The death of President Hugo Chavez on 5 March has prompted fresh presidential elections in Venezuela on 14 April. Former Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, whose candidacy was proposed by Chavez, is widely expected to win. On 19 March, results published by private poll Datanalysis gave Maduro a lead of 14% over Henrique Capriles, the candidate of the opposition’s Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition.
Capriles himself has recognised his minimal chance of a victory, comparing his candidacy to being ‘led to a slaughterhouse and dropped into a meat grinder’. Despite winning 44% of the votes in October 2012’s presidential election (the opposition’s best electoral result to date) the coalition lost all but three of Venezuela’s 23 states in December’s governor elections and has become increasingly divided.
Sam McGill reports.
While Capriles poses as a ‘centrist’, stating ‘I’m 100 per cent Lula’ – a reference to Brazil’s ‘modern left’ model under former President Lula da Silva – in reality he is a co-founder of the neoliberal Primero Justicia party which played a key role in the 2002 coup and receives training and funding from the US National Endowment for Democracy.1
Maduro has the firm backing of his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the Communist Party and the other parties and social movements that make up the political committee of the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP). Despite speculation that Maduro could ‘ease’ relations with private business and the US government, he stands on the same Programa Patria for ‘Bolivarian Socialist management’ 2013-2019 that swept Chavez to victory last year.2 Indeed, at Chavez’s commemoration service on 8 March, Maduro raised both this programme and the 1999 constitution, ratified by popular referendum in the first years of Chavez’s presidency. He urged:
‘We must follow the path that was designed by our commander ... together with the people, the armed forces, with your constitution, with your great political will and testimony, with your example, with your love, to continue to protect the poor, continue to give them the food they need, continue to give education to our children … construct peace in our continent! Comandante, the battle continues!’
The change of course
A victory in the presidential election is essential for the continuation of the struggle for socialism in Venezuela. It is, however, only the first step and the future of the Bolivarian Revolution depends on the implementation of Programa Patria and the destruction of the old bourgeois state.
The immediate priorities for the Bolivarian revolution are therefore deepening participatory democracy and transforming the economic relations of property and production. As part of this task, Chavez declared a Golpe de Timon or radical change of course in a speech to the first meeting of the new Council of Ministers just after the October presidential election. This speech has prompted a welcome debate in Bolivarian circles, social movements and in the GPP across Venezuela on the need for self-criticism, efficiency, acceleration of the construction of the communes and an improved national system of public media. There have undoubtedly been huge advances in the construction of popular power, with over 30,000 communal councils in existence.3 However, in order to accomplish Programa Patria’s aim of representing at least 68% of the population through comunas, this project must be accelerated. Chavez asked:
‘Where are the communes? Not the commune, but the communes? Where are we going to create new communes? ... Here around Miraflores [the presidential palace in Caracas] there should exist a commune. We all have to see to it, it is a part of the soul of this project. Self-criticism is to correct, to rectify, not to continue doing it in a vacuum.’
Such rectification can only come through deepening participatory democracy, Chavez maintains that it can’t be imposed centrally: ‘Popular power is not from Miraflores, nor is it from the headquarters of this or that ministry that we will solve the problems. We don’t believe that just because we inaugurate the Cerro Azul cement plant or the factory in Guanare ... or a factory for here or there, that we are already ready; no ... Beware, if we do not heed this, we are liquidated, and not only are we liquidated, we will be the sell-outs, the liquidators of this project. We have an enormous responsibility before history and to those who support us.’
This is a call echoed by social movements and communities across the country. On 14 March social collectives including the Alexis Vive Foundation, Coordinadora Simon Bolívar and the El Panel Comuna expressed their support for Maduro’s candidacy on the basis of his commitment to ‘building a communal state, as outlined in Programa Patria for the deepening of popular power and decision-making of the people’. It is these social movements and their push for participatory democracy that are the bedrock of a socialist future in Venezuela.
In his October speech, Chavez warned that: ‘Sometimes we fall into the illusion that by calling everything ‘socialist’ – socialist stadium, socialist avenue etc, what is a socialist avenue? – this actually makes it socialist ... The factories built with capitalist goals bear the indelible marks of their operating system’. He quoted the Venezuelan political economist Giordani in identifying that key to socialist transformation are:
‘1. The modification of the productive base of the country, seeking greater democratisation of economic power;
2. A change in the role of the state, to obtain an accumulative process that is directed towards the satisfaction of the basic needs of the majority of the population and the defence of sovereignty;
3. The incorporation of mechanisms of productive self-management at a collective level; and
4. The use of democratic planning as a regulatory mechanism of productive relations.’
Some of this self-criticism has begun to be addressed. A new media system was launched in March to promote community media and critical reflection. Communications minister Ernesto Villegas called for ‘a communication revolution…that will permit the people to speak and be heard. That is the best guarantee of a good, strong democracy’. The social missions continue with the Gran Mision Vivienda Venezuela housing mission completing 466 new homes in Vargas and Miranda states in March, another step towards fulfilling the aim of building three million new homes by 2019 and realising Chavez’s demand for decent housing for all, ‘whatever the cost’.
However, inevitably, attempts to undermine the Bolivarian Revolution have sharpened. Two days before Chavez’s death, indigenous Yukpa leader Sabino Romero was assassinated. Romero was a prominent land rights activist in the struggle against cattle ranchers and mining corporations in the coal-rich grazing lands of Sierra de Perija. Although 395,000 hectares of land were demarcated as indigenous territory by the Venezuelan government in 2011, the land remains in the private hands of cattle ranchers who have turned to violence to maintain their control. Impunity for the cattle ranchers, despite the assassination of 38 Yukpa activists, has led social movements publicly to criticise state institutions for inaction and complicity. In December 2011, Chavez had demanded the land be expropriated and handed over, approving 250 million bolivars (US$58m) in compensation for the cattle ranchers. Over a year later, this has not been carried out. The struggle for the implementation of radical land redistribution for Venezuela’s indigenous and landless peasants places the government in conflict with large private landowners. Its resolution will require the construction of a new judicial system able to uphold the rights enshrined in the constitution, and a state committed to defending these grassroots struggles against private property with force where necessary.
Conflicts between workers and employers are also intensifying. On 13 December trade unionists from the National Union of Workers (UNT) marched through Caracas demanding the resolution of over 150 separate labour conflicts. This came ten days after the dispersal of a protest by workers on strike at the privately- owned biscuit factory, Galletera Carabobo. Despite a new law to protect workers passed in May 2012, struggles for the implementation of the law continue. The actions of some local state bodies are at odds with the legislation and, in the case of Galletera, the state labour tribunal overruled the workers’ right to strike, resulting in the National Guard arresting union leaders and forcibly dispersing the picket. A three-year dispute over collective bargaining and pay at the Ceramicas Caribe factory in Yaracuy has not been resolved, despite calls from Chavez in 2011 to expropriate the factory unless the private company accepted the demands of the workers. It is clear that within the Ministry of Labour and the National Assembly itself, as well as at state level, there are opportunist elements dragging their heels over the implementation of workers’ rights. Cronyism and corruption within government structures also needs to be tackled. This is why Chavez’s call for a commune to be built around every economic unit is so essential. In a country where 70% of production remains in private hands, a strong workers’ movement, defended by the state, is essential to challenge private companies. Within recently nationalised companies it will require a fight against the surrounding sea of national capitalism, alongside an internal battle to implement democratic control over the means of production.
In understanding these contradictions, it is essential to locate the struggle for socialism in the context of a country dominated by oil exportation for over a century. The plague of corruption as people attempt to get their slice of the oil profit seriously impedes the drive to build a socialist consciousness – in some sectors a culture of graft and backhanders has become endemic. This is part of the corrosion of imperialism and undermines the implementation of progressive laws. In his election programme, Chavez identified that:
‘The socio-economic formation that is still prevalent in Venezuela is of a rentier capitalist character. Certainly, socialism has barely begun to implement its own internal dynamism amongst us. This is a programme precisely to establish it and deepen it, directed towards a radical removal of the logic of capital that must be completed step by step, but without slowing the pace of progress towards socialism. To move towards socialism, we need a popular power capable of dismantling the framework of oppression, exploitation and domination that exist in Venezuelan society ... this involves completely destroying the form of the bourgeois state which we inherited, which is still reproduced in old and harmful practices, and giving continuity to the invention of new forms of political management.’
This will require a continuing struggle within the Bolivarian Revolution by those who are fighting for a socialist path against sections who pursue the path of national capitalism.
Imperialists waiting in the wings
Although in the short term the opposition accepts that Maduro is likely to sweep to power on 14 April, there is no doubt that behind the scenes they will be plotting to destabilise Venezuela. On the day Chavez died, the Venezuelan government expelled David Delmonaco, Air Attaché of the US embassy in Caracas, and his assistant Devlin Costal. These officials had been seeking to make contact with members of Venezuela’s armed forces to foment destabilisation projects in the military. It is worth remembering that pro-opposition sections of the Bolivarian Army were key to the US-backed coup of 2002. Maduro has formally raised concerns with US President Obama about CIA and Pentagon plans, led by US assistant secretaries of state for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, to assassinate Capriles to create chaos and enshrine him as a right-wing martyr. Maduro denounced this as part of plans for a coup, with the involvement of sections of the Venezuelan opposition. Otto Reich was heavily involved in preparations for the April 2002 coup; while in post as the US permanent representative to the Organisation of American States, Noriega supported the US-backed coup in Haiti in 2004 and lobbied for the right-wing Lobo regime following the coup in Honduras in 2009. Whether these machinations are successful or not, it is clear that there is a real fear of dirty tricks and shadowy manoeuvres.
However, the millions of ordinary Venezuelans who filled the streets to pay tribute to Chavez and commit themselves to the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution should serve as a warning to opposition forces and their imperialist backers. Both the voluntary Bolivarian militias and the Bolivarian Armed Forces have pledged allegiance to the revolution. This is a people organised and ready to defend itself.
The future rests in the hands of all those who brought Chavez to power – the organised workers, the communal councils, the grassroots activists in the PSUV and the Great Patriotic Pole. Nicolas Maduro will be judged by these forces and his ability to carve out political space for their development. As a new chapter begins for the Bolivarian Revolution, Maduro is determined to succeed, solemnly promising: ‘I swear to the people, I am going to accomplish this, I will not fail Chavez, I will not fail the people.’
1 See: www.cepr.net/publications/testimony/ democracy-venezuela
2 See: ‘Venezuelan Presidential elections: the state and the Bolivarian Revolution’, FRFI 229 October/November 2012.
3 See: ‘Venezuela’s communal councils: socialism in construction’, FRFI 224 December 2011/January 2012.