Thousands flocked to Miraflores, the Presidential Palace in Caracas, Sunday night (October 7) to celebrate the victory of Hugo Chávez in Sunday’s presidential election. In scenes reminiscent of the defeat of the right-wing coup in 2002, soldiers from the presidential guard waved flags from the roof top of the palace while other soldiers joined workers, youth, the unemployed and others who came to the city centre to celebrate the defeat of the right-wing candidate, Henrique Capriles.
The victory of Chávez, his fifth electoral victory since 1998, has inflicted yet another defeat on Venezuela’s right wing and is welcomed by the CWI and its Venezuelan section, Socialismo Revolucionario, together with workers and socialists internationally. A victory of the right wing would have resulted in an attack on the Venezuelan working class, a rolling back of the reform programme and a political offensive by the ruling class nationally and internationally, celebrating another defeat for ‘socialism’. A massive turnout of over 80% – up from 75% in 2006 – the highest in decades, reflected the political and class polarisation which continues to grip Venezuelan society.
With over 98% of the votes counted, Chávez had won 8,133,952, 55.25%, compared to 6,498,527, 44.14%, for wealthy businessman Capriles. Chávez won in 20 of Venezuela’s 24 federal states. If he completes this mandate for another six years, Chávez will have been in power for two decades in total. He will become the longest serving Venezuelan President since Juan Vincente Gomez who ruled from 1908 until 1935! The difference is that Chávez has been elected with mass support, as opposed to the dictatorship of Gomez. Capitalist politicians and leaders of the former workers’ parties in Europe and other continents must look with envy at Chávez’s continued electoral victories and ability to mobilise millions of supporters. Certainly, no other political leader in recent elections has had the ability to repeatedly attract millions to election rallies or be greeted by such crowds celebrating his victory.
Right-wing campaign’s populist character
This election campaign has been presented in Venezuela as ‘historic’, one that will determine the future of the country and as a choice between ‘two distinct models’. However, such a choice was not reflected in Chávez arguing during the campaign for a clear socialist programme to break with capitalism. Neither did he advocate such an alternative in his address to the crowd which greeted him outside Miraflores.
The election campaign reflected important aspects and new features of the struggle that have unfolded in Venezuela during the last fourteen years following Chávez’s first victory.
One of the most significant features of the election was the character of the right-wing campaign. The effect of the policies and struggles of the last fourteen years has left powerful support for radical social policies and, to an extent, the general idea of ‘socialism’, which is now deep in the popular political consciousness.
Reflecting the radicalised left political consciousness that is now dominant in Venezuelan society, Capriles was compelled to present his programme in a populist manner that masked his real right-wing neo-liberal agenda. This represents a significant change in the strategy of the right wing.
Capriles’s propaganda and speeches attempted to address the plight of the poor and promised to defend a welfare state. He argued he would not dismantle all the ‘missions’, the reform programme introduced by Chávez in health and education. He called for the defence of ‘independent’ trade unions and tried to win the support of public sector workers by promising to end the obligatory attendance at Chávez rallies and protests, which is a major source of discontent. Capriles energetically crisscrossed the country – attempting to portray himself as a ‘radical’ new youthful figure as opposed to the older ‘tired’ figure of Chávez in order to win the youth vote. He had some success in this.
The real programme of the right was to be found buried in its material where it argued for reduced state intervention and an increased role for private investment in the economy. In the failed 2002 coup, Capriles was implicated in the right-wing assault on the Cuban embassy. Had the right wing secured a victory in this election, a Capriles government would have attempted to roll back the reform programmes of the Chávez governments and introduce more neo-liberal measures.
This change in the right wing’s propaganda is a reflection of the real balance of political forces at this stage. Capriles was compelled to rein in the extreme right. To have unleashed the forces of the far right or to have argued explicitly for more right-wing neo-liberal policies would only have resulted in a bigger defeat for Capriles.
A serious warning
Despite the welcome victory of Chávez the voting in this election is also a warning, from which important lessons need to be drawn in order to prevent a possible future right-wing victory. While Chávez’s percentage of the total vote fell by 7.6 percentage points compared to the last election in 2006, Capriles increased the right’s share by 7.2 percentage points. On an increased turnout Chávez increased his actual vote by 824,872, but Capriles increased the vote of the right by 2,206,061. This represents a serious warning. Apart from the referendum on constitutional reform in 2007, this was the lowest percentage vote for Chávez in any election.
The right has been increasing its vote at each election, reflecting a creeping, slow-motion counter-revolution. But support for radical left policies remains dominant at this stage and the masses, including some sections who this time voted for the right, are opposed to any attempt to revert back to the old order that existed prior to Chávez coming to power.
However, the failure to break with capitalism and introduce a genuine socialist programme with democratic control and management by the working class and all those exploited by capitalism, is allowing the right to exploit the growing discontent and frustration due to the worsening social conditions, corruption and inefficiency that accompanies the growing Chávista bureaucracy and the government’s top-down bureaucratic approach, which the CWI has consistently warned about and opposed.
The largest percentage of the vote ever won so far by Chávez was in the 2006 election when he took 62% of the vote. Significantly, this was also Chávez’s most radical campaign when the question of ‘socialism’ was dominant and to the fore in the campaign. At that time, there was a revolutionary development following the defeated right-wing coup attempt and 2002-03 bosses’ lockout. However, since that victory, rather than advancing through the introduction of a programme to break with capitalism and introduce a real system of democratic workers’ control and management, the revolutionary process has stalled and been in retreat.
The government has increasingly collaborated with the ruling class and sought to reach agreement with it; hence its policy of ‘national reconciliation’ and agreements struck with the employers’ federation. This, together with the emergence of those who have grown rich on the backs of the Chávez movement – the ‘boli-bourgeoisie’ – inevitably resulted in growing discontent and protests against the government.
Reforms & despair in the poorest barrios
Moreover, the response of the government to the global economic capitalist crisis which began in 2007 has not been to drive forward with a programme to break with capitalism but to move in the opposite direction and seek to appease it by moving to the right. Increased tax concessions since then have been given to multinational companies. The national oil company PDVSA, which has financed the ‘missions’ reform programme, has cut its budget to them by nearly 30%.
There has also been increased repression against workers and others who have taken strike action in recent years. Workers in the public sector are subject to the Law of Security Defence of the Nation. This allows for the banning of strikes and even protests in the public sector. The state police in the city of Barcelona killed two workers’ leaders at the Mitsubishi car factory; the governor of this state is a Chávista. Workers at Toyota suffered the same fate.
Despite the popular reform policies of the ‘missions’, which have aided millions in their health, education and other programmes, catastrophic social conditions remain in the poorest ‘barrios’ and show little sign of improving. These have been the breeding ground for a dramatic rise in crime, brutal violence and kidnappings to extract money from the families of victims. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world: the government’s official figure was 19,000 deaths in 2011. This is almost certainly an under-estimate of the scale of this slaughter.
Venezuela is currently one of the most violent countries in the world. In one predominantly wealthy district near Caracas, El Hatillo, 70 kidnappings have occurred so far this year! The experience of CWI members is typical. One CWI member living in a barrio arrived at a meeting the day before the election to tell of the shooting of his brother-in-law the night before. Another told of the shooting of their landlord. Others speak of work colleagues being kidnapped. Another spoke of withdrawing money from a bank for work, only to be robbed five minutes later by armed youth on a motorcycle who had been texted of the cash withdrawal by bank clerks, who then take a cut of the money. Such attacks make the lives of the poor and the middle class a state of almost permanent anxiety and even fear.
The housing situation remains desperate especially in the poorest barrios. The government, in the run-up to the election, launched a rushed housing programme, claiming to have built over 200,000 new dwellings. Many people question these figures. Many who saw their shacks washed away by heavy rain in 2010 remain in refuges. Here, conditions can be so bad that even massacres of the occupants have taken place by other occupants or the drug cartels which operate in the barrios. Yet what is being constructed are in reality new ghettos: tiny apartments in blocks with no facilities, built on any piece of empty land or land that has been expropriated. One new development is isolated with one road in and one road out at least an hour’s drive away from the nearest metro.
Corruption, lack of democratic planning and control and inadequate building techniques have often meant cracks have appeared in the blocks even before they are occupied!
These conditions are the potential breeding ground for armed gangs of young people driven into violent robberies and kidnappings in order to survive. They are also the breeding ground of discontent, which the right wing can build upon or could lead to demoralisation and apathy towards the government. This is already developing and was evident in the campaign.
Minimal reference to socialism
The Chávez campaign during this election was to the right of the campaign fought in 2006. It was shortly after this that Chávez proposed the launch of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) as a ‘revolutionary party’. Chávez made references to Trotsky, the permanent revolution and the transitional programme. He spoke of building a ‘fifth international’ of ‘left parties’. But in this election, none of that was evident. Reference to socialism was minimal until the last week of the campaign. Instead, the main slogan of Chávez was “Chávez the heart of the fatherland”. It assumed a very nationalistic character with promises to develop the ‘fatherland’. The election was highly personalised in both camps. While the main avenues of Caracas were full at the closing rally, it was noticeable that the placards simply featured Chávez and the ‘Fatherland’ with no political content. Absent were the banners of the PSUV or the trade unions. Many workers wore shirts from the companies they worked for and often said they were there because they were ‘obliged’ to by their employers.
While many enthusiastically rallied to Chávez as their only hope and fearing the right, some were simply mobilised around chanting for ‘Chávez and fatherland’, with no content.
These features reflect the lack of an independent organised political force of the workers and the poor, which the CWI has commented on in previous articles. This, and the bureaucratic top-down approach of the government, has seriously weakened the movement right from its earliest period, something of which the CWI has consistently warned. This top-down approach was again reflected during the election campaign. On two occasions when Chávez spoke in mass meetings in states, some chanted “Chávez yes, but not ...”, referring to the imposed Chávista candidates for the forthcoming state elections in December. Chávez responded by saying if the imposed candidates were rejected then they also must reject Chávez!
The lack of a democratic independent workers’ movement is one of the biggest weaknesses and greatest dangers. It has already allowed the right wing to make gains and advances. If the working class, youth and poor do not build a democratic independent organised force, the threat of the right and advance of the counter-revolution will grow. It cannot be ruled out that the right wing will make gains in December’s regional elections given the rottenness of some of the Chávista candidates.
Unfortunately, following his victory, Chávez, when speaking to his supporters, gave no indication of taking steps to overthrow capitalism. He offered dialogue and debate to the opposition. “We are all brothers of the fatherland,” he thundered after praising the opposition for accepting the result. He spoke of building one united Venezuela. Both sides towards the end of the campaign emphasised this same point. As the polls closed, there was a barrage of television propaganda from both sides appealing for peace, unity and reconciliation. Both Chávez and Capriles urged ‘calm’ and ‘tranquillity’, evidently fearing that polarisation could result in clashes and some kind of social explosion.
‘Mixed economy’ or break with capitalism?
As Chávez greeted the crowd after his victory, he made two passing references to socialism. However, these were drowned in pronouncements of “Viva Bolivar! Viva La Patria! Viva Venezuela!” During the campaign he argued that the ‘socialism’ of the Soviet Union had failed and a new type is needed in the 21st century. But this was not a rejection of the former totalitarian Stalinist regime that masqueraded as socialism, in favour of advocating a programme of workers’ democracy. Chávez’s policies illustrate that what he means by this ‘new type’ is a ‘mixed economy’ combining capitalism with state intervention and reforms. The reforms which the CWI supported are now being rolled back and cut. They could only be maintained and strengthened on the basis of breaking with capitalism and introducing a democratic socialist plan of the economy.
Capriles is clearly biding his time and now intends to consolidate his base following the election campaign. Chávez is set to continue with his policies of conciliation and working with those sections of the ruling class which are prepared to collaborate with him. Such a policy will increasingly bring his government into collision with workers and the poor. Social discontent will increase. It is urgent that an independent democratic socialist workers’ movement is built with a programme to break with capitalism. If this is not done, then alongside growing social disintegration and alienation will develop the threat from the right.
The deepening global capitalist economic crisis will have a heavy impact on Venezuela. A significant fall in the price of oil, Venezuela’s main export worth $60 billion last year, would threaten to undermine Chávez’s policies. It cannot be excluded that Chávez could be driven back towards the left and introduce more radical measures that encroach on capitalism. However, this is far from certain and would not, on their own, represent a socialist transformation. To break with capitalism and build a real democratic socialist alternative still needs the urgent construction of an independent, democratic and politically conscious workers’ socialist movement.