The fifth part of a series of seven articles by Marco Teruggi on Chavismo, the ongoing socialist revolutionary project in Venezuela, that the Venezuelans fondly call Bolivarian revolution.
The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). It represents Chavismo in the neighbourhoods, Chavismo in the rural areas, Chavismo of the poor—in other words, it represents Chavismo, or the majority of the people, the supporters of the ongoing socialist revolutionary project in Venezuela. It is the party of Chavez. It was he who called for the formation of this new party at the end of 2006, proposed the name, and led the founding congress of the new party at the beginning of the year 2008. Speaking at the inaugural congress, with the defeat of the constitutional reform proposed by him in the referendum held just a few days ago on December 2, 2007 still fresh in his mind, Chavez called for a course correction in the political line, stated that it needed to be revised and rectified, and asserted that the new party was needed so that it could advance the revolution in the new direction.
The unfolding revolutionary process in Venezuela experimented with several political instruments before the founding of the PSUV. It began with the Bolivarian Movement-200, the political and social movement founded by Hugo Chávez in 1982. It planned and executed the failed February 4, 1992 coup attempt. After an intense debate within its ranks, the Bolivarian Movement-200 established the Fifth Republic Movement, a Socialist electoral party, in July 1997 to participate in the 1998 presidential elections. The Fifth Republic Movement, together with several other leftist parties, including the Communist Party of Venezuela, Homeland for All (Patria Para Todos—PPT) and Movement towards Socialism (MAS), formed a coalition known as the Patriotic Pole, and put up Chavez as the candidate for the Presidential elections. Chavez won a landslide victory in the elections, garnering more votes than any candidate in Venezuela’s history.
Following the defeat in the December 2 referendum, on December 15, 2006, Chavez announced the proposal to set up a single, consolidated left wing party entitled the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Chavez encouraged all left-wing parties, representing the mass majority of the National Assembly, to dissolve into the PSUV. He stated that the biggest weakness of the Bolivarian revolution is the lack of a political instrument capable of confronting the challenges faced in the struggle to construct a new, socially just, Venezuela. And so he called for the formation of a new party, that would bring the currently fragmented social movements and political groups that back the revolution into a single organisation that would determinedly advance the revolution forward: “Our forces are too disorganised, sometimes even work in opposition to one another, the various commanders lack coordination with other . . . the various parties supporting the revolution are fragemented, small, limited to certain areas, and instead of supporting the advance of the revolutionary process are sometimes more interested in furthering their narrow interests . . . such a divided movement cannot advance the Bolivarian revolution.”
Chavez warned that the future of the revolution was in danger. The people’s confidence in the revolutionary process had been undermined due to a range of problems with government programs, and the serious political weaknesses within the Chavista camp. Because of this, two million votes had been lost between his presidential election in 2006 and the constitutional reform of end-2007. For the revolution to survive and advance, it was necessary to win back the support of the people.
For this, it was of utmost importance to form a new political instrument to combat the major problems of bureaucracy and corruption affecting state institutions that were sabotaging government programs in favour of the poor and attempts to construct popular power. These weaknesses had also penetrated the Chavista camp, which had become home to many careerists and bureaucrats, including those who hold important positions. To fight the enemy within, Chavez stressed that the PSUV shall be governed primarily from the bottom up, focusing on mass-participation and democratic principles, and stated that the PSUV would be the most democratic party in Venezuelan history. He said that such a bottom-up mobilisation of the Chavista ranks, wherein the activists at the bottom would mobilise in their communities and workplaces to fight for their interests—against both the capitalists and the new emerging political and economic elite that is attempting to consolidate itself at the grassroot level—and their organisation into a grassroots based party could be decisive in helping resolve the unfinished struggle for power between the oppressed (led by the Chavez government) and the oppressors.
The Party and Elections
A massive 5.7 million people signed up to become aspiring members of the PSUV over a six-week period between April and June 2008, a massive display of the deeply felt sentiment for political unity. Of these, more than half a million—whom Chavez called the socialist battalions or a frontline vanguard—began participating in meetings held every weekend from July onwards to discuss and debate issues of political program and structure, the proposed constitutional reforms, and issues related to how to increase mass participation of people in the revolutionary process and thereby advance the revolution. This gap between the massive numbers who showed their support for the new party by registering and the lesser number of people who turned up for the meetings—the cadre of the new party—was only to be expected, given the different levels of commitment, consciousness and time among the great mass of supporters of the revolution.
It is these socialist battalions who elected the 1,656 delegates to the founding conference of the Party.
This party of cadres and masses had to perform the twin tasks of winning the elections on the one hand, and leading the advance towards socialism on the other. Both the tasks—one periodic, the other permanent—had to go hand in hand. Chavez believed that the task of winning the elections was in large part related to the development of the political consciousness of the people, their growing awareness about their rights, and their active participation in the various organs of grassroots political power that were being set up by the revolution.
Of course, despite Chavez’s attempt and intention to build a new party with radical new cadre from below, the whole process of building of the party has faced a number of problems. While many new cadre did come from the grassroots due to the radical politicisation of Chavismo, several cadre continued to be from among those very vested interests whom the revolution was aimed at. A key contradiction within the party is the struggle between the radical grassroots and what can be referred to as the “rightwing” of the Chavismo. Numerous organised groups, local power elites and the old bureaucracy attempted to ‘capture’ the battalions and influence the selection of delegates to the congress.
The imperative of winning elections further complicates the building of this revolutionary party. As Reinaldo Iturriza wrote in 2010, “It is necessary to win elections to advance the revolution. But sometimes, to win electoral victories, the party resorts to patronage or simply demagoguery to win the elections, but this produces a distancing between the party and the people.” It produces a distaste for politics, depoliticises people, and reduces their enthusiasm for participation in the revolutionary process.
The Party and Government
The building of a party that on the one hand has to advance the revolution, and on the other hand is also the ruling party, produces its own complexities. Almost all the mayors, governors and ministers are from the party. The tactics, priorities and strategies decided by the PSUV are also, to a large extent, the decisions of the government and the various institutions of the state, as the party controls the government. The direction taken by the party is also the direction taken by the government and the various institutions; it is in fact also the direction of the revolution. While the membership of the party overwhelmingly comprises of the ordinary people, including the people living in the slums in cities and the peasants in the villages, the leaders of the party are also the leaders of the government, including the mayors, governors, ministers, officials at various levels of the government, etc. For instance, the governor of a state is also the leader of the party in his state.
This produces several tensions. Thus, the party was created to advance a strategic objective: the building of socialism. In the long run, the achievement of this objective goes beyond (or against) the interests of the party, as a genuine development of socialism requires the party to gradually cede its space to the popular mobilisation of the people and the strengthening of their popular organisations, primarily the communes. This produces a contradiction: those who lead the party, and at the same time are also in positions of power in the government, are often unwilling to gradually transfer power / control to popular organisations of people, and defend the authority of the state, to the detriment of the strategic objective of advancing towards socialism. The communes and the asssertion of popular people’s power come to be seen as a threat by the mayors, the governors, by those in various positions of authority in government. They prefer forms of organisation of people which they can dictate as to what should they do, how they should do, when should they do, in other words, which they can control and direct.
The party has the advantage of being created by Chavez, and even after he is no longer there to lead it, his name and his immense authority benefits the party. It gives it immense advantage during the elections, as the people still love and remember Chavez. However, at the same time, the mistakes made by the party in advancing the revolution get amplified as it also the ruling party, and so the distance between the party and the people increases.
Thus, there are inherent contradictions in the very form of political organisation evolved by Chavismo to advance the revolution. These contradictions are inherent not just to Chavismo, but to the revolutionary process itself. On how the party and the people resolve these contradictions depends the future of the revolution.
If one examines the whole revolutionary process more closely, the contradictions inherent in PSUV are in essence the contradictions within all of us.