Friday, January 22, 2016

Social Movements and Progressive Governments

Building a New Relationship in Latin America

by Marta Harnecker


In the following article Marta Harnecker, a Chilean sociologist, further explores a topic she has addressed in many books and pamphlets over a lifetime of active involvement in Latin American radical politics. First published on the Spanish website Rebelión in September 2015, it appears in the January 2016 issue of Monthly Review, in a translation I made at Marta’s request.

As it happens, Marta’s article is particularly à propos in light of the recent electoral victory of the right-wing opposition in Venezuela’s parliamentary election. As she notes, a major challenge facing the new social movements in the Latin American countries that have elected “progressive” anti-neoliberal governments is “to advance toward socialism when they have conquered only the government,” a “part of the state” that often “comes without control of the parliament or judiciary” and when “other capitalist-dominated institutions — finance, mass media, the military — remain intact.”

Experience has demonstrated, she argues, “that if revolutionary cadres take over the existing state, they can use their power to begin building the foundations of the new institutions and political systems needed to replace the old state. Above all they can begin creating spaces for popular protagonism, preparing people to exercise power in all aspects of their lives.”

Among other matters discussed in this article, Marta explains at some length what she means by her insistence on a “pedagogy of limitations,” a controversial concept. She calls for “constructive national dialogue laying out arguments from all sides” in which revolutionary socialists should “actively encourage” the pressure exerted by the popular movements. This, it seems to me, means transparent and democratic dialogue in which differing strategies, tactics and policies can be debated and decided openly by the protagonists, those who must implement the adopted decisions.

The degree to which existing state institutions can be used, or the kinds of new institutions that must be created, in the process of post-capitalist social transformation are questions that can only be addressed successfully in reference to the specific conditions in each country. For example, the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela pointed increasingly to the need to build new forms of power that would progressively expand from communal councils to communes and eventually a communal parliament to replace the institutions of the bourgeois state. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales and other government leaders argue that the organized social movements are already in government, “leading the country...over and above the parties.” (Vice-President García Linera, January 17, 2016)

In this contribution, Marta Harnecker also discusses related issues of debate in the Latin American left today, such as the dependency on resource “extractivism” and the need to balance legitimate indigenous community and worker concerns with the interests of the “society as a whole” in the prevailing circumstances “in order to advance, little by little, toward a model of economic development that will re-establish that healthy metabolism between human beings and nature.”

– Richard Fidler

* * *

Social Movements and Progressive Governments: Building a New Relationship in Latin America

In recent years a major debate has emerged over the role that new social movements should adopt in relation to the progressive governments that have inspired hope in many Latin American nations. Before addressing this subject directly, though, I want to develop a few ideas.

The situation in the 1980s and ’90s in Latin America was comparable in some respects to the experience of pre-revolutionary Russia in the early twentieth century. The destructive impact on Russia of the imperialist First World War and its horrors was paralleled in Latin America by neoliberalism and its horrors: greater hunger and poverty, an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, unemployment, the destruction of nature, and the erosion of sovereignty.

In such circumstances, many of the region’s peoples said “enough” and started mobilizing, first in defensive resistance, then passing to the offensive. As a result, presidential candidates of the left or center-left began to triumph, only to face the following alternative: either embrace the neoliberal model, or advance an alternative project motivated by a logic of solidarity and human development.

Social Movements against Neoliberalism

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Soviet socialism left the parties and social organizations of the left inspired by that model seriously weakened. At the same time, trade unions were hit hard by the weakening of the working class, part of the larger social fragmentation produced by neoliberalism. In that context, it was new social movements, and not the traditional parties and social organizations of the left, that rose to the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism, in forms that varied widely from one country to another.[1]

In several cases, those new movements began by resisting neoliberal measures in their local communities, while others developed around gender, human rights, or environmental issues. Many then shifted their focus from isolated local issues to national matters, which not only enriched their struggles and demands but also gained them support from highly diverse social sectors, all suffering under the same system.

An early expression of this development was the campaign marking the 500th anniversary of indigenous, black, and popular resistance. The campaign signaled an important convergence of many different groups, united through new organizing principles, including horizontalism, autonomy, gender awareness, and “unity in diversity.” It gave rise to new social coordinating organizations, such as the CLOC-Via Campesina, and helped clarify national and international agendas.[2]

One such agenda was the campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which was particularly successful in Brazil and Ecuador, and which later led to the first historic defeat of U.S. policy in the region, at the Organization of American States Summit at Mar del Plata in 2005. Since then the problems of regional integration are no longer considered matters for governments alone, but have also become concerns of the masses.

The major element missing from Latin American politics in recent decades has been, with rare exceptions, the traditional workers’ movement, beaten down by flexibilization, subcontracting, and other neoliberal measures. While in some cases the labor movement has participated in wider popular struggles, it has not been on the front lines of combat.

The new social movements often start by rejecting politics and politicians, but as their struggle progresses, many gradually grow from an attitude of mere resistance focused on single issues, to an increasingly political approach that questions the established authorities. In the process they begin to understand the need to build their own political instruments, as in Ecuador with Pachakutik and in Bolivia with the MAS-IPSP.[3]

There are many lessons to learn from these mass struggles, but one of the most important is that they show the central importance of a strategy of solidarity that endeavors to unite the widest possible number around concrete objectives, building understanding even among groups with very different traditions and politics. Even when progressive governments are not elected amid such social mobilization, these struggles still exert an important influence, because the political maturity and broadened perspectives achieved in the course of those struggles endure in the consciousness of those involved.

The Road to Socialism—Difficult but Not Impossible

As we have said, faced with the forces of neoliberalism, some Latin American governments decided to take the road toward an alternative society, a turn which has been given different names: Twenty-First Century Socialism, communitarian socialism, the Buen Vivir (Good Life), the Society of a Life of Fullness (Sumak Kawsay in Kichwa, an indigenous language of the Andes). All envision a society that is not decreed from above but built by the people.

The big challenge for these movements is to advance toward socialism when they have conquered only the government—a strategy that conflicts with the classic Marxist vision, which has traditionally insisted on the need to destroy the bourgeois state, as in the revolutions of the twentieth century. Those revolutions, born from civil wars or imperialist wars, not only mastered but destroyed the inherited state apparatus. So it is understandable that some sectors of the left feel disoriented when they find themselves in such a different situation today.

Furthermore, electoral success captures only a part of the state. Control of executive power often initially comes without control of the parliament or judiciary. In addition, other capitalist-dominated institutions—finance, mass media, the military—remain intact. The issue, then, is how to work toward conquering these other areas of power, winning more people to the transformative project and ensuring that at every step they participate in building their own destiny.

Beginning the advance toward socialism under these conditions poses a number of challenges. Progressive governments must be able to confront the backwardness of their countries, knowing that economic conditions will oblige them to coexist for some time with capitalist forms of production. And they must do this starting from an inherited state apparatus that is designed for capitalism and hostile to any activity oriented toward socialism.

However, practice has demonstrated—contrary to the insistence of some sectors of the left—that if revolutionary cadres take over the existing state, they can use their power to begin building the foundations of the new institutions and political systems needed to replace the old state. Above all they can begin creating spaces for popular protagonism, preparing people to exercise power in all aspects of their lives.

But history has shown that the heavens cannot be taken by storm, that a protracted period is needed to travel from capitalism to the new society that we want to build. Some people speak of decades (Chávez), others of centuries (Samir Amin, Álvaro García Linera), and still others, like me, think socialism will be a goal toward which we must strive but that we may never fully achieve. This view is not as pessimistic as it sounds. On the contrary, a utopian goal, if carefully defined, helps to light the path and strengthen our determination to fight, and each step that we take toward it, no matter how limited, brings us closer to that horizon.

We in Latin America are living in a historical period that I call the “transition toward socialism.” However, while the goal can be shared, the form and methods used in the process of that transition must be adapted to the specific conditions of each country, depending not only on each nation’s economic characteristics but also on the existing configuration of class and political forces. This strategy of pursuing socialism through existing institutions is not only a long process but also one full of challenges and difficulties. Nothing promises uninterrupted progress; retreats and failures will occur as well.

We must be clear that by winning a presidential election we have won a major battle but not the war. Winning the war through institutions requires the creation of a significant national majority. Only with such a majority will it be possible to advance democratically toward a new society. Accordingly, not only is unity among revolutionaries fundamental, but it is also necessary to embrace and enlist all those who share an agenda dedicated to solidarity and social justice. This means we should summon not only the political and social left, but also the center and even some business sectors that may be willing to collaborate with the popular project.

At the same time, we must remember that the elites who were previously dominant respect the rules of the game only when it suits them. They are perfectly capable of tolerating and even favoring a left government if it implements their politics and limits itself to managing the crisis. What elites will always try to prevent—by legal or illegal means—is any program of profound democratic and popular transformations that challenge their own economic interests. Consequently, we must prepare to confront and defeat elite maneuvers meant to block the way toward socialism. One of those tactics may be to infiltrate progressive governments to undermine them from within. Another may be to win over union leaders in certain sectors, exploiting government weaknesses and errors, as occurred in Chile under Allende with workers in the copper-mining and transportation industries.

Unfortunately, progressive governments are often compelled to defend themselves, not only from elite obstructionism, but also from parts of the left who—failing to understand the complexity of the process and opposed to any tactical flexibility—attack them for not achieving profound social changes fast enough, treating them as if they, and not the elite, were the main enemy.

Unions and social movements also tend to take the same intransigent stance toward the state, regardless of its political-social orientation. We must find formulas to overcome this inherited attitude of reflexive opposition to any and all governments, even progressive ones. No less important a threat is the electoral agenda to which governments must often submit in order to legitimate themselves in the face of the ongoing attacks of the opposition. This agenda often collides with the agenda of participatory democratic construction, paralyzing or weakening popular power to make room for election campaigns.

Yet it is not easy to resolve the contradiction between political tempos and democratic processes. Prolonged discussions of law and procedure can unnecessarily endanger the future of the transformative process, as in Venezuela and Ecuador.

Thus, just as revolutionary leaders must use the state apparatus to alter forces they inherit and to build new institutions, they must also sponsor popular education on the limits or obstacles in their path—what I call a “pedagogy of limitations.” It is often thought that talking frankly to the people about such difficulties will discourage and demotivate them, but in fact it helps them to understand better the process underway and to moderate their demands, without, however, renouncing their socialist goals.

To ensure that these messages are communicated, the pedagogy of limitations must be accompanied by the promotion of popular mobilization and creativity. It must be acknowledged that there has been a tendency on the left to think of popular organizations as manipulable, mere conveyer belts for the party or government line. The orthodox Marxist-Leninist left attributes this idea to a reading of Lenin’s thesis on the role of trade unions at the start of the Russian Revolution, when there seemed to be a very close relationship between the working class, the vanguard party, and the state.

However, this ahistorical and incomplete reading of Lenin neglects the fact that the Russian leader himself abandoned this conception in the final years of his life when, during the New Economic Policy (NEP), he foresaw the development of potential contradictions between the workers and the directors of the state-owned enterprises, with dire consequences for the labor movement. Lenin argued that even in a proletarian state, unions had to defend workers’ class interests against the employers, if necessary using the strike as a weapon to combat bureaucratic distortions.[4]

This change, which has profound political implications, went largely unnoticed by Marxist-Leninist parties, which until very recently treated the concept of the conveyer belt as the definitive Leninist thesis on the relationship between parties and social organizations. First with the trade-union movement and later with the social movements, the leadership, responsibilities, and the platform of struggle—in short, everything—were seen by Leninists as matters to be determined by the party leadership. These were then handed down as a line for social movements to follow, without the latter being allowed to participate in the design or development of any of the things that most concerned it.

In stark contrast to this destructive approach, we must avoid any manipulation of popular movements and tolerate—what’s more, actively encourage—the pressure they exert, since it can help progressive government officials fight the deviations and errors that can arise along the way. It was in this spirit that President Chávez told a group of civil servants who had taken over the Ministry of Labor in Caracas, “Good, guys, there’s a lot of bureaucracy there.”

Only the combined influences of an organized, watchful people and a government that understands the need for mobilization and popular criticism can prevent the distortions that may develop from blocking the way. But while officials must welcome criticism, it must always be constructive criticism that helps address problems by offering concrete alternatives. For example, the FMLN government in El Salvador has been faulted for its use of army soldiers to provide security against criminal gangs. But what alternative do these critics propose in order to protect the population if the police alone are incapable of doing the job? If the security issue is not successfully addressed, there is a real danger that the former ARENA government will be returned to office.

As another example, progressive governments in Latin America have come under fire from left critics for their continued reliance on extractivism. It must be acknowledged that there are major problems related to extraction, but what alternative is posed as a means of freeing people from poverty without the extraction of at least some portion of our natural resources?

Both of these topics—problems of neighborhood security and problems related to extraction—demand a constructive national dialogue laying out arguments from all sides. One who feels secure in the validity of an argument does not fear debate; rather, that individual should see it as an opportunity to enlist popular support. Popular proposals will be welcome because progressive governments are deeply concerned about neighborhood violence. Furthermore, they are so determined to address problems of poverty that they believe it is necessary to engage in extraction as part of a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy, even though they share popular concerns about the risks of relying on extraction.

When it comes to dialogue, I would like to quote the words of Pope Francis who, when referring to this matter during his visit to Paraguay, said that this kind of dialogue cannot be

a “theatrical dialogue” [in which we]…play out the conversation [but we only listen to ourselves]…. [D]ialogue presupposes and demands that we seek a culture of encounter…which acknowledges that diversity is not only good, it is necessary. Uniformity nullifies us, it makes us robots. The richness of life is in diversity. For this reason, the point of departure cannot be, “I’m going to dialogue but he’s wrong.”…If I presume that the other person is wrong, it’s better to go home and not dialogue, would you not agree?…Dialogue is not about negotiating. Negotiating is trying to get your own slice of the cake. To see if I can get my own way. If you go with this intention, don’t dialogue, don’t waste your time. Dialogue is about seeking the common good. Discuss, think, and discover together a better solution for everybody…. By trying to understand the thinking of others, their experiences, their hopes, we can see more clearly our shared aspirations.[5]

And since extractivism is one of the topics most debated today, I would like to join that debate by making two points. The first is that we should recognize that human beings have always had to extract from nature, and will likely have to continue to do so. The problem is not whether to extract but how to extract in a way that maintains what Marx termed the healthy “metabolism” between humanity and nature. The first human inhabitants of the planet extracted fruit from trees and fish from the seas, but they took from nature in a manner which maintained that healthy metabolism. However, with the advent of capitalism, the profit motive prioritized the exploitation of nature to the maximum, regardless of the effects, thereby destroying that healthy metabolism. In this context, more and more is extracted, and natural resources are depleted, with all the additional consequences that this behavior has on climate change. In southern Chile, for example, Japanese transnational corporations are cutting down our ancient trees and replanting, but not with indigenous species that grow slowly and are appropriate to that environment but rather with foreign, fast-growing species that consume a disproportionate quantity of water and deplete the soil, all so that they can be cut down again in a few years. And what can one say about the pollution caused by Chevron’s oil operations in Ecuador?

Second, it is essential to understand that the resources located in a particular territory—minerals, oil, gas, aquifer springs, forest reserves—should not be considered resources belonging only to the inhabitants of those places. We must be staunch defenders of the rights of indigenous people as well as those of workers. But the oil in Venezuela and Ecuador, the gas in Bolivia, and copper in Chile are a gift from heaven. They are resources that belong to society as a whole, and it is society as a whole that should decide whether to extract them or not. Of course it is necessary to engage in serious dialogue with those who live in the area and work in the industry to ensure that their concerns are addressed and their needs met. But we need to understand that interests are at stake in such situations that transcend the interests of particular communities and portions of the working class.

If we can reach agreement on the two previous points, what we then need to address is concrete proposals on how to use our natural resources at this time and under prevailing circumstances in order to advance, little by little, toward a model of economic development that will re-establish that healthy metabolism between human beings and nature.

But, to return to the question of criticism, it is important to establish channels by which people do not passively suffer their discontent, but can express it openly, thereby avoiding an accumulation of unease that explodes unexpectedly. If those channels are established, the problems that are identified can be corrected. (Interestingly, the Bolivian Constitution provides that organized people can and should react against any violation of or threat to their rights, including environmental rights, in what the Constitution terms “popular action.”[6] Furthermore, it creates a specialized tribunal of agro-environmental jurisdiction—agriculture, forestry, ecological issues—whose magistrates are to be elected by universal suffrage.)[7]

Lastly, we have to ask ourselves why, if our proposed social agenda is so beautiful, profound, and transformative, and reflects the interests of a great majority, those who have proposed to implement it do not enjoy all the popular support they deserve. I think the explanation lies largely in the fact that a significant part of the Latin American population is not sufficiently acquainted with the true nature of the socialist project. The opposition wilfully misrepresent it, creating false alarms and fear about the future. But we socialists also contribute to this state of affairs. We tend to be deficient in communicating our project. We fail to devote sufficient time, resources, or creativity. And most seriously, our own ways of living often contradict some of the fundamental aspects of that project: we propose a democratic, transparent society free of corruption, yet we adopt authoritarian, clientelistic, selfish, and opaque practices. There is often a huge gulf between what we preach and how we live, and as a consequence our message loses credibility. It should come as no surprise to us, then, that important sectors of Latin American society still do not identify with the socialist project, and that it is necessary for us to make every effort to win them over.

And how can ever more people be won over? The first thing to understand is that it is not a question of imposing our views, but instead of winning the hearts and minds of the people. But we must also place special emphasis on winning the allegiance of the natural leaders of the various social sectors, which will in turn help win the people they influence.

A Constructive Collaboration

A new relationship between progressive governments and social movements must be established. The governments must not forget that behind their electoral triumphs is a long history of social struggles, without which their electoral success would have been impossible. The movements must understand that those governments are no longer the enemies of the past, but can be effective allies in the fight for their rights and the achievement of their aspirations. Provided that both parties are pursuing a profound transformation of the present society, their relationship should be one of mutual collaboration. However, for this relationship to be productive, a number of things must be considered:

1. Social leaders must not forget that they have won only partial political power, and that the processes of change can be very slow, and popular demands cannot be successfully addressed overnight.

2. Our governments must try to explain to citizens, and in particular to leaders of social movements, the limitations within which they are obliged to act, and people must learn to be patient, confident in the knowledge that everyone involved is pursuing the same progressive goals.

3. The collaboration between both sides cannot mean a loss of movements’ autonomy to the government. They must not be transformed into appendices of the government, but instead must be capable—while supporting the process of change as their joint responsibility—of criticizing government errors, so long as such criticism helps correct those errors by proposing appropriate alternatives. Only if the possibilities for dialogue are exhausted, or go unheard, should we consider other courses of action through which to express our defense of socialist progress.

4. Social movement leaders must overcome the impulse to oppose everything that comes from the government, or to refer to leaders who support the government as “government agents” or “apologists.” If they cannot overcome this destructive practice, those leaders will risk alienating their own social bases, who, seeing the positive effects of government policies in their day-to-day lives, will not understand such destructive opposition.

5. Our governments should take into account the culture they have inherited and be very flexible and patient in working with social movement leaders, clearly distinguishing between those who consciously use their mass influence to block social transformation and those who take mistaken positions because they lack sufficient information or because of the weight of old habits.

Are We Advancing or Retreating?

I want to end this article with some questions that will help provide a more objective vision of what our governments are doing to engage popular power:

  • Do they strengthen the working class, eliminate subcontracting, create a universal social security system, bolster the unions, and facilitate workers’ education and professional development?
  • Do they respect the autonomy of social organizations and trade unions?
  • Do they understand the need for an organized, politicized people, able to exercise the pressure needed to weaken the inherited state apparatus, and thus drive forward the proposed process of transformation?
  • Do they listen to the people and let them speak? Do they understand that they can rely on the people to fight the errors and overcome barriers that are encountered along the way?
  • Do they give the people resources and call on them to exercise social control over the transformation?

To sum up, is the government contributing to the creation of a popular subject who is increasingly the protagonist and increasingly the real builder of its own destiny?

The author would like to thank Fred Fuentes and Sid Shniad for their contributions.

Further reading:

Marta Harnecker on the challenges of advancing toward socialism via the institutional road

Marta Harnecker on New Paths Toward 21st Century Socialism

[1] For further discussion of the experiences of social movements in various countries of Latin America, see Marta Harnecker, A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015), chapter 2.

[2] Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (CLOC).

[3] See Marta Harnecker, Ecuador: Una nueva izquierda en busca de la vida en plenitud (2011), chapters 4 and 6. Available in Spanish at See also Marta Harnecker with Federico Fuentes, “MAS-IPSP de Bolivia. Instrumento político que surge de los movimientos sociales” (2008). Available at

[4] Vladimir Lenin, “Draft Theses on the Role and Functions of the Trade Unions Under the New Economic Policy,” Collected Works, vol. 42 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), 374–86.

[5] Spoken at a meeting with civil society representatives in Paraguay, at León Condou Stadium, Colegio San José Asunción, July 11, 2015. I excerpt only the essence; the Pope addressed the topic more fully.

[6] Article 135: “The Popular Action shall proceed against any act or omission by the authorities or individuals or collectives that violates or threatens to violate rights and collective interests related to public patrimony, space, security and health, the environment and other rights of a similar nature that are recognized by this Constitution.”

[7] Part II, Title III, Chapter III, Agro-Environmental Jurisdiction, Articles 186–89. Available at

Monday, January 18, 2016

Venezuela: Behind the defeat of December 6, 2015


The following article is a harshly critical appraisal of the domestic economic record of Venezuela’s Bolivarian government, attributing its electoral defeat in the National Assembly election to what the authors consider a faulty model of development.

Published first in Inprecor, the article was republished in the Quebec on-line weekly Presse-toi à gauche, on which I have based my English translation. Although dated January 12, the article appears to have been written immediately after the December 6 election and before the meeting of the national Communal Parliament on December 15. (See the translator’s endnote 11, below.)

Patrick Guillaudat is a French anthropologist, trade unionist and specialist in Latin America. Pierre Mouterde is a sociologist and journalist, based in Quebec City. The two authors published in 2012 a book the title of which translates as “Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution – Promises and challenges of a process of social change” (Montréal, M éditeur).

– Richard Fidler

* * *

Venezuela: Behind the defeat of December 6, 2015

by Patrick Guillaudat and Pierre Mouterde

On December 6, 2015 Venezuela underwent a profound political change. The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), defeated the government led by President Nicolás Maduro in the parliamentary election. Of the 167 seats, the MUD took 109, with the support of another 3 seats reserved for the indigenous peoples, leaving 55 seats for the pro-government coalition grouped around the United Socialist Party (PSUV).

With this majority, the opposition can not only pass laws but can also make substantial changes to the functioning of institutions, such as appointing members of the National Electoral Council (CNE) or voting to depose ministers. With a total of 112 seats, a two-thirds majority, it can convene a Constituent Assembly.

The reactions in the western media are astonishing. Journalists usually paint the Chavista regime as a “dictatorship,” or accuse it of “muzzling the opposition.” Felipe González, the former Socialist prime minister in Spain, even went so far as to state, in September 2015, that the Venezuelan government was less respectful of human rights than Chile’s former dictator Pinochet! Such exaggerated statements, motivated by bias or hatred, have been common in every election and at each victory of the Bolivarian government.

So what happened on December 6, 2015? How is it that the entire media abruptly changed their position, calling the vote democratic? There had been no change in the institutions or in the way the election was organized. Just one detail: this time, the opposition won.

This second electoral defeat (the first was in a referendum to change the Constitution, on December 2, 2007) raises questions for all those who have followed the developments in what has been called the “Bolivarian revolution.” First, in its scope: the pro-PSUV coalition won only 41% of the votes. Second, by its political meaning: Maduro is not a Chávez, but he was simply pursuing the policies of his predecessor in past years. So it is necessary to take the time for a close look at the reasons for this defeat.

Unfortunately, most criticisms of Hugo Chávez’s record or that of his successor Maduro are either from the right, with the explicit objective of overthrowing the Bolivarian government, or from a section of the radical left that tends to draw a negative balance sheet of the Chávez years totally lacking in nuance. Some supporters of the government adopt the approach that was characteristic of them throughout the cold war, unconditionally supporting the government and demanding that people accept its actions uncritically.

A particularly stark example was provided by L’Humanité Dimanche, with its headline December 4: “Venezuela – The liberal opposition is preparing the way for a coup”; or on December 8: “Economic war saps Chavismo.” This reduces the economic war to sabotage of the economy by the opposition. Nowhere will you find any reflection about the government’s economic policy, the petroleum rent economy, the corruption and the development of the “bolibourgeoisie,” or about questions of participative democracy and its limits. Yet even within the PSUV and among its “fellow travellers,” many voices are being raised, as they have in the past, questioning the government’s orientation and the drift that has ensued.

Some worrisome signs were accumulating

The Right’s victory does not come out of nowhere. Even before Hugo Chávez’s last election victory, in October 2012, some worrisome signs were accumulating, if only in terms of the standstill in social reforms[1] that had helped to improve the living conditions of the majority of the population. While poverty levels dropped substantially between 1999 and 2007, the official statistics of Venezuela’s Central Bank (BCV) confirm a stop to this trend since then.

True, the unemployment level has stabilized, but inflation has flared up, going from 28.2%[2] in 2010 to 62.2% in 2014 and most probably in excess of 80% in 2015. This inflation affects primarily staple products; the prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages increased by 86.7% in 2014.

Insecurity, one of the main concerns of the population, particularly in the working-class neighborhoods of the major cities, has increased dramatically despite the creation of the Bolivarian National Police force, which was supposed to provide a solution to this problem through bypassing the corruption of the national, local and state police.

Not all of these setbacks can be attributed solely to the economic sabotage organized by the bourgeoisie and the political Right. The sabotage is real, but there are two questions that merit consideration. First, in 2002-03, after the right-wing coup and the oil strike, the government was able to surmount the crisis by launching a series of social initiatives and mobilizing the people, so why has it been unable to do so for the last seven years? Second, while the government talks about a permanent deepening of socialism, why has the bourgeoisie now apparently become stronger?

The answers to these two questions are found in the model of development adopted by Chavismo since 1999, and in the question of the population’s participation in a process of building socialism — whatever one’s opinion on the actual regime resulting from the Constitution of 1999.

Lack of an alternative economic model

The Venezuelan bourgeoisie is obviously doing whatever it can to reinforce the shortages, increase smuggling and disorganize production. It can do this all the easier because 17 years after Chávez’s first election it still holds most of the economic power. However, many voices have been raised, even within the PSUV and the government, warning the political leadership about this situation. When we know that in 2014, two-thirds of Venezuela’s GDP are produced by the private sector, the same proportion as in 1998,[3] there is cause to wonder. Meanwhile, the petroleum rent, which was generally applied to develop the social programs, was not used to modify, modernize and expand the productive system. Instead, it served to enrich the “bolibourgeoisie,” and at the expense of the environment and health of the workers in the hydrocarbons sector.

This is what explains, to a considerable degree, the bourgeoisie’s nuisance capacities. Recall the effects of the 2008 financial crisis! In Venezuela, several banks were bankrupt and while a number of economists close to the government were insistent on the need to nationalize the banking sector and establish strict control of foreign currency flows, these proposals were not only rejected but the state used its own funds to bail out the failed banks and limited itself to installing partial exchange controls. Since then, the country’s monetary situation has continued to decline and the black market in currencies has exploded, particularly since March 2013. The exchange rate in the parallel market went from 50 bolivars to the dollar to 100 in October 2014, rose to 220 in March 2015 and soared to 816 on September 29, 2015.[4]

This choice to leave the economy as it is stems, for some people, from a policy illusion, that of developing a mixed economy that avoids confrontation with hard-line sectors of the bourgeoisie. But for others, it is something completely different. An initial study published September 8, 2014 by some economists linked to the left current of the PSUV, Marea Socialista,[5] and based on data from the accounts of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, proves that $259 billion in oil revenues were embezzled between 2004 and 2012, in three ways: financial speculation, corruption and flight of capital. A second study, published December 4, 2015, entitled “Autopsy of a collapse: What happened to Venezuela’s oil dollars?,” reports the difference between revenues recorded in the PDVSA accounts and those transferred to the government between 2004 and 2012 at $216,397 million.[6] Where did they go?

The monetary reform[7] favoured currency speculation and corruption but also fueled the staggering increase in the money supply, which pushed inflation to the point where it became preferable to stockpile commodities rather than put them on sale. The Central Bank acknowledges the increase in shortages of staple products, which it reported in March 2014 had risen by 29.4%.[8] This shortage is increased by the weakness of the country’s agricultural production, a large part of which is sold in Colombia, thus providing income for the big landowners. That was one of the reasons for the closing of the border between Venezuela and Colombia beginning August 22, 2015.

Venezuela is therefore going through a major economic crisis, behind which we can point to two fundamental causes.

The first lies in the economy’s dependency on the global market and international capitalism. The government has based its policy solely on the growth in resources produced by the sale of hydrocarbons on the world market. For some years the market price per barrel was at its highest, but in the last two years that price has been cut by a factor of 3, limiting by an equivalent amount the government’s room for maneuver. The government has sought to compensate for its losses from lower prices through a rapid increase in hydrocarbon production, primarily in the Orinoco delta, at the cost of the indigenous peoples and the environment. But parallel to this, the monetary crisis and the lack of development of the productive apparatus result in a contraction of the domestic market; the GDP declined by 4% in 2014.[9]

This rentist economy has been hit hard by the variations in raw materials prices. Economic policy makes the Venezuelan economy highly dependent. However, there have been periods in Latin American history when the rent from raw materials was used to strengthen the productive apparatus and in particular its industrial diversification; a prime example was during the period of so-called import substitution during the first half of the 20th century.

The second cause originates in the absence of any break with the logic of capitalism. From the outset, Chávez’s program was centered on a justified denunciation of the political system and its harmful consequences on the living conditions of the people of Venezuela. He was first elected to do away with the old, corrupt political elites and to inject a dose of participatory democracy into the traditional way of governing, and that is what the Constitution of 1999 did. But at the same time Chávez thought there was a huge social debt owing to the majority of the population, which was suffering the effects of the neoliberal policies and did not profit from the oil revenues. That was the justification for the initial social reforms, beginning with the Plan Bolívar 2000 and then the 49 measures taken in 2001 followed by the missions after 2002-03.

But the break with the old model of development was envisaged only on two levels. Firstly, by developing a mixed economy based on cooperatives, ostensibly to offset the weight of capitalist relations of production. This approach proved a failure, and was recognized as such by the responsible minister. Secondly, by trying to control abuses perpetrated by the bosses. The few nationalizations that were carried out under Chávez were “punitive.” They targeted industrialists caught in affairs of corruption, flight of capital or economic sabotage. There was no strategic plan for developing a public sector coordinated with an economic development plan.

In fact, one of the major reasons for the slowdown in the “Bolivarian revolution” is that some leading officials in the government are themselves actively participating in the corruption (through the management of firms and distribution of the petroleum rent) and have interests that diverge more and more from those of the Venezuelan people. This contradiction between, on the one hand, the government’s discourse on socialism and revolution, and on the other hand the concrete reality lived by broad sectors of the population paralyzes any effective political intervention against the strategies of tension mounted by the opposition.

No “popular” power without free debate

The Chavist rhetoric emphasizes the decisive importance of “popular power,” an expression of the advance toward socialism. And a number of laws have traced the contours of the institutional structures organizing this new power.

First, the Constitution itself from the outset provided for the existence of a power complementary to the governmental bodies, in particular through the idea of a participatory and protagonistic democracy. But it was the crisis of 2002-03 that really boosted the phenomenon. There were the missions, the committees for distribution of lands, etc., and the laws: on the Communal Councils, in 2006, on Popular Power, in 2009, and on the Communes, in 2011.[10] We shall not dwell in detail on their content. But it is worth noting that the multiplication of these laws did not fundamentally change the story, and the self-management claimed, for example, by some unions in firms such as Sidor or in the automobile industry is far from being the rule.

And that’s without mentioning the fact that the essential decisions governing economic orientation, choice of investments and political decisions, even those of greatest importance to the population, still continue to be taken within the governmental institutions. It is no accident that the communal councils have never been able to obtain the formation of a “National Assembly of Communal Councils” that would allow them to take coordinated decisions.[11]

In fact, it cannot be otherwise when the party in power does not tolerate internal debate. We recall in this connection the polemic that occurred in 2009 around a meeting of many Latin American intellectuals who were supportive of the Bolivarian process.[12] The few criticisms that came out of this meeting concerning the “hyper-power” of Chávez elicited reactions of unprecedented violence from some people close to the government, and Chávez had to intervene personally to calm things down.

This was in fact only the surface manifestation of a more profound conception that affects Venezuelan society as a whole, based on a rejection of debate that allows the promotion of persons whose primary quality is summed up in their absolute loyalty to power. Even at congresses of the PSUV, the party leadership exerts a strong influence in the initial selection of the delegates, and we find, in addition to the places reserved by right to the institutional leaders, delegates that for the most part are installed in state institutions. That is how the leadership provides all the guarantees necessary to avoid a possible internal challenge.

Similarly, during the discussion on the new labour law (a sort of Labour Code), the government did not hesitate to break the UNT, a militant union that was created to defend Chávez at the time of the confrontation of 2002-03 with the coalition linking the bosses, the right-wing opposition, the majority trade-union confederation (the CTV) and the United States. But the UNT’s refusal to be a simple relay for policy decisions led the government to put an end to it by creating the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Central (CBST), which functions as a cog in the Chavista political apparatus.

Then came the governmental crisis of 2014. Jorge Giordani, the minister of planning since 1999 (with a two-year interruption), published a document on June 18, 2014[13] warning the government about what he considered errors in economic orientation and the increasing corruption within the regime itself. He emphasized the lack of strategic planning aimed at building a public sector, as well as the lack of control over the banking system. And he denounced the financial measures that had established a three-level exchange rate, singling out the corruption this produced through the structures linked to foreign trade. Finally, he pointed to the risks related to all the unsupported expenditures made by the government and all the irregularities in the management of PDVSA and the BCV. Because he initiated the debate, albeit internally, Giordani was dismissed from the government by Maduro on June 17, the day before he released his letter.

This affair quickly snowballed. The former minister of education, Héctor Navarro,[14] announced his support for Giordani’s criticisms. He was suspended from the leadership of the PSUV, then expelled from the party. The former minister of the environment, Ana Elisa Osorio, resigned from the PSUV and joined the radical left organization Marea Socialista, as did Gustavo Márquez, a former minister of industry and trade, and later foreign trade, both of them adopting the criticism of the other former ministers.

Of course, these Chavista cadres had, throughout their period in the government, shared responsibility for the political and economic orientations that led to the present situation.[15] But their criticism expressed the crisis of confidence and the political crisis that was convulsing society. The December 6 defeat cannot be understood simply by attributing the blame to sabotage by the bosses. The election was organized by the government and it lost. Following the 2003 crisis all the elections were won by the Chavistas. What has changed is the living conditions of the Venezuelan people, which have deteriorated: wages falling behind inflation, recurrent shortages, a crime rate that is unabated, etc.

Solidarity with the Venezuelan people or with the government?

In the early Chávez years many social measures were adopted and they clearly improved the situation of the poorest. But since 2007, the process has ceased to advance.[16] The economic power of the bourgeoisie has generally been spared while the power of the “bolibourgeoisie” has exploded on the ruins of the national currency.

The tail-ending conformity of some people who are supportive of the process never ceases to astonish us. In November 2015 Romain Mingus,[17] normally more inspired, thought “Chavism can win” and explained that if it lost, the fault would lie in the sabotage organized by the USA, the right, and the “ultraleft,” including Marea Socialista,[18] depicting the Chavista regime as an omniscient government that did not have a chance. But who holds the governmental power?

In the same vein, the interpretation of Maduro’s defeat by L’Humanité comes close to the practices of another age, as when it was defending blow by blow the “overall positive record” of the former “socialist” countries. We might paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: Since the people voted against the government, “would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?” Unless we think, improbably, that the majority who voted for the opposition represent only the bourgeoisie....

What characterizes all of these interpretations? They defend a government and its policies more than they do the people itself. Have we forgotten what Marx was saying when he stated that “the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves”? This raises a basic question that we find in all processes of revolutionary radicalization throughout the world. How can we build a society that is free of exploitation? While the debate has often occurred around the economic steps to be taken and the transfer of power within enterprises, it has remained quite limited in regard to the political organization of society. The proclaimed desire to build a socialism of the 21st century, to develop popular power, has clashed with the de facto confiscation of power — a confiscation conducted through the structures and institutions built on the model of the delegation of power. And without an alternative power being built parallel to that power. Who can reasonably claim that in Maduro’s Venezuela the economic orientations are adopted in the communal councils? Who can say that the basic political decisions are the work of those councils? It is no surprise that the people take their distance from the regime, insofar as they are experiencing a deteriorating economic and social situation while being bombarded every day with the message that they should place absolute trust in their leaders. Trust has to be earned.

The people brought Chávez back in 2002 in the wake of the coup because they were mobilized by the beginnings of change after decades of austerity politics. The economic crisis, the sabotage and the infiltrations of the CIA or Colombian paramilitary groups that followed did not prevent either the establishment of the missions or the election victories. There was then a real hope in the construction of another society. But with the passage of years the social movements were confronted with repression in the workplace. The indigenous movements, won to Chavism after the laws on the rights of the indigenous peoples, returned to the opposition in the wake of unkept promises. Parallel to this, the enrichment of the dignitaries of the regime proceeded apace. The right-wing opposition thrived on this and had no need of a coup; the electoral rejection was enough.

So yes, the bourgeoisie will do anything to keep its privileges, including the resort to violence. The surprising thing is that some people say the government lost because of that violence. If it is impossible to do better (since according to them the government policy is perfect) it amounts to saying that any progressive government will be powerless in the face of such violence.

We prefer to explain that solutions exist and they are found in the mobilized people, more than in the elites of the institutional circles. But again, it is necessary to defend the popular interests before those of the governing party. That is the main lesson that we can draw from the victory of the Right on December 6.

[1] See our article in Contretemps, April 2015, “16 ans après, où en sont les acquis sociaux de la révolution bolivarienne?

[2] Figures from the INE, the Venezuelan national statistics institute.

[3] Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) data.

[4] BCV news release, September 30, 2015.

[5] Marea Socialista has since left the PSUV, forced out in part by the expulsion of many of its members and in part by its own political decision based on its observation of an accelerated rightist drift of the government.

[6]Autopsia de un colapso: ¿Qué pasó con los dólares petroleros de Venezuela?

[7] In 2013, the government modified the exchange rate of the bolivar by creating three different rates, at 6.3, 12 and 50 bolivars to the dollar. Which of these parities applied depended on the purpose for which the exchange was to be used.

[8] By way of comparison, the BCV acknowledged, in a news release dated January 24, 2014, an increase in shortages of 16.3% in December 2012 and 22.2% in December 2013.

[9] Data from ECLAC, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

[10] See the article by Mila Ivanovic, “Les conseils communaux à l’ombre du ‘pouvoir populaire’: entre espoirs et continuités,” Contretemps No. 25, April 2015.

[11] [Translator’s note: No such body is mentioned in the referenced laws. However, in the “Organic Law of the Communes,” Title IV, Chapter I provides for the creation of a Communal Parliament, a national delegated body that in fact met for the first time on December 15, 2015 and has met on three occasions since then, with the intention of meeting frequently in the coming months. See “Can People’s Power Save the Bolivarian Revolution?,” Life on the Left, January 13, 2016.]

[12] The meeting was entitled “Intellectuals, democracy and socialism: Dead-ends and roads to travel,” and was organized June 2-3, 2009 in Caracas by the Miranda International Centre. Its proceedings were published in the journal Comuna – Pensamiento crítico en la revolución, no. 0, July-September 2009. The presentations by Victor Álvarez R., Gonzalo Gómez, and Aram Aharonian were translated into French and published in Inprecor No. 553/554, September-October 2009.

[13] It was entitled “Testimonio y responsabilidad ante la historia” (Testimony and responsibility before history).

[14] In an interview with the newspaper El Tiempo, on May 26, 2015, Navarro said Maduro had contemplated a partial dollarization of the economy, first in the sale of vehicles. Forewarned, the unions demanded in these conditions to be paid in dollars!

[15] See the article by Johnny Alarcón Puentes, “Pérez Pirela, Navarro, Giordani, Osorio y Barreto también son corresponsables de la derrota,” published December 12, 2015.

[16] See our book Hugo Chávez et la révolution bolivarienne (Montréal, M éditeur, 2012).

[17] A sociologist and journalist residing in Venezuela since 2005.

[18] It is a caricature to say the candidates of Marea Socialista are “from the academic intelligentsia” — like him, one could mischievously say — overlooking the trade-unionists and other candidates from the working-class neighborhoods.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Can People’s Power Save the Bolivarian Revolution?

Rightists’ election victory poses major threat to Venezuela’s advances


President Nicolás Maduro addresses Chavista supporters on December 7, following election defeat the previous day.

By Richard Fidler

Seventeen years after Hugo Chávez was elected Venezuela’s President for the first time, the supporters of his Bolivarian Revolution, now led by President Nicolás Maduro, suffered their first major defeat in a national election in the December 6 elections to the country’s parliament, the National Assembly.

Coming only two weeks after the victory of right-wing candidate Mauricio Macri in Argentina’s presidential election, it was a stunning setback to the “process of change” in Latin America that Chávez had spearheaded until his premature death from cancer in 2013. The opposition majority in the new parliament threatens to undo some of the country’s major social and economic advances of recent years as well as Venezuela’s vital support to revolutionary Cuba and other neighboring countries through innovative solidarity programs like PetroCaribe and the ALBA fair-trade alliance.

The election result is an important gain for Washington as it mounts renewed efforts to restore neoliberal hegemony in Latin America and fracture the new continental alliances (UNASUR, CELAC) that Chávez was instrumental in initiating as alternatives to the US-dominated OAS.

A decisive majority for the opposition Rightists

Under Venezuela’s mixed electoral system, which combines direct election of deputies with proportional representation of parties, the right-wing opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD, by its Spanish acronym), with 56.2% of the popular vote, won 109 seats. With the support of three indigenous deputies, elected separately, the MUD could have a two-thirds majority in the 167-seat unicameral Assembly.

The vote for President Maduro’s United Socialist Party (PSUV), which campaigned in alliance with smaller parties in the Gran Polo Patriótico Simón Bolívar (GPP), was 5,622,844, just under 41% of the total. The GPP won a total of 55 seats: 52 for the PSUV plus 3 for its allies, including 2 for the Communist party.[1] (After the election, Venezuela’s Supreme Court (TSJ) suspended the swearing in of four incoming legislators — three opposition, one PSUV — pending investigations of voting irregularities in Amazonas state. More on this below.)

With a “super majority” of two-thirds of the seats, the opposition MUD has the constitutional and legislative power to, among other things:

  • Block government spending and ministerial appointments;
  • Unseat Supreme Court justices;
  • Remove the Vice-President;
  • Convene a National Constituent Assembly, and initiate a recall referendum for President Maduro (although under article 72 of the Constitution, a call for a referendum to remove a public official from office requires the signatures of 20% of the electorate);
  • Submit international treaties, conventions or agreements to referendums; and
  • Pass or modify any draft organic law (laws enacted to develop constitutional rights, which serve as a normative framework for other laws, or which are identified as such by the Constitution).

In short, writes Lucas Koerner in,

a two-thirds majority gives the opposition all of the institutional weapons necessary to reverse many of the key transformations of the Venezuelan state achieved by the Bolivarian Revolution over the last seventeen years.

They will now be empowered to revoke critical revolutionary legislation such as the Organic Law of Communes, the Organic Work and Workers’ Law (LOTTT), among numerous others, repeal international treaties such as the ALBA-TP and PetroCaribe, as well as pack the Supreme Court with an eye towards impeaching President Nicolás Maduro.


Why the opposition victory?

Whether the MUD will do all or any of these things, of course, depends on a number of factors that are not necessarily within its control — above all, how the social and class forces in Venezuela react in the changed political landscape. The MUD itself is not a cohesive political party, and has many divisions among its components. It is composed of 18 parties, 13 of which are now represented in the National Assembly! They are united primarily by their opposition to Chavismo, the spirit and program of the Bolivarian Revolution championed by Hugo Chávez and his successors. But can the election result be interpreted as a vote against Chavismo as such?

With a voter turnout of 74.5% (up from 66.4% registered in the previous legislative election, in 2010), the PSUV gained more than 350,000 votes over its result in 2010. However, it lost almost 2 million votes from the more than 7.5 million for Nicolás Maduro, the PSUV candidate in the 2013 presidential election. Where were those losses registered? Gabriel Hetland, a US professor specializing in Venezuelan politics and a first-hand observer of the election, notes that the opposition vote in affluent districts “was nearly identical to what it was in the 2010 National Assembly election.” It is clear, he writes in The Nation,

“that the MUD’s overwhelming victory was due to widespread support among popular sectors that have traditionally favored Chavismo. The MUD won 18 of 24 states, including Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas and erstwhile Chavista strongholds in Caracas such as 23 de Enero, Catia, and Caucaguita, a very poor district that abuts Petare, one of the largest barrios in Latin America.”[2]

Hetland reports on his conversations with voters on election day:

“In the popular-sector voting centers I visited I encountered numerous people planning to vote for the opposition. In one barrio in the city of Porlamar... only two of the 18 people I spoke with planned to vote for the PSUV. None of the voters supporting the opposition mentioned liberty or democracy as a reason for doing so. All of them said they were supporting the opposition because of the material difficulties they faced. “I want change,” a woman told me. Pointing to the baby she was holding she said, “I can’t buy formula, and my father, who is 60 years old, had to go to another country for medical treatment” because the medicine he needed was unavailable in Venezuela. Over and over I was told of people’s frustrations with long lines and shortages of food and basic goods. Another young woman holding a baby said, “I get up at 4 am to stand in line and I can’t even buy food. I want change.” As she said this, the women standing next to her nodded their heads vigorously.”

Hetland concludes:

“The sentiments expressed by these voters suggest that it’s more accurate to think of the election result less as a victory for the opposition and more as a rejection of the government.”

As Hetland indicates, voter disaffection with the PSUV reflected the harsh effects of the country’s current economic crisis on the conditions of ordinary Venezuelans, including many who in the past have voted by large majorities in support of the Chavista government. It was a “voto castigo,” a punishment vote.

Economic crisis

The shortages of basic goods, the high inflation, and the currency devaluation now afflicting millions of Venezuelans are directly linked in one way or another to the country’s dependency on hydrocarbons production. Oil accounts for more than 95% of Venezuelan exports, and almost half of its fiscal income. High oil prices made it possible for the government to invest heavily in social programs, education and efforts to diversify the economy.

However, the international price of oil has dropped precipitously in recent years with the outbreak of the global capitalist crisis in 2008 and the recent exponential increase in North American production as a result of new, environmentally disastrous techniques like fracking and tar sands production. The increase in US production alone has drastically cut the demand for foreign oil by the world’s biggest consumer — and now biggest producer — of petroleum. The dependent oil-producing countries have failed to develop a common strategy in response — Saudi Arabia, fearful of losing market share, has rejected pressure from Venezuela and others to raise prices — and OPEC, revived in 1999 by Hugo Chávez, has ceased to be a serious player in international markets.

The drop in the international price — from US$100 or more per barrel to less than $30 today — has cut deeply into Venezuelan state revenues. Although the government has maintained spending on social programs and continued to provide inexpensive oil to its Caribbean neighbors, it has had to borrow to cover budget deficits; its total foreign debt increased from 10% of GDP in 2006 to 25% of GDP in 2014 (although this is still a relatively low debt to GDP ratio compared to the rest of Latin America).

When the government curtailed access to dollars at the official exchange rate,[3] the black market exchange rate shot up, increasing exponentially in 2014-15. While the official rate has been fixed at 6.3 bolivars to the dollar since 2013, by the end of 2015 the black market was offering 800 bolivars to the dollar. This in turn played havoc with the price controls the government had imposed for most essential goods in order to counter retailers’ tendency to sell at the black market rate instead of the official rate. This meant that over time more and more products were priced far below the price they could obtain in neighboring countries.

More and more Venezuelans will acquire dollars at the official rate, purchase goods at the subsidized prices for many necessary products, then export them across the border for an enormous profit. Some major companies, writes Telesur correspondent Gregory Wilpert,[4] are involved in this process too, “claiming that they need to import essential goods, and then either not importing these or re-exporting them to acquire dollars. In mid-2014 Maduro estimated that up to 40 per cent of all goods imported into Venezuela (at the official exchange rate) were smuggled right back out again.”

The state has found itself forced to use its dollar currency reserves to import massive amounts of basic products, which it then sells at subsidized prices through state-owned distribution channels. This allows Venezuelans access to a limited amount of basic foodstuffs at low prices. But since these products are scarce, the black market increases exponentially and prices reach many times the regulated price.

“The situation has now become truly untenable,” writes Jorge Martin. “Ordinary working people are forced to queue for hours on end to be able to access small amounts of products at regulated prices in the state-owned supermarkets and distribution chains, and then pay extortionate prices to cover the rest of their basic needs.”

Martin notes that Venezuela’s GDP contracted 4% in 2014, and is forecast to fall by a further 7% to 10% in 2015. “President Maduro has said that inflation this year will be 85%, but many basic products have already risen by an annual inflation rate of over 100%. The IMF forecasts an inflation rate of 159% for the whole year in 2015.”

Corruption and inaction

While oil income from royalties and taxes has until recently brought extraordinary state revenues, also extraordinary are the amounts that are effectively embezzled through the joint collaboration of corrupt Venezuelan capitalists and a section of the state bureaucracy, often linked together through interlocking directorships in banks, insurance companies, firms that contract with the state, and even family members located abroad, using a variety of techniques: import fraud, speculative maneuvers with sovereign debt certificates, negotiation in marginal markets of currencies and debt certificates of the state oil corporation PDVSA, etc.

In one of a series of in-depth exposés of this process, which it describes as a “mafia-like accumulation of capital,” the left pro-Chavista tendency Marea Socialista has documented net capital flight by the “Boliburgesía” (the new “Bolivarian” bourgeoisie) of almost $260 billion (US) between 1998 and 2013 alone. This, it notes, is equivalent to 25 times the cost of Brazil’s World Cup expenditures, 10 times the fall in state income caused by the anti-Chávez oil industry shutdown in 2002-03, the construction of 6 million new homes under the government’s current housing mission, or 37 times the difference between subsidized gasoline sales prices and the cost of production.[5]

There were of course other reasons for the government defeat, as TeleSUR correspondent Tamara Pearson explains: among them, disinformation by the opposition media (still predominant in Venezuela); recent setbacks for the left elsewhere in Latin America themselves linked to the global capitalist crisis; and the alienation of many younger voters who “don’t remember what it was like in Venezuela before Chávez was elected in 1998.” But she notes as well that

“while the opposition has attracted some of the less politically aware social sectors to its anti-Chavismo discourse, the government has also lost some ground from conscientious and solid revolutionaries, partly due to its lack of a solid response to the opposition's ‘economic war.’ Although it's easier said than done to combat a rentier state, capitalist system, historical corruption, and big business's campaign of economic sabotage, Maduro has only announced things like national commissions to deal with the situation.

“While people spend up to seven hours a week lining up for food, and while many of them understand that the government isn't directly responsible for the situation, the lack of a serious response and significant measures hasn't helped support for the government.”

Further, says Pearson,

“while the government clearly sides with the poor, for multiple reasons including more right-wing attacks, it has becoming increasingly distanced from the organized grassroots.... [W]ith the way the government communicates with the people, the way it gets information out and involves people in serious decision making — there has been a step back in recent times. This aspect of the Bolivarian revolution is perhaps the most important, so the significance of it and its impact on people shouldn't be underestimated.”

Some immediate responses to election verdict

President Maduro promptly accepted the official election results but pledged to continue defending the progressive laws and social programs adopted and implemented during the last decade and a half. A new stage is opening in the Bolivarian Revolution, he said in his election night address, a stage in which the central task is to deepen the revolution by building the country’s productive capacity at all levels — “communal, communitarian, industrial and regional.” Venezuelans, he added, should see the current difficulties in the oil industry as “warnings... and as opportunities to replace the rentist petroleum system with a self-sustaining, self-sustainable productive economic system.”

(This would require some major changes in the present program of the PSUV, the Plan de la Patria or Plan for the Fatherland. Although it lists as one of its five major historical objectives “going beyond the capitalist petroleum rentist model,” it also calls for doubling Venezuelan oil production from 3.3 million barrels per day in 2014 to 6 million in 2019.)

Following Maduro’s election night speech, hundreds of Chavista activists from various popular movements marched in solidarity the next morning through the streets of Caracas to the presidential palace (Miraflores). Maduro invited the crowd to send in representatives to meet with him to discuss the next steps. In this and two subsequent meetings, 185 voceros or spokespersons of communes, commandos, brigades, etc. hammered out some lengthy documents outlining what they considered key objectives to be pursued in the coming months.[6] In addition to proposals for greater government control over foreign trade, banking and finance, more effective tax collection and a sustained fight against bureaucracy and corruption, a central theme was the need to strengthen the role and productive capacities of the communal councils and communes, the territorially based grassroots organizations that the Chavistas see as the foundational units for the eventual creation of a “communal state” of direct democracy “from below” to replace the top-down bureaucratic administration of the capitalist state.[7]

A theme heard more and more in the extensive public debate now underway in radio and TV, on web sites and in the social media is the need to move toward nationalization of the major banks and financial institutions, and possibly to establish a state monopoly over foreign trade — essential measures, in my view, if Venezuela is to establish public control over the speculators and protect itself from the worst vagaries of uncontrollable world prices.

Maduro has established work teams to systematize these and other such grassroots proposals in a “central document of the Bolivarian Revolution” as a guide to action in its new stage. And he has convened an organizing committee to meet January 23 to prepare a “Congress of the Fatherland,” although providing few details on what he has in mind.

Communal Parliament

On December 15 Diosdado Cabello, PSUV deputy leader and president of the outgoing National Assembly, presided over the first gathering of the National Communal Parliament. This legislative body was provided for in the Organic Law of Communes, adopted in 2012, but it was only recently that there was a sufficient critical mass of municipal and regional communes to convene it. The communes had begun electing delegates (voceros) to this body in August 2015. It was originally intended that it would function as an adjunct to the National Assembly. “Now it's up to you in the National Communal Parliament, to discuss and present proposals that you consider necessary to help President Nicolas Maduro,” Cabello told the delegates. He said this grassroots parliament would help to shield the country’s laws of Popular Power from right-wing attempts to rescind them in the new National Assembly.

The Communal Parliament has met several times since, and in early January announced that its voceros from Venezuela’s 24 states would meet February 4 to adopt their internal rules of functioning, which will then be published in a new monthly publication, the Gacetas Comunales.

In a parallel development, the outgoing National Assembly hastily adopted in late December a spate of pending legislation that was promptly ratified by Maduro in accordance with the Constitution. A major one, the Law of Presidential Councils of the People’s Power, will provide a means for direct citizen input in decision-making by the government (in this case, the President). The purpose, as the introduction to the law proclaims, is “to strengthen the System of Popular Government” by establishing a basic network that “addresses in a profound way the concrete problems of the population through policies, plans, programs and projects for sectoral development... based on the principles and values enshrined in the Constitution....”

Also adopted was a ground-breaking Anti-GMO and Anti-Patenting Seed Law, the result of an ongoing grassroots campaign by environmental and campesino social movements over the past two years. “The law is a victory for the international movements for agroecology and food sovereignty,” write the authors of the linked article, “because it bans transgenic (GMO) seed while protecting local seed from privatization.

“The law is also a product of direct participatory democracy — the people as legislator — in Venezuela, because it was hammered out through a deliberative partnership between members of the country’s National Assembly and a broad-based grassroots coalition of eco-socialist, peasant, and agroecological oriented organizations and institutions.”

The new opposition-dominated National Assembly may very well attempt to reverse some or all of these legislative gains, of course. However, PSUV deputy Diosdado Cabello, the former Assembly president, notes that the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court may disallow national laws “which are in conflict with this Constitution, including omissions... in failing to promulgate rules or measures essential to guaranteeing compliance with the Constitution.”[8]

On January 6 President Maduro reshuffled his cabinet and created several new ministerial departments as part of an “economic counter-offensive.” He said the new leadership team would prioritize agricultural production as part of a plan for economic recovery.

MUD aims for destabilization – and overthrow of Maduro

Maduro was scheduled to present a detailed report on his plans to the new National Assembly on January 12, although he acknowledged that there was no assurance it would accept them.

However, on January 12 the Assembly session was adjourned in confusion, followed soon after by a humiliating backdown by the MUD majority. As mentioned earlier, three of the MUD deputies had been suspended by the Supreme Court for alleged irregularities in their election. However, when the new Assembly first met, the MUD swore in the three, in defiance of the Court. The Court responded by declaring that the Assembly proceedings would then be of no force or effect. Now, with the PSUV absent and only a handful of MUD deputies present, the Assembly president Henry Ramos Allup (himself an old-line politician[9] elected president in a private session of the MUD, contrary to Assembly rules) then found there was no quorum and adjourned the proceedings.

However, amidst the ensuing public outcry at these shenanigans, the three suspended deputies wrote to the leadership of the Assembly asking that their swearing-in be reversed. The next day, Ramos Allup called the Assembly to order, had the Supreme Court ruling read aloud, then stated that the Assembly leaders would “abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court.” But Maduro has yet to give his promised report.

The opposition’s climbdown probably reflects strategic divisions within their ranks between a relatively moderate faction led by Henrique Capriles, which is said to favour posing as a credible alternative to the government with proposals to solve the economic crisis, and a more confrontationist faction, apparently dominant, which is led by virulent opponents of the government. Its main leader is Leopoldo López, currently serving a 13-year prison sentence for his involvement in the guarimba street protests in 2014 that resulted in 43 deaths, as well as other violent actions. Both Capriles and López have links to the coup plotters of 2002.

The opposition’s initial defiance of the Supreme Court underscored its determination to steer toward an outright confrontation with President Maduro, with the goal of destabilizing his government as much as possible. Ramos Allup says he hopes to prepare Maduro’s ouster within the next six months. Another primary goal is passage of an amnesty law to free what the opposition terms “political prisoners,” that is, all those who have been involved in violent protests (including Leopoldo López).

Among other promised or rumoured measures favoured by the anti-government majority in the Assembly, writes Greg Wilpert, are a law

“to give ownership titles to the beneficiaries of the housing mission. Over the past five years the government has constructed one million public homes, which it has essentially leased to families in perpetuity, but without giving them a title that can be bought and sold. The reasoning behind this is to avoid the development of a speculative housing market of homes built with public funds. The opposition is betting that most public housing beneficiaries would prefer a saleable ownership title, so that they can sell the home and thereby possibly make a profit from it.

“... a rumored project to dollarize the economy. It is obvious to everyone in Venezuela that the current economic situation of high inflation, frequent shortages of basic goods, long lines at supermarkets, and a massive black market for price-controlled products, is not sustainable. One ‘solution’ to these problems that some opposition leaders have favored it to simply get rid of the local currency, the bolivar, and base the entire economy on dollars, just as Ecuador did in 2001. Aside from undermining the country’s economic sovereignty, such a move would also almost definitely mean major painful displacements for economy, leading to increased inequality and unemployment. ...

“Other major projects on the opposition docket,” reports Wilpert, “include the repeal of a wide variety of progressive laws that were passed during the Chavez and Maduro presidencies, beginning with the land reform, [and including] re-privatization of key industries and the dismantling of price controls, among other things.”

Capriles has also proposed a “padlock law” to “put an end to oil diplomacy” and “stop the government from giving away and wasting the country’s resources” — a threat clearly aimed at the PetroCaribe initiative that has provided Caribbean countries including Cuba with much-needed oil at preferential repayment rates.

Needless to say, little of this was mentioned in the MUD election platform.

Basically, the virulence of the opposition majority in the legislature — they have even removed portraits of Hugo Chávez (and Simón Bolívar!) from the Assembly precincts — reflects the visceral determination of the class they represent to avenge and reverse not only the laws but the very foundations of the Bolivarian regime initiated by Chávez and his original Movement for the Fifth Republic. No wonder this opposition holds the 1999 Constitution and its institutions in such contempt. That Constitution effectively terminated the institutional setup underlying the rule of the bourgeois elites who had monopolized political power for generations, characterized by the sham alternance of two similar capitalist parties cemented in the infamous “Punto Fijo” accord. In its place the new Constitution outlined the creation of a real sovereign democracy in which the great mass of the population were to be the “protagonists,” the living actors, of their destiny as implemented through a variety of grassroots-operated institutional forms that are only now beginning to become reality.

A new stage — and a challenge

Apart from the role of the Supreme Court (itself threatened by the opposition-dominated National Assembly) in trying to restrain the Assembly within constitutional limits, there are now three powers contending in this conflictual context: the President, head of state and supported by the military, who have confirmed their loyalty to the Constitution and the Bolivarian Revolution; the National Assembly, at loggerheads with the President and determined to replace him and all he stands for as soon as possible; and what is commonly referred to as the People’s Power, the grassroots mobilizations of ordinary citizens organized territorially in communal councils and communes or politically in support of the “process of change” — a force that is diffuse and still lacking a coherent structured national leadership. It is unclear at this point what role this relatively new force can play in helping to overcome the current economic and political crisis. The governing party, the PSUV, is largely an electoral machine and somewhat discredited by the implication of some leaders in corruption and bureaucratic maneuvers. It needs a fundamental overhaul.

There is much talk among Chavistas of answering the crisis by “deepening the revolution,” taking a “qualitative leap” as Chávez himself advocated in his Golpe de Timón speech.

In a remarkable essay, Venezuelan militant José Roberto Duque of Misión Verdad issues a challenge. If, he says, the Presidency and the Assembly are determined to prevent each other from fulfilling its role, “then it will be technically and procedurally impossible to to legislate (the Assembly’s mission) or to govern (the executive’s mission) in Venezuela.

“As such, we will be on the threshold of a situation in which a third actor, the most important and decisive amongst state subjects (popular power, citizens, you and I) must take a position with respect to the legitimacy of the actions of our representatives....

“Today we Chavistas unanimously support the ‘Communal State’ project proposed by Chávez. How many of us are prepared to keep building that Communal State even when the National Assembly eliminates the Law of Communal Councils and the Law of the Communes in one foul stroke? Will we have the stamina to keep building the other society clandestinely and illegally? Or will we submit to bourgeois laws that order us to give the entire productive apparatus up to private business?”

Duque explores these and related questions and concludes:

“The communes should be structures that are capable of surviving at the margins of the state and government, even functioning as areas of rearguard and resistance at the moment of an institutional collapse — when the Bolivarian government ceases its functions because of either legal or illegal means.

“We must be capable then of creating and consolidating self-sustainable and self-sufficient structures. We are in a very early stage of our communard history, and that is the reason why a ministry still exists that is in charge of financing the launch of productive projects in the communes. But in the future it would be an aberration for the communes and other organisations and means of production to continue to be dependent on state financing and other entities.”

I think this is the fundamental challenge facing the Bolivarian Revolution in the coming period. But it must be accompanied by measures at the level of the existing state to overcome the economic crisis — through implementation of an emergency program that can provide immediate relief to the masses of Venezuelan workers and campesinos.

[1] Elecciones parlamentarias de Venezuela de 2015, Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre.

[2] The End of Chavismo? Why Venezuela’s Ruling Party Lost Big, and What Comes Next, The Nation, December 10, 2015.

[3] Capital controls were first imposed in 2002-03 in order to stabilize the currency and stop a flight of capital resulting from a bosses’ shutdown of the oil industry in the wake of their failed attempt to oust Chávez in a coup.

[4] Wilpert is the author of an excellent book on the Chávez years: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso, 2007).

[5] See, for example, Sinfonía de un Desfalco a la Nación: Tocata y fuga... de Capitales.

[6] See El sacudón electoral del 6D como crisis revolucionaria y motor de saltos cualitativos hacia el Socialismo Bolivariano, and

[7] There are now more than 45,000 communal councils and 1,430 communes established throughout Venezuela. Most of the communes have been established since Hugo Chávez’s famous speech to his cabinet El Golpe de Timón just after his election in 2012 and shortly before his death in March 2013, in which he urged his ministers to prioritize the construction of communal democracy.

[8] Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, art. 336. Here is an English translation.

[9] A leader of Acción Democrática, he is also vice president of the Socialist International!