Every Sunday at 11am, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez welcomes Venezuelans to “Alo Presidente” on the country’s state-run television and radio stations.
Everyone tunes in – some to rail against him, others to find out what political decisions will be made the following week. For most working class Venezuelans, what matters is that Chavez speaks and sounds like them.
But although many people see Chavez as a fighter for ordinary people, his Bolivarian Revolution stands at a crossroads. The old ruling class is intent on stopping fundamental changes. The new bureaucracy that has emerged in the revolution has developed its own interests.
Meanwhile the masses, while backing Chavez overall, are unhappy with the pace of change and the enduring power of the old elite.
Chavez was elected in 1998 on a wave of popular support. He had led a failed coup against the Venezuelan government in February 1992 and was imprisoned – but he won the respect of the poor people living in the shanty towns around the capital Caracas and other cities.
In 1989 they had occupied the capital in a violent protest against harsh new economic measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Caracazo, as it was called, was brutally repressed after three days, but in some ways it was the first act of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Venezuela’s oil reserves are among the world’s largest. Yet for decades, its enormous oil wealth enriched no more than 10 percent of the population. The supposedly nationalised industry benefited the multinational oil companies rather than the national economy.
The new Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 made some changes. It allowed failing elected officials to be recalled. It made education widely available, and established the right to healthcare and land for all Venezuelans. Most importantly of all, it promised to nationalise oil.
The old ruling class was furious – and it fought back. In April 2002 a right wing coup removed Chavez from power. Yet within 48 hours he was back.
The Venezuelan masses flooded into the centre of Caracas, and every other city, in their tens of thousands demanding his return. The coup was defeated, but the old order did not give up.
In December that year some 18,000 managers and largely white collar employees walked out at PDVSA, the national oil corporation. They confidently declared their action would destroy Chavez. It took eight weeks for the workers, supported by a mass mobilisation of the grassroots, to defeat this lockout.
The revolution now entered a new stage. It was symbolised by the Missions – national programmes for health, education and housing, and the struggle for indigenous rights. In some ways the Missions represented the possibility of a new kind of society based on “poder popular” or people’s power.
They were a kind of parallel state through which ordinary people could continue to drive the revolution forward. Chavez announced, in January 2005, that Venezuela was building “21st century socialism”.
The right was still embedded in the state, the judiciary, the universities and the professions. At every stage it did all it could to sabotage change.
Yet it seemed that the Bolivarian Revolution was gathering speed, with expanding education, health and housing schemes. The language of politics was increasingly nationalist and anti‑imperialist, and Chavez won many friends with his regular attacks on George Bush.
And the right’s continuing attempts to bring Chavez down were failing.
In 2006, Chavez was re-elected to the presidency with an increased vote. He immediately announced the creation of a new political party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
But there was confusion over what it represented. Would it be a mass political organisation that expressed the rising confidence of the grassroots and shifted the centre of power to the base? That was its declared purpose – yet there had been no public discussion with the mass organisations.
Chavez created the party from above and its leadership was not elected but nominated by him. Yet millions joined the party in the belief that this would be the organisation to drive the revolution forward.
In November 2007, Chavez organised a referendum on amendments to the constitution that included the creation of an expanded state sector in the economy, and the right for him to be re-elected beyond a second term. He lost the vote, just one year after his re-election. Why?
The vote was a warning that, while Chavez continued to be enormously popular, there was growing concern among the majority of society.
The Missions were beginning to fail. Price inflation was digging into workers’ wages. When trade unionists fought for wage rises the state, and indeed Chavez himself, were hostile.
And for all Venezuela’s oil wealth, the state’s infrastructure seemed to be permanently on the verge of collapse – rubbish piled up in the streets, roads were in a state of disrepair and building projects were either delayed or half-finished.
The right wing parties mounted an increasingly hysterical – and violent – campaign against Chavez in the media and in the streets.
Right wing students organised street demonstrations and burning barricades after the state refused to renew the licence of a virulently anti-Chavez TV station.
At the same time the price of oil was still rising and Venezuela’s middle classes, for all their kicking and shouting, maintained their luxury lifestyle.
The second issue behind Chavez’s defeat in the 2007 vote was corruption. The new state bureaucracy used the language of the Bolivarian Revolution, but it was growing rich and powerful and serving its own narrow interests.
The right won important victories in municipal and governors’ elections in 2008, including the mayor of Caracas. It was clear that, while Chavez was still admired and loved, the same was not true for many of his appointees. The revolution was stalling badly.
In February this year, Venezuelans went to the polls again to vote on whether to give Chavez the right to seek more than the two terms in office currently allowed by the constitution.
This was then extended to include the right to repeated re-election of all public officials. This time Chavez won, but the campaign was conducted in an atmosphere of polarisation and mounting tension.
People faced a choice between the Bolivarian Revolution or the return of the old order, which would be looking for revenge and a return to an unjust and unequal society. But the Bolivarian Revolution itself seemed to be divided.
On the one hand a new political class sees its priority as defending its own interests, even while talking endlessly about people’s power. On the other there are those within the government who are revolutionaries with a socialist vision.
The revolution has reached a turning point, with fierce competition between different interests. There are also contradictions.
The new Education Law guarantees free universal education in a framework of essentially liberal values, but it also protects private education. The planned expansion of oil and gas production will be conducted by mixed enterprises between the Venezuelan state and Russian, Chinese and European capital.
For all their protests and denunciations, the Venezuelan capitalists have not been touched.
Oil prices have fallen from a peak of $140 a barrel to around $50. If the recession continues into next year, as it seems bound to do, the oil industry will not produce enough to compensate for rapidly rising inflation or to maintain the social programmes.
Who will pay the price of economic austerity? If it is to be the rich then the revolution will have to carry out its promise to devolve power and economic control to the mass of ordinary people.
China and Russia have no interest in supporting such a policy, any more than their European allies. And for all the rhetoric, the US remains a key customer for Venezuelan oil.
The Bolivarian Revolution inspired a new generation across Latin America to fight for a better world. In Venezuela itself, despite the real improvement in the lives of many ordinary people, the struggle for people’s power continues.
Mike Gonzalez is the author of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution,/b>. To order a copy go to » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk