Hugo Chavez appeared on the presidential balcony in Caracas on 5 July, Venezuelan Independence Day. He is recovering from cancer and is obviously very ill.
He returned to Cuba for treatment this week.
Much of the right wing press responded with its usual venom, but there were some surprising responses too.
Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the ferociously anti-Chavista newspaper Tal Cual, expressed serious concern in an interview for the Guardian.
It was a paradox—but a revealing one.
The tearful crowds waving to Chavez from the street were testimony to his enormous popularity.
But the same can’t be said for those manoeuvring to succeed him.
Most people who occupy key government roles do not enjoy the trust of the people. Corruption is rife in the Chavez government—and the workers and the poor of Venezuela know it.
People talk of the “Boliburguesia”, the new bureaucrats of the regime who have grown rich extraordinarily quickly.
Those in government are careful, of course, to identify with Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.
They are skilled in using the language of revolution and are never seen without the red T-shirts and baseball caps symbolic of this “Rojo-rojito” (real red) movement.
Yet the revolution that Chavez’s supporters expected remains distant.
As promised, Chavez dedicated a significant proportion of Venezuela’s income from oil exports to social programmes directed at the poor.
He has also cut poverty.
Venezuela’s economy grew during the 1960s and 1970s—but went into crisis in the 1980s.
The then government, under Carlos Andres Perez, imposed a vicious austerity programme of a kind familiar to us now but not in 1989.
It repressed the protests against austerity and 65 percent of Venezuela’s population was left in poverty for the next decade.
Chavez promised to redress the balance—and today poverty has been cut by over half.
An impressive education project means everyone can enter every level of education, from literacy programmes to university.
The health programme has brought basic provision to the poorest barrios (neighbourhoods). Some 20,000 Cuban medical workers, sent to Venezuela in exchange for oil, have provided health care.
Chavez hasn’t fulfilled his promise to build adequate housing, although the tens of thousands made homeless in recent floods were given shelter.
Mass mobilisation stopped an attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. And a bosses’ strike, intended to destroy the country’s oil industry, failed because of resolute resistance among the working class.
After that the revolution took a radical turn.
Missions were set up, essentially programmes of social welfare, but run by grassroots activists.
The implication was that the revolution would move towards participatory democracy. It would shift power from the rich to the poor—and from a state mainly run by people from the corrupt pre-Chavez regime to organs of popular democracy.
In 2005 Chavez declared that the revolution would build “Socialism in the 21st century”.
These things haven’t happened.
Power has gradually moved back towards a state whose controlling class acts in many cases like its predecessors did.
More importantly, the bourgeoisie has not been challenged. The Western press, which is consistently hostile to Chavez, complains about a lack of freedom of expression.
But I have never been anywhere where the opposition spoke more freely, or more viciously, about the regime.
The same bourgeoisie lives in luxury, despite some minor currency restrictions. It makes vast profits from constantly rising prices, currency and property speculation.
It also benefits from the lack of any system of income tax that would really represent a shift in power and wealth.
Oil revenues have kept the social programmes going. But there has been no social revolution.
Why have people accepted the endless postponement of the revolution’s promises?
I think it is because they believe that Chavez is still committed to a revolution from below.
The people have shown their power many times by repeatedly mobilising to defend the revolution.
It is this power that they must look to, not any leader, to drive the revolution forward.