by James Petras
The author, a former professor of
right-wing frustration and left-wing euphoria, little has been written about
the complex and contradictory reality of Venezuelan politics and the
specificities of President Chávez’s policies. Even
less discussion has focused on the division between ideological Washington and
pragmatic Wall Street, between the politics of confrontation and conciliation,
and the convergences and divergences between
Myth 1—Chávez is an unpopular president who the right-wing opposition is capable of defeating in the [August 15] referendum.
right wing and its backers in
initiative had passed from the right to the left, but both the
Myth 2—According to the right-wing analysts, the referendum was based on the issue of Chávez’s personality, his “charisma” and “autocratic” style.
In reality the referendum was based on class/race divisions. Non-opposition trade union leaders indicated that over 85% of the working class and working poor voted for Chávez, while preliminary reports on voting in affluent neighborhoods and circumscriptions showed just the reverse, over 80% voting for the referendum. A similar process of class/race polarization was evident in the extraordinary turnout and vote among poor Afro-Venezuelans: The higher the turnout, the higher the vote for Chávez, as an unprecedented 71% of the electorate voted. Clearly Chávez was successful in linking social welfare programs and class allegiances to electoral behavior.
Myth 3—Among both the right and the left there is a belief that the mass media control mass voting behavior, limit political agendas, and necessarily lead to the victory of the right and the domestication of the left.
of the referendum demonstrate that powerful grass roots organizations built
around successful struggles for social reforms can create a mass political and
social consciousness that can easily reject media manipulation. Elite optimism
about “structural power”—money, media monopoly, and backing by
Myth 4—According to many leftist journalists, Chávez’s
victory reflected a new wave of popular nationalist politics in
the contrary is abundant.
In effect there is a bloc of neoliberal
regimes arrayed against Chávez’ anti-imperialist policies
and mass social movements. To the
extent that Chávez continues his independent foreign
policy his principle allies are the mass social movements and
Myth 5—The defeat of the referendum was a major
tactical defeat of
But a defeat
of imperialism does not necessarily mean or lead to a revolutionary
transformation, as Chávez’s post-referendum appeals
President Chávez’s policy has always followed a careful balancing act between rejecting vassalage to the U.S. and local oligarchic rentiers on the one hand and trying to harness a coalition of foreign and national investors, [together with the] urban and rural poor, to a program of welfare capitalism. He is closer to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal than Castro’s socialist revolution. In the aftermath of each of the three political crises—the failed civil-military coup [of April 2002], the debacle of the oil executives lockout [of December 2002-February 2003], and the defeat of the recall referendum [August 2004]—Chávez has offered to dialogue and reach a consensus with the media barons, big business plutocrats, and U.S. government, on the basis of the existing property relations, media ownership, and expanded relations with Washington.
Chávez’s commitment to
centrist-reformist policies explains why he did not prosecute owners of the
mass media who had openly called for the violent overthrow of his government
and also why he took no judicial action against the association of business
leaders (FEDECAMARAS) who incited military rebellion and violent attacks on the
constitutional order. In Europe,
President Chávez has constantly reiterated that the property, privileges, and wealth of the elites are not in question.
Moreover, the fact that these elites have been able to engage in three unconstitutional efforts to overthrow the regime, yet still retain their class positions, strongly suggests that President Chávez still conceives of their playing an important role in his vision of development based on private-public partnership and social welfare spending. After five years of [the Chávez] government and after three major “class confrontations,” it is evident that, at least at the level of the government, there has been no rupture in property or class relations and no break with foreign creditors, investors, or oil clients. Within the fiscal framework of foreign debt payments, subsidies to private exporters, and low-interest loans to industrialists, the government has increased the allocation of state spending for social programs in health, education, housing, micro-enterprises [small business], and agrarian reform.
The Venezuelan government can maintain this balance between big business and the poor because of the high prices and revenue from petroleum exports. Like President Roosevelt [and Colonel Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1950s], Chávez’s positive social welfare programs attract millions of low-income voters, but do not affect money income levels, nor create large-scale employment projects. Unemployment is still in the vicinity of 20 percent, and poverty levels still remain over 50 percent. Comprehensive social spending has positively affected the social lives of the poor but has not improved their class position. Chávez is both confrontational and radical when his rulership is threatened and conciliatory and moderate when he successfully overcomes the challenge.
Myth 6—[All capitalist forces are united against Chávez.]
The left and
right have failed to recognize a divergence of tactics between an ideological
Washington and a pragmatic Wall Street. The
Myth 7—The main thrust of the current phase of the Chávez revolution is a moral crusade against government corruption and a highly politicized judicial system tightly aligned with the discredited political opposition.
For many on the left, the radical content of the “No” vote campaign was rooted in the proliferation of community-based mass organizations, the mobilization of trade union assemblies, and the decentralized democratic process of voter involvement based on promises of future consequential social changes in terms of jobs, income, and popular political power.
campaigns (anti-corruption) are commonly associated with middle class politics
designed to create “national unity” and usually weaken class solidarity. The
left’s belief that the mass organizations that mobilized for the referendum
will necessarily become a basis for a “new popular democracy” has little basis
in the recent past (similar mobilizations took place prior to [and during] the
failed coup and during the bosses’ lockout). Nor do government-sponsored
moralization campaigns attract much interest among the poor in
the focus of the Chavista political leaders is on the
forthcoming elections for parliament, not in creating alternative sources of
governance. The left’s facile projection of popular mobilization into the
post-referendum period creates a political mythology, which fails to recognize
the internal contradictions of the political process in
The massive popular victory of the “No” vote in the Venezuelan recall referendum gave hope and inspiration to hundreds of millions in Latin America and elsewhere that U.S.-backed oligarchies can be defeated at the ballot box. The fact that the favorable voting outcome was recognized by the OAS, Carter, and Washington is a tribute to President Chávez’s strategic changes in the military, guaranteeing the honoring of the constitutional outcome.
At a deeper level of analysis, the conceptions and perceptions of the major antagonists among the right and the left however are open to criticism. The right can be criticized for underestimating the political and institutional support for Chávez in the current conjuncture; and the left, for projecting an overly radical vision on the direction of politics in the post-referendum period.
From a “realist” position, we can conclude that the Chávez government will proceed with “New Deal” social welfare programs while deepening ties with major foreign and domestic investors. Chávez’s ability to balance classes, leaning in one direction or the other, will depend on the continued flow of high returns from oil revenues. If oil prices drop, hard choices will have to be made—class choices.