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Opinion and Analysis: Participation | Politics

Impressions of the Venezuelan Election: Participatory Democracy vs. Western Democratic Decline

I’ve witnessed the self-assured superiority of Paris, the imperial arrogance of Washington, the capitalist decadence of New York’s Manhattan, parliamentary elections in Germany, and my fair share of elections in Britain. In none of them have I encountered a democratic political culture as profound as Venezuela’s.

In Venezuela it’s hard to avoid politics at the best of times, but during election campaigns signs of political struggle and debate become, quite literally, wall to wall. In the small Andean city of Merida, with a population of under 300,000, a walk across the city centre gives an idea of the intensity of the campaign being waged ahead of the 7 October presidential election. With socialist President Hugo Chavez seeking a third term in office against right-wing challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski for the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, supporters from both sides are out in force.

One strategy in Merida is campaign caravans, where supporters get into trucks, cars and jeeps and drive around the city waving flags, tooting horns and shouting slogans. Another is to gather with a group of activists at a key transit point with loudspeakers blasting music in favour that campaign’s candidate, slowing cars to hand leaflets to drivers or write messages on their back windscreens. A few days ago I saw an interesting competition between a group of young First Justice (PJ) supporters, the party of Capriles Radonski, and activists from the youth wing of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), which supports Chavez. Both were trying to leaflet cars and sing their campaign songs the loudest, and without being too partisan about it, the PCV activists were clearly putting more enthusiasm into their campaigning, with the PJ supporters falling into silence and songs of a distinctly revolutionary nature drifting across the street. “It looks like the communists are winning,” said my partner to me smiling.

Then there are the campaign stalls; tables under small marquees where activists gather with leaflets and music to campaign to passers-by, encouraging a kind of street debating culture throughout the election. Without a doubt there are more “punto rojo” (red point) campaign stalls of Chavez’s party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), than those of the opposition. In fact reports I’ve received from Caracas indicate that the opposition presence in the streets is even lower there than in Merida.  The punto rojos are ubiquitously located in almost every major square and highway in the city, and I’m already building up my own collection of leaflets just from walking past these stalls in the passing of the day. Add to all this the major campaign rallies, door to door visits by activists, saturated media coverage, massive billboards, and posters covering almost every available surface, which activists stick up every night when the streets are quiet. No, you can’t ignore the presidential election here. Nor are most Venezuelans trying to, in the awareness that, unlike in many other countries, their vote actually matters for the country’s future political direction.

A look at the two candidate’s campaign material highlights this choice. Chavez’s campaign leaflet is balanced between what he has achieved so far as president since his first election in 1998, his movement’s overall vision for Venezuela, and concrete proposals for the coming period. Quoted achievements include improving free healthcare and education systems, eliminating illiteracy, establishing a profit-free food distribution network, integration into a sovereign Latin America and laying the basis for a “participatory and protagonistic” democracy in Venezuela. The campaign’s five goals (each of which are broken down into concrete proposals) are consolidating national sovereignty, the continued construction of “Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century” in Venezuela, converting Venezuelan into a Latin American power, promoting a multipolar world order capable of guaranteeing world peace, and “preserving life on the planet and saving the human species”, the latter of which has been extensively mocked by Capriles and his campaign, who argues that Venezuela should only worry about itself.

Meanwhile Capriles’ campaign itself seems to have two manifestos. In the official one, Capriles has promoted himself as Chavez-light, promising to maintain popular social programs, while advocating the need for more “incentives for entrepreneurs” and criticising “major obstacles to the involvement of private companies” in the economy. Then there’s the real plan, leaked by dissident members of the opposition, which shows the neoliberal nature of the Venezuela opposition, proposing the deregulation of banks, opening up the economy to private investment and the reduction of state funding for public services and communal council projects. You can read a summary of both candidate’s government plans on Venezualanysis.com here. Nevertheless, from a democratic perspective, despite the opposition’s unwillingness to present its actual policies to the electorate during the campaign, in Venezuela citizens are presented with a real choice in this (and every) election, with the power to decide in which direction they want the country to go.

An election in a decaying liberal democracy

In the last major election I witnessed, the British general election in May 2010, the atmosphere was slightly different. In that election I was a parliamentary candidate, standing for a socialist alternative to cuts in public spending and other austerity measures, billed as a necessary response to the capitalist recession. Myself another other activists ran a campaign in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland, which incidentally is of a similar size to Merida in Venezuela. However the similarities end there.

That election was characterized by a sense of apathy, disenchantment, and powerlessness. Like many countries across Europe and North America, the election consisted in presenting the population with two variants of the same pre-designed policy to vote for: in this case further privatisation of public services, frozen wages, job losses, and reduced social benefits. No substantive issues were put on the table for debate. International financial institutions, banks, corporate media, and dominant political currents had already decided that ordinary people would pay for the economic crisis, which was caused by capitalism in general, and financial capital in particular. Whether people voted for the incumbent Labour party, or for the other dominant political forces, the Liberal Democrat or Conservative parties, they would be rubber-stamping what was basically the same policy. The notion of the people having a real say in decision-making, that is, of real democracy, took a back seat.

That election reflected an on-going decay in the liberal democratic system, and could be readily observed in the atmosphere of the election campaign. For example, during the entire campaign in Aberdeen, only once can I remember seeing Labour party activists, activists of the sitting government at the time which was trying to stay in power, physically out on the streets leafleting in the city centre. Aspects of grassroots campaigning such as door knocking and leafleting surely occurred during the election, but not much.  This was true of all major parties, with a lack of popular enthusiasm and mobilisation among the population evident. In publicity terms, the formal marks of an election were still there: posters were put up, billboards and mass leaflet deliveries paid for, and candidates moved around the country and had their statements reported in the press. It was an election moved by opinion polls, public relations campaigns, and sound-bite discourse.

Yet from my impression, the spirit of real democracy, of people being in control of the politics of their country and feeling that their voice and their vote mattered, was not present. Absent were groups of activists closing down main roads to mass-leaflet transit. Absent were campaign stalls in almost every major square and street, with activists passionately explaining why their candidate deserved support. Absent were massive rallies of tens and hundreds of thousands of people, who in with joy and anger shouted, demanded, and praised their candidates, because it really mattered who won. Absent was the notion that a major political force stood up for ordinary people’s interests versus those of the ruling elite, that there was something worth getting up off your sofa and fighting for. This was reflected in the turnout on voting day, which for an election that had the possibility of a change of government (which indeed happened) was low, at 65% of the electorate. A far cry from the 84% turnout for the landslide Labour victory of 1950, and well short of the 75% turnout in the 2006 Venezuelan presidential election, which never looked close, with Chavez winning by a country mile. Turnouts in other kinds of British elections are usually lower still.

The reality is that in Europe, North America and Australasia, to one extent or another, participation and substantive decision-making power in politics have been stolen from the people, to the degree which it was ever existed in the first place. In previous generations, voters at least had a real choice to make, between social-welfare capitalism and state intervention in the economy, or free-market neoliberal capitalism. Now, politics can be characterised, as campaigning journalist John Pilger once quoted, as “indistinguishable parties competing for the management of a single ideology state”. Communities, trade unions and social movement organisations are instead forced to take to the streets to defend previous social gains and rights, with little formal political representation willing to support them. Add to this political monoculture a nauseating pro-establishment nationalism, attacks on civil rights in the name of a “war on terror,” sporadic corruption scandals and ever-growing media concentration, and you can see the indicators for the on-going decay of democracy and participatory political culture in these countries.

Venezuela’s participatory democratic birth

Why, in turn, are there such high levels of enthusiasm and participation in Venezuelan politics? In the 1958 – 1998 period, Venezuela also had a two-party “democracy” in which those two parties shared power, while left wing activists were actively persecuted. This “Punto Fijo” system lost legitimacy in 1989 when then president Carlos Andrez Perez (CAP) implemented an IMF neoliberal austerity package, which among other measures, lifted subsidies on fuel. The response was protesting and rioting, which the CAP government put down by military force, with estimates of those killed running up to three thousand civilians. Fed up with the elitism, exclusion, and corruption of the Punto Fijo system, the people turned to Hugo Chavez and his Fifth Republic Movement, who broke open the delegitimised two-party system with his election as Venezuelan president in December 1998, beginning the Bolivarian revolution.

Chavez followed through on his campaign promise to re-found the country, with an elected constituent assembly writing the country’s new National Constitution in 1999, arguably one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Passed by a popular referendum, it gave Venezuelans a broad range of new political, civil and social rights, and provided a framework for further democratic reform. Now Venezuelans can recall elected representatives from their posts, and directly submit laws for discussion in the National Assembly, among other rights. Meanwhile major elections or referenda have been held almost every year since Chavez’s election, with the Venezuelan people collectively making key political decisions, such as keeping Chavez in power in the 2004 recall referendum, the narrow defeat of the 2007 constitutional referendum, and the passing of the 2009 constitutional referendum, which allows elected officials to run for more than two consecutive terms in office, including Chavez.

A dynamic has developed where law-making has had to keep pace with an explosion in grassroots organisation. Many Venezuelans are now actively included and involved in political life, participating in social movements, political parties, communal councils, communes, community media outlets, trade unions and worker councils, and other forums. Meanwhile a large part of the poor and lower-middle classes, which form around 80% of the population, have felt represented by the Chavez government, and have passionately defended it. Along with promoting the political inclusion and empowerment of the poor, this is due to government policies such as taking control over Venezuela’s oil revenues and funnelling the money into social spending such as free healthcare, education, subsidised food networks, and housing construction. Economic privatisation has been rolled back, with the nationalisation of telecommunications, electricity, cement, some banking sectors, and more possible if Chavez wins on 7 October. These moves have been taken in the backdrop of an intransigent US-backed opposition which has both physically and electorally tried to remove Chavez, so far without luck.

Nothing’s perfect of course, and all these gains don’t mean there aren’t setbacks within Venezuela’s new democratic upsurge. When Chavez fell ill with cancer last year, renewed attention was drawn to the problem that the Bolivarian movement depends so much on one leader. Meanwhile, corruption and bureaucracy are phenomena which slow further radical democratisation and erode support for the Bolivarian revolution as a whole. I noticed the effects of this in the eastern Guayana region in Venezuela, where some ostensibly pro-Chavez figures were actively resisting the advance of the worker control project in the region, where workers are trying to take the control of factories into their own hands. Also, an opportunistic political culture still exists, where some politicians take advantage of their position for self-promotion. This can be seen in Merida, where both the pro-Chavez state governor and the pro-opposition city mayor have employees’ uniforms and official material with their faces and names, promoting themselves above the institution they are elected to run. That means if someone wants to work in municipal rubbish collection or tending public squares, they must wear a uniform that promotes a certain politician. This is a practice which many people in Chavez’s movement are against, and debate and action on all these issues form part of the dynamic within the struggle to deepen Venezuela’s new participatory democracy.

Differing views of Venezuela’s democracy, from corporate media jargon to reality

However, great advances have been made in political empowerment and participation in Venezuela since 1998, and the vitality of Venezuela’s democracy stands in sharp contrast to the West. I got a reminder of this just last week, when Chavez came to Merida for an election rally. The response from the people was incredible, with campesinos (rural labourers), workers, students, and many others steaming into the city from the surrounding region to support the re-election of their president. The joy and enthusiasm of the tens of thousands of demonstrators was palpable, with handmade banners, artistic expression, air horns, music, hugs, shoulders pats, and declarations of support for Chavez being the order of the day. Big Venezuelan rallies like this are a mixture of music gigs, street parties, and political demonstrations. It’s also fair to say of opposition supporters, that while their stance may be based on reactionary values, or on the confused notion that “justice” or “progress” is something to be delivered by a neoliberal candidate from the Venezuelan elite, they too are passionate, most of all in their opposition to Chavez. In Venezuelan politics, people feel that they actually have a cause worth supporting, and millions are motivated to get on their feet to do so.

Talking to people at the Merida rally, I was impressed by the depth of political consciousness and variety of opinions among the crowd as to why they supported Chavez’s re-election. For some, Latin American integration was the reason, for others, free healthcare. For many, their main reason for supporting Chavez, as one middle-aged couple put it to me, was that “he’s the president who has most given power to the people” while another man told me, “he’s the president who has awoken the people of Venezuela and fellow peoples”. Another young woman told me her reason was quite simply “I love him”.

For a journalist with a corporate news service such as Reuters, sitting on a fat salary in a plush Caracas apartment on tap to the opposition (one imagines), this is evidence of the “romantic and affectionate view of Chavez” who is cynically playing “the populist card” to win another term in office. Or to an Associated Press journalist who’s never tasted poverty in their life, social programs, often referred to as “oil-fuelled spending largesse” in anti-Chavez corporate press jargon, can be dismissed as Chavez “spending heavily on social programs…this year seeking to shore up support,” i.e. cynically buying votes. Never mind the historical record, which shows a long-term commitment of behalf of the Chavez government to social spending, with poverty more than halved among numerous other social achievements. This commitment includes maintaining social spending during the 2009-10 recession in Venezuela, when no presidential election was in sight, in order to offset the negative effects of the global economic crisis on the Venezuelan people, a move apparently beyond the means of many “first world” nations.

Indeed, the young woman who told me that “love” was the reason she voted for Chavez wasn’t being tricked by some populist image or last minute spending burst. She came from a poor family which used to live in a shanty house near where the Merida rally took place. Now she is about to graduate as a doctor in the government’s integral community medicine program, and would have been excluded from the Venezuela’s traditionally elite medical system. Her shanty house had also been transformed into a dignified home through the community driven “homes for shanties” program, part of the government’s mass housing construction mission. It’s transformations like these that have earned Chavez such strong support, as much as it pains the international media to say so. Indeed, according to corporate media sources, gaining the support of the popular majority through directing government policy toward their needs seems to be a bad thing for “democracy”, with former Council of Foreign Relations analyist Joe Hirst recently arguing that Venezuela needs to take lessons on democracy from the US. What rubbish. At least former US President Jimmy Carter has added a dose of reality to what has been atrociously misleading reporting by most mainstream media outlets on Venezuela’s election, stating that in his opinion Venezuela’s electoral system is the best in the world.

A democratic rebirth in the West?

While the world’s corporate media have trapped themselves in an Orwellian illusion whereby the US and Britain are models of democracy and Venezuela is a troubled country run by a “regime”, in the real world the reality is otherwise. Democracy in the US and Europe is in trouble, with the majority of the population being shut out of any real choice over public decision-making, and a political monoculture running whole countries in the interests of a small elite. For a long time the reaction to this has been apathy or de-politicisation, however in many countries there has been significant resistance to capitalist austerity, with new movements being born and old ones rejuvenated. It remains to be seen whether disenchantment with this decay will be converted into a movement capable of social and political transformation. Perhaps we will see a parallel with Venezuela’s example, where an outside movement manages to break elites’ monopoly on power and generate a revolutionary democratic rebirth. In this task, there’s a lot to be learned from both the achievements and contradictions of the Venezuelan experience, which in many ways is one of the most profound democracies in the world today.