The struggle in Venezuela

Ever since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, the political terrain in Venezuela has been volatile. On the one hand has been the increasing confidence of the working class to demand a restructuring of the social, political and economic system in the country. On the other hand, the ruling elites have done everything possible to sabotage and confront the Bolivarian revolutionary movement head on.

Tactics employed by the opposition have included attempted military coups, economic sabotage, recall referenda, daily political propaganda through various media outlets, an international economic and political campaign and sustained political protests.

To understand the current crisis, we need to look at the class forces mobilising against the government and the demands that they have raised. The Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD – United Democratic Roundtable), which was formed in 2008, has brought together a significant coalition of right wing forces that represent the most powerful private economic sectors in Venezuela. Also in the mix are centre left forces, which have joined the call for the removal of current president Nicolás Maduro. Added to these forces, US imperialism continues to aid and abet the national bourgeoisie. As Latin American TV network Telesur reported on 17 May:

“[S]ince at least 2009 the US Department of State has budgeted at least US$49 million in total to support right wing opposition forces in Venezuela … In a more detailed breakdown of the 2011 US$5 million budgeted for Venezuelan economic support, the budget indicates that US$1 million was designated specifically for the support of ‘political competition and consensus building’.”

Yet the battle in Venezuela is not just between the right and left. It is also being carried out within the Bolivarian forces. Particularly since the death of Hugo Chávez, left currents within the Bolivarian revolution have become increasingly critical of the leadership of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) for accommodating to the right wing opposition and failing to progress economic change that would take control of private sections of the economy and bring them under workers’ control.

A key weakness of the current leadership of the Bolivarian revolution has been its reliance on the current national political institutions such as the National Assembly and mayoral and governorship structures. Even under Chávez, these structures were at odds with the working class, which has mobilised in its workplaces and through institutions such as the communal councils, communes and various missions, and a variety of social, political, economic and cultural grassroots organisations. Many of these organisations have been in constant political debate with elected officials who have not represented the interest of the working class.

Similar debates occurred in Chile in the early 1970s between the left forces – organised around the Cordones Industriales, left organisations such as the Revolutionary Left Movement and sections of the Socialist and Communist parties – and the pro-Allende forces that called for negotiations with the political right. The failure of the process under Allende to align itself with the revolutionary sections of the working class and the inability to confront the economic elites led to the right being able to organise a coup.

The Venezuelan process shows much similarity, with the leadership unwilling to confront the economic elites by nationalising the key economic sectors. The Bolivarian process has consistently mobilised millions, who have called on the government to deepen the process and confront the political elites by transferring political power to working class organisations such as the communal councils and various other social and political movements and organisations. Jorge Martin from Hands off Venezuela, a solidarity group based in the UK, argues:

“There is a struggle, you could say, between the revolutionary rank and file, and the bureaucracy and the reformists within the Bolivarian movement. The bureaucracy and the reformists try to prevent and block the revolutionary initiative of the masses while the revolutionary initiative of the masses is the one and only factor that has saved the revolution at every single turn. But the more this situation goes, the more difficult it is for people to continue mobilising at the rank and file level, particularly in the situation of severe economic crisis.”

What has been achieved?

The Bolivarian revolution has achieved enormous gains since Chávez was first elected. Numerous missions have been the backbone to economic, political and social change that has benefited the working class. Yet, while it has challenged the old political elites, the process has not dramatically impacted the large private sector that still dominates the Venezuelan economy.

The process has increased the political confidence of the working class, which has consistently defended it from every major opposition attack. The establishment of communal councils, socialist communes, workers’ control of factories and various other political forms of organisation has raised the confidence of the working class. The social missions have been critical in raising social, economic and cultural levels. Anderson Bean, writing at US website SocialistWorker.org on 17 May, made the following assessment of the process:

“The emphasis on popular power and participatory democracy is clear in the 1999 Chavista constitution, and this has given rise to various institutions such as social missions, participatory budget allocation, co-management of state-owned factories, community radio, communal councils and the communes.

“But the PSUV left little room for popular participation in the party itself. Though in the party’s early years, hundreds of militants participated in community assemblies, and various currents within the party had representatives who could make proposals, it was still a highly centralised party, with Chávez at the top of the pyramid.

“The PSUV relied on the unquestioned authority of Chávez, and it never developed a collective leadership beyond him. This worked for some time because of Chávez’s charisma and his ability to connect with people in the popular sectors, but after his death and the election of Nicolás Maduro, the limits of the model became more obvious.

“Under Maduro, the extent to which popular participation was permitted in the PSUV and society at large decreased further. A ruling bureaucracy within the party and the government became more powerful. This bureaucracy controls the large public sector budget and has made alliances with various parts of the private sector.”

This highlights the key challenges facing revolutionaries in Venezuela. The struggle is just as much with the leadership of the PSUV as with the right wing opposition. However, a key challenge for the revolutionary forces is not to provide political ammunition to the right wing opposition led by the MUD. The gains of the Bolivarian revolution must be actively defended, but key to this defence will be the mobilisation of the working class to take control of the key economic sectors.

Communal councils

On 29 March, Katrina Kozarek wrote at the news site Venezuelanalysis.com:

“Socialist revolutionaries from across the country … [called] on the government of president Nicolas Maduro to endorse a proposal to provide constitutional recognition of communes. Currently, the commune movement has broad legal recognition, but isn’t included in the country’s constitution. However, commune supporters are optimistic that could soon change, with Maduro recently calling for constitutional reform. ‘The commune is the essence of the people’, said Frank Corrales from the Guerrero JiraJara Socialist Commune.

“Speaking to Venezuelanalysis during a rally on Tuesday, Corrales said, ‘We know what we really need [and] … it is in us to truly prepare, from the grassroots, the transformation of this state into a truly communal state. We have to keep transforming the state, into a socialist state, where the largest possible amount of happiness is brought to all of the people. The commune or nothing!’, he said.”

In response to the current crisis, the government has called for a new constituent assembly – the first since the 1999 rewriting of the constitution. The assembly will include 500 directly elected delegates and a further 250 elected from social movements. The procedure and timing are yet to be finalised.

The consensus among all political forces involved is that the government must take some responsibility for the recent confrontations, including for its increasing political persecution even of those who support the Bolivarian revolution but are critical of the government. Economically, it has failed to take control, thus leaving it to the discretion of the private sector, which has turned production on and off, increased hoarding and raised prices to create a sense of political chaos and instability.

On the other hand, the US-funded opposition, headed by MUD, has made it clear that no negotiations will be entered into while the working class – represented by a variety of political, economic and social organs – is demanding that the process be deepened to protect the gains that have been made since 1998.