After the “Red Tide”: New Challenges for Revolutionary Venezuela

With the consolidation of Chavista hegemony, after years of uncertainty and attempts at destabilization, the question remains: What does the future hold for the "Bolivarian Revolution"? Certainly, the coming months will see intense internal debates take shape.

The votes are in.  Incumbent Hugo Chávez was declared the winner of Venezuela’s December 3rd presidential elections with 7,161,637, or 62.89% of the votes cast, against the 4,196,329 votes, or 36.85%, received by his closest rival, Manuel Rosales.  A total of 14 candidates competed, supported by 79 parties, 24 of which supported Chávez, and 43 of which backed Rosales.  None of the other candidates received over 1% of the vote.  The reelected President will begin his second six-year term under the 1999 Constitution in February 2007.

These results reflect the participation of over 11 million, or 74.87% of the country’s registered voters, compared to the 69.92% that participated in the most recent vote affecting the Presidency of the Republic, the recall referendum of August 2004.  Inversely, these numbers display the lowest abstention rate in Venezuelan presidential elections since 1988, when Carlos Andrés Pérez was elected with 81.2% of registered voters participating.  It is worth noting that voting was compulsory in Venezuela until 1999, and that the electoral universe has expanded tremendously since Chávez was first elected in 1998 (from 11 million to 16 million, thanks in part to massive nation-wide registration drives).

Abstention as an electoral strategy, promoted by certain sectors of the opposition, notably the near-defunct Acción Democrática (AD), which dominated Venezuelan political life for nearly 40 years, has hereby been defeated.  It would also seem, although it needs to be confirmed by future elections, that a decades-long tendency of increasing political apathy among Venezuelans has been reversed.

Although falling short of the stated goal of “10 million” votes (a curious and unrealistic campaign slogan reminiscent of Cuba’s failed 10 million ton sugar harvest of 1970) Chavismo thus reaches its highest number of votes, with a significant increase, both absolute and proportional, over its performance in the 2004 referendum, when the “No” option (“No” to recalling Chávez) got nearly 6 million votes, or 59.09%.  The organized opposition, for its part, saw a slight decrease in its share of the vote, despite receiving an additional 100,000 votes.  What this means, politically, is that the opposition has a large “hard core” of supporters composed of practically the same sectors as two years ago.  Chavismo, on the other hand, has not been able to penetrate this core, but has made some inroads, reflected by over a million new votes, among the so-called middle class, which is benefiting from a booming economy.  Chávez won every one of the country’s 24 states, including, albeit by a small margin, oil-rich Zulia, where his rival is governor.

Existing doubts about the opposition’s response to an expected Chávez victory dissipated as soon as Rosales recognized his defeat, although insisting the margin was smaller than that announced by the CNE (he did not say by how much).  Teodoro Petkoff, the renown ex-guerrilla-turned-neoliberal newspaper editor and perennial presidential hopeful who managed the Rosales campaign, expressed his satisfaction with the electoral process.

Other sectors of the opposition may have hoped for a less courteous resolution.  Rafael Poleo, of the privately-owned channel Globovisión, had recently called on opposition sympathizers, Rosales, and the military, to take the streets following the election, making references to Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution”, because allegedly Chávez would be proclaimed winner “no matter what the numbers really say.”  Interestingly, the U.S.-based polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland, known for its shadowy involvement in elections in places like Ukraine, Serbia, and Belarus, was one of three firms (the other two have proven ties to the Venezuelan opposition) that published polls announcing a “dead heat” between Chávez y Rosales in the weeks prior to the event, even though all other polls gave Chávez the clear advantage.

Nonetheless, signs seem to indicate that the majority of the opposition, after repeated defeats of its insurgent strategy, has finally opted to embrace what it only hesitantly began to contemplate in 2004: institutionality.  Indeed, the opposition never recognized the results of that year’s referendum, despite the approval of international observers like the Carter Center and OAS.  In 2005, all major opposition candidates withdrew at the last moment from parliamentary elections, despite assurances that it would not do so if its conditions were met (which they were), allowing Chavismo to take total control of the National Assembly.

Undoubtedly, one important reason for this change is the U.S. government’s increasing unwillingness to pursue open confrontation with Venezuela at this time, as a result of the weakening of the Bush administration and the Republican Party during this year’s midterm elections.  Recent overtures, following the election, by Subsecretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon and U.S. ambassador in Venezuela William Brownfield, which contrast starkly with comments made by U.S. officials in the past, attest to this.  Still, Venezuelans doubt that any real policy change will come while George W. Bush is still in office, as evidenced by Chávez’s lukewarm response to Shannon and Brownfield’s comments.

In any case, it is unlikely that relations with the U.S. will deteriorate any further with a Democrat in the White House.  What this implies is that, unless a sudden and significant shift in the international balance of forces takes place, over the next six years we can expect to see the Venezuelan extreme right become increasingly isolated, and the “institutional” opposition become increasingly coherent, both ideologically and organizationally, as it assumes its role more seriously.

With the consolidation of Chavista hegemony, after years of uncertainty and attempts at destabilization, the question remains: What does the future hold for the “Bolivarian Revolution”?  Certainly, the coming months will see intense internal debates take shape.  In his victory speech, Chávez declared a “battle against the bureaucratic counter-revolution and corruption.”  In contemporary Venezuelan political discourse, this means not only the purging of corrupt officials within the ranks, but also the deepening of participatory democracy through the transfer of powers to the newly-created Communal Councils and popular organizations, as well as increased worker co-management, and the development of coops and other “social production enterprises.”  It also refers, however, to a looming confrontation between more radical Chavistas and “bureaucrats” perceived to be slowing down the revolutionary process.

The central conflict between these two sectors revolves around whether the “revolution” consists of cosmetic reforms to existing institutions, or the creation of parallel state structures.  During the last few years, there has been space for the co-existence of these strategies, since the entrenchment of the ancient régime within many existing institutions left reformists little choice but to go along with the construction of parallel bodies, which have gained great visibility through the famed social “missions” (the Bolivarian University and the reborn public health network, to name two).  It is very probable, however, that as the opposition begins to accept and even demand spaces within this new framework, the contradiction between the reformist view of the new institutions as a mere contingency that can and should operate under the old premises, and the radical view of them as beachheads for a far-reaching transformation of society and the state, will become increasingly pronounced.

For now, everyone supports the official rhetoric of “participatory democracy” and “socialism of the twenty-first century,” phrases that only make sense from a genuinely transformative perspective.  In practice, however, many “Chavista” politicians seems far removed from this vision, obstructing and delaying, to give just one example, the formation of Communal Councils that would take power away from traditional authority figures.  Popular dissatisfaction with such behavior is palpable, and openly expressed on a daily basis, on the streets and through a plethora of alternative and community media that have spread rapidly through the barrios during the last few years.  This element of autonomous popular organization and communication, so crucial to the counter mobilizations that stopped the 2002 coup dead in its tracks, and so underestimated by many observers, will surely play a central role in the debates to come. 

Two topics, which have already caused some concern internationally, even amongst Chávez sympathizers, will definitely be featured in this much broader debate: the possible consolidation of current pro-Chávez parties into a unified “party of the revolution,” and a possible revision of the constitution that would propose reforms to allow, among other things, the indefinite reelection of the President.  Although the doubts that have been raised about the possible anti-democratic implications of these proposals are legitimate, they are also crassly decontextualized by the international private media, which consistently neglect the constitutional framework and participative environment within which the debate will take place.

The first proposal is simply a call to fuse the tangle of parties that currently make up electoral Chavismo, the most important of which are the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), For Social Democracy (PODEMOS), Homeland for All (PPT), and the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV).  Although it could be argued such a move would centralize power and reduce diversity within Chavismo, it is no less true that this is a voluntary process, and that most of these organizations have for some time now behaved as one, for all effects and purposes.

Nowhere has it been suggested, as repeated references to a partido único (as in one-party rule) seem to imply, that opposition parties and other that do not wish to adhere to the new structure would be outlawed.  It is quite probable, for example, that the Trotrkyist Party of the Revolution and Socialism (PRS), which is tied to the Classist, Unitary, Revolutionary, and Autonomous Current (C-CURA), currently the most powerful tendency within the pro-Chávez National Workers’ Union (UNT), will not join the new party, as it has already declared its desire to remain autonomous, despite its current support for Chávez (indeed, unlike other Chavista parties, the PRS abstained from registering to participate in these elections).

Furthermore, the organizational coherence that would result from a more solid party structure may prove a counterweight to some of the less palatable tendencies of Chavismo, such as a growing Chávez personality cult.  A unified party structure would facilitate the formation of mid-level cadre with leadership skills, diminishing the movement’s continued dependence on a single charismatic leader, as well as limiting the chances of riding Chávez’s coat-tails into office without showing any real political commitment in practice.  Building a new party would also serve as an ultimatum to bureaucrats and opportunists to either get with the program or go over to the opposition once and for all.

While this first proposal may thus be a first step towards de-personalizing the process, the second seems to point in the opposite direction.  It could in fact be argued that eliminating term limits would be a step backwards for democracy in its strictly procedural sense, although in and of itself it would not cross the boundaries of the democratic rules of the game.  Indeed, many democratic countries have no term limits, and even the U.S. did not adopt them until well into the twentieth century.  It should also be recalled that the proposal is for a process of constitutional review, which will be discussed thoroughly throughout the country, and which eventually must go through the filter of a two-thirds vote in the National Assembly and a simple majority in a popular referendum (Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Arts. 340-346).  Admittedly, neither of these will prove to be a serious obstacle, since Chavistas will control the Assembly for the next five years, and Chávez will not lose his massive popular support in the foreseeable future.

There are several reasons why the review is even brought up in the first place.  First of all, it is well known that Chávez has threatened to push this measure in the past to dissuade the opposition from withdrawing from elections, as they did in 2005.  The message is “stop trying to delegitimize the government by not participating, or we will keep electing the very person you would like to remove.”  It is no less true, however, that there is widespread acclaim amongst the Chavista grassroots, nurtured by the President’s own statements, for Chávez to stay “until 2021” (which is when, according to Chávez, the revolution will be consolidated).  Even the slightest initiative in this direction would set off a process that would eventually depend on, and very possibly receive, the approval of the majority of the electorate.

Those who support this proposal argue that Chávez plays a double role in the revolutionary process, as a rampart that holds back reaction, and as a beacon of sorts, signaling not a defined ideological doctrine, but the need for self-organization and the search for economic alternatives.  In the absence of other figures with the charisma and communication skills to fulfill these functions effectively, the gamble, then, is that Chávez must keep doing it until popular organizations are strong enough to stand on their own against powerful internal and external enemies.

No doubt this is a risky gamble in many ways, but for the moment there seem to be few alternatives.  In any case, if the reforms go through, Chávez will have to run for reelection and win again and again in order to actually stay in office.  Although difficult, it would not be impossible for a responsible and law-abiding opposition to eventually defeat him.  Recent history shows that the Venezuelan government is willing and able to hold elections that are free, fair, and transparent against a vocal and organized opposition that commands the loyalty of two-fifths of the electorate.

In the end, it is not in the hands of Hugo Chávez, but of the barrio residents and workers of Venezuela to keep organizing and mobilizing to exercise decision-making power more and more directly.  Whether the phrase “socialism of the twenty-first century” turns out to be yet another empty slogan or a real project capable of transforming social and productive relations for the benefit of all humanity is entirely up to them.

José A. Laguarta Ramírez is a student in the Ph.D. Program in Political Sciences at The Graduate Center, CUNY and the School of Law of the University of Puerto Rico.  He was recently in Caracas conducting fieldwork for his doctoral thesis on community organization and participation in Venezuela.

Earlier versions of this article were published in Spanish in Bandera Roja (no relation to the Venezuelan ultra-left opposition party of the same name) and Claridad.