Where is the PSUV headed?
analyzes the outcome of the national congress held by Venezuela's ruling party--and the vigorous criticisms put forward by the revolutionary left.
VENEZUELA'S RULING party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), held its third national congress from July 26-31--the first without founder and former President Hugo Chávez in attendance.
This weeklong event took place after what has arguably been the most challenging year for the revolutionary process since it began 15 years ago with Chávez's first electoral victory. After he died in March 2013, his successor Nicolás Maduro took over as president of the country, and immediately stood as a candidate in a difficult electoral race against a charismatic right-wing candidate named Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Maduro took office with inflation running at 60 percent annually and as a campaign of economic sabotage by Venezuela's rich produced a real scarcity of basic goods. Maduro won the election in April, but the manufactured crisis propelled sections of the middle class into action.
The conservative opposition--organized through the Roundtable for Democratic Unity, or MUD, by its Spanish initials--took advantage of Chávez's death and opened up a new and more violent phase of the counterrevolution after the presidential election, by claiming vote fraud, though without providing any evidence.
Under the premise of defending democracy against a dictatorial state, these violent clashes set as their goal the destabilization of Maduro's government. Marches led by right-wing students from the most privileged neighborhoods of the country's major cities resulted in a total of around 40 deaths from pro- and anti-government camps.
But the protests never came close to forcing Maduro from power--so the right wing changed strategies. Having failed in their counterrevolutionary winter "war of maneuver" in the streets, the rich adopted a spring and summer "war of position," aimed at using their economic clout--and unrelenting support from the Obama administration in the U.S.--to grind down the economy and force the poor and working classes to pay for the crisis.
Maduro was lured into sitting down with some of the most powerful business elites and opposition politicians, in what the government called "peace talks," supposedly aimed at stabilizing the country.
These talks clearly pushed the government to the right to accept concessions to the capitalists in the name of "reconciliation." For example, as a result of the negotiations, some of the lands expropriated under the land law promoted by Chávez during his first years might now be returned to the original landowners. The government has also expressed a willingness to allow the price of basic goods to rise, thereby hitting its most ardent supporters the hardest, while funneling profits into the commercial sector.
These concessions to the wealthy classes are leaving part of Chávismo's social base confused and disenchanted with the revolutionary process and its elected leadership.
THE THIRD national congress of the PSUV took place under these trying circumstances.
A majority of party members received the call for the conference with relief and enthusiasm. Many believed this would be a good place to democratically debate and decide on the next steps needed to overcome the right wing's attacks and internal contradictions that had been developing in the revolution itself.
Participation, however, wasn't as strong as expected. Out of an estimated 7 million members, somewhere between 700,000 and 1.6 million voted for delegates, and many of the most active revolutionaries were not invited to the conference itself.
For six days, a total of 900 delegates – of which only 537 of which were democratically elected – discussed and voted on 32 resolutions that were made public days after the vote.
Among them, the first and least controversial recognized Hugo Chávez as the leader of the revolution and founder of the PSUV. The delegates voted to continue the original project of building of a sovereign, anti-imperialist and socialist homeland, as Chávez had intended. This resolution included the ambitious aim to have a "fully socialist Venezuela by 2019."
Other resolutions focused on the need to strengthen popular power as the only way forward, consolidation of solidarity efforts with the people of Palestine against "the genocidal aggression of the state of Israel," and naming Nicolás Maduro as head of PSUV, in an attempt to strengthen the unity between party and state.
On the last day of the congress, Maduro assumed his new position as leader and officially proposed an increase in the price of gas--something that hadn't been suggested for 17 years under Chávez. According to the president and now titular head of PSUV, this was not only reasonable, but was approved of by a majority of Venezuelans as a means to fund public infrastructure and social programs.
LEFT-WING formations and militants inside and outside PSUV voiced their criticism of how the Congress was run and the overall themes debated.
Among the major criticisms was the failure of the Congress to assess the PSUV's own policies during the past seven years since its founding. According to the PSUV vice president and chair of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello, the Congress was supposed to be the most important political event of the year.
Yet its agenda allowed for only a brief review of "the party's ideology and its socialist program" and reiteration of the party's commitment to the revolutionary goals. No time was allotted to considering whether the practices of the PSUV through the Chávez years matched the socialist rhetoric of its leadership or took account of the government's concessions to the bourgeoisie since Chávez's death.
Many revolutionaries asked how a successful, democratic and decisive popular congress of a revolutionary party could move forward without such an assessment.
The past eight months have seen an ongoing move to satisfy the right's demands to "help" privatized production, while, paradoxically, the party's leadership keeps re-emphasizing the need for a full transition to socialism as the only path toward Venezuela's liberation and independence. For many in the left, this constitutes an unsolvable contradiction. These critical decisions must be done in consultation and with the democratic input and decision-making of the rank and file. Reiterating the program without assessing its efficiency risks being a completely abstract and irrelevant routine.
The first internal challenge at the Congress came out before it even took place. Jorge Giordani, the finance minister for many years and a lifelong and well-respected revolutionary, resigned his post on July 17. In his widely circulated resignation letter, Giordani expressed frustrations that none of his proposals were being taken into account under Maduro's leadership, and that decisions were being made that contradicted the socialist project, for the benefit of a corrupt layer of Chávistas.
This received a lot of attention in both the opposition and pro-government media because Giordani was such a close confidant of Chávez. Many of the economic policies implemented during the past 15 years had been suggested and carried out under his influence.
For its part, the Bank of America was happy to see Giordani go, arguing that his departure opened the opportunity to replace the "radical wing of the government" on issues of economic policy with a more pragmatic layer.
An equally important challenge came from a workers' struggle that has been going on for the past four years. On July 30, thousands of workers from the state-owned company SIDOR, the fourth largest steel producer of Latin America, participated in a demonstration as part of their ongoing battle for increased pay and improved working conditions.
Their last contract ended in 2010, two years after workers won a fight for the nationalization of the steel plants in 2008. Since then, however, the company has been suffering from a lack of raw materials, mismanagement of funds, and an inability to produce at maximum capacity, which some union activists attribute to a lack of investment and prioritization on the part of the government to help the company run efficiently.
Workers have been mobilizing for all these years with work stoppages, strikes, traffic blockades and marches--but with little sympathy from the central government, even though the workers themselves are overwhelmingly Chávista supporters.
Another major criticism from some quarters of the left was naming Maduro as the new head of the party. Differences have grown sharper over the relationship between the party and state. Political commentator and PSUV militant Vladimir Acosta expressed his doubts on his radio show two days after the decision had been made:
We need to strengthen [Maduro's] leadership and support his presidency--that's fundamental for the Process. But my question is: Did the need to strengthen Maduro's leadership have to be resolved by naming him as the head of the party, when he is already the president of the state? That, to me, raises some problems, because this is just repeating what we had with Chávez, who also was head of the state and of the party. His leadership was, we all know, in part irreplaceable, but it was an all-powerful leadership...
That is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why PSUV never became a truly revolutionary party...It was a vehicle to transmit the decisions that Chávez made, and for him to win elections...The party has to be a fundamental political instrument to push the Process forward, not an extension of the government.
Acosta's critique has found support among many in the militant left, inside and outside the party.
IN RESPONSE to the palpable disillusionment among a layer of the masses, a revolutionary current within the PSUV, but critical of the leadership, called Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide), decided to open up its annual conference to all revolutionary organizations and collectives active within the Venezuelan socialist movement.
Gonzalo Gómez, national coordinator of Marea Socialista, toured the country to present its call to join the conference scheduled for July 19, a week before the third national congress.
In a controversial document in which he addressed his criticisms of the Congress in the weeks leading up to it, Gómez proposed that this Congress risked being "the last Congress of the revolution"--although not necessarily of the PSUV, if the leaders of the party continued to encourage its "definitive bureaucratization" instead of democratizing its procedures.
Around 300 democratically elected delegates joined the conference initiated by Marea Socialista. The conference set as its objective bringing together a wide range of voices from the left, which are unheard and underrepresented by the PSUV party leadership, in order to debate a set of proposals about the current economic and political crisis. The aim was to get the PSUV leadership to accept these resolutions as part of the official Congress agenda so that they could be openly discussed.
Gómez opened the conference by explaining his organization's understanding of the state of the revolutionary "Process." In Marea Socialista's view, the revolution is at a crossroads: the PSUV must either turn sharply to the left, or it will continue to accept concessions to the right and officially abandon the project of 21st century socialism. Gomez's introduction included an overview of the political situation, as well as a tribute to the Palestinian people.
Delegates decided on several resolutions during the conference. One was a demand to end the practice of directly appointing PSUV political positions, and even a high percentage of the delegates to party congresses, by the leadership, instead of them being democratically elected by the membership. Because of this practice, 40 percent of delegates to the PSUV congress were public officials, who were made representatives at the most important event of the party, without having to be elected by the base of PSUV.
One obvious sentiment at the open conference was that the PSUV leadership isn't listening to its base. All the new policies of reconciliation with the business class--and even the increase in the price of gas--are taking place without any real process of consultation. Even the calling of the Congress itself seemed to exclude a large number of militant voices who weren't able to get into the event.
As Andrea Pacheco, national coordinator of Marea Socialista's Youth, stated:
This open conference was urgently needed. People seemed a lot more open to saying what they thought, even if it meant criticizing certain official policies, which I feel like didn't use to happen not so long ago. The event felt very democratic and comradely, something that we, the rank and file, have been missing in other spaces. It was definitely a boost of revolutionary energy.
Since none of the attendees of the conference had been elected as delegates this time, resolutions from the event were then delivered to the headquarters of PSUV, with the call for the Congress to review them.
THESE CRITICISMS from within the ranks of the revolution haven't gone entirely unnoticed by the PSUV leadership.
Giordani's resignation letter came with a long series of accusations from Maduro and his cabinet against the criticisms raised by the ex-minister. And days after his resignation, Hector Navarro, another long-term ally of Chávez and former government minister, faced suspension from the PSUV for writing a letter in support for Giordani's criticisms. Yet none of the issues raised their letters were a point of discussion during the Congress.
Worse, PSUV Vice President Cabello did speak to the SIDOR metal workers union, but proceeded to blame union leaders for what he called "unreasonable demands," which according to Cabello are at the heart of the company's problems.
The union leadership, however, disagreed and mobilized a protest on August 11, where workers were met with police repression--several suffered gunshot wounds, leaving one in critical condition. And this is taking place under the leadership of a supposedly revolutionary government.
There has been a strong attack on Marea Socialista's efforts to mobilize the left wing of the party.
During the week of the congress, in an interview on the television channel Globovisión, Cabello responded to a question about whether the open conference's proposals would be discussed by stating that Marea "is not a current within PSUV," but a political party of its own. This assertion that Marea Socialista has not made a contribution to the PSUV is based on an accusation about Marea's supposed lack of "loyalty."
Gonzalo Gómez responded that "our loyalty as party militants is with the socialist program of PSUV, not with political figures, deputies, etc. That's not where our loyalty should be devoted. It is to the foundational principles, and we make proposals within the framework of realizing these principles." Gómez also repeatedly defended the critical role Marea Socialista played in the founding of the ruling party, and its long history helping the revolution move forward by encouraging debate among the revolutionary masses.
This was not the only attack on the Marea Socialista current. A few days after influential political analyst, writer and long-term PSUV militant Nicmer Evans published his announcement that he has decided to join Marea Socialista, his phone and social media accounts were hacked by a pro-government agent. The hacker clearly intended to delegitimize the work of Marea Socialista, Evans said:
My personal phone, e-mail account, blog and twitter, the only weapons I have to contribute to the struggle for the legacy of Comandante Chávez, have just been hacked...But I am very clear that it is not an attack against me, it is an attack against Marea Socialista and all of us who assume a critical position as Chávistas.
The most dramatic response, however, was the firing of Juliani Machado from her public position as coordinator of the Project of Historical Research and Distribution in the Government of the Capital District (GDC), for being open about her membership in Marea Socialista. Many of her co-workers have come out in support of her reinstatement.
Marea Socialista has been able to freely organize as a critical current since its inception in 2007. Even when its voice wasn't being heard, instances of repression were not common. The events of the past two weeks have been unprecedented.
DURING THE past 15 years, we have seen the endless capacity of the working and popular classes of Venezuela to defend the revolutionary process.
However, these latest developments show all too clearly that the problems facing Venezuelans today don't only come from external attacks by the U.S. and the capitalist class, but also from within the leadership of the government itself against the working and popular classes. A consolidation of a bureaucratic layer within the structures of the party in power is proceeding rapidly, and critical voices challenging this development are being dismissed or repressed.
What is then the way forward for the revolution? Now that Chávez is gone, can the revolutionary masses once again push the process to the left--this time not only defending the PSUV from the right's attacks, but also against the government's own attacks on the revolution? As British socialist Mike Gonzalez recently wrote:
While Chávez may continue to be the reference point for future struggles, his role and its contradictions have to be part of the recovery of a tradition of resistance that predated him, which he identified with and celebrated, but which, in the end, he distanced himself from, to create an imprisoning apparatus of power.
It is that tradition that has to be recovered, and quickly, if the mass movement, in his name or not, is to resist the depredations and demands of a capitalism that, under whatever party colors it organizes, can only survive at their expense.
It is a daunting task, but if we want to see the Bolivarian process moving towards socialism, as has been proposed again and again since the formation of PSUV, the revolutionary left must fight for the right to raise its criticisms of the state and simultaneously achieve a deeper implantation among the masses of working and oppressed Venezuelans. This entails arguing for--and where possible, leading--concrete struggles by the working class that challenge capitalist relations of production, even when the state led by Maduro opposes them.