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Venezuelan Elections and the Bolivarian Revolution

On the 26th of September parliamentary elections were held in Venezuela, the first serious electoral challenge to governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) given that five opposition parties boycotted the last poll, even though a dispute over the voting process had been resolved with the support of the Organization of American States (OAS). Nevertheless in this election, the vote was very close with the PSUV receiving 48.3% of the vote and 96 seats, the Coalition for Democratic Unity 47.2% and 64 seats and the Fatherland for all 3.1% and 2 seats. Other parties picked up 1.4% and 3 seats. Seats are allocated through a combination of first-past-the-post electoral districts and a smaller set of list seats elected by proportional representation, which accounts for the disparity between votes and seats received.

The opposition coalition is by no means homogeneous. The largest party is Democratic Action (22 seats), a centrist party whose international affiliation is with Socialist International. Justice First (15 seats) is also a centrist party, an development from a university-based civil society. Finally, A New Era (12 seats) is also classified as a centrist party in the social democratic "third way" tradition. After that is the Social Christian Party of Venezuela (6 seats), another centrist party, although this time with a Christian democrat flavour. Apart from these the rest of the coalition consist of former pro-Chavez radical socialist parties and some very minor organisations. In other words, what must be understood about the Venezuelan political landscape is that this is not a standard conflict between left and right political forces, but rather between the Chavez left and an alliance of moderate and splinter radicals. Conservatives, in the sense that most people understand the term, are not on the political landscape in Venezuela.

The social landscape of Venezuela has changed significantly since Chavez and his allies took power in 1998. This has included a thorough review of the Constitution in 1999 (supported by 71.8% in a referendum) to implement the "Bolivarian Revolution", and the use of the country's substantial oil wealth to fund health care and education programmes for the poor and with a decentralisation of economic power with over 100,000 co-operatives established, employing 16% of the workforce, and engaging in land reform, redistributing 2.7 million hectares of idle land to 180,000 landless peasant families. Despite an a coup d'etat in 2002 (which lasted two days), and a two-month national strike in 2002-2003, and a recall referendum in 2004 the Chávez government has been broadly successful. Since 2003, real GDP has doubled, the poverty rate has been halved and those in extreme poverty has fallen by almost three-quarters. Inflation still tends to fluctuate up to 30% per annum, but even this is a substantial reduction from the 30-99% of the preceding ten years. Unemployment has fallen from 15% (1999) to 8% (2010), adult literacy has increased from 91.1% to 95.1% in the same period as has life expectancy from 72.95 years to 74.54 years.

Despite these metrics, there is widespread disillusionment among many former "chavistas", reflected in the poll results. Cesar Guevara, for example, identified widespread corruption, a high crime rate, including violent crime and extra-judicial killings, and judicial arbitrariness, and rising inflation (now the highest in Latin America), and a massive (5.8% annualised) contraction in the economy. The public services are inefficient and lack persistence. Previous studies show that a large number - close to 50% - of the co-operatives were dysfunctional or were fraudulently created to gain access to public funds. Perhaps not stated sufficiently is the fact that many Venezuelans have disquiet over the last referendum result (supported by 54% of the population in 2009) that abolished term limits. It was certainly not helped by an OAS report from January this year which, whilst noting the achievements to eradicate illiteracy, poverty and ill-health etc, the report also expressed serious concerns on freedom of expression, judicial independence, and political intimidation. Whilst the government rejected the negative findings of the report, similar comments have been made by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the IACHR among others.

The purpose of all emancipatory political organisations is to create the conditions where they are no longer needed, and to orientate themselves towards freedom, both in the negative sense ("freedom to") and in the positive sense ("freedom from"). To the extent that the PSUV government has abolished poverty, derived public income from natural resources and decentralised the political system in a lasting manner, they are deserving of great praise. But when they engage in activities that have a remarkable similarity to other dictatorships of the region, they will receive condemnation. Ultimately Chavez and the PSUV government will lose power; it is inevitable. How they pass governance to their successors and the conditions of life when that time comes is how they will be remembered.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on December 11, 2010.


(11:31:46) lev_lafayette: Although I understand in Venezuela poverty has been significantly reduced...
(11:32:06) vene_sinistra: varies by state
(11:33:54) lev_lafayette: Ahh, of course..
(11:34:11) vene_sinistra: to give some examples, Carabobo (my own state) has been fortunate to have very dedicated governors that started the first local housing projects.
(11:34:33) lev_lafayette: Well, that makes a *huge* difference for people living in poverty...
(11:34:56) vene_sinistra: yep
(11:35:27) vene_sinistra: so there's a big difference between being poor, and feeling poor (I'm sure Rupert Murdoch feels poor as well)
(11:36:19) vene_sinistra: in Carabobo the local government made huge advances in housing, and the local industry (mostly medium sized) has provided jobs for decades.
(11:36:36) vene_sinistra: in Lara the biggest employer is Polar
(11:36:53) lev_lafayette: Right, so the the number of people in really dire straits is significantly lower then..
(11:37:32) vene_sinistra: labor laws have always been strong in Venezuela, nothing new there. So a living wage if you have a job is pretty assured.
(11:37:47) vene_sinistra: note I said "living wage"
(11:38:15) vene_sinistra: in Lara the situation is bizarre and you might read more about it in the coming weeks
(11:38:41) vene_sinistra: Polar is the biggest employer there and the biggest food producer in the country. Beer, flour, oil, milk... you name it.
(11:39:21) lev_lafayette: A monopoly on staple items?
(11:39:24) vene_sinistra: Chavez has been obsessed with nationalizing it, almost to the point of mania.
(11:39:43) vene_sinistra: definitely a monopoly on beer and malt
(11:40:02) vene_sinistra: large share in flour, oil, and dairy
(11:40:26) vene_sinistra: the government itself buys from them and sells under a different label at its own Mercal stores.
(11:40:55) vene_sinistra: about three months ago they sent the national guard to take over one of their plants
(11:41:16) lev_lafayette: Hmmm... Without normal legal processes?
(11:41:26) vene_sinistra: normal legal process: a stroke of the pen.
(11:41:36) lev_lafayette: Ahh, nationalisation by decree.
(11:41:47) vene_sinistra: issue being
(11:41:53) vene_sinistra: Polar pays its workers very wel
(11:42:17) vene_sinistra: plus subsidy for family members (ie: if you have 4 children, they add a bonus)
(11:42:21) lev_lafayette: ... And the newly 'nationalised' company will not, right?
(11:42:30) vene_sinistra: plus
(11:42:33) vene_sinistra: and this is huge
(11:42:39) vene_sinistra: what they call "cesta ticket"
(11:43:26) vene_sinistra: essentially a food allowance. The workers have a monthly card they can use to redeem free food items as part of their contract.
(11:44:05) vene_sinistra: the national guard found itself with a human chain of workers that weren't too happy to have a new contract.
(11:44:13) vene_sinistra: or to risk a government admin
(11:44:43) vene_sinistra: they're at it again now... I'll keep you posted.
(11:44:54) vene_sinistra: the real issue, however, is Caracas
(11:45:04) vene_sinistra: the economy is based on services
(11:45:11) vene_sinistra: no industry to speak of
(11:45:21) lev_lafayette: Which is not too unusual for a capital city..
(11:45:38) vene_sinistra: and most of the country's poor live there (population-wise)
(11:46:25) vene_sinistra: the city is honestly way past saturation
(11:46:58) vene_sinistra: and the only way to alleviate the problem would be to move a lot of the population out into regions where the economy can develop and would benefit from the extra manpower
(11:47:08) vene_sinistra: they tried several times, giving housing in other regions
(11:47:13) vene_sinistra: but few took it
(11:47:42) lev_lafayette: *nods* That's expected *unless* the government decentralises it's infrastructure.
(11:47:59) vene_sinistra: that's one of my gripes with the government
(11:48:06) vene_sinistra: it has centralized everything even more
(11:48:29) lev_lafayette: So not as federalist as they could be..
(11:48:36) vene_sinistra: until 1989 governors were appointed by the President
(11:48:46) lev_lafayette: Now elected?
(11:48:51) vene_sinistra: since 89, yes.
(11:49:23) vene_sinistra: two years ago they passed a new law according to which the country is divided in several regions (each 3-4 states), administered by a VP of sorts.
(11:49:25) lev_lafayette: Well that's a good sign. Can lead to some conflict over distribution of powers (in Australia we're very familiar with that). Usually resolved by the courts..
(11:49:44) lev_lafayette: But when the courts are not independent..
(11:50:19) vene_sinistra: the VPs all live in Caracas, so we're back to the far-off governor situation.
(11:50:30) lev_lafayette: That's not good...
(11:50:37) vene_sinistra: the independence of courts comes and goes
(11:50:52) vene_sinistra: the supreme court, forget it.
(11:50:58) vene_sinistra: lower courts.... depend
(11:52:10) vene_sinistra: but really my issue with Chavez is the polarization and corruption in the middle echelons of the administration
(11:52:18) vene_sinistra: "them" and "us"
(11:52:45) lev_lafayette: Something I've noticed from the recent elections, is there is no conservatives in the sense that most people would understand the term.
(11:53:05) lev_lafayette: It seems to be Chavez Left vs Centre + Other Left
(11:53:26) vene_sinistra: I became one of "them" after signing the petition for a recall election. It was made public, and life has been a living hell since. Just having a passport renewed involves a lot of bribes.
(11:54:18) vene_sinistra: re: elections
(11:54:20) lev_lafayette: Ugh. That's pretty awful. I mean having an automatic recall is one of the good parts of the new constitution. Its use ought to be encouraged.
(11:54:45) vene_sinistra: yeah, then some congressman made the list public
(11:54:52) vene_sinistra: bank loan? good luck.
(11:55:00) vene_sinistra: need documents? have fun.
(11:55:07) lev_lafayette: Ahh, that wasn't very good of said rep.. I hope they lost their election!
(11:55:22) vene_sinistra: he died about 4 months ago of cancer.
(11:55:35) vene_sinistra: makes me a bad human being, but I had a nasty smile on my face.
(11:55:54) vene_sinistra: heh
(11:56:27) vene_sinistra: we once took a university trip to an oil refinery. About 30 of us were not allowed inside because we presented a security risk according to a list.
(11:58:50) vene_sinistra: I'm not happy at all about AD gaining that many seats. I didn't see it coming. 8:57 PM they're not "right wing" per se 8:58 PM but if there's a party that took a beating by Chavez, it was them. And they're vengeful twits.
(12:00:24) vene_sinistra: reading the article, btw
(12:02:29) vene_sinistra: good article
(12:02:39) lev_lafayette: Thank you. No screaming errors?
(12:03:12) vene_sinistra: at the moment I'm too lazy to check figures, but the tone is accurate. Or at least very much what I'd say.
(12:03:35) vene_sinistra: thank you for highlighting the fact that it's not a "progressive vs. conservative" ideology.
(12:03:57) vene_sinistra: just different visions, where the predominant voice is social democracy.
(12:04:56) vene_sinistra: I was very happy about Primero Justicia
(12:05:06) lev_lafayette: That quite surprised me... There is usually a strong traditional right-wing group in Latin American politics. Usually made up the military, big landowners and socially conservative Catholics.. But not in Venezuela?
(12:05:32) lev_lafayette: Yeah, Primero Justicia was a good result :)
(12:05:44) vene_sinistra: they're absolutely burgeois
(12:06:02) vene_sinistra: but if we're going to start voting against people because they have an education, then we're in a very shitty spot.
(12:06:49) vene_sinistra: Venezuela never had a strong right-wing (like Argentina, for example)
(12:07:04) lev_lafayette: That doesn't trouble me. A good dose of bourgeois liberal politics with an equal dose of socialist economics would be close to my ideal society.
(12:07:15) vene_sinistra: even the last dictatorship in the 50s was social democratic.
(12:07:36) lev_lafayette: Hmmm, that's interesting. Does happen of course...
(12:08:35) vene_sinistra: the couple of democratic presidents before the dictatorship (Perez Jimenez) were social democrats.
(12:09:08) vene_sinistra: hydrocarbons were nationalized in the 70s. Still irks me when i read people praising Chavez for "nationalizing oil".
(12:09:42) vene_sinistra: and, unlike Argentina or Uruguay
(12:09:50) vene_sinistra: Venezuelans have a very strong democratic sense
(12:10:53) vene_sinistra: even the most fanatical will pause if you mention unlimited terms or absolute power