Re-election of Chavez: Worsening poverty in the name of socialism

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The striking victory of Chavez in the elections held on 3 December 2006 (Chavez won 63% of the vote against 37% for the opposition candidate) not only consolidates and legitimates the power of the Chavist faction of the bourgeoisie for the next 6 years, but represents a triumph for the whole of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. Once again, the conflict between bourgeois factions, which has dominated the political scene since Chavez came to power in 1999, has succeeded in polarising the population and drawing it into participating massively in the electoral process. According to the figures of the National Electoral Council, the rate of abstention was the lowest ever, falling from around 40% to about 25%.

The bourgeoisie, thanks to the return of the opposition to the electoral scene (they refused to take part in the parliamentary election of 2005) has given a shot of oxygen to the democratic and electoral mystifications, which are fundamental ideological mechanisms for maintaining the capitalist system of exploitation. But the biggest boost to this has been Chavism, which managed to focus popular attention on its claim that the opposition candidate was the pawn of the devil, George Bush, who, if he was elected, would threaten the missions[1] through which the government has instituted its policy of ‘social justice’ - that he would undermine the gains of the ‘revolution’. Thus the proletariat and the socially excluded masses remained caught in the trap of an inter-bourgeois faction fight, putting their hopes in a faction of the bourgeoisie which has been able to use the country’s oil revenue to back a left wing, populist policy geared towards the poorest strata in society. In reality, Chavism has meant the management of insecurity, an egalitarianism that equalises downwards, impoverishing not only the middle classes but also the workers and the most deprived strata of society.

Such is the recipe for socialism in the 21st Century which Chavism is exporting to Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua and which is helping Venezuela to advance its geopolitical interests in the region.

The popularity of Chavism is beyond dispute. Its triumph is the fruit of a political process which is consolidating the faction of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie which came to power in 1999, replacing the factions which had governed prior to that. These factions - the social democratic ‘Democratic Action’ and the Christian Democrat COPEI - had become extremely corrupt and had been unable to maintain any level of political and social stability, as could be seen from the social revolts of 1989. Since it came to power, Chavism has undertaken a slow but thorough overhaul of the institutions of the bourgeois state. This has allowed it over the last 8 years of government to progressively weaken its rivals and to enter the electoral battle with the advantage of exerting a quasi-totalitarian control of the state.

But the victory of Chavism is not just the victory of one faction of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie over another: it also represents the legitimisation of the project of ‘Bolivarian socialism’, a model for the management of the state which transcends the frontiers of Venezuela, and through which the Venezuelan bourgeoisie hopes to reaffirm itself as a regional power. Chavez, in the ceremonies around his re-investiture, said that, with his re-election, Venezuela was about to become an ‘economic power’. We know very well what this means and has meant for capitalism since the beginning of the last century: developing an imperialist policy which inevitably leads it towards dominating weaker countries and confronting other countries who are out to preserve or create their own geopolitical zones. In this sense, the Chavist sector of the bourgeoisie has been able to profit from the difficulties facing American imperialism on the world level since the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989, difficulties which have been considerably accentuated since the interventions by the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ‘radical’ anti-Americanism espoused by Chavez (which is frenziedly applauded by the anti-globalisation movements around the world), the support for the left-leaning governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, as well as the ‘aid’ doled out to a number of countries in the region through cutting their oil bills, are examples of the use of oil as a weapon for dominating the region, to the detriment of the interests of US imperialism, which has always considered Latin America to be its backyard.

What is behind the ‘massive support of the people’ for Chavez?

The Chavist faction of the bourgeoisie, led by civilian and military factions on the left and extreme left, has a social base in the support of the exploited masses, above all of the socially excluded masses, who form a belt of poverty around Caracas and the main cities of the country, as well as the poor population of the villages and provinces. These layers of the population are being fed the illusion that they will have overcome their poverty… by 2021!

The great intelligence of this faction of the bourgeoisie has consisted in presenting itself as being an expression of the people, as being on the side of the poor[2]. At the same time it has portrayed itself as a victim of the malign intrigues of the bourgeoisie and above all of American imperialism, which is used as the external menace that has prevented it from carrying out its plans for taking the country out of poverty. The adoption of this permanent victim status was one of the best bits of advice given by the Cuban bourgeoisie to the new Chavist elite, it allowed the former to justify the exploitation and insecurity of the Cuban proletariat and the population in general for over forty years.

The Chavez government, since mid-2003, has been re-orientating ‘social expenditure’ by setting up the so-called missions, social plans through which the state hands out crumbs to the population with two principal objectives: maintaining social peace (necessary to oil the machinery of capitalist exploitation) and strengthen control over the pauperised masses as a counter-weight to the action of bourgeois sectors who have already made several attempts to get rid of Chavez. This ‘social expenditure’ (which is actually an obligatory social investment for the Chavist bourgeoisie) has been accompanied by unprecedented ideological manipulation, based on presenting Chavism’s state capitalist policies as the activities of a beneficent state which distributes wealth in an ‘equitable’ manner, thus creating the illusion among the deprived masses that the resources of the state are inexhaustible, that it’s simply a question of turning on the taps of petrodollars, and that there are sectors of the bourgeoisie who have a real interest in taking up and resolving their problems. Through the missions, the cooperatives, and numerous political organisations (including the Bolivarian Circles) and the state apparatus in general, Chavism has created a network which penetrates the most remote regions and whose main aim is not to bring people out of poverty as the government propaganda claims, but to control the population ideologically, politically and socially.

In order to win the presidential elections (in which it won 7 million votes out of an electorate of 16 million – it was actually aiming at 10 million) Chavism, as previous governments have done during election periods, concentrated its main public expenditure during the year 2006: increasing the import of foodstuffs in the first months of the year; selling them at subsidised prices; beginning a number of public works, some of which are still going on[3]; decreeing two increases in the minimum wage for regular workers (one in May and the other in September); accelerating the arrangements for giving out old age pensions; paying arrears owed to a number of workers and renegotiating a number of collective agreements, etc. A few days before the elections, extraordinary bonuses were handed over to public employees, pensioners and members of the missions. The government handed out this substantial ‘gift’ thanks to the oil manna, in order to create a mirage of prosperity among the population. These expenditures, the purchase of weapons, the ‘aid’ given to other nations etc, resulted in a major increase in public debt in 2006 – an increase of 58% over 2005, equivalent to 35% of GNP, a time-bomb which will have inevitable repercussions at the level of the economic crisis.

As we can see, behind the triumph of Chavism and popular support for the regime there has been liberal use of oil revenues, a demagogic populist strategy which the Chavist bourgeoisie has learned from those sectors of the bourgeoisie which oppose it today. The essential difference resides at the ideological level, since Chavism is able to sow confusion among the proletarians by stressing the idea that this is the how we can get to ‘socialism’. According to an opinion poll carried out by Datanalisis, which predicted that Chavez would win by a margin of 20%, two thirds of the sectors of the population who support Chavez have been identified as those who have in some way benefited from the government’s ‘gifts’.

According to the propaganda put out by Chavism at the domestic and the international level (supported and advised by all kinds of left wing leaders and intellectuals, and eminent figures in the anti-globalisation movement), Venezuela is heading towards the elimination of poverty between now and 2021, a year given a transcendental meaning by the Messiah Chavez. The ‘social gains’ of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’, in particular the missions, are supposedly moving in this direction. With the investiture of Chavez for a new period of government, this objective will be assured. We only have to wait for the transition from ‘wild capitalism’ to ‘Bolivarian socialism’.

But the reality behind this intoxicating publicity is very different: you only have to visit the poor neighbourhoods of the extreme east (Tetare) and extreme west of Caracas (Catia), or go to the centre of the city, to see the real poverty that lies behind this smokescreen: countless paupers, the majority of them young people, living and sleeping on the streets, under bridges and by the river Guaire (a vast toilet into which the used water of the city is dumped); avenues and streets full of garbage which results in the proliferation of rats and disease; tens of thousands of street vendors (known as “buhoneros”) who sell a few basic items and swell the ranks of the so-called informal economy; a very high level of criminality which has made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the region and has resulted in Venezuela becoming the country with the highest rate of crime, outstripping even Colombia. At the national level, there has been an increase in diseases like malaria, dengue, infant mortality, death of mothers in childbirth, etc[4]. This picture is not restricted to Caracas, but affects all the big cities and is increasingly becoming the norm in the medium and small ones. Although the government has taken measures to try to hide this poverty (for example by picking up a number of street kids and paupers, harassing prostitutes, moving the itinerant vendors, etc) or has blamed them on the evil actions of the opposition or of American imperialism, the expressions of this impoverishment can’t really be hidden.

The opposition factions, displaying the most disgusting hypocrisy, criticise the government for all this poverty with the aim of presenting themselves as the best option for the defence of the poor, when their real aim is to get their hands back on the state apparatus to preserve this system of misery and barbarism. For their part, the government networks of communication don’t mention or minimise this situation, which isn’t unique to Venezuelan cities but is the common denominator of many other cities in the peripheral countries. It is the inhumanity of capitalism which Chavism seeks to hide behind its deafening propaganda about being on the side of the poor.

Alongside these visible expressions of poverty, there are other less visible ones which accentuate the impoverishment of the proletarian masses. Through the co-operativism pushed forward by the state, precarious employment has been formalised, since the workers in these cooperatives have less income than the regular workers. According to the declarations of the trade unions and the cooperatives themselves, they don’t even receive the official minimum wage[5]. Negotiation on collective agreements, especially in the public sector, has seen major delays; wage increases are accorded by decree and in the majority of cases through bonuses which are unrelated to social benefits and are often very late in being paid, if at all; through the missions and other governments plans, parallel service networks have been created alongside the formal sectors of health, education and others. They have been used to put pressure on the regular workers and make further inroads on their working conditions. As we can see, precarious working, flexible working and attacks on wages are inevitable for every sector of the bourgeoisie, even the most ‘anti-liberal’ as the Chavist bourgeoisie claims to be.

The wage earners, as well as the excluded masses, are paying the price of the incessant public spending carried out by this ‘new’ Chavist bourgeoisie through an inflation rate which in the last three years has been the highest in Latin America (2004: 19.2%; 2005: 14.4%; 2006: 17% according to the official figures). This increase, basically the result of the state’s economic policies, has led to a deterioration of living conditions for the whole population, in particular the poorest. The latter can use 70% of their income to buy food, an area in which cumulative inflation during this period has been 152% (it was 26% in 2006) according to the figures supplied by the Central Bank of Venezuela. The estimates for 2007 are no more comforting: it is expected to be above 20%. In January it went up by 2%, the highest in the region.

The aggravation of poverty is not the result of bad management by this or that government, whether of right or left. It is the path down which capitalism is obliged to lead the proletariat and the whole of society. And the Chavez government, despite all its ‘revolutionary’ verbiage, is a capitalist government overseeing the exploitation of the workers.

With its electoral victory, Chavism gets the green light for attacking the workers

A few days after the elections, seeing that Chavism had won by a landslide and had firm control over the state institutions, one might have thought there would be a lessening of confrontations between factions of the national bourgeoisie, and even an improvement of relations with the USA. The year had not even ended when Chavez himself took charge of crushing these hopes among certain factions of the opposition: the government accelerated a whole series of measures to strengthen its project of ‘21st century socialism’, arguing that via the elections the ‘people’ had shown their support for this project.

The first thing the government did was to flex its muscles in the face of rival bourgeois factions, both at the national and international level, announcing a series of nationalisations in various sectors of the economy (telecommunications, TV, energy, etc); a majority control over oil exploitation, hitherto in the hands of the multinationals; and an increase in fiscal charges. These measures show the main aim of the Chavist bourgeoisie: ensuring a tighter control of the national economic apparatus through radical state capitalist measures.

But the bourgeoisie knows that control at the economic level is not enough, and that steps towards greater political and social control are also necessary, given the unpopular measures it will have to take to face up to the economic crisis, which is coming to the surface despite the increase in oil revenues. The bourgeoisie knows that sooner or later the crisis will hit home because of the excessive public spending demanded by the Chavist model, and that it will have to deal with problems at the internal level (social discontent, political opposition, dissension within the Chavist camp itself) and external (geopolitical difficulties with the USA, Colombia, Mexico, but also with allies such as Brazil). This is why the leaders of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ are calling for measures to ensure greater political and social control of the workers and the population in general via so-called ‘popular power’ and the Communal Councils.

At the same time as it announced a strengthening of these organs of social control, the government began the year by announcing a number of attacks on the living conditions of the workers and the general population:

- measures for controlling the itinerant vendors in the capital, to be extended to the rest of the country;

- announcing petrol price increases, to take effect sooner or later;

- a certain abandonment of the missions (like the one involved in the distribution of food and medicine) leading to the closure of several of their installations and a reduction of basic supplies, with prices fixed by the state. The government, in an intelligent way, has accused the private capitalists of being responsible for this situation, when in fact it is the result of government actions;

- a struggle against bureaucracy and corruption has been proclaimed. Chavez has called for a reduction in the fat salaries of high state bureaucrats (who in some cases earn more than 50 times the official state minimum). This is actually a diversionary measure, since Chavism itself has bought the loyalty of the high state and army bureaucrats by giving them huge salaries and allowing them to maintain a discrete management over state funds. The real goal of this campaign is to attack the smaller bureaucrats, i.e. the public employees, by making their condition much more precarious (for example by obliging them to form cooperatives) and even by laying them off.

The government, from the heights of its popularity, is about to show its real face as a bourgeois government: having used the workers and the excluded strata in the elections, it is now announcing its programme of austerity and repression. For the Chavist bourgeoisie, it is vital to reduce expenditure even more, as it has announced a reduction the price of oil for 2007, which will limit the ruling class’s sources of income.

The only way forward is through struggle and the dismantling of Chavist ideology

Faced with this situation, the workers of Venezuela, as in the rest of the world, have no choice but to develop their struggle against the incessant attacks of capital. We know that this struggle will not be easy. This is partly because of the confusions spread by Chavist ideology, which has weakened and manipulated the very idea of socialism, i.e. the possibility of overthrowing this regime of insecurity through the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat.

In order to sow even more confusion, Chavism is having an ‘open’ and ‘democratic’ internal debate about socialism, communism, the party, workers’ control, etc – anything as long as it doesn’t question the class nature of the regime.

At the same time there is the poison of anti-imperialism. For its internal and external survival, Chavism needs both the domestic conflict, but above all the confrontation with the ‘main enemy’, the USA. Hence the permanent, fiery ‘anti-Yankee’ rhetoric, aimed at enlisting the workers’ support for the imperialist policies of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. This is why Chavism has used the recent proclamations of the left governments of Ortega in Nicaragua and Correa in Ecuador to sign a series of political and commercial agreements and widen the Cuba-Bolivia-Venezuela axis.

This ideological attack on the working class is not only carried out by Chavism, but also by the opposition which has been sharpening its campaign about the need to hold back the totalitarian ‘communism’ of Chavez and his clique. In answer to the demands by several sectors of the opposition (including the Church) that Chavez must explain what he means by ‘21st Century Socialism’, the latter replied “read Marx and you will find the explanation”. The references to real militants of our class like Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and even Rosa Luxemburg are frequent from both Chavez and the opposition, with each side defending their own bourgeois interpretations of them.

Although the government has got one step ahead with an avalanche of economic, social and political measures, the opposition, though weakened, is trying to ‘heat up the streets’ because it can’t rely on its representatives in parliament. Thus growing social discontent is being polarised around rivalries between bourgeois parties.

As we can see, the proletariat is being caught in a cross fire between factions of the bourgeoisie. With the triumph of Chavism, the ideological attack on the working class in Venezuela and throughout the region is being accentuated. This situation has provoked a certain degree of confusion among proletarian elements who have begun to criticise Chavism from a class standpoint. This momentary situation certainly affects the consciousness and militancy of the working class, but it won’t put an end to the process of reflection going on among minorities of the class. Elections are not a real thermometer for measuring the class struggle.

For the future, if the working class doesn’t respond, there is a likelihood of more amorphous social revolts. The government may well overestimate its control over the excluded masses who, well before the elections, were beginning to express their discontent, sometimes in a violent manner, by blaming the functionaries for their situation rather than Chavez. This situation makes the workers’ struggle, and the demolition of Chavist ideology from the marxist point of view, even more urgent, not least because thanks to the ‘alternative worldists’ and the left of capital, this ideology has gone well beyond the borders not only of Venezuela but of Latin America as a whole. ICC, 18.2.07

[1] Through these so-called missions, the state ‘takes charge’ of the distribution of food, health, education, subsidies to unemployed mothers and temporary employees, etc. Since 2003, several missions have been set up. Many of them are not permanent and only play out a façade of concern for the poor. They get their names from the heroes of the independence struggle against Spanish domination or from the sectors they deal with: Barrio Adentro (health); Mercal (food distribution); Madres del Barrio (aid to unemployed mothers); Ribas (education) etc.


[2] Chavez in particular is the son of primary school teachers, even though he is an army officer. It’s not the first time that someone from poor origins has assumed responsibility for the state: this was the case with Lech Walesa in Poland in the 80s and with Lula in Brazil, both of them workers. The fact that a person from poor or proletarian origins assumes high office in the state bureaucracy places him or her without any question in the camp of the bourgeoisie, since the state is the organ of bourgeois class domination.


[3] One of these works was the new bridge over the river Oronoco: Lula was present at the inauguration because the bridge was built with Brazilian capital. On this occasion, Lula gave his public support to Chavez - a support which shows the economic interests of Brazilian capital but above all its geopolitical interests, since Brazil is putting itself forward as a country that can control the influence of the ‘enfant terrible’ Chavez. It was no accident that Bush paid a visit to Lula during his special trip to Latin America in March.


[4] The NGOs have problems in putting forward reliable figures. The government, through the control of the institutions, especially the National Institute of Statistics (INE), manipulates the figures in a very crude way in order to adjust them to the official discourse. Following the requests that Chavez made to the INE, the latter succeeded in lowering the index of poverty from 55.1% at the end of 2003 to 37.9% at the end of 2005. Last year, there was a sharp polemic between the FAO and the government, when this organisation revealed that between 2001 and 2003 4.5 million people in Venezuela suffered from malnutrition: representatives of the government said that this organ “was not qualified to measure the revolutionary process”. The manipulation of statistics, which the majority of governments do in one way or another, shows the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie which tries to hide what can’t be hidden.


[5] The official minimum wage is equivalent to $232: it’s the second highest in the region, calculated at the rate of exchange controlled by the government, which stands at 2150 bolivars to the dollar. But according to the non-official rate, it should be reduced by a half. The vast majority of regular workers don’t receive this minimum wage and this is all the more true for the unregistered workers who represent nearly half the workforce of 12 million people.