The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in March has ushered in a political crisis for the country he led during his 14 years in office. His vice president, Nicolás Maduro, won a special election in April to succeed Chávez as president, but by a very narrow margin. Meanwhile, inflation hit almost 30 percent in April, and the government was forced to implement rationing of many important staples, owing to scarcity and the economic sabotage of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. Growth of the gross domestic product slowed to 0.7 percent in the first three months of the year. Meanwhile, a strike at Coca-Cola’s largest plant in the country in late May and demands to nationalize Complejo Metalúrgico de Cumaná (Commetasa), a major metal manufacturing plant that has locked out its employees for the past six months, demonstrate both that workers remain a force to be reckoned with and the questions facing the left in Venezuela.
The following was drafted by radical left Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide), a tendency within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that Chávez led until his death. The statement–which lists Carlos Carcione, Stalin Pérez Borges, Juan García, Zuleika Matamoros, Gonzalo Gómez and Alexander Marín as coauthors–takes stock of the current situation. It can be read in Spanish at full length on the Aporrea.org website. It was translated into English by Todd Chretien and is reproduced here in a condensed version.
To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives.
— Leon Trotsky, from The Transitional Program
Two months after the death of Comandante Chávez, the rhythm of politics in Bolivarian Venezuela makes one’s head spin. Irreconcilable social forces are on the move and tending towards a clash. The moment for clarity has arrived.
Shortages, speculation and scarcity are the current tactics of an opposition which emerged stronger and with a more consolidated leadership in the wake of the [April presidential] elections [when former Chávez Vice President Nicolás Maduro won a razor-thin victory]. And this will surely grow larger by others joining with it. It is an opposition which has its own differences, but is presenting a united front when faced with the enormous opportunity that it feels has arrived to regain direct control of the government.
The political errors, the conciliatory attitude and the vacillating policies of the new government in failing to curb the opposition’s economic tactics–of which the decision to meet with Lorenzo Mendoza [who runs Empresas Polar, Venezuela’s largest private company] is the latest example–breaths life into its political offensive. This can be seen in their claims of electoral fraud, which their emissaries have broadcast around the world. Meanwhile, these errors have also confused and politically disarmed the Bolivarian people. And President Obama’s refusal to recognize Maduro and his aggressive statements have added a dose of blackmail.
Once again, as in 2002 and the beginning of 2003, a dangerous game is unfolding in Bolivarian Venezuela, as well as within our own revolutionary process, which will play an important part in the destiny of Our America. But history never repeats itself. This time will be more difficult for us.
It will be more difficult this time because we must confront the perfidious attacks of a cynical and criminal opposition which constructs its popular appeal on a disingenuous discourse, claiming that it is seeking dialogue. Meanwhile, we must face up to the hard reality that the poorest people are suffering the most. Furthermore, we have delayed in building a new leadership, one that this time must necessarily be collective–a leadership capable of unleashing a colossal popular mobilization, one which can provide it with an orientation necessary to make the Change of Course that Chávez demanded [shortly before he died].
Without this Change of Course, the feeling that the government is adrift today will grow, and it can pave the way to collapse. There are moments which determine the survival of a dream. Whether or not we wish this to be the case, it is time to take steps against capital and the bureaucracy. If we fail, we will lose the gains we have achieved and, with these, this historic chapter of an emancipatory process will close.
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II. The Loss of Chávez and the Hole in the Political System of the Bolivarian Process
There has not yet been time to process the enormous demonstration of popular love and pain produced by Chávez’s funeral–one could almost say that there hasn’t even been time for the mourning to begin. And still less has there been the political willingness to seriously and profoundly debate the huge change in circumstances that the loss of the Comandante means for the Bolivarian Revolution. It is critical to do so. If we do not locate ourselves squarely inside the reality of this loss, we will remain disoriented.
Comandante Chávez’s leadership was constructed over the course of more than two decades of difficult social and political battle. Today, we must make clear the lessons we have learned.
1. Recognize the impact of losing Chávez. It is critical to evaluate from every dimension the impact caused by the absence of Comandante Chávez. If we do not understand that we are still facing a bourgeois state which guarantees the privileges of the local oligarchs, the transnational corporations and the bureaucracies that administer them, we will speed our own path to dissolving the revolutionary process.
Without Chávez, the roadmap he designed–the Constitution, the National Development Plans, the Enabling Laws [which empowered oppressed communities]–lost the motor which gave it life and dynamism. His style of Hyper-Leadership, which we have questioned elsewhere (we think correctly), in the absence of a collective leadership, had a positive side in that it was the axis upon which the brutal contradictions within Chavismo itself could be resolved. It was also able to defend a frankly gradual and “peaceful” emancipatory project. Chávez articulated, balanced and moderated tensions arising between various groups with aspirations for power who today have been left without an arbitrator.
2. The two pillars. Chávez was always conscious of the fact that his leadership was one pillar of the process; yet the other fundamental pillar was the Bolivarian people, both civilian and military. Perched upon a monumental peak of popular mobilization by the Bolivarian people, he attempted to direct a process of important and gradual reforms, emphasizing national independence and a more egalitarian distribution of oil profits (“a novel welfare state,” according to Javier Biardeau).
In order to pry open the tremendous social contradictions in the fight over the appropriation of those profits, he called forth popular mobilizations at certain points. And even though it is a fact that the prime mobilization by the heroic people when faced with the coup d’état in April of 2002 was spontaneous and without a central leadership, it is also true that the connection, the communion, between the leadership and the Bolivarian people made this mass expression in the streets possible.
3. Constituent Process. The Bolivarian Revolution is essentially a democratic revolution, a political revolution, distinct from the category of democratic revolution in the anti-feudal sense, as it was defined in classical Marxism.
A revolution still in process that has experienced two moments of crystallization: first, the convocation, debate, approval and signing of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic as an expression of the transformations that took place within the consciousness the poorest of the people, starting from the time of the Caracazo [the urban uprising against neoliberal policies in 1989] and the attempted insurrections on February 4 and November 27 of 1992. Second, both the popular rebellion in April of 2002 [which defeated the anti-Chávez coup] and the defeat of the bosses’ strike and the oil bosses lockout when the counterrevolution was defeated by direct action all along the line.
These moments of the “constituent process” [the process by which the revolution constitutes or creates itself] have brought the revolution to the crossroads of either, one, advancing towards anti-capitalist measures; or two, exhausting itself along the path of paralysis, which may open the door to the counter-reforms that the oligarchy is seeking.
The confiscation of the agency of the Bolivarian people–after their victories against the most counterrevolutionary wing of the light-skinned political oligarchy in 2002, 2003 and 2004–opened the way for the growth, development and agency of the state bureaucracy and its bastard child the Boli-bureaucracy. This [state and party] bureaucracy looks out for its own interests in order to secure and defend its own privileges, hidden from the eyes of the Bolivarian people. It identified as its primary obstacle this Constituent Power, the mobilized and engaged people.
We have witnessed the flowering of organizations of popular power, such as the first communal councils, a plethora of water, electrical and health technical councils, and, more recently, the work councils for employee control over basic industries. This list includes only some of the hundreds of organizations that are the germs of a new power, the power with which popular participation has achieved its highest expression.
Now all this has begun to be interrupted or converted into clientelist appendages, which only serve the will of those who head state institutions, or those who have risen to become bosses of powerful groups. They are attempting to hollow out the content of these popular organizations or to simply dismantle them. As Chávez himself said, the communes have hardly advanced at all.
A new trade union organization has failed to thrive, and one section of militant union leaders has adopted old bureaucratic methods. This has alienated them from working-class politics and converted them into a trade union bureaucracy which maintains its privileges based on direct or indirect participation in the administration of public enterprises and state institutions. One part of them has even switched sides.
4. Structural weaknesses. The revolutionary process initiated by the Caracazo marked the death of the bipartisan regime of the Punto Fijo pact. But the Fifth Republic [proclaimed in 1999 with the new constitution] could not construct a new party system.
The last attempt to do this, the PSUV, met with a great deal of enthusiasm and revolutionary militancy at its foundation at the end of 2007. Thousands of units with hundreds of members were organized, in which, at least for a brief time, there was space for debate, criticism and collective discussion, even though all of this was limited to the local area. At its Founding Congress, despite big bureaucratic limitations, the left wing of the party accounted for some 25 percent of the delegates and, in a party that represented millions of members, represented a radical current of at least several tens of thousands of militants.
But the limitations soon became clear. These meant that power within the party was taken over from above by the directors of the state institutions, and the restructuring and distribution of power was arranged between groups organized on a regional basis, leading to the dismantling of the local units and of any organic practices which had democratic features for the rank and file. Of course, having said all this, there were local and regional exceptions. Thus, less than six months after its foundation, the PSUV attracted no enthusiasm–it did not attract militants but, in fact, repelled them.
If the PSUV is to recapture the energy from the time of its founding, an internal revolution will be necessary to break with the vices, the deformations and clientelist degenerations it suffers today. One wing of the trade union and popular movement leadership also suffers from this process of state assimilation and depoliticization, greased by patronage methods and co-optation.
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III. The Policy of the Opposition: Refuse to Recognize the Election Results and Seek an Accelerated Exhaustion and Fall of the Government
The election showing of the Unity Council [the opposition umbrella] and its candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski on April 14 is the highest result yet for a tendency that has growing since 2006.
Since the fiasco of the attempted counterrevolutionary coup and the oil bosses’ lockout, there have been two fundamental lines of thought within the opposition. One, today a minority, but strongly influencing the opposition’s current tactics, maintains that they should prepare a new counterrevolutionary attempt and that the previous fiascos were caused only by errors committed in the preparation and development of such actions, and not because of the strength of the Bolivarian process. This faction gained predominance before the legislative elections in 2005 and carried out the election boycott. The other faction understood the power of Chávez’s leadership and decided upon an electoral strategy to recuperate, restructure and reconstruct the traditional clientelist bases they had during the Fourth Republic.
Their heavy defeat last October [when Chávez won re-election] opened a debate within the heart of the opposition. They reviewed their mistakes and corrected them, deepened their populist rhetoric, brazenly copied Chavista symbols, presented themselves as more united than ever in a single electoral ticket, and organized themselves under the banner of refusing to recognize Maduro’s triumph.
Denounce fraud, disavow the results and refuse to recognize Maduro. This is the unity slogan of the opposition. And with this, they have maintained a political offensive since the night of April 14. They understood the most essential thing in the new political moment, the absence of Chávez, who they could never defeat, is a golden opportunity for them to regain the government, and this is keeping them united.
However, all this alone could not have worked if it were not for the serious mistakes committed by the government acting without Chávez since he left for his last operation [in January 2013].
The opposition is using its economic capacity to worsen the shortages and speculation, and to raise the cost of living. They are using political campaigns and even leading struggles for just social demands in the face of which the government remains deaf, etc. These campaigns are allowing them to maintain the initiative and determine the political agenda of the country.
Meanwhile, Maduro’s government seeks to seduce a sector of the economic opposition by naming ministers with whom they are sympathetic, and by including them in working groups, allocating them access to foreign currency and granting economic concessions such as the recent official price increases of regulated staple goods. The last meeting, which included the Polar Group, is not only a serious political and economic mistake, but was also botched in terms of public relations.
Basing themselves on the unity they have achieved, the parties and leaders of the opposition retain various differences and nuances, but it is critical not to exaggerate these. Until they are broken apart by a powerful mobilization, they will remain united.
The government is wrong to continue trying to entice some of them in order to divide their forces. The debates within the opposition have only to do with what is an acceptable price to bring about the downfall of the government. They are preparing for many possibilities. They believe, as expressed by one of their most lucid analysts, that Chavismo without Chávez is prepared today to confront and defeat a coup, but it is not prepared to recover, nor to retain, its social base. This does not necessarily mean that they must hope for a recall election to get rid of Maduro. If the right conditions arise, history shows that there are many ways to change government without the necessity of a bloody coup d’état.
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IV. Unease and Disorientation in the Social Base of Chavismo
Both the election results and the measures taken by the government over the last three weeks have provoked an enormous unease among the Bolivarian people. The inability to resolve shortages, speculation and increases in the cost of living in a revolutionary manner have given rise to an extreme confusion and ill feeling in the popular social base of the revolutionary process.
The devaluation continued handing over dollars to the bourgeoisie. No sanctions have been taken against ineffective, and even corrupt, state organizations charged with controlling shortages and prices. Staple goods are not available at regulated prices in the supermarkets, but appear at temporary [and illegal] shops at triple their official price, or they are discovered about to cross the border in contraband operations. Bakeries don’t sell bread, pharmacies have no essential medicines such as antibiotics, etc. And inflation has doubled from the previous month and is almost four times higher compared to the same month last year. And there are interminable lines and many kilometers to cover to simply find essential goods.
Under these conditions there is a growing social sense of frustration which is feeding the confusion. Conditions exist for a tendency toward evaporation of support for the government. Turning around this tendency and recovering the confidence of the people is the primary task of the current leaders of the government and of the revolution. And this can only be done by means of revolutionary measures.
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V. How to Recover the Political Offensive and Construct the Leadership the Revolution Requires
On December 8, 2012, which turned out to be his last speech, Comandante Chávez demanded that whatever happened to him, elections should be convened and that our candidate would be Nicolás Maduro. A dizzying pace of political events swept along the explosive election campaign.
The Bolivarian people complied with Chávez’s request and made Maduro president. But this election did not resolve the fundamental problem facing the revolution after the loss of its leader: How to build the leadership of the Bolivarian process without the figure who was the central axis of its political system. It is necessary to say this clearly: Maduro is the elected president of the country, but neither he nor any of the Chavista leaders of the government are, nor can they be, Chávez; therefore, they cannot lead or govern as Chávez had done.
In order to stop the tendency towards disillusionment and frustration among the Bolivarian people and to seriously confront the cynical and criminal policy of the opposition, the following radical political actions are needed:
1. Unleash participatory mobilizations and the agency of the Bolivarian people in the Constituent Process. The government’s initiatives are lamentably being turned into a mere media spectacle. We are losing an enormous opportunity to unleash a powerful force which is today asleep, anesthetized and disoriented, the Bolivarian people. The launch of a real Constituent Process is crucial in areas such as workplaces and model productive units and should take up questions such as the commercialization of health, national sovereignty and other areas, such as credit, international trade, the National Development Plan and many others.
In this process, it is necessary to also actively incorporate military members of the Bolivarian people. It is a fact that, if there are no immediate possibilities of a counterrevolutionary coup against the government today, it is in great measure owing to the existence in the Armed Forces of the Bolivarian Nation a majority sector of Bolivarian commanders, Chavistas, anti-imperialists and, as our military compatriots like to say, socialists.
In order to unleash this process, we must use a powerful resource that can help orient us–that is, the last plan written directly by our Comandante Chávez at his typewriter, the “Constituent Process for the Elaboration of the Second Socialist Plan for National Development, 2013-2019.” This little-known document, which is today suppressed, stands next to the National Plan as a method of participatory democracy. We can bring the streets, the people, the workers, the youth, the indigenous, the revolutionary women, along with their national organizations to the government to debate and resolve this crisis and, together with the current leadership, construct a revolutionary path.
2. Initiate a great national debate about the urgent measures needed to confront the current shortages, speculation and increase in the cost of living. The first step in order to put the Constituent Power into action is the organization of a great national debate in each enterprise–private or state-run–in each institution, in every plaza, in each community, in each educational establishment, convened in assemblies where we can debate and decide on practical measures to resolve shortages, speculation and the increasing cost of living as well as income and salaries of families who live exclusively by their work.
A week of tens of thousands of such multitudinous assemblies could be organized, where proposals are made by the revolutionary forces, the party, the forces of the patriotic pole and other political and social platforms, giving them sufficient time for debate among the grassroots in the assemblies. This could be followed by a process for democratic decision-making and proposals.
With this type of active popular participation, we can bring a force to its feet which is capable of stopping the tendency toward demoralization and declining confidence that today predominates. Only then can we call the private sector to negotiate so that it understand that its assets will be at risk if it continues its economic attacks on the Bolivarian people.
3. Facilitate the building of a political instrument or instruments which can bring clarity to the path for the Bolivarian people and deepen Chávez’s legacy. It is not true, as some sectors of the party or government leadership say, that our people do not have revolutionary consciousness or that the 600,000 Chávez voters who voted for Capriles are ungrateful. The truth is that the bureaucratization of the party, maltreatment, the habit of giving orders, an obsession with minutia and administered militancy has left the Bolivarian people without a political orientation. We must unleash their political creativity, empower their militancy and listen to all the diverse voices, criticisms and proposals with respect.
A revolution such as ours cannot be, nor should it have, only one party. It is necessary to facilitate the creation of groups, political instruments and currents in order to invigorate the Constituent Process with proposals, debates and mobilizations. In order to accomplish this, we must guarantee that all means of communication–radio, television, electronic and print–give space for each revolutionary political current to freely debate and develop their ideas face to face with the workers.
4. Activate the revolutionary spirit of the Bolivarian People. Today, the anonymous protagonists of the Bolivarian Revolution, the people in struggle, are actors who can sense their role in history. These are the people who built the triumph of the Revolution together with Chávez, with enormous reserves of strength, devotion and heroism.
The people are inclined to go into motion. We must once again sound the call to battle. Revive their willingness to struggle. Inspire their historic responsibility. Understand and stimulate their revolutionary disposition. They, the protagonists of all these events, are disposed to fight, and a new generation is prepared to take over from those who tire. It is our duty to fulfill and deepen Chávez’s legacy, to aid the giant of the revolution to its feet: the Bolivarian People. This is the critical moment to unleash this colossal force. Now is the time. This is how we can save the revolution.
Translation and introduction by Todd Chretien and Socialistworker.org