[Below is an article by International Socialist Review's Lee Sustar that will (1) analyse the rise
of Chávez within the context of Venezuelan history and politics; (2)
examine the government’s economic, social, and political policies; (3)
evaluate the Venezuelan revolutionary process from the standpoint of
classical Marxist theory; and (4) outline a strategic approach towards
the Chávez phenomenon for those committed to anti-imperialist and
revolutionary socialist politics. --Ed]
Where Is Venezuela Going?
Chávez and the meaning of twenty-first century socialism
By Lee Sustar - International Socialist Review - ISR Issue 54, July–August 2007
VENEZUELA’S “BOLIVARIAN Revolution” is moving ahead fast. President Hugo Chávez’s government, which began in 1999 with an attempt to implement Tony Blair’s “third way,” now aims to build “socialism for the twenty-first century.” Revenues from the state oil company, PDVSA, have funded vast increases in social spending. Targeted outreach to the poor via government “missions” have largely bypassed the old state structures and have achieved spectacular results.
These include a reduction of poverty from 55 percent of the population to 34 percent as the share of gross domestic product (GDP) on social spending has increased from 7.83 percent to 14.69 percent; the achievement of literacy for 1.5 million adults; the virtual elimination of hunger through subsidized grocery stores that service 13 million people; medical care provided by Cuban doctors via free clinics in slums, reaching 18 million people, nearly 70 percent of the population; access to higher education for the poor and working class; and special affirmative action programs for indigenous people.1 The minimum wage is now the highest in Latin America at $286 per month, and the workweek is to be shortened from forty to thirty-six hours by 2010.2 Land reform has shifted 8.8 million acres to impoverished families, more than half of that from private owners.3 Government seed money has increased the number of cooperative enterprises from fewer than 800 to 181,000 to try and provide more stable employment for the approximately half of Venezuelan workers who toil in the informal sector of the economy.4
All this is being achieved despite the implacable hostility of Venezuelan capital and of U.S. imperialism, which supported the failed 2002 coup against Chávez, and the subsequent oil industry employers’ lockout that did enormous economic damage. If the 2002 coup government—immediately recognized by George W. Bush’s administration—had been successful, Hugo Chávez would have been just another in a long list of reformist Latin American leaders who were overthrown by the U.S. or its local operatives in a roster of interventions that stretches from the Mexican War of 1846 to the Contra war against the Nicaraguan revolution in the 1980s. Instead, Chávez looms ever larger on the world stage, having turned Venezuela from one of the most compliant states in Washington’s “backyard” into the cutting edge of the revolt against neoliberalism and a laboratory for socialism in the twenty-first century—all with oil money earned from exports to the United States. Oil prices are high, of course, owing to the Iraq War, which has also severely constrained the ability of the U.S. to contain Chávez, let alone overthrow him.
As a consequence, millions of workers in Latin America and beyond see Venezuela as evidence that reforms are possible despite corporate globalization and imperialism—and they’re discussing the possibility of a socialist future as well. Chávez’s Venezuela challenges Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum, adopted by neoliberal policymakers everywhere: “There is no alternative”—TINA. Venezuela is increasingly seen as proof that TINA, if not dead, is certainly suffering from a crisis of legitimacy. Not only has Venezuela begun to reverse decades of what is known in Latin America as “social exclusion,” but the oil boom has facilitated regional economic integration and anti-U.S. diplomatic initiatives that are giving shape to Chávez’s aim of achieving pan-Latin American, anti-neoliberal unity.5 Latin America has seen other populist leaders with a base among the working class and the poor, but rarely with such an immediate international impact.
These changes powered Chávez’s reelection in December 2006 over conservative Manuel Rosales, a state governor notorious for having signed the coup decree of April 2002.6 The opposition’s lackluster campaign ensured that Chávez’s victory would be the biggest yet, with 60 percent of the vote. Afterward, Chávez declared a new phase in what Venezuelans call the “revolutionary process”—the nationalization of sectors of the oil industry that were still in the hands of foreign investors. This move followed the re-nationalization of the telephone company, CANTV, and other companies. Parallel to these nationalizations—carried out by presidential decree following authorization by the National Assembly—are far-reaching efforts to create new political structures, including communal councils and workers’ councils that are presented as cornerstones of the “protagonist” democracy that Chávez has long championed. Earlier, Chávez had marked his reelection with a call to create a United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and later denounced parties previously part of his electoral and government coalition for refusing or hesitating to dissolve within it.7
With this turn, certain contradictions in the revolutionary process have surfaced. Are the proposed workers’ councils a step towards workers’ control, or are they an effort to extend state control over organized labor, as some critics in the left wing of the pro-Chávez National Union of Workers (UNT) have argued? Is the PSUV a means to bind Chávez more directly to the mass of workers and the poor, and bypass unresponsive and/or corrupt bureaucrats, as its promoters claim, or is it a move to co-opt and bureaucratize the social movements themselves, as some leading movement activists have argued? Will the companies that have been nationalized—through compensation to capital worth billions of dollars—be democratically run by workers or by the same managers? Is a government that has paid off $3.3 billion in loans to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank—the odious debt of previous, corrupt regimes—prepared to carry out a consistent opposition to imperialism in all its forms? What will be the response of Chávez to attempts by unions and social movement activists to advance the “revolution within the revolution,” as the Venezuelan Left has long advocated? Or the response to strikes in state-owned companies? Class polarization is leading to sharper class conflict and political crises, for example, over inflation and the hoarding of staple foods. Will the government attempt to mediate such conflict or support workers and the poor against employers and speculators? Are Chávez’s exhortations to study revolutionary leaders of the past—most recently, Leon Trotsky—the harbinger of more radical policies? Can a government elected within the framework of a capitalist, bourgeois democratic state initiate a socialist transformation of society? Can the prestige of Chávez among workers and the poor in Latin America and beyond contribute to the revival of radical and socialist politics?
These questions are not entirely new. But until recently, the broad Chávista camp was bound together by pressure from the Venezuela Right and imperialism. Tensions, for example, had bubbled up among government supporters over the highhanded way government officials ran Chávez’s campaign in the recall election of 2004.8 But positions didn’t crystallize, given the perceived threat of an electoral victory by the Right or another coup. Moreover, rapid economic growth—more than 10 percent annually since 2003, has nearly cut in half what had been a 20 percent unemployment rate, ameliorating conditions for workers but simultaneously aggravating class polarization. Consequently, sharp political debates in Venezuela are emerging within the Left itself in response to Chávez’s new initiatives. The Right remains a threat, however, as evidenced by the violent protests (which are ongoing as the ISR goes to press) after the government failed to renew the broadcast license of an opposition television station that had allowed active military generals to broadcast calls for the government to be overthrown during the coup attempt.
Where is Venezuela going? This article seeks to provide a framework for answering that question. It will (1) analyze the rise of Chávez within the context of Venezuelan history and politics; (2) examine the government’s economic, social, and political policies; (3) evaluate the Venezuelan revolutionary process from the standpoint of classical Marxist theory; and (4) outline a strategic approach towards the Chávez phenomenon for those committed to anti-imperialist and revolutionary socialist politics.
From the “Venezuelan dream” to economic catastrophe
Venezuela was long considered perhaps the least likely country in Latin America to become an international reference point for revolutionary and socialist politics.
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