Will the Dec. 6 Parliamentary Election in Venezuela determine the fate of Chavismo “21st century socialism”?
President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela faces probably the biggest challenge of his incumbency so far. Venezuelans will head to the polls on December 6 for the parliamentary election in which the Venezuelan opposition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD), could possibly gain control of the National Assembly. Since former President Hugo Chavez' death in 2013, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV) under the leadership of Nicolás Maduro has struggled to maintain the political support and popularity that his predecessor enjoyed for 15 years.
With economic turmoil and tumbling oil prices, Venezuela's Bolivar currency continues to plummet in value as the country is approaching hyperinflation territory. Venezuelans are also becoming more disillusioned with the economic and monetary policies of Nicolás Maduro’s government as they are experiencing chronic shortages and long lines for food products like milk, meat and coffee and consumer goods such as toilet paper and personal hygiene products.
There is absolutely no doubt that the current economic hardships faced by many Venezuelans are the direct result of political reactionary elements within the country that have continuously attempted to sabotage the democratic process and economy. These right-wing forces are mere puppets of US geopolitical and economic interests, receiving funding and support by the CIA and the US State Department. From the Bush Administration’s failed coup attempt of April 2002 to depose Hugo Chavez to the Obama Administration’s public announcement in March of “Venezuela being a threat to US national security”, US Imperialism is a deadly force to be reckoned with for the PSUV and all other progressive forces in the country.
Nicolás Maduro's electoral victory in the 2013 presidential election to Henrique Capriles Radonski fell on a very close margin of 1.5%. Can the United Socialist Party of Venezuela enjoy a similar fate in maintaining legislative control of the unicameral National Assembly?
The legacy of Bolivarianism in Venezuela still resonates substantially with millions of Venezuelans, especially those living in poor neighbourhoods (barrios) and the countryside. Inspired by the political aspirations of Hugo Chavez, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and Nicolás Maduro still enjoy substantial levels of support all throughout the country.
After winning democratic elections in 1998, former President Hugo Chavez and his Fifth Republic Movement began their mission to fighting extreme poverty, illiteracy and the vast inequalities that engulfed the country. Chavez instituted his “21st Century Socialism” in all spheres of Venezuelan society, the economy being the most fundamental indicator of this transition. His government achieved remarkable results in redistributing wealth through successful social policies, land reform programs and the provision of numerous government services.
Chavez’ fiscal and monetary policies also helped Venezuela attain economic sovereignty, predominantly via taking control of the state-owned oil industry and combating the US pursuit of free trade by instead fostering the economic integration of Latin America. The country’s oil industry is by far the clearest indicator of the leadership’s attempt to acquire economic sovereignty.
Historically speaking, the 1990s were characterized by the so-called Oil Opening which included strategic partnerships and operating agreements (mostly with American transnational companies such as Shell and Esso) aimed at privatizing Venezuela’s oil industry, PDVSA, which triggered big losses for Venezuela and its people. To review and correct the bad deals that were instigated within the framework of the Oil Opening, a new oil policy was adopted in 2004 to strive for “full oil sovereignty”. During the last decade, this process of gaining economic autonomy has produced outstanding results for the social integration of the Venezuelan people. Billions of dollars from oil revenues were used for social investment which greatly helped all sectors of the population, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Another historical event worth highlighting that clearly demonstrates the differences between Chavez and previous administrations was the neo-liberal reforms implemented in 1989. When Carlos Andres Perez became president in that year, Venezuela had close to $35 billion in foreign debt and consequently, a massive portion of the country’s revenue was used to finance that debt. At the time, President Perez had no choice but to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which mandated structural adjustment policies, most notably in neo-liberal economic restructuring and the reduction of government spending. This resulted in huge price increases and decreased state subsidies for public transportation among many other austerity measures. Perez’ Economic Adjustment Plan was simply referred to as the “Economic Package”. As it affected and hurt almost all Venezuelans, especially the poor, it provoked civil unrest in the form of protests, street violence and crime in massive proportions.
There is no question that the neo-liberal economic policies implemented by the Carlos Andres Perez administration (1989-1993) and also near the end of Rafael Caldera’s administration (1996-1998) had substantially contributed to the impoverishment in Venezuela due to the various privatization measures, decreases in social spending and increases in public service costs. Poverty itself had changed for the worst as it started affecting more and more of the middle class, never mind the poor. Thus poverty became more generalized and diversified as it encompassed more ethnically diverse groups. Public health care, for example, required patients to buy all treatment supplies while public education imposed registration fees for students and soaring costs for school supplies. These inequalities and social injustices had grown rampant due to the lack of effective and affordable public services and social safety net programs.
In contrast to Perez’ presidency, Chavez attempted to abrogate all neo-liberal reforms and unequal market allocations by implementing various intensive redistribution mechanisms. Government expenditures on health and education were dramatically increased (as a percentage of the national budget) and income tax collection facilitated the redistribution of wealth more than ever before.
One interesting form of redistribution worth discussing is the extensive micro-credit program which allows the poorest elements of the county to start their own micro-enterprises (given to one person or one family). To do this, the government created several micro-credit state banks including the Banco del Pueblo (People’s Bank), Fondo de Desarrollo Microfinanciero (Fund for Micro-Finance Development) and Banco de la Mujer (Women’s Bank). The rise in micro-finance projects has been astounding as demonstrated between 2004 and 2005 when private banks offered 140% more micro-credits having an aggregate value of $500 million in 2005. Out of the numerous redistribution mechanisms enacted by the former Chavez administration, the micro-credit program is one of the most successful in alleviating the poverty faced by millions of Venezuelans.
These particular forms of social investment have aimed to fully integrate and help the least well off segments of the population, predominantly minority groups such as women and Afro-Indigenous Venezuelans. Since former President Chavez assumed power in 1999, the economic downturn faced by millions of Venezuelans would change for the better. Women, for example, have greatly benefited by government-sponsored programs like the Madres del Barrio (Mothers of the Neighborhood) which fosters social inclusion and community development. Madres del Barrio offers women the tools and expertise to attain success personally and also economically by giving training, education and interest-free loans. Programs like this became extremely useful for women, especially those who have always worked inside the home.
Chavez’ creation of programs such as Mision Ribas and Barrio Adentro have greatly related to the concerns of women, especially in regards to health and education. Ordinary women from the barrios of Caracas have also engaged more in politics at the municipal or grassroots level. With these various programs and the general politicization of the female population in this all-encompassing movement, women from the barrios became a major component in the current Venezuelan urban social movements.
In regards to the social inclusion of the Afro-Indigenous population of Venezuela, Chavez signed a decree in 2011 to allow the enactment of the Organic Law against Racial Discrimination which stipulates conditions to address, stop, and punish all forms of racial discrimination. Chavez himself stated that Venezuelans are fighting for equality among all races of people, “We are all the same. There cannot be and we do not accept any kind of discrimination in socialist Venezuela.”
The Bolivarian Revolution has politically mobilized the poorest elements of Venezuelan society resulting in an overwhelmingly popular and empowering political vision for the country. Chavez relentlessly advocated national sovereignty and Latin American solidarity against neo-liberal interference, predominantly from the US. In the process, he involved and activated previously disjointed and poverty stricken segments of society (women, indigenous people and small farmers, etc.) and successfully politicized and incorporated them into political life.