Our readers write: whither chavismo?

At the start of December, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez conceded defeat in his referendum on constitutional reform—but stated: “This is not a defeat. This is another ‘for now.'” The proposed amendments included some populist measures (formal prohibition of torture and incommunicado detention, reduction of the workday to six hours and prohibition of forced overtime, reduction of the voting age to 16, a social security program for “informal” workers) as well as some authoritarian ones (press censorship and suspension of habeas corpus in states of emergency, suspension of the presidency’s two-term limit, raising the signatures needed for presidential recall votes)—and some which were both populist and authoritarian (expropriation of private property by presidential decree, executive branch control over the central bank). There may be a paradoxical unity in these two faces of chavismo. As we asked our readers: “Should this be read as a carrot-and-stick tactic: wealth redistribution and social security guarantees to sweeten the pot as an authoritarian state is consolidated? Or are the populist and repressive measures more fundamentally unified: draconian measures will be necessary in order to effect the wealth redistribution—especially given the demonstrated putschist designs on Chávez by Washington and its local proxies?”

Our December issue featured two views on the referendum: a sympathetic one, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform: What’s at Stake,” by Sujatha Fernandes of ZNet; and a critical one from the Caracas anarchist journal El Libertario, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform: A Threat to What Was Won Through Struggle.” Our December Exit Poll was: “Is Hugo Chávez a heroic revolutionary socialist or pseudo-left aspiring tyrant?” The original text, sent to e-mail subscribers Dec. 1, when the referendum was pending, read: “Is the Venezuelan constitutional reform a great advance towards socialism or an ominous step towards dictatorship?” We received two responses:

From Tim Slater in Bavaria, Germany:

Neither, but a substantial increase in democracy.

From Kim Alphandary in San Diego:

Anything Chavez does is an advance towards socialism — he will not live forever, things need to get divided up quickly so that there will be enough time for it to take root.

WW4 Report replies: When Bush messes with habeas corpus, we are the first to protest it. Are such authoritarian measures warranted when in the defense of socialism rather than imperialism? Do we have the courage to make such a blunt argument openly? And in that case, shouldn’t we call a spade a spade and just say “advance towards socialism” rather than an “increase in democracy”? Can suspension of habeas corpus ever be an “increase in democracy”? And to make a more Marxist as opposed to liberal argument, can there really be a socialist state which has assumed power and rules through the structures of bourgeois democracy, without a real popular revolution or seizure of the means of production? Might there not be some legitimacy to El Libertario’s fears of a “Bolivarian bourgeoisie” which employs populist rhetoric while consolidating new elite control of Venezuela’s oil wealth?

Such criticisms have also been raised by indigenous peoples whose lands sit on mineral resources Chávez seeks to exploit.

In the current issue of Peacework, co-editor Sam Diener presents a compendium of unsettling press clips on Chávez’ authoritarian tendencies, entitled “Militarism in Venezuela: Warning Signs of Dictatorship?” It is worth checking out.

See our last post on Venezuela. See our last Exit Poll results.

  1. Let’s Support Democracy Across the Board
    When actions taken by a person in power concentrate authoritarian power even more, it’s not an advance towards democracy – and not an advance towards any kind of socialism worthy of the name. The claim that, “Anything Chavez does is an advance towards socialism” is a dangerous cult-of-personality style endorsement of dictatorship. I also think that portraying someone as a faultless hero is almost as dehumanizing of that person as portraying them as a demon.
    I think, Bill, that your questions
    “Are such authoritarian measures warranted when in the defense of socialism rather than imperialism? Do we have the courage to make such a blunt argument openly?”
    are deliberately provocative.
    As an advocate of democratic socialism (and an aspiring advocate of libertarian socialism), authoritarian measures can’t possibly be a “defense of socialism,” they are by definition an attack on it — and my guess is you agree with this.
    Similarly, I don’t think it takes much courage to bluntly endorse authoritarian measures in the name of expediency, especially when it’s not your rights which are being trampled. Sectarian (and many non-sectarian) leftists do it every day, the Democrats in the US constantly do it in the name of realpolitique (Carter in power vis a vis El Salvador, Philippines, and Indonesia/East Timor for example), and an overwhelming number of Republicans do it these days in defense of Bush’s monarchical power-grabs seemingly as easily as breathing. I too wish that folks would be more honest about this.
    (A longish aside about due process in the US: Am I just romanticizing the past, or weren’t there a large number of Republicans in and out of office who eventually, but while Nixon was still in office, repudiated Nixon’s crimes of Executive power? And how did it happen that the Democrats in the Congress of 1973, even though McGovern had just been thumped at the polls, had the courage and the commitment to Constitutional checks on presidential power so as to move to impeach Nixon?)
    Now, I do believe there’s a lot of exciting democracy building going on in Venezuela at the grassroots, and many of these folks are supporters of Chavez.
    Let’s continue the dialogue about these questions, both here, and I’ll invite you to read and respond to the articles on Venezuela on Peacework Magazine’s site.
    In Peace,
    Sam Diener
    Peacework Magazine Co-Editor