In recent times both the United States media and the right-wing Venezuela’s ruling elite mouthpieces have been attacking President Hugo Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms under the banner “21st Century Socialism.” Mr. Chavez has been packaging himself as a new, younger and modern version of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and wrapping himself in the supposed cloak of scientific socialism. His proposed reforms come after a long line of left-sounding, anti-imperialist and inflammatory rhetoric that helped boost his international stature as a staunch anti-American socialist and defender of the common man.
I admire Mr. Chavez’s guts and gumption. I like his political brashness and in-your-face style and there is no doubt that he’s a populist president who has the love and admiration of Venezuela’s suffering poor. But Hugo Chavez is no socialist. Maybe that may sound treasonous to his many supporters but the basis for my conclusion is an examination of the very set of constitutional reforms that he’s proposed as necessary to build socialism.
First of all the reforms do not empower the working class and poor as called for under genuine socialism. While Mr. Chavez talks about “people’s power” and call in his reforms for the setting up of communal councils as a form of local government these organs will not be developed from conditions on the ground and the dynamics of the relationships between the haves and the have nots but from the top down. Thus, once opertionalized these grassroots groupings will be controlled, bankrolled, and dependent on the new political ruling class now being created by Mr. Chavez.
And this points to a serious danger to the Venezuelan body politic and poses grim repercussions for the working class and its allies in particular with the potential of these reforms to entrench, strengthen and nurture a new ruling class created and birthed by Mr. Chavez himself. This new class while spouting the rhetoric of socialism and cloaking itself in its tenets will practice just the opposite and will ultimately be just another tool of repression that hinders and obstructs the progressive movement of Venezuela’s toiling masses for equality and social justice that has been denied them for so long.
Indeed, socialism must be seen through the eyes of the workers, their relations to the means of production, and the nature of their struggles on the ground for equality and social and economic justice. Mr. Chavez’s brand of socialism is to cunningly utilize populist agitation to arouse the poor using their well founded and legitimate problems as fodder for his bully pulpit. He’s also in a pitched battle with Venezuela’s traditional old ruling elites that he’s enraged since taking power. Their agenda is simple: a return to the old days of unrestrained plunder and oppression and a rekindled love affair with Washington.
So for all their patriotic talk and opposition to the Chavez proposed reforms they hate Venezuela’s “unwashed” masses as much as the “new elite” - those concealing their disdain for Mr. Chavez’s struggling masses and who now surround the enigmatic president. The old Venezuelan oligarchy is fearful of the reforms because they will give Mr. Chavez dictatorial powers and wider unfettered control of all aspects of life in the country. That kind of power they want for themselves and the crux of their outrage is not about Venezuelan democracy or protection of the people but who gets this power.
This group has mobilized demonstrations against the Chavez reforms and amendments that have comprised mainly elements of the upper middle class who also see their fortunes being placed in jeopardy if Mr. Chavez gets his way. The oligarchy has also been successful in pulling a large number of students on to the streets many of who come from the privileged sections of Venezuela’s middle and upper classes. These elements are defending their future class interests and have been the most treacherous elements in Venezuelan society having one foot in the working class camp and the other in the upper class sections of the society.
For the old privileged ruling elite these public displays are crucial to securing the backing of the international community that sees Mr. Chavez as an annoying presence. It is the actions of this group that gets international attention and media coverage that conveniently forgets that these classes are the ones that have historically visited untold misery on the lives of ordinary Venezuelans, have supported military coups and counter-coups, and have absolutely no love for genuine democracy or what Mr. Chavez calls “people’s power.”
Heightening the tension is the fact that other privileged sections of the Venezuelan society have aligned themselves with the old Oligarchy. For example, Mr. Chavez faces intense criticism and opposition from the religious community, especially the Catholic Church that has been highly critical of his reforms calling them immoral. This is designed to sway the predominately Roman Catholic populace into rejecting Mr. Chavez’s reforms without giving any reasons for a “no vote” except that these reforms are “immoral.”
Other sections of the ruling classes have been branding Mr. Chavez as “a communist” aimed at whipping up a “red scare” in the country using local media to get this message out. Through it all Mr. Chavez has stuck to his guns defending the reforms and calling them necessary to build “21st Century socialism.” Let me be clear: absolutely nothing in Mr. Chavez’s reforms plans is about socialism or builds socialism. The claim is bogus, misleading and utterly without foundation or merit. It is patently dishonest.
First and foremost one cannot build socialism on paper or by creating a new set of legal constructs that claim on the surface to protect workers from abuse and oppression. Only by empowering the people can any system – socialism included – be built and defended. So that reform promises to implement a six-hour work day and writing it into the constitution does not guarantee that it will happen because there many variables to consider.
And most of the proposed changes have very little to do with empowering the people or changing the present capitalist system – an essential and indispensable requirement if, as Mr. Chavez says, he wants to implement “21st century socialism.” In fact, most of the reforms have to do with the widening and amassing of more presidential powers that will make Mr. Chavez another of South America’s strutting generalissimos.
Should these reforms be enacted what Venezuela would have done is replace one ruling class with another – an old, moribund oligarchy with a new, modern business savvy bourgeois regime that only differs in the way that it exploits the poor and working classes and appropriates the profits of the state for its personal use.
By approving an amendment to the constitution to extend presidential terms in office from six to seven years and allow for unlimited “elections for life” these reforms are designed to keep Mr. Chavez in power and ensure that if and when he decides to demit office he will hand-pick a successor thus guaranteeing that he will never be held accountable for excesses committed while in office. It also means that personal wealth amassed while in office would not be questioned or queried.
Then there is the reform proposal to give the president more authority and control over the military. Mr. Chavez wants to be able to promote, if he feels like it, all the members of the officer corps. Needless to say such a move would subject the military to a new round of cronyism, nepotism and patronage that can and will corrupt the officer corps and undermine morale and discipline. It also says that Mr. Chavez does not trust his military and wants to put in place only his loyalists – something that could result in a counter-productive purge and create the conditions for a military coup.
Finally, and most alarming Mr. Chavez want the power to create by decree and legal gerrymandering any local, state or federal province that he alone sees fit without the bothersome technique of a local referendum. Mr. Chavez’s socialism, it seems, is a personal thing that now makes him all-powerful. Such disdain and top-down behavior rejects the notion of a creative masses and their ability to enact progressive change – another bedrock principle of socialism.