On August 30 the newly established Constituent Assembly, originally charged with rewriting the constitution, took away the powers of the existing Congress, dominated by the two former ruling parties. Chávez has asked the assembly, made up overwhelmingly of members of his Fifth Republic Movement, to present a draft constitution by the end of October. Earlier in August, the new body also took over the functions of Venezuela's judiciary.
Hugo Chávez's rise to political prominence is the product of the extreme social crisis and turmoil, the discrediting of all the traditional bourgeois institutions, and the lack of working-class leadership that has marked Venezuela over the past two decades.
Chávez is a classic Bonapartist politician — a figure who, in times of sharp crisis, presents himself as the "man of destiny" who can stand above social classes and the muck of traditional politics to rescue the nation and bring social peace, even at the expense of parliamentary democracy. Such figures, who are often tied to sections of the military, especially the elite forces, try to whip up popular consent through occasional plebiscites and referendums. The job of the Bonapartist leader, however, is to stabilize the rule of the dominant social layer — in this case the Venezuelan capitalist class.
Throughout the 1970s Venezuela's economy boomed, driven by revenue from the oil industry, nationalized by the social democratic regime of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Venezuela has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, after the Arab-Persian Gulf region. During that period, urban and rural toilers wrested a number of social benefits from the Pérez government.
At the onset of the worldwide economic depression in the late '80s, oil prices fell drastically and Pérez began a "free market" austerity drive to appease the International Monetary Fund and capitalist investors. The social democratic government slashed social services and cut subsidies on basic necessities, from food to electricity. Gasoline prices vaulted by 80 percent. Unemployment rose to an official level of 30 percent.
These measures sparked antigovernment protests by tens of thousands of people in February 1989. The Pérez administration responded with a bloodbath, deploying cops and troops who slaughtered as many as several thousand people. Protests continued over the next several years. The class-collaborationist leadership of the trade unions, however, was incapable of leading a fight to combat the effects of the social crisis.
In midst of this social turmoil and impasse between the ruling class and working people, Col. Hugo Chávez led other lower-echelon members of the officer corps in a coup against the Pérez government in February 1992. The coup plotters won sympathy but sought and drew no participation from workers or peasants. This coup was put down by a hated and discredited government, and Chávez went to jail a hero.
Less than a year later the social democratic president was impeached on corruption charges and removed. The ruling class recycled a former president, Rafael Caldera, who ran on a demagogic "anticorruption" and "independent" platform. Soon after his inauguration, however, Caldera declared an "economic emergency," suspended the constitution, and cracked down on working people.
Chávez, released from prison in 1994, became a pole of attraction to broad layers of the middle class and working people. Presenting himself as "the voice of the dispossessed," he railed against the social democratic Democratic Action and the Social Christian COPEI parties — the two capitalist parties that for 40 years have alternated rule over Venezuela's 24 million inhabitants — for their rampant misuse of the national wealth and governmental powers. In last year's presidential elections he won a resounding 57 percent of the vote, while the other parties shattered at the polls.
In his election campaign Chávez pushed for a referendum to elect a body that could rewrite and democratize the nation's constitution. The National Constituent Assembly was elected in July. Ninety-five percent of the assembly delegates are members of the Patriotic Pole, Chávez's electoral supporters.
On August 23 the Assembly decreed a "legislative emergency," nullifying the powers of Congress and suspending all of its "ordinary and special sessions." A week earlier, it carried out a similar move against the Supreme Court by declaring a "judiciary emergency."
"Here in Venezuela, political cliques of old — political cliques that are disappearing, thank God — emerged and became embedded in the system and manipulated all levels of power. Very small groups of Venezuelans controlled the executive, legislative and judicial branches," Chávez stated in an August 27 speech, justifying the moves against the legislature and courts.
Manuel Quijada, a lawyer whom the assembly put in charge of a special commission to purge the courts, warned, "The objective is that the substitution of judges take place peacefully, but if the courts refuse to acknowledge the assembly's authority, we will proceed in a different fashion."
These moves threw former government officials and supporters of the two opposition parties into a tizzy. Supreme Court chief justice Cecilia Sosa resigned in protest the day after the court ratified the Constituent Assembly's assumption of its powers. So far at least 22 judges have been fired by the assembly, with more than 3,000 awaiting investigation on corruption charges.
A few days later legislators from both traditional parties, chanting "Democracy yes, dictatorship no," tried to break into the locked parliament building and reconvene the body in defiance of the Constituent Assembly. They clashed with Chávez supporters blocking their way.
The Chávez government deployed the National Guard against the protesters, some of whom were reportedly carrying sticks. The Caracas cops had tear-gassed and blasted protesters with water cannon before the troops were called. Chávez used the confrontation to further discredit the opposition politicians, accusing them of trying to "cause a tempest in a teapot."
Polls indicate that 94 percent of Venezuelans distrust the judiciary. This hatred of the established political leaders, in the absence of a fighting working-class leadership, has boosted Chávez's cultivated image as a savior and champion of the downtrodden. "He is the way of light and salvation… President Comandante Chávez," read a pre-printed poster carried by supporters at an August rally.
"I voted many times for Democratic Action and almost considered myself to be a member of the party," said Félix Contreras, a truck driver. "But they turned out to be a mafia that ruled the country for their own benefit and cared more about themselves than about us, the people."
Venezuela's economic situation has been rosy for a few wealthy families and foreign investors, but grim for the overwhelming majority. The single largest drain on the national economy is the $23 billion debt owed primarily to imperialist creditors, which swallows up about 40 percent of the country's budget.
The economy shrank by 9.3 percent in the first quarter of this year and 9.6 in the most recent quarter compared to a year ago, despite a recovery in oil export prices. Official unemployment stands at more than 17 percent, with 600,000 workers thrown into the streets since the new administration came into office. Some 800 companies have gone bankrupt this year. Eighty percent of the population lives below the official poverty line.
In face of the high expectations millions of Venezuelans have in the new regime, some limited development projects have been carried out, largely by allocating funds to the military as part of Chávez's "Bolívar 2000," which draws on the image of Simón Bolívar, the 19th century Venezuelan national hero and military-political leader. Tens of thousands of soldiers have fanned out across the country to help in public works such as repairing some roads. Some 4,000 schools, hospitals, medical centers, and shelters have been repaired. Two million children have been vaccinated against polio, and school enrollment has increased by 25 percent.
Courting the support of impoverished middle-class layers, the president announced the establishment of a state-owned People's Bank, which is supposed to make loans ranging from $160 to $8,000 for periods of up to a year.
Chávez does a two-hour radio talk show every Sunday called "Hello President." People call in seeking solutions to their individual problems, which Chávez says he will respond to. One 72-year-old retired bus driver, Pedro Marrero, called in recently to explain that his monthly $150 pension was not enough to live on. Chávez responded, "We have to do away with this," declaring it unfair that, in contrast, some top executives of the state oil company retire with $25,000 a month.
A number of calls like this are taken, and then "follow-up dossiers" for each complaint are reportedly drawn up. "We're going to check it out," the president tells callers.
One target of the government has been the discredited officialdom of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV), which is closely tied to the main bourgeois parties.
Pro-Chávez forces have set up a new labor formation, the Workers Constituent Front, to undercut the CTV. Leaders of the front have asked the Constituent Assembly to dissolve the CTV under the cover of a referendum by workers. The Chávez leadership's attacks on the established union officialdom for corruption, even in the guise of a referendum, are a serious threat to any efforts by the ranks of the labor movement to organize independently of the regime.
Both Chávez and his fellow Bonapartist ruler, President Alberto Fujimori of Peru, have won popular support by posing as outsiders taking on the corrupt establishment and cutting through the bureaucracy to bring stability. Both, for example, have attacked Congress and the courts. But while Fujimori, in waging an "antiterrorist" campaign against antigovernment guerrillas and launching harsh austerity measures, has taken a more openly rightist stance, Chávez has so far sought to present a more "left" image.
The Venezuelan president has co-opted leaders of leftist organizations into his government, and has publicly cultivated his personal contacts with Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
Chávez told a United Nations audience during a recent trip to New York, "Neither the economic model of state socialism…nor the other model of individualistic capitalism and the model of savage capitalism is what we see as the model."
At the same time, the regime, like other capitalist governments throughout Latin America, is seeking to open up the country to further penetration by foreign capitalists. Santander Investment vice president Ricardo Penfold noted that Chávez has proven orthodox on economic policy. Before the elections, he said, "People were talking about exchange controls, price controls, and huge salary increases" for workers. None of this came about, he noted. "Chávez on the fiscal side has been pretty responsible."
Washington and other imperialist governments, despite their discomfort with his seeming unpredictability, has so far viewed Chávez as someone they can work with. On September 23, the Venezuelan leader returned from a trip to New York and Washington designed to reassure U.S. government officials and businessmen. "We feel more confident about him now," said Buddy MacKay, the White House special envoy to the Americas.
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