As town square debates on Hugo Chavez's constitutional amendments
rage in Venezuela, Mike Gonzalez considers whether they will deepen
democracy or further centralise power.
It is Saturday
afternoon in La Candelaria, a working class district of Venezuela's
capital Caracas. A huge awning covers the main square (it's the rainy
season) to shelter the 200 or so people sitting in groups of 12 at
round tables. They are all wearing the red T-shirt of the Bolivarian
revolution, and they are spending this Saturday, and many to come,
discussing reforms to the constitution proposed by the president Hugo
Chavez. In December these 120 or so amendments will be put to
The noise of everyone talking at once is deafening – that is the
Venezuelan way. But there is something uplifting about what certainly
looks like genuine popular involvement in political debate and
discussion. It might even be that this is what Chavez means when he
talks about "socialism for the 21st century" or "popular power", the
slogans and watchwords that accompany his portrait wherever you go in
Yet there is real confusion about what these key ideas mean, and
the experiences of those in the mass movement, the trade unions and the
social organisations who are most deeply committed to the Bolivarian
revolution often add to the lack of clarity.
The gathering in La Candelaria, for example, is repeated every
weekend across the whole of Venezuela. For the most part, they are
meetings of local branches of the recently established United Socialist
Party of Venezuela (PSUV) whose formation was announced six months ago
by Chavez and whose first congress is likely to take place in December.
The problem is that neither the structure nor the direction of the
party have yet been defined. Instead small national commissions
nominated by Chavez have been given the task of defining its character
and form, though not its programme or aims. Because there is no formal
organisation, these nominees become the effective leadership, and it is
they who dictate the topics for discussion at the round tables every
There has been some resistance, and in some cases people have
insisted on writing their own agendas. An original proposal that their
views should be represented by a single appointee at regional level has
been withdrawn because it provoked so many objections. But it is still
the case that the reforms will have to be voted on as a package, and
that the debate on the detail is therefore largely formal.
In the end what promised to be a major public debate on the next
phase of the Bolivarian process, the building of a 21st century
socialism, will in fact be another referendum supporting Chavez. In
every advert and presentation of the reforms it is stressed that these
have all been written personally by Chavez. The right wing opposition,
such as it is, focuses its attention on the clause that will allow him
to extend his presidential term to seven years and apply for indefinite
re-election. This serves to reinforce the sense among the majority of
people that this is once again a vote on the popularity of Chavez.
Within the PSUV itself the same argument, that this is a test of
loyalty, has created an atmosphere in which it is in fact very
difficult to dissent or to argue particular points. The party has
become more or less analogous with the state, so that the expression of
doubt can be interpreted as hostility to, or at best scepticism about,
the revolution. It is true that the PSUV membership is enormous –
around six million. But it was not intended to be such a mass
The original conception seems to have been to create a political
apparatus, perhaps along the lines of the Mexican PRI, which could
cement the relationship between the people holding office in the state
at all levels and create a mechanism for advancement or promotion. Not
untypically, though, Chavez suddenly announced on one of his long
Sunday TV programmes that he was inviting everyone and anyone to join.
This changed the character of the party and served at the same time to
create the kind of organised relationship with the mass movement which
Chavez had failed to build previously. But it is a one-way
relationship, as recent weeks have shown.
The Venezuelan left debated what to do earlier this year. There
were divisions inside the UNT, the national trade union federation and
several other organisations. For example, Orlando Chirino, a highly
respected leader of the UNT, remained outside the PSUV; others in the
leadership opted to go in. The same argument developed within other
organisations of the left. Eventually, given the mass affiliation, most
decided to join in the hope that it would be possible to build a
critical current within the new party. That seems less and less likely.
Wheels within wheels
This tension between the expectation of a developing power at
the grassroots and the reality of a growing concentration of control is
increasingly defining political life.
Let this example stand for this deepening contradiction. The
elected representatives of Fentrasep, the public employees' trade union
with some 1.5 million members, went to the Ministry of Labour in
mid-August to renegotiate the collective contract for their members.
The minister, Ramón Rivero, is a member of the Bolivarian Trade Union
Federation and an ex-Trotskyist. He refused to meet with the delegation
and locked them inside a room in the ministry. No food or drink was
provided; the delegates' families passed them through the windows.
After six days they were driven out by hired thugs.
The legacy of bitterness and anger this left behind was
extraordinary. I attended a meeting between the union executive and a
trade union lawyer. The lawyer read to them the minister's deposition
to the industrial tribunal in which he referred repeatedly to
"so-called trade union representatives" and their "self proclaimed
right" to represent their members. What most perplexed the delegates
was the silence of Hugo Chavez, despite the fact that the treatment the
delegation received was widely reported.
This points to the deeper processes that are unfolding beneath
the surface. For Roland Denis, respected analyst and long-time leading
activist of the 13 April Movement, many of the constitutional reforms
and the construction of the PSUV are signs of a strategy conceived and
pursued by Chavez himself.
In the present situation, the threat to the Bolivarian
revolution does not come primarily from the right which, despite its
continuing domination of the media, is divided and disorganised
politically. The bureaucrats and government functionaries around
Chavez, by contrast, are well organised. When he came to power in 1998,
Chavez gathered around him a layer of supporters in the Movement for
the Fifth Republic (MVR).
Many of them were opportunists who had enjoyed the privileges of
the previous corrupt regime and switched to Chavez late in the day.
Some proved to be fair weather friends, and supported the attempted
coup against him in 2002. Others kept their powder dry and remained
within government – but they maintained the habits of previous times,
above all the habit of corruption. They interlocked with the powerful
state governors too, as well as many of the city and town mayors, and
they began to establish relationships with elements of private capital.
We could define these people as the Chavista right. There is no
suggestion that they are planning any attempt to bring Chavez down – he
was and remains the single key unifying factor ensuring support for the
government. But they could evolve a series of instruments to hold back
the Bolivarian Revolution and restrain Chavez's power. The rumbling
frustration that palpably affects many of the best activists at local
and grassroots levels suggests that the strategy is working – and the
labour minister and his attendant team of trade union bureaucrats
should be seen as part of that layer. The treatment of Fentrasep and
the refusal to respond to the demands of the workers in factories like
Sanitarios Maracay (where workers occupied the plant demanding
nationalisation nearly a year ago) or the iron and steel plant at Sidor
in Ciudad Guyana are a clear indication of where the minister's
The second power is Chavez himself, and his direct and complex
relationship with the majority of the Venezuelan people who have
repeatedly shown their unequivocal support for him. At community and
grassroots level the corruption and lack of serious revolutionary
commitment among many local bureaucrats often blocks the work of the
best activists, as a number of recent local protests have shown. Yet
those same activists insist that Chavez is unaware of what is happening
on the ground, despite his obvious grasp of the most complex local
Against this background, the constitutional reforms (or at least
some of them) suggest a strategy on Chavez's part to counter what is
happening at the level of government, which commentators refer to as
"the established power". The political reforms include a longer
presidential term and a right to constant re-election. Many clauses
leave a final determining power in the president's hands – to define
and redefine the administrative organisation of the country, and to
make economic decisions over a state sector of the economy that will
probably amount to half of the whole. The new political arrangements
set out in the reforms are often contradictory, as are the economic
divisions. And national security will increasingly fall to the army,
despite the recommendations of a recent government appointed commission
that the police should come under local control.
This is combined with a statement by Chavez just a couple of
weeks ago that promotion within the military will also be within the
president's brief and that the existing procedures (questionable and
often corrupt though they are) will fade away.
Add to that a PSUV which is manifestly an instrument of
presidential power and one in which debate will be virtually
impossible, and the fact that there will be no possibility of voting
for individual clauses, only the whole package. The excellent
provisions for a shorter working day and a Social Security Fund for
casual and precarious workers can only be approved in tandem with all
the other provisions.
It is absolutely true, of course, that the reforms reiterate that "people's power" (poder popular)
is the foundation of the constitution, that power lies with the people.
The economy will be socialised to reinforce this. In fact, in the
division between private, state and "socialised" property, the latter
will be a tiny proportion of the whole (perhaps 5 percent) and divided
into different kinds of property regime, including cooperatives whose
dynamic corresponds more closely to the ethos of small business than to
collective ownership. The consejos comunales, or community
councils, will be given responsibilities at local level, as will the
missions, but their strategic direction will be determined at the level
of government and regional/state structures.
If this is poder popular, is it then the decentralisation
of power and the government by the majority that the concept suggests?
There exists within the Venezuelan constitution a clear mechanism for
genuine democratic involvement from below – the delegate constituent
assembly, like the one that agreed the 1999 Bolivarian constitution.
Such a body could represent a real advance towards a 21st century
socialism from below. It could conduct the open debate about the reform
of the constitution that would give the mass organisations the sense
that they were something more than simple blocs of support for a
president who was in fact the only revolutionary subject.
There is, of course, another point of reference in the discussion about what poder popular
can mean. The Cuban model of people's power is pyramidal and
centralised, with a leadership appointed from the state and nominated
delegates, with a national assembly meeting twice a year for a few days
to give (invariably) unanimous support to the proposals coming from the
state. The organs of local power in this model are simply given the
role of executing those decisions and discussing how best that might be
done. The Cuban influence on the Venezuelan government is an open
secret. The fact that what Denis calls the "democracy of the people's
assembly" is replaced by what is simply another vote of confidence in
Chavez, with which no one could disagree, is a sign of the limitations
of people's power.
The recent history of Venezuela yields one fundamental lesson.
The Bolivarian revolution, which began with Chavez's election in 1998,
became a revolutionary process in 2002, when the mass of Venezuelan
people became the subjects of history and defeated the attempted coup
against Chavez. In April 2002 the mass movement entered the stage of
history not simply as insurrectionists (as they had during the wave of
protests of 1989) but as potential revolutionaries, ready to shape the
Bolivarian revolution by their collective action. In 2007 the struggle
for socialism built from below – true people's power – continues.