In the first electoral defeat suffered by the Chavistas since Hugo Chávez was first elected president in 1998, the right-wing coalition, MUD, scored a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in December 2015. Winning 7.707 million votes against 5.599 million for the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) led coalition, it won 112 of the 167-seat parliament – 67% of the seats. The PSUV lost in six major states comprising over 50% of the population. Where it won it was largely in the rural areas.
This election result unfortunately vindicates the warnings consistently raised by the CWI of the consequences of the failure to take the revolutionary process forward. Capitalism would have to be defeated, we argued, through the nationalisation of the decisive sectors of the economy, and the introduction of a system of democratic, socialist planning through workers’ control and management. If not, this would result in disillusionment and despair among the masses, threatening the return of the right-wing forces of the capitalist class.
Since the death of Hugo Chávez, the government led by Nicolás Maduro has seen its support undermined by worsening economic and social crises. Even before Chávez’s death, these tendencies were developing. However, they have accelerated rapidly as the economic situation worsened dramatically. The failure to replace the capitalist economy with a democratic socialist system resulted in the regime being left ground between two contradictory tendencies. On the one side, it enraged the ruling class. On the other, it failed to satisfy the needs of the masses.
That allowed the capitalist ruling class to conduct a systematic campaign of economic sabotage and destabilisation. Shortages of many basic foodstuffs and other commodities were partly a consequence of their actions. At the same time, this was compounded by the growth of a massive state bureaucracy, and corruption and mismanagement in state-controlled sectors. This saw the emergence of a ‘new rich’ of party and state bureaucrats, along with company owners, who enriched themselves on the backs of the Chavista movement – dubbed the ‘boli-bourgeoisie’ (after the Chavistas’ hero, Simón Bolívar).
These features have been unfolding for a period but accelerated recently, due to the collapse in the price of oil. Down from US$120 a barrel at the time of the global financial crash in 2008 to approximately US$30, and still falling. Inflation has been running in treble digits, the highest in the world. Prospects for the coming year are even worse as the economy is anticipated to contract by another 7%. The economic chaos is reflected in the existence of three official exchange rates for the national currency – fuelling a thriving black market.
Mass shortages of basic foodstuffs, resulting in enormous queues for everything from toilet paper to rice and beans, have been the daily grind for millions of Venezuelans. The elements of social collapse and disintegration have been reflected in the explosion of violence and crime. With over 23,000 murders recorded in 2014, Venezuela has become one of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world. Restaurants commonly display the sign: ‘No smoking. No guns’!
This social and economic disaster is a result of trying to make ‘half a revolution’, and leading to the worst of both worlds. The capitalist ruling class is enraged and the masses are not satisfied. The resulting chaos undermined the enthusiastic support that initially existed for the ‘socialist revolution’ promised by Hugo Chávez, especially in the period following the defeated attempt at a counter-revolutionary coup in 2002.
The erosion of support and the disillusionment which has developed allowed the right-wing MUD coalition to score this electoral victory. It is a similar process to that which took place in Nicaragua, and the eventual defeat of the Sandinistas in 1989. Significantly, there was a high level of abstentions and blank votes – 25% and approximately 8%, respectively – over six million votes, more than the total for the Chavista PSUV-PPG alliance. MUD learnt from the failed attempts at a right-wing counter-revolution, which pushed the masses to the left. Its most extreme sections were reined in and the naked neoliberal policies many of them defend were not openly advocated.
Nonetheless, an echo remains of the experience of the revolutionary process following the attempted coup in 2002. The scale of the recent electoral victory has raised the hopes of right-wingers that they could immediately take measures to roll back the remaining social gains implemented by the Chavistas, and directly challenge Maduro, removing him from the presidency. However, the Chavista forces are not prepared to simply pack up and go. Many have their own vested interests in maintaining their positions within the state machine which they largely control.
The outgoing parliament in December rushed through proposals to appoint thirteen new Supreme Court judges. The court, in turn, has barred three of the newly-elected deputies from taking their seats on the basis of allegations of electoral fraud. In doing so, they have deprived MUD of its super-majority in the congress, which would allow it to challenge Maduro, dismiss government ministers and even reduce the presidential term due to end in 2018.
However, this does not mean the end of the crisis or of the conflict between the Chavistas and the right-wing opposition. The dire economic situation and ongoing political power struggle are likely to deepen in the coming period. As one business leader was quoted in the Financial Times (17 December): “This year was a walk in the park compared to what’s coming”.
A clash between the Chavistas around Maduro and the right-wing remains a serious prospect. MUD has already presented its legislative agenda which includes reversing ‘expropriations’ of private businesses, and freeing its supporters from prison. Leopoldo López, the imprisoned opposition leader, has already warned that if Maduro and his supporters “try to torpedo change by way of ignoring the result they will have to be removed”. In response, Maduro declared: “We’re facing a large-scale crisis, a counter-revolutionary crisis that is going to generate a power struggle”.
It is also possible that some in the right-wing coalition, such as Julio Borges, may attempt to incorporate sections of the Chavista bureaucracy. In one interview he argued: “Our immediate priority is to help Venezuelans find medicines and food. The government has to understand that it has to be part of the changes”. (Financial Times, 17 December) Maduro has been trying to form a ‘coexistence pact’ with the opposition since April 2014. Borges went on to warn: “If not, it [the government] will have to be changed”.
This right-wing victory is not comparable to the bloody defeat of the working class in Chile in 1973. If the right-wing in parliament pursues its real agenda, moving to dismantle the reforms implemented under Chávez and attacking the masses, it is possible it could provoke mass resistance. This may, however, be cut across by the disillusionment which has developed.
At the same time, the right-wing parliamentary majority has no blank cheque either. In the former Chávez stronghold of Barinas, a farm worker who had switched from voting for Chávez to the opposition stated: “I hope the victorious lawmakers quickly produce economic improvements. If they don’t deliver then people are going to pay them with the same coin they paid these guys”. (International New York Times, 15 December)
A crucial question is now posed for the critical forces from the Chavista movement, and to workers and young people. That is to draw the lessons from this defeat and begin to build an independent socialist party of the working class with a programme to break with capitalism and introduce a democratic, socialist planned economy. Sections of the right-wing in Latin America and internationally are already attempting to use the result to argue that it represents an example of the ‘failure of socialism’. This is not true. It is a failure of the attempt to only take partial measures encroaching on capitalist interests, while leaving their class in power socially and economically. This lesson also applies to a possible future ‘left’ government in Britain led by Jeremy Corbyn, and also from the betrayal of Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza in Greece.