[Writing in the New Statesman, Venezuela-based economic advisor and analyst, Stephanie Blankenburg, argues that unless pro-Chávez candidates win the regional and municipal elections scheduled for November 2008, Venezuela might well have a new president before the year is out.]
Chávez's U-turn on socialism
Published 08 January 2008
Venezuela-based economic advisor and analyst, Stephanie Blankenburg, on what could be Chávez's fight for survival
On 2 January, a month on from his defeat in a referendum about a socialist reform of the county’s constitution, President Hugo Chávez Frías of Venezuela performed a stunning political U-turn.
In typically flamboyant style, he made a surprise call to Venezolana de Televisión, the country’s main state-owned TV channel, “to drop a ‘bombita’ (small bomb)” on an unsuspecting public: He had decided to abandon his socialist agenda “for now” in order to form stronger alliances with the country’s middle classes, its private sector and the national bourgeoisie instead.
To dispel any doubts about his seriousness in adopting this new political course, he replaced vice-president, Dr Jorge Rodríguez – the public face of his campaign for “21st century socialism” in Venezuela – with Ramón Carrizales, a military officer and technocrat, known for his good relationships with the country’s business sector.
Perhaps more significantly still, Chávez had already signed an end-of-the year amnesty for imprisoned perpetrators of a right-wing coup attempt against him in 2002.
The President’s version of events
Two days later, on his Sunday TV show “Aló Presidente” (Hallo, President), Chávez presented his fully reshuffled new cabinet and set out to explain the rationale for his action. His socialist project had been defeated, because the country had not been ready for such a radical approach.
The only democratic response was to acknowledge defeat and to adopt a more gradual and inclusive way forward. Apart from broadening alliances to bring private business and the middle classes back into the fold, this would also mean a more careful focus on mass education and communal self-organisation. Socialism had not been abandoned, but postponed, although, by the sound of things, for quite some time to come.
Chávez’ analysis of the current situation certainly has the pleasant ring of reasonableness to it. There also is little doubt, even amongst the most fervent socialists in Venezuela, that the agenda for “21st socialism”, adopted in January 2007 as abruptly as it has now been abandoned, had been rushed in with too much haste, limiting space and time for public consultation and debate of often complex issues.
Yet, the solidity of this analysis stands and falls with the correctness of its main premise – that the failure of voters to approve the constitutional reform project in the referendum of 2 December was a vote against socialism. This is much less clear.
What is clear is that the defeat of Chávez’ reform project at the polls is down to the abstention of roughly three million voters, who only a year earlier had voted for him as their president on the same socialist platform.
Compared to the December 2006 presidential elections, the opposition did not gain any votes. It seems unlikely such a substantial bloc of Chávez supporters should have been deterred merely by deficient campaigning a year after enthusiastically endorsing him.
In fact, a closer look at electoral patterns reveals a clear protest vote, not against a socialist agenda, but against corrupt administrations, at the national and the regional level.
Chavismo and the ‘oil curse’
To understand, where this protest vote came from and why it outweighed the pro-Chavez and pro-socialism vote, it helps to remember that Venezuela is defined by only one thing – oil.
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