Hugo Chavez & the "New Democracy"

Article excerpt

IN THE WORKING-CLASS neighbourhood of Catia on Caracas' west side, the streets are strewn with refuse; even the public spaces, the plazas and street-shopping laneways are neglected. Caracas' west side is part of the sprawling district of Sucre, one of Latin America's largest and one of Caracas' oldest barrios. At a meeting called by local activists last January, Catia residents complained that the Sucre district council wasn't doing its job, that the head of the district council was inept and wholly corrupt. Not only was the council neglecting garbage collection and other community services for which they were responsible, they were extorting small businesses in the area.

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Typically, the head of the district council is not an elected position, but rather one appointed by the mayor. But Catia isn't your typical barrio, and communities here are tired of waiting for their participation to be mandated from above. So the neighbourhood's myriad social movements (Catia is reknowned for its militancy) formed the Frente Unido (United Front) and took over the Sucre district council building. The peaceful occupation lasted a few days, until the Frente negotiated a truce with the pro-Chavez metropolitan mayor. The old head of the district council would be fired, and a new one would, for the first time, be elected.

Frente Unido's experience is in many ways emblematic of Venezuela's changed political landscape. The scope of this change was revealed early in the morning on November 1, 2004, by the National Electoral Council (CNE), when it announced a stunning sweep by pro-Chavez candidates in the regional elections. Venezuela's hugely popular President Hugo Chavez had defeated an opposition attempt to have him recalled in a referendum only two months earlier, and he received 60 per cent of the vote in the nation's all-time best attended election. The outcome of the regional elections was a crushing defeat for the opposition, which had been fighting an uphill battle since the referendum. Pro-government candidates increased their representation at the state level, from 15 of 23 states in the 2000 elections to 21 in 2004, and doubled the municipalities under Chavista control from one-third in 2000 to two-thirds in 2004.

Venezuela's "Bolivarian" president is now at a strange point in his tenure. With the failure of the 2002 coup; of a series of general strikes including the oil-industry shutdown from December, 2002, to February, 2003; and of last August's recall referendum, Chavez has been given some internal breathing space--for the first time since 2001. Suddenly, no longer on the defensive, the "Bolivarian Revolution" is struggling to assert itself in what Chavez has dubbed "the revolution within the revolution."

In this new phase, Chavez is taking advantage of the opposition's hiatus from the political scene to advance two prominent strategies, one domestic and one international. Internationally, Venezuela is seeking to build up South-South relations, and in particular to encourage a strategic alliance among South America's emerging centre-left leaders. Domestically, Chavez is promoting further democratization, with emphasis on state-owned factories and the main Chavista political party. While in many ways these strategies are progressing quickly, Venezuela faces myriad challenges, not least from within Chavismo itself. Experiences like those of the Frente Unido reflect the capacities of Chavez's highly mobilized followers and their willingness to confront pro-Chavez local leaders when necessary. But it also reflects the paralysis at many levels of the hoped-for decentralization of power and incorporation of Venezuela's traditionally excluded sectors in the decision-making process. Great steps have been taken, but without radical institutional change, efforts at democratization often fall victim to bureaucratic and opportunistic sabotage. And while the domestic opposition licks its wounds, the external offensive against Venezuela has only intensified. …