The Threat to Dissidence and Democracy in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela

The establishment of a disciplinary tribunal in Chavez's new socialist party before it even has statutes and structures is a worrying sign for those committed to radical democracy in Venezuela.


Introductory note: The United Socialist Party of Venezuela was proposed by President Chavez during the 2006 elections after winning several elections with a coalition and left and progressive parties. His proposal to unite the Venezuelan left was accepted by several (but not all) small parties who agreed to dissolve and help form the new party.

On 5 March 2007, Chavez announced the start of the process for forming the party and the designation of a technical council to oversee the process. He also outlined the first steps which would include swearing-in and recruitment of members, formation of local "socialist batallions", a founding assembly and elections of a party council.

Edgardo Lander is a TNI fellow and Professor of Social Studies at Caracas University who has been part of the organising committee of the World Social Forum and worked as part of the Venezuelan Government negotiating team to defeat the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.

The style of debate and the mechanisms for resolving differences currently being developed within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV) are extremely serious. If its style of leadership, decision-making structures and dispute mechanisms are not swiftly reversed, then the new party structure will be one that develops Stalinist conceptions and practices.

This is not an issue that only concerns present candidates or future members of this party, but one that concerns the whole of the Venezuelan population, and the millions of people on this continent and the rest of the world who are monitoring the present Venezuelan political process with the expectation that it is possible, in today's world, to confront predatory-militarised capitalism and take steps towards the construction of another possible world, a world of radical democracy and never-ending democracy.

This is not about any old party, or about just one more among many parties. It is about the party of the government (of the State?), the party of President Chavez, the party which seeks to bring together all the political sectors that support the government. Its more or less democratic, plural or participatory nature or, by contrast, more or less vertical or authoritarian nature, will be the measure of the model of society that it will be possible to build as a result of the present processes of change that are taking place in the country. It will not be possible to make progress in the deepening of democracy, in the construction of an ever more democratic society, with sustained growth in popular participation if the main political instrument of the process of change in society, in this case the PSUV in its formative stage, is not a democratic organisation.

In this regard, the information that has recently been made public with regard to the creation and operation of the Disciplinary Tribunal of the PSUV is worrying.

Firstly, what is very striking is that a political party which is in the process of creation, a party that does not yet have members or doctrinal documents, has no statutes, and does not yet have organic structures, should already have a Disciplinary Tribunal in operation, a Tribunal which has already been sent its first case for consideration.

At the end of August, President Chavez addressed an audience of ‘socialist battalion' members at the Caracas Polyhedron on the subject of the high level of discipline that every aspiring member of the future revolutionary party should have, and reported that a ‘Provisional Disciplinary Committee of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela' had been created, presided over by the governor of Miranda State, Diosdado Cabello1.

The first action of this Disciplinary Committee came about with regard to the conduct and declarations made by deputy Francisco Ameliach, who, until then was the Coordinator of the United Socialist Block in the National Assembly. As it has publicly transpired, deputy Ameliach had expressed the opinion that if by the time of regional elections in 2008 the formation of the PSUV had not concluded, "we will revive the organisations that are legally registered…"2 , that is, the Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento Quinta República, MVR,)3.

The response by Chavez was devastating:

"I have passed a national leader (who aspires to be part of the party) to the Disciplinary Council for talking nonsense. I will be watching closely … Critical thinking is fundamental to a revolution, but that is very different to going around talking badly about a party that has not been born, collecting signatures to present them who knows where. Anyone who wants to be an anarchist, get out of here, you are not wanted, what is needed here is a creative, but disciplined active membership." 4

Immediately, in the National Assembly it was announced that Ameliach was suspended, or had resigned, first from the Presidency of the National Assembly's Defence Commission5, and the next day, from the Coordination of the Parliament's United Socialist Block6. His replacements were named immediately.

Recalling ‘self-criticisms' from the past, deputy Ameliach declared a few days later that it had been his decision to resign from the Presidency of the National Assembly's Defence Commission and the Coordination of the United Socialist Block, and that his conduct had been a "political mistake", confirming his loyalty to the "only leader of the process"7. He denied the existence of a letter signed by 140 deputies, and stated that "…what exists is a draft document that collects some concerns of some deputies that I, Francisco Ameliach, sent to President Chavez, so that he as leader, can take the decisions he wishes to take"…. "I have been extremely loyal to President Chavez; here a revolution is impossible without President Chavez".8

Despite the severity of the issues at stake, despite the fact that this is about mechanisms which, if unresolved would point in undoubtedly authoritarian directions, and of the fact that in private conversations the concerns about the political implications of these conceptions of the nature of the organisation being built and of the role of leadership are very widespread, the public reaction among government supporters has been very limited.

One of the most energetic reactions was that of two members of the National Assembly, Iris Varela and Luis Tascon9. They defended Ameliach and denounced what they considered to be a campaign against the National Assembly:

"Francisco Ameliach is a 'Fatherland or Death man' with the revolution and we have to reject that campaign which was started mainly against him, including all the deputies who have even branded us traitors."

Nevertheless, this response neither directly questions the existence of a Disciplinary Tribunal of a party that does not yet exist, nor the use that has begun to be made of it.

The most direct questioning of the central issues at stake was expressed by retired General Alberto Müller Rojas, ex-member of the Commission to Promote the PSUV, who has recently had serious public disagreements with the President:

"Although deputy Francisco Ameliach attacked me, I do not agree with the idea of establishing a Disciplinary Tribunal in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

This breaks the idea of equality among party members and establishes a precedent … [the] understanding of discipline comes from within the individual, through an educational process, and is not imposed by force, because then it is no longer discipline, but training, it is alienation."

General Müller believes it is serious that a party that does not yet have statutes should have a disciplinary committee10.

Other public dissident voices also exist, people who are clearly identified with the processes of change that have taken place in the country in the last few years. These people, who remember the negative consequences of the undemocratic logics in the political organisations that lead the socialist processes of the last century, have formulated serious warnings about once again going down those paths. Examples of these contributions to the debate can be found in the writings of Javier Biardeau11 and Reinaldo Iturriza12.

The absence of other critical declarations by leaders and high-level officials involved in the Bolivarian process has been notable. This suggests that either they find it normal that a Disciplinary Tribunal is created before the party as such exists, and that this Tribunal is used to punish a high-level leader of the Bolivarian process "for talking nonsense", for "talking badly about a party that has not been born, collecting signatures to present them who knows where", that is, for the serious crime of expressing "dissident opinions". Either that, or they have decided on a discreet silence due to political cautiousness.

There have, on the other hand, been voices in support of these disciplinary procedures. Such is the case of Freddy Bernal, Mayor of the Libertador Municipality, and member of the Presidential Commission of Promoters of the PSUV. He has said that if any aspiring party member "wants to sabotage the process of building the party, they will go to the Disciplinary Tribunal and we will talk to him, and if they do not change their attitude, we will take the necessary measures".

They should have to identify themselves. The coordinator of the commission, Jorge Rodríguez, has already said that the only current is the one lead by the President of the Republic, Hugo Chavez Frias. To those who think they can have other leaderships we would recommend that they create a separate party, but noone will sabotage the PSUV from inside13.

Confirming that these decisions correspond to the conception with which the PSUV is being created, Diosdado Cabello has declared that the new party will not be a replica of the MVR, "where people did what they felt like and gave opinions depending on their mood when they woke-up"14.

One of the potential advantages of the original dynamic of the formation of the PSUV is that those who sign up and subsequently become members of a party in the process of construction, will be able to participate in the definition of its basic doctrinal and organisational conceptions in an effective and democratic way. This possibility, which requires a patient practical learning of a culture of democratic debate, would disappear if divergent opinions were to be forbidden through the use of disciplinarily methods. In the absence of official doctrinal documents for the organisation, and given the wide range of existing ideological and political positions in this process15, it is not known what the criteria and the principles are from which it is possible to determine which positions are acceptable – ie. compatible with the party line – and which are not. It would be very dangerous for the democratic future of the organisation if agreement or disagreement with the opinions of the principal leader were accepted as the criteria through which the limits of orthodoxy or dissidence were defined. This would mean substituting debate and the confrontation of ideas -a particularly crucial issue in this phase of basic definitions of the party- with appeals to the criteria of authority. Were this course to be consolidated, the Stalinist mechanisms for managing the political organisation could not in the future be blamed on "deviations" or to "mistakes", but rather would become established as the accepted norms of its running.


1 Informó el Presidente Chávez: Diosdado Cabello dirigirá Comité Disciplinario del PSUV, Radio Nacional de Venezuela, 28 de agosto, 2007.
2 Pedro Pablo Peñaloza, "MVR puede resurgir en elecciones regionales. Ameliach opina que creación del PSUV no puede atarse a comicios ", El Universal, Caracas, 23 de agosto, 2007.
3There has also been mention of an alleged document where he is said to have collected signatures among deputies in support of his position.
4 Sara Carolina Díaz y María Daniela Espinoza "Ameliach fuera de Presidencia de la Comisión de Defensa de la AN. El legislador presentó descargos ante el tribunal disciplinario del PSUV", El Universal, Caracas, 30 de agosto, 2007.
5 Idem.
6 Pedro Pablo Peñaloza, "Ameliach apartado del bloque del PSUV. El diputado enfrenta un ‘proceso de esclarecimiento' por sus declaraciones", El Universal, Caracas, 31 de agosto, 2007.
7 Pedro Pablo Peñaloza, "Ameliach admite ‘error político' y vuelve a enterrar al MVR. Abogó por la unidad y dice que entregó ‘inquietudes' a Chávez.", El Universal, Caracas, 6 de septiembre, 2007.
8 Ameliach: el único líder es el Presidente Hugo Chávez Frías, Aporrea, Caracas, 5 de septiembre, 2007. According to the version in Aporrea, Ameliach "Clarified that the guidelines of the PSUV are one, and they are created by the President of the Republic, and also through the Commission to Promote the PSUV."
9 "Denuncian campaña contra Francisco Ameliach", El Universal, Caracas, 4 de septiembre, 2007.
10 "Müller rechazó creación de comité disciplinario", El Universal, Caracas, 31 de agosto, 2007.
11 Javier Biardeau R, ¿Qué queda del Pensamiento Crítico Socialista?, Aporrea, Caracas, 26 de agosto, 2007. Aporrea.
12 Reinaldo Iturriza, Sobre la disciplina revolucionaria y el ‘centralismo democrático realmente existente', Rebelión, 6 de septiembre, 2007.
13 "Bernal: No vamos a permitir que nadie por personalismos tuerza el rumbo del PSUV", El Universal, Caracas, 5 de septiembre, 2007.
14 Cabello: Psuv no será una copia del MVR, Últimas Noticias, en: Aporrea, Caracas 8 de septiembre, 2007.
15 This plurality ranges from leaders who have just very recently had their first contact with the socialist tradition, Chavez's announcement that the PSUV will not be a "Marxist Leninist" party, (PSUV no será marxista-leninista porque ‘es una tesis dogmática no acorde con la realidad de hoy', afirma Chávez, Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, en Aporrea, Caracas 22 de agosto, 2007), to defenders of the most orthodox Leninism.

Translation: Liza Figueroa-Clark