Hugo Chavez & the "New Democracy"

By Gindin, Jonah | Canadian Dimension, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Hugo Chavez & the "New Democracy"


Gindin, Jonah, Canadian Dimension


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.

Moreover, a new opposition offensive cannot be far off. Venezuela is heading towards presidential elections in 2006, as are eight other countries in Latin America, including Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica and Guyana. Despite the opposition's apparent disarray, Washington's anti-Chavez offensive has gone into high gear, perhaps to compensate.

U.S. Subverting Democracy in the Name of Democracy

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has incorporated the promotion of "democracy" into its foreign-policy repertoire. "Electoral intervention" has allowed the U.S. to shape democratization movements in a host of countries, but the 1990 Nicaraguan elections bear the closest resemblance to the current Venezuelan context.

Thanks to the work of quasi-governmental agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), together with a plethora of "non-governmental organizations" like Freedom House and the Center for Democracy (CFD), the Sandinistas were defeated by an anti-Sandinista alliance created almost entirely by the U.S. Venezuela can expect the same treatment, says ex-CIA agent Philip Agee, who was in Nicaragua in the late 1980s. "One thing that is very important for the Bolivarian movement to keep in mind always," says Agee, "is that the United States will never stop trying to turn the clock back."

Oil and Information

Chavez's internal support was recently pegged at 71 per cent by Datanalysis, a Venezuelan firm traditionally allied to the old elite party Democratic Action. Over the past few years, Venezuela has become a regional power, and Chavez has had an international profile unrivaled by most presidents. With Latin America's widespread rejection of the logic of capitalist globalization, Chavez has become something of a hero. Other centre-left leaders in the region like Chile's Ricardo Lagos, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner and Brazil's Lula jump at photo-ops with the Venezuelan enigma, seeking prestige-by-association.

Since having his mandate reconfirmed in the August referendum, Chavez has focused his attention on fostering a variety of alliances, mainly with other countries from the global South. Since December, 2004, the Venezuelan president has visited Iran, China and India, among others, on trade missions. Early in May he attended the first-ever South American-Arab League summit, held in the Brazilian capital. But Venezuela's most important international advances begin in South America: Petrosur and Telesur. If the battle for Venezuela is going to be won, Chavez is well aware that it will be won on both the national and the international fields, and what better weapons to bring to that contest than oil and information?

Petrosur is an embryonic alliance of South American state oil companies at present involving Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. According to Venezuelan energy minister Rafael Ramirez, the issue is "control over resources, over natural resources, a subject that of course has to do with the sovereign survival of our countries." Though still in its infancy, Petrosur, and its Latin America-wide corollary "PetroAmerica," threaten transnational oil companies' unhindered access to Latin America's oil-rich subsoil. The prospect of possible leftist victories in 2006 elections in Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico, which could potentially join PetroAmerica, reinforces the gravity of the situation for the U.S., and its potential for Venezuela's and Latin America's emerging nationalist governments.

The creation of the Telesur South American news network is a similar alliance, designed to counteract the dominance of CNN Espanol and BBC Mundo. According to Telesur director Aram Aharonian, the new channel will be South America's "first counter-hegemonic telecommunications project," with a mandate to democratize communication and information in South America.

Worker Participation in Management

Yet at root the legitimacy of Latin America's most popular leader depends on internal support, and though the Bolivarian Revolution dreams of uniting South America under a common anti-imperialist banner, it is still primarily a domestic movement. One of this movement's strengths is its redefinition of democracy, adding economic and social equality to the familiar pantheon of freedom of expression, freedom of association and universal suffrage.

At the very core of Venezuela's revolution is a rejection of the cold neoliberal policies that ravaged poor and middle-income Venezuelans in the 1980s and '90s. And at the core of this rejection is an innovative strategy of worker participation in management. During Chavez's tenure, two large, state-owned companies have begun implementing a system of worker-state co-management, as have a series of bankrupted firms taken over by workers.

The state-owned electrical company Cadafe, accounting for about 60 per cent of the electricity distributed in the country, began this painstaking process in 2002, and Alcasa, an enormous aluminum processing plant, joined its ranks earlier this year. Also this year, the country's main paper company and a firm producing strategic inputs for the oil sector, both occupied by workers last year, were purchased by the state and are slotted to begin production under worker-state co-management in the near future.

But co-management is a slow and often frustrating process. Venezuela's limited experience with co-management under previous administrations was intended to co-opt workers, giving cushy jobs to union heads and leaving factory power structures unchanged. Thus, a new co-management paradigm must be built up from scratch. The traditional lack of worker participation in the factory will only be reversed by a corresponding investment in worker education. Nevertheless, the strategy has already inspired workers all over the country, and beyond.

Entrenched Bureacracy: The Greatest Barrier to Change

But despite Venezuela's many democratic advances, the Bolivarian Revolution's commitment to grassroots participation still has a long way to go. The Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), Chavez's official party, held primaries last month for upcoming municipal council elections--a first for any Venezuelan party. Though a concrete step in the right direction, the primaries did more to reveal the manipulative and undemocratic workings of the MVR than to encourage any democratic opening.

The problem stems from a simple fact, and one that is inherent to the Bolivarian Revolution's peaceful nature: the old power structures, culture of clientelism and patronage systems remain. Though one of the movement's first actions was to rewrite the Constitution, launching the Fifth Republic, the institutions of the Fourth Republic remain intact. The MVR has gradually evolved into a massive traditional party, as opposed to a revolutionary vanguard, giving them the inglorious nickname "Bureaucratic Action," a play on the name of one of Venezuela's traditional elite parties, "Democratic Action."

Chavez has developed a sixth sense for stepping in at the last minute to mandate the participation-from-below he is trying so hard to foster. Ask committed activists in Venezuela's barrios and they'll give you the same story: The problem is not Chavez, and it's not the base. Chavez is widely perceived (among a majority of Venezuela's estimated 70-per-cent poor and an unknown percentage of the middle class) to be genuinely striving to build accessible and universal participatory structures. And the base, while unevenly organized, is continuously pushing for rapid, far-reaching change. The problem is a familiar barrier at the middle level: an entrenched bureaucracy with a powerful stake in the status quo.

In deciding to hold internal elections, the MVR took a chance. "It's a risk for any political organization, because it unleashes people's passions," said National Assembly (AN) president and MVR leader Nicholas Maduro at the time. And he may be right. The MVR's efforts to democratize have been met by powerful grassroots pressure to go all the way. After last August's referendum victory, Chavez-supporters began calling for primaries for the October regional elections. The unfeasibility of primaries in the short period between referendum and regionals convinced most rank-and-file militants to shelve the issue, but not before they extracted a promise from Chavez that next time it would be different.

Speaking to his cabinet, top military officers and recently elected governors and mayors a few days after last November's victory in the regional elections, Chavez acknowledged to his audience, "We owe a debt to the Constitution, and to the Venezuelan people." Grassroots militants around the country like the Frente Unido in Catia are beginning to call in that debt.

Jonah resides in Venezuela and works with www.venezuelanalysis.com.

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