Shaping the future in Venezuela

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As town square debates on Hugo Chavez's constitutional amendments rage in Venezuela, Mike Gonzalez considers whether they will deepen democracy or further centralise power.

It is Saturday afternoon in La Candelaria, a working class district of Venezuela's capital Caracas. A huge awning covers the main square (it's the rainy season) to shelter the 200 or so people sitting in groups of 12 at round tables. They are all wearing the red T-shirt of the Bolivarian revolution, and they are spending this Saturday, and many to come, discussing reforms to the constitution proposed by the president Hugo Chavez. In December these 120 or so amendments will be put to referendum.

The noise of everyone talking at once is deafening - that is the Venezuelan way. But there is something uplifting about what certainly looks like genuine popular involvement in political debate and discussion. It might even be that this is what Chavez means when he talks about "socialism for the 21st century" or "popular power", the slogans and watchwords that accompany his portrait wherever you go in the country.

Yet there is real confusion about what these key ideas mean, and the experiences of those in the mass movement, the trade unions and the social organisations who are most deeply committed to the Bolivarian revolution often add to the lack of clarity.

The gathering in La Candelaria, for example, is repeated every weekend across the whole of Venezuela. For the most part, they are meetings of local branches of the recently established United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) whose formation was announced six months ago by Chavez and whose first congress is likely to take place in December. The problem is that neither the structure nor the direction of the party have yet been defined. Instead small national commissions nominated by Chavez have been given the task of defining its character and form, though not its programme or aims. Because there is no formal organisation, these nominees become the effective leadership, and it is they who dictate the topics for discussion at the round tables every Saturday.

There has been some resistance, and in some cases people have insisted on writing their own agendas. An original proposal that their views should be represented by a single appointee at regional level has been withdrawn because it provoked so many objections. But it is still the case that the reforms will have to be voted on as a package, and that the debate on the detail is therefore largely formal.

In the end what promised to be a major public debate on the next phase of the Bolivarian process, the building of a 21st century socialism, will in fact be another referendum supporting Chavez. In every advert and presentation of the reforms it is stressed that these have all been written personally by Chavez. The right wing opposition, such as it is, focuses its attention on the clause that will allow him to extend his presidential term to seven years and apply for indefinite re-election. This serves to reinforce the sense among the majority of people that this is once again a vote on the popularity of Chavez.

Within the PSUV itself the same argument, that this is a test of loyalty, has created an atmosphere in which it is in fact very difficult to dissent or to argue particular points. The party has become more or less analogous with the state, so that the expression of doubt can be interpreted as hostility to, or at best scepticism about, the revolution. It is true that the PSUV membership is enormous - around six million. But it was not intended to be such a mass organisation.

The original conception seems to have been to create a political apparatus, perhaps along the lines of the Mexican PRI, which could cement the relationship between the people holding office in the state at all levels and create a mechanism for advancement or promotion. Not untypically, though, Chavez suddenly announced on one of his long Sunday TV programmes that he was inviting everyone and anyone to join. This changed the character of the party and served at the same time to create the kind of organised relationship with the mass movement which Chavez had failed to build previously. But it is a one-way relationship, as recent weeks have shown.

The Venezuelan left debated what to do earlier this year. There were divisions inside the UNT, the national trade union federation and several other organisations. For example, Orlando Chirino, a highly respected leader of the UNT, remained outside the PSUV; others in the leadership opted to go in. The same argument developed within other organisations of the left. Eventually, given the mass affiliation, most decided to join in the hope that it would be possible to build a critical current within the new party. That seems less and less likely.

Wheels within wheels

This tension between the expectation of a developing power at the grassroots and the reality of a growing concentration of control is increasingly defining political life.

Let this example stand for this deepening contradiction. The elected representatives of Fentrasep, the public employees' trade union with some 1.5 million members, went to the Ministry of Labour in mid-August to renegotiate the collective contract for their members. The minister, Ramón Rivero, is a member of the Bolivarian Trade Union Federation and an ex-Trotskyist. He refused to meet with the delegation and locked them inside a room in the ministry. No food or drink was provided; the delegates' families passed them through the windows. After six days they were driven out by hired thugs.

The legacy of bitterness and anger this left behind was extraordinary. I attended a meeting between the union executive and a trade union lawyer. The lawyer read to them the minister's deposition to the industrial tribunal in which he referred repeatedly to "so-called trade union representatives" and their "self proclaimed right" to represent their members. What most perplexed the delegates was the silence of Hugo Chavez, despite the fact that the treatment the delegation received was widely reported.

This points to the deeper processes that are unfolding beneath the surface. For Roland Denis, respected analyst and long-time leading activist of the 13 April Movement, many of the constitutional reforms and the construction of the PSUV are signs of a strategy conceived and pursued by Chavez himself.

In the present situation, the threat to the Bolivarian revolution does not come primarily from the right which, despite its continuing domination of the media, is divided and disorganised politically. The bureaucrats and government functionaries around Chavez, by contrast, are well organised. When he came to power in 1998, Chavez gathered around him a layer of supporters in the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR).

Many of them were opportunists who had enjoyed the privileges of the previous corrupt regime and switched to Chavez late in the day. Some proved to be fair weather friends, and supported the attempted coup against him in 2002. Others kept their powder dry and remained within government - but they maintained the habits of previous times, above all the habit of corruption. They interlocked with the powerful state governors too, as well as many of the city and town mayors, and they began to establish relationships with elements of private capital.

We could define these people as the Chavista right. There is no suggestion that they are planning any attempt to bring Chavez down - he was and remains the single key unifying factor ensuring support for the government. But they could evolve a series of instruments to hold back the Bolivarian Revolution and restrain Chavez's power. The rumbling frustration that palpably affects many of the best activists at local and grassroots levels suggests that the strategy is working - and the labour minister and his attendant team of trade union bureaucrats should be seen as part of that layer. The treatment of Fentrasep and the refusal to respond to the demands of the workers in factories like Sanitarios Maracay (where workers occupied the plant demanding nationalisation nearly a year ago) or the iron and steel plant at Sidor in Ciudad Guyana are a clear indication of where the minister's commitments lie.

The second power is Chavez himself, and his direct and complex relationship with the majority of the Venezuelan people who have repeatedly shown their unequivocal support for him. At community and grassroots level the corruption and lack of serious revolutionary commitment among many local bureaucrats often blocks the work of the best activists, as a number of recent local protests have shown. Yet those same activists insist that Chavez is unaware of what is happening on the ground, despite his obvious grasp of the most complex local issues.

Against this background, the constitutional reforms (or at least some of them) suggest a strategy on Chavez's part to counter what is happening at the level of government, which commentators refer to as "the established power". The political reforms include a longer presidential term and a right to constant re-election. Many clauses leave a final determining power in the president's hands - to define and redefine the administrative organisation of the country, and to make economic decisions over a state sector of the economy that will probably amount to half of the whole. The new political arrangements set out in the reforms are often contradictory, as are the economic divisions. And national security will increasingly fall to the army, despite the recommendations of a recent government appointed commission that the police should come under local control.

This is combined with a statement by Chavez just a couple of weeks ago that promotion within the military will also be within the president's brief and that the existing procedures (questionable and often corrupt though they are) will fade away.

Add to that a PSUV which is manifestly an instrument of presidential power and one in which debate will be virtually impossible, and the fact that there will be no possibility of voting for individual clauses, only the whole package. The excellent provisions for a shorter working day and a Social Security Fund for casual and precarious workers can only be approved in tandem with all the other provisions.

It is absolutely true, of course, that the reforms reiterate that "people's power" (poder popular) is the foundation of the constitution, that power lies with the people. The economy will be socialised to reinforce this. In fact, in the division between private, state and "socialised" property, the latter will be a tiny proportion of the whole (perhaps 5 percent) and divided into different kinds of property regime, including cooperatives whose dynamic corresponds more closely to the ethos of small business than to collective ownership. The consejos comunales, or community councils, will be given responsibilities at local level, as will the missions, but their strategic direction will be determined at the level of government and regional/state structures.

If this is poder popular, is it then the decentralisation of power and the government by the majority that the concept suggests? There exists within the Venezuelan constitution a clear mechanism for genuine democratic involvement from below - the delegate constituent assembly, like the one that agreed the 1999 Bolivarian constitution. Such a body could represent a real advance towards a 21st century socialism from below. It could conduct the open debate about the reform of the constitution that would give the mass organisations the sense that they were something more than simple blocs of support for a president who was in fact the only revolutionary subject.

There is, of course, another point of reference in the discussion about what poder popular can mean. The Cuban model of people's power is pyramidal and centralised, with a leadership appointed from the state and nominated delegates, with a national assembly meeting twice a year for a few days to give (invariably) unanimous support to the proposals coming from the state. The organs of local power in this model are simply given the role of executing those decisions and discussing how best that might be done. The Cuban influence on the Venezuelan government is an open secret. The fact that what Denis calls the "democracy of the people's assembly" is replaced by what is simply another vote of confidence in Chavez, with which no one could disagree, is a sign of the limitations of people's power.

The recent history of Venezuela yields one fundamental lesson. The Bolivarian revolution, which began with Chavez's election in 1998, became a revolutionary process in 2002, when the mass of Venezuelan people became the subjects of history and defeated the attempted coup against Chavez. In April 2002 the mass movement entered the stage of history not simply as insurrectionists (as they had during the wave of protests of 1989) but as potential revolutionaries, ready to shape the Bolivarian revolution by their collective action. In 2007 the struggle for socialism built from below - true people's power - continues.