Novosti: What we can expect from Hugo Chavez’s fourth term of office as president of Venezuela?
Michael Lebowitz: I think it is essential to recognise the extent of change that has occurred in Venezuela under Chavez. Venezuela has been a rentist economy, relying upon oil revenues; and the culture that grew up around oil rents [prior to Chavez’s coming to power] has been one overwhelmingly of corruption and clientalism. Venezuela suffered very significantly as a result of neoliberal policies which involved cutbacks in social services, the ending of subsidisation of necessities and the general process of privatisation. The situation in the 1990s was one of disaster – something not uncommon in Latin America in that decade (and certainly very familiar now in Europe).
When Hugo Chavez was elected at the end of that decade, he came into government with the support of social movements and the poor, but also of the middle class which understood that this situation could not continue. (At the time Chavez was calling for a good capitalism, an end to neoliberalism, a third way; he learned as he went along.)
And what Chávez has proceeded to do is of enormous importance. In particular, he has channeled resource revenues from oil into education and health – something so critically needed by the poor, who are the overwhelming majority of the population. These are measures that can be understood as populist but also as meeting the real needs of people and which can permit their capacities to develop.
Yet, it is not only the direction of oil wealth to the people that is been characteristic and unique in Venezuela. There has also been a very significant process of empowering people – of creating institutions that permit people to function democratically and to make decisions that affect their lives.
I’m describing, in particular, the development of the communal councils, institutions at the local neighborhood level in which people have the power to deal with problems that affect their own communities. These communal councils come together to form communes to deal with larger problems.
This is a process that has been described by Chavez as one of creating the cells of a new socialist state. As well, there is a process of development of workers’ councils. Here again it is a process of transforming people, of creating the conditions in which they are able to develop all their capacities. In particular, the Bolivarian Revolution has been creating people with a sense of dignity and pride.
These are very important achievements. But they don’t happen smoothly, and it is important to recognise there are many contradictions within Chavism. There are three groups and tendencies within Chavism. One can be found at the base with the social movements, the communities and portions of the working class. Another is composed of those individuals and groups that have risen with Chavez but, having enriched themselves through their positions and through the continuation of corruption and clientalism, now think the revolution should be over – and it is for them. (They are often referred to as the “boli-bourgeoisie”.) A third group is committed to continuing the revolution but doing so entirely from the top down; its perspective is one of ordering the advance of socialism, and it does not want to leave decisions at the bottom.
While Chavez himself is very vocal about the theoretical importance of building at the base and allowing people to develop their capacities through their own protagonism, he is impatient and often supports those who don’t have the same orientation.
So, what will happen in Chavez’s next term of office? That depends on class struggle within the Chavez camp. It would be a struggle which revolves around Chavez’s party (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV), which contains all these elements but in which the top-down orientation has dominated and at the same time dispirited many people at the base.
Assuming Chavez continues in good health, it is possible that the revolution will be deepened at the base through his initiatives. He understands the problems and he stressed the importance in the election campaign of creating a front between the PSUV, other parties of the left and the social movements. If Chavez is not around to unify the various forces within Chavism, however, I think there could be a major struggle.