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*Latest Step in a Long Road: The Venezuelan Elections*

*The Bolivarian process then has entered a crucial conjuncture. The victory
in the elections was its basic condition for survival. The strengthening of
self-organization and independent popular class politics from below is what
will ensure its deepening into the future - particularly one ridden with
dangers of bureaucratic consolidation, economic instability, and right-wing
advances in the state governorship elections.
*The Bolivarian process then has entered a crucial conjuncture. The victory
in the elections was its basic condition for survival. The strengthening of
self-organization and independent popular class politics from below is what
will ensure its deepening into the future - particularly one ridden with
dangers of bureaucratic consolidation, economic instability, and right-wing
advances in the state governorship elections.
 link to upsidedownworld.org

*Latest Step in a Long Road: The Venezuelan Elections*

by Jeffery R. Webber Thursday, 11 October 2012 22:13

That Hugo Chávez had to win last Sunday's elections in order for the Bolivarian process to continue - in
whatever form - was recognized by close to the entirety of the Venezuelan
Left over the last several months, including those sectors especially
critical of the limits to the political economic program of the government,
and the lingering influence of an important conservative bureaucratic layer
within the ruling party. Chávez's victory straightforwardly represents a
stinging blow to the domestic right, represented through their candidate
Henrique Capriles Radonski, and a setback for the interests of the United
States in the region, a region which has - in no small part due to the
ascendancy of Chávez, and the oil power he exercises - established a new
relative autonomy from its Northern neighbour since the late 1990s.

A defeat of Chávez would conversely have signified a serious reversal for
the fortunes of popular movements that have arisen in the country,
especially since they defeated the April 2002 coup attempt and the oil
lockout of 2002-2003. Momentum would have shifted to the domestic right,
and whether under Obama or Romney in coming years, the geopolitical and
geoeconomic interests of the US state within Venezuela, and more broadly
within the region. The significant social gains achieved under Chávez would
have been severely undermined.

Whatever the internal contradictions of the Bolivarian process, the
electoral victory of Chávez was the necessary starting point for addressing
them, salvaging the social gains that have been introduced, and radically
extending the breadth and depth of a radical conceptualization of democracy
in the country and the region - that is to say initiating a transition to

"The elections are a mix," the Argentine-Mexican Marxist Guillermo Almeyra
suggests, "between a legal and democratic process of conflict resolution, a
disguised and mediated, but sharp, class struggle, and a dispute within the
Bolivarian process itself - between a bureaucratic-technocratic caste which
is securing itself inside the government, Hugo Chávez who manoeuvres in a
bonapartist fashion, and, finally, the popular struggle to build elements
of popular power."[1]

Gutless Platitudes...

Now, if one's introduction to Venezuelan politics was rooted principally in
the most important newspapers or other media outlets of the
English-speaking world, one could be forgiven for reaching the conclusion
that those voting for Chávez must have been completely delusional.

Roy Carroll, writing for the Guardian in the week before the elections
announced, for example, that Chávez was elected "via the ballot box but in
power [he] created a personality cult, abolished term limits, curbed
private media and put the armed forces, legislature, judiciary and state
oil company, PDVSA, under his personal control."[2] Getting increasingly
worked up toward the middle of the piece, Carroll proclaims that "Venezuela
is falling apart. In the case of infrastructure, literally. Roads are
crumbling, bridges falling, refineries exploding... .Public hospitals, with a
few exceptions, are dank, dingy affairs where patients must supply their
own bedsheets, bandages and food." The economy, for its part, is said to be
"warping." While the Bolivarian process might not include "gulags" or
"torture chambers" Chávez is at best a "hybrid: a democrat and autocrat, a
progressive and a bully." In short it is a process, for Rory, characterized
by "gutted institutions, a caudillo (strongman) cult, [and] economic

Moisés Naím, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, and former Venezuelan minister of industry and trade in the early
1990s, follows Rory's lead in the pages of the Financial Times.[3] He opens
with a stirring lament: "Last Sunday Goliath crushed David. Hugo Chávez,
Venezuela's political giant, defeated Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old
opposition candidate." If Chávez represents "ideological, divisive
tactics," Capriles embodies "messages of national harmony, tolerance
against political opponents, and pragmatism."

Naím goes on to compare Chávez to Russia's right-wing duo Dmitry Medvedev
and Vladimir Putin, just before climaxing: "the country is a mess. It
suffers from inflation and homicide rates among the world's highest,
decrepit infrastructure, declining oil production, a deeply distorted
economy, dismal productivity and rampant corruption."

Whereas it is common to read in the major press around American or British
election time that announcements of corporate tax cuts are rationally
considered measures to reassure investors and create an attractive business
environment, when Chávez introduces a new welfare initiative for building
subsidized housing for the poor, this is denounced as crude, clientelistic,
manipulative "vote-buying." Meeting human needs is populist witchcraft,
while meeting the imperatives of profit is the science of economics. A
report the day before the elections in the Financial Times, for example,
disdainfully reports that "Mr. Chávez, who regularly taunts the US as the
'evil empire', boosted his support by increasing state spending by 30
percent this year and tapping the world's largest oil reserves to provides
subsidized food, housing and healthcare."[4]

Inside the major financial institutions one hears the same refrain.
Immediately prior to stepping down as president of the World Bank in June,
Robert Zoellick happily reported that "Chávez's days are numbered," leaving
the subsidies Venezuela provides to countries like Cuba and Nicaragua in
jeopardy. Such a turn of events would present "an opportunity to make the
western hemisphere the first democratic hemisphere" rather than a "place of
coups, caudillos, and cocaine."[5]

Of course, such racist caricatures have a much deeper pedigree than the
recent electoral season in Venezuela. Mainstream punditry in North America
and Europe has long associated Venezuela with the bad Left in contemporary
Latin America. This Left, in the words of Jorge Castañeda, for example, is
"nationalist, strident, and close-minded," "depends on giving away money,"
and has "no real domestic agenda."[6] For the bad Left, "the fact of power
is more important than its responsible exercise," and for its leaders,
"economic performance, democratic values, programmatic achievements, and
good relations with the United States are not imperatives but bothersome
constraints that miss the real point."

George W. Bush's national security strategy documents claimed that Hugo
Chávez was a "demagogue awash in oil money," seeking to "undermine
democracy" and "destabilize the region." Donald Rumsfeld compared Chávez to
Adolf Hitler, reminding us that Hitler, too, had been elected.[7] Not much
has changed since Barack Obama took over the world's most powerful
presidency. The White House message continues to be that Chávez runs a
dangerously authoritarian regime in desperate need of "democratization" -
the same Orwellian code employed during the recent right-wing coups in
Honduras (June 2009) and Paraguay (June 2012).[8]

... from the Democrats and Freedom Fighters

It is perhaps in the areas of democracy and the media that Mark Weisbrot's
recent complaint of coverage of the country rings truest. Weisbrot, a
US-based progressive economic analyst, expressed his dismay with "the state
of misrepresentation of Venezuela," arguing that "it is probably the most
lied-about country in the world."[9] On the alleged creeping
authoritarianism or hybrid autocratic character of the Chávez regime, of
the many counters Weisbrot could have employed, he came packing Jimmy
Carter, Nobel prize winner for his work on election monitoring through the
Carter Center. "As a matter of fact," Weisbrot quoted Carter as saying, "of
the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say that the election
process in Venezuela is the best in the world." A similar statement was
released immediately before the elections by the head of the team of
electoral observers for UNASUR, or Union of South American Nations, a new
regional integration association.[10] Weisbrot also pointed out to
naysayers within the US state the fact that it is predicted, in a poll
cited in USA Today, that roughly 90 million eligible voters in the United
States will not cast a ballot in the next US elections. In Venezuela, 80
percent of eligible voters turned out for last Sunday's event.

It is worth noting here as well that while the domestic opposition recently
acquired a taste for participating in electoral contests, this was only
after a failed coup attempt in April 2002 - which was celebrated by the New
York Times in an editorial the following day - and an extended 2002-2003
oil lockout orchestrated in an attempt to undermine the basis of the
Venezuelan economy and destabilize the Chávez regime. These freedom
fighters are liberal democrats of convenience.

On the question of the media, it is an absolute commonplace to hear of
Chávez's restrictions on the private media, and the overarching Chavista
control of information in the country. For example, in a recent report from
the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, it is claimed that the
Venezuelan government controls a "media empire." In fact, Venezuelan state
TV reaches "only about 5-8% of the country's audience. Of course, Chávez
can interrupt normal programming with his speeches (under a law that
predates his administration), and regularly does so. But the opposition
still has most of the media, including radio and print media - not to
mention most of the wealth and income of the country."[11] No one who has
ever perused the headlines of a news kiosk in Caracas could credibly reach
any other conclusion.

Why Chávez Won

If the state of Venezuela is in such disrepair as Rory and Naím would have
it, and if the elections were clean and fair, what explains the support for
Chávez? We still need to address this question in very basic ways, because
they continue to elude the analyses of mainstream journalists.

According to some reports, relying on official governmental data, poverty
has been cut in half under Chávez, and extreme poverty by 70
percent.[12]Moreover, this only includes income poverty statistics.
Adding access to
the increasing social wage - new social services and welfare initiatives -
would only amplify these figures. More conservative figures from the United
Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean still show
a 21 percent reduction of income poverty between 1999 and
2010.[13]Millions now have access to health care for the first time,
literacy has
been dramatically improved, college enrolment has soared, and there has
been a fourfold increase in the number of people now eligible for public
pensions. After a recession in 2009, induced by the global crisis and the
concomitant temporary drop in world oil prices, the economy resumed growth
over the last two-and-a-half years, reaching a rate of 5.6 percent in the
first trimester of this year.[14] The new subsidized Housing Mission
introduced by Chávez in 2011 has built 200,000 units for the poor already,
an initiative which enjoyed a 76 percent approval rating in polls prior to
the elections.[15]

New Wine in Old Bottle

Meanwhile, Capriles, the opposition's chameleon candidate, cast himself as
above the petty divisions of ideology, a moderate loathe to taking sides.
He courted the approval of Lula, promising the continuation of some of
Chávez's most popular social initiatives; alas, his sentiments proved to be
unrequited when the former Brazilian president publicly backed Chávez.
Ultimately, Capriles found it difficult to dissociate himself from his
membership in the conservative Justice First Party (MPJ), the electoral
statements of the coalition of parties backing his presidential campaign,
the Democratic Unity Table (MUD), in favour of privatization and the
liberalization of markets, his right-wing record as mayor of the well-off
municipality of Baruta in Caracas between 2000 and 2008 and as governor of
the state of Miranda since late 2008, and his own family's riches in real
estate, industry, and the media.

All of this was eerily reminiscent of the neoliberal era that preceded
Chávez's assumption of the presidency in 1999. Many Venezuelans, it would
seem, remembered the severity of the social repercussion of that model,
initiated in earnest in 1989. Per capita income by 1998 had declined 34.8
percent from its 1970 level, the worst collapse in the region. Likewise, by
1997, workers' share of the national income was half what it had been in
1970, and the country's gini coefficient measure of income inequality was
worse than in the notoriously unequal Brazil and South Africa.[16] Cuts to
wages and social spending in 1989 precipitated an increase in poverty from
46 to 62 percent over the following decade.[17]

It was against this backdrop that Chávez was first elected on a reformist
ticket, and it has been the successes - however uneven, modest, and fragile
- in reversing some of the direst of these socioeconomic perversions that
have allowed him to maintain such a level of popularity even after 13 years
in office.

And Now What?

The above equips us, necessarily, with an escape from some of the
distortions and crudity of the politics of empire vis-à-vis contemporary
Venezuela. But so far, so social democratic. This was, it should be
remembered, an electoral contest between two models of capitalism - an
oil-dependent state capitalism with a heavier weight for the state in the
capitalist market, versus a capitalism inflected with a freer market and
the privatization of oil.[18]

"If he loses it would be a terrible setback," long-time Venezuelan
revolutionary Roland Denis reminded us in August of this year. "But if he
wins, we have not really 'won' anything, but the horizons would remain
open. What I do sincerely hope happens, is that after the election all of
this discontent, this tension that is mounting between the popular forces
and the bureaucracy will come to a head. I hope that people will begin to
speak and name the problem for what it is. Right now everyone is silent
because they are waging an electoral campaign."[19]

To begin, the right needs to be taken far more seriously than an easy
triumphalism permits. It is far too complacent to consider the millions who
voted for Capriles oligarchs and fascists. Large layers consist of workers
and lower middle class sectors who are dismayed by the persistence of
violent crime, corruption within the state, and the bureaucratic and
hierarchical form that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has
assumed. These are not inveterate stooges of imperialism, but popular
sectors that must be won over politically through the thoroughgoing
democratization of the Bolivarian process from within.[20]

Moreover, an easy triumphalism evades the fact that large numbers of those
who voted for Chávez did so out of a politically mature reading of the
situation which dictated the priority of defeating the right, even while
they simultaneously abhorred the corruption, hierarchy, bureaucracy, and
military intrusion into the control of the Bolivarian process. These
include workers who have gone on strike and been repressed by the
Bolivarian government, and grassroots activists who have witnessed the
oxygen being sucked out of their community initiatives by the stultifying
and authoritarian layer of bureaucratic administrators in the party, the
unions, and the state institutions. The massive uptick in participation,
politicization, and self-organization of the popular classes is what
guaranteed the continuation of the Bolivarian process during the most
fierce attacks from the right, and its extension and amplification is what
will determine the character of the process into the future, after the
basic condition for its survival was secured last Sunday.[21]

Moreover, while a victory of 10 percent over an opponent would be
considered a decent margin in most countries of the region, it falls
decisively short of the bold claims coming from the Chávez administration
early in the campaign season. This does not bode well for the state
governorship elections on December 16 of this year. To put it mildly, many
of the Chavista candidates in this race are less popular than Chávez
himself - all the more so, given that in myriad situations the candidates
were not selected by the bases, but rather imposed from on high.[22]

The key battles then are still to come. Chávez has resolutely failed to
facilitate the development of a collective revolutionary leadership - long
a subject of discontent among revolutionaries within the process, the
urgency of the matter obviously intensified with the president's recent
bout with cancer. "This has raised a whole series of questions around the
continuity of leadership," Gonzalo Gómez explains, "given the unifying role
that Chávez has played in this process. He will not be easily replaced. The
social movements, the working class, and their organizations, have not
organically constituted themselves as a social subject with sufficient
strength to have weight in the exercise of power within the government. We
need to move toward a form of government, even while Chávez is still
present, where there are mechanisms through with the organizations of the
working class and social movements are taken into account, are consulted,
where they have a direct role in the design of policies and decision
making."[23] Thus far, Chávez has lined up Diosdado Cabello - a figure on
the military right of Chavismo - as his most likely successor.

Added to the potentialities of right-wing gains in December, and the
absence of a revolutionary collective leadership to step in in the event of
a post-Chávez vacuum, a fall in oil prices precipitated by further
mutations in the ongoing global economic crisis can certainly not be ruled
out, with all the difficulties in maintaining the social programs that such
a turn of events would imply. It may be the case that cheap credit would
continue to flow momentarily from China, but that would be, at best, a
stop-gap measure. Oil has been the lubricant maintaining the flow of
resources to social programs; in its relative absence, zero sum class
decisions regarding the future character of Venezuelan development will
rise much more sharply to the fore.

*The Bolivarian process then has entered a crucial conjuncture. The victory
in the elections was its basic condition for survival. The strengthening of
self-organization and independent popular class politics from below is what
will ensure its deepening into the future - particularly one ridden with
dangers of bureaucratic consolidation, economic instability, and right-wing
advances in the state governorship elections.


[1] Guillermo Almeyra, "Venezuela ante las elecciones," La Jornada,
September 2, 2010.
[2] Roy Carroll, "Hugo Chávez: A Strongman's Last Stand," Guardian, October
2, 2012.
[3] Moisés Naím, "Goliath Wins, But Venezuela is at a Turning Point," Financial
Times, October 9, 2012.
[4] John Paul Rathbone and Benedict Mander, "Chávez Wins New Term in
Venezuela," Financial Times, October 8, 2012.
[5] Quoted in Steve Ellner, "The Chávez Election," The Bullet, September
10, 2012.
[6] Jorge Castañeda, "Latin America's Left Turn," Foreign
Affairs(May-June), 2006:
 link to www.foreignaffairs.org
*< link to www.foreignaffairs.org
[7] Greg Grandin, "The Rebel and Mr. Danger: Is Bush's Nightmare
Venezuela's Salvation?" Boston Review (May-June), 2006:*
 link to www.bostonreview.net
[8] On Honduras see Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, "The Overthrow of a
Moderate and the Birth of a Radicalizing Resistance: The Coup against
Manuel Zelaya and the History of Imperialism and Popular Struggle in
Honduras," in Jeffery R. Webber and Barry Carr, eds., The New Latin
American Left: Cracks in the Empire, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield,
2012; on Paraguay see Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, "Paraguay's
Parliamentary Coup and Ottawa's Imperial Response," The Bullet, June 26,
[9] Mark Weisbrot, "Why the US Demonises Venezuela's Democracy," Guardian,
October 3, 2012.
[10] Chacho Álvarez, "Venezuela y la mission de Unasur," La Jornada,
October 4, 2012.
[11] Weisbrot, "Why the US Demonises Venezuela's Democracy."
[12] Ibid.
[13] ECLAC, Panorama social de América Latina 2011, Santiago: Economic
Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2011.
[14] Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnston, Venezuela's Economic Recovery: Is it
Sustainable?, Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research,
September 2012; Mark Weisbrot, "Why Chávez was Re-Elected," New York Times,
October 9, 2012; "Crece 5.6% el PIB de Venezuela en el primer trimester de
este año," La Jornada, May 18, 2012.
[15] Steve Ellner, "The Chávez Election."
[16] Edgardo Lander and Pablo Navarrete, The Economic Policy of the Latin
American Left in Government: Venezuela. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute,
2007, p. 9.
[17] Kenneth M. Roberts, "Social Polarization and the Populist Resurgence
in Venezuela," in Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger, eds., Venezuelan
Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization, and Conflict, Boulder, CO:
Lynne Rienner, 2003, p. 59.
[18] Guillermo Almeyra, "Chávez presidente, ¿y después?" La Jornada,
October 7, 2010.
[19] Personal Interview conducted together with Susan Spronk, Caracas,
August 8, 2012.
[20] Guillermo Almeyra, "Venezuela ante las elecciones."
[21] Ibid.
[22] Guillermo Almeyra, "Chávez presidente, ¿y después?"
[23] Personal Interview conducted together with Susan Spronk, Caracas,
August 9, 2012.