JUST before New Year eve, one of the most authentic mouthpieces of international finance capital carried a lead article significantly titled Battered, Bruised and Jumpy – The Whole World Is on Edge. The keynote runs like this:
“Not one global power is optimistic and even in America, which should be cheering, the mood is sour.
“In 2015, a sense of unease and foreboding seemed to settle on all the world’s major power centres. From Beijing to Washington, Berlin to Brasília, Moscow to Tokyo — governments, media and citizens were jumpy and embattled.
“This kind of globalised anxiety is unusual. For the past 30 years and more, there has been at least one world power that was bullishly optimistic.” The author cites the examples of Japan in the late 1980s, America in the 1990s, the EU in the early 2000s and China “for most of the past decade” and contrasts this with the present situation: “Yet at the moment all the big players seem uncertain — even fearful.”
(Gideon Rachman, The Financial Times, 28 December 2015)
With the crisis of capitalism spreading to its last recluses like China and Germany and showing hardly any signs of abetting elsewhere, with multiple maladies like terrorism and climate change constantly laying bare the faultlines of the imperialist world order, and with popular forces fighting ever more resolutely in fields, factories and streets against the austerity offensive of neoliberalism and voting for change, Leftists across the world are in for a period of remarkable advances as well as difficult challenges and of course, occasional setbacks.
2015 will be remembered for encouraging developments like the rapid rise of Syriza and Podemos, with the former even voted to power in Greece; the fall of pro-austerity, anti-people regimes in Portugal and Spain, which opened up challenging new prospects for left advances in South Europe; the Corbyn-Sanders phenomena as a sure sign of a massive leftward shift in popular mood on both sides of the Atlantic; not to speak of developments like the 62% yes vote in the Irish referendum leading to legalization of gay marriage, which provided a big boost to the campaign for removal of constitutional ban on abortion, thereby advancing the cause of gay rights and women’s freedom and dealing a blow to religious bigotry. But the same year also saw events like the ignominious surrender of Syriza before the ‘Troika’ of imperialism, the Chavez party being voted out of power in Venezuela and the election of Mauricio Marci, a Donald Trump-like figure, as president of Argentina. Having just stepped into 2016, we should carefully assess and draw lessons from both kinds of developments, so as to update our understanding of the problems and prospects of the international left and democratic movement, of which we are an integral part.
On 6 December 1998 Hugo Chavez was first elected President of Venezuela. On the same day last year, the party he founded lost majority in the National Assembly (N A) winning, together with its allies, only 55 seats out of 167. The defeat was not unexpected but the scale was. What is most notable is that the “Opposition” – now the Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD) – got 7,707,322 votes compared to 7,363,980 in the presidential election of 2013, which meant only a 4.22% increase. But the PSUV support base remained more or less passive and there was large-scale abstention. A case in point was the mainly working class constituency of 23 Enero barrio in Caracas, famed as a traditional stronghold of the Bolivarian revolution.
Why this shift? What went wrong?
It is widely agreed that everyday economic concerns like rampant price rise and persistent short supply of essential items was the most important reason behind the ant-incumbency mood. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) on its part attributed the defeat to the “economic war” (e.g., smuggling, hoarding, speculation and black marketing of dollars) launched by the US and its indigenous lackeys. It is also true that apart from the economic offensive, protracted and desperate political interventions of all sorts – from vicious propaganda and channeling millions of dollars to the far right parties to violent coups and target killings of important leaders – significantly contributed to the eventual victory of the Opposition.
But this line of argument begs the question: if Cuba could resist all these for a much longer period and with fewer resources, why can’t the Venezuelan government? How come a people that has been defending and promoting a project of their own well-being and empowerment even in the face of worse trials and tribulations for such a long time, now decided to shift allegiance?
What the masses were fed up with was the government's empty alerts about economic war without any concrete proposal or bold strategy to defeat those waging it. As Professor Javier Biardeau of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) points out, the eternal dilemma of a Left-led government in a bourgeois set up haunted the Maduro government too fiercely (the Chavez years were also not free from it): if an attempt was made to deal too sternly with the hoarders and others in the bourgeois camp responsible for the economic hardships of the people, the resultant showdown could destabilize the government. The anxiety led to excessive restraint and policy paralysis and allowed the tendency of hobnobbing with the bourgeoisie thrive, even as the Maduro team turned a blind eye to both the degenerated elements within and the ‘crocodiles’ slowly crawling up from without:
October 26th 2015
In this interview by website Contrapunto with UCV professor, Javier Biardeau, the sociologist argues that Chavismo must begin a necessary and urgent process of rectification; citing discontent among the bases of Chavismo and a dangerous crisis of representation.
“…public policy has been neither efficient nor effective. … There is a real situation of discontent and unhappiness at exactly the worst moment when Chavismo faces elections. …
And the other reason is that a culture of collective leadership was never established among Chávez’s inner circle. …Chávez also has a joint responsibility here. … I don’t think the stage was ever set for collective leadership.
I think that it’s a government that has essentially tried to manage situations in a predominately tactical, if not pragmatic, way, and the [declared] strategic objectives are fundamentally rhetoric to maintain the imaginary of continuity with President Chávez.
The government presupposes that the social base has no moral strength to defend the process beyond utilitarian motives, which is only reinforcing a clientelist and populist political pattern. It’s not a process of politicization of the people, as it is constantly said, nor is it a process that bears continuity with the legacy of Chávez, which was not only about politicization, but rather radicalization, on the ideological plane.
What they have to do is accept responsibility for the costs of rectifying the course. That is, a defeat suffered in the process of rectification is less costly than a defeat without rectification. And this is the point that I don’t see in the government leadership’s political equation.
The problem is that in this moment, the opposition is awaiting the political exhaustion [of the Chavista bases] and in the middle of that fatigue, the government thinks it’s experiencing a favourable political moment. You are bathing in the river and you think that the crocodiles are sleeping, but they’re not sleeping at all, but waiting until you are unable to manoeuver, in order to devour you….” (http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11616; retrieved on 17/01/2016)
The hint of a possible electoral defeat was quite clear, but the leadership was incapacitated to consider the observation that going down in struggle is better than being defeated without a fight. The Tatuy, a government aided independent television collective, also iterated the leadership’s obligation to rectify its policy of conciliation between classes (see box).
The flow of constructive criticism continued after the electoral defeat. A good example is “Ten Proposals for Chavismo in the Face of Our Defeat” (December 17, 2015) by Luis Britto Garcia, who was honoured with Venezuela's National Prize for Literature for lifetime achievement and appointed by President Chavez to the Venezuelan Council of State, "the highest circle of advisers to the president". The author quotes from a book of Hugo Chavez’s, where Chavez recounts what Fidel Castro, drawing attention to the tremendous social advances in Venezuela, told him:
“He said to me, ‘I’ve come to the conclusion, Chavez. No revolution that I know of, not even the Cuban one, was able to do so much socially for its people in so short a time as the Bolivarian Revolution […] And I’ve concluded you don’t want to take political advantage of these social advances.’”
Politely and affectionately placed though, the criticism from the father figure was of a very serious nature and it seems Chavez accepted it. In this context Garcia points out major deficiencies like lack of ideological training of the revolutionary cadre. He then submits ten tasks that must be carried out during the one year before elections of state governors and state legislative assemblies are held. The two most important ones are, “Initiate a profound restructuring of PSUV and other organizations of the Patriotic Pole, to correct errors, inefficiencies, bureaucracy and the opportunist uses of power” and “Radically dispose of any ideas of pacts or “pragmatic” agreements with the business class and the right, in sight of the catastrophic results our cohabitation has so far seen.” (http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11777; retrieved on 17/01/2016)
Will the PSUV leadership and President Maduro – whose personal integrity was never called in question -- attempt the suggested course correction now, better late than never? This all-important question can be considered only in the context of the evolving new situation.
By Tatuy TV/ TeleSUR English, September 17th 2015
… despite the advances in various social matters, the Bolivarian process has not been able to overcome capitalist and rentier logic based on a single-product economy … the role of the party of the revolution, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, has been timid and ambiguous in overcoming the logic of electoralism, diminishing the strength of the role of a vanguard organization that guides its government and its people through the true revolutionary paths. …
The Bolivarian government has the obligation to rectify its policy of conciliation between classes, it has the obligation to radicalize. Many think that radicalization means losing the government, but in reality if you do not radicalize you cannot govern. The government has on its side a people that is majority Chavista, that in times of heightened class struggle and electoral polarization strongly advances and provides a crucial support. … If it doesn't radicalize, austerity and the far right will impose themselves, or the path of conciliation will eliminate the socialist characteristics of the revolution and convert it into a social-democratic ogre in the style of the Mexican PRI party, remaining in power but at the expense of its own revolutionary sense of existence.”
For this forward post of left movement in Latin America, 2016 promises to be a year of intense and incessant confrontation between a left-wing Executive headed by the President and the National Assembly (N A) under right-wing domination, with the Judiciary frequently intervening and getting entangled in the conflicts. Simultaneously with and closely linked to these clashes among the three wings of the state, the public space will come alive with political campaigns, in various forms, by the PSUV and non-party Chavistas on one side and the constituents of the MUD and the US-aided propaganda machine on the other. The battle for hegemony will play itself out in the backdrop of a falling economy further ravaged by the indecisiveness of a strife-torn government and growing social turmoil.
The first deft move in the game of chase was taken by the President. Aware that the rightist legislators would oppose him on every step, Maduro decreed a slew of progressive laws just on the eve of the swearing in of the opposition-led National Assembly. These include, inter alia, an important tax reform that will curb tax evasion and remove inflationary adjustment for big business. He also signed a decree to protect the employment of workers and shield them against arbitrary dismissals until 2018. The MUD is now preparing for rolling back these reforms.
The overt clashes started from the very first week of January. The Supreme Court suspended the swearing in of four incoming legislators (one of them belonging to the PSUV) pending investigations into alleged voting irregularities, including vote-buying, in Amazonas state. But the adamant N A President Ramos Allup swore in three opposition members as representatives. The Supreme Court then declared that the NA president had acted in defiance of the Court and that from now on all laws that the National Assembly passes will be null and void. The NA then agreed to abide by the S C ruling and the three members had to resign.
A few days later, the President transferred the management of the Mountain Barrack, former president Hugo Chávez' burial site, to the Hugo Chávez Foundation for the next 100 years. This step ensured that Chávez’s body cannot be legally removed from the site for the next century. This assumes importance in view of the removal of photos of Simon Bolivar and Hugo Chavez from Parliament under orders from the President of NA.
The MUD, tasting victory in the hustings, has made known its intention to organize a recall referendum against the President. But that would require the collection of 20 percent of registered voters’ signatures, which is very difficult. However, with a super majority of 112 seats (minus the 3 who are presently under suspension) in the 167-seat legislative body, the erstwhile Opposition can pass or revoke organic constitutional laws, replace Supreme Court magistrates, appoint the heads of crucial public institutions such as the Public Prosecutor’s office and the National Electoral Council, revoke critical revolutionary legislation such as the Organic Law of Communes, repeal international treaties such as the ALBA-TP and PetroCaribe and even convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. They will be shrewdly using all these weapons so as to destabilize the government and get rid of Maduro as early as possible. The President on the other hand will be using his veto power wherever possible.
The MUD is a coalition of an extreme right and a moderate wing, having major tactical differences and with leaders of different parties vying with one another for the top posts. The infighting is sure to impact on the government’s performance and help the Left.
Aggravating the political turmoil will be economic instability. Since 95 percent of the country’s export earnings and 50 percent of its fiscal budget come from the sale of oil, the huge drop in oil revenues can prove disastrous. To make matters worse, parts of the country are facing a drought. An emergency economic decree granting the executive sweeping powers has been issued by the Vice-President, but it needs to be approved by parliament, which is doubtful.
The sufferings of Venezuela offers the US a great scope for fishing in troubled waters, and it is eager to take it. As soon as the election results were out, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a press statement:
“Venezuelan voters expressed their overwhelming desire for a change in the direction of their country. Dialogue among all parties in Venezuela is necessary to address the social and economic challenges facing the country, and the United States stands ready to support such a dialogue together with others in the international community.”
To be sure, the people of Venezuela is not going to watch such intervention in silence.
The victory of rightist forces in parliamentary elections in Venezuela (together with the election of Mauricio Marci as President of Argentina) indicate, we are told, “the end of the progressive cycle in Latin America”. What is overlooked here is that by helping intensify direct class/social struggles (which got somewhat moderated through a partial redistribution of incomes and assets by a government that came to power riding on the crest of popular mobilisations) such developments can potentially give birth to fresh, youthful forces of revolutionary democracy, lead to a positive realignment within the left-democratic camp and mark the beginning of a higher “progressive cycle” in a new form from the streets, following the decay of the previous one in the corridors of power.
In fact this is how it has almost always happened – in our time as well as in the past. Masses create history on the streets. Their genuine or apparent representatives – or perhaps a mix of the two – come to power. Sooner or later, they show signs of fatigue; at least a significant section tends to get assimilated in the internationally dominant logic and structures of capitalism and metamorphoses into fetters on the further development of the movement. Either the fetters are torn asunder from within through ideological struggle inside the ruling party/coalition or else it is left to the masses – the ultimate source of all revolutionary impulse and change – to get rid of their failed/degenerated leaders and begin a new, higher process/cycle of socio-political transformations. A movement really involving the broad masses can only advance in complex zigzags, unforeseen detours and U-turns, steep ascents and unexpected descents. This is how history is made, this is what we are witnessing today in Venezuela as well as in Greece.
In the particular case of Venezuela, objective conditions for a left-democratic resurgence is particularly favourable. Given the intense conflict between the Executive and the Legislature and with battle-hardened citizens loosely organized in communes ready to resist the anti-people steps of the right-dominated Legislature, an almost dual power-like situation prevails in this country. The President, whose term extends to 2019, enjoys significant powers under the constitution and till now he has been using those with alacrity. And while the communes are not exactly comparable to the Russian soviets between February and October 1917, with determined effort and powered by a militant mass movement, the former can develop into a parallel system of governance from below. It all depends, of course, on whether the Chavistas can shake off the inertia and lethargy and the bourgeois vices they acquired during the long stint in power and really rise to the occasion. Whether, for example, they seriously try and ensure that the National Communal Parliament the PSUV legislators have recently created does not remain a symbolic gesture and becomes a real counterweight to the bourgeois parliament, a pulsating organ of people’s power by channeling the voices of the communal councils and communes into the Venezuelan legislature.
The second specific feature of post-poll politics in Venezuela has to do with the fact that a major section of people has voted against or abstained from supporting the PSUV but, as opinion polls in 2015 have repeatedly shown, the government’s social programmes remain as popular as ever. In other words, the ant-incumbency vote is not at all a popular mandate for a neoliberal restructuring of Venezuelan economy and polity. The impending push in that direction, even if intelligently calibrated, will encounter massive resistance. The MUD economic programme is bound to worsen the plight of the people and for the Chavistas there will be no dearth of issues to agitate on.
There is thus ample scope for the Chavistas to rebuild the hegemony they have forfeited, mainly bottom-up from the grassroots and also from within parliamentary institutions. Will they seriously take the defeat as a wake-up call and tread this path?
Nearly five years ago, Chavez announced a “Three R’s Campaign” (Revision, Rectification and Re-impulsing) and Maduro spoke of a “government of the street” in 2013. The former made little headway, and the latter is already forgotten. PSUV leader Maduro has once again called for self-criticism and inner-party debate and vowed to revive the party's ties with the grassroots. This time perhaps the outcome will be more positive, now that they have nowhere else to go but the streets, the communes, the oilfields, factories and villages.
We trust the Chavistas will draw proper lessons from the jolt and consistently follow revolutionary mass line for a renewed forward march. At this hour of trial, left and democratic forces around the world wish them all success.