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The struggle in Chávez's Venezuela

March 16, 2007 | Page 4

LEE SUSTAR looks at Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's call to build socialism for the 21st century.

BY UPSTAGING George W. Bush's tour of Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was out not only to expose the reality of U.S. imperialism in the region, but to promote "socialism for the 21st century" as an alternative to Bush's neoliberal corporate globalization.

"Those who want to go directly to hell, they can follow capitalism," Chávez said at a stop in Bolivia during his anti-Bush tour. "And those of us who want to build heaven here on earth, we will follow socialism."

According to Chávez, the next step in the "revolutionary process"--the Venezuelan left's term for the social and political changes in the country since Chávez took office in 1999--involves the re-nationalization, by presidential decree, of telephone and electrical power companies, and, in the future, the nationalization of operations by multinational oil companies.

Chávez also wants to replace state and local governments with "communal councils," declaring that it's necessary to "dismantle the bourgeois state" and create a "communal state." At the same time, Chávez seeks to merge parties allied to him into a united socialist party of Venezuela, or PSUV, by its initials in Spanish.

These new initiatives have led to debates on the left in Venezuela and internationally--mainly over why Chávez used decrees to carry out the re-nationalization rather than legislation, and whether the establishment of the PSUV represents a step toward a Cuba-style one-party state.

Moreover, Chávez has raised the possibility of constitutional reform to remove term limits on the presidency, which has led the right-wing opposition to charge that he's seeking to become president for life.

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WHAT DO these changes in Venezuela really mean? Can they be seen as a step toward establishing socialism? Or, to put it another way, who will lead the struggle for socialism in Venezuela today--and what will take to achieve it?

The question of the agency for social change has repeatedly emerged within Chávez's movement since his failed attempt to lead a military coup in 1992.

In a corrupt system that had lost legitimacy amid economic crisis and austerity, Chávez became widely popular. His military backers forged an alliance with far-left and center-left parties to win election in late 1998, and got substantial backing from the middle class.

Chávez called the movement "Bolivarian" after the hero of the 19th century independence movement, Simón Bolivar. But beyond a vague nationalism and populism, just what the Bolivarian revolution aimed to accomplish--and what social forces could lead it--wasn't clear.

How would Chávez, a self-styled revolutionary leader as head of state, carry out a social transformation to benefit the 80 percent of Venezuelans who lived under the poverty line by the end of the 1990s?

His first attempts at change were more political than economic or social--a constituent assembly to rewrite Venezeula's constitution, create vehicles for popular participation, and re-elect Chávez under the new system. Meanwhile, efforts at anti-poverty programs were limited as the economy shrank amid falling oil prices.

The Venezuelan ruling class--known as the oligarchy--won over sections of the middle class to the right-wing opposition. The oligarchs made their move in a U.S.-backed coup in April 2002, with the corrupt CTV labor federation providing political cover through a mass march on the presidential palace.

The stunning mass mobilization of the poor that followed in Caracas, however, paralyzed the coupmakers and gave Chávez supporters in the military time to act and return him to power.

The right's next move again used the CTV as a front--this time in a "strike" at the state oil company PDVSA that was really a lockout by employers. The lockout, which put enormous pressure on Venezuelan society, was defeated when rank-and-file oilworkers and soldiers kept the pipelines and refineries running, and workers elsewhere defied other employers' efforts at economic sabotage.

If the failed coup had led to a critical show of support by the urban poor for Chávez, the oil lockout led to a decisive shift in the working class behind the "revolutionary process." A key development was the formation of a new left-wing labor federation, the UNT, which soon outstripped the old CTV as the main force for organized labor.

With oil prices rising, Chávez was able to fund government "missions" to bypass the inefficient state structures to carry out a wide range of reforms, including literacy, education, health clinics in the slums staffed by Cuban doctors, subsidized grocery stores, and programs to support the indigenous population.

At one level, the missions resemble a combination of old-school Latin American populist clientelism--doling out cash and jobs for political support--and social reform projects carried out by non-governmental organizations in developing countries. But what makes them different is that they were created under pressure for change from below, and intersect with an increasingly mobilized and politically conscious layer of activists in the barrios.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's booming oil economy--growth rates are among the highest in the world--has given workers leverage to fight back. This set the stage for Chávez's solid victory in the 2004 recall election, a move by the right wing that backfired and instead served to ratify and consolidate Chávez's mass support.

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SINCE THEN, strikes have become frequent, and government laws on workplace "co-management" have put pressure on government and private employers to make concessions to unions and guarantee workers the right to organize.

Workers' occupations and nationalization at a paper and valve factories highlighted the pressure for change, and in early 2005, Chávez declared that Venezuela was moving to socialism--a model that was to differ from both the Stalinist dictatorships of the old USSR and its satellites, as well as European reformism.

The cornerstones of Chávez's plan are, internationally, using oil money and regional integration to counter the hegemonic power of the U.S.; and, at home, using nationalized industry as a lever of economic development and industrialization. This model was used in the heyday of Third World nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s.

But the strategy, points out left-wing economist Claudio Katz, isn't the same as socialism from below. "This dilemma of socialism versus development economics is a dispute between tendencies that favor the radicalization of the Bolivarian process and those that want to freeze it," he wrote. Those in the best position to "freeze" the revolution are, he notes, within the Chávez camp itself--typically, mid-level government bureaucrats and a small layer of pro-government business interests.

The rightist opposition has fallen into disarray. In the 2006 presidential candidate, it fielded a weak candidate, and Chávez won handily. The oligarchy has to bide its time--a course made more palatable by big profits amid the oil boom.

The class struggle, however, has been intensifying. With the election behind him, Chávez moved quickly to respond to this social polarization. He aims to "deepen the revolution" by obtaining decree-making powers from the National Assembly, restructuring local government and announcing plans for the PSUV.

The challenge for the left in Venezuela is to determine whether these moves represent the consolidation of one-man or one-party rule under Chávez--widely called "el commandante"--or reflect popular pressure for further radicalization.

Chávez's supporters point out that past Venezuelan presidents have been authorized to rule by decree. But Chávez has long criticized those governments as corrupt and flawed--and although decrees can be made only in limited areas, rule by decree bypasses the National Assembly, elected under a far more democratic system.

Moreover, Chávez's rule by decree contradicts the aim of popular participation in communal councils, which he wants to replace the current local and state governments--as well as the creation of a grassroots PSUV party.

Essentially, Chávez's use of decrees highlights the fact that the "Bolivarian revolution" still relies on a symbiotic relationship, in which Chávez mobilizes the working class and poor majority, and is in turn pressured by it--but nevertheless presents himself as a substitute for the self-activity of the working class.

This isn't a static picture, however. The relentless squeeze from U.S. imperialism and the oligarchy--which recently took the form of a shortage of meat engineered by big food companies--continually pushes Chávez to lean toward the workers and the poor to counteract the pressure of the Venezuelan capitalists.

Thus, Chávez has criticized co-management as ineffective and encouraged workers to take a leading role--as they've recently done at Sanitarios Maracay, a factory that makes bathroom fixtures. Chávez has also disparaged companies ostensibly operating as workers' cooperatives for maintaining capitalist exploitation.

Politically conscious workers and the poor, therefore, continue to look to an alliance with Chávez against the employers and the right.

And while the Venezuelan Communist Party has decided not to participate in talks about forming the PSUV, others on the left want to use Chávez's initiatives to advance their own arguments about socialism as workers' control of production.

For example, Orlando Chirino, the leading member of the left wing of the UNT labor federation, proposes that the communal councils include workers' councils. "For us, labor councils, oriented by the UNT, must have the mission of developing the struggle for the expropriation of the businesses, and to exercise their direct control over those businesses," he said in a recent interview.

Revolution can't come through presidential decrees and nationalized industries, of course. The future of socialism in Venezuela depends on the ability of the working class to take the initiative, develop its political independence and confront capital directly.

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