Venezuela: Socialists debate party's direction

PSUV members vote in delegate elections on November 15, 2009.

By Kiraz Janicke, Caracas

November 16, 2009 – – The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) held nation-wide delegate elections on November 15 for its First Extraordinary Congress which will be held over the next several weekends in Caracas.

Up for discussion at the congress are the party’s program, principles, organisational structure and most likely the mechanism for selecting candidates for the national parliamentary elections of 2010.

A total of 7800 members competed in the elections for 772 delegate places to the congress. Although the PSUV nominally has nearly 7 million members, voting in the delegate elections was open only to the 2,450,377 “active” members of the party.

Jorge Rodriguez, the PSUV’s national coordinator who announced the results of the elections on November 15, did not present official figures of overall member participation in the elections, though informal estimates indicate that between 40-50% of the active membership, or around 1 million people, participated.

While the more conservative sector of the Bolivarian Revolution, often referred to as the “endogenous right”, is overwhelmingly dominant in the PSUV, left-wing PSUV activists said they had made gains with the election of a number of respected revolutionary delegates.

Among others, the left-wing activists elected to the congress include Gonzalo Gomez, one of the founders of the pro-revolution website and member of the Marea Socialista union current; Nora Castañeda, the head of the Women’s Bank; National Assembly deputy and economist Jesús Faria; Sergio Sánchez and Lidice Navas from the former Socialist League; Fredy Acevedo from the Revolutionary Marxist Current; and Julio Chavez, the former mayor of Carora who pioneered a process of direct democracy and community budgeting in his municipality.

At the PSUV’s founding congress in early 2008, about 1600 delegates elected the national leadership and adopted a party program that defined the party as “anti-capitalist”, “socialist” and “internationalist.”

Discussion over the party’s constitution and structure were postponed, however, resulting in ad-hoc regional leadership bodies appointed from above by the national leadership, rather than being democratically elected.

Frustration over the lack of democratic structures and spaces for participation has generally led to a decline in the PSUV’s active membership. Differences of opinion over whether the party should be simply an electoral organisation or a political instrument that can deepen the Bolivarian Revolution towards socialism are clearly marked.

The extraordinary congress will serve as a measure of the competing tendencies within the PSUV who are fighting to determine which direction the party should take.

Left-wing members say they will fight to extend the PSUV’s democratic structures and defend the program adopted at the founding congress against efforts by conservative sectors to overturn the program.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is also the president of the PSUV, voted in the party’s internal elections in the 23 de Enero parish. After he cast his ballot, he revealed that he had voted “overwhelmingly for women” and noted the importance of the elections. “It is very important what is happening. There is a good turnout throughout the country, and our party is giving an example of democracy from below,” said Chavez.

With these internal party elections, “we are breaking the culture of elites, fake democracy, where the people were called on [to vote] every five years… The PSUV has to be a motor force of popular power,” he said.

Chavez also called on PSUV members and regional PSUV leadership bodies to debate and discuss with minority parties that support the revolutionary process but are not part of the PSUV, including the Communist Party of Venezuela and Patria Para Todos.

“They decided not to join the PSUV. Well, it is respected that they maintain their own profile, their cadres, hopefully they continue strengthening their ranks”, Chavez said.

Chavez also stressed that the Bolivarian Revolution has an important mission to ensure its continuity next year in the National Assembly elections scheduled for September 2010. “Next year there is going to be a tough battle. The opposition is doing the math and believes it will win a majority in the National Assembly, but we’re going to give them a knockout in those elections”, he assured.

The latest survey by the Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis shows support for Chavez remains high at around 62.4%, while support for the PSUV is much lower at 32.3%. Despite the gap between support for Chavez and support for the PSUV, the PSUV remains the most popular political party in Venezuela with opposition parties trailing far behind. The Democratic Action (Accion Democratica) party enjoys 5.3% support, Justice First (Primero Justicia) 4.4%, A New Era (Un Nuevo Tiempo) 2.5%, COPEI 2.2%, while other smaller parties account for 4.8%.

On November 15, active PSUV members will vote on delegates to the congress. The delegate selection process has been marked by growing discontent among members over unclear and ever-changing rules — and internal jostling for positions. In some cases, frustration over such disputes has led to abstention and decreasing participation by the membership. In others, it has sparked rebellion from the ranks.

A big part of the debate is over what sort of party the PSUV should be — an electoral machine or a revolutionary organisation.

Chavez called for the formation of the PSUV in December 2006 after his landslide re-election on a platform of advancing the revolution towards socialism. In mid-2007, a mass membership drive took place.

The party has become an important outlet for millions who wish to see unity among pro-revolution forces.

The PSUV held its founding congress in early 2008. About 1600 delegates elected from local “battalions” (300 members selected by the national leadership on a geographical basis) approved two documents: a party program and document of principles. No statutes were approved due to differences over what the party’s structure should be.

This year, the PSUV began a process of restructuring. Party militants were called upon in August to form “patrols”, based on the sectoral and territorial grassroots units that successfully campaigned in the February 15 referendum to allow all elected officials to stand for re-election.

At a territorial level, patrols are made up of 20-30 self-selected activists who live in the same neighborhood. In the workplace, 10-20 workers can form patrols. Officially, more than 105,000 territorial patrols and some 15,000 workplace patrols have been created. However, many believe these numbers are inflated due to some sections of the party creating fake patrols to gain votes and influence.

In Falcon state, about 300 worker patrols have been established. A source in the regional Workers’ Socialist Front of the PSUV said 225 of these were initiated by the local police force, with names and signatures of activists submitted in the same handwriting.

Only 57,767 territorial and 6279 worker patrols have proposed candidates for delegates to the congress. Some of these have not met to discuss and nominate candidates, and some had their details usurped by others to nominate themselves or allies.

Participation was also affected by the fact that norms for proposing candidates are ambiguous. They changed at least four times during the week set aside for patrols to nominate candidates. The initial norms meant the final list of candidates for delegate positions would be decided by regional leaderships. Also regional vice-presidents, appointed by the national leadership, were to handpick the electoral commissions.

In Caracas, an assembly of local delegates rebelled. They rejected the appointed commission and voted for a new one made up of local activists not standing as candidates and who did not have government or party leadership positions.

Activists in Miranda told Green Left Weekly that in some areas, patrols refused outright to even discuss the possibility of any local councillors being nominated as delegates due to their poor track record.

The widespread protests against the norms, including from within the PSUV national leadership, and a poor vote for many candidates seen as tied to various power blocs, resulted in norms being changed so all those nominated as candidates for delegate positions could stand for delegate elections.

The PSUV national leadership has said proposed party statutes, along with other documents, will not be presented until the congress itself.

With delegates not being elected on the basis of positions on documents presented to the congress, many view the delegate elections as initial campaigning for pre-selection for PSUV candidates for National Assembly elections in late 2010.

The battle over whether the PSUV will be a revolutionary party or an electoral vehicle reflects a deeper struggle over the direction of Venezuela’s revolution, which has significantly decreased poverty and introduced various experiments in popular power.

Will the revolution continue its radical path towards socialism or will this path be blocked by the vested interests of various power blocs within the state and also the PSUV?

This struggle will continue at the congress.

National Union of Workers

Meanwhile, trade unionists have announced plans to re-found the National Union of Workers (UNT) through a national congress scheduled for December 5 to “defend and deepen the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution”.

The workers organising the national congress generally agree on the need to build a unified national union federation to confront a pro-capitalist state bureaucracy that threatens to derail the revolution. Regional and sector-based meetings are being held throughout the country to facilitate debate and discussion among rank-and-file workers in preparation for the national congress.

The UNT was formed in April 2003 after the country’s traditional labour federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, took part in the 2002 military coup and a management-led shutdown of the oil industry from December 2002-January 2003 to try to overthrow the Chavez government.

However, fierce internal divisions have weakened the union federation in recent years.

The push to re-found UNT is being led by Marea Socialista, the Collective of Workers in Revolution, the Bolivarian Educators and the Cruz Villegas Current, aligned to the Communist Party of Venezuela.

For more on these developments, see

[Kiraz Janicke and Fred Fuentes are members of the Australian Socialist Alliance resident in Venezuela.]