Friday, March 09, 2012
There is a consensus that the Venezuelan Presidential elections set for October this year will pose the most serious electoral challenge yet to Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution. The Venezuelan opposition, which for much of the Chavez era has busied itself with reactionary intrigue, self-defeating abstentions, various forms of economic sabotage and fratricidal conflict, has selected itself a plausible candidate, Henrique Caprilles, the ‘youthful’ governor of Miranda state and signalled its intention to mount a genuine campaign. While the odds are still in Chavez’s favour, the polls suggest a tight election is in the offing and a defeat for Chavez is not beyond the realms of possibility. The price of Venezuelan bonds and those of the state owned oil company (PDVSA) rallied recently, with the suggestion being that international financiers are gearing up for Chavez’s downfall and the economic ‘reform’ that might follow.
The upcoming race comes after some setbacks for the regime, including the loss of the PDVSA’s ‘supermajority’ in the Venezuelan legislature in the 2010 elections, itself preceded by reversals in the 2008 local elections that included the loss of the important and symbolic mayoralty of Caracas, and, of course, the President’s battle with cancer. (There is currently a rather bizarre debate going on in the Venezuelan media about when and where it is appropriate to use the word ‘metastasize’). While Caprilles is sticking to the line that he hopes the President recovers, the opposition press is filled daily with various unsubstantiated rumours about the true state of Chavez’s health. For its part, the government does not seem to have helped matters by pursuing a somewhat defensive and secretive attitude to the matter. Along with doubts about whether Chavez will be able to complete another 6-year term should he win, the issues that look set to form the bulk of the opposition’s campaign include inflation (which is high but falling, and is positively mild compared with examples from Latin American history), shortages in food and , above all, law and order.
Crime in Venezuela, by any measure, is a problem. The murder rate in the country is something like ten times the global average and Caracas in particular is a violent place. The murder rate in the capital city of 163 per 100,000 compares with 2 per 100,000 in London, or to give a more reasonable comparison, around 5 per 100,000 in Buenos Aires. Of course the figures, like everything in Venezuela, are highly contested and subject to immediate politicization by Chavez’s opponents. The travel advice issued to American tourists by the State Department makes Caracas sound like Mogadishu. Federico Welsch, a professor of political science at a Caracas university blamed the ‘government discourse’ for the violence because it teaches the young that ‘if you are lacking something, it is because of injustice. Then look for it, take it away from those who have it. You can obtain justice in your own hands’. The relationship between socialism and armed robbery, sadly broken since the halcyon days of 1970’s urban guerrillas, has perhaps been re-established.
Of course, the crime levels in Caracas and the country generally do not exactly present an impenetrable mystery. The cities layout functions as a metaphor for inequality in Latin America as a whole, as well as an object lesson in urban planning gone awry. The poor, working mostly in the growing ‘informal sector’, are crowded into hillside barrios that surround and stalk the affluent neighbourhoods below. Abject poverty exists alongside well-guarded shopping malls that stock all the latest consumer goods and house plush fine-dining restaurants. Income inequality over the period of Chavez’s rule has fallen and the poorest have seen their income rise quickest, but the sources of real structural inequality have remained largely unchallenged. One of the programs the government has recently introduced is a new house-building program designed to provide good housing to replace the desperate slums described, for instance, in Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums.
In any case, the fear of ‘lawlessness’ that is growing particularly among the middle and upper classes (the bulk of the violence is actually poor on poor and occurs within the barrios) is being stoked by the media and feeds into a more general sense of social ‘unease’ that Chavez has provoked among those at the top of Venezuelan society.
This line of attack is itself somewhat novel, since most previous opposition campaigns have amounted to hysterical denunciations of the ‘tyranny’ of Chavismo, thinly veiled racist vilification of Chavez and his supporters and paranoid fantasies about the role of Cuba in the country. The latter was re-animated this week when the opposition accused Chavez of ‘violating the constitution’ by ‘issuing decrees’ from Havana, where he was receiving treatment for his tumour.
On the whole though, the opposition has been pursuing a new track over the last few years in particular. Apparently finally disabused of the notion that they, and those they represent, have a divine right to govern the country and that Chavismo amounts to a savage anomaly, they are pursuing a new ‘inclusive’ strategy. This strategy, based on the assumption that a third of Venezuelans will always vote for Chavez and another third against, is intended to ‘depolarize’ the debate and convince ‘independents’ that the opposition are once again fit to rule. Caprilles has made much of his admiration for the social liberal model pursued over the last decade by Brazil in an attempt to neutralize the accusation that the opposition simply wants a return to the old neo-liberal order.
For those who support Chavez and the project of ‘21st century socialism’, the election is something of a crossroads. The long time activist and former member of the Chavez government, Roland Denis, recently said that the project for building an alternative to capitalism had ‘collapsed’. The problem for Chavez is the same one confronting all the governments of the ‘pink tide’ in Latin America. Their elections expressed and promoted a desire for radical social change among the despised masses of Latin America. Their actions in government have often given concrete form to these desires and just as often thwarted them.
The story is an old one. Propelled into government across the continent as part of a deep and general revolt against the IMF imposed ‘structural adjustment’ programs of the 80’s and 90’s, the ‘new left’ is faced with the dilemma of knowing that an alternative is needed but not quite being sure what it is. Socialism is, not the first time, proclaimed everywhere and created nowhere.
In many senses, the crisis of the Morales regime in Bolivia is even more acute. His approval ratings are hitting the floor amidst a series of social revolts whose participants would have been seen as his natural allies. Jeffrey Webber has written elsewhere about the struggle over TIPNIS and the planned road through indigenous land that was recently ‘delayed’. The regime was recently embroiled in an even uglier dispute when the police attacked a protest of ‘las personas con discapacidades’ (the disabled) who were threatening self-immolation and hunger strike in their campaign to win an annual grant from the government.
While a defeat would for Chavez would be a setback for the left and perhaps ignite a ‘carnival of reaction’ across the continent, the more fundamental questions would be perhaps be posed by a Chavez victory. If he were to win and serve a full term, he would have spent 20 years as Venezuelan President, much of that time with big legislative majorities and with the benefit of historically high oil prices (something like 80% of Venezuelan export revenue comes from oil). There is little doubt that Venezuelan society will have made progress in that period, but enough progress to justify the uncritical praise heaped on Chavez by sections of the Left?
Some were perhaps given a moment’s pause by Chavez’s fairly disgraceful attitude to events in Libya, where he parroted various infamies against the Libyan rebels and defended Gaddafi to the hilt. He seems intent on pursuing the same course in the Syrian case, recently providing the regime with a shipment of oil. While consistent anti-imperialism is to be applauded, Chavez seems incapable of reconciling this commitment with recognition of the legitimate desire for an end to authoritarianism that is causing the convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa.
Hugo Chavez has been and remains a figurehead and an inspiration for anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists across Latin America and the world. Should he head off the latest challenge to his government from a Venezuelan opposition for which no one on the Left should feel the slightest sympathy, then it is incumbent upon those who favour socialist change in Venezuela and beyond to build up the pressure for a fundamental and irreversible transformation of Venezuelan society. While Chavez and his government have the opportunity to play a role in that transformation, its ultimate success lies in forces beyond him and his regime, in the poor and working class of Venezuela. Only their self-activity and self-emancipation can provide the change Venezuela needs.