Friday, December 07, 2007

The Bolivarian revolution is still “ON”

A referendum conducted in Venezuela to endorse a set of constitutional changes promoted by the current president Hugo Chavez and the country's National Assembly answered with a “No”. The margin was very close; nearly 51% of the voting populace saying “No”, while 49% replied with “Si” (Yes). This vote has captured analyst imagination. The constitutional changes proposed contained 69 amendments which included abolition of term limits, control over the central bank, greater grassroots democracy and planning, provisions for powers during emergencies, more social security, and rights for marginalised sections.

For nearly 9 years, Hugo Chavez's popularity has ensured that he has won almost every endorsement and every poll since his first stab at democratic power. This loss, according to analysts and people sceptical of Chavez's “populist” rule, signifies a trend away from a radical course that Chavez had embarked on for Venezuela against what is called the “Washington Consensus”. The US media in particular has been quite jubilant, as they see this vote as an indicator of decline in Chavez's rousing popularity in the Latin American state. The joy is however misplaced, in this writer's opinion.

Hugo Chavez is seen as the prime mover for the “Bolivarian revolution”, a broad term that encapsulates a viable alternative path to “neoliberal development” in Venezuela. This “revolution” seeks inspiration from democratic ideals, a vision for an egalitarian society, a co-operative unity for Latin America and a rejection of profit/pelf generating capitalism. Obviously, such a vision therefore finds itself closer to a new socialism and the call for egalitarianism and social justice makes Venezuela invoke pride in the presence of alternative systems such as that in Cuba. Hence, the constant evocation to Fidel Castro's Cuba and the close economic and international ties with the socialist state.

This pitch to America's “prime enemy”, Fidel's Cuba, and the call for socialism, is a huge problem for Chavez's antagonists, mostly those from privileged sections opposed in toto to the pro-poor turn in Venezuela's political economy enunciated by Chavez. A broad section of such antagonists were the prime movers for the “No” vote in the referendum, helped as usual by the domineering agent provocateurs from the north in the USA. The US has a history of sabotage and notorious meddling in Latin American affairs. It's avowed endeavor to bring about regime changes and disrupting any move to bring about radical change in Latin American countries, through crass means of assassination of leaders, sabotage, engineered coups, covert support is legion. The Venezuelan security agencies published yet another account of such an operation planned by covert operatives of the US secret agencies to sabotage and create an atmosphere for the “No” vote, just before the referendum. This operation involved wide usage of the mass media, groups opposed to Chavez (who had earlier participated in the aborted 2002 presidential coup) and others.

Yet, it would be futile to suggest that the “No” vote was won through external meddling. There are deep structural reasons for the narrow loss. A very significant section of the populace who have incessantly voted for Chavez, this time, either did not vote or switched sides. The western critics' opposition to Chavez's proposed amendments were to the ones that proposed dismantling of limited number of presidential tenures. The critics cried that this was proof of Chavez wanting to “rule for life”. At best, this was a nonsensical critique. There was no call for such tenures to go on for ever without democratic approval, meaning, the president would still have to fight elections to get re-elected. It is a standard practise in democratic third world countries that ensures that leaders are subject to re-election. Just because in presidential systems such as in the US, there is a limit on the number of tenures, does not make it necessary that this must be the practice everywhere else. The insinuation that Hugo Chavez intended to stay in power “forever” is therefore a mischievous and obfuscatory critique.

The rejection of the constitutional changes was more to do with the problems that were affecting Venezuelan economy now. There has been a serious food shortage and inflation problem affecting the state now. A significant section of voters identified as “Chavistas” or Chavez supporters, particularly those who were poor and were in the informal economy were disillusioned because of these economic troubles. Conversely though, the constitutional changes were to be made in place precisely to mitigate these economic problems. The Venezuelan planners were not talking of a statist socialism (despite the evocation of Cuban success in social justice) but were asking for a “new socialism” that considered the importance of grassroots democracy, self-planning by local “communal councils”, more or less commensurate with a mixed economy that privileged empowerment of workers and poorer sections.

Chavez and his supporters, who gracefully accepted the verdict and vowed to fight on to bring these qualitative changes, however must realise the gravity of the results. The prime reasons for the “no” vote is got to do with the fact that despite high emphasis on empowerment and social justice, government mechanisms have not been sufficiently geared to bring amelioration of economic troubles. The antipathy showed by the sections of “big capital” and those who preferred the privileges for the rich in the agro-businesses and corporates indeed has affected macroeconomic processes, such as reduced distribution and decreased production as opposed to the relative increase in purchasing power of the general public in the recent past. The solution to address these problems would have been greater democratic mobilisation and more focussed regulation of the mixed market economy. The Venezuelan economy is fuelled by an over-dependence on the proceeds of crude sales, which has helped significant spending without particularly having to tax big capital and richer sections for the same. It however indeed is a very difficult job to proceed without a definite class favour, as has been the case with erstwhile socialist systems.

The “Bolivarian socialists” in Venezuela therefore are embarking upon a new path, which tries to balance the radical rhetoric with innovative action on the ground. This “new socialism” is widely seen as a “new praxis” in a changed world, an affirmation for a democratic socialism. Hugo Chavez should not get distracted by reducing this democratic process for change into a battle for merely emphasising personal charisma. Over the past few months, Chavez has tried to use his charisma to be the prime mover for the “Bolivarian revolution”. This personalised approach has meant that energies to put for a positive mobilisation is wasted on creating a maverick image. Witness, for e.g., the drama following the spat with the Spanish king and the Colombian hostage situation, in which Chavez wanted to act as a mediator. The image of a warrior against imperialism and of a messiah for redistribution can generate massive popularity, but without collective leadership and continued dynamic action, social change as a process will be slowed down only giving impetus to forces inimical to such progression.

The future years will show how robust would the “Bolivarian revolution” be in handling the many contradictions that permeate a process for achieving egalitarianism using instruments of liberal democracy. Continued empowerment, increased co-operative formations ,collective leadership, dedicated grassroots mobilisation and action can still sustain the “Bolivarian revolution”. Chavistas who were disillusioned and switched sides can still be won over, through the force of logic and action on the ground. The defeat in the referendum must remind Hugo Chavez and his vast supporters,of the old cliché, the battle might be lost, but the war is still there to be won.

Article written for The Post, Lahore


Varaha said...

I think a golden mean between Socialist and Capitalist forces is needed, for any society. Bolivia is lacking in this regard, but it is too early there for a mean to emerge...

May be India is doing good, but equitable distribution even in India is a far cry...

- Varahasimhan.

Srinivasan Ramani said...

I think you meant Venezuela...

Yes, the effort to build an alternate to the statist version and prevailing "neoliberal capitalism" is certainly a daunting one indeed. I am sure Venezuela despite the failures of the referendum will work forward to such an alternative.

Mahesh Panicker. said...

HC's failure, as far as I am concerned is a huge setback to the personality cult that he has been trying to create. the left movement in India would do well if they refrain from the empty rhetoric of Anti-Americanism adopted on the strength of oil reserves. China would be a better model at least in the case of maintaining international cooperation is concerned. 'Pink Socialism' is not the answer the world needs. it is nothing but high voltage rhetoric.