hours. Its non-stop reporting of the opposition demonstrations and distorted reports of the shootings that were probably the work of military agents provocateurs helped create the atmosphere of crisis that provided the pretext for the military takeover. The channel was thanked on air by the organisers of the coup. Yet, when Chávez's supporters descended from the poor shantytowns to occupy the streets of Caracas and surround the presidential palace, RCTV blanked out its news coverage.

There was patently a strong case for challenging the structure of the media - print as well as TV - which in 2002 were overwhelmingly dominated by tycoons vituperatively hostile to Chávez and even the smallest diminution of the power and wealth of the ruling class. However, in the aftermath of the coup Chávez was in conciliatory mode, seeking to reassure the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. He talked of "sheathing his sword" and removed the most controversial members of the new PdVSA board he had appointed.

It was the employers' lockout (supported by the old trade union confederation, the CTV) later that year that forced Chávez into a more combative stance. Only the mobilisation of workers defeated the attempt to close down the Venezuelan economy. The key struggle was in the oil industry. Yet it is only five years later that Chávez has seized the opportunity of licence renewal to challenge RCTV's right to broadcast on terrestrial wavelengths - the station continues to broadcast on cable, now reaching only some 20% of the population.

And Chávez is happy to leave other media barons in control of their TV stations - primarily because they have agreed to tone down their hostile coverage of the 'Bolivarian revolution'. For instance, Venvisià³n, owned by Gustavo Cisneros with media holdings across Latin America and in Miami, received a 20-year extension of its licence. However, Globovisià³n, which in 2002 played a similar role to that of RCTV, and has not responded to Chávez's blandishments as readily as Venvisià³n, is still broadcasting. Chávez is using the treatment meted out to RCTV in order to gain leverage over the company. He has warned Globovisià³n to "watch where you are going". And further: "I recommend they take a tranquilliser, that they slow down, because if not, I'm going to slow them down."

This is essentially the same strategy Chávez has directed against Sidor and the banking sector: threatening, but not delivering, expropriation in order to achieve a modification in the behaviour of the current owners. From the perspective of a traditional politician cum Latin American caudillo, this may count as clever politics. What it does not achieve is any sort of revolutionary transformation of the social sectors that are being contested.

There are in fact many more state TV stations than five years ago, now including TVes (Televisora Venezolana Social), which has taken over, at short notice, the wavelengths and broadcasting equipment of RCTV. Richard Gott, author of the best known English language text on Chávez and his revolution, says these are reflecting a much wider social diversity than the traditional stations ever did and are making it possible for previously marginalised communities to make their own programming. However, the diversity of political opinions that these stations reflect is limited.

For instance, strikes that do not serve the perceived interests of the national government or of state administrations - even those in support of workers' managements or calling for the state to expropriate specific companies - have not been covered. The most prominent recent case has been around the occupation by the workers of the textile company, Sanitarios Maracay, in the state of Aragua who have clashed on several occasion with security forces.

In the media, as in industry, any genuine revolutionary process should be about making possible independent initiatives by workers and other sections of the poor. Workers' and community organisations should be running their own TV and radio stations, allowing a clash of opinions to be seen and heard about how society can be transformed. Such a process would not involve manoeuvrings to create more amenable, but still fundamentally bourgeois, solutions.

Rule by decree

But Chávez's media strategy is not the only odd feature of a 'revolution' that purports to be about an explosion of 'popular power'. Eighteen months ago an opposition boycott of elections resulted in a national assembly that contains not a single opposition parliamentarian. Remember, this is a unicameral assembly - no upper house to delay legislation - that exercises power under the constitution drafted and approved in Chávez's first year in office.

Yet it is not to this assembly that Chávez turns for pushing through his third-term agenda - nor, for that matter, to the communal councils or workers' councils he is promoting as the latest vehicle for direct democracy (Chávez has raised the slogan of "All power to the communal councils!"). No, within a month of his inauguration the national assembly passed an 'enabling law' that authorised Chávez to enact legislation by decree until mid-2008.

Roberto Hernandez, the second vice-president of the national assembly, argued: "We are living in a revolutionary time; and a revolution is characterised by having as its fundamental objective social justice and social justice for revolutionaries cannot wait "¦ We are promising justice for today and not for the future "¦ The laws that Hugo Chávez will decree are laws destined to satisfy the immense majority of Venezuelans." An objective that can be met, apparently, only by cutting out of the equation the representative institution he speaks for and making one man the fulcrum of the revolution.

In November 2000 Chávez took similar powers to legislate by decree. A year later he placed on the statute books 49 laws. These directly precipitated the fierce confrontation in the years to come with the bourgeois opposition - the laws on land reform and changing the power structure within the national oil company causing particular howls of outrage. Six years of the 'Bolivarian revolution' later, according to the likes of Roberto Hernandez, Chávez remains the only effective agent of the revolution. The current remit of the enabling law gives Chávez the power to issue decrees in 11 broad areas.

These, however, do not include reform of the constitution - one of the first areas to which Chávez has actually turned his attention. A commission appointed by Chávez has already reported, but its conclusions have not yet been published. The national assembly will debate the proposals over three sessions, which then require approval in a referendum. Chávez has been keen to emphasise that the changes to the constitution will make provision for communal councils and other organs of what he describes as 'popular power'.

Most speculation, however, has been about the assumed removal of the bar on presidents standing for more than two terms, thus clearing the way for Chávez to stand again in 2012. Similar term limits for state governors and city mayors will remain. Chávez considers that indefinite re-election of these officials will allow "regional caudillos" to arise, employing "methods foreign to the project for national integration" - a danger we must assume Chávez is uniquely immune to.

It is noteworthy that the original constitution was drawn up by an elected constitutional assembly, its deliberations taking place in public. Only then was the draft put to a referendum. The new proposals, which it is said will involve rewriting the majority of clauses in the constitution, have been reached by very different means. The fact that, apart for Chávez, his closest advisers and the commission which has drawn them up, no-one knows what they are is hardly a step forward for popular participation.

New revolutionary party

Most concern, not to say confusion, on the left in Venezuela has been caused by Chávez's moves to create a unitary party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). This is designed to replace the myriad parties that formed Chávez's political coalition in the past. But, although Chávez has insisted that the process of forming the party will be led by the grassroots, there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that he will be reluctant to concede too much influence.

Chávez's old party, the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR), has already been dissolved. The MVR was certainly a morass of competing power barons. Although the 1999 national constitution insisted that positions and electoral candidates in parties should be selected in democratic internal elections, this occurred all too rarely in the MVR. Officers and candidates were usually appointed from on high. What guarantee is there that the internal regime within the PSUV will be any different?

Nevertheless, the formation of the new party has attracted wide support - 5.7 million people have supposedly registered to join it. 'Socialist battalions' have begun meeting in community assemblies. In due course representatives will be elected to a founding congress scheduled to be convened in August and to sit for three months. The congress will draw up the party programme and constitution.

However, the commission overseeing the process was directly appointed by Chávez. Furthermore, Chávez is insisting that parties dissolve themselves immediately in order to take part in the process - this before the nature of the new party has become clear. Three of the largest parties that have previously supported Chávez - the PPT (Fatherland for all), Podemos (We Can) and the PCV (Venezuelan Communist Party) - have refused to do so. Chávez has said that parties that do not merge themselves in the PSUV can consider themselves part of the opposition. Already these parties are reported to have lost a considerable proportion of their membership to the PSUV.

The dangers for socialists are obvious. The PSUV already includes the same power barons and bourgeois politicians who inhabited the MVR and has welcomed businessmen as well as workers into its ranks. It will inevitably be a cross-class formation, the nature of its commitment to socialism being ambiguous, to say the least. Nor has any commitment been given to the right to form internal factions with their own press. The Party of Revolution and Socialism, formed in early 2006 as an attempt to unify revolutionaries, has split - one faction joining the PSUV, another staying out.

Nor are the portents good for the role of workers' organisations either within the party or outside it. At the first meeting of PSUV organisers Chávez quoted Rosa Luxemburg to insist, "The trade unions will not be autonomous "¦ that has to be done away with." He was intervening in a struggle within the UNT (the National Union of Workers) formed in 2003 after the CTV joined the bosses lockout.

The 'Chavistas' within the UNT have been resisting internal elections - now scheduled for the end of the year. Chávez's comments, which also warned that autonomous trade unions could become "counterrevolutionary", were directed primarily at Orlando Chirono, the leader of the largest faction (C-CURA) within the UNT, who has consistently argued that the UNT should take an independent line.

A split within the UNT is a distinct possibility. This will be a disaster for the nascent independent workers' movement in Venezuela. It would mark a sharp deterioration in the prospects for a socialist, or even a progressive, outcome to the 'Bolivarian revolution'.