Party time in Venezuela
Venezuela's recent Presidential election was about as riveting as the awful Ashes series winding down across the ditch in Australia. Like Freddie Flintoff's hapless squad, the Venezuelan opposition has been overwhelmed by a determined, confident, and very well-organised foe. Hugo Chavez's victory had been forecast by numerous polls, and his margin was so big that not even the most febrile sections of Venezuela's lumpen oligarchy dared to raise the cries of fraud that had greeted previous electoral victories of Bolivarianism.
But if the election followed a predictable course its aftermath has not. After previous triumphs, Chavez has tended to set aside some of the radical rhetoric he uses on the hustings and make overtures to his humiliated opponents, using sugary phrases like 'national unity' and 'reconciliation'. Apparently oblivious to the sheer size of the victory of December the 3rd, some of the bigwigs in the Venezuelan government and the Bolivarian movement have been recommending the same course of action this time around. In his first major speech since the election, Chavez has confounded them by calling for the creation of a new 'United Socialist Party' and by claiming that, for his new government, 'the most important issue' will be the building of socialism in Venezuela. Michael A Leibowitz, who seems to be becoming the Regis Debray of the Bolivarian revolution, has written an eyewitness report of Chavez's address:
Last night, there were cheers in the back half of the theatre and in "the gods" -- but few in the high-priced seats. And, it had to do with Chavez's message...The new party...will be there for all the parties to join or, alternatively, to separate themselves from the government. But this, he stressed, will not be a party that combines the existing parties. Rather, it will be a party that can only be built from the base.
In your communities, in your patrols, battalions, squadrons, identify your neighbours who are supporters of the Revolution -- you know who they are, he proposed. Do a census, build the party from below. Make it a party that is not built for electoral purposes (although able to engage in electoral battles); make it a party that can fight the Battle of Ideas, one that can fight for the socialist project, one that allows us to read and discuss the way forward. Make this party the most democratic in the history of Venezuela...the real dagger came with a message which summed it all up succinctly: "The new party cannot be the sum of old faces. That would be a deceit."
Only a few weeks ago, Leibowitz was agnostic about the question of whether a new party was necessary in Venezuela. Not unreasonably, he feared that it might simply become a new vehicle for the 'Bolivarian bureaucracy' which has emerged as a key obstacle to the progress of the revolution in his adopted country. Now Chavez's speech seems to have enthused him:
Chavez said to those representatives of the old parties: we don't have the time for endless debates about this. We have to build this new party from below now. So, you decide what you are going to do because there's no time to lose. Small wonder that there were glum faces at this celebration. The battle for a new party of the revolution and to build socialism is underway.
Chavez's re-election campaign was backed by an unwieldy coalition of about twenty-five political organisations. The largest and most important was the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR), a party established by Chavez himself. Older members of the pro-Chavez coalition include the Communist Party of Venezuela and its 1970s offshoot Homeland For All, which was known for many years as La Causa R. Smaller members of the coalition include the Tupamaraos, a militant group influenced by Maoism as well as the Guevaraism of its famous Uruguayan namesake, and Trotskyist outfits like the Revolutionary Marxist Current.
Many observers have detected an uneasy relationship between the leaders of the larger pro-Chavez parties and grassroots participants in the Bolivarian revolution. The Fifth Republic Movement has attracted millions of members since being founded in 2002, but it has failed to create mechanisms by which these members can influence the policies of the party, let alone Chavez's government. In many cases, the grassroots movements of the Bolivarian revolution - trade unions, occupied factory committees, peasants' organisations, urban land committees - have bypassed the party altogether, and addressed their demands directly to Chavez.
The Fifth Republic Movement took a step in the right direction when it held primaries in the leadup to 2002 elections to local government and the National Assembly, but last year the party leadership angered many members when it unilaterally drew up the slate for new elections to the Assembly. The low turnout in those elections was attributed to an opposition boycott, but some observers also believed that undemocratic methods had led to a failure to mobilise the base of the Fifth Republic Movement. The recent Presidential campaign was marked by a very vigorous mobilisation of grassroots supporters, using institutions outside the pro-Chavez coalition, and Chavez seems to want these 'electoral battle units' to be building blocks of a new party.
The establishment of a mass party under the democratic control of the Venezuelan workers and peasantry and committed to socialism would be a major step forward for the Bolivarian revolution, and a further sign that Chavez has evolved from a wannabe Bonapartist to a leader who sees that the workers and peasants are the only force that can defend a progressive policy programme in a Third World country like Venezuela.