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Mainstream, VOL L, No 45, October 27, 2012

Heralding Irreversibility of the ‘Twentyfirst Century Socialism’ Project

Wednesday 31 October 2012




Nullifying the dire projections from the Western media about a possible end to the Hugo Chavez’s presidency in Venezuela, the leader of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) managed to retain his post by defeating his opponent, Henrique Capriles, representing the united Opposition’s Coalition for Democratic Unity, in the recently concluded presidential elections in that country. Chavez’s victory mar-gin of 11 per cent was his lowest since he first stood for elections in 1998 and significantly lower than the margins of victory following the declaration of the “Fifth Republic” or the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela after the passing of a new popular Constitution in 1999.

While the double-digit victory margin was nothing to sneeze at—it would have been a huge margin of victory in any other election held elsewhere—there was certainly a drop in popularity for the presidency owing to a few factors. Firstly, the Opposition candidate was more palatable to the electorate than his predecessors. Capriles postured as a Centre-Left candidate and promised to continue forward some of the socio-economic policies instituted by Chavez while taking a strong anti-corruption and anti-bureaucratic stance. Venezuela had just recovered from a tough recession, particularly in 2009, and had faced economic challenges such as high inflation—which has moderated substantially of late. But the key reasons for the surge in the Opposition’s vote tally had much to do with the disenchantment with the government bureau-cracy apart from the fact that violent crime—high crime rates have continued to persist in the nation under Chavez’s rule—has not been checked and neutralised by the regime. In fact, Chavez managed to retain much of his support base owing to his own personal popularity even as the PSUV’s other representatives have found (and are finding) the going much tougher in provincial and local elections elsewhere.

Chavez himself went through a tough personal period in the past year-and-a-half. Ailing from colon cancer—first reported in June 2011—he recovered fully only about three months prior to the elections, raising speculations about his health. These factors, combined, posed a much more difficult election for him than the previous ones.

Yet, the repeat victory for Chavez was a reaffirmation of his government’s policies since the Chavistas came to power in 1998. The proof of the effect of the policies is in the pudding—as Venezuela-tracker and progressive economist Mark Weisbrot has repeatedly brought to our notice. There has been a tremendous drop in poverty, high increases in literacy, access for millions to health care for the first time, high increases in social and welfare expenditure benefiting the poor and the marginalised in both the urban and rural areas, and a greater and more thorough redistribution of surpluses from the rich petroleum sector. But these and more are not the result only of a populist and pro-people reorientation in governance: the Venezuelan political system, before constitu-tional reforms were introduced by Chavez through a popularly elected Constituent Assem-bly in 1999, was characterised by a system called puntifijismo (the exercise of a duopoly of power between two largely elitist political parties). The reforms were the result of a genuine redirection in the politico-economic system from neoliberalism to “Bolivarian socialism” or what Chavez has called the “Socialism of the Twentyfirst Century”.

Gradual Evolution

CHAVEZ, an erstwhile Army officer, first shot into the national political limelight as the leader of an abortive coup in 1992 espousing the over-throw of a corrupt neoliberal regime. His effort having failed—Chavez most famously announ-ced its failure as “por ahora” (for now)—he soon turned to democratic means of assuming power. The electorate, disgusted with the poor govern-ance, high corruption and mismanagement of the economy by a US-friendly neoliberal regime in 1998, turned to support the Chavistas and their “Fifth Republican movement” and the rest is history.

Chavez’s moves towards “building socialism” in Venezuela have been gradual. What started as a political project to deepen democracy and instil a form of Left-nationalism and welfarism, termed as the “Bolivarian Revolution”, gradu-ally radicalised into a socialist movement. Objec-tive conditions necessitated this radical shift. Hugo Chavez’s government had already embar-ked upon large scale land reform by breaking up the latifundios (large scale landownership) in fallow land and placing restrictions on private property in 2001 itself. He had also established relations with the socialist regime in Cuba, by tying up an “oil-for-doctors” programme after coming to power.

These measures had earned him new enemies among the pro-US, landed and rich elite in the country. Hugo Chavez was himself the target of a short-lived coup in 2002, which had the overt blessings and covert help from the United States Government. Since his return to power, Chavez has embarked upon a stronger drive toward opposing US imperialism through concerted efforts at forming regional blocs within Latin America, particularly with the aid of the socialist regime in Cuba. Soon, the events in Venezuela—the formation of a Leftist Government with popular support from large sections of the population—were replicated in other countries in Latin America, most notably and strongly socialist in orientation in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua and populist, anti-neoliberal regimes in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile among others in what was termed by many as a “pink tide” in the continent.

Following the coup in 2002, the Chavez regime had to immediately face yet another crisis. This had engulfed the petroleum sector following a strike by the management and employees of the already nationalised PDVSA (the behemoth oil and natural gas company). Chavez managed to gradually regain control over the company by redeployment of employees and soon his government embarked upon a series of welfare measures funded by the surpluses from the thriving petroleum sector. In many ways, the abundant oil and natural gas reserves in the country have turned out to be a “resource blessing” for the Bolivarian project and the Venezuelan people as opposed to the past before Chavez came to power. The past was similar to the “resource curse” in many other underdeve-loped petroleum rich countries where conflicts have prevented stability and economic growth or democratisation and social reforms have been thwarted because of rent seeking and elite entrenchment.

In 2005, Chavez openly declared the building of “Socialism in the Twentyfirst Century” through democratic means, increasing the participative content in political activity of the people, in contrast to the orthodox socialist projects based on Marxism-Leninism elsewhere in the past. The Chavistas re-organised themselves as a party committed to building socialism, the PSUV, in alliance with other Leftist and nationalist forces which included the Communist Party of Venezuela and this political bloc—more a loosely bound coalition of various social and political forces—turned out to win over substantial sections of the Venezuelan population yet again in the presidential elections in 2006.

Despite a setback in a referendum that promised a large set of radical changes to the Constitution in 2007—Chavez acknowledged the defeat again suggesting that the failure was “por ahora” (for now, evoking the 1994 coup failure)—the Bolivarian project continued to entrench itself as massive social gains were made possible due to the welfare measures taken up by the government.

Manifesto for the 2012 Election

THE PSUV Government attempted to live upto its promise of deepening democracy through building new decentralised institutions—com-munity councils and new models of economic management of resources such as land, workers’ councils in industries and other measures. But the oligarchy that prevails in Venezuela was largely untouched. Vested business interests continue to thrive in the country, especially in the media which is significantly hostile to the Chavez regime. Chavez’s counter to the anti-PSUV propaganda was to increase direct contact with the masses through outreach programmes on television and social media and these measures have had an impact on his continuing popularity.

In the run-up to the 2012 elections, the PSUV had promised a greater reorientation to the socialist project (expressed in the electoral manifesto for the presidential elections as the “Second Socialist Plan 2013-2019”). This, the plan aims to do by “consolidating independ-ence”, by diversifying its economy from the predominant petroleum and its related sectors—particularly by increasing agricultural produc-tion through the elimination of the latifundia system. Diversification of economic ties with other nation-states—Russia, China and Iran in particular—apart from the already strong linkages with other Latin American countries through various regional blocs—such as the ALBA, UNASUR and CELAC—is part of the plan. New ideas include a “Bank for the South”, common trading currency in Latin America among others.

The plan aims to build socialism by diver-sifying the means and ownership of production by creating more communal councils, com-munes, confederations, even as it allows for centralised planning, and by increasing popular political power at the grassroots level and self-governance. The PSUV also plans to consolidate the foreign policy of Venezuela, which aims to promote a multi-polar and peaceful world through various regional and geopolitical groups aimed at counter-balancing the US-led hegemony.

A complaint from within the Left sections against Chavez’s regime has been that the Chavistas have not built a sufficient enough collective leadership and much is left to the popularity and charisma of Hugo Chavez himself. And that despite emphasis on building various participative and grassroots political organisations and organs of popular power, there has been an entrenchment of the top-down bureaucracy in the PSUV itself, resulting in the persistence of corruption, clientalism and patronage.

Yet these critics, unlike Chavez’s Right-wing opponents and detractors in the media and political establishments in the West, still believe that the Bolivarian process must be made irreversible and only needs to be taken forward through debate and struggle.

Hugo Chavez’s regime, seen along with other regimes as part of the “pink tide” in Latin America, has proved that—even with the caveat that they enjoy provident conditions such as the presence of abundant natural resources—a pathway to socialism can be achieved through democratic means by popular mobilisation of the people beyond simple class categories. To that extent, the project of “Socialism in the Twentyfirst Century” holds important lessons for progre-ssives and socialists across the world. Chavez’s recent victory is another step in making the path to socialism irreversible. Whether Chavez will manage to heed some of his Leftist critics and evolve further reforms that broaden the scope of the socialist project remains to be seen, but the signs are promising.

[Much of the facts and analysis in this article were drawn from reports and articles published in the website,, and articles by political economists and commentators such as Mark Weisbrot and Jayati Ghosh. All errors are mine alone.—S.R.]

The author, based in New Delhi, is a Senior Assistant Editor, Economic and Political Weekly.

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