What’s Really Happening in Venezuela?

For the U.S. mainstream media, Venezuela’s vote on constitutional reforms
December 2 is simply the latest power grab in authoritarian President
Hugo Chávez’s bid to crush dissent, make himself president for life and
impose a state-controlled economy. The view from the streets of the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, however, is very different.

By Lee Sustar - Socialist Worker
Short URL

vote December 2 on constitutional reforms proposed by President Hugo
Chávez and his supporters, capping weeks of sometimes-violent protests
by right-wing opposition forces, a defection by a top Chávez political
ally, and mass mobilizations by Chávez supporters.

recently returned from Venezuela, looks at the aims of Chávez’s
proposals, the response of the opposition and the shape of Venezuelan
politics today.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE U.S. mainstream media, Venezuela’s vote on constitutional reforms
December 2 is simply the latest power grab in authoritarian President
Hugo Chávez’s bid to crush dissent, make himself president for life and
impose a state-controlled economy.

The view from the streets of the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, however, is very different.

densely populated, impoverished neighborhood seldom visited by U.S.
reporters, it is famous for its role in mobilizing in January 1958 to
overthrow a Venezuelan military dictator on the date that gave the
barrio its name.

days, it is home to an active local branch, or battalion, of the United
Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, according to its Spanish initials).
On a rainy mid-November evening, activists gathered to distribute
copies of the proposed reform by going door to door.

What else to read

the 30 or so people who turned out--all but four of them women--just
two had prior political experience in Chávez’s original political
party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). Only one--Rosaida
Hernández--is an experienced politico, having served as a functionary
of the Fifth Republic Movement and won election to Caracas’ municipal

typical was Iraima Díaz, a neighborhood resident in her 30s who had
long supported Chávez and benefited from his government’s social
programs, but hadn’t been politically active. “I got involved to solve
the problems of my community,” she said.

activist, Lúz Estella, a social worker whose father lives in the area,
also became active recently, fed up with the opposition media and
wanting to get involved.

Díaz and Estella find themselves members of Chávez’s own PSUV
battalion--the president often turns up at the weekly Saturday meetings
held at the military museum in the neighborhood.

facility also serves as a place for enrollment in government
“missions”--national social welfare programs initiated by Chávez in
2003, which evolved from offering free medical care to literacy and
education programs, subsidized grocery stores and a great deal more,
thanks to revenues from oil exports and some of the fastest economic
growth rates in the world.

its well-known member and proximity to local missions, the 23 de Enero
PSUV battalion faces a challenges common to its counterparts across the
country--how to mobilize the 5.7 million people who have registered for
the party since it was formed earlier this year through a merger of
parties of Chávez’s governing coalition.

as the group, singing campaign songs, made its way through the narrow
streets on steep hillsides of the barrio, people came to their windows
to take copies of the reform and discuss it briefly--an elderly man
alone in his small apartment; a young woman of African descent
breastfeeding an infant; the proprietor of a tiny store situated in
what was once a living room, with a window facing the street; a group
of young men in their 20s gathered outside a small restaurant.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IMPACT of Chávez’s reforms is visible on the streets of 23 de Enero and
other barrios--people are better fed and better dressed.

is often the case in Venezuela, the political direction in the barrios
is the opposite Caracas’ well-off neighborhoods and the suburbs, where
the upper middle class and the wealthy live in luxurious gated
communities and drive Hummers and Land Rovers.

opposition to Chávez’s reforms sharpened--first with protests by
largely middle-class college students; then the defection of a longtime
Chávez ally, former army chief of staff and defense minister Raúl
Baduel--the mass of Chávez supporters began to mobilize.

the opposition, tainted by the coup of 2002 and the subsequent lockout
of oil workers by industry bosses, has been able to refresh its image.

to this was the student mobilization last summer over the government’s
refusal to renew the broadcast license of the privately owned,
opposition-controlled RCTV channel.

portrayed in the Western media as a “closure” of a media outlet, the
decision was made as the result of RCTV’s active role in supporting the
coup. Nevertheless, the government’s refusal to renew the channel’s
broadcast license gave Venezuela’s right the opportunity to claim the
mantle of “democracy,” a theme it has continued in protests aimed at
forcing a delay in the vote for constitutional reform.

the student protests took shape as a national social movement, led
mainly by middle class and wealthy students who predominate at
Venezuela’s elite universities, such as the UCV in Caracas.

portraying themselves as nonviolent in the face of allegedly armed
Chavista students--two students were wounded on the UCV campus November
7--the opposition student protests have often turned violent. The U.S.
media focused on the supposed gunplay of Chavista students, but it was
the right-wing protesters who besieged pro-Chávez students in UCV’s law
and social work schools, physically destroying both.

the student protesters have carried the day politically on campus, with
the opposition winning a reported 91 percent of votes in student
government elections soon afterward.

The opposition got another boost when it was joined by Baduel, the former general and defense minister.

key figure in preventing the 2002 military attempt to oust Chávez,
Baduel has used the word “coup” to describe the impact of Chávez’s
proposed constitutional changes.

Baduel’s impact on the reform vote is probably limited, his turn may
point to something more serious--concern among senior military brass
over a constitutional reform that would reorganize and centralize the
armed forces and give the president authority to promote all officers,
not just top generals.

Chávez has dropped a call to convert the reserves into “Bolivarian
Popular Militias” to support the regular armed forces, presenting it in
the constitutional reforms instead as a “National Bolivarian Militia.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ANY case, the retooled opposition presents a new challenge for
activists of the “Bolivarian revolution”--named for the 19th century
anti-colonial leader.

the past, Chávez could mobilize his base among the poor on clear-cut
issues--protesting the right-wing coup attempt of April 2002, voting to
keep him in office in the recall election of 2004, re-electing him as
president a year ago.

The constitutional reforms, however, are more complicated and controversial within the Chávez camp itself.

issue is the balance between the creation of communal councils to
enhance what Chávez calls “popular power,” and measures that would
strengthen the powers of the presidency and the central state in
several respects.

include the removal of presidential term limits and lengthening the
term from six to seven years; the ability to appoint an unrestricted
number of secondary vice presidents; the authority to determine
boundaries of proposed “communal cities” of municipalities and states;
and control over the use of foreign currency reserves with no
constitutional limits.

right to recall the president still exists, but the number of
signatures required to trigger a vote would increase from 20 percent to
30 percent of eligible voters.

constitutional measures debated on the left would give the president
and National Assembly the ability to impose states of emergency in
which the right to information is waived--probably a response to the
private media’s complicity in the 2002 coup. The National Assembly
would also gain the right to remove Supreme Court judges and election
officials through a simple majority vote.

changes hardly amount to the “Chávez dictatorship” conjured up in the
mainstream media, and the Venezuelan constitution would remain more
democratic in many respects than the U.S. Constitution, a relic of the
18th century.

question, however, is whether the constitution promotes a transition to
“popular power” and “socialism,” as Chávez would have it.

the reforms reflect the contradiction at the heart of Chávez’s
project--an effort to initiate revolutionary change from above.

expansion of communal councils and creation of workers councils are
seen by grassroots Chavista activists as a legitimate effort to anchor
the “revolutionary process” at the grassroots.

the additional powers for the presidency and the reorganization of the
armed forces highlight the fact that Chávez apparently sees the
presidency--and the centralized state--as the guardian of the

it is the military, the most rigidly hierarchical institution in
society, which is to protect the newly decentralized democracy, while
remaining aloof from such changes internally.

effort to combine what he calls an “explosion of popular power” with
greater centralism may reflect his military past. But if the government
is able to portray itself as creating “motors” of revolutionary change,
it’s because grassroots organizations, social movements and organized
labor have so far failed to create sizeable organizations of their own.

there is no doubt of Chávez’s popularity, particularly among the poor,
their role thus far has been to defend Chávez from the right during the
coup and lockout, and turning out for elections. The constitutional
reforms, along with the creation of the PSUV at Chávez’s initiative,
are intended to close the gap between these periodic mass mobilizations
and the lack of day-to-day organization.

consolidate this base, the proposed constitutional reforms offer
further social gains. For example, virtually unmentioned in U.S. media
accounts is the fact that the reforms would provide, for the first
time, social security benefits to the 50 percent of Venezuelan workers
who toil in the informal sector as street vendors, taxi drivers and the
like. The workweek would be limited to 36 hours.

are other advances as well, including the consolidation of land reform,
outlawing discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation,
lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, guaranteed free university
education, gender parity in politics and political parties, public
financing of political campaigns, recognition of Venezuelans of African
descent, and more.

on the right claim these measures constitute a bribe to the mass of
Venezuelans--handouts in exchange for political support, a version of
the traditional clientleism used Latin American populists such as
Argentina’s Juan Perón.

fact, Perón and other 20th century populists went far beyond Chávez in
terms of nationalizing industries--Venezuela’s oil company, PDVSA, has
been government owned since the 1970s, and the recent state takeover of
the telecommunications and electrical power companies are

the Chávez project aims at a more thoroughgoing social transformation
than populists of the past. The aim is to build what Chávez calls
“socialism of the 21st century” by trying to bypass the capitalist
state with new structures and enshrining new forms of “social,”
“public” and “mixed” property to promote “endogenous” economic
development--that is, growth not dependent on the oil economy.

efforts are, in turn, supposed to mesh with “communes” created by
communal councils--which, under the proposed constitutional changes,
will receive at least 5 percent of the national budget to manage local
affairs. The text of the reform proposal explains: “The state will
foment and develop different forms of production and economic units of
social property, from direct or communal-controlled, to indirect or
state-controlled, as well as productive economic units for social
production and/or distribution.”

the proposed reform on “popular power” also calls for the creation of
councils for workers, students, farmers, craftspeople, fishermen and
-women, sports participants, youth, the elderly, women, disabled people
and others.

new “geometry of power,” as Chávez calls it, is apparently designed to
engineer social change while avoiding direct confrontation with big
business, whose property rights are in fact safeguarded in the
constitutional reforms. As Chávez himself said last summer, “We have no
plan to eliminate the oligarchy, Venezuela’s bourgeoisie.”

for social reforms have so far come from state oil revenues, rather
than any transfer of wealth through higher taxes, and the
nationalization of companies has been achieved by paying market price
for stock market shares.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

QUESTION on the Venezuelan left is whether all this amounts to a
transition to socialism, as Chávez and his supporters would have it.

Orlando Chirino, a national coordinator of the National Union of
Workers (UNT) labor federation, Chávez’s reforms herald the
“Stalinization” of the state and state control of the labor movement
“along the lines of the Cuban CTC labor federation,” he said in an

a key leader of the C-CURA class-struggle current of the factionalized
UNT, is among the most prominent figures on the left to oppose the
reforms. He made waves on the left when he granted an interview with a
leading opposition newspaper and appeared on the platform with leaders
of the CTV, the corrupt old trade union federation implicated in the
2002 coup.

Chirino, along with an oil workers union official, José Bodas, is a
founder of a new group calling for an independent workers party.

and Bodas’ opposition to the reforms put them at odds with the majority
of UNT national coordinators and organizers in C-CURA, such as Ramón
Arias, general secretary of the public sector workers’ union
federation, FENTRASEP. Arias is a supporter of the Marea class-struggle
current of trade unionists in the PSUV, which calls for purging of
employers, bureaucrats and corrupt elements in the new party.

some criticisms of the centralizing aspects of the constitutional
reform, including the new provisions for states of emergency, the Marea
current has joined the majority of the Venezuelan left in calling for a
“yes” vote to achieve social gains and defeat the opposition.

and his C-CURA allies are already at loggerheads with prominent members
of the PSUV, including Oswaldo Vera, a member of the National Assembly
and leader of the Bolivarian Socialist Labor Front (FSBT), a faction of
the UNT that also controls the ministry of labor.

labor ministry refuses to negotiate a contract with FENTRASEP--which
covers 1 million workers--because, it says, there is a dispute over
union elections. As a result, many public sector employees are among
the 73 percent of Venezuelan workers who earn the minimum wage--which,
although the highest in Latin America, is still low in relation to the
soaring prices caused by Venezuela’s rapid economic growth, to say
nothing of enduring economic inequality.

and other FENTRASEP leaders say that public sector workers are
casualties of a larger factional struggle between the FSBT and C-CURA.
This in turn is part of an internecine conflict that has prevented the
wider UNT labor federation from holding a proper congress since it
adopted a provisional structure at its founding event in 2003.

C-CURA, the largest grouping in the UNT, is itself split over the PSUV
and constitutional reform, which means organized labor’s voice is
barely heard in the political debates of the day.

sets the stage for a battle over the workers’ councils to be formed in
the future, in which both factions of C-CURA expect to contend with an
effort by the FSBT to exert control over the labor movement.

the political terrain, the C-CURA activists of the Marea current inside
the PSUV aim to make alliances with others on the left who have
succeeded in being elected as spokespeople and delegates to the
founding conference.

the PSUV founding conference still in the future--it has been postponed
repeatedly--it isn’t clear if, or how, such groupings will exist within
the party, which already has a provisional disciplinary committee that
reportedly expelled a prominent Chavista (the commissioners
subsequently denied that this was the case).

the PSUV is a highly contradictory formation, and includes key members
of the government apparatus and local elected officials who are
unpopular among grassroots Chavistas. Marea’s slogan calls for a PSUV
without bosses, bureaucrats and corrupt elements.

Whether the far left will be able to operate openly, be expelled or decide to leave to organize openly are open questions.

any case, stormy weather is ahead, said Stalin Pérez Borges, a UNT
national coordinator and supporter of the Marea current. Political
polarization and class conflict, ameliorated in recent years by rapid
economic growth, are unavoidable, he said.

constitutional reform marks Chávez’s consolidation of power, so the
oligarchy can’t just wait for him to go,” he said. “Chávez wants to
discipline and control the bourgeoisie. But they want to be in control