The defeat of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the National Assembly elections of 6 December last year came as a shock for much of the left internationally, and has led to a wave of soul searching.
The conservative opposition coalition—the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)—not only won the poll, it stormed in to narrowly claim a two-thirds “super majority”, taking 112 out of 167 seats.
This potentially gives the right—the same neo-liberal elites who attempted to topple Hugo Chávez via a coup in 2002—the power to tear up the constitution and initiate a recall election against President Nicolás Maduro before his term ends in 2019.
The right’s “super majority” hit a snag when the Supreme Court barred the swearing in of four elected members from Amazonas state until an investigation into reports of vote-buying is complete, and declared the National Assembly’s decisions “void” after it defied this initial ruling.
However, this standoff cannot disguise the scale of the setback for the Bolivarian Revolution. Since coming to power in 1998, Chávez and his supporters had won 18 elections out of 20, often with large majorities.
Chavez’s social programs around literacy, housing and health improved the lives of millions of Venezuela’s workers and urban poor.
After 2005 there was much excitement when Chávez called for a debate around what “21st century socialism” might look like. And internationally Venezuela formed strong relations with other left governments in Latin America, and became an irritant for US imperialism.
So how could such a popular project have lost so many votes, including from its own support base?
Firstly, the country’s faces serious economic problems. Inflation and shortages mean life for the poor, the revolution’s most staunch supporters, is increasingly a struggle.
With official inflation reaching up to 200 per cent per month, the cost of a basic food basket for a family of five is equivalent to ten times the minimum wage. Sometimes products like coffee, rice and milk are not available at all.
Profiteers exploited this situation by seeking to monopolise products, create shortages, and raise prices. When these products reappeared in supermarkets, huge queues formed and stocks quickly sold out. And although the government sought to impose “fair prices”, most people were forced to rely on “resellers”, who would ask for four or five times the official price.
On top of this economic insecurity, the growth in violent crime has created a strong sense of personal insecurity which the right sought to exploit.
Chávez’s social programs were made possible because of revenue from the country’s massive oil reserves. The wealth of local elites stayed largely intact, and there was no mass expropriation.
But the collapse of global oil prices from $140 a barrel to under $40 in recent years drastically reduced state revenues, which in turn cut into these social programs.
The Bolivarian revolution has never been controlled from below by Venezuela’s workers and the poor. Instead those around Chavez sought to use state structures from above to address poverty.
Bureaucratisation around the ruling PSUV has created increasing corruption among government officials, increasingly referred to as the “Bolivarian bourgeoisie”.
Many people asked how it was possible for the people’s government to permit corruption that allowed some “revolutionary” leaders to enrich themselves. They asked how it was possible that $300 billion could disappear without a reaction, or how the former head of the state oil company could suddenly leave the country with vast quantities of money in foreign banks.
They asked how food, medicine, and petrol could cross the border with Colombia while the government, the army and the National Guard turned a blind eye?
When two of Maduro’s own nephews were caught trafficking drugs, for many this was the last straw.
As Gonzalo Gómez of Marea Socialista, a small socialist group that has criticised the government from the left argues: “There are two enemies of the revolution: the bureaucracy and capital. They are two sides of the same capitalist coin at this point. Both compete against each other electorally, but share their briefcases under the table.”
The right fed off the fear, the weariness and disillusionment of the masses. However, their agenda will be to roll back the social and political gains made over the past 17 years.
To prevent this, there needs to be a revival in mass popular struggle, to impose real control from below over the Bolivarian revolution. Without such an upsurge from the masses, the revolution faces an uncertain future.
By Mark Goudkamp