The debate sharpens in Venezuela

April 11, 2008

Lee Sustar looks at the controversies within Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution.

THE DEBATE over Venezuela's future is heating up again--not only in the ongoing struggle between the pro-U.S. conservative opposition and President Hugo Chávez, but in a clash between the left and right wings of the "revolutionary process" itself.

To be sure, Chávez has continued to sound the nationalist and populist themes of the Bolivarian revolution, named for the 19th century liberation fighter, and to declare his commitment to "socialism for the 21st century."

Chávez recently announced the nationalization of the cement industry in order to step up construction of housing, which is in short supply in the capital of Caracas and other major cities. The government also announced plans for a surtax on oil revenues when prices exceed $70 per barrel, a move that would increase revenues for social programs that have already greatly improved the lives of millions of poor people by providing access to health care and education.

Yet at the same time, other developments highlight the contradictions and limitations of the changes.

Hugo Chávez
Hugo Chávez (Marcelo Garcia | AFP)

For example, Venezuelan left was shocked March 14 when the National Guard repressed a peaceful demonstration of union workers at the Sidor steel plant in Ciudad Guyana, the country's center of heavy industry.

Dozens of workers were wounded, 53 were arrested, and 50 cars were destroyed in the attack on workers whose only crime was to reject management's contract offer and demand the re-nationalization of the formerly state-owned company. Before it was privatized, Sidor employed 15,000 full-time workers. Today, the number is 4,000, with nearly 9,000 employed through subcontractors and temporary agencies.

"The steelworkers support the revolutionary process," said José Melendez, financial secretary of the workers' union SUTISS. "But we want to deepen it in harmony with what President Chávez says. We don't understand the type of socialism in which the officials give support to a transnational corporation against the workers."

A little more than two weeks later, union activists at a Bridgestone-Firestone tire plant in the city of Valencia came in for similar treatment. When workers fired for union activity tried to block the plant gates, Carabobo state police arrested 30 of them.

What else to read

Lee Sustar's article "Where is Venezuela going?" in the July-August 2007 issue of the International Socialist Review is an extensive and in-depth look at Hugo Chávez and the meaning of 21st century socialism.

The best source in English for current news and analysis of Venezuela is the Web site. Readers of Spanish should visit, the widely read, frequently updated and most important Web site of the Venezuelan left.

Changing Venezuela: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government, a book by Gregory Wilpert, editor of the Web site, looks at politics and policy in the debate over socialism. Another very useful book is Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict, edited by Daniel Hellinger and Steve Ellner.

SINCE THE defeat of Chávez's proposed constitutional reforms in a December 2 referendum, the conservative opposition and employers have been more confident in opposing Chávez and resisting social political change.

At the same time, the conservative, bureaucratic elements around Chávez have themselves become more aggressive in pushing for more moderate policies and reining in the left.

The grassroots movement has responded by making unprecedented criticisms of the "derecha endógenena"--that is, the right wing within the Chavista camp. The friction between right and left was on display at the founding congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which recently concluded.

The context of the struggle within the Chavista movement is the difficulties facing workers and the poor.

Fast-rising food prices, corruption and hoarding by corporate food distributors have led to periodic shortages of staples like chicken and sugar in the state-subsidized Mercal grocery stores, and even in privately owned shops. The majority of workers in the country still earn the minimum wage, which, while among the highest in Latin America, can't keep pace with inflation.

Meanwhile, the upper middle class and the wealthy oligarchy have benefited greatly from the Venezuelan economy's high growth rates, binging on luxury autos and homes. Profits in the financial sector are unprecedented.

This class polarization set the stage for the defeat of the constitutional referendum. Had the proposals been approved, they would have restructured local and regional governments to institutionalize popular and "communal" power. They also would have enshrined into the constitution various social gains, including protection for gay rights and the six-hour workday. Social security benefits would have been extended to workers in the informal sector of economy, which includes about half of all workers.

More controversial were proposals to give the office of president more powers, including the ability to appoint additional vice presidents to run regions of the country, control over military promotions and the abolition of presidential term limits. The opposition portrayed these moves as a dictatorial power-grab by Chávez.

Chávez's electoral base registered its impatience with economic and social problems by staying home on Election Day. Although the opposition vote in the referendum increased by just 200,000 over the presidential election held the previous year, the pro-Chávez vote fell by 3 million through abstention.

The defeat of the referendum has given a powerful boost to the right. This, in turn, spurred the left to take up criticisms of government policies, targeting in particular those seen as engaging in corrupt behavior or impeding radical change. For many, the personification of the "endogenous right" is Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer who is now governor of the state of Miranda surrounding Caracas.

For his part, Chávez alternately tilts to the left and to the right. On the one hand, he has launched the "three R" campaign--revise, rectify, and re-motivate--to tackle social problems and reconnect with the voting base that deserted him in December.

At the same time, Chávez leans on an increasingly powerful circle of politicians and functionaries like Cabello. If Chávez expected to use the referendum to consolidate the "Bolivarian revolution" through grassroots participation in a restructured political system, he now pursues that goal through alliances with regional powerbrokers.

THE LEFT'S criticism of such figures flowed into the congress of the PSUV, which was held on successive weekends for nearly two months earlier this year. The left complained that their proposals were blocked by bureaucrats--officials from parties that had comprised Chávez's governing coalition before their merger to form the PSUV.

Many also complained of the undemocratic process used to choose the top leadership of the PSUV. Although every branch of the party was able to submit candidates, a commission headed by Chávez paired down the proposals to just 60 names, who were then elected by the PSUV congress. The most prominent conservatives failed to get elected, but most key posts went to those widely seen as yes-men and yes-women for Chávez.

The debate in the PSUV is set to continue as the party selects candidates to compete in local and regional elections set for October.

Most of the Venezuelan far left has opted to remain inside the PSUV as a means of building a larger critical current within the Chavista camp. Yet PSUV officials have already shown that there are limits to the amount of dissent they are prepared to tolerate. They announced a "unanimous" pre-expulsion on National Assembly member Luís Tacsón after he accused the younger brother of Diosdado Cabello of corruption.

The left's ability to challenge the "endogenous right" has been greatly weakened by the fragmentation of the National Union of Workers (UNT), a labor federation formed in 2003 out of the remnants of the corrupt pro-opposition labor federation, the CTV, which had supported the U.S.-backed coup attempt the previous year.

The UNT scarcely exists today--its half-dozen internal currents operate more or less autonomously. One of the currents, the Bolivarian Socialist Federation of Workers (FSBT), controls the Ministry of Labor. According to its critics, the labor ministry tilts towards management and is trying to create a state-run labor federation.

On the left of the UNT, the largest grouping, the Class-Struggle, Unitary and Revolutionary Current (C-CURA), is itself divided. Its best-known figure, Orlando Chirino, split with other C-CURA leaders to call for a "no" vote in the constitutional referendum. The government took its revenge when the state oil company PDVSA fired Chirino from his job, a move that was denounced even by Chirino's critics.

With the right-wing opposition energized by Chávez's setbacks, the challenge for the left is to reinvigorate activism and build organizations that can confront both the employers and bureaucratic and corrupt elements in the government that weaken the struggle.

The left in the PSUV should inflict a cost high enough that those who wish to manipulate the party "have to think about it twice," said Stalin Pérez Borges, a national coordinator of the UNT and member of the PSUV in Valencia. "I believe that if we fight for this, we can get some of our people in, some of the workers, some from the popular movements, some who, as the president would say, are for the deepening of the revolutionary process and the struggle to build socialism."

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