Venezuela: Struggle in the PSUV -- `If the people don't stand firm, the right will screw it up!'

By Stuart Munckton

May 27, 2008 -- The two articles below, by Kiraz Janicke (a member of the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau and journalist), give a feel for the increasingly intense struggle that is taking place within the Chavista camp.

``Venezuela gets ready to choose candidates for regional elections''


``Controversy erupts over nominations for PSUV candidacies in Venezuela''

-- http://www.venezuelanalysis. com/news/3494

In fact, as articles from the GLW Caracas bureau among a fair few others have pointed out in recent times, the key struggles in Venezuela are occurring within the Chavista camp — and the outcome of this struggle will play a major role in determining the fate of the Venezuelan revolution.

This can be seen by the way that serious internal problems in 2007 undermined the ability of the revolution to mobilise in favour of the constitutional reforms in the December 2 referendum (which was narrowly defeated, mostly as a result of widespread abstention from people who had voted for Chavez for president one year earlier). This resulted in the first electoral victory for the imperialist-backed counter-revolutionary opposition. This victory put some wind back in the contras' sails after repeated demoralising defeats.

A certain amount of this analysis is my speculation based on following the situation, including informal discussions with the comrades in the GLW Caracas bureau (although responsibility for the analysis, excluding points that have already been raised in GLW articles by the bureau comrades — that is currently Janicke plus Federico Fuentes — is entirely my own).

I think this struggle is still developing, and the exact nature of different events and the role of different forces is not entirely clear. Nonetheless, this is my attempt to providing a framework to help explain the situation.

It is critical to note, as has the commentary from the GLW Caracas bureau, that this internal struggle is a reflection of the class struggle. On one side, capitalist elements within Chavismo (in some cases — such as Diosdado Cabello, governor of Miranda and a capitalist who is widely seen as a figurehead of the "endogenous", or internal, right wing — the capitalist interests are direct). On the other, there are the interests of the "grassroots" Chavistas — the great mass of urban poor, the working class, campesinos and other oppressed sectors such as the indigenous minority (which can collectively be termed the "popular sectors").

This struggle is still unfolding and the division is far from complete — for instance, often sections of the latter are tied to the former through a "clientalist" relationship based on access to wealth and power, and lent on for support.

Not only are the differences and alignments still fluid and far from finalised, but it would be wrong to imply that there is any kind of homogenous bloc on either side. Rather than the endogenous right being a united bloc, it appears to be much more of a series of often competing cliques and power blocs. For instance, the mayor of Greater Caracas, Juan Barreto, and the mayor of Libertador (a popular sector of Caracas), Freddy Bernal, are both right-wing Chavista bureaucrats who are also at war with each other. Both sides mobilise supporters to control organisations in their areas and seek to keep out the other side.

The popular sector, too, is dispersed into a wide range of organisations and sectoral struggles. This is a key weakness that helps the endogenous right maintain its institutional dominance. As well as this organisational weakness, there is also the unevenness of political consciousness and lack of political experience among the popular sector. A generalised distrust and even hatred of the bureaucratic elements sabotaging the revolutionary process doesn't equal a clear understanding of what is the cause of the problem or what to do about it.

Weaknesses in political consciousness make the popular sector more vulnerable to being coopted by one section of the bureaucracy or another. When the frustration with the right-wing bureaucrats becomes a rejection of ``politics'' altogether, some grassroots activists get seduced by a sort of soft corruption, whereby they able to secure funding for their communal council or other grassroots projects to solve the needs of their community in return for voting the right way in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). A perfectly genuine community activist can get sucked into this process if their attitude is ``the politicians are all fucked anyway''.

Through the framework of the PSUV, both of these weaknesses (organisation and consciousness) could potentially be overcome, although not without significant struggle.

All of this is playing out through the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which unites the majority of the various and often competing sectors and interests in the Chavista camp. A defining aspect of this is the role of President Hugo Chavez himself, who has repeatedly sought to radicalise the Chavista movement and encourage the increasing organisation and mobilisation of the popular sectors.

However, Chavez himself can't make "popular power" a reality through speeches or decrees. It requires the self-activity of the oppressed. This is something the right wing of the Chavista camp are opposed to (openly or otherwise) and seek to undermine, as it represents a direct threat to their institutional control.

In a country in which the economy is so twisted around a state-owned oil industry, institutional positions are particular important to ensure access to the oil rent, which in turn can be used, through its selective distribution, to build up political bases.

This is a continuation within the Chavista camp of the corrupt, anti-democratic practices that marked the period from the fall of the dictatorship in 1958 until Chavez's election as president in 1998 (on the back of a rejection of these practices) within the Chavista camp.

However, the Chavista right are not the same as the openly counter-revolutionary right-wing opposition, which is are directly tied to Washington. The Chavista right are tied to gains made so far by the revolution, such as bringing the oil industry under full state control. This move affected the interests of Washington and the Venezuela elite — which used the oil industry as an essentially private company and were preparing its full privatisation. Returning the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, to the hands of a pro-imperialist elite (which would quickly privatise it if it could) would undermine the interests of the Chavista right wing, which depend on access to the oil wealth.

Having wrested control of the oil industry from the pro-imperialist forces that had already partially, and wanted to fully, handed it to the oil multinationals, the battle withinthe Chavista camp moved on to "what next"?

Is it the first step on a much deeper and profound transformation of Venezuelan society, as part of a Latin American revolution? This is what Chavez and the left argue for. This aims to increasingly subordinate the economy to the needs of the Venezuelan people — which, to become a reality, requires increasing the control of the Venezuelan people over the economy as part of controlling society. In other words, towards socialism.

Or, will the new control over oil and other sectors of the national economy (seeking to be developed through investing the oil rent as opposed to seeing that wealth flow to US bank accounts as in past) be the basis for a new elite, whose positions depend both on as much independence from imperialism as possible, on the one hand, and the subordination of the popular sectors on the other.

This can be seen with the battles with the bureaucracy and sections of the Chavista camp over the question of workers' participation in state industries. The movement for "co-management" was been almost totally defeated, besides a couple of pockets.

This indicates, as is widely recognised in Venezuela, that battles are not resolved by simply having a company owned by the state. A state-owned company poses the question of on behalf of who is it being controlled and run? Much of the existing state is corrupt and rotten, and it is understandable see "co-management" as a threat to vested interests.

In the chapter on Venezuela in his book Build it Now, Michael Lebowitz pointed to another, more genuine, argument for not supporting co-management in "strategic sectors" of the economy — the mixed consciousness of relatively privileged workers in these areas. However, he argued the only way to overcome backward consciousness among relatively privileged workers is to directly involveme them in broader issues posed by participating in running a company.

Here we can say that these competing projects were inherent within the Bolivarian movement from its begninnings. I think it would be an error to just see the Chavista right as "infiltrators" of the revolutiomary camp, although no doubt there are plenty of bureaucrats who, seeing which way the wind was blowing, have simply jumped to be where the power is.

Nor is it a simple case of decent revolutionaries degenerating when tempted with the spoils of power, though again no doubt this is a factor. The project of the Chavista right has been there from the beginning.

In fact, if anything, you could argue that it is the Chavista right who have been betrayed! The initial program of the revolution was much more moderate, based on a pro-capitalist development of the Venezuelan economy by breaking the most oppressive imperialist chains. The program of the revolution has radicalised through the struggle, with Chavez consciously leading this process.

While plenty have taken the path of radicalisation, what of the forces who don't agree? Some have broken with Chavismo and joined the opposition, but it would be naive in the extreme to assume a lot haven't stayed where the power is, tailing the radicalisation and accumulating wealth and privileges through institutional power.

Former Chavista defence minister Raul Baduel jumped ship last year and joined the opposition. It would seem to me wrong to put this down simply to the outright treachery — of Baduel succumbing to temptation and selling out. Baduel was central to the counter-coup that restored Chavez to power in 2002 and he has said he was offered large amounts of money to turn against Chavez in the subsequent period. Yet he didn't.

Then why jump ship in late 2007? The most obvious answer would seem to be that Baduel was willing to go with the revolution for a certain way, but not as far as Chavez was insisting it go — towards a revolutionary democracy and socialism.

The process of more right-wing forces breaking off has been occurring since the beginning of Chavez's presidency. Assuming the drive to deepen the revolution continues, it would be a big mistake to assume these struggles have finished.

The "sowing of the oil" into the social missions and programs to develop the economy is an open-ended project. It could, ultimately, be made to serve the more moderate project of the Chavista right or the deepening of the revolution to genuinely meet the needs of the popular sector.

Regardless, it certainly upsets imperialism — the last thing imperialist capital wants is the wealth it thought was its own being spent on pointless (from its perspective) projects teaching the Venezuelan urban poor to read and write.

However, that doesn't make the political projects (those of both the Chavista right and the popular sectors) equal in terms of their likelihood for success or the degree to which they challenge imperialism. The process of change is being driven forward by the popular masses — who have fought to defend it on the streets, who are making it a reality in barrios with the missions, through taking over unused land and forming cooperatives, taking over closed factories etc.

This defence of the Chavez government against the counter-revolution has protected the positions and interests of the Chavista right from their pro-imperialist opponents. As much as the right-wing might seek to ride this movement and control it so it can be bent to the right wing's interests, they also depend on it.

Every time the Chavista right seeks to squash the independent self-activity of the popular sector because it is a threat to their own interests, they undermine the mass movement that underpins the anti-imperialist government and thus open up space for imperialism through the local counter-revolutionary opposition. Whether the Chavista right likes it or not, in this way they threaten their own positions.

This just proves a key point that Che Guevara argued: It is the alliance of workers and peasants that is capable of carrying out a consistently anti-imperialist revolution. The local elites (old or new) cannot be considered a consistent ally. (See ``Cuba: Exceptional case of vanguard in the struggle against colonialism?'',

This is also a big factor currently playing out in the PSUV primaries, whereby the right-wing moves that undermine democracy and frustrate the will of the grassroots threatens to hand electoral victories to the opposition.

This (at least formally) democratic process of having the ranks select candidates is a big step forward and a first in Venezuela. However, like every other aspect of society, it has rapidly become a new battlefield for the unfinished struggle between competing class interests over Venezuela's direction.

Through their institutional control, including in the PSUV, the Chavista right seeks to undermine moves that increase the self-activity of the oppressed, which is a direct threat to their interests.

Despite an official government position of promoting the greatest amount of popular power, the interests of the Chavista right wing are protected in large part by the fact that the popular forces are too weak to defeat them — a situation that could be altered through increased organisation and involvement of the popular forces in controlling their own affairs.

The relationship of forces sees an official "forward to socialism" discourse while, behind that discourse, all sorts of vested interests work to try and sabotage this very project. The other side of this (intersecting into it) is the mass movement and the various grassroots struggles attempting to advance on various fronts.

The vested interests have a large amount of institutional weight within the state and the Chavista camp (but far from total). The vested interest is often the ability to control these very positions. However, for all their institutional weight, these right-wing forces don't have the political initiative. The discourse, in large part driven by Chavez, is radicalised. The right-wing bureaucrats, who owe their positions to an association with Chavez, are forced to trail along behind, giving lip service to socialism and deepening of the revolution, popular power etc., even while they seek to undermine these very goals to protect their positions and privileges.

This combines with the struggle from below to solve the problems facing the popular sector — around land reform, problems in the barrios, workers' struggle etc. These problems demand increasingly radical action, with struggle around them bringing about a series of partial gains. In none of these areas are the gains anything more than partial.

This class struggle within the revolution sets the stage for the sort of battles occurring now for pre-selecting PSUV candidates for the November regional elections. This is a big question because the right-wing forces depend on controlling as many of these official positions as possible on the one hand. On the other the grassroots are pushing to get rid of hated Chavista bureaucrats that sabotage the process and ensure elected officials respond to the grassroots interests.

This is no small question for the revolution — unless the candidates reflect the popular will and generate popular enthusiasm, it can be expected the opposition will make significant gains in the elections.

However, the Chavista right don't seem to care. Their own ability to determine the candidates and take the positions is more important to them than the needs of the revolution overall and they seem determined, where possible, to enforce hated and discredited bureaucrats as the candidates. (The Bolivar state governor Francisco Rangel Gomez, who is despised and would probably fail to be re-elected governor, mentioned in both articles being a classic example.)

The first article gives an indication of the initial push by the right wing to force some thoroughly undemocratic things through. An example was the exclusion of the popular and respected Chavista mayor Julio Chavez from the list of pre-candidates for governor of Lara. It was announced that he had withdrawn from the race, which was a lie. In fact, he had resisted pressure to withdraw, and then found that the announced list of candidates didn't include his name.

Julio Chavez is popular because he has democraticised his administration in the Pedro Leon Torres Municipality in the state of Lara and created a genuine model of popular power (see

Instead, the candidate of the right is Henri Falcon — a man who, after breaking the rules by pre-announcing his candidature, was said to have been expelled. He then suggested that he would run for Podemos (the social-democratic party that split from the Chavista camp to joint he opposition)! Then it was announced he wasn't expelled and he was back in the running as a potential PSUV candidate.

According to the Chavista right, we can't have a tested revolutionary respect for commitment to the program and values of the revolution, we should have a bureaucrat who expressed his willingness to run under the banner of the traitors!

We see attempts to impose Rangel Gomez in Bolivar, infamous for being anti-union and whose role in the brutal repression of the Sidor steel workers during their industrial dispute points strongly to his direct involvement. And we see other disturbing decisions such as allowing candidates to organise their own transport for supporters to come and vote (i.e. candidates are free to pay for the bussing in of masses of people on the grounds they will vote for them).

However, the second article indicates the counter-push from the ranks. Public protests were held against exclusion of Julio Chavez (which explicitely targeted Falcon as a key figure of the Chavista right).The bureaucrats backed down (after an intervention by President Hugo Chavez on the side of his namesake). Plus there is the push against Rangel Gomez in Bolivar, with moves to bring him to account for corruption as well as launch an investigation over his role in the brutal repression by state police and the National Guard against the steel workers.

The rank and file chant reported in the first article, at the entry of Julio Chavez to the stage in Lara, of ``If the people don’t stand firm, the Right will screw it up'', indicates the mood.

Like at the PSUV founding congress, which finished in March, given the relationship of forces, it would seem unlikely that one side or the other will be able to score a decisive victory in the primary elections (especially as the nature of the battle is still unclear for many people, as the process is still playing out).

However, it will be a question of how relatively good or bad it will end up being. The congress ended up relative good — a revolutionary program was adopted, and the right was punished to a certain degree in elections for the PSUV leadership.

The initial moves by the right in the primaries shows that this victory was only relative and they still hold much weight. But the response also shows there is momentum for the rank and file too. Hugo Chavez's early intervention in defence of democracy is a good sign. Like with the steel workers' dispute, his intervention backed the popular sectors.

The victory of the Sidor steel workers, with the nationalisation of the company followed by the signing of a contract that met many of the workers' demands, is very important in this context — as was the subsequent sacking of the right-wing labour minister who had backed Sidor management over the workers. It comes as part of an offensive by the government against the sabotage of the capitalist class that has seen a series of takeovers of land and plants. It indicates the willingness of the government to back the popular sectors and gave much needed momentum to the weak and divided workers' movement.

However it was only one victory in one sector. It hasn't by itself displaced the power of the right in general, even if it was a victory for, and has given confidence to, the popular sectors.

Now there will be new battles within the nationalised steel company over the question of workers' control or co-management (with the workers pushing for involvement in its running). That is, who will actually exercise control over the newly nationalised company and in whose interests will it be run?

Hopefully, the momentum will be there for the a victory for the grassroots in the primaries, although this will only occur through a big struggle. Recent victories give cause for optimism.

While this still internal struggle is still developing, and much remains to be made clear about where various forces and individuals stand, the outcome will go a long way to determining the fate of the first revolution of the 21st Century.

[Stuart Munckton is co-editor of Green Left Weekly and a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency within the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]


The debate sharpens in Venezuela

Lee Sustar looks at the controversies within Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution.

THE DEBATE over Venezuela's future is heating up again--not only in the ongoing struggle between the pro-U.S. conservative opposition and President Hugo Chávez, but in a clash between the left and right wings of the "revolutionary process" itself.

To be sure, Chávez has continued to sound the nationalist and populist themes of the Bolivarian revolution, named for the 19th century liberation fighter, and to declare his commitment to "socialism for the 21st century."

Chávez recently announced the nationalization of the cement industry in order to step up construction of housing, which is in short supply in the capital of Caracas and other major cities. The government also announced plans for a surtax on oil revenues when prices exceed $70 per barrel, a move that would increase revenues for social programs that have already greatly improved the lives of millions of poor people by providing access to health care and education.

Yet at the same time, other developments highlight the contradictions and limitations of the changes.

For example, Venezuelan left was shocked March 14 when the National Guard repressed a peaceful demonstration of union workers at the Sidor steel plant in Ciudad Guyana, the country's center of heavy industry.

Dozens of workers were wounded, 53 were arrested, and 50 cars were destroyed in the attack on workers whose only crime was to reject management's contract offer and demand the re-nationalization of the formerly state-owned company. Before it was privatized, Sidor employed 15,000 full-time workers. Today, the number is 4,000, with nearly 9,000 employed through subcontractors and temporary agencies.

"The steelworkers support the revolutionary process," said José Melendez, financial secretary of the workers' union SUTISS. "But we want to deepen it in harmony with what President Chávez says. We don't understand the type of socialism in which the officials give support to a transnational corporation against the workers."

A little more than two weeks later, union activists at a Bridgestone-Firestone tire plant in the city of Valencia came in for similar treatment. When workers fired for union activity tried to block the plant gates, Carabobo state police arrested 30 of them.

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SINCE THE defeat of Chávez's proposed constitutional reforms in a December 2 referendum, the conservative opposition and employers have been more confident in opposing Chávez and resisting social political change.

At the same time, the conservative, bureaucratic elements around Chávez have themselves become more aggressive in pushing for more moderate policies and reining in the left.

The grassroots movement has responded by making unprecedented criticisms of the "derecha endógenena"--that is, the right wing within the Chavista camp. The friction between right and left was on display at the founding congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which recently concluded.

The context of the struggle within the Chavista movement is the difficulties facing workers and the poor.

Fast-rising food prices, corruption and hoarding by corporate food distributors have led to periodic shortages of staples like chicken and sugar in the state-subsidized Mercal grocery stores, and even in privately owned shops. The majority of workers in the country still earn the minimum wage, which, while among the highest in Latin America, can't keep pace with inflation.

Meanwhile, the upper middle class and the wealthy oligarchy have benefited greatly from the Venezuelan economy's high growth rates, binging on luxury autos and homes. Profits in the financial sector are unprecedented.

This class polarization set the stage for the defeat of the constitutional referendum. Had the proposals been approved, they would have restructured local and regional governments to institutionalize popular and "communal" power. They also would have enshrined into the constitution various social gains, including protection for gay rights and the six-hour workday. Social security benefits would have been extended to workers in the informal sector of economy, which includes about half of all workers.

More controversial were proposals to give the office of president more powers, including the ability to appoint additional vice presidents to run regions of the country, control over military promotions and the abolition of presidential term limits. The opposition portrayed these moves as a dictatorial power-grab by Chávez.

Chávez's electoral base registered its impatience with economic and social problems by staying home on Election Day. Although the opposition vote in the referendum increased by just 200,000 over the presidential election held the previous year, the pro-Chávez vote fell by 3 million through abstention.

The defeat of the referendum has given a powerful boost to the right. This, in turn, spurred the left to take up criticisms of government policies, targeting in particular those seen as engaging in corrupt behavior or impeding radical change. For many, the personification of the "endogenous right" is Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer who is now governor of the state of Miranda surrounding Caracas.

For his part, Chávez alternately tilts to the left and to the right. On the one hand, he has launched the "three R" campaign--revise, rectify, and re-motivate--to tackle social problems and reconnect with the voting base that deserted him in December.

At the same time, Chávez leans on an increasingly powerful circle of politicians and functionaries like Cabello. If Chávez expected to use the referendum to consolidate the "Bolivarian revolution" through grassroots participation in a restructured political system, he now pursues that goal through alliances with regional powerbrokers.

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THE LEFT'S criticism of such figures flowed into the congress of the PSUV, which was held on successive weekends for nearly two months earlier this year. The left complained that their proposals were blocked by bureaucrats--officials from parties that had comprised Chávez's governing coalition before their merger to form the PSUV.

Many also complained of the undemocratic process used to choose the top leadership of the PSUV. Although every branch of the party was able to submit candidates, a commission headed by Chávez paired down the proposals to just 60 names, who were then elected by the PSUV congress. The most prominent conservatives failed to get elected, but most key posts went to those widely seen as yes-men and yes-women for Chávez.

The debate in the PSUV is set to continue as the party selects candidates to compete in local and regional elections set for October.

Most of the Venezuelan far left has opted to remain inside the PSUV as a means of building a larger critical current within the Chavista camp. Yet PSUV officials have already shown that there are limits to the amount of dissent they are prepared to tolerate. They announced a "unanimous" pre-expulsion on National Assembly member Luís Tacsón after he accused the younger brother of Diosdado Cabello of corruption.

The left's ability to challenge the "endogenous right" has been greatly weakened by the fragmentation of the National Union of Workers (UNT), a labor federation formed in 2003 out of the remnants of the corrupt pro-opposition labor federation, the CTV, which had supported the U.S.-backed coup attempt the previous year.

The UNT scarcely exists today--its half-dozen internal currents operate more or less autonomously. One of the currents, the Bolivarian Socialist Federation of Workers (FSBT), controls the Ministry of Labor. According to its critics, the labor ministry tilts towards management and is trying to create a state-run labor federation.

On the left of the UNT, the largest grouping, the Class-Struggle, Unitary and Revolutionary Current (C-CURA), is itself divided. Its best-known figure, Orlando Chirino, split with other C-CURA leaders to call for a "no" vote in the constitutional referendum. The government took its revenge when the state oil company PDVSA fired Chirino from his job, a move that was denounced even by Chirino's critics.

With the right-wing opposition energized by Chávez's setbacks, the challenge for the left is to reinvigorate activism and build organizations that can confront both the employers and bureaucratic and corrupt elements in the government that weaken the struggle.

The left in the PSUV should inflict a cost high enough that those who wish to manipulate the party "have to think about it twice," said Stalin Pérez Borges, a national coordinator of the UNT and member of the PSUV in Valencia. "I believe that if we fight for this, we can get some of our people in, some of the workers, some from the popular movements, some who, as the president would say, are for the deepening of the revolutionary process and the struggle to build socialism."

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What else to read

Lee Sustar's article "Where is Venezuela going?" in the July-August 2007 issue of the International Socialist Review is an extensive and in-depth look at Hugo Chávez and the meaning of 21st century socialism.

The best source in English for current news and analysis of Venezuela is the Web site. Readers of Spanish should visit, the widely read, frequently updated and most important Web site of the Venezuelan left.

Changing Venezuela: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government, a book by Gregory Wilpert, editor of the Web site, looks at politics and policy in the debate over socialism. Another very useful book is Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict, edited by Daniel Hellinger and Steve Ellner.