the U.S. mainstream media, Venezuela’s vote on constitutional
reforms December 2 is simply the latest power grab in authoritarian
President Hugo Chávez’s bid to crush dissent, make himself
president for life and impose a state-controlled economy.
from the streets of the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, however, is very
populated, impoverished neighborhood seldom visited by U.S. reporters,
it is famous for its role in mobilizing in January 1958 to overthrow
a Venezuelan military dictator on the date that gave the barrio its
it is home to an active local branch, or battalion, of the United Socialist
Party of Venezuela (PSUV, according to its Spanish initials). On a rainy
mid-November evening, activists gathered to distribute copies of the
proposed reform by going door to door.
Of the 30
or so people who turned out--all but four of them women--just two had
prior political experience in Chávez’s original political
party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). Only one--Rosaida Hernández--is
an experienced politico, having served as a functionary of the Fifth
Republic Movement and won election to Caracas’ municipal council.
was Iraima Díaz, a neighborhood resident in her 30s who had long
supported Chávez and benefited from his government’s social
programs, but hadn’t been politically active. “I got involved
to solve the problems of my community,” she said.
Lúz Estella, a social worker whose father lives in the area,
also became active recently, fed up with the opposition media and wanting
to get involved.
and Estella find themselves members of Chávez’s own PSUV
battalion--the president often turns up at the weekly Saturday meetings
held at the military museum in the neighborhood.
also serves as a place for enrollment in government “missions”--national
social welfare programs initiated by Chávez in 2003, which evolved
from offering free medical care to literacy and education programs,
subsidized grocery stores and a great deal more, thanks to revenues
from oil exports and some of the fastest economic growth rates in the
well-known member and proximity to local missions, the 23 de Enero PSUV
battalion faces a challenges common to its counterparts across the country--how
to mobilize the 5.7 million people who have registered for the party
since it was formed earlier this year through a merger of parties of
Chávez’s governing coalition.
as the group, singing campaign songs, made its way through the narrow
streets on steep hillsides of the barrio, people came to their windows
to take copies of the reform and discuss it briefly--an elderly man
alone in his small apartment; a young woman of African descent breastfeeding
an infant; the proprietor of a tiny store situated in what was once
a living room, with a window facing the street; a group of young men
in their 20s gathered outside a small restaurant.
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of Chávez’s reforms is visible on the streets of 23 de
Enero and other barrios--people are better fed and better dressed.
As is often the case in Venezuela, the political direction in the barrios
is the opposite Caracas’ well-off neighborhoods and the suburbs,
where the upper middle class and the wealthy live in luxurious gated
communities and drive Hummers and Land Rovers.
to Chávez’s reforms sharpened--first with protests by largely
middle-class college students; then the defection of a longtime Chávez
ally, former army chief of staff and defense minister Raúl Baduel--the
mass of Chávez supporters began to mobilize.
the opposition, tainted by the coup of 2002 and the subsequent lockout
of oil workers by industry bosses, has been able to refresh its image.
Key to this
was the student mobilization last summer over the government’s
refusal to renew the broadcast license of the privately owned, opposition-controlled
in the Western media as a “closure” of a media outlet, the
decision was made as the result of RCTV’s active role in supporting
the coup. Nevertheless, the government’s refusal to renew the
channel’s broadcast license gave Venezuela’s right the opportunity
to claim the mantle of “democracy,” a theme it has continued
in protests aimed at forcing a delay in the vote for constitutional
the student protests took shape as a national social movement, led mainly
by middle class and wealthy students who predominate at Venezuela’s
elite universities, such as the UCV in Caracas.
themselves as nonviolent in the face of allegedly armed Chavista students--two
students were wounded on the UCV campus November 7--the opposition student
protests have often turned violent. The U.S. media focused on the supposed
gunplay of Chavista students, but it was the right-wing protesters who
besieged pro-Chávez students in UCV’s law and social work
schools, physically destroying both.
student protesters have carried the day politically on campus, with
the opposition winning a reported 91 percent of votes in student government
elections soon afterward.
got another boost when it was joined by Baduel, the former general and
A key figure
in preventing the 2002 military attempt to oust Chávez, Baduel
has used the word “coup” to describe the impact of Chávez’s
proposed constitutional changes.
impact on the reform vote is probably limited, his turn may point to
something more serious--concern among senior military brass over a constitutional
reform that would reorganize and centralize the armed forces and give
the president authority to promote all officers, not just top generals.
Chávez has dropped a call to convert the reserves into “Bolivarian
Popular Militias” to support the regular armed forces, presenting
it in the constitutional reforms instead as a “National Bolivarian
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IN ANY case,
the retooled opposition presents a new challenge for activists of the
“Bolivarian revolution”--named for the 19th century anti-colonial
In the past, Chávez could mobilize his base among the poor on
clear-cut issues--protesting the right-wing coup attempt of April 2002,
voting to keep him in office in the recall election of 2004, re-electing
him as president a year ago.
reforms, however, are more complicated and controversial within the
Chávez camp itself.
is the balance between the creation of communal councils to enhance
what Chávez calls “popular power,” and measures that
would strengthen the powers of the presidency and the central state
in several respects.
the removal of presidential term limits and lengthening the term from
six to seven years; the ability to appoint an unrestricted number of
secondary vice presidents; the authority to determine boundaries of
proposed “communal cities” of municipalities and states;
and control over the use of foreign currency reserves with no constitutional
to recall the president still exists, but the number of signatures required
to trigger a vote would increase from 20 percent to 30 percent of eligible
measures debated on the left would give the president and National Assembly
the ability to impose states of emergency in which the right to information
is waived--probably a response to the private media’s complicity
in the 2002 coup. The National Assembly would also gain the right to
remove Supreme Court judges and election officials through a simple
hardly amount to the “Chávez dictatorship” conjured
up in the mainstream media, and the Venezuelan constitution would remain
more democratic in many respects than the U.S. Constitution, a relic
of the 18th century.
however, is whether the constitution promotes a transition to “popular
power” and “socialism,” as Chávez would have
the reforms reflect the contradiction at the heart of Chávez’s
project--an effort to initiate revolutionary change from above.
of communal councils and creation of workers councils are seen by grassroots
Chavista activists as a legitimate effort to anchor the “revolutionary
process” at the grassroots.
the additional powers for the presidency and the reorganization of the
armed forces highlight the fact that Chávez apparently sees the
presidency--and the centralized state--as the guardian of the revolution.
it is the military, the most rigidly hierarchical institution in society,
which is to protect the newly decentralized democracy, while remaining
aloof from such changes internally.
effort to combine what he calls an “explosion of popular power”
with greater centralism may reflect his military past. But if the government
is able to portray itself as creating “motors” of revolutionary
change, it’s because grassroots organizations, social movements
and organized labor have so far failed to create sizeable organizations
of their own.
is no doubt of Chávez’s popularity, particularly among
the poor, their role thus far has been to defend Chávez from
the right during the coup and lockout, and turning out for elections.
The constitutional reforms, along with the creation of the PSUV at Chávez’s
initiative, are intended to close the gap between these periodic mass
mobilizations and the lack of day-to-day organization.
this base, the proposed constitutional reforms offer further social
gains. For example, virtually unmentioned in U.S. media accounts is
the fact that the reforms would provide, for the first time, social
security benefits to the 50 percent of Venezuelan workers who toil in
the informal sector as street vendors, taxi drivers and the like. The
workweek would be limited to 36 hours.
other advances as well, including the consolidation of land reform,
outlawing discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, lowering
the voting age from 18 to 16, guaranteed free university education,
gender parity in politics and political parties, public financing of
political campaigns, recognition of Venezuelans of African descent,
the right claim these measures constitute a bribe to the mass of Venezuelans--handouts
in exchange for political support, a version of the traditional clientleism
used Latin American populists such as Argentina’s Juan Perón.
Perón and other 20th century populists went far beyond Chávez
in terms of nationalizing industries--Venezuela’s oil company,
PDVSA, has been government owned since the 1970s, and the recent state
takeover of the telecommunications and electrical power companies are
But the Chávez
project aims at a more thoroughgoing social transformation than populists
of the past. The aim is to build what Chávez calls “socialism
of the 21st century” by trying to bypass the capitalist state
with new structures and enshrining new forms of “social,”
“public” and “mixed” property to promote “endogenous”
economic development--that is, growth not dependent on the oil economy.
are, in turn, supposed to mesh with “communes” created by
communal councils--which, under the proposed constitutional changes,
will receive at least 5 percent of the national budget to manage local
affairs. The text of the reform proposal explains: “The state
will foment and develop different forms of production and economic units
of social property, from direct or communal-controlled, to indirect
or state-controlled, as well as productive economic units for social
production and/or distribution.”
the proposed reform on “popular power” also calls for the
creation of councils for workers, students, farmers, craftspeople, fishermen
and -women, sports participants, youth, the elderly, women, disabled
people and others.
“geometry of power,” as Chávez calls it, is apparently
designed to engineer social change while avoiding direct confrontation
with big business, whose property rights are in fact safeguarded in
the constitutional reforms. As Chávez himself said last summer,
“We have no plan to eliminate the oligarchy, Venezuela’s
social reforms have so far come from state oil revenues, rather than
any transfer of wealth through higher taxes, and the nationalization
of companies has been achieved by paying market price for stock market
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on the Venezuelan left is whether all this amounts to a transition to
socialism, as Chávez and his supporters would have it.
For Orlando Chirino, a national coordinator of the National Union of
Workers (UNT) labor federation, Chávez’s reforms herald
the “Stalinization” of the state and state control of the
labor movement “along the lines of the Cuban CTC labor federation,”
he said in an interview.
a key leader of the C-CURA class-struggle current of the factionalized
UNT, is among the most prominent figures on the left to oppose the reforms.
He made waves on the left when he granted an interview with a leading
opposition newspaper and appeared on the platform with leaders of the
CTV, the corrupt old trade union federation implicated in the 2002 coup.
along with an oil workers union official, José Bodas, is a founder
of a new group calling for an independent workers party.
and Bodas’ opposition to the reforms put them at odds with the
majority of UNT national coordinators and organizers in C-CURA, such
as Ramón Arias, general secretary of the public sector workers’
union federation, FENTRASEP. Arias is a supporter of the Marea class-struggle
current of trade unionists in the PSUV, which calls for purging of employers,
bureaucrats and corrupt elements in the new party.
criticisms of the centralizing aspects of the constitutional reform,
including the new provisions for states of emergency, the Marea current
has joined the majority of the Venezuelan left in calling for a “yes”
vote to achieve social gains and defeat the opposition.
his C-CURA allies are already at loggerheads with prominent members
of the PSUV, including Oswaldo Vera, a member of the National Assembly
and leader of the Bolivarian Socialist Labor Front (FSBT), a faction
of the UNT that also controls the ministry of labor.
ministry refuses to negotiate a contract with FENTRASEP--which covers
1 million workers--because, it says, there is a dispute over union elections.
As a result, many public sector employees are among the 73 percent of
Venezuelan workers who earn the minimum wage--which, although the highest
in Latin America, is still low in relation to the soaring prices caused
by Venezuela’s rapid economic growth, to say nothing of enduring
other FENTRASEP leaders say that public sector workers are casualties
of a larger factional struggle between the FSBT and C-CURA. This in
turn is part of an internecine conflict that has prevented the wider
UNT labor federation from holding a proper congress since it adopted
a provisional structure at its founding event in 2003.
the largest grouping in the UNT, is itself split over the PSUV and constitutional
reform, which means organized labor’s voice is barely heard in
the political debates of the day.
the stage for a battle over the workers’ councils to be formed
in the future, in which both factions of C-CURA expect to contend with
an effort by the FSBT to exert control over the labor movement.
On the political
terrain, the C-CURA activists of the Marea current inside the PSUV aim
to make alliances with others on the left who have succeeded in being
elected as spokespeople and delegates to the founding conference.
PSUV founding conference still in the future--it has been postponed
repeatedly--it isn’t clear if, or how, such groupings will exist
within the party, which already has a provisional disciplinary committee
that reportedly expelled a prominent Chavista (the commissioners subsequently
denied that this was the case).
the PSUV is a highly contradictory formation, and includes key members
of the government apparatus and local elected officials who are unpopular
among grassroots Chavistas. Marea’s slogan calls for a PSUV without
bosses, bureaucrats and corrupt elements.
far left will be able to operate openly, be expelled or decide to leave
to organize openly are open questions.
In any case,
stormy weather is ahead, said Stalin Pérez Borges, a UNT national
coordinator and supporter of the Marea current. Political polarization
and class conflict, ameliorated in recent years by rapid economic growth,
are unavoidable, he said.
constitutional reform marks Chávez’s consolidation of power,
so the oligarchy can’t just wait for him to go,” he said.
“Chávez wants to discipline and control the bourgeoisie.
But they want to be in control themselves.”
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