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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Politics

What’s Really Happening in Venezuela?

VENEZUELANS WILL vote December 2 on constitutional reforms proposed by President Hugo Chávez and his supporters, capping weeks of sometimes-violent protests by right-wing opposition forces, a defection by a top Chávez political ally, and mass mobilizations by Chávez supporters.

LEE SUSTAR, recently returned from Venezuela, looks at the aims of Chávez’s proposals, the response of the opposition and the shape of Venezuelan politics today.

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FOR THE U.S. mainstream media, Venezuela’s vote on constitutional reforms December 2 is simply the latest power grab in authoritarian President Hugo Chávez’s bid to crush dissent, make himself president for life and impose a state-controlled economy.

The view from the streets of the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, however, is very different.

A densely populated, impoverished neighborhood seldom visited by U.S. reporters, it is famous for its role in mobilizing in January 1958 to overthrow a Venezuelan military dictator on the date that gave the barrio its name.

These days, it is home to an active local branch, or battalion, of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, according to its Spanish initials). On a rainy mid-November evening, activists gathered to distribute copies of the proposed reform by going door to door.

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Of the 30 or so people who turned out--all but four of them women--just two had prior political experience in Chávez’s original political party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). Only one--Rosaida Hernández--is an experienced politico, having served as a functionary of the Fifth Republic Movement and won election to Caracas’ municipal council.

More typical was Iraima Díaz, a neighborhood resident in her 30s who had long supported Chávez and benefited from his government’s social programs, but hadn’t been politically active. “I got involved to solve the problems of my community,” she said.

Another activist, Lúz Estella, a social worker whose father lives in the area, also became active recently, fed up with the opposition media and wanting to get involved.

Now Díaz and Estella find themselves members of Chávez’s own PSUV battalion--the president often turns up at the weekly Saturday meetings held at the military museum in the neighborhood.

The facility also serves as a place for enrollment in government “missions”--national social welfare programs initiated by Chávez in 2003, which evolved from offering free medical care to literacy and education programs, subsidized grocery stores and a great deal more, thanks to revenues from oil exports and some of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.

Despite its well-known member and proximity to local missions, the 23 de Enero PSUV battalion faces a challenges common to its counterparts across the country--how to mobilize the 5.7 million people who have registered for the party since it was formed earlier this year through a merger of parties of Chávez’s governing coalition.

Nevertheless, as the group, singing campaign songs, made its way through the narrow streets on steep hillsides of the barrio, people came to their windows to take copies of the reform and discuss it briefly--an elderly man alone in his small apartment; a young woman of African descent breastfeeding an infant; the proprietor of a tiny store situated in what was once a living room, with a window facing the street; a group of young men in their 20s gathered outside a small restaurant.

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THE IMPACT of Chávez’s reforms is visible on the streets of 23 de Enero and other barrios--people are better fed and better dressed.

As is often the case in Venezuela, the political direction in the barrios is the opposite Caracas’ well-off neighborhoods and the suburbs, where the upper middle class and the wealthy live in luxurious gated communities and drive Hummers and Land Rovers.

As opposition to Chávez’s reforms sharpened--first with protests by largely middle-class college students; then the defection of a longtime Chávez ally, former army chief of staff and defense minister Raúl Baduel--the mass of Chávez supporters began to mobilize.

Nevertheless, the opposition, tainted by the coup of 2002 and the subsequent lockout of oil workers by industry bosses, has been able to refresh its image.

Key to this was the student mobilization last summer over the government’s refusal to renew the broadcast license of the privately owned, opposition-controlled RCTV channel.

Wrongly portrayed in the Western media as a “closure” of a media outlet, the decision was made as the result of RCTV’s active role in supporting the coup. Nevertheless, the government’s refusal to renew the channel’s broadcast license gave Venezuela’s right the opportunity to claim the mantle of “democracy,” a theme it has continued in protests aimed at forcing a delay in the vote for constitutional reform.

Significantly, the student protests took shape as a national social movement, led mainly by middle class and wealthy students who predominate at Venezuela’s elite universities, such as the UCV in Caracas.

While portraying themselves as nonviolent in the face of allegedly armed Chavista students--two students were wounded on the UCV campus November 7--the opposition student protests have often turned violent. The U.S. media focused on the supposed gunplay of Chavista students, but it was the right-wing protesters who besieged pro-Chávez students in UCV’s law and social work schools, physically destroying both.

Still, the student protesters have carried the day politically on campus, with the opposition winning a reported 91 percent of votes in student government elections soon afterward.

The opposition got another boost when it was joined by Baduel, the former general and defense minister.

A key figure in preventing the 2002 military attempt to oust Chávez, Baduel has used the word “coup” to describe the impact of Chávez’s proposed constitutional changes.

While Baduel’s impact on the reform vote is probably limited, his turn may point to something more serious--concern among senior military brass over a constitutional reform that would reorganize and centralize the armed forces and give the president authority to promote all officers, not just top generals.

Already, Chávez has dropped a call to convert the reserves into “Bolivarian Popular Militias” to support the regular armed forces, presenting it in the constitutional reforms instead as a “National Bolivarian Militia.”

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IN ANY case, the retooled opposition presents a new challenge for activists of the “Bolivarian revolution”--named for the 19th century anti-colonial leader.

In the past, Chávez could mobilize his base among the poor on clear-cut issues--protesting the right-wing coup attempt of April 2002, voting to keep him in office in the recall election of 2004, re-electing him as president a year ago.

The constitutional reforms, however, are more complicated and controversial within the Chávez camp itself.

At issue is the balance between the creation of communal councils to enhance what Chávez calls “popular power,” and measures that would strengthen the powers of the presidency and the central state in several respects.

These include the removal of presidential term limits and lengthening the term from six to seven years; the ability to appoint an unrestricted number of secondary vice presidents; the authority to determine boundaries of proposed “communal cities” of municipalities and states; and control over the use of foreign currency reserves with no constitutional limits.

The right to recall the president still exists, but the number of signatures required to trigger a vote would increase from 20 percent to 30 percent of eligible voters.

Other constitutional measures debated on the left would give the president and National Assembly the ability to impose states of emergency in which the right to information is waived--probably a response to the private media’s complicity in the 2002 coup. The National Assembly would also gain the right to remove Supreme Court judges and election officials through a simple majority vote.

These changes hardly amount to the “Chávez dictatorship” conjured up in the mainstream media, and the Venezuelan constitution would remain more democratic in many respects than the U.S. Constitution, a relic of the 18th century.

The question, however, is whether the constitution promotes a transition to “popular power” and “socialism,” as Chávez would have it.

Essentially, the reforms reflect the contradiction at the heart of Chávez’s project--an effort to initiate revolutionary change from above.

The expansion of communal councils and creation of workers councils are seen by grassroots Chavista activists as a legitimate effort to anchor the “revolutionary process” at the grassroots.

However, the additional powers for the presidency and the reorganization of the armed forces highlight the fact that Chávez apparently sees the presidency--and the centralized state--as the guardian of the revolution.

Tellingly, it is the military, the most rigidly hierarchical institution in society, which is to protect the newly decentralized democracy, while remaining aloof from such changes internally.

Chávez’s effort to combine what he calls an “explosion of popular power” with greater centralism may reflect his military past. But if the government is able to portray itself as creating “motors” of revolutionary change, it’s because grassroots organizations, social movements and organized labor have so far failed to create sizeable organizations of their own.

While there is no doubt of Chávez’s popularity, particularly among the poor, their role thus far has been to defend Chávez from the right during the coup and lockout, and turning out for elections. The constitutional reforms, along with the creation of the PSUV at Chávez’s initiative, are intended to close the gap between these periodic mass mobilizations and the lack of day-to-day organization.

To consolidate this base, the proposed constitutional reforms offer further social gains. For example, virtually unmentioned in U.S. media accounts is the fact that the reforms would provide, for the first time, social security benefits to the 50 percent of Venezuelan workers who toil in the informal sector as street vendors, taxi drivers and the like. The workweek would be limited to 36 hours.

There are other advances as well, including the consolidation of land reform, outlawing discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, guaranteed free university education, gender parity in politics and political parties, public financing of political campaigns, recognition of Venezuelans of African descent, and more.

Critics on the right claim these measures constitute a bribe to the mass of Venezuelans--handouts in exchange for political support, a version of the traditional clientleism used Latin American populists such as Argentina’s Juan Perón.

In fact, Perón and other 20th century populists went far beyond Chávez in terms of nationalizing industries--Venezuela’s oil company, PDVSA, has been government owned since the 1970s, and the recent state takeover of the telecommunications and electrical power companies are renationalizations.

But the Chávez project aims at a more thoroughgoing social transformation than populists of the past. The aim is to build what Chávez calls “socialism of the 21st century” by trying to bypass the capitalist state with new structures and enshrining new forms of “social,” “public” and “mixed” property to promote “endogenous” economic development--that is, growth not dependent on the oil economy.

These efforts are, in turn, supposed to mesh with “communes” created by communal councils--which, under the proposed constitutional changes, will receive at least 5 percent of the national budget to manage local affairs. The text of the reform proposal explains: “The state will foment and develop different forms of production and economic units of social property, from direct or communal-controlled, to indirect or state-controlled, as well as productive economic units for social production and/or distribution.”

Moreover, the proposed reform on “popular power” also calls for the creation of councils for workers, students, farmers, craftspeople, fishermen and -women, sports participants, youth, the elderly, women, disabled people and others.

This new “geometry of power,” as Chávez calls it, is apparently designed to engineer social change while avoiding direct confrontation with big business, whose property rights are in fact safeguarded in the constitutional reforms. As Chávez himself said last summer, “We have no plan to eliminate the oligarchy, Venezuela’s bourgeoisie.”

Funds for social reforms have so far come from state oil revenues, rather than any transfer of wealth through higher taxes, and the nationalization of companies has been achieved by paying market price for stock market shares.

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THE QUESTION on the Venezuelan left is whether all this amounts to a transition to socialism, as Chávez and his supporters would have it.

For Orlando Chirino, a national coordinator of the National Union of Workers (UNT) labor federation, Chávez’s reforms herald the “Stalinization” of the state and state control of the labor movement “along the lines of the Cuban CTC labor federation,” he said in an interview.

Chirino, a key leader of the C-CURA class-struggle current of the factionalized UNT, is among the most prominent figures on the left to oppose the reforms. He made waves on the left when he granted an interview with a leading opposition newspaper and appeared on the platform with leaders of the CTV, the corrupt old trade union federation implicated in the 2002 coup.

Today Chirino, along with an oil workers union official, José Bodas, is a founder of a new group calling for an independent workers party.

Chirino’s and Bodas’ opposition to the reforms put them at odds with the majority of UNT national coordinators and organizers in C-CURA, such as Ramón Arias, general secretary of the public sector workers’ union federation, FENTRASEP. Arias is a supporter of the Marea class-struggle current of trade unionists in the PSUV, which calls for purging of employers, bureaucrats and corrupt elements in the new party.

Despite some criticisms of the centralizing aspects of the constitutional reform, including the new provisions for states of emergency, the Marea current has joined the majority of the Venezuelan left in calling for a “yes” vote to achieve social gains and defeat the opposition.

Arias and his C-CURA allies are already at loggerheads with prominent members of the PSUV, including Oswaldo Vera, a member of the National Assembly and leader of the Bolivarian Socialist Labor Front (FSBT), a faction of the UNT that also controls the ministry of labor.

The labor ministry refuses to negotiate a contract with FENTRASEP--which covers 1 million workers--because, it says, there is a dispute over union elections. As a result, many public sector employees are among the 73 percent of Venezuelan workers who earn the minimum wage--which, although the highest in Latin America, is still low in relation to the soaring prices caused by Venezuela’s rapid economic growth, to say nothing of enduring economic inequality.

Arias and other FENTRASEP leaders say that public sector workers are casualties of a larger factional struggle between the FSBT and C-CURA. This in turn is part of an internecine conflict that has prevented the wider UNT labor federation from holding a proper congress since it adopted a provisional structure at its founding event in 2003.

Now, C-CURA, the largest grouping in the UNT, is itself split over the PSUV and constitutional reform, which means organized labor’s voice is barely heard in the political debates of the day.

This sets the stage for a battle over the workers’ councils to be formed in the future, in which both factions of C-CURA expect to contend with an effort by the FSBT to exert control over the labor movement.

On the political terrain, the C-CURA activists of the Marea current inside the PSUV aim to make alliances with others on the left who have succeeded in being elected as spokespeople and delegates to the founding conference.

With the PSUV founding conference still in the future--it has been postponed repeatedly--it isn’t clear if, or how, such groupings will exist within the party, which already has a provisional disciplinary committee that reportedly expelled a prominent Chavista (the commissioners subsequently denied that this was the case).

Certainly the PSUV is a highly contradictory formation, and includes key members of the government apparatus and local elected officials who are unpopular among grassroots Chavistas. Marea’s slogan calls for a PSUV without bosses, bureaucrats and corrupt elements.

Whether the far left will be able to operate openly, be expelled or decide to leave to organize openly are open questions.

In any case, stormy weather is ahead, said Stalin Pérez Borges, a UNT national coordinator and supporter of the Marea current. Political polarization and class conflict, ameliorated in recent years by rapid economic growth, are unavoidable, he said.

“The constitutional reform marks Chávez’s consolidation of power, so the oligarchy can’t just wait for him to go,” he said. “Chávez wants to discipline and control the bourgeoisie. But they want to be in control themselves.”