Chavez ten years on

Issue: 121

Mike Gonzalez

On 23 November 2008 Venezuela went to the polls. It was the 14th election in the ten years since the victory of Hugo Chavez in 1998. This time the vote was for state governors, mayors and representatives to Venezuela’s 24 state assemblies. Just over 65 percent of those eligible registered their choice on the new electronic voting machines. The very high turnout was a sign that the election was much more than a vote for local officials. It had become, instead, a vote of confidence in Chavez himself.

In the weeks leading up to the elections it became very clear that the figure of Chavez was to hold centre stage and that the individual candidates, particularly to the state governorships, would very much stand in his shadow. The election broadcasts always figured Chavez centrally, and in most cases the actual candidate was reduced to a supporting role. Chavez’s speeches at the great election rallies were invariably far longer than the candidate’s—and far better received.

The right wing opposition, for its part, was representing itself as fresh and new. The old parties, who for nearly 40 years had shared power and split the benefits between them, were still putting forward their candidates. But the campaign was dominated by a new, aggressive, “modern” right wing exemplified by their well educated, almost entirely white, good looking and well heeled candidates. Their slogans emphasised change—a “new time”, as one party called itself—and the defence of a constitution (passed in 1999) that they had fought against tooth and nail at the time.

The official pro-Chavez candidates all represented the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the government party set up by Chavez in 2006, and wore the red T-shirts and baseball caps of Chavismo. They had all been selected by delegate meetings of PSUV members, but the reality was that most of them had been imposed by the party machine, often in the teeth of fierce grassroots criticism. And the scepticism about the candidates and their manner of election covered much deeper concerns and discontents. Yet the grassroots of the PSUV turned out in considerable numbers to work for the election. It seems likely that their support was assured when the authority of Chavez became the central issue in the campaign, rather than the performance of the candidates, the government or the PSUV itself in the four years since the last gubernatorial and mayoral elections.

Map: Venezuela—election results
Map 1

Election day

It had been raining almost every day for weeks across central Venezuela. In Caracas a few days earlier a heavy rainstorm lasting over four hours flooded much of the city and caused the customary havoc in the crowded poor barrios clinging to the hills in and around the city. Yet on election day there were long queues forming by 6am outside most polling stations. The results began to be announced by the middle of the evening of 23 November.

It became clear very quickly that the results were not likely to bring great comfort to the government of Chavez. In the few days since the announcement both sides have claimed the voting figures as a triumph. Overall the PSUV won about 57 percent of the national vote. At that level it could be represented as a vote of confidence in the Bolivarian process. The figures, however, tell only a fraction of the story.

Politically, the government won the numbers but it lost key areas of support. The right wing opposition won five of the 23 governorships to be elected. In fact this was one less than they had controlled before the election, largely because some governors had joined the PSUV in the course of their previous terms. But the five included the politically significant states of Carabobo and Miranda (which includes much of Caracas and its suburbs), and the strategically key states of Zulia and Táchira, as well as the most important mayor’s post in the country—Greater Caracas. These five areas, plus three other smaller states, together embrace 60 percent of Venezuela’s population.

Much more significantly, a glance at the map shows the wider implications of the new disposition of power. Zulia state and its capital, Maracaibo, are oil-rich and a key component in Venezuela’s oil strategy. Its neighbour, the state of Táchira, is poorer and more sparsely populated. But the two states between them cover almost the whole border region with Colombia. A number of towns and areas along that border are now entirely controlled by paramilitaries linked to drug cartels. In one small town, for example, the gunmen recently issued leaflets warning that “homosexuals, adulterers and anyone selling drugs would be murdered, and that anyone on the streets after five in the evening would be summarily executed”.

The Colombian factor is important to understand. Paramilitary gangs linked to the drug trade, which increasingly uses Venezuela as a transit point, are also interwoven with the Colombian state. Indeed, recent revelations in Colombia suggest that the drug cartels are embedded in Colombian political life at every level. At the same time, Colombia is the bridgehead for the global market and imperialist strategies for the control of the region.1 The presence of a state within a state, what Roland Denis calls the “parastate”, is an increasingly central issue in Venezuela, where violent crime, almost invariably related to drugs, is a critical issue and where the organisations behind the paramilitary violence are intimately connected with the police and National Guard as well as a number of local political groups.

The fear of crime and violence, and the sense that the state has failed to arrest or in any way control the “parastate” were carefully and consciously manipulated by the right during the election campaign. So too was what looks and feels very much like the collapse of the material infrastructure of the society. In every major city, as well as in rural areas, rubbish sits by the roadside in massive and growing piles. The regular rains seem to flood the streets within minutes and each one brings more news of mudslides and the collapse of the precarious hillside dwellings, the barrios, where the poor live.

Of course the right wing parties, and the middle classes they represent, have no interest at all in the fate of the poor. Venezuela remains a divided society whose middle classes live in gated and heavily defended communities and maintain their patterns of consumption in imitation of what they imagine to be US culture.

The reality of the right wing’s concern with the security and living standards of the population emerged very clearly within hours of the announcement of the election results. In Aragua state three leading trade unionists were murdered in cold blood. In the state of Miranda gangs of thugs and bikers attacked Cuban doctors and nurses and the medical centres in the poor districts where they work. Employees of the state oil company were threatened with violence. Teachers, health workers and civil servants working in the town halls won by the right have been told that they will be immediately dismissed without benefits and some have been beaten up. And the threat now is that the community facilities created in recent years—the centres for the elderly, the community centres, sports facilities, etc—will be taken back and presumably sold to private enterprise.

The strategy of the right is clear and extremely aggressive; its mask of democratic concern and preoccupation with human rights has already fallen. But it is important to recognise that the election win was organised and strategically conceived. The domination of the border regions gives real territorial control, and the loss of Greater Caracas (although not Caracas City), together with Miranda, is a very serious defeat. The new mayor, Antonio Ledesma, belongs to one of the old corrupt parties (Copei) and was mayor once before. His record, a standard story of corruption and clientilism, cannot explain his victory.

And the president of the other major party of the old regime, AD, gave a press conference in which he raged that “Chavez wants to put us in loincloths and send us to live in the trees like the Indians”. He went on to argue that Chavez is provoking another 11 April, the attempt to detain Chavez and destroy his government. In other words, with their new found confidence, the right are resurrecting the threat of a direct assault on Chavez and his presidency. The stakes here remain very high, and the old bourgeoisie is still a dangerous enemy, whatever mask it wears.

Whose victory?

One knowledgeable and respected commentator has described the result as a “tactical victory but a strategic defeat”.2 It is an extreme but provocative view. But the truth is very uncomfortable for the government of Chavez and for all those of us who are concerned that the revolution should continue and deepen in Venezuela.

The explanation extends into the past, specifically to the constitutional amendments voted on in a referendum on 2 December 2007. That vote was lost very narrowly. It was the first defeat Chavez had suffered. It was the view of many, including myself, that there had been significant abstentions among supporters of the Bolivarian revolution. It was partly because the amendments were never convincingly explained. More importantly, it seemed that taken as a whole the amendments to the constitution placed increasing power in the hands of the president and the executive. Given the high regard in which Chavez himself is held, the December results were perhaps more a comment on the actions—or inactions—of government than on Chávez himself.

By late 2007 many of the social programmes (the misiones) had stopped working effectively. The misiones were both an expression of and a response to the transformation of the Bolivarian revolution that began in 2002. The failure of the April coup that year was the direct result of a major shift in the balance of political power. At the time the administration headed by Chavez still included many representatives of the old regime located in key positions within government and the oil corporation. The social programmes that Chavez had promised—redirecting resources towards the poor—had already begun to take effect; the rising support for Chavez expressed in the 2000 presidential elections was evidence of that. It seemed that the traditional control of the state and of Venezuela’s oil wealth by the dominant political class was slipping away. The result was the April coup.

The coup failed when electoral support was transformed into the physical presence of the masses on the streets of Venezuela. The power to shape events passed to the mass movement that Chavez had come to symbolise and lead. While later interpretations have attributed his “rescue” to sections of the army, the reality is that most of the leading figures in the military responded to the mass mobilisations rather than invoking them. Eight months later, in early December, a bosses’ strike began with a walkout of 18,000 employees of the oil corporation, PDVSA, who took with them the computer passwords and all the key information required to maintain oil production. All the sectors hostile to Chavez joined the action, which was intended to destroy the Bolivarian project and Chavez with it. Restaurants and shops closed, supplies of most goods dried up, the mass media (then as now dominated by the right) threw their full weight behind the “strike”. Once again the defeat of the lockout was the direct result of mass mobilisation across the country. Local communities joined trade unionists in mass pickets to defend oil, gas and electricity installations, the social movements organised supplies, transport and distribution of goods across the country, and political debates raged in universities and schools. And once again a major ruling class assault was defeated by mass action.

The misiones were a response to that changing balance of forces. The Barrio Adentro programme, using Cuban doctors, would bring health care to the poor; the Robinson, Sucre and Rivas Missions would provide educational opportunities at every level for that majority of Venezuelans for whom education was completely unavailable until then. Vuelvan Caras, for its part, was launched in order to begin to address the country’s most pressing problem—the low productivity of its agriculture, despite the fertility of its land. Venezuela imported over 60 percent of its food as well as the bulk of its consumer goods. Oil, it had always been assumed, could buy everything (an issue I will return to later).

There was an ambiguity at the heart of the misiones. Were they essentially emergency welfare programmes,3 or were they the germs of a new power, the political expression of the shift that had taken place in 2002_3? It was certainly true that a new layer of Bolivarian politicians had entered government and that the misiones did address the still unfulfilled promises made to the poor by the first Chavez government, and the rising price of oil provided the finance. Yet this was still very far from the social transformation, the arrival of a new class in power, that the right now claimed the Bolivarian revolution represented. Its agitation continued through most of 2003-4, culminating in the recall referendum of August 2004. Support for Chavez rose again, reaching close to 63 percent. It was an undisputed political defeat for the right, and doubly so because the same social forces that had taken centre stage in 2002-3 were once again central to the referendum result. The Bolivarian Circles, small local cells at street and community level, had mobilised in a consistent and highly political way to achieve that result. It was their high point, and arguably it was the moment for a new and more radical direction in Venezuelan politics.

Chavez’s famous announcement that the Bolivarian revolution was now devoted to achieving “socialism in the 21st century” seemed to represent just such a leap forward. The speech was delivered at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2005, and, especially given this context, Chavez’s strategy was implicitly set against the compromises of Brazilian President Lula, whose radical past had dissipated in a rapid accommodation to global capital.

The leader, the masses and the government

Against the background of the Porto Alegre speech, it was to be assumed that the misiones would become elements of a new kind of democracy, the “participatory democracy” announced from the 1999 constitution onwards. In the context of the time, with its high level of popular organisation, a ruling class still badly wounded and profoundly disorganised after the failure of its assaults on the Chavez government, and a rising level of support for Chavez himself, this new qualitative phase in the revolution seemed possible. The rising mass struggles elsewhere in Latin America—in Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico, for example—suggested a wider relevance and potentiality.

Yet Chavez’s speech had also pointed up some of the ambiguities in the socialism of the 21st century. He spoke movingly of “fraternity, love, solidarity, justice, liberty and equality”—but the organisational expressions that this new political moment would adopt remained very unclear. While many of the old managers of the Venezuelan state had been removed after the bosses’ strike, many of their replacements came from the notoriously corrupt Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR), which accompanied Chavez to power in his first phase. The truth is that many of the people now charged with implementing 21st century socialism had very different views of what it meant.

In a curious anticipation of what would happen four years later, the elections for mayors and governors in 2004 had produced deep disquiet among supporters of Chavez, particularly over the way that candidates were selected. There were, after all, no clear mechanisms for the election of candidates, no methods for grassroots oversight of officials. The people responsible for the implementation of the new phase, therefore, at national government, state and local levels, were bound by no political discipline or machinery of accountability, even though it was they who were to be in charge of the implementation of a new and more radical phase of the revolution.

Yet according to Luis Tascón, a new group in power had already begun to consolidate its hold on the state and its institutions and to demobilise the popular movement:

There were already people accumulating power for themselves, doing deals, opening banks and managing exchange controls for their own benefit…while the rest of us were defending and strengthening the revolution. The (Bolivarian) process began to take a wrong turn in 2004, and the groups in power began to replace and exclude us. The revolutionaries were no longer necessary.4

Roland Denis substantially agrees.5 There was, he says, “a counter_offensive by the political leadership against the revolutionary democratic spaces”. For, despite the rhetoric about participatory democracy, there was as yet no evidence of the shape that democracy would take. The misiones, for example, were rapidly integrated into the existing state machinery, despite the suggestion that Chavez himself saw them as the embryonic forms of a new state, a counterbalance to a machinery of government still in the hands of bureaucrats and self-seekers. In industry the future seemed to be taking shape in the forms of self-management and cogestión (joint worker_management control) exemplified by the Alcasa aluminium plant, and in the workers’ occupations of failing factories with the demand that they should be nationalised. In the trade union movement the old corrupt trade union federation (CTV) had supported the April coup. A new national formation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), was now engaged in a prolonged battle to wrench control of the movement from the old bureaucrats.

In other words, the picture at the beginning of 2005 might have seemed to approach the situation described by Gregory Wilpert: “Thus, while community groups, labour movement and community media push from below, Chavez is pushing from above for “deepening the revolution”. In the middle are the old state bureaucracy”.6

In fact the dynamic of the process was working in a very different way. For while Chavez maintained a powerful symbolic and political relationship with the grassroots movement, he was also engaged in building a new state machinery with all the defects and contradictions of the old. Powerful figures were emerging such as Jorge Rodríguez (today the new mayor of Caracas City) and Diosdado Cabello (probably the central figure in the new elite and the deeply distrusted ex-governor of Miranda state now, astonishingly, promoted to minister for the infrastructure), who joined with others in national and state government to consolidate their power. Funds and resources continued to be available to grassroots projects, but their specific allocation was determined by favouritism, the construction of local political machines and loyalty to the bureaucracy. And while it is extremely difficult to find specific data regarding allocations of funds and completion of projects, the persistent rumours of corruption on a massive scale are borne out by anecdotal evidence.

Despite several national road plans it is very obvious that very little work has actually been done on the deteriorating national highways. Public transport remains inadequate, particularly in Caracas, where traffic jams are a nightmare, and the new rail network has been postponed several times. Cooperatives report endless difficulties in gaining access to the credits that are their due, and they are often conditional on bribes and favours. The misiones are bureaucratic and paralysed by internal battles for power. Even in factories as advanced as Alcasa, management resistance has inhibited self-management. The passport agency is notorious for its endless delays and below the counter methods, as is the exchange control agency. The critical issue of housing remains unresolved and building programmes are frozen or mired in bureaucracy despite the imaginative housing developments that have been completed in some areas. According to Tascón, around 140,000 houses have been built compared with a target of 300,000 per year. And the struggle for the recognition of workers’ rights has been systematically held back by successive ministers of labour whose sole interest was in maintaining control of the movement.

Much of the funding for the social projects comes directly from oil revenues. The right complains that PDVSA, the state oil corporation, is a state within a state. Certainly the increasingly central role of PDVSA might suggest that Chavez has used the corporation as a means for sidestepping the state to implement his social programmes. And indeed PDVSA invests directly in housing, education, cooperatives, medical care, culture and social development. But this does not address the central political problem; it rather compounds it.

A failed promise

The promise of 21st century socialism was the development of a new radical democracy and the construction of a new kind of state, responsive to and representative of the mass base of the revolution, the working class, the poor and the indigenous peoples. Instead the relationship between the Bolivarian state and the people is one of dependency in which resources, far from providing the means to achieve an increasing level of autonomy and initiative at the grassroots, have been used to forge new networks of power within the state and to reinforce centralism. It is true that there have been occasions when Chavez has restrained the bureaucracy—the excesses of the intelligence and counter-intelligence law are one example. But by and large occasional moves against elements of the bureaucracy have had more to do with internal power politics than with any fundamental challenge to the structures themselves.

Thus the gulf between poder popular (“popular power”) and the movement from below grows ever wider. The re-election of Chavez with a still larger majority in December 2006 in a sense veiled the widening gulf between the rhetoric and the reality. And it pointed to a persistent theme in political discussions—that Chavez was a prisoner of what was now called “the endogenous right”, whose power derived from the very practices of patronage and corruption that Chavez had vowed to eliminate when he was first elected in 1998. This Chavista endogenous right, it has to be said, is not averse to working with Venezuelan capital, the very people to whom it grants the enormously lucrative state contracts which oil the wheels of bureaucracy.

The anti-Chavista right has no alternative strategy to offer, only a different slate of bureaucrats to enjoy the fruits of corruption. And while they fought a bitter war of words, for the majority of the Venezuelan population there will often have seemed to be little between them other than the colour of their T-shirts. The concentration of power in the hands of this “new political class” was the alternative to the participatory democracy promised by Chavez and the 1999 constitution. Its consequence was an increasing demobilisation and demoralisation of the grassroots. When Chavez announced the formation of the consejos comunales (community councils) early in 2006, a surge of optimism followed; perhaps this signalled a return to the promised participation and grassroots democracy. But while they were established and in many cases functioned well as conduits carrying information to local government, they were in no sense organs of popular power. Many, indeed, were not supportive of the government. And in the general context of centralised control and power administered consistently and relentlessly from above, they remained another unfulfilled promise.

The creation of a new party by Chavez, the PSUV, two weeks after his re-election caused ferocious debate within the movement. What was clear was that it was in no sense the product of debate among the rank and file, nor did it arise organically out of the movement. The party was announced, not built. Its membership grew exponentially as soon as Chavez called for everyone to join it in a new revolutionary unity. There was no longer any need, he argued, for any other parties of the left to exist—the PSUV could embrace them all. Indeed before there was any opportunity to build the base organisations or agree the programme or ideology of the new party, two appointed commissions set about writing the party’s statutes and determining its political character.

The argument within the left and the popular movement concerned whether or not the party would be genuinely democratic and allow the development of an internal political debate. While that seemed unlikely, given the pre-emptive manner of its creation, the reality was that the left could not ignore a party of six million members, many of whom came from the people—even if the Association of Patriotic Entrepreneurs was among the first groups to join and be given representation in the party’s leading organs. The notionally democratic internal structures of regional assemblies of elected delegates were in reality subject to control from above. And when the grassroots defied the national leadership, as in the case of the selection of candidates for the 2008 elections, they were overruled in the most summary way. Chavez himself had returned to the topic of corruption, as he did periodically, and his words were fervently echoed by the political class which now assumed leadership of the PSUV, many of them deeply embedded in systemic corruption and patronage.

Yet in this, as in many other areas, there was no evidence of an integrated strategy, only of separate reactions to events or to the demands of the moment. So there was no long-term vision of party building or how to develop the participatory democracy in a dynamic dialogue between leadership and base. Time and again initiatives were announced and then left hanging in the air as ministerial responsibilities shifted or immediate pressures diverted attention from the longer term. The excellent 2006 report on the creation of a new national police force, for example, commissioned by one minister of justice was shelved when he moved and then the same happened again and again. And immediately after the November elections a new minister once again announced the formation of a commission to examine the question of a national police force. Meanwhile an often corrupt, locally administered and inefficient police force oversees rising crime and violence—and sometimes participates in it.


Two days after the elections I attended a town meeting in the state of Miranda, whose newly elected right wing governor had led an assault on the Cuban embassy during the April 2002 coup attempt. The meeting was angry, frustrated and vocal. People were determined not to allow any of their gains to be taken from them and prepared to fight to preserve them. Everyone talked at once—until Chavez was mentioned, at which point all present chanted his name in perfect unison.

The losing candidate in Miranda, Diosdado Cabello, seemed always to appear at Chavez’s right hand. He was also the most powerful political operator in the new state. His people controlled several ministries, the customs service and a number of other institutions. He was also, it was rumoured, extremely rich.7 When the new party was formed, Diosdado and his people were prominent. And when he stood for the 15-person leadership of the PSUV, with Chavez’s very public support, it was assumed he would win his place. In fact he came 17th—and the number of members of the committee was increased to 30 to let him in. When he presented himself as the gubernatorial candidate for a second term, members of the PSUV rejected him. In the end he was imposed by the party against the members’ will. Diosdado symbolises the new political class and the levels of patronage and dubious practices that characterise many areas of the state and the government.

In Carabobo state a similar process imposed Mario Silva, a vitriolic television journalist and favourite of Chavez, as candidate for the governorship. He lost the race. In Zulia, always a stronghold for the right, the sitting governor, Di Martino, was seen as self-serving and incompetent. The party hierarchy insisted on his candidacy, however, and he was also defeated by a right wing candidate. The case of Caracas is even more telling. Juan Barreto, the outgoing mayor, had a long history of political commitment and activity. He had been a close and courageous ally in Chavez’s rise to power. His time as mayor, however, seriously stained his reputation as family members and friends were given lucrative and influential positions in his administration. Meanwhile the crisis of the city deepened.

If it was the case that the referendum vote in 2007 was an expression of the gathering discontent and frustration of the Chavista base, the 2008 results are, it seems, the expression of similar, still unresolved, feelings. Diosdado did not convince the rank and file of the PSUV, nor did Silva. Yet those grassroots members had been unable to influence the party they had joined so enthusiastically in the preceding year and a half. The PSUV has 5.7 million members; fewer than half that number voted for the party’s candidates.

After the December referendum Chavez announced a period of rectification and revision. There is no evidence that it was carried beyond words into action. Certainly no action was taken to address corruption, nor were the structures of state or government opened to greater scrutiny or control from below. The absolutely authoritative role of Chavez was not mitigated by any internal criticism or serious debate in the National Assembly or the PSUV.

In the economy there have been important advances, most importantly the nationalisation of the Sidor steel plant in Puerto Ordaz after a long campaign by its workers and a bitter strike and mass demonstration which was fired on by state police. The telephone and electricity companies were nationalised last year, and a major milk producer was nationalised as the problem of food supplies and deliberately created shortages became more serious. In each case, however, nationalisation involved the state purchasing firms at market prices and with considerable compensation.

So while the Alcasa experiment suggested a very different kind of nationalisation, under workers’ control, the state takeovers seem more consonant with a burgeoning state capitalism. The failed constitutional amendments of 2007 contained a number of references to a state sector of the economy, but despite the screams of the right that this amounted to a full-scale assault on private property, in fact it was a guarded and cautious proposal to control key economic areas within a context of private ownership of banks and industries in which the state would be one competing actor.

At the heart of economic policy, of course, is oil. Since PDVSA became the engine of the Bolivarian project, oil revenues have financed the whole range of social programmes. But the corporation is as riven with corruption and mismanagement as the rest of the state sector, even if the rising oil prices of this year have veiled that reality. There has been no real attempt to use oil money to diversify the economy or create new industries; short-term demands have always been the priority. As 2008 ends, oil prices have fallen below $50 from a high of nearly $130 a barrel. Production has been cut by Opec at Veneuela’s insistence, and it seems likely that further cuts in production will follow. A major $4 billion credit from the Royal Bank of Scotland was withdrawn when the bank teetered on the brink of collapse. There are financial reserves spread across the world that could provide a cushion, but the reality is that Venezuela remains an economy dependent on a single export and imports some 80 percent of its food and consumer goods. PDVSA’s recently published 2009 budget shows major cuts in its contributions in every area except defence.

Chavez has diversified and broadened Venezuela’s oil trade, and dramatically lessened dependence on the US. Its new trading partners, China and Russia among others, are not exempt from the world recession and are themselves cutting back production. They are, whatever their past, aggressive players in the world capitalist market and Venezuela can expect no favours from them. It is unlikely that Venezuela can maintain the growth rates of 9 percent and more it has seen in recent years. In fact, the effects of recession, despite Chavez’s assertions that Venezuela has not been affected, are already highly visible. Inflation in real terms is far higher than the official 27 percent announced in December, and while the rising price of basic goods is in part the result of cynical manipulation by speculative distributors and producers, it is also a direct effect of the rising price of imports.

The minimum wage of just under 800 bolivars is no longer sufficient to buy the basket of basic goods; recent figure suggests that it takes double that to maintain a family. The Mercal system, which provides subsidised food for the poor, is beset by shortages and inefficiencies, as well as corruption and abuse by those who run the Mercal stores. At one such store customers were told that they could only buy subsidised products if they also bought a proportion of their goods at market prices.

There is a clear message in the election results, just as there was in the results of the 2007 referendum. The support of the mass of the people for Hugo Chavez is more than an expression of loyalty to one man. It is, at one level or another, a signal of their support for a project of social change. It also announces anger and a loss of patience with corruption and patronage. Of course, people will defend the new clinics and medical centres and the education programmes against right wing assaults. But as recession deepens the effects will be felt by those same people, and the protection of private capital and their allies within the Chavista state will fuel that anger.

In recent days Chavez has both spoken of the need for “a revolution within the revolution” and issued reassuring messages to the private sector that so long as they are productive they are safe. But the truth is that the Venezuelan private sector is not productive and its support for Chavez is conditional on the continuing protection it enjoys. Internationally Chavez has built an extraordinary network of alliances with other national capitals in an interlocking set of economic blocs. But nationally the expectation remains that the Bolivarian revolution will continue. That means strengthening the multiplicity of grassroots organisations that exist, encouraging their horizontal coordination and creating a new kind of state based on control from below and a genuine representation—the people as the subject of change, rather than the passive supporters of those individuals who have placed themselves in the leadership of the process.

The movements of Venezuela have a history of mass mobilisation and a high degree of political engagement. The level of political preparedness and education, however, is low and rhetoric has replaced genuine critical debate, as the recent election campaign so clearly and poignantly showed. The instrument of that political coordination cannot, in my view, be the PSUV. Its purpose was entirely electoral and the discourse of participation proved to be hollow. Nonetheless, it is the people who joined the party and built its base organisations who will drive the revolutionary project forward.

Chavez’s response to the elections has been to reopen the question of his re-election after 2012 (the constitution currently forbids that) and has launched a campaign to win the amendment to the constitution. At a time when there should be sober and critical discussion of the implications of the 23 November, an honest assessment of the nature of the PSUV and the beginnings
of a “revolution within the revolution”, the whole public debate will once again be centred on the character and future of Hugo Chavez. He is an extraordinary individual. But revolutions are the expression of collective liberation, of the moment when vast numbers of the excluded become the conscious shapers of their own destiny. How to achieve that, how to accelerate the redistribution of wealth and how to create the long promised democracy from below are the critical issues. The campaign for re-election will divert attention from those issues, silence criticism and harden the existing structures, which have already done so much damage to the Bolivarian revolution.

In 1992 the document produced by the military rebels led by Hugo Chavez to explain their insurrection warned against allowing “popular sovereignty expressed in elections to become reduced to a grotesque farce, deliberately emptied of all content and purpose”. That warning, levelled against the old state machine, should now be addressed to the Venezuelan state once again. The Chavismo that was carried to power time and again, and repeatedly defended by mass action, was and is a genuine mass movement for emancipation and an authentic popular democracy. The struggle to achieve those ends, to continue the social revolution, is its enduring purpose. The distortions and misrepresentations that have occurred in the name of that movement need now to be exposed and swept aside. The alternative, as one commentator describes it, is “the degeneration of the revolution into government”. The instrument of change has yet to be built—but unlike the PSUV it will be built out of real struggles and the understanding that they produce.


1: Gonzalez, 2008.

2: Roland Denis, “Victoria Táctica Derrota Estratégica, Algunos Hechos Políticos, Una Foto”,, 24 November 2008.

3: As suggested by Dick Parker, 2005.

4: Tascón, 2008, p60. Luis Tascón is a member of the National Assembly and an active supporter of the Bolivarian revolution. He had the distinction of being the first person expelled from the government party, the PSUV, even before it was officially constituted, for publishing on the internet a list of those who had signed the recall referendum request against Chavez. Some 800,000 of those signatures turned out to be false. His expulsion had more to do, however, with his regular exposure of corruption within the ruling group. He remains in the parliament as leader of a new organisation, Nuevo Camino Revolucionario.

5: Denis, 2008.

6: Wilpert, 2007, p190.

7: Tascón reports that Diosdado told him not to mention socialism in his election campaign in 2004 because it would lose him votes.


Denis, Roland, 2008, “Mínimo Balance del Proceso Después de diez años y Construcción de la ‘Otra Política’”,

Gonzalez, Mike, 2008, “Latin America and the Future of the Farc”, International Socialism 120 (autumn 2008),

Parker, Dick, 2005, “Chavez and the Search for an Alternative to Neoliberalism”, Latin American Perspectives, volume 32, number 2.

Tascón, Luis, 2008, Revelaciones de Luis Tascón (Caracas).

Wilpert, Gregory, 2007, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso).