The Opposition’s Historical Concession and the Road Ahead for Venezuela

Opposition candidate Manuel Rosales's concession was of historical importance for Venezuela because it was the first time in nearly eight years someone in Venezuela's opposition admitted defeat. This opens the way for deepening the revolution and for confronting internal demons.

In most liberal democracies a concession by the losing candidate is an ordinary event that takes place once every election cycle. In Venezuela, though, it has become an extremely rare event, so rare that it has not happened since Chavez was first re-elected in 2000. That is, in Venezuela the losing side, which since Chavez’s first election has always been the country’s former political elite, has almost always denied that it was the loser. Instead, it went about claiming that it didn’t really lose and that Chavez was actually an illegitimate president.

The first time this happened was following the April 2002 coup attempt, when most of the opposition flatly denied that a coup ever took place. Instead, it claimed the incident was a “vacuum of power” and that Chavez had orchestrated it himself, in order to increase his power. Only four years later have opposition leaders, such as Súmate director Maria Corina Machado and opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales acted with embarrassment about the suggestion that they signed the coup decree that eliminated all of the country’s democratic institutions. Rather than take responsibility for their action and admitting it was a serious mistake, they have consistently denied either knowing what they signed or that it was just an “attendance sheet” for coup president Pedro Carmona’s swearing-in ceremony.

Next, following the disastrous two month shutdown of the oil industry, from December 2002 through January 2003, the opposition leaders responsible for this action, Carlos Ortega, Carlos Fernandez, and Juan Fernandez, fled the country with hardly a single opposition leader that supported the action admitting to how disastrous this failure was or taking responsibility for it.

Then, following the opposition’s loss to Chavez in the August 2004 recall referendum, instead of admitting defeat and offering a concession speech, the opposition, without a shred of proof, claimed that fraud had been committed in the referendum. Eventually, it seems, the truth of the loss sank in with a large part of the opposition’s followers, but, in the process, they realized just how irresponsibly the opposition had been acting. This is what explains why the percentage of the population that said it identified with the opposition dropped so dramatically following the recall referendum, from about 30-40% it dropped to around 15%.

As if this lack of responsibility taking were not enough, the opposition committed yet another blunder in December 2005, when it boycotted the National Assembly elections. It had hoped to cast doubt on the election by claiming they were not fair and transparent, despite the assurances of international observers that they were. When the plan backfired and the opposition was left without a single representative in the new and internationally recognized National Assembly, again there was not a single opposition leader to take responsibility for the failed action.

Not that Rosales has explicitly taken responsibility for his loss to Chavez in this election. However, the mere admission of defeat is a highly significant move already because it is a recognition by the opposition, for the first time since 1998, that Chavez is indeed the legitimately elected president and that that the opposition does not currently enjoy the support of the country’s majority. For a political class, which for decades was used to the idea that it represented the country’s mainstream and the only rational way to conduct politics, to finally recognize such a defeat is highly significant because it opens up the possibility for a new era in Venezuelan politics; one in which the opposing sides recognize each others’ legitimacy.

Where Will Venezuela Go From Here?

With the opposition finally having become more “normal” and with Chavez and his supporters not only firmly in power, but with the ability to claim a mandate, given Chavez’s 26 percentage point advantage over the opposition, the Bolivarian Revolution is free to pursue 21st century socialism in earnest. Chavez has repeatedly declared that should he be reelected he would “deepen” the revolution. What, if anything, does this mean, though?

Recently several articles have appeared in the English-language mainstream press, which highlight how well Venezuela’s rich are doing under Chavez and the current oil revenue boom. The intended implication is that Chavez is not a socialist at all, but just likes to talk about socialism, while pursuing pro-capitalist policies that disproportionately benefit the country’s capitalist class.

Such a presentation of Venezuela, however, represents nothing more than yet another effort to discredit the government, without even taking a glance at the government’s actual policies. No doubt, the country’s economy has been growing at a rate of around 10% per year for three consecutive years, leading to a consumption boom that has no doubt benefited the country’s rich, among others. However, as poverty statistics show, poverty has dropped from 55% to about 33% in the past three years, meaning that the boom has also benefited the country’s poor. The only thing that a focus on the rich shows is that, indeed, capitalism is still the dominant economic mode of production in Venezuela. It does not show, though, the extent to which the Chavez government has been working to transform the economy and the polity, and, by extension, how much further these might still be transformed in Chavez’s second full presidential term.

Even though most of Venezuela’s economic and political system still is mostly capitalist and liberal democratic, important changes have taken place over the past eight years. First, the Chavez government has reversed a longstanding trend towards the neo-liberalization of the Venezuelan economy and has reintroduced free and accessible health care and education to Venezuela. This, by itself, is revolutionary in the sense that it is an important reversal of earlier governments’ efforts to dismantle the Venezuelan welfare state.

Welfare state policies, as they are embodied by the social programs known as missions, such as Mission Ribas (high school completion), Mission Sucre (university scholarships), Mission Mercal (discount food markets), and Mission Barrio Adentro (community health care), among others (there are about 18 missions now), have significantly aided the country’s poor in improving their standard of living. Indeed, poverty remains a pressing problem that is far from being overcome, but it is no doubt largely due to the existence of these welfare state policies that the onerousness of poverty has been reduced and that Chavez was reelected last Sunday.

However, in addition to these welfare state policies the government is pursuing policies that have the potential to fundamentally transform the Venezuelan polity and economy. In terms of the polity, the Chavez government has been pursuing policies that have led to a boom in community organizing, such as via the thousands of urban land committees, health committees, and committees that deal with utility companies in communities. In the past year all of these local organizations are being institutionalized through the communal councils, which also organize local neighborhood improvement projects with funds from the central government. So far the government has already distributed close to $1 billion directly to communal councils for such projects. The reason all of this local organizing has the potential to transform Venezuela’s political system is because the communal councils can form a parallel political power structure to the existing power structure of representative government. Such a parallel structure could eventually prove to be far more effective in providing a forum for debating policies and in bringing about policies that reflect the will of the citizenry. In other words, Venezuela might make “deliberative democracy”—a concept that some political theorists have been calling for—a reality.

In terms of the transformation of the country’s economic system, the Chavez government has pushed for the creation of over 100,000 cooperatives that represent a transition from other-management to self-management. In addition, with over a dozen formerly bankrupt factories that have been brought under worker control, self-management is also expanding to traditional enterprises. Such policies tend to create an economy with a more equal distribution of income and more meaningful workplaces.

The government’s policies of redistributing rural and urban land, have further contributed to lowering the degree of inequality in the country. Over the past four years over two million hectares have been redistributed to over 130,000 families, which represent nearly one million Venezuelans. Also, hundreds of thousands of families have benefited from the urban land reform program, acquiring titles to their self-built homes in the barrios, thereby stabilizing their housing situation.

Such policies of reintroducing welfare state social programs, of redistributing wealth, and of creating self-managed workplaces, represent a significant step in the transformation of the Venezuelan economy, even if Venezuela still has an upper class that benefits from a booming economy and even if the economy still depends on the oil industry.

Whether Venezuela will continue on this path of transformation and whether it will eventually create a fully fledged system that deserves the label “21st century socialism,” depends on whether two sets of obstacles will be successfully overcome. The first set are external, such as the opposition, which has until now been willing to topple Chavez by any means necessary, and the Bush administration, which has been all too eager to help the opposition in this effort. However, with the above-mentioned “normalization” of Venezuelan politics, there is the hope and possibility that these obstacles have been overcome for the near future. The Bush administration will no doubt continue to try to destabilize and isolate Venezuela, but its efforts, just as the opposition’s, have so far led to little success.

The second set of obstacles—the internal ones—thus loom much larger now. These are the obstacles of the persistence of patronage and corruption and of the movement’s dependence on Chavez. The persistence of patronage and corruption, which pre-dates the Chavez government, fundamentally distorts the project and could easily lead to a situation where the population eventually rejects the project simply because it ends up resembling the old political and economic system too much. The continuing dependence of the Bolivarian project on Chavez stifles democracy and thus debate within the movement (because support for the project ends up being conditioned on unconditional support for Chavez). Chavez’s declaration that he is considering a call for the abolition of term limits on the presidency would merely reinforce such a dependence of the movement on him. Right now 21st century socialism without Chavez is practically unthinkable in Venezuela, but this should not be the case indefinitely.

To some extent, whether the Chavez government manages to overcome these internal obstacles depends on whether the external obstacles are indeed overcome. That is, as long as the opposition and the Bush administration attempt to remove Chavez by means that subvert the constitution and the will of the people, there will be little incentive within the Chavez movement to tackle its internal problems. However, if the opposition has indeed shifted towards a normal participation in the political game, then the Chavez movement is more likely to have to confront its own demons.

Luckily for Venezuela and the Bolivarian project, Chavez has announced that two of the most important initiatives for the next year will be to reform the public administration, so as to get rid of corruption and to form a unified party of the revolution, which would, hopefully, be more than an electoral vehicle for Chavez. In the meantime, though, international solidarity with the Venezuelan people will continue to help to keep the external obstacles at bay.