MAS and the Causa R in Regional Power

September 25, 2007


Venezuela's two major leftist parties have made important advances at the regional level. But articulating local strategies and experience with national needs and politics has proven problematic.

By Steve Ellner

With control of five state governments and the city of Caracas, and ministerial participation at the national level, the Venezuelan left has overcome its long-standing role as outsider and theoretical critic with little or no policymaking influence. Venezuelan leftists have successfully applied the vision of Antonio Grarnsci, the Marxist political theorist who inspired the Italian Communist Party’s democratic turn to regional politics, and its effective administration of local and state govemments after World War II.

Indeed, regional government has slowly begun to challenge national politics as the key arena of decision-making and participation.[1] By the late 1980s, the declining resources and prestige of Venezuela’s central government enhanced the applicability of the local strategy beyond what Gramsci could have imagined. Their performance in these state and city administrations––more than their discourse on national issues–will determine whether the country’s two major leftist parties, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and the Radical Cause (Causa R), continue to grow both in the electoral arena and in civil society.

The left’s success at the local level is a result of its embrace of the movement toward political decentralization and electoral reform which swept the nation in the 1980s. After a Municipal Governance Law of 1978 separated municipal from national elections, for example, leftist parties effectively campaigned for city-council seats–then the only elected municipal offices–by conveying the simple, non-ideological message that they were more efficient and less corrupt than the country’s traditional centrist parties, Democratic Action (AD) and the social-Christian Copei.[2]

The Presidential Commission for Reform of the State (Copre), created by President Jaime Lusinchi in 1984, provided yet another opening for the left when in 1989 governors and mayors were elected for the first time, and a law mandating direct election of individual congressional candidates was passed. These reforms endowed Venezuelan democracy with enough legitimacy to stave off a total collapse following nearly two decades of declining living standards coupled with the growing perception that the ruling parties were incompetent, authoritarian and corrupt. Indeed, the 1993 campaign slogan, “The Causa R: Your Reason to Vote” had a good deal of resonance after years of mass rioting, electoral abstention of over 50%, two attempted coups which raised quasi-radical banners, and the 1992 impeachment of President Carlos Andrés Pérez of AD on charges of corruption. The 1993 election of presidential candidate Rafael Caldera with the support of a host of small parties, finally put an end to uninterrupted AD-Copei rule, and may have also given the system some breathing space.

Among the new political actors who emerged at the local level as a consequence of the reforms were scores of makeshift electoral groups– many inspired by the nation’s burgeoning neighborhood movement–who fielded local candidates. Likewise, MAS and the Causa R made significant inroads on the political map, though not without great struggles against a political establishment reluctant to give up power. In 1989 MAS’ Carlos Tablante was elected governor of Aragua, and tile Causa R’s Andrés Velásquez triumphed in Bolívar. The left scored even more impressive gains in the state-municipal contests in 1992 and 1993 when MAS gubernatorial candidates won–or credibly claimed to have won–in seven states, and the Causa R emerged victorious in Bolivar and the city of Caracas.

According to public-opinion surveys, the left’s governing record has been mixed: In the states of Bolívar (Causa R) and Sucre (MAS), for example, its rule has met with general approval, in sharp contrast with its current negative rating in Caracas (Causa R). Nevertheless, Caracas mayor Istúriz’ personal popularity ratings are higher than his actual performance. Beyond these initial perceptions of success, an analysis of MAS and Causa R municipal and state governments inevitably raises one key question: Is the major difference between these administrations and their AD-Copei counterparts one of greater efficiency and less graft (as many assumed at the time of the first separate municipal elections in 1979) or has the left designed and implemented distinct political projects at the local level?

Part of the answer lies in the steps taken by MAS and Causa R governors toward decentralization. Although several AD and Copei elected officials have played active roles in promoting decentralization, MAS and the Causa R have plainly been in the forefront. The receptivity of these governors is particularly significant because the 1989 decentralization law that governs the process leaves much of the substance up to the initiative of individual states.

Upon assuming office in 1989, Tablante and Velásquez took the lead in organizing conventions of the nation’s governors. Initially. the governing party, AD, prohibited its governors, 12 in all, from attending. More recently, however, all 22 state governors have participated, passing resolutions on issues that concern them all: acceleration of the process of decentralization, allocation of 50% of the money collected under the value-added tax to the states, and central-government payment of all debts to its employees prior to the transfer of authority to the states. Tablante and Velásquez have promoted creative and novel programs in areas such as health, education and housing. These programs have important implications since they demonstrate that decentralization can move in one of two directions. On the one hand, as progressive national legislation is rescinded in the name of the neoliberal restructuring of the central state, decentralization can be a first step toward privatization. On the other hand, decentralization can stimulate programs favoring the poor, and generate a more active and participative role in their implementation.

In a program of the latter type in Aragua, the state government has planned new housing for the poor, creating the necessary infrastructure and selling building lots. while leaving the actual construction of the houses to individual families. The opposition accused Governor Tablante of promoting the proliferation of shamytowns, since many of the houses, at least initially, were mere shacks with corrugated metal roofs. The secretary general of MAS in Aragua, José Gómez Febres, defended the program, saying “it is a lot cheaper and more effective to lay out pipes and build roads prior to settlement than following a spontaneous land invasion. The inhabitants [of the state-planned communities] do not have to worry about basic services and can therefore dedicate themselves to upgrading their housing."[3]

Other programs were also designed to alleviate poverty in Aragua. “Mama Arepa,” for example, is a hot-lunch program in which women are contracted in impoverished areas to prepare arepas–Venezuelan cornmeal sandwiches–for school children. The state has also encouraged the establishment of foundations, run mainly by medical personnel, to administer hospitals or specific operations within them. One foundation offers poor people access to such expensive services as tomographic and ultrasound exams in the general hospital of Aragua’s capital city, Maracay.

In a program designed to fortify municipal governatent, Tablante has allotted the municipal governments about twice as much money as he is obliged to by law. While at first these funds had virtually no strings attached, now the governorship requires the city to spend 25% of the allotment on development of the city’s administrative capacity. This includes computerization, the creation of a treasury department, and the drawing up of a tax list of real-estate property.

Much more than MAS, the Causa R has promoted popular, rank-and-file participation in dccision-making. In Caracas, Mayor Isuniz has attempted to reactivate the city’s dozen or so district councils, called parochial sectors, which up until 50 years ago had a rich life of their own. City Hall has provided each one with an engineer and an architect, and is beginning to allocate funds directly to a five-member parochial board, designed to administer the district councils in conjunction with city government.

“Istúriz spends half of his time in community assemblies,” says one Causa R city-council representative approvingly. “The model of the parochialization of Caracas is derived from Causa R-run Ciudad Guayana in Bolívar, where an immense room in City Hall of about 15 by 15 meters has been furnished with tables, chairs and bulletin boards, allowing as many as ten community groups to meet simultaneously, some formally and others informally.”[4]

Nevertheless, this style of lengthy debate lacks formal mechanisms of decision-making and thus sometimes leads to disenchantment. The Causa R’s fervent belief that discussion can solve all differences was well-demonstrated by the nominating process for its gubernatorial candidate for this December’s election in Bolívar. Three marathon sessions were held, the first lasting almost 24 hours. The delegates to the sessions were neither formally chosen by, nor even officially enrolled in the Causa R, in accordance with the party’s open membership policy. One state deputy who attended the last meeting underlined its openness and informality:

After the first meeting, the 300-odd delegates were asked to reach an agreement among themselves as to who would drop out in order to facilitate deliberations at the next assembly. The last meeting was held on a beach on the Caroni River in an area cordoned off by cars. Shade was provided by the palm trees but falling coconuts broke more than one car window. Some of the bathers engaged us in discussion. Debate was heated and often took on personal dimensions with regard to the aspirants’ shortcomings. Not only did the assembly fail to reach a consensus, but the party’s national leadership was polarized between one aspirant ... who was supported by Andrés Velásquez, and the other ... supported by [party secretary general] Pablo Medina. Finally, Nuevo Sindicalismo [the Causa R’s trade-union movement] stepped in and stated, ‘now that it is evident that the selection of a candidate is not forthcoming either here in the assembly or by the cogollo [national leadership], we will impose ours,’ and they insisted on the nomination of [ex-steelworkers’ president] Victor Moreno. Moreno reluctantly agreed, and the two other pre-candidates acceded in good spirits. It all ended happily, like in a story. The message was clear: the working class has the final word.[5]

Causa R activists point out that the community assemblies organized by the governor in Boiívar and the mayor in Caracas are generally less tedious than these nominating sessions. Discussion in the assemblies “revolves around the sewage and water-pipe systems, and potholes,” says Tello Benítez, a former steelworkers’ secretary general, “so that militants of AD, Copci and other parties for once forget about their partisanship and miraculously talk a common language.”[6]

As it articulates a vision of regional and national politics, the Causa R’s modus operandi is to establish beachheads in key unions and neighborhoods, and spread out from there. This strategy was particularly effective in the state of Bolívar where the party parlayed its worker influence at the huge Orinoco Steelworks (SIDOR) into votes in the 1989 gubematorial election and after that consolidated its support throughout the state. In the 1993 elections, the party swept all ten of the state assembly districts and triumphed in the three largest cities–Ciudad Bolívar (the state capital), Ciudad Guayana and Upata. More recently the party put an end to 15 years of AD trade-union control in the public aluminum company Venalum, and stamped out that party’s formerly dominant representation in SIDOR so thoroughly that it was left without departmental delegates. In Caracas, the Causa R’s three union foci are the recently privatized telephone company, the municipal electric company and the subway system.

Outside Bolívar and Caracas, however, the Causa R is lacking in local leaders who can match Velásquez–or even Istúriz–in charisma and popular appeal. Indeed the party has played up its success in Bolívar for every thing it is worth and neglected the development of local leaderships elsewhere. In contrast to MAS presidential candidate Petkoff’s promotion of local candidates in 1988, the Causa R’s legislative candidates in 1993 took a backseat to presidential candidate Velásquez, on whose coattails many of them were elected.

The party’s Tello Benítez says he does “not believe it was a mistake [in 1993] for us to have centered efforts on the figure of Andrés Velásquez at the expense of our local candidates because we really felt he had a good chance of winning.”[7] Benítez, however, recognizes that the Causa R’s presidentialist strategy–based on a broad appeal and the unrestricted participation of all supporters in campaign planning– attracted people who were not fully committed to party principles and discipline. Some of them were nominated as candidates in hopes of reaching out beyond the traditional left in order to further Velásquez’ chances. As a result, the party has suffered numerous defections in state legislatures where it had a significant representation or a swing vote.

In MAS, the articulation of local strategies and experiences with national needs and policies has been equally problematic. The local-national conflict has led one party leader to complain that “MAS’ local successes have gone to the heads of local MASistas who have developed a parochial mentality.”[8] The most notorious case of alleged insularity is the alliance that Tablante fashioned with Aragua’s elite Capriles family. The Capriles control the main newspaper, El Siglo, and their dozens of construction firms have received the lion’s share of the funds ear-marked for public works in the state.

Tablante’s defenders point out that more conservative entrepreneurial groups are well-represented in Aragua and that the army high command has a strong traditional presence as well. The effort to neutralize these hostile sectors by coming to terms with the more enlightened members of the local establishment– and specifically the appointment of family member Manuel Capriles as secretary general of the governorship– was seen as a master stroke. Tablante’s supporters also point out that since his first term in office when he seemed to believe he could govern without his own party, he has drawn closer to MAS and has distanced himself from local interest groups.

This localistic spirit is also evident in the state of Sucre where MAS Governor Martínez, anxious to boost the state economy, lobbied for ratification of a megaproject involving the exploitation of natural gas by a consortium consisting of Exxon, Shell and Mitsubishi. Although not opposed to associations with foreign capital on principle, particularly those involving non-conventional technology, the MAS national leadership objected to various provisions such as the one in which unresolved disputes would be remitted to the court of the Chamber of Commerce of Paris located in New York, thus bypassing the Venezuelan judicial system and slighting national sovereignty.

The growth and electoral successes of MAS in the provinces obey a dynamic which is unique for any major party in Venezuela. In the case of AD and Copei, for example, the presidential candidate is the party’s driving electoral force. National victories invariably spill over to the congressional, state and municipal electoral contests. In contrast, MAS’ electoral focus is its local and state candidates. The success of charismatic local leaders has generally been translated into organizational gains in their respective states.

With MAS’regional approach, it was only a matter of time before local leaders attempted to gain control of the party’s national leadership. A major step in that direction was last year’s election in internal primaries of Enrique Ochoa Antich as secretary general. Ochoa Antich was backed by Tablante and other MAS governors and major gubernatorial aspirants, but lacked any support from the party’s national leaders, possibly because he lambasted them as “bureaucrats” and “perennial losers.” Shortly thereafter, at the MAS national convention, Ochoa Antich proposed to federate the party internally by limiting the national leadership to state-appointed representatives. The plan, however, was voted down by an overwhelming majority of delegates who feared that the party’s already decentralized structure would fatally unravel.

MAS will attempt to balance two concerns in its selection of candidates for the state and municipal elections to be held in December of this year. On the one hand, it will push hard for its gubernatorial candidates in those seven states where the party has already proven itself at the polls, having previously Pulled in over 25% of the vote. On the other hand, in states where the party is weaker, it will forge alliances with progressive forces to dislodge the mainstream parties, AD and Copei. Ochoa Antich calls for a broad coalition taking in the Causa R, President Caldera’s Convergencia party, and radicalized military personnel grouped in the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR 200).

Ochoa’s goal is more easily proclaimed than achieved. While a simple alliance of MAS-Convergencia, the two principal partners in the government, would certainly be manageable, Convergencia would view with disfavor MAS’ efforts at building bridges with the Causa R, which is strident in its opposition to the Caldera government. An additional barrier is the intent of several MAS chapters to buck the party’s official line by allying with Copei against AD, allegedly the more corrupt of the two. On the positive side, the Causa R has sent out signals to MAS that it is ready to drop its rigidly anti-unity line. Party leaders hint that they will no longer condition electoral pacts with MAS on its abandonment of the Caldera Administration, pointing out that the December elections reflect largely local and state issues, and not national ones.

Selection of gubernatorial candidates is no light matter. Since the first gubernatorial elections in 1989, some elected governors have become key figures in their states, towering over their respective political parties. Indeed, the MAS vote has declined in several states where the party endorsed Copei politicians who went on to become leading figures with a broad appeal. This lesson was not lost on the national leadership, which subsequently questioned these pacts on the grounds that the party had lost prestige, credibility and votes.

The national leaders of both MAS and the Causa R are set on achieving two overriding political objectives: dislodging AD and Copei from power at all levels and, in so doing, deepening the nation’s democracy. On questions of style, strategy and internal organization, however, the two parties are quite different. MAS, for its part, not only holds open primary elections to choose its candidates–as do AD and Copei on occasion–but also holds membership-wide elections for party authorities, which is unique in Venezuela. In addition, some of its recent electoral successes are due to its policy of alliances, including the one which brought Caldera to the presidency in December, 1993. In contrast, Causa R members have an aversion to internal elections and instead try to reach all internal decisions by consensus. In addition, the Causa R boasts of its anti-party discourse, its go-it-alone approach, and its intransigent opposition to Caldera, who it claims has fallen into the arms of AD and powerful financial interests.

Nor do the two parties see eye-to-eye on the question of decentralization itself. The Causa R has wholeheartedly thrown itself into the fight for the devolution of powers to the localities, while the MAS leadership has been more cautious. As Junior partners in the federal govemment, many MASistas have been sympathetic to President Caldera who has insisted on greater deliberation prior to the transfer of authority to the states, a policy which has earned his Secretary of Decentralization the unjust pejorative “Secretary of Centralization.” MAS leader Teodoro Petkoff defends this cautious approach as far preferable to that followed by former President Carlos Andrés Pérez “with all his empty rhetoric which served as a prop for neoliberalism. Caldera has done right in not accepting the extremes of deccntralization.”[9]

The left must evaluate its experiences in local and regional government, and design a coherent and fairly uniform strategy for local-state rule. While MAS managed to bring the party’s 22 mayors and four governors together for the first time last December, the result was characterized by meeting organizer David De Lima as “an event which for all practical purposes did not occur.”[10] Indeed, MAS has been a victim of the very decentralization which brought to the fore regional leaders who have so ably vied for control of one third of the nation’s governorships. In the name of decentralization, MAS’ state leaders have refused to accept national evaluation, let alone supervision, of key policies and decisions. Gramsci might have approved of MAS’ electoral inroads at the regional level. But he would certainly turn over in his grave at the prospect that the very successes of regional organization and governance could rule out taking power at the national level.

Steve Ellner is director of the Research Center for Administrative and Economic Sciences of the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. He is the co-editor of The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroilka (Westview, 1993).

1. See Steve Ellner, Venezulela's Movimiento al Socialismo: From Guerrilla Defeat to Innovative Politics (Durham, NC Duke University Press, 1988), p. 23.
2. See Steve Ellner, "Venezucommunism: Learning the Lesson of Chile?" in
Commonwealth, February 15, 1980, pp. 69-70.
3. José Gómez Febres, MAS national deputy, personal interview, Caracas, March 14, 1995.
4.Bernardo Alvarez, Causa R city council member, personal inter view, Caracas, March 13, 1995.
5. Francisco Guacarán, Causa R state deputy, personal interview, Barcelona, March 9, 1995.
6. Tello Benítez, Causa R national leader, personal interview, Caracas, February 20, 1995.
7. Benítez, February 20, 1995.
8.Freddy Díaz, MAS national leader, personal interview, Caracas, February 21, 1995.
9. Teodoro Petkoff, MAS national leader, personal interview, Barcelona, March 10, 1995.
10. David De Lima, mermer of MAS national committee, personal interview, Barcelona, March 24, 1995.

Tags: Venezuela, leftist politics, MAS, Causa R, decentralization

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