Venezuela's Chavez: Socialism Still Our Goal

A collective discussion is occurring
throughout the revolutionary movement led by President Hugo Chavez
following the defeat of the proposed constitutional reform proposals —
that were intended to deepen the revolution to help open the way
towards socialism — in the December 2 referendum.

By Federico Fuentes - Green Left Weekly
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Defeated by the narrowest of margins, the result took both sides by
surprise. A cocky Chavista camp that had won 11 straight election
victories was sent into a tailspin. The US-backed pro-capitalist
opposition was forced to think up a new strategy, as the next stage in
its well-orchestrated destabilisation campaign — taking to the streets
against supposed electoral fraud — had to be postponed after Chavez
graciously accepted defeat.

“For now we couldn’t do it!” explained Chavez in his concession speech.

Discussion and debate has exploded as the battalions of the new
United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) — initiated by Chavez to
unite the grass roots leaders of the process of change — convened to
debrief. State television has hosted wide-ranging discussion. Left-wing
websites such as Aporrea.org were flooded with opinion pieces.

Chavez gave his first sign of things to come on New Year’s Eve,
announcing a decree giving amnesty to the 400 people who had signed the
infamous “Carmona decree” that dissolved all public powers during the
April 2002 right-wing coup against Chavez.

A few days later, speaking on state television, he noted: “We need
to improve our strategy in regards to alliances. We cannot allow
ourselves to be dragged along by extremist currents … No! We have to
seek out alliances with the middle classes, even with the national
bourgeois.”

Chavez explained on his first Alo Presidente TV show for
the year on January 6 that “I am obliged to slow down the pace of the
march. I’ve been imposing on it a speed that’s beyond the collective
capacities or possibilities; I accept that, it is one of my mistakes.”

U-turn on socialism?

A “u-turn on socialism” is how Stephanie Blankenburg described it, writing in the January 8 New Statesman.
Chavez “had decided to abandon his socialist agenda ’for now’” because
the country was not “ready for” for “his socialist project”.

Yet, argued Blankenburg, the December 2 vote “was essentially a
protest vote by the ’Chavista street’ against the ’Chavista elite’”.
Chavez’s “strategy of a shift to the ’right’” — which she argues gives
a “free reign to the ‘Chavista elites’” — was “unlikely to boost [his
support] with the popular base”.

Alex Callinicos, a central leader of the British Socialist Workers Party wrote in the January 19 Socialist Worker
that these moves were “cause for alarm” and “dangerously reminiscent”
of those taken by the left-wing Chilean President Salvador Allende in
1973 when he “sought to make a deal with the right” while the
right-wing were preparing to violently overthrow him and place General
Augusto Pinochet in power.

Callinicos writes Chavez’s shift is based on acknowledging popular
discontent with food shortages, inflation and corruption, but argues
that dealing with these problems involves “not slowing down the
revolutionary process, but accelerating it — breaking the hold of
private capital on the economy.

“Corruption can only be rooted out by dismantling the existing
state apparatus and replacing it with institutions of popular power.
But Chavez is moving in the opposite direction.”

However, how accurate is this analysis of Chavez’s change of tact?

Self-criticism

It is clear that Chavez has listened intently to the wide-ranging
criticisms of his government in order to formulate his response. His
most thorough statement on the situation was his speech to the National
Assembly on January 11.

He pointed to a number of issues confronting the revolution: the
weight of the corporate media and lack of strategy to counter it;
crime; food shortages; and especially the crippling problem of
bureaucratism, inefficiency and corruption.

The latter has led to a weakening over 2007 of the social missions
— which represent significant gains for the poor majority — and in
particular the health care Mission Barrio Adentro and the cheap food
distribution Mission Mercal.

Chavez raised the “harm done to the confidence of the people …
being done everyday with a certain type of publicity, coming as much
from local governments as the national government over which I preside;
deceitful publicity, demagogic publicity, which many times contradicts
the reality that the people live everyday …”

Part of the problem is presenting inflated figures that give an exaggerated view of the gains being made.

For instance, at the end of 2007, the government claimed there were
30,000 communal councils (grass roots bodies of popular power), but at
the start of this year revised the figure to 18,000. Attempting to meet
the arbitrary target of 50,000 councils in one year led to many
problems as the process was rushed, rather than focusing on ensuring
the councils were being formed correctly and at a pace appropriate to
people’s ability to ensure they function properly.

Similar problems were associated with the PSUV — which signed up
5.7 million people last year, with more people listed as joining in
some states than had voted for Chavez in the previous election.
Official figures for ongoing participation in PSUV brigades were put at
1.5 million, which was clearly inflated and probably at least double
the real figure.

Chavez pointed to the “contradictions between the discourse of the
leader and the reality of bad management or bad political practices …
The revolution needs to strengthen the confidence of the people … We
have to convince and demonstrate at the same time.”

Chavez insisted: “This year, which I want to declare the year of
’revolutionary impulsion’, must be a year of solutions of the small
problems, the concrete problems of the people.”

It is partially true, as Blankenburg argues, that one factor in the
referendum defeat was a protest vote against the bad management by
different tiers of government.

Also there is no doubt a section of the Chavista camp and the state
bureaucracy whose privileges have been threatened by the push for
socialism, worked to sabotage the campaign. How else can you explain
the fact that problems such as the food shortages were allowed to
continue for several months without serious action by government or
state institutions to tackle it?

This suggests that rather than attempting a rapid deepening of the
process while confidence of the people has been undermined one the one
hand and serious political weaknesses exist within the Chavista camp on
the other, the correct course is to prioritise overcoming these twin
problems in order to lay the ground work for the necessary significant
advances.

This appears to be the essence of the plans set out by Chavez for 2008.

Strategic error

The strategic error, Chavez said and took full responsibility for,
was that “it was not the moment to launch this new attack … we needed
to have consolidated, we needed to have launched, relaunched,
government projects, sought more efficiency …”

Chavez described the referendum defeat as like a boxer being dealt
a blow but not knocked out. The boxer remains on his feet. The
revolution did not advance but nor it go backwards.

Reaffirming “that the only and true road to the definitive
liberation of our homeland is the path of socialism”, Chavez said: “I
call on everyone to make this a year of more advances.”

Chavez has set plans to bridge the gap that grew between him and
the people, leading to the loss of nearly 3 million voters who backed
him in the presidential elections, but abstained in the referendum. The
aim is to find the ways to combine measures to solve the problems
facing the mass of people with ways to raise the level of organisation
and consciousness.

Doing this will inevitably bring the process into conflict with
capitalist interests, as it already has. However, it doesn’t mean a
forced march into a decisive battle without allowing for the necessary
preparation of the working people.

New cabinet

Rather than giving free range to the “Chavista elite”, Chavez sent
a clear message in his recent cabinet reshuffle: ministers have to be
effective.

The clearest example of this is the new vice president, Ramon
Carrizales, who is known for the fact that more houses were constructed
last year with him as housing minister than in any previous year under
the Chavez government.

He is also known for having led the successful project to rebuild
the vital bridge between Caracas and the international airport in
record time while he was infrastructure minister.

In a sign that the cabinet reshuffle doesn’t represent a
fundamental political shift, the former vice president, Jorge
Rodriguez, who was seen as a radical has been freed up to focus full
time on heading up the PSUV — the key political instrument to take the
revolution forward.

On the January 13 Alo Presidente a number of ministers
came under fire for not moving fast enough on projects, sending a
further signal to them and the people that the government is intent on
making real changes.

The call for seeking agreements with middle class opposition
supporters and national capitalists is partly due to a common complaint
among the poor that Chavez’s rhetoric is often too confrontational and
risks unnecessary conflict.

The amnesty for some of those involved in the coup was in response
to the campaign by the opposition around supposed “political prisoners”
and does not include those involved in crimes against humanity or those
who fled the country to escape responsibility — in other words the key
coup leaders are excluded from the amnesty. In this way, Chavez has
undercut the opposition campaign — leaving them defending those who
cannot be defended.

Popular power and political organisation

In the same speech that Chavez mentioned an alliance with the
national bourgeoisie he also called on people to read V. I. Lenin,
emphasising that the central priority has to be deepening the social
and political organisation of the people — principally through the
communal councils and the PSUV.

Declaring the promotion of communal power a central task, Chavez
said: “The issue of the communal councils cannot limit itself to the
transfer of resources … The most important thing is that you organise
yourselves, become conscious of the social battle and go forward in
consolidating the community …”

“In order that December 2 never happens again”, Chavez said at the
opening speech for the PSUV founding congress on January 12, it is
necessary to go on the offensive with the PSUV “as the spearhead and
vanguard” of the revolution. “We have arrived here to make a real
revolution or die trying.”