National Assembly elections: PSUV majority reduced / FRFI 217 Oct/Nov 2010

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FRFI 217 October/November 2010

A vitriolic campaign run by the opposition-dominated media has been successful in denying the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) its goal of retaining a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly following the elections on 26 September. However, the PSUV still has a substantial majority: as we go to press, it had secured 96 out of 165 seats, the United Democratic Roundtable (MUD) opposition alliance 62, with three seats going to non-aligned indigenous candidates. In 2005, the opposition had boycotted elections and had therefore been unable to prevent the National Assembly from agreeing changes to the constitution. Now, however, it is in a stronger position, and can for instance block approval of the national budget or appointments to the Supreme Court. The opposition won 12 out 15 seats in the state of Zulia, a reactionary stronghold bordering on Colombia. SAM McGILL reports.

The elections were the fourteenth time Venezuela had been to the ballot box in the history of the Bolivarian Revolution, and the first time the PSUV, headed by Hugo Chavez, had contested national elections. In preparation, the Party held open primary elections to select candidates; its First Extraordinary Congress, which closed on 24 April 2010, had defined its fundamental principles to include socialism and Marxism. Following the Congress, the PSUV organised itself into 111 campaign units and 36,600 patrols. Building grassroots participation, each patrol member has campaigned door-to-door in order to obtain ten votes for the PSUV from their own community.

In 2009 Venezuela was the most equal society in South America as measured by the GINI coefficient. Extreme poverty was halved from 19.5% in 1998 to 7.3% in 2009, and 12 million now benefit from state programmes in nutrition and health services. It is clear that for the majority of Venezuelans, the Bolivarian Revolution is worth defending, on the streets and at the ballot box.

Expropriations and nationalisations continue

Although winning the National Assembly elections will secure political space for the Bolivarian Revolution, it is still necessary to nationalise and socialise key areas of the economy. On 18 August, a reform of the Bank Law was passed, preventing media owners and stockholders from managing banks. This followed the expropriation of Banco Federal in June for failing to maintain minimum reserve levels and secure deposits. Nelson Mezerhane, owner of Banco Federal and shareholder in the notorious opposition TV channel ‘Globovision’, fled the country ahead of any charges and launched a US media campaign claiming to be a victim of political repression.

The National Assembly is also developing a new Law of Bank Activity and just recently passed the Stock Exchange Law, preventing stockbrokers trading in the national public debt. Expropriations have continued and, on 18 August, the fraudulent insurance company ‘Seguros la Previsora’ was taken over after embezzling premiums paid for by its customers. The company is now under the control of the new National Socialist Network of Insurance and Mixed Social Assistance. Where the private sector has failed, exposed as fraudulent, abusive and engaging in speculation, expropriation is shown to be essential given that 72.5% of finance is still privately owned.

Workers’ demands within the gas sector are driving further nationalisations. Since August, gas workers have been demanding nationalisation of their companies, calling for worker and community control. Employees want to follow in the footsteps of Vengas and Tropigas, nationalised in 2007 to become PDVSA Gas Comunal. The conditions in the new state-owned company are reported as much improved, with more monthly food tickets, more holidays and time off for marriage and childbirth.

The private gas sector has few health and safety guarantees and managers are trying to restrict workers from organising in trade unions. However, workers have been preparing themselves for control, forming committees and assemblies, drawing up collective contract proposals and educating themselves from the experiences of factories involved in the Socialist Guyana Plan that is developing workers’ control.

Developing participatory democracy

Promoting community participation, self organisation and education is essential to the Bolivarian Revolution. There are approximately 30,179 communal councils in Venezuela with an estimated 5,000 more in the process of formation. These are being organised into 184 communes such as the Victoria Socialista commune in Antimano, Caracas, which unites 17 communal councils and collectively offers a communal bank, free internet centre, library and subsidised food store. In a bid to ensure funding reaches communal councils and projects quickly and effectively, a system of Federal Government councils has been operational since May. Each Federal Government Council has elected 11 communal council representatives and nine social movement representatives, to make a total of 20 ‘popular power’ representatives.

The Federal Councils are directly involved in planning budgets and allocating resources, a vital weapon in the battle against narrow self-interest and undemocratic decisions. Recent changes to the functioning of the Sovereign People’s Bank will further allow communities to control their own finances. It now provides ‘socialised’ accounts where organised communities can deposit, withdraw, and borrow from community-operated ‘bank terminals’. The first ‘communal bank terminal’ opened recently in La Vega in Caracas, and the system is set to expand nationwide in the coming year. All of these developments act to advance skills as communities learn from experience and from each other. Clearly, a continued emphasis on education and raising political consciousness is essential in consolidating the gains of participatory democracy.

Violence: the opposition’s campaign and the government’s response

Unable to unite around a common political platform, the opposition focused its election campaign on distorting and misrepresenting violence in Venezuela, presenting it as something new and a result of the Bolivarian Revolution. This high-profile campaign was undoubtedly a product of huge US investment in Venezuela’s opposition. Currently 623 programmes are being funded by USAID; $4m has been channelled into journalism and private media promotion, and between $40-50m invested by international agencies this year alone. Pro-opposition newspapers and channels publicise gory images of bleeding bodies on a daily basis. On 28 August more than a thousand opposition supporters marched through the streets of Caracas with placards reading ‘No More Deaths’ and ‘Socialism Brings Death’.

Gun crime, homicide and violence are very real problems in Venezuela and Latin America as a whole. For decades, Venezuela has had 126 separate municipal and state police forces answerable only to the various mayors and governors of each of the country’s 23 states. This has allowed the police to act with near impunity, especially in states and municipalities which have opposition-aligned mayors and governors such as Miranda, Tachira and Zulia, which not only have the highest crime rates but also the largest presence of Colombian paramilitary forces. In 2006, in order to reverse the situation, 700,000 Venezuelans participated in National Police Reform Council conferences in each state. Following this, a National Bolivarian Police force (PNB) was created, and has begun working with communal councils. As part of this effort to build an accountable police force, the National Experimental University of Security has opened and will begin classes this October. Raising consciousness and challenging corruption, the course requires all cadets to study human rights and social inequalities.

The PNB is already having an impact. For example, Catia, a poor community in Caracas, had a murder rate of 50 for every 100,000 residents in December 2009. After six months of the PNB involvement with community organisations, this had dropped to 18 per 100,000. Across Caracas as a whole, areas targeted by the PNB have seen 60% reductions in murders and 59% reduction in robberies. Government sources report a national drop in homicide rates of 18%. The PNB has been working as part of the Bicentennial Security Deployment (Dibise) plan combining the National Guard, counter-narcotics and national police forces with the aim of combating drug-trafficking activity and reducing incidents of kidnapping, homicides and general crime. Since March 2010, Dibise has held over 300 meetings and workshops with community groups to promote collaboration against violent crime and has set up phone lines and a Twitter account to facilitate the reporting of crime. In spite of this the Ministry for Justice estimates 127,000 police officers are needed, whilst only 40,000 officers are currently trained and in service. On election day, 250,000 armed forces were deployed to ensure the safety of the polling stations and voters, an important precaution considering that in 2005, 2007 and 2008 armed groups of masked opposition supporters attempted to disrupt elections and prevent voters reaching the ballot box.

Distortions and hypocrisy: the international media coverage

Predictably, in the run-up to the election, the international media intensified its campaign against Venezuela. On 22 August, the New York Times led with Simon Romero’s headline ‘Venezuela, more deadly than Iraq, wonders why’. The Guardian’s Rory Carroll joined in, stating ‘Dozens die in Caracas each weekend, bloodletting which often exceeds Baghdad’s.’ Despite the fact that such headlines are foul hypocrisy and distract from the massacres perpetrated by the US and Britain in the imperialist occupation of Iraq, the international media were hell-bent on laying the blame for every death in Venezuela at the feet of Chavez and the government. One NGO, the ‘Venezuela Observatory of Violence’, run by right-wing opposition member Roberto Briceno Leon, uses the media to calculate the number of deaths. In turn the international media quotes the NGO as a baseline for reporting the murder rate in Venezuela.

Before the election of Chavez and the creation of the Bolivarian Revolution, state violence dominated Venezuela. Arbitrary detentions and extra-judicial killings were widespread as evidenced in the Cantaura (1982) and Yumare (1986) massacres, culminating in the Caracazo massacre (1989) where the army violently crushed popular resistance to IMF-imposed price increases. The death toll of the Caracazo massacre is still unknown yet many have put it above 3,000, and the event itself was significantly whitewashed and downplayed by the same international media which is suddenly showing such interest and dismay at the murder rates in Venezuela. As Julio Cesar Velasco, speaking of his experiences in a community in central Caracas, points out: ‘Before President Chavez the media reported one of every hundred killings.’ Now however, he argues, ‘the media reports every killing a hundred times’.

Rory Carroll and Simon Romero stand shoulder-to-shoulder with imperialism, covering up its exploits around the globe whilst attacking all attempts to create economic democracy and build an alternative. In this critical time, challenging the slander and poison spread by The Guardian and the BBC amongst others, remains central to our role in building solidarity with Venezuela from Britain.