Venezuela’s President Chávez was re-elected last Sunday after 13 years in power with 55% of the vote on an incredible 80% turnout. Confounding expectations in the Western press that the election was going to be close, he cleared the opposition candidate by 11 points and actually managed to increase his number of supporters by 830,000 on the previous election win in 2006.
The reasons for this are hard to understand if only Western media sources are relied on (including the Guardian), where Chávez is usually painted in lurid colours as an antiquated caudillo, presiding over a country in crisis.
The only way it is then possible to explain his continued success is by condemning him as a populist. A term that in academia is often criticized for its notorious vagueness, but which has a commonsensical meaning in the press of a demagogic leader who fires up a multitude of dupes either through the force of personality and/or through clientelism. This view echoes the views of the Venezuelan elite; a wealthy friend of mine from Maracaibo, the heartland of the Venezuelan opposition, argued to me that the re-election of Chávez was down to a “cult of personality”.
This view does not tally with the Venezuelan supporters of Chávez that I have met. Far from being dupes there are concrete reasons why they vote for him and his project. In fact one can easily reel off statistics that demonstrate the substantial and positive changes that have occurred in Venezuela since Chávez was first elected.
In 2003 Chávez and the oil workers wrestled control of the PDVSA, the national oil company, from the clique that controlled it before and redirected its income towards social programmes and national development. Social spending per capita has increased by 314 per cent in real terms. The poverty rate has halved and the Gini coefficient dropped by 21 per cent since 1999, which is by far the sharpest fall in income inequality in Latin America. Massive expansions of public health and education services have also taken place, with many people in the poor “barrios” or slums receiving access to these services for the first time.
But the most important achievement of Chávez is the dynamic relationship that he has maintained with the social movements. Rather than using the social movements as an electoral vehicle, he retained his links with them after he was elected and devolved real power to them by emphasising popular participation and “protagonism” in all of the social programmes that his government has implemented.
A notable recent example of this protagonism is in the “Great Housing Mission”, a social programme which since it was launched in April 2011 has already seen the construction of 250,000 affordable homes. The government provided the resources but the community councils, local institutions based on participatory democracy, have control over the implementation of the project. This empowering of people to make real decisions over their own communities is crucial for any sustained left-wing political project and has allowed the Chávez camp to renew itself in government.
Of course not everything is rosy—or even rojo-rojito—in Venezuela. Just like any process of historical transformation there are contradictions and problems. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world and inflation, while lower than during the 1990s, is higher than in comparable Latin American countries. Both of problems have been the target of new government programmes and, especially the former, do show signs of improvement.
Another problem is the level of bureaucratisation of the governing party, which is often failing to live up to the participatory democratic ideals enshrined in its constitution.
This criticism was frequently mentioned to me by activists in Bolívar State, where the regional party elites—despite Chávez’s vocal support for workers’ control—are an important block on the workers’ movement for the socialisation of production. Failure to confront this problem remains the biggest threat to the continuance of the revolution and poses a threat to the success of the government candidates in the regional elections in December.
Despite these difficulties, the Bolivarian Revolution is probably the most exciting process of social transformation in the world today and should be shown solidarity by all progressive activists in other countries.