Venezuela and the “Bolivarian Revolution” (Part Two)

This is the second and final part of an analysis of the Chavista regime, the first part of which appeared in IP #51/52. This article, written by a comrade with firsthand knowledge of conditions in Venezuela, appeared first in Kosmoprolet, Heft 1, the publication of the Freudinnen und Freude der Klassenlosen Gesellschaft (Friends of the Classless society).

Part Two continues the analysis of the “Missions” through which the Chavista state seeks to ideologically and economically control the population, and the myths of popular control, the implication of Venezuela in the global imperialist system, and the authoritarian and repressive tendencies of Chavismo.

The “Misiones”

Even more spectacular are the “misiones” for adults without education. They range from literacy programs – even though illiteracy is very rare amongst adults, affecting mostly elder people – through high school programs to vocational training. A Bolivarian university for those who could not find a place at one of the public universities or were expelled completes this parallel education system. People’s hopes to increase their income by getting a professional qualification initially caused a massive rush into these programs. Grants for some of the participants – amounting to roughly half of the minimum wage – further contributed to this boom. Of course, some participants – especially those who don’t get a grant – drop out. But what is more, being absorbed by their everyday lives also those who do participate hardly find the time to go through the subjects at home, let alone to actually deepen their knowledge. Thus, a certificate testifies not so much to a real qualification but rather to loyalty to the government. In Venezuela, this can certainly be beneficial.

The educational concept is quite problematic: all of the instructional material is from Cuba and classes consist mainly of watching videos. The teaching staff is mostly made up of assistants who get the minimum wage and whose knowledge rarely exceeds the content of the videos. Instead of engaging in a dialogue, participants are expected to behave as passive consumers, staring at a screen that undeniably knows what’s right and what’s important. Far from initiating self-empowerment, this kind of education merely reinforces obedience. Prior to the elections in December 2006 participants of some classes were even given forms to fill in the names, addresses, phone and ID numbers as well as the presumable electoral behavior of ten of their neighbors. This was sold as a contribution to better relations amongst neighbors and no one had any objections.

Almost all participants in the mission for vocational training receive a grant, though this is being questioned at the moment. For this reason it is extremely popular: many want to enroll, but not everyone is admitted; the attitude towards the government sometimes plays a role in the selection procedure. In any case, more than 500 000 people could obtain a qualification so far. Graduates are expected to form cooperatives, being promised credit, state contracts and sometimes land. Initially, this worked out quite well and the government set itself the goal to create almost 100 000 cooperatives. By now, however, the market is already overcrowded with cooperatives; since the government cannot award contracts to all of them, merely 5 000 still have a real existence.

Food supply constitutes another field of action for the state. A new ministry headed by a general was created solely for this purpose. The task of “Misión Mercal” is to procure food and distribute it at subsidized prices 30 percent below market prices. The distribution chain consists of more than 10,000 sales points, complemented in urban areas by occasional central markets. About half of the population makes use of this offer. While in theory the mission should distribute goods from small producers and agricultural cooperatives, what can be found on the shelves is rather reminiscent of the food stores in the German Democratic Republic: storable food like rice, noodles, flour, canned food and bottles of oil or beverages. Fresh food like fruit, vegetables or meat can only be obtained at the occasional central markets, so that people still have to buy essential groceries at regular stores or from street vendors – and after all, in statistical terms “Misión Mercal” provides merely 150 g of food per person and day. Contrary to the official discourse on “food sovereignty,” Venezuela has to import 50 percent of its food, mostly from Colombia and Brazil. Apart from that, this mission also provides “mental food” – cartoons on the packaging help to spread the ideology of Bolivarianism. The military is in charge of logistics and the whole chain of procurement, storage, distribution and selling opens up new opportunities for corruption.

Thus, also in this sector the initial enthusiasm is dwindling. While the provision of free meals for the absolute have-nots and the homeless has somewhat improved the lot of the poorest part of the population, food supply remains a precarious issue. People have to be on the go all day long just to get the necessary groceries. About 10 percent of the population live in extreme poverty, another 30 percent of the families do not have sufficient income to cover basic needs like food, housing, clothing and transport. According to official statistics, families do not have more money to spend than in 1998.

The demand for proper housing with road and water connections is as huge as Venezuela’s slums: it is estimated at 1.8 million units. In addition, 60 percent of existing habitations are in need of restoration, while thousands of people lose their homes every year or need to be relocated due to landslides. So another mission was set up to improve housing. The issue is ubiquitous and the expectations of people are high. Depending on the social situation of the applicants, housing is sometimes provided freely. However, the normal case is that people get a cheap credit and have to buy their own places.

How building contracts are awarded by the state is again a very opaque matter, and many of the hurriedly built houses are not really habitable. Even official statistics document that this mission is the least successful of the major ones. Of the 120,000 units planned per year, not more than 70,000 are actually built. Thus, it is not surprising that also the allocation of apartments is to some degree ruled by bureaucratic arbitrariness and political considerations.

The Myth of Co-management

It would be laborious to go through the other ‘Misiones’: the same picture results each time. We should instead dedicate the next lines to the real or supposed changes in industry. The first thing to note is that in most enterprises, both private and state-owned, it is business as usual. What’s new is simply that a trade union federation (UNT) that’s more or less loyal to the regime has become established, and is in day-to-day life carrying out the same role as the ‘social democratic’ CTV under the previous government. The leading bureaucracy is so occupied with infighting and power-struggles (in which the Trotskyists represent the tendency more independent of the government) that since the foundation of the UNT in 2003 not a single internal election has taken place. For as long as anyone can remember, the unions have controlled a certain quota of hirings. Whoever is looking for work must pay them about the equivalent of a month’s wages. This is particularly lucrative in the oil industry, in which the union bureaucrats take about a thousand euros for every person they provide with a job. The struggle between the construction unions in the state of Bolívar for the control of this lucrative labour market has led to more than a hundred deaths in the last few years.

Whenever private companies close or threaten to, workers not only in Germany but also in Venezuela respond with the demand to save jobs. After the employers’ strike in 2003 a few companies remained closed. The issue of preserving jobs became acute. In a few cases the workers occupied the factories (but didn’t take over production!) as a sign to the state that it had to do something. It did in fact bring in measures which were described as co-management: the owners were offered financial support if they kept business running, diverted a share of the profit for social projects, and made the workers into ‘proud’ company-owners with share options, for which many of the workers went into debt. Beyond this, the workers had to form co-operatives in order to be active as partners. It is obvious that this was for some enterprises an opportunity to get their hands on state cash. In the absence of agreement, the state attempts to expropriate the company, paying appropriate compensation.

In this case the state becomes the new owner and goes through the same motions with the workers: they are brought together into co-operatives, and sold shares. More and more employers and landowners are offering the state their property in order to profit from these forms of aid and compensation. In the best cases, co-management involves workers’ giving advice making decisions about day-to-day problems on the shop floor, while strategic decisions remain in the hands of the real owner, namely the private shareholders or the state. In about a thousand mostly smaller businesses a form of co-management was introduced in which the workers weren’t allowed to own more than 49% of shares in the company, such that it was clear where the power lay when it came down to it. Because the co-operatives are a sort of collective of self-employed workers who have signed a temporary contract with the companies, the workers fall outside the scope of labour law. If the co-operatives presume to meddle in the administration of the workers assert their rights, open conflict results – as at the paper factory Invepal, at Sanitarios Maracay or Cacao Oderí. If this takes place on the streets, the police get involved. There can be no talk of a systematic introduction of co-management within the state sector, particularly not in the oil industry. One exception is provided by the relatively dilapidated state-run aluminium factory,Alcasa, with about 3,000 employees. The director, who describes himself as a ‘revolutionary lent by the state to the company’ was given room to play with a version of co-management in which the workers didn’t receive the usual share-options. Instead there was an experiment from above involving delegated workers. This experiment then fell dormant and the ‘lent revolutionary’ was provisionally sent to the education sector to carry out other tasks.

‘Grass-Roots Organization’ at the Behest of the State

Since the beginning of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, Venezuela has been flooded with successive waves of different ‘grass-roots organizations’. None of these arose out of popular initiatives or from social struggles. Without exception they were initiated by the state, and often directly from its head. They are however ‘grass-roots’ organizations: they present the socially excluded with the chance to organize themselves such that they are accepted as a partner to the state.

The first wave was that of the ‘Bolivarian circles’, which brought together the more outspoken, uncritical ‘Chavistas’ in different places and social situations and documented their identification with the new government. These circles didn’t serve to articulate people’s concerns, but had the task to defend, primarily ideologically, the ongoing ‘process’ and to make propaganda for it. Because they had no financial resources, and weren’t planned to be used for local decision-making processes, they brought no immediate benefits. After an initial flourish they are now completely meaningless. Afterwards came a succession of local committees – health committees, water tables, urban land committees (CTU) and local planning committees (CLP), which exist to this day. This committees, in which every resident can take part, are in rural areas and slums primarily charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the current state of affairs is understood by those affected by it, of communicating the current deficit, and making any appropriate suggestions for improvement. In practice this had never previously happened, and the authorities were in no position to do it. Under direction from technical advisers, a few committed citizens worked hopefully at bringing in a few desperately needed improvements by informing the state, which can react accordingly. Despite the various activities that took place at the state, very little happened, and what did was very slow. The result was that the few improvements only helped individual groups or individuals, and the activists on the committees were partly taken over by the official district administrations. At the same time, the committees took on a sort of trade-union function as an intermediary between the state and the impoverished population. The evidently increasing levels of protests against local authorities in the name of the promises of the ‘Bolivarian’ constitution and government are often organized and publicized by these committees. Since they systematically direct their demands at the state, they remain fundamentally dependent on it. Facing high levels of disillusion among the population with the results of the local committees, the state announced the large-scale formation of co-operatives. With at least five members they were supposed to be ‘self-organized’ businesses to which the state could give small-scale contracts to implement local measures. The pragmatic hope for state-funded income – and also the insight into the necessity of collective action – led to a proper boom in foundations across the country. Business was booming even for lawyers and advisers with experience in co-operatives. Hastily set up and hardly equipped with financial and other resources, the co-operatives offered services to state-run businesses and institutions, pocketed the money and carried out the work to the lowest possible standards. There are various state-run agencies that can simply give out these contracts, and here there is often a role both for bribery and for ‘fictional co-operatives’. The co-operative members’ income is usually at about the level of the minimum wage. This is therefore basically a means of generating work. The more radical wing of the UNT has pronounced:

Although there are now around 100,000 registered co-operatives with 1.5 million members, most exist only on paper – increased competition has meant that many co-operatives don’t always have work, and that their performance is often questionable. Only the bigger co-operatives and those who own their own means of production function properly. And in this case, there is still the well-known ‘danger’ that these purchase labour-power from outside and thus become normal capitalist businesses. The high point of the co-operatives is over.

In early 2006 came the new wave of ‘district councils’: the terms of their foundation, their organizational structure and their remit are laid down by parliament, and they were publicized by the ministry responsible. In the cities they are supposed to incorporate between 200 and 400 families; in rural areas about twenty. Up to 50,000 were to be created by the end of 2007. These are neighbourhood organizations, which are supposed to co-ordinate the work of local grass-roots organizations. Their general meetings are charged above all with the task of electing the people responsible for their various sub-areas (working groups). Unlike the previous grass-roots organizations, they are allowed, in accordance with the projects they define themselves, to administer their budget of up to €30,000 themselves – on average a hundred euros per family. In addition, they are allowed to generate their own income, e.g. through the foundation of ‘communal’ banks. It is said that they represent the first step towards smashing the entire traditional structure of state bureaucracy. Mayors and governors could perhaps no longer be sure that they wouldn’t be replaced by ‘people’s power’. And local administrative bureaucracy is also de facto losing part of its power and its budget to the elected district-representatives. As before, those who are represented have to wait for the new form of organization to look after them efficiently – but that’s not how it works. After the first two or three meetings of the working groups, usually only a few people are left, who are either de-motivated, in which case the whole thing is effectively put to sleep, or they start on a small level to siphon off money into their own pocket. This wave is also on the slow road to self-destruction.

The workers’ councils were also announced with a flourish. Whoever thinks that these councils are a sign of any sort of revolutionary development in Venezuela will be very disappointed, and little if anything is heard about them any more. As an answer to trade unionists who saw their own role threatened by the introduction of the workers’ councils, the new Labour Minister Rivero said ‘We want to concentrate on education, because in the end that’s what matters’. After he had mentioned that 10% of the working week would be dedicated to subjects as diverse as Venezuelan history, analysis of capitalism, dialectical materialism, etc., he continued: ‘Socialist education, as it will take place in the workplace after the end of three-way decrees, will be led by the workers’ councils – that is, from the organisms which will arise from the grass-roots workers, in order to implement guidelines which the government will ratify through an institution that will be founded for this purpose.’ That is, the workers’ councils would not be involved in industrial decision-making processes. The trade unionists can therefore remain calm! So much for autonomy, and the radicalism of the ‘workers’ councils.’

The truth of the independence of the ‘grass-roots organizations’ from the state is revealed in the comments of the mayor of Caracas, Freddy Bernal, that there are ‘plans from the mayoral office to intervene in the co-ordinated social organizations, the urban land committees, health committees, district councils [...] wherever it is necessary’. The ‘grass-roots organizations’ turn out to be ambiguous institutions. Many use them as mechanisms to gain favor from the state, others to add weight to demands to the authorities. For the state, organizations are an institutional anteroom, in which large sections of the population can be reintegrated and to channel protest movements. The ‘grass-roots organizations’ whose tasks involve purely sectional or local themes contribute to limiting the targets of protest to local or ministerial functionaries, without allowing the situation as a whole or Chávez himself to come into the firing line. Until now they have mostly served to preserve social peace and to consolidate the new state power by ensuring that problems are always solved by the state and not by people’s own initiatives. Through a climate of perpetual mobilization, the ever-increasing campaigns serve in addition to keeping the initiative with ‘our president’. Earlier unfulfilled promises are compensated for by even higher expectations for the future. It is through this game that Chávez keeps hold of the reins.

Sub-imperialism and ‘socialist employers’

An important contribution to the consolidation of this ‘21st century socialism’ consists in the international support Venezuela has received – first from Cuba, the last bastion of the former eastern bloc, also from ‘enemies’ of and competitors to North-American imperialism, from China, Russia, Iran and Belarus, to the European Union, albeit to a limited extent. The Venezuelan government is trying to increase its political and economic sphere influence within Latin America through discounted oil-deliveries and financial and technical aid. In the light of the long unfulfilled promises at home, these initiatives are increasingly condemned – for example, there is financial aid for a dairy factory in Argentina, while in Venezuela milk itself has become a scarce commodity. Venezuela is pursuing more and more a sort of sub-imperialism, but is increasingly coming up against the emerging economic power of Brazil. The program propagated shrilly by Chávez, the establishment, against US-Hegemony, of a Latin-American block under Venezuela’s leadership, now stands on clay feet, since the economic power of such a block boils down to oil-revenue. The only members of this ‘Bolivarian’ bloc are Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba and Bolivia – lightweights, that is, in Latin-American contexts. Meanwhile, a new so-called Bolivarian bourgeoisie has emerged out of the permanently restructured channels of distribution, while parts of the ‘old bourgeoisie’ have put an end to their initial fundamental opposition to the government, and are now trying to adapt to the new situation. Banks, the construction industry, telecommunications companies, the import sector and individual logistic industries which co-operate with the state are particularly happy with the almost record-breaking dividends. This rapprochement of Venezuelan capitalists with the government is not an isolated case: a ‘Confederation of Socialist Employers of Venezuela’ was founded as opposition to the traditional employers’ association Fedecámeras. The official discourse emphasizes that Venezuela’s socialism rests on three economic pillars: not only the state and the communal sectors, but also the private. It was not without reason that the president declared that he was in agreement with the Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, the founder of micro-credit.

Impending crisis and authoritarian turn

Since the last reelection of the “Comandante” in December 2006, a new authoritarian turn has been on the horizon: Chávez has been concentrating more and more power in his own hands, and is harnessing control. A thoroughly acquiescent parliament agreed to an enabling law, through which it made itself almost redundant and allowed the newly elected president to rule by decree for eighteen months in almost all areas. Chávez’s decisions are becoming unfathomable to everyone, and his supporters have been left to believe that he knows what he is doing and why. The president has recently forbidden his followers, ministers and other politicians and elected representatives from commenting on any topic without prior discussion with him. If ‘Chávez is the people!’ is taken seriously, every decision or pronouncement made by Chávez is by its nature ‘grass-roots democratic’, and every other ‘capitalist’. What more could one want? But one thing is sure: through the foundation of the ‘United Socialist Party of Venezuela’ (PSUV) he is trying to attain total power over his supporters. This is an indication of the fusion of party and state: state-run schools are used at the weekend for the registration of new party-members, which is organized by the state election authority. It is not only out of conviction that around five million people have already signed-up as candidate-members. ‘If you’re not for me, you’re against me,’ the motto runs, which contains the threat of the removal of jobs or state-benefits. Applicants are screened before acceptance, but who does this, and according to which criteria, remains hazy. Even violent police-repression of protests is no longer the exception. At the same time, the emphasis on ideological schooling is increasing, and voluntary labour is also under discussion. It seems likely, that this new trend is related to Venezuela’s economic situation. And here the prospects aren’t all rosy right now: after the international crude oil price climbed for three years, it is now stagnant at $60 a barrel. Oil-production has fallen slightly, but state expenditure is growing rapidly – by 47% in 2006. In 2001 it represented 21% of GDP, 34% in 2006. Industrial production, which had fallen in the first years, is now growing at approximately 7%, and has re-attained 1997-levels. In the same time-period, the number of industrial businesses fell from 11,000 to 7,000. Imports rose 40% in the last year, and now account for 75% of oil-revenue. General inflation has reached 18%, while food-prices are rising at 30%. And this is hardly to touch on the dependence on the US-economy: leaving oil out of the equation, 50% of exports are to the US, while 30% of Venezuela’s imports come from the ‘land of the devil’. Despite talk of ‘endogenous’ development, the PDVSA obtains nearly half its turnover from its branches abroad (through shares in the capital of individual firms, such as Ruhr Oel GmbH in Germany, through its own refineries abroad, its own tankers or networks of petrol stations, such as, for example, CITGO, which runs around 15,000 service stations in the USA). In 2006, social expenditure constituted only about 10% of GDP, of which less than half is allocated to the missions. From the total social spending of $13 billion, $5 billion come directly from the PDVSA – the remaining $8 billion constitute 15% of the budget. Meanwhile, the banks, private construction and trade are making huge deals, achieving growth-rates of between 20% and 25%. The emergence of a layer of new-rich is not least evidenced by the 50% growth in sales of new cars in 2006, of which more than half are imported.

To finance this dynamic, the national debt has almost doubled during the course of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ – from about $40 billion in 1998 to $70 billion today – primarily through new government bonds, bought by the private banks in Venezuela, while external debt has remained on about the same level. The trade surplus looks more and more likely to be overtaken by growing imports and the drain of capital. Is the model reaching its limits? And will state hand-outs have to be distributed increasingly unequally, between those who are completely dependent on them and those who are not? In other words: while a well-placed minority has been able to tap into the oil-revenue, and is rapidly increasing its wealth, will people look at the small improvements for the people, which this minority frenetically points out. 21st-century socialism? Charitable kleptocracy! A kleptocracy, indeed, which is steering the country to its next economic and social crisis. Agricultural production is stagnant, and supplies are critical. Conflicts in individual co-managed companies have made clear how deep the difference between nationalization and socialization can be. The co-operative at Cacao Oderí expressed it as follows: ‘In Venezuela, it is civil society that must become a stronger economic agent, not the over-powerful and corrupt oil-state. [...] That is obsolete state capitalism. For us, socialism means self-management.’ A state bureaucrat saw it differently. Justifying why the state should have the final say in the business, and not the workers, he said ‘President Chávez is an instrument of God’s will’. Rally at Sidor

Protests are taking place throughout the country – because of unfulfilled promises, water and electricity supplies, the state of the streets, crime, shortages of teachers or housing, delayed payments of credits, grants or wages, refuse, the rights of street-vendors, or industrial conflicts. There are about fifty protests every day, sometimes accompanied by barricades in the city-centre or of important traffic-axes. The government is slowly becoming nervous, and police interventions are becoming more violent – particularly, but not only, against workers’ protests. It is often warned of the ‘danger’ that these protests pose for the ‘process’: ‘Acting in this way is counter-revolutionary, because it sows the seeds of anarchy.’ Longer prison-terms are being given: disturbance of public order – blockading streets, in simple terms – can be punished by more than a year. And in a few cases, such sentences have already been handed out. Given the catastrophic state of the prisons, in which there are 400 deaths a year, such a sentence is equivalent to a murder-threat. The unmanageable numbers of ‘grass-roots organizations’ and arbitrations that make all sorts of promises leads to competition and overlap. It has happened that the same plot of land, or the same residential building, has been promised by different authorities to different groups. For example, an empty factory was occupied for months by its former workers in order to demand payment of withheld wages. One night the same factory was occupied by another group, to demand the construction of houses on the same empty land; they have been waiting for new housing since the earthquake of December 1998. Violent conflicts seem likely.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Living conditions for the poorest sections of the population have improved in some respects. That benefits are preferable to starvation is without doubt. Indeed, we insist on the goal of a life without need, without money, without nations, in which humans, as species-beings, can consciously make their own needs into the sole criterion of society. The potential dozing in the lap of modern society easily allows this. But it could only be realized through the self-determined actions of the exploited. In the face of such possibilities, the improvements attained in Venezuela remain miserable – and even they cannot be guaranteed.

The chaotic process by which new campaigns and institutions, new grass-roots organizations and promises, are regularly announced, also carries a certain risk for the new holders of power. For the people often take promises at their word, and demand their fulfilment more confidently; sometimes they even insist on really getting involved in decision-making. The frustration that emerges from the discrepancy between hope and reality leads to daily protests and in smaller circles also to ‘theoretical’ discussions of a socialism that goes beyond the mere fighting of poverty and ‘Soviet Marxism.’ But new forms of organization that aren’t initiated by the state, and that are actually involved in autonomous struggles, have not yet emerged either within or outside the workplace. A practical critique of wage-labour, which implies the suspension of all commodity-relations, is still lacking: at best the aim is the self-management of one’s own exploitation and poverty. However, a few recent events suggest a sharpening of conflicts, and the development of a more radical perspective cannot be ruled out. There are massive class struggles taking place in a few newly industrializing countries, and they are once again also imaginable in the centres of the globalized world. If these conflicts began explicitly to relate to one another, some optimism would be in order.

After the crushing of the Paris Insurrection of 1848, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte came to power as a bearer of hope for the masses. The figure of his uncle was jeweled with the aura of the French Revolution. The nephew, who shortly after became emperor, defended universal suffrage, remained in power through constitutional changes and several referenda, modernized the school-system and opened it to girls, introduced the right to strike and to free assembly for workers, laid the cornerstones of a pension-system and of disability-insurance for workers, and organized people’s kitchens for the poor. At the same time, banking and trade flourished, large infrastructure projects (railways, sewers) were implemented, and there were scores of corruption-scandals. It was all embedded in not very successful colonial politics, which ended in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian war and the defeat and imprisonment of the emperor. Shortly afterwards, in 1871, the population of Paris, without emperor, clergy or professional politicians, took power into their own hands. 23 years passed between 1848 and 1871. The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is nine years old. Another fourteen years until the ‘Venezuelan Commune’? How long will people continue to beat the ‘Piñata’ blindly? For how long will its contents be distributed to the strongest? For how long can the poor be fed on leftovers, just so the game can start again from the beginning, and so rich can flaunt their wealth? How long before the beneficiaries of the grace of the instrument of God’s will storm heaven and overthrow God?

“21st Century Socialism” – Politics as usual

In the two years since this article was written, a lot has happened on the political level in Venezuela. Three elections took place, revealing that the enthusiastic support for Chavez is eroding, without however posing a serious threat to his power. At the same time, the country is still economically dependent on oil and the tendencies described in the text are still at work. There is no sign of an autonomous workers’ movement that could challenge the foundations of capitalist relations. As regards other social groups such as peasants or the marginalised population, this is even less the case. After the staggering oil price hike continued until roughly August 2008, pushing the price up to $150 per barrel, Venezuela is now faced with the world economic crisis. Even though the current oil price of $50 is not below the level of 2005, over the last few years the state und the economy had quickly grown accustomed to some, extra change so that the current level causes some abstinence symptoms.

After Chavez’s re-election in December 2006, the five driving forces on the road to “21st Century Socialism” were proclaimed: 1) amendments to the Bolivarian constitution passed under Chavez in 1999, 2) enabling statutes, 3) massive education campaigns, 4) the geographical restructuring of the public administration [“geographical restructuring” is probably a strange expression; it’s about redrawing the lines of authority between central government, local states etc] and finally 5) nationwide extension of the communal councils [so far they exist only in certain places, now they shall exist everywhere]. Immediately, the next electoral campaign about the planned amendments to the constitution began. These include indefinite re-election of the President, reorganisation of the state territory – partly based on the communal councils - , abolition of the independence of the central bank, and – as a kind of carrot – reduction of the working week to 36 hours. The overall objective of all these policies was described as building a socialist economy and the slogan “Fatherland, Socialism or Death” became part of the obligatory rhetoric at every official or political event. Meanwhile, the build-up of the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela], the new political party of Chavez’s followers, was being forced through by exerting pressure on state employees and people involved in the “misiones”. According to the PSUV, it was able to reach the mark of 5 million members just prior to the referendum on the constitutional changes in December 2007.

It was not so much a new strength of the opposition that turned this referendum into the first defeat of the “Comandante” – in fact, the opposition could only slightly increase its share of the votes – but rather the lack of enthusiasm amongst some segments of Chavez’s traditional supporters. The fact that he got 1.5 million votes less than the party claims to have members indicates that the poorer part of the population has other things to worry about – precarious food supply, rotten infrastructure, deficient garbage disposal and frightening levels of street crime. The camp of Chavismo got more and more cracks and since the referendum was not about the future of the government, the usual “blackmail” of pointing to the looming threat of the opposition hardly worked. Already at this point it was becoming clear that the marginalised population in the urban centers does not constitute a Chavist bulwark any longer (a fact to which the permanent conflict between local authorities and street vendors has certainly contributed).

After the first of the driving forces towards socialism began to falter, the remaining four were also propagated less loudly. So with an eye to the upcoming regional elections, the next campaign was launched – the “three R’s” (revision, rectification and re-launch). In addition, the enabling statutes had been passed in early 2007 – though limited to 18 months – and theoretically they would have allowed the government to put into practice the constitutional changes that were rejected at the polls. Numerous decrees were passed in the last minute before the 18 months ended, without however having any real impact – not to mention the implementation of the 36 hour working week. Chavismo won the regional elections (November 2008) in absolute numbers of votes, hence also taking most of the local states. However, the bigger cities (including the capital Caracas) and the three economically most important states fell to the opposition. Thereupon it was announced that a further referendum on the apparently central issue of indefinite re-election was to be held in February 2009. This time Chavismo was successful. It seems that for now the permanent electoral circus has come to an end, but who knows...

Leading members of both the old and the “new” opposition are confronted with increasing attacks, some even being criminalised. The central government is working hard to undermine the power of the local states controlled by the opposition. State buildings are not being handed over, funding is being delayed and, most importantly, air and sea ports as well as highways previously run by the local states were taken over by the central government without further ado as they constitute a lucrative source of taxes.

From time to time the government announces expropriations and nationalizations with great hullabaloo, while in the oil sector joint ventures are being set up. The former owners often have to wait for their compensation, but the workers’ situation remains quite unchanged. Sidor, the biggest steel plant in Venezuela, constitutes a paradigmatic case: after a months-long contract dispute in 2007/08 threatened to turn into large-scale industrial conflict, the enterprise was swiftly nationalized in May 2008. This move was also enthusiastically hailed by the workers. Initially, one of their demands was the hiring of 9,000 contract workers as “regular” workers. More than a year later, 8,000 of them are still waiting to see this happen. Time and again demonstrations take place and factory gates are being blocked – so far to no avail.

This is not the only case in which the growing gap between government and workers manifests itself. It is with good reason that the government is making another effort to get a loyal union federation going, after its first attempt – the setting up of the UNT – rather failed. But the continuous deferral of wage talks for the public sector workers leads to ever-new conflicts. When the tube workers went on strike in March this year it was made clear to them that communal councils and other “popular” organizations might get rather angry about this. The workers took this hint seriously and ended the strike. It is rather obvious what this reveals about the autonomy of the so-called grassroots organizations. But also paramilitary groups more or less tolerated by the state can be deployed to do the dirty work – for example, at the time of writing it still remains unclear who was actually behind the attack on a synagogue in Caracas in January this year. If things get out of hand, paramilitary groups can suddenly be denounced as “agents of the empire”.

By now, even guns have been employed in labour conflicts, causing first death-victims. A few months ago a comrade reported from Venezuela:

This should come as no surprise – after all, it was Chavez himself who was led by recurrent street protests to declare in January 2009: “From now on anyone setting ablaze ... trees or blocking a street shall learn how good our tear gas is and then be arrested. I will personally fire any officer in charge who does not follow this guideline.” He even threatened to take care of such measures himself in case chiefs of police or ministers should fail to do so.

Meanwhile, the authorities have lost their faith in the cooperatives: in Chavez’s view, they are “tending towards capitalist values.” The “misiones” still exist, but they have lost their dynamic. And since lean years are now dawning, they are also increasingly confronted with financial problems. During the years of the oil boom, the revenue of the national oil company PDVSA and hence the state budget rose significantly, the latter going up by more than 50 percent. In contrast, the initial budget draft for 2009 was cut by 20 percent but might still turn out to be problematic: it was based on the assumption that the oil price would not fall below $60, but due to the world economic crisis Venezuela earned no more than $38 per barrel in the first months of 2009. So far, the PDVSA has neither made any contribution to the state budget nor paid its subcontractors in 2009. Further funding of the welfare programs is far from assured and the popularity of the government is slowly deteriorating.

While currency reserves rose significantly to almost $120 billion, state foreign debt also increased by 70 percent over the last two years, thus reaching $46 billion. The sales tax reduced last year was raised again for 2009, inflation climbed from 17 percent in 2006 to 30 percent in 2008, while the minimum wage is lagging behind – and an average household of two adults and three kids today needs two minimum wages just to survive. The annual increase of the minimum wage, traditionally declared on Mayday by Chavez himself, will most likely be rather modest this year – maybe 10 percent, i.e. way below the current rate of inflation.

If the oil price remains below $60 for the rest of the year, Venezuela’s economy could face a collapse with incalculable consequences. If not, the authoritarian tendencies will continue to assert themselves, while the oppositional forces within the new Bolivarian bourgeoisie known as the “Boli-bourgeoisie” will make itself heard. The situation will certainly continue to generate social conflicts in the near future, but they will remain isolated and nothing indicates that they will be able to open up a perspective that would point beyond the state.

Sergio López, April 2009

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