frontline volume 2, issue 5

Venezuela - On the road to Socialism?

Patrick O’Hare is an SSP member who has spent some time in Venezuela. In this articles he looks at developments since Hugo Chavez’s comprehensive victory in the Venezuelan presidential elections.

The Bolivarian revolution has now given itself the explicit challenge of moving Venezuela towards socialism. Most coverage of Venezuela in recent months has surrounded the decision to revoke the public broadcasting concession granted to Caracas based television channel RCTV; yet more important developments have gone unnoticed or ignored in the mainstream media. At the time the government announced that its most immediate tasks were to tackle bureaucracy and corruption and “deepen the revolution” whilst continuing to work building an anti-imperialist block and furthering through organizations such as Mercosur and ALBA, the dream of an integrated, united South America. This article will look to examine what progress has been made on these fronts, as well as looking at other important developments such as the formation of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the wave of nationalizations, changes to the constitution and importantly: whether Venezuela can really be considered as moving towards socialism.

United Socialist Party

In the run up to the 2006 elections Chavez conceived the idea of a united socialist party (PSUV). This was seen as key in tackling bureaucracy, and PSUV has since been organized into ‘battalions’ or branches, which will each elect a delegate at the first national congress to take place in early October. Until recently the pro-Chavez coalition consisted of 17 different political parties, each with it’s individual leadership and top-down structure; the largest of which were the MVR (Chavez’s own party), PPT, Podemos and the PCV (Communist party). As the revolution deepens, Chavez has argued, it needs only one mass party, explicitly socialist (which the MVR was not) and involving direct participation and democracy at a grassroots level. Many activists, especially the rank and file, have long been suspicious of leading figures in the pro-Chavez camp, especially ministers and regional governors. Thus the formation of the new party was seen as a way of injecting a new democracy into the movement, one in which leaders who were cemented in their posts and not representative of the people would be held accountable by grassroots members. The party also was seen as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, weeding out those who were not in agreement with Venezuela’s new socialist direction, who thought that the process had moved on far enough: who essentially wanted the country to be a social democratic state which invested in social programs etc. but did not radically alter the way society was organized. Such a model was the one Chavez originally envisaged when first elected back in 1998 yet things have clearly moved on and thus a split between the socialist, revolutionary elements within Chavismo and the social democratic, reformist parts (who were now seen to be holding back the deepening of the revolution) seemed to be inevitable. A final argument for the creation of the PSUV was that many grassroots members who joined up and mobilized during election campaigns are not particularly loyal to a political party, be it the MVR or others. Instead their loyalty lies with the project that Venezuela has embarked on: that of transforming Venezuela into a society where the people and not a corrupt elite are the decision-making protagonists and society revolves not around profit, nor the interests of foreign governments and capital but around the needs of the Venezuelan people.

Yet all has not been clear sailing for the new socialist party. Only the MVR and several small parties have voted to dissolve; the next three largest the PPT, Podemos and the PCV (Venezuelan communist party) have refused to join, citing reservations about transparency but mainly that they don’t want to dissolve their own parties before they know what the program of PSUV will be. According to some, the real reason they have refuse to join is that their leaders are afraid of losing the privileged positions which they have within their own party. While this might be true at leadership level, there are nevertheless serious concerns that the lack of internal platforms will mean that PSUV will be utterly dominated by old sections of the MVR and this would lead to frustration from activists of the smaller parties who would be forbidden to organize amongst themselves. The contradiction however, is that the refusal of these parties to join has actually led to the situation where the old-MVR members have dominance over the new party.

Debating Unity

Other worries have surfaced: both the ‘technical committee’ and ‘promotional commission’ whose tasks are devoted to respectively, the formulating of the basic structure of PSUV and its ideological development were both directly appointed by President Chavez. The fact that most of the people named to the committee are seen to be radical left-wingers is hardly the point; there is a clear contradiction between how the new party aspires to be organized (democratically, from the bottom-up, etc.) and how these influential committees were selected (appointed by one man, without debate). Chavez’s ‘either with me or against me’ attitude has also not helped matters: at one point he even invited the political parties who don’t join the PSUV to leave the government, saying that he “already considered them in the opposition”. Another concerning incident brings into question how much room for dissent or disagreement exists within the new party: Venezuelan Deputy Francisco Ameliach raised the idea that the MVR could be resurrected in time for the regional elections of governors next year if the process of forming the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela was incomplete. Surely not an outrageous suggestion, yet it prompted Chavez to call for the establishment a provisional discipline tribunal in the PSUV, headed by the Governor of Miranda and former vice-president Diosdado Cabello, followed by the resignation of Ameliach as leader of the pro-Chavez parliamentary Socialist-Block. Two further deputies who came forward to support Ameliach were later criticized for their stance by other socialist Block deputies with Vice-President Jorge Rodriguez forced to clarify that within PSUV “There are no permanent or subterranean currents, rather only a commitment to build the most democratic party in the world”. Whilst local activists are correct when they say that the real issue is to build the PSUV up from a grassroots level, this dispute highlights an important point: that disagreements over how to take PSUV forward will inevitably arise. But as Mike Lebowitz points out,

“One of the greatest errors that can destroy and deform a revolution is that of transforming a non-antagonistic contradiction among the people into a contradiction between the people and the enemy. So, how do you avoid making the mistake of turning supporters of the revolution into enemies? You do it through democratic discussion, persuasion, and education. And, in this process, the most important thing is to begin from the desire for unity.” Disciplinary tribunals appointed from above are clearly different from “democratic discussion, persuasion, and education”.

Yet the split between revolutionaries and reformists is not imaginary and there are clear signs that a split in the pro-Chavez camp might be imminent. PODEMOS, considered the most right-wing party in the Chavez coalition recently abstained from a vote on constitutional reform, prompting Chavez to declare that they had passed over to the hands of the opposition. PODEMOS, who consider themselves to be social democrats and control several regional governorships, actually oppose the change to the constitution and their leader was recently reported to have spoken at an opposition rally. Constitution reform will be the contentious political issue in Venezuela in the coming months; changes have been given initial approval by the national assembly and will be further debated and, if agreed upon, will go to a national referendum in December. The proposed reforms include; removing the autonomy of the central bank, abolishing presidential term-limits, changing the structure of the armed forces, a reduction in the maximum working day from 8 to 6 hours and the creation of a ‘new geometry of power’ which would transform the Venezuelan state.

A New Type of Democracy

It is especially this last proposal which is opposed by PODEMOS and is worthy of further examination. If passed, it will mean that federal districts could be created in areas which transcend regional borders: for example the creation of a federal area for the Orinoco Belt or for the national border and temporary vice-presidents might be brought in and given control over these new territories. Key to the change in the balance of forces is the role that the Communal Councils will be given in this restructuring. Elected by 200-300 families at a community level, these councils were conceived of as a way of bypassing municipal councils, which are riddled with corruption and represent huge, unmanageable constituencies. The constitutional change will thus recognize popular power, exercised through the Communal councils as a new branch of government (with certain powers and duties) which will initially co-exist alongside the executive, legislative and judicial state powers. Eventually though, the Communal Councils are seen as the basis for a new state, which would be made up of an association of several communal councils which would then make up a ‘commune’. These communes, according to Chavez, would represent the “territorial social cell” and a network of neighbouring communes would make up the basic territorial unit, the city. Additionally, through the incorporation of the social missions into the constitution, “functional districts,” could be also be created by one or more municipalities, where the social missions would function as alternative administrations to the traditional bureaucratic institutions. As opposed to the traditional Marxist belief that the working class must smash the bourgeoisie state, Chavez is thus proposing the development of parallel state structures, such as communal councils and social missions, which, alongside worker, campesino and student councils, would supercede and replace the old bourgeois state. While such a transition is still in its infancy, it is very encouraging that the motor which is driving the “explosion of popular power” seems to be coming from below. Frustrated by the old state structures which, from the outset, have impeded social reform, people at a grassroots level are grasping the opportunity to take control over their own lives and solve their own problems through co-operation and solidarity; replacing motives of self-interest with a sense of collective responsibility. Whilst the Chavez government can help facilitate this important change (that of moving away from the old capitalist mentality of selfishness, self-interest, and greed, towards a more socialist ‘ethic’ which revolves around solidarity, co-operation and working for the common good), it can not impose it from above; it must arise organically, from the people themselves through their own experience of working collectively, having the power to jointly decide and solve their own problems. Or as Marx puts it: “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change”.

Thus the proposed change the constitution will see the extension of popular power and decision-making at a community level: unfortunately the same cannot be said for popular power within the workplace. The appointment of a self-confessed Trotskyist as labor minister, the incorporation, through nationalization, of the electricity and telecommunications utilities into the public sector, the proposal to expropriate Sanitarios Maracay: all seemed to suggest that an extension of co-management and worker control might be on the cards throughout the public sector. Yet, worryingly, the opposite has occurred. The case of Sanitarios Maracay is very illustrative in illuminating current government policy towards co-management. In November last year this factory, which produces bathroom ceramics, was occupied by its workers after a lengthy struggle with its owner (initially over wages and conditions), who shut down the factory during the 2003 bosses lockout and had a history of mistreating his workers. The workforce formed a factory committee and, whilst calling for nationalization under workers control, continued production using leftover raw materials, distributing the bathroom suites to local communities at solidarity rates (many homes in Venezuela lack basic sanitation). Up until 10th August this year, the workers survived on weekly foodbags, continually defended the factory against sabotage from the old employer (and sections of the administrative staff who supported him), showed how a nationalized factory could produce bathroom suites for a new government housing project. Most of all though, they demonstrated how workers could run a factory themselves, democratically managing production without the need for a boss.

Here was a group of workers, extremely advanced politically, who did not want to set up a cooperative and become part owners of the factory but rather they asked for the company to be expropriated and run under workers’ control. Yet the government, instead of expropriating the factory, ignored the issue for months then, after raising the workers hopes, declared that Sanitarios Maracay was not of public interest and therefore would not be nationalised. A few months later, the government signed a contract for their bathrooms for a new state housing project (Petrocasa) to be made by rival company Venceramica (owned by a Chilean multinational), also based in Maracay. Eventually, after heroically holding out, the attitude of the government led to the demoralization and a split between the workforce, with a group of administrative staff and the former union leader taking control of the factory by force and diluting their demands to payment of compensation and back wages from the former owner Pocaterra. In the increasingly isolated areas where co-management still exists, (Alcasa, Inveval, Invepal, Cadafe-sector 7) they are facing huge problems, initially around issues such as self-interest but increasingly because there is enormous pressure from sections within the government who want to prove that co-management doesn’t work (and also because they are forced to compete with other private firms in a market economy). For the moment the tendency (within the revolution) that is opposed to any form of workers’ participation in ‘strategic sectors’ of state industry seems to have won the day and there has been no talk of co-management within the newly nationalised sectors. While this might be just a temporary trend against worker participation, it is worrying nevertheless. If sectors are nationalised but workers are given no say over production or decision-making then their role in the workplace differs little from that within the private company: they are mere wage-labourers, confined to fighting for better pay conditions for themselves in what is essentially still an antagonistic relationship between worker and employer (who is now the state). There is an obvious problem with co-management, especially within strategic sectors and it is this: what is to stop workers within a state company or industry putting their own collective self-interest above the interests of wider society? Co-management implies a particular kind of partnership between the workers of an enterprise and society where enterprises do not belong to the workers alone, they are meant to be operated in the interest of the whole society. Yet who represents society in this partnership? These are important questions, yet democracy and decision making in production (even in strategic sectors) is an essential condition for the free development of all and must be an essential element of socialism in the 21st century because otherwise, You are reinforcing, in fact, all the self-oriented tendencies of the old society and undermining the building of the new. Indeed, what are you saying but that when decisions are important, capitalism, state capitalism, or statism is the answer -- but not co-management or socialism of the 21st Century? (Mike Lebowitz)

There is another reason, aside from opposition to co-management, that the government was reluctant to support the workers at Sanitarios Maracay. The manner in which Sanitarios Maracay was taken over by the workers goes against government policy which states that an enterprise can only be expropriated if it has been abandoned or left idle by the proprietor. If the Sanitarios workers had been successful in their takeover then it would have encouraged other workers to take over privately run businesses and demand nationalization under worker control. The Venezuelan approach has not however been to try to nationalise the private sector out of existence; instead it aims to build parallel state companies which, because of oil wealth, can easily overtake private companies and run them into the ground (this position is also supported by the Venezuelan Communist Party). The reasoning behind this is that the private sector only makes up a small, insignificant part of the Venezuelan economy and by slowly reducing its role, paying compensation to nationalised companies etc., they are decreasing the chance of a violent backlash by the capitalist class and the threat of ‘capital flight’and the pullout of all foreign investment (although they have not of course, neutralized it altogether).

Anti-Imperialist Bloc

With regards to South American integration, it is fair to say that there are presently two organizations who share this objective, MERCOSUR and ALBA, although both have distinct visions for what this means and how to bring it about. Although Venezuela was welcomed as a member of Mercosur back in July 2006, it is still waiting to have its membership ratified by the Brazilian and Paraguyan parliaments, with Venezuela growing increasingly impatient and accusing the US of putting pressure on South American governments to block its entry. At the heart of this dispute is the attempt by Venezuela and Bolivia to transform Mercosur from a neo-liberal ‘customs union’, dominated by big-business interests into “a MERCOSUR that every day moves farther away from the old elitist corporate models of integration that look for…financial profits, but forget about workers, children, life, and human dignity”(Hugo Chavez). Since its inception Mercosur has been undemocratic and has done nothing to confront the massive social problems and inequalities that exist within each country, yet it does propose a model of integration which excludes Uncle Sam and at least in theory proposes a slightly regulated market (which include ‘safeguard mechanisms’ by which countries can establish limited trade barriers if there is a threat of significant economic harm from a rapid influx of imported goods) and as such it has been opposed and undermined by the US. The thesis is that with left-leaning governments in place in Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, the influence of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales could potentially transform Mercosur into a regional bloc based around the ideas of co-operation and solidarity and from which an alternate socio-economic model can emerge. Yet there are huge problems with this argument. How can an organization which reinforces the centrality of the free-market in the economies of its member nations; whose goal is to make profits for big business and accumulate capital; which is based around competition, rivalry and the exchange of commodities suddenly be transformed into a tool which promotes an alternative vision to capitalism, one based around human need? A perhaps more convincing argument is that the other South American states see Venezuela’s adherence to Mercosur as a way to pressure and moderate the political stance of Bolivia and Venezuela and through promoting Mercosur as the sole possibility for regional integration, undermine ALBA, the anti-imperialist block comprised of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

ALBA was first launched in 2004, as a joint agreement signed by Venezuela and Cuba in which Venezuela provided cheap oil to Cuba in exchange for thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers who went in work in Venezuela’s poor barrios. Subsequent ALBA achievements have been the launch of Mission miracle through which Cuba and Venezuela offer free eye operations to citizens of all Latin American and Caribbean countries; the creation of Telesur, a South-America wide television news channel set up to counter the influence of CNN and with the recent membership of Bolivia and Nicaragua there has been a swath of joint agreements, with special emphasis put on joint energy projects. As an anti-imperialist alliance, ALBA has also set itself the explicit goal of weakening the US’s traditional dominance of the region (thus we have seen Venezuela buying a large part of Argentina’s IMF debt and the proposed creation of an ALBA bank and perhaps a South-America wide Banco del Sur). The kind of ‘trade’ that ALBA proposes is exciting in that it provides a glimpse of how international relations could be done differently; how goods might be exchanged not based on their world market price but on what one country produces and what the other needs, regardless of the supposed ‘price’ of each good. It proposes to barter goods instead of a cash transaction, thus oil for doctors (Venezuela-Cuba), oil for cattle (Venezuela-Argentina), gas for doctors/teachers (Bolivia-Cuba): instead of buying and selling driven by the profit-motive we instead see the exchange not only of commodities but also of activities. It counter-poses development through co-operation and solidarity to the competition and rivalry proposed by ALCA* and Mercosur. By taking as its starting point the resolution of South America’s social problems: malnutrition, illiteracy, unemployment etc. ALBA offers an attractive alternative for South America’s oppressed peoples and one whose priorities are radically different from Mercosur, whose meetings are generally centered around subsidies, tariffs and customs. Indeed the active involvement and participation of the people (campesinos, workers, the unemployed, co-operatives) through the social movements and unions could prove crucial if the experiment set in motion by ALBA is to be sustained and expanded. The hope for ALBA lies not in an unholy continental alliance between opposing class forces: a ‘united front’ against US imperialism. Because the oppressed in South America know that they have enemies not only in the White House but also in the form of their own political and business elites, elites who see integration as a means of enlarging their own profits and improving their competitiveness, not solving South America’s social ills.

In the coming months and years, observers in the West should pay close attention to how these two institutions develop because their aims and composition may well determine whether a real alternative to capitalism will emerge out of South America’s leftward swing.

Moving To Socialism?

For the moment, President Chavez has clearly emerged as the most radical leader of the new group of ‘left-wing’ South American leaders, who is fighting not just to achieve a unified South America but also to challenge the power of the capitalists and the oligarchies and to try to solve the huge problems of poverty and alienation which the huge majority of the South American people have been subjected to for hundreds of years. Yet is Venezuela moving in the direction of socialism? This is, of course, not a simple yes or no question. But what is increasingly clear is that the Chavez government has evolved (through pressure from below and also his own experience in government) from a project which initially limited itself to moderate social reforms into one which places human need and development at the very epicenter of society. Yet it would be wrong to describe this ongoing process as a consistent drift to the left, a drift which will inevitably end up with the achievement of socialism. There have been moments when the deepening of the revolution has been stalled or even temporarily reversed and this will continue, reflecting the huge internal contradictions that exist within Chavismo. One of these contradictions is the ongoing struggle for the heart of the new PSUV, a struggle between a Chavista bureaucracy (the heads of government ministries, state governors, mayors, and “pro-revolutionary” business types) who have sought to implant themselves in positions of power and the rank and file members who are battling to make it a democratic mass organization where the power and decision-making rests with its grassroots. Another contradiction is that while a protagonistic role is planned for the communal councils, the ideas of co-management and workers control have been shelved. In wider society we also have the contradiction of a self-proclaimed revolutionary government whose explicit aim is to introduce socialism, co-existing with a capitalist market economy, albeit one with an increasing ‘social’ sector (state enterprises, co-operatives etc.). Whilst the threat to the revolution from the Venezuelan opposition and Washington should not be ignored, the opposition is still widely discredited and lacks confidence given the defeats pro-Chavez forces have inflicted upon them; in the coup attempt, in the oil-strike and in 10 elections in 8 years! Thus many argue that the real threat to revolution and to any advance towards socialism lies within the Chavez camp itself, from corrupt bureaucrats and technocrats, from the right-wing of Chavismo, perhaps centered around PODEMOS. Yet in my opinion there are two great obstacles to the victory of such forces; one is President Chavez himself, who time and time again has come down on the side of the poor, who has significantly moved to the left, who has acknowledged the existence of a Chavez bureaucracy and vowed to fight it, who commands such powerful support that any attempt by right-wing Chavistas to move him aside would be doomed to failure. But Chavez has also shown that he can be swayed by his closest advisors, such as those who oppose worker control of industry and he himself can often be accused of retaining aspects of top-down governance which run contrary to the ideals of popular participation. Indeed the true bulwark against reaction is not Chavez but the people themselves. Confident following their heroic victories against counter-revolution and imperialism, increasingly conscious politically, cynical of high ranking politicians yet increasingly sure in their own abilities to govern and make decisions. The fact that the Venezuelan people have not been mere passive observers or Chavez ‘followers’ but instead conscious, educated protagonists in the continual, democratic process of transforming Venezuela means that they will not hesitate to come out and defend the gains of the revolution because it is they themselves who have chosen Venezuela’s path. It is their constitution, their democracy, their president, their communal councils, their PSUV, their oil, their workplace, their struggle. The revolution in Venezuela still faces enormous challenges, has many enemies and might still fail but it is the democratic, participatory aspect of the Bolivarian Revolution (where the revolution is carried out by and not for the people) which we should learn from and which should give us hope for the future.


*ALCA-Free-trade Area for the Americas. Free-trade model, roughly regarded as an America-wide version of NAFTA, which has long been pursued by Washington but widely rejected by South American leaders.

In researching this article I have mostly used information from the website, principally from authors Mike Lebowitz (a Caracas-based Canadian Marxist) and Claudio Katz (an Argentinean Marxist economist).