Lee Sustar: What’s Really Happening In Venezuela?


Richard Moore

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What¹s Really Happening
In Venezuela?
By Lee Sustar
29 November, 2007
Socialist Worker

For the U.S. mainstream media, Venezuela¹s vote on constitutional reforms 
December 2 is simply the latest power grab in authoritarian President Hugo 
Chávez¹s bid to crush dissent, make himself president for life and impose a 
state-controlled economy.

The view from the streets of the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, however, is very

A densely populated, impoverished neighborhood seldom visited by U.S. reporters,
it is famous for its role in mobilizing in January 1958 to overthrow a 
Venezuelan military dictator on the date that gave the barrio its name.

These days, it is home to an active local branch, or battalion, of the United 
Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, according to its Spanish initials). On a 
rainy mid-November evening, activists gathered to distribute copies of the 
proposed reform by going door to door.

Of the 30 or so people who turned out--all but four of them women--just two had 
prior political experience in Chávez¹s original political party, the Fifth 
Republic Movement (MVR). Only one--Rosaida Hernández--is an experienced 
politico, having served as a functionary of the Fifth Republic Movement and won 
election to Caracas¹ municipal council.

More typical was Iraima Díaz, a neighborhood resident in her 30s who had long 
supported Chávez and benefited from his government¹s social programs, but hadn¹t
been politically active. ³I got involved to solve the problems of my community,²
she said.

Another activist, Lúz Estella, a social worker whose father lives in the area, 
also became active recently, fed up with the opposition media and wanting to get

Now Díaz and Estella find themselves members of Chávez¹s own PSUV battalion--the
president often turns up at the weekly Saturday meetings held at the military 
museum in the neighborhood.

The facility also serves as a place for enrollment in government 
³missions²--national social welfare programs initiated by Chávez in 2003, which 
evolved from offering free medical care to literacy and education programs, 
subsidized grocery stores and a great deal more, thanks to revenues from oil 
exports and some of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.

Despite its well-known member and proximity to local missions, the 23 de Enero 
PSUV battalion faces a challenges common to its counterparts across the 
country--how to mobilize the 5.7 million people who have registered for the 
party since it was formed earlier this year through a merger of parties of 
Chávez¹s governing coalition.

Nevertheless, as the group, singing campaign songs, made its way through the 
narrow streets on steep hillsides of the barrio, people came to their windows to
take copies of the reform and discuss it briefly--an elderly man alone in his 
small apartment; a young woman of African descent breastfeeding an infant; the 
proprietor of a tiny store situated in what was once a living room, with a 
window facing the street; a group of young men in their 20s gathered outside a 
small restaurant.

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THE IMPACT of Chávez¹s reforms is visible on the streets of 23 de Enero and 
other barrios--people are better fed and better dressed.

As is often the case in Venezuela, the political direction in the barrios is the
opposite Caracas¹ well-off neighborhoods and the suburbs, where the upper middle
class and the wealthy live in luxurious gated communities and drive Hummers and 
Land Rovers.

As opposition to Chávez¹s reforms sharpened--first with protests by largely 
middle-class college students; then the defection of a longtime Chávez ally, 
former army chief of staff and defense minister Raúl Baduel--the mass of Chávez 
supporters began to mobilize.

Nevertheless, the opposition, tainted by the coup of 2002 and the subsequent 
lockout of oil workers by industry bosses, has been able to refresh its image.

Key to this was the student mobilization last summer over the government¹s 
refusal to renew the broadcast license of the privately owned, 
opposition-controlled RCTV channel.

Wrongly portrayed in the Western media as a ³closure² of a media outlet, the 
decision was made as the result of RCTV¹s active role in supporting the coup. 
Nevertheless, the government¹s refusal to renew the channel¹s broadcast license 
gave Venezuela¹s right the opportunity to claim the mantle of ³democracy,² a 
theme it has continued in protests aimed at forcing a delay in the vote for 
constitutional reform.

Significantly, the student protests took shape as a national social movement, 
led mainly by middle class and wealthy students who predominate at Venezuela¹s 
elite universities, such as the UCV in Caracas.

While portraying themselves as nonviolent in the face of allegedly armed 
Chavista students--two students were wounded on the UCV campus November 7--the 
opposition student protests have often turned violent. The U.S. media focused on
the supposed gunplay of Chavista students, but it was the right-wing protesters 
who besieged pro-Chávez students in UCV¹s law and social work schools, 
physically destroying both.

Still, the student protesters have carried the day politically on campus, with 
the opposition winning a reported 91 percent of votes in student government 
elections soon afterward.

The opposition got another boost when it was joined by Baduel, the former 
general and defense minister.

A key figure in preventing the 2002 military attempt to oust Chávez, Baduel has 
used the word ³coup² to describe the impact of Chávez¹s proposed constitutional 

While Baduel¹s impact on the reform vote is probably limited, his turn may point
to something more serious--concern among senior military brass over a 
constitutional reform that would reorganize and centralize the armed forces and 
give the president authority to promote all officers, not just top generals.

Already, Chávez has dropped a call to convert the reserves into ³Bolivarian 
Popular Militias² to support the regular armed forces, presenting it in the 
constitutional reforms instead as a ³National Bolivarian Militia.²

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IN ANY case, the retooled opposition presents a new challenge for activists of 
the ³Bolivarian revolution²--named for the 19th century anti-colonial leader.

In the past, Chávez could mobilize his base among the poor on clear-cut 
issues--protesting the right-wing coup attempt of April 2002, voting to keep him
in office in the recall election of 2004, re-electing him as president a year 

The constitutional reforms, however, are more complicated and controversial 
within the Chávez camp itself.

At issue is the balance between the creation of communal councils to enhance 
what Chávez calls ³popular power,² and measures that would strengthen the powers
of the presidency and the central state in several respects.

These include the removal of presidential term limits and lengthening the term 
from six to seven years; the ability to appoint an unrestricted number of 
secondary vice presidents; the authority to determine boundaries of proposed 
³communal cities² of municipalities and states; and control over the use of 
foreign currency reserves with no constitutional limits.

The right to recall the president still exists, but the number of signatures 
required to trigger a vote would increase from 20 percent to 30 percent of 
eligible voters.

Other constitutional measures debated on the left would give the president and 
National Assembly the ability to impose states of emergency in which the right 
to information is waived--probably a response to the private media¹s complicity 
in the 2002 coup. The National Assembly would also gain the right to remove 
Supreme Court judges and election officials through a simple majority vote.

These changes hardly amount to the ³Chávez dictatorship² conjured up in the 
mainstream media, and the Venezuelan constitution would remain more democratic 
in many respects than the U.S. Constitution, a relic of the 18th century.

The question, however, is whether the constitution promotes a transition to 
³popular power² and ³socialism,² as Chávez would have it.

Essentially, the reforms reflect the contradiction at the heart of Chávez¹s 
project--an effort to initiate revolutionary change from above.

The expansion of communal councils and creation of workers councils are seen by 
grassroots Chavista activists as a legitimate effort to anchor the 
³revolutionary process² at the grassroots.

However, the additional powers for the presidency and the reorganization of the 
armed forces highlight the fact that Chávez apparently sees the presidency--and 
the centralized state--as the guardian of the revolution.

Tellingly, it is the military, the most rigidly hierarchical institution in 
society, which is to protect the newly decentralized democracy, while remaining 
aloof from such changes internally.

Chávez¹s effort to combine what he calls an ³explosion of popular power² with 
greater centralism may reflect his military past. But if the government is able 
to portray itself as creating ³motors² of revolutionary change, it¹s because 
grassroots organizations, social movements and organized labor have so far 
failed to create sizeable organizations of their own.

While there is no doubt of Chávez¹s popularity, particularly among the poor, 
their role thus far has been to defend Chávez from the right during the coup and
lockout, and turning out for elections. The constitutional reforms, along with 
the creation of the PSUV at Chávez¹s initiative, are intended to close the gap 
between these periodic mass mobilizations and the lack of day-to-day 

To consolidate this base, the proposed constitutional reforms offer further 
social gains. For example, virtually unmentioned in U.S. media accounts is the 
fact that the reforms would provide, for the first time, social security 
benefits to the 50 percent of Venezuelan workers who toil in the informal sector
as street vendors, taxi drivers and the like. The workweek would be limited to 
36 hours.

There are other advances as well, including the consolidation of land reform, 
outlawing discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, lowering the 
voting age from 18 to 16, guaranteed free university education, gender parity in
politics and political parties, public financing of political campaigns, 
recognition of Venezuelans of African descent, and more.

Critics on the right claim these measures constitute a bribe to the mass of 
Venezuelans--handouts in exchange for political support, a version of the 
traditional clientleism used Latin American populists such as Argentina¹s Juan 

In fact, Perón and other 20th century populists went far beyond Chávez in terms 
of nationalizing industries--Venezuela¹s oil company, PDVSA, has been government
owned since the 1970s, and the recent state takeover of the telecommunications 
and electrical power companies are renationalizations.

But the Chávez project aims at a more thoroughgoing social transformation than 
populists of the past. The aim is to build what Chávez calls ³socialism of the 
21st century² by trying to bypass the capitalist state with new structures and 
enshrining new forms of ³social,² ³public² and ³mixed² property to promote 
³endogenous² economic development--that is, growth not dependent on the oil 

These efforts are, in turn, supposed to mesh with ³communes² created by communal
councils--which, under the proposed constitutional changes, will receive at 
least 5 percent of the national budget to manage local affairs. The text of the 
reform proposal explains: ³The state will foment and develop different forms of 
production and economic units of social property, from direct or 
communal-controlled, to indirect or state-controlled, as well as productive 
economic units for social production and/or distribution.²

Moreover, the proposed reform on ³popular power² also calls for the creation of 
councils for workers, students, farmers, craftspeople, fishermen and -women, 
sports participants, youth, the elderly, women, disabled people and others.

This new ³geometry of power,² as Chávez calls it, is apparently designed to 
engineer social change while avoiding direct confrontation with big business, 
whose property rights are in fact safeguarded in the constitutional reforms. As 
Chávez himself said last summer, ³We have no plan to eliminate the oligarchy, 
Venezuela¹s bourgeoisie.²

Funds for social reforms have so far come from state oil revenues, rather than 
any transfer of wealth through higher taxes, and the nationalization of 
companies has been achieved by paying market price for stock market shares.

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THE QUESTION on the Venezuelan left is whether all this amounts to a transition 
to socialism, as Chávez and his supporters would have it.

For Orlando Chirino, a national coordinator of the National Union of Workers 
(UNT) labor federation, Chávez¹s reforms herald the ³Stalinization² of the state
and state control of the labor movement ³along the lines of the Cuban CTC labor 
federation,² he said in an interview.

Chirino, a key leader of the C-CURA class-struggle current of the factionalized 
UNT, is among the most prominent figures on the left to oppose the reforms. He 
made waves on the left when he granted an interview with a leading opposition 
newspaper and appeared on the platform with leaders of the CTV, the corrupt old 
trade union federation implicated in the 2002 coup.

Today Chirino, along with an oil workers union official, José Bodas, is a 
founder of a new group calling for an independent workers party.

Chirino¹s and Bodas¹ opposition to the reforms put them at odds with the 
majority of UNT national coordinators and organizers in C-CURA, such as Ramón 
Arias, general secretary of the public sector workers¹ union federation, 
FENTRASEP. Arias is a supporter of the Marea class-struggle current of trade 
unionists in the PSUV, which calls for purging of employers, bureaucrats and 
corrupt elements in the new party.

Despite some criticisms of the centralizing aspects of the constitutional 
reform, including the new provisions for states of emergency, the Marea current 
has joined the majority of the Venezuelan left in calling for a ³yes² vote to 
achieve social gains and defeat the opposition.

Arias and his C-CURA allies are already at loggerheads with prominent members of
the PSUV, including Oswaldo Vera, a member of the National Assembly and leader 
of the Bolivarian Socialist Labor Front (FSBT), a faction of the UNT that also 
controls the ministry of labor.

The labor ministry refuses to negotiate a contract with FENTRASEP--which covers 
1 million workers--because, it says, there is a dispute over union elections. As
a result, many public sector employees are among the 73 percent of Venezuelan 
workers who earn the minimum wage--which, although the highest in Latin America,
is still low in relation to the soaring prices caused by Venezuela¹s rapid 
economic growth, to say nothing of enduring economic inequality.

Arias and other FENTRASEP leaders say that public sector workers are casualties 
of a larger factional struggle between the FSBT and C-CURA. This in turn is part
of an internecine conflict that has prevented the wider UNT labor federation 
from holding a proper congress since it adopted a provisional structure at its 
founding event in 2003.

Now, C-CURA, the largest grouping in the UNT, is itself split over the PSUV and 
constitutional reform, which means organized labor¹s voice is barely heard in 
the political debates of the day.

This sets the stage for a battle over the workers¹ councils to be formed in the 
future, in which both factions of C-CURA expect to contend with an effort by the
FSBT to exert control over the labor movement.

On the political terrain, the C-CURA activists of the Marea current inside the 
PSUV aim to make alliances with others on the left who have succeeded in being 
elected as spokespeople and delegates to the founding conference.

With the PSUV founding conference still in the future--it has been postponed 
repeatedly--it isn¹t clear if, or how, such groupings will exist within the 
party, which already has a provisional disciplinary committee that reportedly 
expelled a prominent Chavista (the commissioners subsequently denied that this 
was the case).

Certainly the PSUV is a highly contradictory formation, and includes key members
of the government apparatus and local elected officials who are unpopular among 
grassroots Chavistas. Marea¹s slogan calls for a PSUV without bosses, 
bureaucrats and corrupt elements.

Whether the far left will be able to operate openly, be expelled or decide to 
leave to organize openly are open questions.

In any case, stormy weather is ahead, said Stalin Pérez Borges, a UNT national 
coordinator and supporter of the Marea current. Political polarization and class
conflict, ameliorated in recent years by rapid economic growth, are unavoidable,
he said.

³The constitutional reform marks Chávez¹s consolidation of power, so the 
oligarchy can¹t just wait for him to go,² he said. ³Chávez wants to discipline 
and control the bourgeoisie. But they want to be in control themselves.²

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