Facing Opposition Onslaught, Chavismo Must Return to Roots

By Lucas Koerner

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) suffered a crushing defeat in Sunday’s National Assembly elections, winning just 55 of 167 seats. Formerly in opposition, the Venezuelan right took a two-thirds majority with 112 seats, gaining control of the South American country’s legislature for the first time in 17 years.

The outcome affords the Venezuelan right an unprecedented opportunity to roll back the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution by legal means, without having to resort to coups or other forms of extra-institutional violence. But will they succeed?

Counter-Revolution without Counter-Hegemony?

Under Venezuela’s democratic system, the single-house National Assembly holds enormous power: a two-thirds super-majority can pass or revoke organic constitutional laws, replace Supreme Court magistrates, appoint the heads of crucial public institutions such as the Public Prosecutor’s office and the National Electoral Council, and even convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

In short, a two-thirds majority gives the opposition all of the institutional weapons necessary to reverse many of the key transformations of the Venezuelan state achieved by the Bolivarian Revolution over the last seventeen years.

They will now be empowered to revoke critical revolutionary legislation such as the Organic Law of Communes, the Organic Work and Workers’ Law (LOTTT), among numerous others, repeal international treaties such as the ALBA-TP and PetroCaribe, as well as pack the Supreme Court with an eye towards impeaching President Nicolas Maduro.

However, while the opposition has indeed won a super-majority and the concomitant legal power to pursue these changes, this does not necessarily mean that they have a popular mandate to carry out such a reactionary agenda.

That is, they have won an election widely viewed as a punishment vote against the ruling PSUV amidst a severe economic crisis, but they have not, however, reconstituted neoliberal hegemony.

Polls have long shown that the vast majority of the Venezuelan people support the radical social democratic initiatives of the Bolivarian Revolution, including the social missions, as well as measures to defend the working class, such as food price regulations and periodic minimum wage increases. Likewise, over two-thirds of the population oppose neoliberal policies, such as the privatization of the state oil company PDVSA or of the state electric company CORPOLEC.

Understanding this reality, the opposition has in recent years closeted its neoliberal discourse, preferring to campaign on vague promises of “change”. This is not a uniquely Venezuelan phenomenon, as evidenced in the recent Argentine presidential election of millionaire ex-businessman Mauricio Macri, who ran a tightly managed campaign that avoided all mention of economic policy.

Across the continent, neoliberalism remains deeply discredited, forcing the right to hide behind center-left discourse and/or revert to mediatized cultural sound-bites. In 2013, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles sought to market himself as the rightful heir to the late Hugo Chávez, promising to continue the social missions as well as other social democratic policies of the Bolivarian government. Mauricio Macri similarly reversed previous comments regarding the privatization of Argentine state enterprises towards the end of his campaign, presenting himself at times as an efficient administrator of the Kirchner legacy, an image that he spliced with empty signifiers like “hope” and “change”.

In Venezuela, the delegitimization of neoliberalism following the 1989 Caracazo uprising– in which some 3,000-5,000 Venezuelans were massacred in the streets by the oligarchic Fourth Republic– set the political stage for the rise of Chavismo.

However, Chavismo must not be misconstrued as merely a political movement built around the figure of President Hugo Chávez. Rather, the rise of Chavismo marks an event in the sense of Alain Badiou: the irruption of the Venezuelan pueblo on the oligarchic political scene, radically redefining the entire socio-political landscape.

In this emancipatory sequence­– symbolized by the name “Chávez” but in no way reducible to the individual man– the universe of political possibility was dramatically flung open, as millions of Venezuela’s excluded and exploited dared to appear as political protagonists, an unmistakable act of defiance in the eyes of the elite.

This opening has not yet closed and the new political culture born of that rupture shows few signs of fading.

Over 62% of Venezuelans consider themselves “partisans or followers of the ideals of Hugo Chávez”, which does not necessarily make them all revolutionary socialists, but it does indicate a consensus regarding the legitimacy of popular participation and social democratic state policy.

This new “Bolivarian consensus”– in the words of political scientist Alfred Serrano Mancilla– clashes sharply with the Venezuelan and Latin American Right’s neoliberal agenda, a contradiction no amount of vacuous, “feel-good” rhetoric can conceal.

After having secured a two-thirds majority under the very democratic system they have ceaselessly excoriated as “dictatorial” over the last seventeen years, the opposition is quick to reveal its true colors.

In less than 48 hours following Sunday’s outcome, the main business associations representing sectors of the country’s comprador bourgeoisie have publicly demanded the repeal of revolutionary laws that defy their class interests.

FEDECAMERAS, Venezuela’s far-right chamber of commerce which played a principal role in the 2002 coup, called for modifying the LOTTT to eliminate prohibitions against outsourcing and arbitrary firings, modifying the Just Prices Law in order to slash price regulations, as well as revoking the exchange control law, which would enable the free flight of capital out of the country.

Similarly the agro-business lobby FEDEAGRO has not been shy in broadcasting its legislative wish-list, calling for the derogation of various laws guaranteeing the rights to land, national food sovereignty, as well as biogenetic diversity, including the Land Law, the Law of Food Sovereignty, and the Anti-Transgenic and Anti-Patent Seed Law.

That such a revanchist neoliberal program is anathema to the desires of Venezuela’s popular majority is obvious.

In light of this fact, will the opposition tread lightly, gradually chipping away at the country’s social democratic institutions with the aim of molding a new neoliberal consensus?  Or, on the contrary, will they give in to the temptation of absolute legislative power and attempt to topple the Chavista social and political order in one go?

It is worth noting that the Venezuelan opposition has never been adept at strategic thinking. Thoroughly arrogant and undemocratic, it has incessantly tried to overthrow the popularly elected Bolivarian government by force from the 2002 coup to the violent street mobilizations of 2013 and 2014. It is unlikely that the opposition will succeed in taming its un-strategic, anti-democratic lust for Chavismo’s annihilation when its object appears so close within reach.

The Coming Showdown

Following the swearing in of the new National Assembly in January, the opposition will likely begin its assault on multiple fronts: repealing revolutionary legislation and international treaties, initiating the process of collecting signatures from 20% of the electorate for a recall referendum against President Maduro, and replacing the magistrates of the Supreme Court in preparation for possible impeachment proceedings against the chief executive.

The Venezuelan right will, however, face a number of obstacles in this reactionary endeavor, which may play out in Chavismo’s favor.

First, far from a homogenous bloc, the opposition coalition is internally divided between a ultra-right wing led by Leopoldo Lopez, Antonio Ledezma and Maria Corina Machado and a more moderate wing headed by Henrique Capriles and Democratic Action leader Henry Allup, who is poised to be elected president of the body.

United only in their commitment to unseating the Bolivarian government, these loose groupings harbor important strategic differences, with the former favoring regime change via extra-constitutional violence while the latter opting for the ballot box.

Given the coalition’s extensive new legislative powers, these divisions are only likely to deepen. The diverse parties of the MUD will now have to reach agreements in various areas from defining a legislative agenda to determining their strategy for ousting Maduro. Will they seek a recall referendum, or focus on stacking the Supreme Court and impeaching Maduro, or both? Will they prioritize convening a constituent assembly or work within the country’s current progressive constitution?

A particular bone of contention will be the extent of rupture with the existing Bolivarian institutional order. The hard right wants to rewrite the Constitution and return the country to its oligarchic heyday, while more moderate elements want to become power-brokers within the current order.

This brings us to a second weakness, namely that the opposition must now deliver on its promise to pass measures aimed at resolving the current economic crisis. No longer can they simply opt for the strategy of promoting economic destabilization while blaming the consequences entirely on President Maduro.

Here the debate will revolve around how extreme a neoliberal agenda to implement, which could likely trigger a conflict between those who would seek loans from the IMF and World Bank, eliminate price and currency controls, and privatize vital sectors of the economy– and those sectors committed to instituting narrower neoliberal reforms while retaining important social welfare previsions in order to stave off the threat of popular revolt. Capriles appears to allude to this danger in a recent pre-election interview where he remarks, “no one wants a social explosion in the country.”

These tensions will likely heat up in the context of the debate over a recall referendum, with some sectors urging initial restraint from the harshest neoliberal measures in order to win the recall vote, while others already screaming for a maximal neoliberal agenda with little concern for the ensuing socio-political unrest.

This is of course the third and most important countervailing factor, namely the response from Chavismo, particularly its most politicized bases, who are unlikely to take this defeat and imminent rightwing onslaught lying down.

Speaking to high-level Bolivarian officials Monday night, President Maduro described the defeat as a “triumph of the counter-revolution” and called for a special meeting of all 908 PSUV national delegates to evaluate the landslide defeat and prepare next steps. He also announced plans to meet with social movements represented in the presidential councils of popular power on Saturday.

Among grassroots chavistas, plans are underway to begin organizing the defense of key revolutionary laws targeted for repeal by the incoming rightwing deputies come January.

“All we have left is the streets,” a community activist and public sector worker at the National Institute of Socialist Capacitation and Education told Venezuelanalysis.com.

Chavistas intimately understand that the gains of the revolution have been won and lost not in the halls of parliament nor in bureaucratic offices, but in the streets, the barrios, the colectivos, the communal councils, where the masses make history.

The incredible aspect of Sunday, as Ociel Alí Lopez points out, was not merely Chavismo’s historic defeat but moreover the fact that despite the incompetent inaction of the government in the face of a deep economic crisis combined with the corruption and ideological degeneration of the party leadership, some 6 million people still voted for the PSUV.

These votes must not be taken for granted, for they reflect an immense political clarity regarding the need to continue with the revolutionary process, defending its gains and radicalizing towards new advances.

This defeat represents an urgent warning call to Chavismo from its official leadership to its most disciplined militants: failure to critically reflect and rectify the revolutionary course will lead to the destruction of the Bolivarian Project.

Time is short as President Maduro will almost certainly face a recall referendum in 2016, but all is not lost provided that the vital work of reconnecting with the Venezuelan masses begins immediately.

Speaking following the defeat late Sunday night, Maduro himself underscored the paramount importance of this task.

“A new stage must come in the Bolivarian Revolution with a new quality in our way of doing politics, in the grassroots leadership, in the intermediate leadership, in the high-level public posts we occupy, in political party leaders, a new quality in our relation with the pueblo, a new quality of leadership and action,” he said.

Now is the moment for post-Chávez Chavismo to reinvent itself by forging a new revolutionary quality which for Maduro, as for Chávez and Che before him, means not just “respect for the people”, but an imperative to rule by obeying.