On Sunday November 23, 2008 Venezuela faces one of the most decisive elections in its history. These elections will determine who controls the governors and the key municipal positions throughout the country. What happens on Sunday will have a profound impact on the future of the Bolivarian Revolution.
If the PSUV loses the elections, the opposition will be strengthened. It will use its control of key regions to intensify its campaign against the central government. It might try to imitate the tactics of the counterrevolutionary Bolivian bourgeoisie, demanding "autonomy" for wealthy states like Zulia (it is in fact already doing this). Under conditions of crisis, the victory of the right wing will mean deep cuts in living standards.
If the Chavistas win, the masses will be encouraged and the opposition demoralized. The demand for socialism will be intensified. There will be a further move to the left. But this is by no means certain. The PSUV is facing its first big test in 23 states and over 300 municipalities. In principle, the PSUV should win easily. The Chavez government has carried out major reforms that have benefited millions of ordinary Venezuelans, especially the poor and underprivileged.
The Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV) has a formal membership of over five million members. This would be a formidable force, if it could be mobilized effectively. But this depends on the quality of the leadership and its ability to arouse the same enthusiasm that was present in the past. But enthusiasm cannot be artificially created by speeches and rallies. It depends on whether the mass of workers and peasants believe that the leadership is serious about tackling their most fundamental problems and carrying the Revolution forward. This, in turn, depends upon the programme and policies that is advocated by the leadership.
In the past, the threat from the right has always provoked a mobilization of the masses to block the counterrevolution. But this time things may be different. The problem is that after ten years, the Revolution has still not carried out the central task of expropriating the land, the banks and the main industries. This has created a dangerous situation in which the economy is partly nationalized but where key elements remain in private hands. This is a recipe for chaos, inflation and unemployment.
The masses remain loyal to Chavez and the Revolution, but this loyalty is being severely tested. Until now the Venezuelan economy has been largely protected from the crisis thanks to oil profits and the social reforms carried out by Chavez. But Venezuela cannot escape the effects of the world economic crisis. The falling oil prices threaten to undermine the gains, restrict the possibility of reforms and provoke a sharp reduction of employment and living standards. Increased government spending on local programmes and other reforms has boosted the results of government candidates in the opinion polls in the last weeks of the campaign. But it is difficult to predict what the result will be
A "democratic" opposition?
Venezuelan society is sharply polarized between right and left, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, rich and poor. The Venezuelan opposition stands for the interests of the oligarchy - the rich landowners, bankers and capitalists - which constitutes a solid barrier to progress. But for tactical considerations they are compelled to disguise their repulsive counterrevolutionary features behind the smiling mask of "democracy".
For the last ten years the opposition has systematically attempted to subvert democracy and overthrow the government of Hugo Chavez. In April 2002 they organized a coup that attempted to install a dictatorship. This was only prevented by an insurrection of the masses. Later it organized a large-scale sabotage of the national economy, which was defeated by the spontaneous movement of the workers who occupied the factories and oil installations and operated them under workers' control.
The opposition has previously abstained from elections, as in the 2005 National Assembly elections, claiming the elections in Venezuela are rigged. But intense scrutiny by international observers (who are mostly hostile to the Bolivarian Revolution) have declared the voting in Venezuela to be fair. No evidence of electoral fraud has ever been produced. Yet again next Sunday's elections will be closely scrutinized by 130 international observers, including a representative from each of the 34 members of the Organization of American States (OAS). No such interest was shown when George W Bush shamelessly rigged the Presidential elections in the USA.
The opposition now starts from a weak position. Its leaders already acknowledge that Chavez enjoys an unprecedented level of popularity (60 percent approval). This has compelled them to change their tactics. They are not attacking him in the same hysterical way as in the past. Instead, they are concentrating on local issues and carefully avoiding the impression that they are extreme right wing reactionaries.
The problem of bureaucracy
For months Chavez has been throwing his authority behind the local candidates. The President's photo is present next to the local candidates on electoral posters. But this is a risky strategy. The bureaucracy is corrupt and inefficient at every level. At local level, with piles of rotting waste in poor neighbourhoods and an increase in crime and insecurity, the problems are seen by ordinary people in the most painful and glaring way. The cost of living is increasing, with inflation at more than 30 percent. To make matters worse, people can see corrupt officials, and a haughty and indifferent attitude on the part of officials who ignore complaints and even deny that problems exist. It is this that is corroding support for the Bolivarian Revolution.
The opposition and the right wing mass media have made very effective use of this. Instead of attacking Chavez directly, they concentrate their fire on the local administration. For this reason it is difficult to foresee the exact result of Sunday's elections. For its part the PSUV's campaign concentrates on emphasizing national policy successes; the recent nationalization of steel, cement and banks; pay raises for public sector employees and the end of food shortages.
Chavez remains popular, but it is not he who will be standing in these elections but the Chavista leaders who control the state and local governments. President Chavez has thrown his considerable authority behind the PSUV candidates. He has toured the country tirelessly building up support for the official candidates. But will this be enough? My own observations have convinced me that there is a deep sense of unease, not just in the masses but also in the Chavista rank and file. The elections will be a referendum on the performance of the Bolivarian mayors and governors.
In July I spoke to the President about this and he expressed his frustration at the situation. Chávez told me: "that is the problem that we are facing. Some governors, after being elected lose contact with the rank and file. They surround themselves with rich people, beautiful women, etc. and lose contact with the people. This is an ideological problem. As long as we do not have governors who are ideologically prepared we will always have the same problem. We must win the battle of ideas."
I replied: "I agree that an ideological struggle in the party is needed, but also needed are mechanisms of control from below". At this point, for the first time, the voice of the President sounded a bit tired: "I cannot do everything," he said. "It is absolutely necessary for the people to participate in this process and to take control in their own hands". I believe that this is the answer to the problems facing the Venezuelan Revolution.
The Bolivarian right wing
Despite the defeat in the Constitutional Referendum in December 2007 it seems likely that a future referendum allowing for Chavez' re-election will be held. The enemies of the Revolution, both external and internal, understand the importance of this question. The removal of Chavez would be the first step of a campaign to hand the leadership of the movement over to the right-wing reformists and pro-bourgeois elements who have been on the offensive ever since the December defeat.
If the opposition makes important gains on Sunday, the reformists (and their "theoreticians" like Heinz Dieterich) will be banging the drum once again and shouting for "moderation" and the need to conciliate the opposition (that is, to surrender to the oligarchy) in order to "save the Revolution". In order to "save" the Revolution, they mean to destroy it utterly and prepare the way for the future victory of the counterrevolution - by parliamentary means.
They will argue that the defeat in the elections means that the Revolution has gone too far, too fast. On the contrary, the problem is that the Revolution has gone too slowly and has not gone far enough. They will argue that the balance of forces is unfavourable, when in reality for ten years the balance of forces was the most favourable imaginable. Even now the great majority of Venezuelans (the workers and peasants) are fiercely loyal to the Revolution and the President. They want a fundamental transformation in society. But the reformist bureaucracy is constantly sabotaging the Revolution and thus creating discontent and demoralization among the masses. That is the chief threat to the balance of forces and no other!
The reformists will argue that it is necessary to win over the middle class. But the opposition does not represent the middle class but the oligarchy. A large sector of the lower middle class, public employees, small business informal workers, is wavering between Chavez and the opposition. As the crisis deepens they will be more open to the arguments of the opposition. The reactionaries will say: you voted for the Chavistas and see where it has got you! Prices are rising, your living standards are falling, and you fear for the future. That is what socialism means!
What the reformists want is an agreement with the opposition (that is, the oligarchy). But there can be no agreement between Revolution and Counterrevolution! It is impossible to reconcile mutually irreconcilable class interests, just as it is impossible to combine fire and water. The oligarchy will demand a capitalist policy of cuts that will hurt not only the workers and peasants but also the middle class. This will further antagonize the middle class, while alienating and demoralizing the masses.
It is time to choose!
The reformists will ague that it is necessary to build bridges with Obama, and that this would be helped if President Chavez would be kind enough to stand down and make way for a "moderate". This is the stupidest argument of all. A change of administration in Washington does not signify a fundamental change in US foreign policy. That is determined by the interests of US imperialism, the big banks and monopolies. On this there is no fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans. Obama says he wants to pull troops out of Iraq in order to send more US troops to Afghanistan! Obama is no less hostile to the Venezuelan Revolution than Bush. Let us not forget that it was a "progressive" Democrat President, John Kennedy, who organized the invasion of Cuba.
The US imperialists have not changed their attitude towards Venezuela. The Pentagon continues to intrigue with the Venezuelan opposition. While publicly praising the virtues of democracy, in secret they have not abandoned their conspiracies. They know that the overwhelming majority of the rank and file soldiers and many officers support Chavez, but they also know that there are not a few reactionaries in the police, the National Guard, and the army. How many Baduels are still present in the upper echelons of the armed forces?
The right wing dominates the media, which they use to spread all kinds of lies and calumnies against Chavez and the government. Having failed on three occasions to seize power by direct assault, they are forced to be more cautious and play at democracy and elections. But if they were to regain power in Venezuela the smiling mask of democracy would soon be cast aside. The workers and peasants know what to expect from such a government!
Time is not on the side of the Revolution. The world economic recession has not yet impacted on the daily life of most Venezuelans. The falling price of Venezuelan oil (from $146/barrel in mid-2008 to $52/barrel in November) has not yet imposed deep cuts in the government's social programs. But this cannot last. Venezuela will soon begin to feel the effect of falling demand for oil as the world recession deepens.
The truth is that the Venezuelan economy is being maintained only by the state sector. The capitalists are staging a strike of capital. Despite massive government incentives, private capital is disinvesting or withholding credit. Despite capital controls, the flight of capital is rampant. I predicted all this in July when Chavez held the abortive meeting with the bosses to persuade them to invest. Now the government must face facts. It cannot continue to subsidize private enterprise and at the same time continue with large-scale public social and economic projects.
A recent Venezuela analysis article put it very clearly:
"The year 2009, by necessity, is the year of hard class decisions: Either the government cuts spending for the capitalists or the workers and peasants. Either social programs are drastically reduced or state subsidies to private business are ended. The vast army of publicly-funded (and unproductive) employees are put to work in the productive sector or they will be laid off. In any case, the business elite, the army of importers of high status automobiles and luxury items, and their consumers will be adversely affected and aroused into an adversarial frenzy. When the full impact of the world recession hits Venezuela, the class polarization will explode and spill over and out of the institutional/electoral channels." (The Larger Meaning of the Venezuelan Elections of November 23, 2008 by James Petras, November 20th 2008).
It is time to choose!
For a Chavista victory! For a revolutionary socialist policy!
The election on Sunday is just one more fight in a long battle for power. The results will furnish us with valuable information about which stage the Revolution is at, the class balance of forces and above all the state of mind of the masses. We must strive to win this battle, but whatever happens the masses will have passed through a school and will have learned some important lessons. The most important lesson is that it is not possible to make half a revolution. It is not possible to conciliate the enemies of the Revolution. In the end one side must win and the other side must lose.
The opposition is divided. In several states and municipalities local rivalries, clique politics and political differences have made it impossible for them to unite behind a single candidate. These divisions in the ranks of the opposition have increased the possibility of a Chavista victory, even with a fall in the number of votes. In reality, the opposition did not win the November 2007 Constitutional Referendum; the Chavistas lost it as a result of three million abstentions. This was already a warning signal of growing discontent in the Chavista base.
It is not clear that this result will be replicated on Sunday. On the one hand, the Chavista rank-and-file will see the danger of an opposition victory and rally to the Revolution. On the other hand, there can be an increase in apathy as a result of disappointment in the concrete results of the Revolution after ten years. Wage increases have not kept up with prices. The rising rate of inflation has hit the poorest layers most. The government's anti-crime programmes have not solved the problem of crime. This in turn is connected with corruption among local officials and police.
A high turn out should favour the Chavistas. But will it materialize? The Marxists of the CMR will be fighting for the victory of the PSUV next Sunday. We will do everything in our power to defeat the candidates of the oligarchy and halt the advance of the counterrevolution. But the only way to mobilize the masses is by adhering firmly and consistently to a revolutionary line.
A Revolution must constantly be on the offensive. To stand still is to invite defeat. After ten years, the masses are tired of speeches and parades. They are looking for decisive action to defeat the counterrevolution. Every time the President announces the nationalization of another bank or factory there is a wave of enthusiasm. But every time the reformists impose a new retreat, every time they try to conciliate with the bankers and capitalists, the mood of disenchantment deepens and with it the danger of electoral apathy.
In order that the PSUV should realize its potential it must stand implacably for socialism, not only in words but also in deeds. The world crisis of capitalism threatens to undermine all the gains of the last ten years. This is no time for compromise and vacillation! It is necessary to expropriate the land, the banks and the main industries under workers' control and management!
It is useless to imagine that a real socialist policy can be carried out by a corrupt bureaucracy that is inseparably linked to the bankers and capitalists. In order to succeed we must take an axe to the root of the poisonous tree of bureaucracy, not only in the state apparatus and the ministries, but also in the PSUV itself. Down with bureaucracy, careerism and corruption! For a genuine workers' state in which all functionaries will be elected with right of recall and with salaries no higher than those of a skilled worker.
We stand firmly on the side of the Venezuelan workers and peasants and against the reactionary oligarchy and imperialism. The victory of socialism in Venezuela would give a tremendous impetus to the revolutionary movement in Latin America and all over the world. A lot is at stake!
Hands off Venezuela!
Down with the oligarchy and imperialism!
Long live the Socialist Revolution!
- Venezuela: Successful CMR trade union conference held at crucial moment of the revolution by our correspondent in Caracas (November 13, 2008)
- Venezuela: New clashes between revolution and counter-revolution are being prepared by Patrick Larsen (October 30, 2008)
- Venezuela: PSUV Youth congress - struggle between Reformism and Revolution continues by Patrick Larsen in Puerto Ordáz (September 15, 2008)
- Declaration of the IMT on the nationalisation of the Banco de Venezuela by IMT (August 2, 2008)
- Venezuela: The nationalisation of Banco de Venezuela by Alan Woods (August 1, 2008)
- Alan Woods' speaking tour in Venezuela
- Venezuela Six Years after the Coup by Jorge Martin (April 11, 2008)
- Venezuela: The PSUV congress – what is at stake? by Patrick Larsen (5 February, 2008)
- Venezuela: The referendum defeat - What does it mean? by Alan Woods (December 3, 2007)