September 14, 2014

Latin America at Crucial Crossroads

R Arun Kumar

LATIN America is today standing at crucial crossroads and the turn it takes will impact the course of history. Three countries – Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay – governed by 'Left' presidents, Dilma Rousseff, Evo Morales and Jose Mujica respectively, are going to polls in October. Equally significant, if not more important than these elections, are the developments taking place in Venezuela. What will happen in these countries, particularly Venezuela, touted as the torchbearer in the anti-imperialist crusade, is sure to have an enormous influence on the Left, progressive movements world-over. The 18-months that have passed since the death of Hugo Chavez, have witnessed many twists and turns in the socio-economic and political life of Venezuela. The opposition parties, sensing an opportunity, have instigated violent demonstrations and riots against the government. They wantonly used their control over the vital economic sectors to create artificial shortages and inflate the prices of several essential commodities through hoarding, smuggling and speculation. These acts of economic sabotage, were rightly castigated as 'economic war' by President Maduro. Inflation reached a high of 60 percent, values of wages fell and people are forced to wait in long queues before supermarkets for buying essential commodities like food articles, soap, toilet paper, etc. The complex system of currency exchange controls was also targeted as the value of the bolivar (Venezuelan currency) fell drastically against the dollar and a large gap has appeared between its official value and its value in the black market. These have added to corruption, lack of housing, bureaucratic highhandedness, rising crime rates and violence. The government is intervening on behalf of the people and enacted various laws to regulate prices, open supermarkets, ensure that commodities are available in the market, strengthen the popular misions and other community oriented programmes that were in vogue since the days of Chavez. In spite of all these, as a result of the hardships, for the first-time in the past sixteen years, a large majority of the people have felt that their country is 'headed in a wrong direction'. The basic concern for them is the economic hardships, which are badly affecting the lower classes in the society. Some of these problems existed from the days of Chavez, but the absence of Chavez is strongly felt now, particularly when discontent even among the chavistas is on the rise. The opposition is feeding on this discontent and further flaring it up. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) founded by Chavez and around whom the entire party jelled, is no longer the same. Though differences existed earlier, in the absence of Chavez, they have further widened and the pressure building up in the society too is showing. Chavez had realised the necessity of building an ideological unity in the party to lead the country on its path of Bolivarian socialism or 21st century socialism, as he had defined. Unfortunately, he succumbed to his illness before this could be realised. The 'still evolving' organisational structure of the party is not helping matters. For instance, in a recently organised Party Congress in which Maduro was elected as the head, nearly half of the delegates were nominated from above (most of them, government officials and holders of public posts). The rhetorical emphasis on grassroots representation is thus absent from practice, casting serious apprehensions as PSUV was promised to be, not the Party in the 'traditional' sense, but, a 'new' Party, highly democratic and truly representative. IDEOLOGICAL CHALLENGES The practical issues that are arising in the course of leading the Venezuelan society in the path of Bolivarian socialism, are throwing up many ideological challenges. The role of State and its character, the part played by various classes, the policies that the government needs to pursue, peoples' participation in the entire process of social transformation, the space for opposition, dissent and the relationship between the government, party and the State, are, a few of the issues that are thoroughly debated. These debates exist both within the PSUV and outside it – pro-chavistas and anti-chavistas included. Right through the days of Chavez, among the pro-chavistas, there was always this criticism that efforts to 'deepen' the revolution should be hastened. They ask the State to play a more pro-active role in the takeover of industries, revamping the bureaucratic State apparatus which still retains many of its anti-people traits, further empowerment of the people and their involvement in the decision making and running of the administration. Those on the right, counter that proceeding at a much faster pace would do more harm than good, arguing that it would alienate the middle-classes from the 'revolution', leaving everything in the hands of workers would not help productivity and that people should be trained before handing over responsibilities. Those in support of the government argue that what Maduro is doing today is indeed: a correction of the mistakes that had their genesis during Chavez; examining the issues that Chavez never dealt with or dealt with inconsistently; continuing from where Chavez had left and elaborating what he had initiated. They quote the officially encouraged debate on changing the pricing structure of gasoline and reducing subsidies. Another vital issue mentioned is Maduro's efforts to change the currency control mechanism. Maduro, called the 'pragmatist', openly called for a change in the way the country is governed. Putting in place his ideas of governance, he initially removed some ministers who were in their posts right from the day-one when Chavez had won the presidency. Prominent among them is Jorge Giordani, the minister of finance and planning, who is considered as the architect of the economic policy of the Bolivarian revolution. The US Bank of America Merrill Lynch, commented that the removal of Giordani is a “strong sign of the waning influence of the radical Marxist wing on economic policy issues” and that now there is “evidently greater willingness by officials to engage the private sector and investors than there was in the past. Officials even seem open to reconsidering policy decisions which have been harmful to productivity”. Giordani had written an open letter to Maduro, criticising his style of leadership as 'weak'. His letter brought to the fore the serious differences that existed in the cabinet on the economic policies. He accused Maduro of falling into the 'capitalist trap'. This letter had indeed started the aforementioned debate and a flurry of accusations and counter-accusations. In the process, many started drawing comparisons between the Bolivarian revolution and the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917. Even, some of the actors of present Venezuelan State like Maduro, Navarro (another former minister of Chavez administration), Giordani, etc, were compared with historic personalities like Stalin, Trotsky etc. Giordani was criticised for designing the policies that failed to stop the ruling classes from subverting the currency controls and using them to their advantage and for the strengthening of bureaucracy and corporatism. These have also been identified for their failure to control the economic sabotage and the various shortages that the people are facing today. Some former ministers of the PSUV and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) called for an earnest debate on the issues raised by Giordani. Some commentators have termed what is happening in Venezuela as 'social democracy rather than socialism' and somewhat similar to 'policies and practice of the post-World War II Labour governments in the UK'. Of course, quickly pointing the differences between the two, they write: “whereas these British Labour governments were posing social democracy as an alternative to socialism...Chávez presented these reforms as a prelude to socialism”. They quote Chavez as being aware of these limitations and the need to transcend them: “We have to head towards the creation of a communal state. And the old bourgeois state, which is still alive and kicking – this we have to progressively dismantle, at the same time as we build up the communal state, the socialist state, the Bolivarian state, a state that is capable of carrying through a revolution”. The debate indeed is on how far this process has traversed in the past decade and half. Among the pro-chavistas, there is also a substantial section of former guerrillas, who criticise the administration of harbouring an illusion about the State apparatus. They argue that the 'revolution is pending' and what is needed is a 'radical change in the balance of forces', which can be done only 'from below and to the left'. They argue that capitalism cannot be 'tamed' by government orders, but needs to be 'unmasked' and defeated by popular mobilisations. They criticise the efforts of the Maduro government to organise round-table meetings and talk with the big business on currency controls and for easing out the shortages. They ridicule a significant section among the government who do not understand the character of the State and live in an illusionary world trying to buy peace with capital and postpone confrontation by granting some concessions. This, they point out is a futile attempt as “there is also an element of rebellion of the productive forces against any attempt to regulate them by the State in the interests of the workers and the poor”. FIVE REVOLUTIONS In the midst of all this, on September 2, Maduro announced “five revolutions” to “improve our service to the people”: (i) the economic revolution, promoting production, in order to guarantee stability; (ii) the knowledge revolution, involving science, technology, and culture; (iii) revolution of the missions identified with their role in “building socialism, creating the new society...”; (iv) revolution in state policies for the creation of a new state, and to transform all governmental structures, and end with the “remains of the bourgoise state”. In this fourth revolution he also announced a range of new ministers and structures, a timeline for social movements to elect 'popular presidential councils', including for communes, women, youth, culture, and workers; (v) the fifth revolution was one of 'territorial socialism', which is about consolidating the communal model, and creating a “new eco-socialist model”. Maduro extended an olive branch to the dissenters and called them to 'embrace and work for the success of the Bolivarian process of 'socialism'. Many indeed have suggested that whatever be the differences in the PSUV or among the Left and their criticism on the way the process of 'deepening of the revolution' is taking place, all of them should unite and stand in solidarity with the Maduro administration. They warn: “If Venezuela were to fall to the fascists in the opposition, then other Latin American democracies would be targeted with the same strategies soon after – Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay”. They point to the increased US interference in these countries and the buoyed opposition representing the ruling classes, which is cherishing the fissures among the PSUV and the Left. The 'economically dominant class' (the bourgeoisie) in Venezuela is not on the seat of political power and is not the 'politically dominant class'. This in itself is a contradiction in the State structure. How this contradiction resolves, decides the future of the process and the course of history – if the bourgeoisie wins, it will regain its political domination, which will be a grave setback to the Bolivarian socialist process and also progressive forces.