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What's next for Venezuela?

An analysis of the referendum setback

The defeat of Chávez’s proposed constitutional reforms in the Dec. 2 referendum does not signify by any means that the struggle for socialism is over.

It only shows there is an urgent need for a renewed drive to organize the people to defend their gains and to build the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) on the basis of fighting for socialist revolution.

It is true that supporters of the Bolivarian revolutionary process have suffered a setback, but lessons can be learned from the experience to strengthen the movement.

It is understandable that millions of Venezuelan people who believe in the socialist vision of Chávez’s leadership might be temporarily demoralized by the referendum’s defeat.

The fact that 5.7 million Venezuelans have signed on to become members of the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela shows that they share that vision of reorganizing society to meet people’s needs.

The defeat shows that the people’s struggle and organization is more necessary than ever. The counterrevolutionary forces, emboldened by its narrow victory, have already gone on the offensive.

The U.S. imperialists have pumped tens of millions of dollars into Venezuelan counterrevolutionary groups. That figure will surely be multiplied in the coming period with the intention of reversing the Bolivarian gains already won, and to promote student, military, corporate and worker opponents.

For instance, the former general Raúl Baduel, who on Nov. 5 defected to the opposition and slandered the proposed reforms as a “coup,” is now announcing a campaign to “reform” the 1999 popular Bolivarian constitution.

Baduel’s denunciation of the referendum was not a surprise. As the revolutionary process advances, the more liberal elements among the former Chávez backers inevitably fall away and turn actively against the process.

But an inexcusable betrayal of the masses was the action of a smaller group of so-called socialist elements (those trying to find a “third road” between revolution and counterrevolution) like Orlando Chirino, of the “Movement to Build a Workers’ Party,” who urged a “null” vote, abstention, before the referendum, or Heinz Dieterich, a petty-bourgeois intellectual who had proposed “conciliation” between Baduel and Chávez.

These so-called supporters of the Bolivarian revolution who called for “no” votes and abstention only helped confuse Chávez supporters. Regardless of any differences they had with the proposed reforms, Chirino and Dieterich played the role of strike-breakers. But their betrayal was on a much larger scale than a union fight, for U.S. imperialism is leading the other side.

The 50.7 percent vote against the constitutional reforms does not invalidate the progressive changes embodied in the 69 articles of reform, including the 6-hour workday, social security for the marginalized sector of informal workers, a prohibition on any type of discrimination, and an increase in institutional power for local community entities.

Nor does it mean that the vast majority of people oppose those changes.

The referendum results point to the fact that socialism, a new social system, cannot be achieved through elections alone.

While a referendum proclaiming socialism could conceivably win, getting the capitalists to peacefully agree to give up their wealth and power is quite another thing.

Why did the referendum lose? In absolute terms, compared to Chávez's landslide presidential victory a year ago, the opposition only increased its vote by about 300,000. On the other hand, around 2.8 million people who voted for Chávez last year abstained this year. What explains the abstentions?

For one, the capitalist class still possesses powerful instruments for shaping public opinion, and organized a massive misinformation campaign full of hysterical anti-communist lies. A CIA communiqué discovered only a few days before the referendum, reveals that Washington played an active part in this campaign. The U.S. government engineered a multi-pronged destabilization effort that included falsifying poll statistics, claiming fraud after the referendum, and potentially launching a military coup in the days after Dec. 2. 

The newly formed PSUV still contains a non-revolutionary wing that in some areas did not launch an aggressive offensive to counter the opposition. In addition, the capitalists have organized wide-scale economic sabotage, which have led to shortages of goods as basic as milk and eggs. Unemployment and poverty remain, despite the many advances and mobilizations of the Bolivarian revolution. The defection of Baduel and the social-democratic party Podemos—both of which campaigned in the name of “21st century socialism” against the reforms—added to the confusion. 

A protracted year’s long political mobilization that seeks to incrementally move a country in the direction of socialism entails the inevitable risk of creating a degree of exhaustion, at least in some sectors of the working class. Over such a long period of time, consciousness invariably ebbs and flows. The over 4 million people who voted for the 69 reforms consciously voted for socialism. This in itself represents an enormous advance in class consciousness compared to a few years ago. But other Chávez supporters undoubtedly will only mobilize in the name of socialism once it has provided a concrete remedy to the economic situation.

How will socialism come about?

A virtual dual power exists in Venezuela, with a revolutionary government headed by Hugo Chávez, which has loosened the grip of international and Venezuelan capitalists.

With the nationalization of Venezuela’s oil reserves, the foreign oil companies lost their longstanding control of the petroleum resources. Those that have remained in Venezuela have been forced to pay higher royalties to the state.

The hundreds of billions of dollars in extra government funds, coupled with the legislative moves of the pro-Chávez National Assembly, have allowed the Bolivarian government to launch great changes in people’s lives.

Healthcare is now free to millions on demand, with the invaluable contribution of 14,000 Cuban doctors, and the virtual replacement of the private-sector capitalist healthcare system.

Private university education, another institution of the capitalist system, has been supplemented by the creation of 14 popular universities providing free education. In this way hundreds of thousands of working-class and poor youth are being prepared for vital economic, social and administrative futures in a new revolutionary society.

Significant progress has been made in the countryside where peasants have mobilized to take advantage of their newly-won rights to confiscate land from the wealthy.

The capitalists’ influence has been eroded, but tremendous power still remains in the hands of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.

They retain the right of private property, which is the right to own the means of production, to hire and fire workers, and to shut down a workplace. This is not to be confused with the right to personal property, which includes home ownership. The landlords still have the right to throw tenants from their homes and into the streets.

Chávez’s presidency and the many tremendous social and economic gains of the Venezuelan people have defied the capitalists’ longstanding control of the system and society, but the capitalists have not been vanquished.

The struggle, not elections brought Chávez to office

Notwithstanding Chávez’s election as president in 1998, it was in reality the open struggle that brought Chávez to prominence. And it was this struggle that propelled him to the presidency.

Chávez was swept into office by the Venezuelan people in December 1998 not because he had money or a political machine that could deliver votes in the way of traditional bourgeois elections.

It was not because Chávez had served as a congressman or senator previously and thus had some traditional electoral sway; he never held public office before 1999.

Chávez was completely unknown to the population, until two seminal events propelled him from anonymity into the spotlight, and launched the Venezuelan masses onto the stage of history.

First was the 1989 Caracazo, a spontaneous rebellion of tens of thousands of Venezuela’s poorest and most downtrodden. Although Venezuela is one of the richest oil-producing countries in the world, 80 percent of the country suffered in a desperate situation of poverty. In 1989, the poor came into the streets to protest the country’s widespread poverty and the government’s food and energy price hikes. The military killed thousands before suppressing the uprising.

The Caracazo was the people’s response to the country’s objective conditions. What awoke the people’s struggle was not a convincing electoral campaign by Chávez. The struggle came first. It is the struggle that has sustained the revolutionary process to the present.

On Feb. 4, 1992, Chávez led a revolt by progressive forces in the military against the right-wing government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Though it failed, millions of Venezuelans were deeply inspired by Chávez’s fighting spirit.

Chávez’s first electoral victory in 1998, when he was elected president, and the subsequent electoral victories, have been products of struggle.

In April 2002—just three years into his administration, before today’s social projects had been fully developed—Chávez was overthrown by elements in the military. Then too it was the hundreds of thousands of the poorest and most exploited people in society who spontaneously came into the streets, prepared for battle and restored their president.

As one young man I interviewed in 2004 said, “We came from Caricuao, Catia, from all the neighborhoods, to bring Chávez back. Either we were going to bring back our president, or we were going to die doing so. And we brought back our president.”

When the oil managerial class sabotaged Venezuela’s oil industry, shutting it down from December 2002 to February 2003, the Bolivarian workers rescued it by restarting the industry, and supporting the ouster of the saboteurs. It did not require a referendum to justify their actions but they succeeded in regaining control of the country’s oil.

The capitalists will not be dislodged by elections

In a society where the capitalists hold power, socialism will not be built by electoral mobilizations—regardless of how popular some of the referenda have been in the past.

As long as the capitalist class is not expropriated, it will continue to mobilize, spread misinformation, prepare for counterrevolution and function as a conveyor belt for U.S. imperialist aggression.

Many commentaries from pro-Chávez forces—in Venezuela and abroad—have been issued in the hours since the defeat of the constitutional reform. Some have lauded the “institutional maturity” of the elections, and assured the right wing that the Bolivarian masses and leadership, by respecting the outcome, hope that in the future, the opposition will also abide by any future Bolivarian victory.

This argument is deeply flawed. Formal democracy is a false issue raised by bourgeois propaganda only when it fits into their plan to discredit the revolution. The revolutionaries gain nothing by adopting the arguments of the counterrevolution. The working people more than ever need a consistently class conscious explanation of the referendum setback.

The opposition has no interest in any kind of democracy. It has learned time and time again in the past nine years that its future as exploiters of the Venezuelan people is threatened.

It is not even interested in preserving the bourgeois democracy that it used to control society before 1999. If the U.S. imperialists and right wing were to succeed in overpowering the Bolivarian dual-power government, it would immediately turn to violent counterrevolution, to crush the popular organizations and the millions of working people who have awakened to political life.

In the bourgeoisie’s 48-hour experiment during the short-lived April 2002 coup that overthrew Chávez, Pedro Carmona, head of the country’s Chamber of Commerce and the two-day coup “president,” annulled the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and Supreme Court and declared martial law. The police began to round up known pro-Chávez activists. If not for the overturn of the coup, there would have soon followed severe repression and killing of revolutionary leaders.

All pretenses of democracy were instantly abolished. This provides a glimpse of what Venezuela will look like should the opposition regain political power.

Although the right wing is howling that Chávez threatens "democracy,” what they really fear is a workers’ democracy which necessarily includes nationalization of the economy—unfolding before their eyes. They fear a social system that aims to do away with exploitation, misery and oppression.

The United States ruling class is determined to see that the revolutionary vision of Chávez and the people is not only defeated but annihilated. The impact of Venezuela’s revolutionary struggle, as well as Cuba’s, is reaching virtually every corner of Latin America.

What is at stake is either socialist revolution or fascist repression. For the Bolivarian masses, there can be no hesitation going forward.

Strengthening of the popular organizations and defense preparedness is critical. The dangerous U.S. destabilization plots entailed in the Nov. 20 CIA memorandum, if the referendum had passed, are only the tip of the iceberg. There can be no vacillation or middle ground for the people of Venezuela.

It is critical to recognize that while the revolution has been dealt a setback, it has not been defeated, and therefore can recover and carry the revolutionary process forward. No true revolution has gone from success to success; all have suffered setbacks.

December 2, 2007 is not like September 11, 1973, when the U.S.-backed coup led to the physical destruction of the revolutionary and progressive forces in Chile.

The duty of progressive-minded people the world over is to defend the Venezuelan revolutionary process and to demand the end of U.S. intervention.

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