Hugo Chávez will be inaugurated in Caracas tomorrow, to a fresh six year term as president of Venezuela, and he has already signalled the important changes that lie ahead on the road to what he describes as “socialism for the 21st century”.
Chávez has now moved into a new gear, and, after a year of extensive activity on the foreign front, he is concentrating on four areas of politics nearer home. He is to incorporate the squabbling groups that support his government into a single, unified, political party. He has reshuffled his cabinet to bring long-awaited change to the existing useless bureaucracies, peopled with leftovers from the old era. He has announced plans to renationalise electrical and telecommunications companies, and to reverse the privatisation of firms processing the heavy oil of the Orinoco. And he is preparing to enforce the existing media legislation that will curb or crush the power of ultra-rightist and anti-democratic press barons.
To the surprise of his enemies, Chávez has become ever more popular since first elected eight years ago. In the recent December elections, he secured 7.3 million votes against 4.2 million for the opposition. In 1998, the comparable figure was 3.6 million for Chávez and 2.8 million for the opposition. During the intervening years, Venezuela has been in the throes of a revolution the like of which has not been seen in Latin America since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Although the changes have been taking place in slow motion, they are substantial, wide-ranging and almost certainly irreversible. After this week’s announcements, the revolutionary process looks set to accelerate.
Although Chávez is an essential part of the political earthquake that has been shaking Venezuela, the Bolivarian Revolution is not entirely of his creation. The dramatic collapse of traditional politics had long been in the pipeline, and Venezuelans were fortunate that their future fell into the hands of this charismatic and intelligent colonel, a man with outstanding leadership talents and political intuition. “It might have been General Pinochet,” as the outgoing Vice-President, José Vicente Rangel, once commented to me caustically. Most Venezuelans, the majority whom voted for Chávez, understand that there are new rules of the game, and Chávez’s more difficult task is to persuade the minority that there can be no going back to the past. The revolution is here to stay, and will continue the task of rooting out the neoliberal reforms introduced in the 1990s.
Because of his close friendship with Fidel Castro, Chávez has often been criticised for taking the Cuban road. There is little evidence of this, yet because Cuba was the most recent significant revolution in Latin America and shares some of the historical and geographical characteristics of Venezuela, obvious parallels can be drawn between Venezuela today and the early years of the Cuban Revolution. Cuba, after several years of experimentation, eventually organised a single party to preside over the country’s fortunes. Cuba also went through a period of what the Trotskyists used to call “dual power”. The old ministries survived while government was carried on in parallel institutions that derived their legitimacy from the revolution, and eventually, after a merging process, the latter had to prevail.
Chávez himself has never been very interested in political parties (even his own), and still less in trade unions. The creation of a single party, to be called the United Socialist party of Venezuela, is designed to give a louder and more influential voice to the grassroots activists that are the real strength and support of the revolution. Yet it has already caused some concern among the miniscule parties in his coalition that have survived from the old era. These include the Venezuelan Communist party (PCV) and the Fatherland For All (PPT) group, which has Maoist antecedents. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela will not become a one party state. Indeed a post-Fidel government in Cuba may well examine the Venezuelan model with considerable attention.
The substantial cabinet changes involve the promotion of men required to take a tough line in bringing ministries to accept the new revolutionary institutions, notably those of health and education, and to develop policies that will reduce the crime rate, still top of the list of most people’s concerns. Education will be run by Adán Chávez, the president’s elder brother, often deployed as a trouble-shooter. The outgoing finance minister, Nelson Merentes, is being transferred to the central bank to oversee its return to state control. “The central bank must not be autonomous,” says Chávez, “that is a neoliberal idea.”
Other plans include the renationalisation of the national telephone company (CANTV), a Venezuelan company privatised in 1991, and the take-over of Electricidad de Caracas, owned by the US multinational AES Corp. Foreign interests will also be affected by a decision to bring the lucrative oil projects in the Orinoco Basin into public ownership. This dramatic reversal of the anti-state trend in Latin America over the past 20 years will prove a major challenge, since it is by no means clear that Venezuela has the funds and the competent personnel necessary to run large state projects again.
Yet out of all these significant changes, foreign governments and journalists will concentrate on the fate of Marcel Granier’s television station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), which is scheduled to have its licence withdrawn. Historically, the private television stations in Venezuela have been a licence to print money rather than to fight for the freedom of the airwaves, and in the Chávez era they have been opposition activists, effectively replacing the old parties of the pre-revolutionary era that had lost their voters.
Their behaviour was particularly foolish during the attempted coup against Chávez in April 2002. The four principal stations were involved in the plotting of the coup, in supporting the coup’s short-lived president, and in failing to report the popular mobilisation, in the shantytowns and barracks across the country, that caused the coup’s collapse. Out of an understandable desire to seek national unity in the wake of the coup, Chávez rejected calls to take action against the private stations, and some of them were indeed to moderate their tone in subsequent years. Granier’s RCTV, however, became the most intransigently hostile, and associated itself with sections of the anti-democratic opposition that withdrew from the political process and threatened a violent outcome.
The decision not to replace the station’s licence will be widely popular, particularly within the armed forces. Outsiders should worry less about an immoral fourth estate being cut down to size, and concentrate more on the achievements of a remarkable and still hugely popular revolution.