Which Left for Venezuela?

September 25, 2007

The most dramatic in Venezuela's municipal and gubernatorial elections held this past December—just nine days after the second military coup attempt of the year—were made by two small parties on the Left, Movement To Socialism (MAS) and the grassroots workers party, Causa R. In the midst of neoliberal reforms that have brought sharp economic growth alongside declining standards of living, the governing Democratic Action (AD) party of President Carlos Andrés Pérez suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in its long history. And while the opposition social Christian party, Copei, made predictable gains, MAS and Causa R turned in their most impressive electoral performances ever. MAS won four governorships (out of 22) and closely contested two others. Causa R retained the governorship of the industrial state of Bolivar and, in a stunning upset, won the mayoralty of Caracas. Given the palpably declining morale in the country, and the political interest generated by next December's presidential elections, the Left has an historic opportunity to assert itself on the national scene—if it has a credible program.

We should pay close attention to Venezuela, not only to see whether this historic opportunity is seized, but how. MAS and Causa R represent two different styles of organizing and two distinct models of social transformation. MAS, which has its origins in the guerrilla struggles of the 1960s and the divisions in the old Communist Left, embodies a progressive democratic centralism: the management of society for the benefit of the people. Causa R, which has its origins in the struggles for internal democracy in the large and powerful steelworkers union, presents itself as more of a popular movement than a disciplined political party. It embodies a participatory, decentralized transformation of society from below.

MAS believes that an effective internally democratic Left can transform the state by making it accountable to an organized population. It believes, in turn, that only the state can transform the key institutions of the economic and social order, that the only reasonable goal for the Left is state power. It organizes to get elected. Causa R organizes for transformation itself. It acts on the belief that the state can be a catalyst for people's participation in—and transformation of—social institutions. Party leader Andrés Velásquez, as governor of the state of Bolivar, has emulated Causa R's union consultations in the workplace with a regular series of citizen consultations around the state. To institutionalize this practice, Causa R has proposed breaking down Venezuela's huge jurisdictions into smaller, more manageable units. MAS would confront the neoliberal onslaught with a more efficient and accountable state structure, and a better, more inclusive “safety net.” Causa R would confront neoliberalism with new forms of property. It would acknowledge the simultaneous creativity and disruptive inequality of market incentives by privatizing state property to cooperatives and workers' organizations.

The founders of MAS abandoned the armed struggle in 1969, and established a party to build socialism institution by institution, by majoritarian means. Influenced by the Eurocommumist idea of “historical compromise,” they have been flexible and pragmatic, often entering into policy alliances with members of AD and Copei to achieve immediate policy goals. Over the past 20 years, MAS has built itself into Venezuela's third party, frequently holding the balance of power in policy debates. Recently, the party has associated itself with the maverick 77-year-old Rafael Caldera, who was Venezuela's president from 1969 to 1974. Caldera, an old Copei stalwart who is the leading potential presidential candidate in all the polls, has moved sharply to the left. He has become one of the sharpest critics of the austerity and privatization measures undertaken by the Pérez government, and may have the backing of MAS if he attempts an independent campaign for the presidency.

Of course, in a situation in which average wages have fallen even lower than they were in 1972 (beforeVenezuela's oil bonanza), and where 30 to 40% of Venezuelan families cannot afford even a single meal a day, MAS and Causa R are not the only ones organizing to turn out the government in power. Last year on February 4 and again on November 27, army officers with an uncertain agenda and ambiguous political connections, let it be known that yet another model for Venezuela's future exists. Shorty after the first coup attempt, Caldera, among many others, went on television to call for Pérez' resignation. Parrying charges he was supporting the military plotters, Caldera said, “We're seeking a democratic solution to the Venezuelan crisis to avoid the increasingly stronger specter of a nondemocratic solution.” Caldera's—or any other—“democratic solution” must be both creative and radical enough to stave off the prospect of military rule. Crisis, as always, breeds opportunity. A Left that can offer credible alternatives to statist inefficiency, neoliberal inequality and military dictatorship might well carry the day.

—The NACLA staff and Board note with great sadness the death of Bob High, killed in a rafting accident in southern Chile in early January. Bob was an instrumental force in the Chile solidarity movement which developed in the United States in response to the overbrow of the Popular Unity government led by Salvador Allende. His intelligence, political insight, unbounded energy, and organizational skills were focused on building Non-Intervention in Chile (NICH), whose growth he guided for nearly a decade. When something had to be done, it was Bob to whom we all turned knowing that he would never say he was too busy—which, of course, he was. His wisdom, energy, love of life, and enormous decency enriched all who knew him, and he will be sorely missed. Bob High: Presente!


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