Elections will take place amid political polarization and economic uncertainty
On October 7, presidential elections will be held in Venezuela. These elections will prove crucial for both the Chavez Government and the recently aligned right wing Mesa de Unidad Democratica (Democratic Unity Platform – known by the abbreviation – MUD). For the first time since Chavez took power in 1998 the right wing have succeeded, at least superficially, to put their differences aside and elect one person to represent them – Henry Capriles Radonski. Capriles himself is a multi- millionaire and until recently a state governor.
In achieving a single candidate to represent them combined with increasing protests about housing, pay, corruption, a crisis in the prison and health care system, rising violent crime and Chavez’s ongoing health problems, the right wing have newfound confidence. They have dressed themselves up as a ‘democratic’ force claiming to fight for real change and ‘progress’. They have highlighted many issues that the Government has been unwilling to address in any serious way. For the first time they may have found a credible candidate to challenge Chavez, although it is clearly not certain that they will win.
The polls predicting who will win vary significantly depending on the institute or company conducting them. Both sides claim the polls favouring them are ‘independent’ and deny corruption or rigging in the surveys used to get the results.
A ‘poll war’ has in fact broken out and in many ways has offered a welcomed distraction for both Chavism and the right wing from the real issues at hand. Many of the pollsters themselves have come out denying the accusations – with one, Hinterlaces, even warning Capriles that he should be focusing on attacking Chavez and his politics and not the polling groups.
A Polarized Society
The poll war does little to help the political situation in which Venezuelans find themselves today. Since Chavez’s election, or more specifically in the lead up to the 2002 coup, Venezuelan has become increasingly polarized between Chavism and the right wing. It is obvious that in a pre- and counter-revolutionary situation this will occur as society divides along class lines. Venezuela is just one example in a long line of struggles. Similar processes have taken place in Chile under Allende and the Spanish Civil War to name a few.
In Venezuela, both sides have actively encouraged the polarization. This was exemplified when Chavez launched the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and warned the trade union leaders and others on the far left that ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’. Thereby forcing anyone in between to make a decision who they are supporting without allowing room for criticism of any kind.
This is more evident than ever on the left where for years many ‘revolutionary’ groups, such as the Communist Party of Venezuela, have at times given a blank cheque to the government, only recently coming out stating that more criticism is necessary. Groups such as ourselves, who have not failed to criticise the government, have faced political isolation and individual comrades have confronted threats and intimidation in their public institute workplaces.
Ironically it is Capriles, who represents the ruling class, who has come out stating he will be the President for ‘everyone – even the reds’. Opportunistically, they are capitalising on the tiredness that many ordinary Venezuelans feel about the political situation.
The right wing have also capitalised on the recent recession experienced in Venezuela during 2009-2011, as a result of the fall of world petrol prices, by citing economic mismanagement as an example of the governments incapacity. The government continues to rely heavily on oil exports for revenue, with 90% of all exports petroleum and its derivatives.
During the recession, rather than radicalize and use the crisis to demonstrate the need to break with capitalism, the government took the very same measures as many other capitalist governments. This is of course after initially denying Venezuela would be affected at all by the global financial crisis.
They increased IVA tax (a tax on goods and services), devalued the currency and made budget cuts. Works to hospitals that had previously slowed as a result of corruption came to a halt. They halved the national budget based on US$40 a barrel for petroleum when even at it’s lowest it didn’t come close to this price.
These measures combined with the annual 22-28% inflation hit many poor and working class people hard.
This austerity budget, although increased slightly because the expected price of oil raised to $60 per barrel, has allowed the government to amass a fortune in a parallel fund. These funds have subsequently been used in the last 8 months to carry out many social programs, including the new Housing Mission that according to the government has constructed thousands of houses for the masses of people who have been in refugees as a result of the 2010 rains. Thousands, particularly families living in extreme poverty have been granted partial social security payments.
While these reforms have been welcomed by some of the poorest sections of society they have not been enough to fundamentally change the day to day problems people face.
Although it would appear that the recession is over for now, it is certain that the economy will face new challenges in the future. It is likely that OPEC will push to regulate and lower petroleum prices in an attempt to increase world demand.
Neither the government nor the right-wing have raised the possibility of this. Clearly such talk will not be for the likes of the election campaigns!
Alongside the economic difficulties recent laws introduced make the right to strike more difficult, with many industries declared no strike zones as they would present a ‘threat to national security’. The formation of parallel Bolivarian Trade Unions (including a new Bolivarian Trade Union Confederation) has left many previously independent trade unions dysfunctional or branded as right wing.
The Working Class and the Left
As mentioned the organised left have been in large part fragmented and isolated from one another as a result of the extreme political polarization that exists. The situation today has arisen because of the absence of a genuine mass revolutionary party. During the period from 2002 to 2005 all the conditions existed for a successful socialist revolution. The problem was that no party existed that was prepared to take advantage of the situation. Instead Chavez consolidated power in the hands of the government and a rapidly growing bureaucracy.
It is true however that the Bolivarian Process has helped develop a certain level of class-consciousness. Words such as socialism, revolution and workers’ power are commonly used in many factories and barrios around the country. The actual understanding of what these are and how we can achieve them, however, differ.
The next five months in Venezuela will be politically challenging for the left. As the election grows closer the space for debate or criticism will become even smaller. Our section continues to raise the demand for an independent working class movement and for genuine democratic socialism. We have been active in trying to organise a left front to defend workers’ rights and for an independent left however it is extremely difficult work in the current climate.
While not certain, it looks likely that Chavez will win the election. The government has been somewhat able to distance the discontent seen on the streets against the government from Chavez himself. Many people, with reason, still see Chavez as the President who gave them a voice and access to health care and education for the first time.
Clearly the right wing, despite their rhetoric, offers no way forward for the working class and their election would likely see even more difficult conditions to organise in. In the context of a worsening economic situation they would implement the same austerity measures that other capitalist governments around the world have introduced.
The CWI in Venezuela says that voting for Chavez is not enough. If we are to have any hope of addressing the social issues that exist we need to build a movement that is prepared to move quickly in the direction of genuine democratic socialism. Only a society based on public ownership of all the key sectors of the economy, democratic control from below, and a sustainable plan of production can use the wealth that exists to quickly raise the living standards of the majority.
We need a left government but more importantly we need to build an independent movement in the workplaces, in the barrios and amongst youth that will organise to take control of the economy out of the hands of capitalists and the government bureaucracy.