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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Politics

Development of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)

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Introduction

On December 15th 2006, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced his desire to create a single, consolidated left wing party entitled the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Chavez encouraged all left-wing parties, representing the mass majority of the National Assembly, to dissolve into the PSUV and abandon their current leadership. Chavez has framed the formulation of the PSUV as an essential step toward creating 21st Century Socialism and furthering the revolutionary goals of the Bolivarian process. Chavez stressed that the PSUV shall be governed primarily from the bottom up, focusing on mass-participation and democratic principles, and claimed that “[the PSUV] should be the most democratic party in Venezuelan history”[1]. Chavez proposed the creation of a party-wide congress to establish an official party agenda and nominate candidates, through referendum, to replace current officials representing the various left wing parties. Voting on the agenda and candidates was held on March 8, 2008, national elections for state governors and mayors took place on November 23, 2008.

Chavez’s announcement immediately sparked controversy, as well as enthusiasm, on both the left and the right of the Chavista parties. The idea of a single party representing such a wide spectrum of political viewpoints and wielding unprecedented power has created a division amongst major political parties, with some refusing participation in the PSUV, and others eager to promote the new united party. The major issues surrounding the formation of the PSUV center around political autonomy, the degree of popular participation, and how to replace existing bureaucratic hierarchies within former and current PSUV factions. Despite the lingering historical specter of failed single party states, Venezuela is moving forward with a challenging process which could either serve to reinvigorate socialism or stagnate into bureaucracy, or worse, authoritarian rule.

Despite the controversy and inherent skepticism, there are currently around 5.5 million members registered in the PSUV[2][Editor’s note: Since the writing of this article, party membership has increased to more than 7 million, according to the PSUV]. Regardless of its successes and failures, it is destined to wield major influence over the future of Venezuela. In order to understand and analyze this process one must examine the history of the parties involved, the stated goals and organization of the PSUV within the context of the Bolivarian movement, and the expressed concerns against participation in the PSUV.

Political Background

Venezuelan political parties have a long history of infighting, fracture and restructuring based along ideological and political lines. However from 1958 until the election of 1993, mainstream politics were governed by the three parties of the Punto Fijo Pact[3]. Signers included Accion Democratica (AD, Democratic Action), COPEI (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente, Political Electoral Independent Organization Committee), and Union Republica Democratica (UPV, Democratic Republic Union). The Punto Fijo parties were de-legitimized for overt corruption which was highlighted during the furious Caracazo riots, which consumed Caracas for three days[4]. The 1993 re- election of former COPEI leader Rafael Caldera, campaigning for a new party, ended Punto Fijo control of Venezuelan politics. The shortcomings of Caldera’s second presidency, which included taking IMF loans and structural adjustment programs, would give way to Chavez’s presidency, which unified a coalition of leftist groups who, though marginalized, had remained active during the Punto Fijo reign.

The PSUV Party Program

In early 2008 the Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV drafted an outline for the party which included a political-ideological doctrine, a critical analysis of the past and present, and a program which described goals and methods of action necessary to achieve an ideal future. The draft was then sent to 1,676 elected congressional delegates to further discuss and refine the program. Since then, the delegates have been back and forth to their local constituents debating the program.

The outline highlights seven strategic guidelines that serve to summarize the party’s agenda and define the goals of 21st Century Socialism (it is important to note that at this point, the program promotes party ideals but does not provide specifics on how to achieve them):

1. Defense of the Revolution.

The PSUV will, first and foremost, unconditionally defend the Bolivarian Revolution and construct socialism for the 21st century. “The PSUV is the instrument with which to set out the objectives, forms and methods of this revolutionary project, and express them at each moment… that can facilitate the transition from immediate reality to end goal.” [5]

2. Internationalism

A major stated goal of the PSUV is to work toward unity and emancipation of all Venezuelans, as well as Latin American and Caribbean peoples, from the networks of capitalism and imperialism. It seeks new alliances in order to create innovative axes apart from neo-liberalism and the interests of the international market. The PSUV wants to focus on creating “solidarity-based” exchanges of resources with other nations.

3. Build Popular Power. Socialize Power.

This section states a desire to promote and build a society based on popular power where direct decision making is placed in the hands of the masses within their various organizations: students, workers, farmers etc. It vows to make self government a reality, with a focus on transferring as much available policy-making power towards city governments, communal councils, and communes. In order to achieve these goals there must be as much direct and constant participation as possible amongst the populace.

4. Planned Economy. Communal State.

This section outlines the economic and political goals of the PSUV, “throughout this period of transition, which at this moment marches from a state capitalism dominated by market forces towards a state socialism with a regulated market, the aim is to move towards a communal state socialism.”[6] The goal of “communal state socialism” is an economy based on “humanistic values of cooperation and the preponderance of common interests.”[7] The PSUV aims to build a society that favors collective forms of property, and a “mixed” economy where a “social product” is used to maintain the means of production and satisfy public needs such as schooling and health care[8]. This also entails the transfer of private latifundio land to revolutionary state entities, cooperatives, and other social organizations. However, not all private property would transfer into state or public hands. Certain private property “that is of public utility or general interest and which is subjected to contributions, charges, restrictions and obligations”[9] would be respected.

5. Defense of Nature. Planned Production.

This section pertains to the proposed environmental policy of the PSUV, which includes the promotion of alternative energy sources, consumption of ecological products, and the preservation of water sources and basins. This also includes the planning of economic production within the requirement of the ecosystem, and fighting against consumerist society, which leads to the production of “useless objects at the cost of exhausting natural resources.”[10]

6. Defense of the Revolution and Sovereignty.

The PSUV acknowledges the threat of outside intervention from imperialist nations, and the need to protect the revolutionary process. Therefore an “alliance” with the National Armed Forces (FAN) is proposed. Alongside this is the creation of popular militias and defense comittees within communal councils. This section provides little detail on the relationship between FAN and the proposed popular militias.

7. A State Based on Popular Power.

This final section discusses the goal of constructing a state:

"...based on Councils of Popular Power, with the full and democratic participation… guaranteeing the widest possible participation and protagonism of the people in determining and realizing their destiny."[11]

This final section serves to acknowledge that mass participation is crucial to popular control of the state in order to fulfill the revolutionary political and economic goals of 21st century socialism.

Next, the program outlines more specific ideological principles. This includes the defeat of poverty, and the promotion of direct democracy, humanist values, and anti-imperial solidarity. It presents a powerful critique of the current state, and historical growth, of global capitalism and imperialism:

"Capitalism contradicts the human condition and goes against the survival of the species. This catastrophic dynamic is caused by the irrationality of a socioeconomic system that omits the necessities of humanity and acts under obligation of its own logic, compelled towards constant growth in the pursuit of profit."[12]

This attempts to prove the necessity of a mass revolutionary party and to justify the conclusion that socialism is the only reasonable choice for Venezuela.

Party Organization

The structure of the PSUV attempts to fulfill the program’s promise of popular power by establishing a bottom-up, democratic method of electing party officials and establishing party policy. To start, some 11,000 party “promoters” traveled the nation registering members into the party and taking a census.[13] After registration, groups of around 200 party members, organized by region and locality, formed “socialist battalions”. A socialist battalion is the basic building block of the party; a political/community group meeting weekly to debate the party program and address concerns of the community, having the ability to influence decision making on a regional and national level.[14] Each socialist battalion elected a recallable spokesperson. These spokespeople went on to form “socialist conscriptions” that then elected delegates, roughly one per seven to twelve socialist battalions, to the national PSUV congress. Delegates would remain in constant contact with their respective socialist conscription in order to be aware of the demands of their socialist battalions.

The congressional delegates attended two conventions on January 12 and March 2, 2008. During the convention delegates selected candidates for party leadership and created more concrete ideological and political goals for the party program. On March 9th, 2008, party candidates were officially elected. On November 23, 2008, elections for mayoral and gubernatorial positions were held. An official party program is to be created by an “Ideological Congress” some time in the near future. Despite this democratic process, Chavez remains the de-facto president of the PSUV, and has exercised power in appointing some preliminary party officials.

Controversies

Dissenting Parties

Apart from the usual critiques coming from parties traditionally in opposition to Chavez, there have been a number of controversies within the Venezuelan left around the formation of the PSUV. Criticism has come both from the left and the right of the Chavista coalition, with several major parties refusing to join the PSUV as well as discontent coming from within the party. Valuable critiques have also come from international scholars such as Gregory Wilpert.

The three major parties refusing to join the PSUV have expressed different reasons for their decision, with some overlapping rationales. The Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) has refused to join primarily for ideological reasons, stating that the PSUV does not fit in with its Marxist-Leninist agenda[15] which requires full expropriation of capitalist institutions. PODEMOS and the PPT, seen as the “right wing” of the Chavista parties, differ for more complicated reasons involving disagreements with the organization of the party and how its constitution is being drafted. In the media, the PODEMOS party leader, Ismael Garcia, has accused Chavez of a having “fascist mindset” and a “single line of thinking” for opposing pluralism within the left[16]. Both parties have warned of impending authoritarianism.

While those are the rationales presented on the surface, these parties may be more concerned with protecting institutional privilege for party bureaucrats and elites. Both PODEMOS and the PPT have expressed discontent over the creation of the PSUV Technical Committee, in charge of consolidating the party, and the PSUV Promotional Commission, in charge of early ideological development. Members of both groups were appointed directly by Chavez, which included a mix of grass-roots activists, outspoken leftists with guerilla backgrounds, and even an “out” lesbian.[17] These choices were meant to symbolize the new direction of the PSUV and to emphasize inclusion and bottom-up, popular power. Absent from these committees were former and current party leaders, and traditional members of the business and bureaucratic elite. Former leader of the radical UPV party and appointee to the Technical Committee, Lina Ron, has accused PODEMOS of wanting to protect the power of their mayoralties and governorships within the revolution, believing that the PSUV will dispense with internal hierarchies.[18]

As the second largest Chavista party, PODEMOS wanted their electoral weight represented and translated to decision making power in the drafting of the constitution and policy making for the PSUV. Instead of “socialist battalions” in charge of electing constitutional delegates they preferred an electoral system which weighted voting influence; 50% coming from “socialist battalions”, 30% coming from state officials, and 20% coming from national officials.[19] Chavez, denied this request, resulting in PODEMOS refusing to enter into the PSUV. The reasons behind PPT’s dissent are less clear, though they have also been accused of attempting to protect their party privilege by PSUV members on the left.

Internal Conflicts

Smaller and more radical parties supporting the formation of the PSUV see it as an opportunity to replace stale bureaucrats in positions of power with radicals and grass roots activists who more directly represent the interests of the people. However, there are still conflicts within the party itself. Orlando Chirino, a national organizer for the National Union of Workers (UNT), and leader of the C-Cura (United Autonomous Revolutionary Class Current) within the PSUV, has been an outspoken critic from within the party. His concerns echo many other leftist voices in the party and are especially representative of the concerns of organized labor.

Chirino’s chief complaints center around the relationship between union members of the PSUV and the government, as well as the PSUV’s stance on capitalist institutions. Chirino believes that the PSUV is not interested in fully expropriating foreign capital. C-Cura sees the nation moving towards developmentalist state capitalism rather than socialism, with private property remaining as well as worker exploitation. C-Cura supports the nationalization of industries, but sees contradictions when certain privately owned companies are labeled as “good capitalists,”[20] thereby avoiding nationalization.

With trade unions aligned with the PSUV, Chirino wonders what the relationship with the government will look like. He is concerned that the PSUV will become another appendage of the government and is uncomfortable working with mayors, bosses and bureaucrats traditionally at odds with radical labor. Therefore C-Cura believes in trade union autonomy and is fighting to preserve internal currents within the PSUV. However, C-Cura and the UNT continue to collaborate with the PSUV and push forward their revolutionary agenda; working to seize economic, political and military power from capitalist institutions.[21]

Finally, Venezuelan scholar Greg Wilpert outlined two major obstacles in the creation of a successful participatory democracy for Venezuela in 2005: 1) the “in-group” culture of Venezuelan politics, and 2) the cult of personality surrounding Chavez.[22] The PSUV seeks to address these issues. By dissolving party distinctions and empty signifiers such as flags and colors, allegiances will be formed along more identifiable ideological tendencies. This should allow more room for leaders to emerge based on their grassroots merits rather than their political/party affiliations. By embracing and empowering new collective leadership elected by popular means, party members should develop a more shared commitment to the revolutionary process. If this is true, the party, and the revolution, should gradually become less reliant on the leadership and charisma of Chavez. This all depends on the commitment of party members on all levels, especially at the local grassroots, who potentially have the most to gain from the success of the PSUV.

Conclusion

While the party is still in its formative stage, it is impossible to judge the success of this ambitious project. However, there are several points that can be addressed. First and foremost, it is very clear that in order for this party to legitimately carry out its goal of creating a participatory socialist democracy, the bottom-up aspects of the party’s organization must remain intact and respected. Mass participation on the grassroots and local levels are of the utmost importance to maintaining the legitimacy of the PSUV. People must feel that their voices are being heard and that the promises of popular power are kept. Stagnating into a state run by a single-party bureaucratic elite represents the greatest threat to the success of the revolution and the party. If at any point the influence of top rankers greatly outweighs those at the bottom, the party’s vision will likely fail.

Secondly, it is clear that the party program and definition of 21st century socialism is still vague, and in some places contradictory, though a more concrete party program is expected soon. Capitalist institutions still play a major role within Venezuela, both politically and economically, which presents the possibility of conflict in the future. It is even stated in the party program that certain capitalist institutions will remain, which creates a great deal of uncertainty around the selection of those “socially valuable” institutions.

Thirdly, infighting within the party and on the left might weaken the Chavista coalition as a whole and strengthen the opposition parties. However, the refusal of PODEMOS and others, to join the PSUV might actually strengthen the party, as those in favor of maintaining traditional party power will not interfere with party decision making.

Finally, the last round of elections, which took place on November 23, 2008, showed a large increase in voter turnout and a huge turnout for PSUV candidates. The PSUV won 17 out of 22 governorships, and 81% of mayoralties.[23] Nearly 5 million votes went for the PSUV.

The PSUV is being closely followed around the world by socialists and capitalists alike, representing one of the only major revolutionary political parties in the world, holding the potential to reinvent socialism and presenting a viable alternative to neo-liberal and capitalist development models for nations all over the globe.

Ryne Maloney-Risner wrote this essay after spending three months studying in Venezuela with other students and professors from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington through Evergreen's academic program Building Economic and Social Justice.

Notes

[1] Haste, Paul. “¡Rumbo a la Revolución Bolívariana! PSUV: Democratic Politics of the Future with Participation and Popular Support at Its Heart.” Dissident Voice. 30 May 2007. 27 Nov. 2008 <http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2007/05/%c2%a1rumbo-a-la-revolucion-boliva....)

[2] Venezuela’s Participatory Socialism Roger Burbach, Camila Piñero. Socialism and Democracy. New York: 2007. Vol. 21, Iss. 3, p. 181-200, 220-221 (22 pp.)

[3] Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. New York, NY: Verso, 2007.

[4] Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. New York, NY: Verso, 2007.

[5] United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV. “Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.” Press release. 23 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com>.

[6] United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV. “Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.” Press release. 23 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com>.

[7] United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV. “Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.” Press release. 23 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com>.

[8] United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV. “Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.” Press release. 23 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com>.

[9] United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV. “Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.” Press release. 23 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com>.

[10] United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV. “Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.” Press release. 23 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com>.

[11] United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV. “Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.” Press release. 23 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com>.

[12] United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Presidential Commission to Organize the PSUV. “Draft Program and Principles of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.” Press release. 23 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com>.

[13] Larsen, Patrick. “The PSUV Congress- Whats at Stake?” 5 Feb. 2008. 22 Nov. 2008 <http://www.marxist.com/psuv-congress.htm>.

[14] Larsen, Patrick. “The PSUV Congress- Whats at Stake?” 5 Feb. 2008. 22 Nov. 2008 <http://www.marxist.com/psuv-congress.htm>.

[15] Venezuela’s Participatory Socialism Roger Burbach, Camila Piñero. Socialism and Democracy. New York: 2007. Vol. 21, Iss. 3, p. 181-200, 220-221 (22 pp.)

[16] Circcariello-Maher, George. “Venezuela’s PSUV and Socialism from Below.” 28 Mar. 2007. 11 Nov. 2008 <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/cm280307>.

[17] Circcariello-Maher, George. “Venezuela’s PSUV and Socialism from Below.” 28 Mar. 2007. 11 Nov. 2008 <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/cm280307>.

[18] Circcariello-Maher, George. “Venezuela’s PSUV and Socialism from Below.” 28 Mar. 2007. 11 Nov. 2008 <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/cm280307>.

[19] Circcariello-Maher, George. “Venezuela’s PSUV and Socialism from Below.” 28 Mar. 2007. 11 Nov. 2008 <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/cm280307>.

[20] Venezuela’s PSUV and Socialism from Below: Interview with Orlando Chirino Anonymous. New Politics. Brooklyn: Winter 2008. Vol. 11, Iss.4, p. 17-22 (6pp).

[21] Venezuela’s PSUV and Socialism from Below: Interview with Orlando Chirino Anonymous. New Politics. Brooklyn: Winter 2008. Vol. 11, Iss.4, p. 17-22 (6pp.)

[22] Venezuela’s Participatory Socialism Roger Burbach, Camila Piñero. Socialism and Democracy. New York: 2007. Vol. 21, Iss. 3, p. 181-200, 220-221 (22 pp.)

[23] Fuentes, Federico. “Venezuela: The signifi cance of the election results and the new struggles.” 29 Nov. 2008. 30 Nov. 2008 <http://www.greenleft.org.au/2008/777/40078>.

Comments

WHERE IS WORKERS' POWER?

Strategic Guideline # 3

"Direct decision making is placed in the hands of the masses within their various organizations: students, workers, farmers etc."

Sounds good, but it doesn't really speak to the central reality of all societies: Social and political power adheres to the people, and to the class, which controls economic production. Workers' power, therefore, should be the FIRST principle: workers and farmers should have predominant control in all the enterprises in which they work. This control can take many forms: independent co-ops and collectives; combined enterprises with communal councils and communes; substantial worker control of state companies, and even, transitionally, strong co-determination in private firms. And all of these forms can only be guaranteed by the substitution of locally controlled worker/community militias for the present police forces.

The struggle in Venezuela is not between capitalism and socialism; it is a three way struggle between private capitalism, centralized state bureaucratic capitalism, and workers' democracy. Neither Chavez nor the PSUV have definitively declared themselves. They will only be pushed toward workers democracy by a strong worker and community movement from below.