Venezuela goes to the polls on 26 September to elect members its National Assembly.
Since 1998, when Hugo Chavez was swept to power, Venezuelans have voted many times—in referenda, municipal and presidential elections.
The central figure, and the central issue in every election, is Chavez. And as the election campaign raises the profile of the country’s right wing—presenting them as simple masks for their masters in Washington—the issue is always simply posed – are you for or against the Bolivarian Revolution?
Support for Chavez among poor and working class Venezuelans remains solid, but Chavez is not a candidate.
Whether that support extends to his government and to the state he heads, however, is a very different issue.
The Assembly has been completely dominated by Chavez supporters since the opposition boycotted the last elections to it. This time however they are standing, and while Chavismo will emerge with the most deputies, amendments to the constitution need a two-thirds majority.
Most commentators agree that the result is in the balance: the right are predicting 90 to 70 seats for Chavez while the government is insisting that they will win around 115 seats against the opposition’s 45.
The reality, however, is that the right-wing opposition, despite the political and economic support it is getting from Washington and the European right, has no credible alternative to offer other than a return to the situation before Chavez’s presidency.
People remember very well what that meant.
In this oil-rich country, 65 percent of Venezuelans lived in poverty through the 1990s—its oil was in fact controlled by foreign multinationals. The middle class were protected from the economic policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank which brought catastrophic falls in living standards for the poor majority.
They also remember the corruption and nepotism with which the state was run by a political establishment which protected its own. And they remember the attempted coup against Chavez of April 2002 and the savage bosses’ strike that began later than year and threatened to destroy the economy.
So the right is unlikely to convince those who backed Chavez that they have changed.
Venezuela today boasts the sharpest reduction in inequality of any country in Latin America. Education has become available to millions of ordinary people and a new free public health system has been created. Oil revenues have also been used to create a system of cheap food distribution to those same areas.
Until 2009, Venezuela registered high figures for economic growth for six years running. For the last 18 months, however, the economy has been in recession with negative growth and levels of real inflation far higher than the official figure of around 30 percent.
The result is that the social programmes have ground to a halt in many cases. The health system, for example, is on the verge of collapse through sabotage, corruption and mismanagement.
At the same time, as anyone in any street will tell you, the old state bureaucracy has been replaced by a new one. It wears the familiar red t-shirts, uses the language of socialism and revolution with passionate conviction and runs the People’s Power Ministries, but they are not accountable to the people or controlled by them. It is a popular power decreed from above not created from below.
Recent cases have exposed the corruption that was already common knowledge: the reselling of public food stocks by the directors of the system, the huge kickbacks on public works which explain the many half-finished projects around the country, the massive salaries earned by high officials and the corruption at every level of the state oil company, the banks and other state agencies.
At the same time, the current prosecution by the state of leaders of the indigenous community fighting the takeover of their lands by the state-run Coal Mining Corporation of Zulia flies in the face of all the talk about people’s power as does Chavez’s regular attacks on workers leaders as “counter-revolutionaries”.
For while the official party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) claims six million members, in reality it is a career structure for a tiny number of people run from above with no more than token gestures in the direction of grass roots democracy.
The official campaign focuses on the figure of Chavez almost entirely, as if he were somehow above the state and outside it.
But the people growing rich on the Bolivarian Revolution are his appointees, and while some of the culprits have recently been prosecuted, the worst of them remain in government while other honest politicians are removed without explanation.
The disturbing crime rates (extremely high by any standards) and the growing power of the drug traffickers cannot be blamed on Chavismo, as many U.S. writers try to do. The complicity and corruption of the police and sectors of the military, however, is a matter for government to deal with.
So the threat to the Bolivarian revolution does not come from a pro-imperialist and violent right wing. The disenchantment of ordinary people with the process itself would never lead them to vote for the opposition, but it could lead them not to vote at all.
US President Barak Obama is proving as much an enemy of Venezuela as his predecessors—but the immediate threat is within, from a new class in power whose dedication to socialism is little more than skin-deep.
Socialism is not about creating economic alliances with China or India, or indeed with the old or new neo-liberal governments in Brazil. Its future in Venezuela will depend on a genuine redistribution of wealth and the creation of a new kind of power – a people’s power in reality and not merely in name.