The election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela
gave hope to millions who want a better world. Mike Gonzalez looks at
what has been achieved and where the country is heading.
Sunday at 11am, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez welcomes Venezuelans
to “Alo Presidente” on the country’s state-run television and radio
Everyone tunes in – some to rail against him, others to find out
what political decisions will be made the following week. For most
working class Venezuelans, what matters is that Chavez speaks and
sounds like them.
But although many people see Chavez as a fighter for ordinary
people, his Bolivarian Revolution stands at a crossroads. The old
ruling class is intent on stopping fundamental changes. The new
bureaucracy that has emerged in the revolution has developed its own
Meanwhile the masses, while backing Chavez overall, are unhappy with the pace of change and the enduring power of the old elite.
Chavez was elected in 1998 on a wave of popular support. He had led
a failed coup against the Venezuelan government in February 1992 and
was imprisoned – but he won the respect of the poor people living in
the shanty towns around the capital Caracas and other cities.
In 1989 they had occupied the capital in a violent protest against
harsh new economic measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund
(IMF). The Caracazo, as it was called, was brutally repressed after
three days, but in some ways it was the first act of the Bolivarian
Venezuela’s oil reserves are among the world’s largest. Yet for
decades, its enormous oil wealth enriched no more than 10 percent of
the population. The supposedly nationalised industry benefited the
multinational oil companies rather than the national economy.
The new Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 made some changes. It
allowed failing elected officials to be recalled. It made education
widely available, and established the right to healthcare and land for
all Venezuelans. Most importantly of all, it promised to nationalise
The old ruling class was furious – and it fought back. In April 2002
a right wing coup removed Chavez from power. Yet within 48 hours he was
The Venezuelan masses flooded into the centre of Caracas, and every
other city, in their tens of thousands demanding his return. The coup
was defeated, but the old order did not give up.
In December that year some 18,000 managers and largely white collar
employees walked out at PDVSA, the national oil corporation. They
confidently declared their action would destroy Chavez. It took eight
weeks for the workers, supported by a mass mobilisation of the
grassroots, to defeat this lockout.
The revolution now entered a new stage. It was symbolised by the
Missions – national programmes for health, education and housing, and
the struggle for indigenous rights. In some ways the Missions
represented the possibility of a new kind of society based on “poder
popular” or people’s power.
They were a kind of parallel state through which ordinary people
could continue to drive the revolution forward. Chavez announced, in
January 2005, that Venezuela was building “21st century socialism”.
The right was still embedded in the state, the judiciary, the
universities and the professions. At every stage it did all it could to
Yet it seemed that the Bolivarian Revolution was gathering speed,
with expanding education, health and housing schemes. The language of
politics was increasingly nationalist and anti‑imperialist, and Chavez
won many friends with his regular attacks on George Bush.
And the right’s continuing attempts to bring Chavez down were failing.
In 2006, Chavez was re-elected to the presidency with an increased
vote. He immediately announced the creation of a new political party –
the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
But there was confusion over what it represented. Would it be a mass
political organisation that expressed the rising confidence of the
grassroots and shifted the centre of power to the base? That was its
declared purpose – yet there had been no public discussion with the
Chavez created the party from above and its leadership was not
elected but nominated by him. Yet millions joined the party in the
belief that this would be the organisation to drive the revolution
In November 2007, Chavez organised a referendum on amendments to the
constitution that included the creation of an expanded state sector in
the economy, and the right for him to be re-elected beyond a second
term. He lost the vote, just one year after his re-election. Why?
The vote was a warning that, while Chavez continued to be enormously
popular, there was growing concern among the majority of society.
The Missions were beginning to fail. Price inflation was digging
into workers’ wages. When trade unionists fought for wage rises the
state, and indeed Chavez himself, were hostile.
And for all Venezuela’s oil wealth, the state’s infrastructure
seemed to be permanently on the verge of collapse – rubbish piled up in
the streets, roads were in a state of disrepair and building projects
were either delayed or half-finished.
The right wing parties mounted an increasingly hysterical – and
violent – campaign against Chavez in the media and in the streets.
Right wing students organised street demonstrations and burning
barricades after the state refused to renew the licence of a
virulently anti-Chavez TV station.
At the same time the price of oil was still rising and Venezuela’s
middle classes, for all their kicking and shouting, maintained their
The second issue behind Chavez’s defeat in the 2007 vote was
corruption. The new state bureaucracy used the language of the
Bolivarian Revolution, but it was growing rich and powerful and serving
its own narrow interests.
The right won important victories in municipal and governors’
elections in 2008, including the mayor of Caracas. It was clear that,
while Chavez was still admired and loved, the same was not true for
many of his appointees. The revolution was stalling badly.
In February this year, Venezuelans went to the polls again to vote
on whether to give Chavez the right to seek more than the two terms in
office currently allowed by the constitution.
This was then extended to include the right to repeated re-election
of all public officials. This time Chavez won, but the campaign was
conducted in an atmosphere of polarisation and mounting tension.
People faced a choice between the Bolivarian Revolution or the
return of the old order, which would be looking for revenge and a
return to an unjust and unequal society. But the Bolivarian Revolution
itself seemed to be divided.
On the one hand a new political class sees its priority as defending
its own interests, even while talking endlessly about people’s power.
On the other there are those within the government who are
revolutionaries with a socialist vision.
The revolution has reached a turning point, with fierce competition between different interests. There are also contradictions.
The new Education Law guarantees free universal education in a
framework of essentially liberal values, but it also protects private
education. The planned expansion of oil and gas production will be
conducted by mixed enterprises between the Venezuelan state and
Russian, Chinese and European capital.
For all their protests and denunciations, the Venezuelan capitalists have not been touched.
Oil prices have fallen from a peak of $140 a barrel to around $50.
If the recession continues into next year, as it seems bound to do, the
oil industry will not produce enough to compensate for rapidly rising
inflation or to maintain the social programmes.
Who will pay the price of economic austerity? If it is to be the
rich then the revolution will have to carry out its promise to devolve
power and economic control to the mass of ordinary people.
China and Russia have no interest in supporting such a policy, any
more than their European allies. And for all the rhetoric, the US
remains a key customer for Venezuelan oil.
The Bolivarian Revolution inspired a new generation across Latin
America to fight for a better world. In Venezuela itself, despite the
real improvement in the lives of many ordinary people, the struggle for
people’s power continues.