The Venezuelan congressional elections of December 4, 2005 mark a turning point in domestic politics and US-Venezuelan relations. President Chavez’s party, the Movement of the Fifth Republic, won approximately 68 per cent of the congressional seats and with other pro-government parties, elected all the representatives.
The turnout for the congressional elections without a presidential campaign was 25 per cent. The pro-Chavez percentage exceeds the pluralities secured in previous congressional elections in 1998 (11.24 per cent) and 2000 (17 per cent). If we compare the voter turnout with the most recent election, which included the opposition (the August 2005 municipal elections), the abstention campaign accounted for only a 6 per cent increase in citizens who chose not to vote (69 per cent to75 per cent). The claim that the low turnout was a result of the US backed opposition’s boycott is clearly false.
The argument that the level of turnout calls into question the legitimacy of the elections would, if applied to any US “off-year” election, de-legitimize many congressional, municipal and gubernatorial elections.
One of the most striking aspects of the election was the highly polarized voter participation: In the elite and upper middle class neighborhoods voter turnout was below 10 per cent, while in the numerous popular neighborhoods the BBC reported lines waiting to cast their ballots.
With close to a majority of the poor voting and over 90 per cent voting for Chavez’ party, and electing an all Chavez legislature, the way is open for new, more progressive legislation, without the obstructionist tactics of a virulent opposition. This should lead to measures accelerating the expropriation of latifundios (large estates) and of bankrupt and closed factories as well as new large-scale social and infrastructure investments. It is also possible a new constitutional amendment will allow for a third term for President Chavez.
The Bush Administration (with Democratic Congressional backing) has engaged in desperado ‘casino’ politics, namely an ‘all or nothing’ approach, instead of a gradualist incremental opposition. Washington pushed its client trade union confederation (CTV) ,with financial support and “advice” from the AFL-CIO, into a general strike in 2001. This failed and eventually led to the formation of a new confederation reducing the CTV to an impotent .
In April 2002 the US backed a military coup, which was defeated in 47 hours by a mass popular uprising backed by constitutionalist military officers, resulting in the dismissal of hundreds of pro-US military officials. From December 2002 to February 2003, US-backed officials and their entourage in the state petroleum company, PDVS, organized a lockout, temporarily paralyzing the economy.
Loyalist workers and engineers backed by the government broke the lockout and all the senior officials and employees engaged in the lockout were fired, setting in motion a major shift in petroleum revenue allocation from the upper class to the poor. Likewise the US poured millions via the NED into a non-governmental organ ization, SUMATE, to fund a referendum to recall Chavez in 2004. The referendum was defeated by a 16-point margin (58 per cent to 42 per cent) leading to demoralization, apathy and depoliticizing of the voter constituency of the right.
In the recent congressional campaign, polls indicated another massive electoral defeat, Washington pressured its NGO and political clients to withdraw from the ballot and call for an abstention, with the above-mentioned result — total loss of any institutional sphere of influence, further isolation of its political constituency and the inevitable turn of the business class toward direct negotiations with the Chavez congress-people instead of via the opposition.
In each confrontation, Washington burned a strategic client group in its bid to grab state power in the shortest time. Washington rejected a gradualist insider political strategy of accumulating forces over time, modifying legislation through negotiations, exploring real or imagined grievances and tempering the demagogic rhetoric embedded in its foreign policy.
The basic question is: why did Washington persist in its go-for-broke policies despite a sequence of defeats?
Between 2001-2002, the ideologues of multiple wars, under the guise of anti-terrorism and the slogan “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” (Bush, September 23, 2001), were determined to make short shrift of the Chavez regime. The reason was that President Chavez was one of the very few non-communist regimes to oppose the US war against Afghanistan and condemn US terror (Chavez stated “You can’t fight terror with terror.”).
Given that mad-dog fanatics controlled power in Washington as early as October 2001, a US State Department official (Grossman) threatened Chavez that “He and future generations (of Venezuelans) would pay” for opposing US aggression. Along with US Ambassador Charles Shapiro, the neo-conservatives, especially the Cuban-Americans in the State Department who designed Latin American policies, overestimated their influence in the Venezuelan military and exaggerated the power of the mass media and the business elite in shaping the outcome of a military coup. The precipitate action was due to the upcoming invasion of Iraq and the obsessive need to silence foreign governmental opposition — given the mass opposition in the US and Europe to a war against Iraq.
The second factor which influenced Washington’s pursuit of go-for-broke politics, at the time of the lockout, was the pending oil crisis with the invasion of Iraq and Chavez’ ties with Iraq and Iran via its leadership of OPEC.
Having pulled its “military levers” without success, Washington played its oil card to weaken or break OPEC and thus deter any price increases and also to guarantee an increased flow of oil from Venezuela. One of the immediate measures imposed by the 47-hour coup-makers had been to withdraw Venezuela from OPEC. The oil lockout executives would likely have followed suit if they had been able to overthrow the Chavez government.
Washington’s policy of immediate confrontation also followed from Chavez’ growing relations with Cuba. The virulent anti-Cuba lobby and its State Department representatives, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, were intent on destroying Cuba’s strategic ally in Venezuela, no matter what the risk to US clients in Venezuela, just as the pro-Israel zealots in the Pentagon pushed the war with Iraq and are prepared to offer US support for an Israeli attack on Iran — no matter what the cost to US backed Arab clients in the Middle East.
The third factor that shaped Bush’s policy was Chavez’ opposition to the Latin American Free Trade Area of the Americas and the growing support in Latin America for his proposed Bolivarian Latin American integration alliance (ALBA).
The Washington ultras viewed Latin America as infected by a series of “left of center” regimes “bought” or influenced by Venezuelan oil offers and petroleum financing, undermining US hegemony. In reality none of the regimes in question (Lula in Brazil, Kitchner in Argentina, Vazquez in Uruguay, etc) was in any way pursuing Chavez domestic welfare policies or his critical position on US imperialism.
Given the US failures to consolidate rule in Iraq or Afghanistan, and US defeats in the UN and OAS in isolating Cuba, the ultras were desperate for a political victory. So they pursued their strategy of confrontatiohn with Venezuela, each time with less institutional and political support, in a losing game to compensate for previous defeats. The weaker their client forces, the shriller the rhetoric, the less resonance in Venezuela, Latin America and even in the US Congress — thanks to Chavez’ policy of offering subsidized oil to low-income consumers in the US.
What will the old parties, which boycotted the elections, do now that they excluded themselves from Congress? The two major parties, the Democratic Action (AD) and Social Christians (COPEI), relied heavily on party patronage, government jobs to secure activists and voters. Without it the party apparatus possibly could survive on handouts from the phony US NGOs (The Democratic and Republican Institutes) but without jobs and perks the loyalists will look elsewhere and perhaps hook onto some of the more conservative pro-Chavez political groups or retire from politics or form a new party.
Chavez was absolutely right when he said these elections spelled the burial of the traditional parties as viable contenders for electoral power. Some but not most of the political supporters of the traditional parties are not prepared nor have the stomach for bomb throwing and street fighting. However some of the other groups like the pseudo-populist Justice First Party and the extremists around the Bush-backed NED-financed NGO, SUMATE, may engage in some sort of street violence.
There is no doubt that the Venezuelan right is incapable of replicating the CIA-Soros “color revolutions” in the Caucasus for several reasons. First the Chavez regime has a mass active and engaged popular base, which dominates the street action. Secondly there is no issue around which the right can mobilize and unify a popular movement. The vast welfare programs are popular, the economy is growing, living standards are rising, corruption is not out of control and there is complete freedom of assembly, press and speech.
The conservative business associations increasingly are prospering from government contracts and depend on contacts with the victorious party in power to consummate deals They are not likely to make a risky bet with defeated NGOs and parties with a history of failed adventurous politics when it would be easier to make money now, notwithstanding their hyperventilating against “the negro” at their private cocktail parties.
That leaves the opposition two options. The pragmatists, especially among the business elite, will probably look to opening a dialogue via the conservative Archbishop of Caracas with the more moderate wing of the Chavez government (the economic and finance ministries) and Congress to gain influence and limit changes from “within”.
The second option is a turn to violent extra-parliamentary action and recruitment of some military or intelligence officials of ambiguous loyalties. We can expect a few bombings as took place on Election Day — blowing up of an oil pipeline and a stick of dynamite being tossed next to a Caracas military base. Neither of these had major repercussions. An upgrading of community vigilance committees and counter-terrorist operations should be able to handle these extremists, despite their obvious CIA backing.
Clearly Washington’s strategy has led to the decommissioning of the most significant levers of power, which Washington possessed in Venezuelan society. What remain are the private mass media, which can still mount a formidable anti-government, pro-US propaganda campaign. The US can be counted on to strengthen and perhaps radicalize its message, in hopes of provoking a crackdown, under the bizarre belief that the “worse the better”. Already Thomas Shannon, the US Undersecretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, responded to the sweeping Chavez electoral victory by calling it “a step toward totalitarianism”, a judgment rejected by every country in North and South America, the United Nations and an army of European Union electoral observers.
US propagandists have failed to recognize the fact that extremism has led to virtual total isolation, even among the US’s most loyal clients in the region. Washington may try to pressure Colombia and its President Uribe to create border conflicts, but that is not going to work either. Venezuelan-Colombian trade is growing rapidly and amounts to $3 billion dollars, greater than Colombia’s trade with the US. Moreover, Venezuela is Colombia’s most important market for manufactured goods (accounting for 25 per cent of the total). With a major billion dollar Venezuelan gas and petrol pipeline passing through Colombia, there is hardly a rancher, industrialist or banker supporting a US-backed Colombian foray into Venezuela.
Washington has two other levers — the NGOs and the clandestine terrorists who can attempt to sow chaos and destruction in order to provoke a coup or, at least, street demonstrations. There are two problems which undermine the effectiveness of the NGOs like SUMATE. Their dependence on US financing and lack of an independent standing has deflated their legitimacy among the lower middle class, shopkeepers, professionals and conservative sectors of public employees. Moreover, their numerous failed campaigns and the loss of institutional power has demoralized those who used to turn out for demonstrations. That leaves Washington with the clandestine armed terrorists, who have some support among a reduced sector of the elite in the form of safe houses, access to weapons and money. Without totally disregarding their capacity to set off bombs, terrorism is likely to boomerang — strengthen popular demands for greater security measures — a “mano duro”.
That leaves us with a possible direct US intervention. While the ultras in Washington are theoretically capable of such a move, practically they lack regional allies, their internal political assets are at their weakest point and the internal political weakness of the Bush Administration and the increasingly anti-war US public (and even some sectors of Congress) preclude a new invasion, involving a prolonged war against a government backed by millions of its citizens, with and without arms.
However given the combined AON outlook and the extremism in Washington nothing can be absolutely excluded.
With the demise of the traditional parties, political pluralism, debate and political competition will be expressed elsewhere. There are numerous political parties and tendencies who are “pro-Chavez” including a dozen parties, which can be classified as social democratic, social liberal, nationalist and a variety of Marxist groups. Likewise in the agrarian and industrial sectors and within the social movements and trade unions, there are divisions and competition between reformers, centrists and revolutionaries. Within Congress and the ministries these tendencies argue, debate, propose and modify policies. And Chavez himself has a ‘reformist’ pragmatic and revolutionary side to his discourse and practice. In other words, pluralistic democracy is alive and well. The big questions between market and state, private and public ownership, landowners and peasants, self-managed factories and private monopolies, and foreign and domestic capital will be taken up and resolved within the multi-tendency Chavista umbrella.
The moderate or conservative wing of Chavismo is concerned about legitimacy despite the clean and certified elections. They are likely to seek and reach out to the less extreme personalities, church notables and business leaders in order to encourage a new “reasonable” political opposition, in order to countermand the US screeds amplified by the local media about creeping totalitarianism. The pragmatists will look toward maintaining fiscal discipline, limiting social spending and promoting joint public-private “partnerships”.
The centrist groups and parties will seek to consolidate political power within the institutions and their electorate by promoting piecemeal reforms, increasing social spending and distributing big infrastructure contracts to the progressive bourgeoisie.
The left groups, organized mainly in the new class-oriented trade unions, neighborhood and community based cooperatives, peasant social movements and, especially, in the worker self-managed enterprises and movements, are pushing for a deepening of the socialization process and greater investment in local productive enterprises to reduce the 50 per cent of the labor force which remains unemployed or underemployed. At the same time they attack the top-down selection of electoral candidates. Conflicts are likely to emerge between the mass activists in the neighborhoods and trade unions and certain opportunist and corrupt municipal and provincial officials, especially in the allocation of funds and the style of leadership.
Chavez stands with the left and the mass movements but he does not discount the pragmatists who decide macro-economic policy nor the centrists who are attempting to institutionalize political power. Yet it is Chavez who synthesizes the different positions, educates the public and provides the charismatic leadership, which unifies and moves the whole movement forward. It is Chavez who denounces US imperialism and meets with Iranian leaders, and it is Chavez who signs economic agreements with Colombia’s neo-liberal Uribe and praises Brazil’s corruption-tainted, Wall Street cover boy, Lula Da Silva.
Chavez calls for a wide-ranging debate on his vision of 21st century socialism, sells subsidized oil to poor countries and people (even in the US) and approves of new petrol exploitation contracts with the multinational petroleum giants.
Washington’s support for the self-immolation of the Venezuelan congressional opposition opens the door for greater advances in legislation promoting jobs, public ownership, agrarian reform, progressive labor legislation and the building of bridges toward greater Latin American integration. The loss of US levers of power presents a great opportunity for reformists and revolutionaries to seize the historical moment and demonstrate their capacity not only to defeat the empire but to build a democratic, just and egalitarian socialist society in which the mass of the population is engaged in legislation, not just voting for politicians who may or may not defend their best interests.
The issue of the legitimacy of the elections is not a serious question. Latin American monitors from the electoral commissions of numerous conservative countries declared the elections and the election outcomes, democratic, transparent and an honest reflection of the will of the voters. The electoral observers from the European Union certified that the elections were transparent.
Regarding the 25 per cent turnout and the abstention campaign promoted by the US-backed opposition: First most of those who did not vote included many supporters of President Chavez. They did not turn out for several reasons:
They saw no reason to vote since victory was assumed; a competitive election would have brought many of them out to vote.
Chavez was not running. The mass popular base is more pro-Chavez than supportive of the Chavista parties or even his own Movement for the Fifth Republic.
Many grassroots pro-Chavez supporters abstained because they did not like the manner in which their candidates were elected (top-down) or didn’t like their policies or style of politics (corruption, nepotism, lack of initiative in pushing reforms.
Many of the beneficiaries of the welfare reforms are passive because they are more accustomed to receiving aid from above rather than struggling for benefits from below. Welfare distributed in a paternalistic way does not encourage political activity.
Secondly many of the opposition voters did not bother to vote because of apathy and demoralization over recent electoral failures (referendums, municipal elections) and costly self-destructive campaigns, which led to job and salary losses (lockouts and coups). This group of non-voters included many who, while not sympathetic to the Chavez parties, are benefiting from the economic programs, and are put off by the extremist rhetoric and violence perpetrated by sectors of the opposition. Many if not most non-voters were not supporters of the opposition’s abstention campaign. Unquestionably voter turnout will at least double for the Presidential elections when Chavez runs for re-election whether the opposition abstains or runs a candidate or candidates.
James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50 year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in brazil and argentina and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed). His new book with Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements and the State: Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, will be published in October 2005. He can be reached at: [email protected]