Chavez’s Defeat in the Referendum Opens Up Political Debate

[by Gerry Foley]

The unexpected defeat of the constitutional changes backed by President Hugo Chavez in the Dec. 2 national referendum has provoked deep-going discussion in the Venezuelan left. Much of it is expressed on the website Aporrea, which is operated by a Venezuelan current of Trotskyist origin linked to the Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (MST) in Argentina. In general, this current identifies itself with Chavez but it does offer a broad forum for the left, including groups and individuals critical of Chavismo.

The group that started Aporrea, the Partido de la Revolucion Socialista (PRS), however, seems to have split over the question of the referendum, as well as the question of whether or not to join the state party set up by Chavez, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV).

One wing is identified with Orlando Chirino, the national coordinator of the Union Nacional de Trabajadores, the new trade-union federation that emerged from the opposition to the 2002 strike-lockout aimed at ousting the Chavez government. Chirino opposed joining the PSUV and called for casting a blank ballot in the Dec. 2 referendum.

The other wing is identified with Stalin Perez Borges, another leader of the UNT, who has joined the PSUV and called for voting “yes” on Dec. 2. The Borges group argues that it is maintaining the principles of working-class independence and revolutionary socialism within the PSUV and it makes much the same criticisms as the Chirino group, except in very diplomatic language and in the context of presenting itself as a current within Chavismo.

The diffferences between the two currents could be seen as tactical – that is, that one wing wanted criticize the PSUV from the outside while the other wanted to raise the same differences among the workers attracted to it. But the differences have sharpened since the referendum.

The Borges group accuses Chirono and company of identifying themselves with the right-wing opposition while the Chirino group claims that the defeat of the referendum was a victory for the workers. Presumably, Chirino is trying to drive his position home by carrying it to an extreme, but in so doing he is taking a provocative stance that cannot be defended politically. He is risking discrediting whatever well-founded criticisms of Chavez’s course he might raise.

Much of the criticism on Aporrea is directed at the inefficiency of government bodies, the incompetence or disloyalty of Chavista local officials, as well as generally of the state bureaucracy. These articles undoubtedly reflect real problems, but they are superficial.

The fundamental question is that of the political leadership, specifically of the political instrument Chavez created with the declared aim of building socialism in Venezuela, the PSUV. Without a structured political leadership – a party – the basic problems of the state and its functioning, as well as the organization of society in general, cannot be solved.

The most spectacular failure of the referendum campaign was on the part of the PSUV. The party claims more than 5 million members, but only about 4 million votes were cast for the proposed reforms. Obviously, a large proportion of the PSUV’s members did not even give their proclaimed leader the vote of confidence that he demanded despite their lip service to his leadership.

Chirino and other Trotskyists who reject the PSUV have raised general criticisms of the project, such as the fact that Chavez has declared that the party will welcome “national capitalists” and that it has been used as a platform for figures that Chavez claims are workers’ leaders but who are merely his creations.

However, damning criticisms of the PSUV were also made in a Dec. 13 article by Gonzalo Gomez Freire, an Aporrea editor, who declared his loyalty to the party and his determination to build it. His basic criticisms were that the party had been formed before it had a program or a democratic structure, and so “the cart was put before the horse.” The result was an extremely distorted formation:

“The open days for signing up created the illusion that we had millions, without separating out a real devotion to political activism, sympathy, opportunism, and people who joined because they were forced to. Some functionaries forced their employees to sign up. It should not be surprising that they did not participate in the campaign groups.

“The formation of the party was not based on an initial accumulation of political cadres and activists. People were signed up on a territorial basis on open lists, instead of relying on the strength already existing in the movements, which could assure a greater political solidarity for launching the party, and a greater weight for the working class, for the popular sectors and the peasants, as against a dispersed, multi-class, unstructured mass.

“It would have been possible to create a large basic nucleus of founding activists with a real base in the social struggle and political quality, in order to go from there to sign up more members in transitional structures for political testing and political education.

“Among the battalions formed, some were artificial, created only to elect spokespersons and delegates for various factions contending within the bureaucracy. There were a lot of electoral tricks. A Discipline Commission and ‘expelled members’ in a party not yet constituted is something of quite dubious legitimacy and open to arbitrary decisions.”

Apparently, there have been a lot of expulsions from the PSUV even before its founding convention and even before it has determined what it stands for. It would be interesting to know who has been expelled, for what, and by whom.

The one case that became generally known was that of the deputy Tascon, who was expelled for objecting to denunciations of General Baduel as a “traitor” when the latter came out against the proposed constitutional reforms. He was expelled immediately, without a trial or a debate.

But it is obvious that Baduel was not the only anti-socialist or right-wing element in the Chavez bloc, and there is no indication that Chavez has either a structure and criteria for building a homogenous party, or even for organizing a debate that could led to political definition.

It might be useful for revolutionists to participate in political discussion in meetings of initial PSUV groups, if they can, but it should be clear to anyone with any understanding of the nature and purpose of a revolutionary party that the PSUV cannot be transformed into one. It will never be an instrument for those who want to make a socialist revolution in Venezuela.

No matter how much you squeeze a sponge, you cannot make it into a sword. And to the extent that revolutionary groups dissolve their structures into the PSUV, or dilute their programmatic profiles for the sake of being accepted into it, they only disarm and paralyze themselves.

Chavez’s first electoral defeat, the failure of the Dec. 2 referendum, has posed dramatically the need for the creation of a real revolutionary party in Venezuela. That is essential if the radicalization is to go forward. How the debate provoked by the failure of the referendum develops will be an indication of what the possibilities are for achieving that. Venezuela remains the major laboratory for socialist revolution in the world today. All those who are interested in socialism will have to follow it closely.

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