“Fatherland, socialism, or death.” With these words, Hugo Chavez just over a year ago took the oath as president of Venezuela following a triumphant re-election campaign.
By the logic of this oath, Chavez’s announcement last week that he was slowing the pace of his “Bolivarian revolution” is cause for alarm. “I’m forced to reduce the speed of march,” he said.
This move follows the government’s defeat in the referendum of 2 December on its proposed new constitution.
Chavez captured the imagination of all those around the world opposed to neoliberalism and imperialism with his defiance of George Bush’s administration and his championing of alternatives to capitalism. His call for “21st century socialism” seemed to mark the end of the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union when capitalism seemed to be the only game in town.
But Chavez’s position has always been based on a contradiction. It was the poor of Caracas who saved him from overthrow at the hands of the right wing in April 2002. They surrounded the presidential palace and forced the plotters to release him.
But Chavez remains the head of a bureaucratic state riddled with corruption and repression that presides over an economy in which capitalist social relations still predominate. So his policies pull in different directions.
He has sought to sustain his popular base by using Venezuela’s swollen oil revenues to push through social reforms. Institutions such as the Bolivarian circles and the social missions were intended to bind together grassroots activists and mobilise them in support of presidential initiatives.
But, faced with the hostility of Washington and the Venezuelan oligarchy, Chavez and his allies have also been tempted to concentrate on strengthening their control over the state apparatus.
Thus the creation of a mass pro-government party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), was a top-down initiative intended to channel popular support. The proposed constitution contained worthwhile reforms, but also allowed Chavez to stand for re-election indefinitely.
The referendum result wasn’t really a triumph for the right. The No vote was only 200,000 votes more than those received by their defeated candidate in the last presidential election.
The real problem was that the Yes vote was three million lower than Chavez had won in those elections.
Stephanie Blankenburg, an adviser to the Venezuelan government, writes in the New Statesman, “The result of 2 December was essentially a protest vote by the ‘Chavista street’ against the ‘Chavista elite’.” Discontent at food shortages, inflation, and corruption led a large section of Chavez’s base to stay away from the polls.
His U-turn is intended to acknowledge this discontent. Chavez promised to address crime and food shortages. The trouble is that really dealing with these problems would involve, not slowing down the revolutionary process, but accelerating it – breaking the hold of private capital on the economy.
Corruption can only be rooted out by dismantling the existing state apparatus and replacing it with institutions of popular power.
But Chavez is moving in the opposite direction. He has amnestied the perpetrators of the 2002 coup and appointed as vice-president Ramon Carrizales, a military officer with links to big business.
This is dangerously reminiscent of what happened under the left wing Popular Unity Coalition in Chile in 1972-3. As the right, backed by president Richard Nixon’s US administration, became more open in its attacks, workers reacted by building their own defence organisations, the cordones.
But president Salvador Allende restrained these initiatives and sought to make a deal with the right. The resulting demobilisation gave the right the confidence to mount the military coup of 11 September 1973, in which Allende and thousands of other left wing militants perished.
This point hasn’t been reached yet in Venezuela, but Chavez’s retreat marks the most dangerous moment yet for the revolutionary process.