Chávez in danger

Chávez has little more than four months - perhaps even less - to come up with a solution to a very d

On 5 July, Venezuelans celebrated the 197th anniversary of their Declaration of Independence from Spain.

On that day in 1811, a group of rebel criollos (those born in the Spanish colonies but of Iberian descent), gathered in the Santa Rosa Lima Chapel in Caracas to found a new Republic, the American Confederation of Venezuela.

It would take another decade of bloody warfare war before the republican rebels, famously led by Francisco Miranda and Simón Bolívar, could declare victory over their Royalist foes.

Almost two centuries on, another kind of rebel is in charge in Venezuela, a mestizo (a person of mixed race) this time round, inspired as much by his criollo ancestors’ determination to rid themselves of foreign domination, through another, more recent ideal, also partly of European “descent”: Socialism.

However, victory for Chávez’ Bolivarian Project is by no means guaranteed. If anything, it is in more danger of being derailed, both from internal rifts and external pressures, than at any other time in its ten year existence.

Later this year, on 23 November, Venezuela will hold regional and municipal elections to elect state governors in 22 of its 23 federal states, 219 members of regional parliaments, 332 mayors, 2 city mayors, and 13 city councillors. These elections will be the most decisive since Chávez came to power in 1999.

In Venezuela, regional elections always carry great weight reflecting the extensive powers of state governors. In fact, what here is called “the old geometry of power” – the territorial divisions of a decentralised system of public administration going back to colonial times – is a core axis of political and economic clientelism. This is preoccupied with the capture of shares of Venezuela’s huge oil rent for regionally and locally based family clans.

One of the central objectives of the constitutional reform project, defeated in a referendum on 2 December 2007, was precisely to lay the legal foundations for a gradual replacement of the “old” with a “new geometry of power”, designed to hand power to a parallel structure of new communal organisations.

More importantly perhaps, the November regional elections come at a time, at which the internal tensions and contradictions of the Bolivarian Project to transform Venezuela from a rentist oil state into a productive and participative developmental state are coming to a head: Chávez has little more than four months (and perhaps even less than this) to come up with a solution to a very difficult equation.

One central variable in this equation is the private business sector. On 11 June, Chávez announced a series of economic measures to revive private sector participation in long-term productive investment projects.

Stopping short of “pro-market” measures, such as a devaluation of the Bolivar and a wholesale lifting of capital controls, his olive branch included the abolition of a recently introduced tax on financial transactions, a government finance initiative for public-private investment projects and a significant flexibilisation of capital controls for imports worth up to US$50,000 by already registered companies. In addition, Chávez also announced a wide-ranging programme of subsidies for small agricultural producers.

The smirking faces of the leading members of Venezuela’s business community – mainly bankers - lined up in a neat row to face their president, said it all: They are not falling over themselves to take up the offer, and they don’t have to. Sky-high profit rates in the financial and service sectors make relatively lower and much more long-term returns from productive investment unattractive.

For more than 50 years, per capita value added in the private-dominated agricultural and manufacturing sectors has remained stagnant. Private investment in high value added activities in the country’s oil and mining sectors remains foreign controlled.

That the local business community can content itself with siphoning off quick returns from the ever increasing oil rent and with profits from the distribution of imported merchandise, is down to its multi-fold political alliances with a very large and growing middle class, itself a product of the rentist oil state and deeply embedded in the day-to-day running of the state apparatus.

These powerful alliances change political colours, ranging from the varying colours of the old oligarchic political parties to Chavista red and military olive-green, with great ease. Whichever their predominant colour, these alliances have the organisational power to threaten the government of the day with political and economic destabilization, and to demand their share of the oil rent in return for not mobilizing.

Not only do these clientelist demands fuel inflation, in a context of low productivity and large redistributive programmes to the poor classes. This behaviour is also likely to result in a serious banking crisis in the coming months. For many years now, state revenue from oil exports has been mainly deposited in private banks who, instead of channelling this into producer credits, have engaged in often unsound and, at any rate, obscure financial investment strategies. These now threaten to backfire, exposing the banking sector to serious refinancing risks.

In view of this state of affairs, another economic policy of recent Chávez governments looses much of its apparent radicalism: Many of the nationalisations carried out since early 2007 and announced with great pomp and scare in the international press, simply reversals of economically and/or socially disastrous privatizations of the 1990s. Not only did the private owners of telecommunication, electricity, cement, some strategically central foodstuff companies as well as most likely of Latin America’s largest steel plant – Ternium-Sidor – receive generous pay-offs for their troubles. More importantly, governments saddled with the kind of unproductive, yet powerful, alliances between the local business community and a large consumerist middle class, have little choice but to nationalise, if productivity performance and reasonable working conditions are a serious concern.

The second vital variable in the equation Chávez has to solve is “el bravo pueblo”. The Spanish word “bravo” means both “fierce” – as in courageous – as well as “angry”. This very aptly describes the situation: The poor and lower middle classes of Venezuela, Chávez’ traditional constituency, are both empowered by his decade-long rule as well as profoundly outraged by the inertia of the Bolivarian Project, blocked by those colourful private sector – cum – middle classes alliances, and in danger of falling prey to decades-old mechanisms of rentist corruption.

Perhaps ironically, their protest vote through abstention (rather than migration to the opposition) in the referendum on a socialist constitutional reform on 2 December 2007 was essential for its marginal defeat, and thus, for the current sense of empowerment of those very alliances.

This tension between, on the one hand, a strong determination not to give way, and a lack of orientation, organization and immediate purpose, on the other, in the rank-and-file of Chavista supporters finds its clearest expression in the travails of the foundation of a new political party in Venezuela, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Between April and May of last year, more than 5.7 million people – equivalent to 36 per cent of the national election registry and close to 80 per cent of the votes Chávez obtained in the 2006 presidential elections – inscribed themselves as “aspirants” to join the new socialist party.

This broad mass of Chavistas of very varying degrees of militancy were subsequently organised in more than 14,000 local organisations, called “battalions”, with up to 300 members. Between January and March 2008, the founding congress of the new party, constituted of close to 100,000 spokespeople and commissioners of the “battalions”, drew up the party’s constitution and elected its National Directorate.

The first signs of tension between radical grassroots groups and the “new Chavista elite” – one more of those private sector/middle class alliances mentioned above – surfaced during these elections for the National Directorate of the PSUV: Big names popularly associated with Chavista corruption did not make it.

Subsequently, these very names pushed their way into the party leadership, not by popular support, but by means of appointments “from above”. The wide-spread disaffection and outrage caused by these appointments amongst the Chavista base forced a truly democratic and bottom-up party-internal election of candidates for the regional elections scheduled for 23 November. This has produced a mix of truly popular candidates and some rather less popular candidates who were backed because of a lack of suitable rivals.

To date, the dinosaurs of the “new Chavista elite” can declare victory in terms of their control of the state apparatus, shared with other rentist alliances, and in terms of their control of government. They have not managed to take control of the newly founded socialist party.

Whether this party will manage to rebuilt popular confidence in the Bolivarian Project and a sufficient degree of determination of the “bravo pueblo” to carry it to victory in the November elections, remains to be seen.

The final variable in Chávez’ difficult equation concerns foreign relations. The recent liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, along with 15 other hostages of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), has a profound effect on Venezuela’s negotiation powers in an international context.

The operation is the culmination of a long-standing process of infiltration of the FARC high command, carefully planned and prepared by French, Israeli and US secret services, working along-side Colombian military. Following on the assassination, death and defection of core members of the FARC high command over the past months, this operation signals the final decline of the FARC. Whatever one’s ethical views on the legitimacy of guerrilla warfare and kidnappings, the final dismantling of the FARC beyond a peasant resistance army does away with a guerrilla force that, for decades, engaged the US to the extent of limiting its immediate control of Latin American territories to the space ranging from the Northern Frontier of Mexico to the Southern Colombian boarders.

From 3 July, this is no longer the case, and Chávez’ Venezuela is very obviously on top of the list of US officials concerned with the defence of their country’s hegemony in the Southern Hemisphere. From June, after almost 60 years on standby, the Fourth US fleet has once again been reactivated and dispatched to the Caribbean Sea, sending a clear signal that has not been missed. The most persistent rumours are of plans to “do a Noriega” on Chávez, meaning a design to kidnap him to face trial in the US – for what exactly is not as yet clear.

Finally, with Ingrid Betancourt at last and thankfully escaping from capture, and only negligible Venezuelan oil exports to Europe, there is no hope for an “enlightened Europe” stepping in to offer a pragmatic helping hand.

It would be deeply unfair to blame Chávez for this state of affairs. His hero – Simón Bolívar – failed, certainly in terms of his ideal vision of a united and egalitarian Latin American continent but not because of any specific mistakes he made.

Two centuries on, Chávez has, and always had, limited options. So far, he has played his cards impressively well, if not always elegantly.

But, perhaps inevitably, by now the game is up and the cards are on the table: Today´s equivalent of the powers of reaction of the Vienna Congress of 1815 are calling in their debtors. The poor of Venezuela and their revolutionary leader are largely on their own, backed only by idealist internationalists, the poor of Latin America, and some of its lesser influential nations.

As with their ancestors, they might not make it, and today’s Simón Bolivar will find himself hauled up before the modern equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. However long the list of mistakes committed and of confusions incurred, it is worth remembering that a failure of the Bolivarian Project will be to the detriment of ordinary people in Latin America and all around the world.

Dr Stephanie Blankenburg is Lecturer in International Political Economy in the Economics Department at the School of Oriental and Social Studies (SOAS), London. She is currently on secondment to Venezuela as an economic advisor and analyst. This article reflects her personal analysis and is unrelated to any government views or policies.