Venezuela: Chavez leads

‘Enough with betraying the people. We have arrived here to make a real revolution or die trying’, President Hugo Chavez, 14 January 2008, addressing the founding congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), formed in 2007.

Opening the congress, Chavez spoke of the need for the PSUV to become a party that would subvert the historic capitalist model of the bourgeois state. Referring to the recent, narrow defeat in the 2 December 2007 referendum to give Venezuela’s present radical bourgeois constitution a decidedly socialist content, he announced the need for the PSUV to go on the offensive as ‘the spearhead and vanguard’ of the revolution, to ensure that ‘2 December never happens again’.

The defeat in the referendum was the first electoral setback to the president in nine years of office. However the result was not a vote against Chavez, nor a victory for the opposition, but reflected political uncertainty among workers, very large numbers of whom abstained. They were affected by the overwhelmingly anti-government media in Venezuela and the threats of private industrialists, whose tactics included creating severe food shortages. 80% of all broadcasting and nearly all 118 papers are privately owned. The reactionary RCTV, whose domestic license has expired, is still received by satellite and cable from Mexico. In response to government price controls, the agribusiness and food distribution sector hoarded basic food items and redirected milk supplies. Supplies of milk were already in short supply due to the closure of Italian company Parmalat’s large Venezuelan plant. For weeks long queues formed in the mercales (government-subsidised markets). Inevitably, the oligarchs responsible for the crisis blamed socialism, even trying to scare people into believing that a socialist government would take away their children and homes.

Behind this was the CIA’s ‘Opera tion Tenaza [Pliers]’, whose activities included financing the reactionaries through USAID, setting up fraudulent polls, distorting information about the referendum in the private media and arranging violent street protests to create a climate of ‘ungovernability’ and so provoke military intervention. The deepening financial crisis in the US made the urgency of the proposed constitutional changes quite clear. The Venezuelan government must deepen democracy to secure a political base to deal with further economic and political threats from the imperialist states.

Essentially the referendum was lost because the PSUV has yet to establish itself firmly as the party of the working class. Its founding conference was postponed from November to January in order to fight the referendum, but the national debate over the changes was too brief. Lessons have been learned; Chavez argued at the January 2008 conference that social movements in the country must transform themselves into a political force capable of driving forward the revolution.

President Chavez recognised the result, saying ‘for now, we could not do it’. 8,883,746 valid votes were counted in the two-part referendum.

Block A contained the government’s proposal to reform 33 articles, plus 11 changes proposed by the National Assembly. Block B contained another 25 articles which the National Assembly had accepted as popular proposals. Block A was defeated by 4,504,354 votes (50.7%) to 4,379,392 (49.3%). The defeat for Block ‘B’ was 51.05% to 48.94%. 44.11% or 7,107,225 out of 16,109,664 registered voters abstained.

In the December 2006 presidential election, 7,309,080 voted for Chavez (63% of vote, with 25% abstentions). Thus we saw a dramatic reduction in the government’s vote by 2,929,688, but the difference in the two parallel votes was less than 200,000. That 49% of the votes cast were for a socialist constitution represents a real step forward. Such ideas have never been placed on the political agenda in Venezuela before. They revealed extensive and well-thought-out principles for a continued transition to a new type of state and economy.

The new PSUV, unifying over 20 organisations, has reported almost six million members over 16, although those under 18 could not vote in the referendum. The result has deprived 16 and 17-year-olds of a chance to vote in this year’s regional elections.

‘Prepare yourselves because a new offensive is coming,’ Chavez said on state VTV television after the vote: ‘These reforms are not dead.’ Current law prohibits a second attempt by referendum to change the Constitution, but this could still be achieved through ‘popular initiatives’ where each reform would be voted on by Congress after acquiring signatures of 15 per cent of the electorate. Once approved they would become law if endorsed by a majority of voters. At the moment such changes could also be implemented legally through a series of decrees, but given the President’s sincere reconstruction of a real democracy, this is unlikely. Meanwhile the opposition is reduced to stunts such as its second application to the Supreme Court in five years to declare Chavez insane. It has no seats in the National Assembly and only one state governor.

With continued economic growth – 8.4% in 2007 – despite inflation, and with the successful introduction of the new currency, the Bolivar fuerte, this January, the key issue facing the government remains the effective industrialisation of the country and the reduction of import dependency for so many of its final goods. Chavez has called for ‘revision, rectification and re-boosting the revolution’, to ensure political and economic progress in the next period. The Parmalat milk plant has been nationalised and agricultural reform is being pushed ahead so that by 2009 Venezuela will become independent in food. In 2008, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) will invest $15.6bn to consolidate the ‘Priming for Oil’ plan and to assure the achievement of production goals of 5.8m barrels per day by 2012.

International solidarity
International solidarity is constantly being strengthened against US interference in Latin America. During his January meeting with President Ortega of Nicaragua, President Chavez proposed a new association of Caribbean nations for the production and distribution of food in the region – ‘Alcaribe’ or Alimentos del Caribe (Food of the Caribbean).

As a member of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America), Nicaragua will soon be receiving more 60megawatt electric power generators from Cuba to complement those delivered in 2007. Another 120 megawatts of power generation will be delivered by the end of 2008. Earlier, Chavez met Honduran president Zelaya and agreed that Honduras should join Petrocaribe. This is an energy association that Venezuela started in 2004 for Caribbean nations which allows them to part-pay for Venezuelan oil over 25 years at 1% interest. On 27 December Venezuela cancelled Honduras’s entire $30m debt to Venezuela.

Alvaro Michaels

FRFI 201 February / March 2008