Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution at a Crossroads

The election is over and after a decade of trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy, the right have given President Hugo Chavez a much-needed kick up the backside. The Bolivarian revolution is not under threat, but the opposition - almost extinct a few years ago - is making a comeback.

The US-backed Table of Democratic Unity (MUD), alongside another opposition party PPT (two seats), captured 67 of seats out of 165, a significant 41 percent minority in the September 26 National Assembly elections - not a majority, but a major boost on their journey back from the political wilderness.

This is going to change the dynamics of the political game when the next parliamentary session kicks off, something that might ironically - and in fact must - inject some energy and momentum into a tired Bolivarian revolution. The MUD will now probably be able to do some damage to the government's plans. Obtaining over one-third of National Assembly seats allows them to block certain types of government legislation and cause a lot of disruption.

The coalition is made up of around 18 groups, some of which are pretty standard centre-right parties while others have more shady backgrounds.

Accion Democratica and Copei, the two old corrupt parties of the fourth republic that Chavez sent into history are in there, as are former left-wing groupings that have drifted rightwards such as La Causa R (The Radical Cause), MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) and even a former Marxist armed group La Bandera Roja (The Red Flag), which has mutated into a right-wing militia.

The most public face of the coalition is Primero Justicia and its leader Julio Borges, who puts a media-friendly face on the political programme which centres on the contradictory demands for democracy alongside a neoliberal economic policy, idealising the private sector and holding private property rights - even of the means of production - to be sacrosanct.

In fact, their privatisation fetish reads as if neither the Latin American 'Lost Decade' of the 1980s, Venezuela's economic crisis in the '90s nor even the near global economic collapse of 2008 had happened.

But despite this, they have got themselves organised well enough to ensure they got their core vote out and that is something Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) failed to do as successfully.

The opposition boycotted the last assembly elections in December 2005. That morally bankrupt and completely unsuccessful attempt to delegitimise the government's democratic mandate left them unable to question any aspect of the government's policy in the constitutional arena at any time during the last five years.

So the return to the political mainstream from tactics that treated the votes of Chavez's working-class supporters with such disdain will give them a massive boost for the presidential election of 2012.

A false cry of vote-rigging was actually one of the tamer tactics opposition groups were prepared to engage in. They actually overthrew President Chavez in 2002 and tried to wreck the economy to force his downfall later that same year by closing down the oil industry (in their hands at the time).

All of this damaged their credibility internationally even among figures respected in the mainstream such as former US president Jimmy Carter.

That is not to say dirty tricks and destabilisation attempts by allies of the opposition and Washington won't continue after the elections, especially if the Bolivarian revolution takes a turn to the left.

The return of the right is quite understandably making many at the grassroots of the Bolivarian movement nervous. In the barrios of Caracas and in the trade unions there is much talk of the government's weaknesses that they blame on the opposition's return.

Labour unions have not been so influential in the Bolivarian movement, partly due to relatively small size of the industrial working class in the country.

Venezuela's governing elites pre-Chavez were able to enrich themselves from international oil sales and had no incentive to develop industry - the traditional arena for union organisation.

But economic development under Chavez too has been patchy at best and signals from the government on the radicalisation of the economy through workers' control, occupations etc. have been contradictory and have left the labour movement confused and divided.

And in the best politically organised areas of Caracas such as the barrios of El 23 de Enero and La Vega, normally loyal members of the PSUV complain about some of those at the top echelons of organisation.

Many in El 23 criticised the assembly candidate, who did not have a history in the area and was not a socialist. Rather, he was simply a media-friendly persona, parachuted in by the PSUV leadership.

A friend in La Vega, who is a member of PSUV, said she didn't even vote for the party's candidates because they had been responsible for suffocating grassroots democracy. She and others had voted for the Communist Party of Venezuela in order to punish PSUV without giving a vote to the MUD.

Also, real concerns about crime and corruption have been exploited by the right-wing media, which characterises Venezuela as an unstable and violent country, run by an authoritarian buffoon.

The dangerous sensationalism and cruel caricatures seek with some success to enter the minds of those way beyond the commited activists from the radical barrios to divert attention from the positive material advances the government has made in the face of a vicious and sometimes violent ideological onslaught.

Because of these problems, a dip in the turnout figures from the normally loyal Chavista support was almost inevitable.

But those that snipe about the shortfalls of Chavez's government should not underestimate the difficulties that must be confronted when trying to change an economic system that not only has hostile international powers backing it up, but whose individualistic value system has affected us all.

That Chavez has managed to redistribute the wealth of the country, create free health and education systems and to construct radical local democratic institutions in a shockingly unequal society and in the face of such resistance (itself a consequence of such sharp inequalities) is a great achievement.

The government social programmes have now become entrenched in the minds of the Venezuelan popular classes to the same extent as the British National Health Service and comprehensive education system have for British kids and their parents.

At the same time, we could all learn from both the positive and negative aspects of the Bolivarian revolution at a time when global capitalism is looking shaky and alternative should be considered.

The opposition's own agenda should also be subject to scrutiny because beyond the slogans, its programme offers nothing but a return to those failed free-market policies of the past where the only economic indicators that shows any real growth are poverty and inequality.

They have - like the Tories did when they reluctantly accepted the welfare state after 1945 - had to back the continuation of health and education spending.

But given their ideological position on spending and privatisation, for how long?

And the progressive Latin American integration project would certainly be under threat from an opposition in power. Their allies in the right-wing Venezuelan media frequently present the government's investments in other regional countries as giveaways and portray the relationship with Cuba - a country undergoing positive changes partly as a consequence of its relationship with Venezuela - as something horrendous.

But, for now, Chavistas can take some positives from the return of the right.

Firstly, the fact that they are taking their seats in the National Assembly will make it more difficult for hostile voices from inside and outside Venezuela to point to the country as some kind of dictatorship.

Secondly, the mere presence of Primero Justicia deputies in the National Assembly should serve as a wake-up call for the Bolivarian movement, which is inevitably going to get some things wrong after a 12-year stint in power.

If Chavez and those around him see this small setback as a springboard for action, the government will have the opportunity to put its house in order and ensure that socialism continues to have a chance in Venezuela.

Article from turbulenttimes.net

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