Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES — The defeat suffered by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) isn’t simply an electoral catastrophe. It is, first and foremost, another pivotal moment of the decline of the Chavista project.
This was a disruptive project, which emerged from the rubble of Venezuela’s elitist punto fijo (“fixed point”) pact. It called itself a revolution but, in fact, it did not substantially alter the country’s property or political structures. Though it claimed the epithet of “socialist,” 17 years after Chavez’ election, Venezuela continues to be a fully capitalist nation, and its political system – though espousing a constitution that is in many ways more advanced than those of its Latin American neighbors – never ceased to be, in essence, a liberal democracy.
Its disruptive aims were channeled down populist roads. It didn’t create the nation’s crisis – whose fundamental and critical signs were already evident in the order it sought to supersede – but it did worsen the existing crisis. It didn’t divide society – which was already starkly divided – but it transformed that objective division into the dynamic component of a foundational discourse that organized society into two camps: the people and the oligarchy. And it isn’t true that it redistributed the nation’s wealth (as bourgeois property was, for the most part, left untouched) – it merely distributed the surplus more widely.
Under such conditions, the fate of the so-called “Bolivarian revolution” was tied to two factors. The first was a charismatic and intelligent leader capable of capturing the people’s imagination. The second were high oil revenues. While Chavez was at the helm of government, backed by extraordinary fuel prices, everything moved smoothly: a wide range of social programs (the so-called “missions”) were established, jobs were created, housing was built and consumer items were imported en masse. This was what Chavez referred to as “oil-based socialism,” in much the same way Carlos Andres Perez had referred to his first, successful term as “oil-based democracy.” And Chavez managed to win one election after the other, by margins as overwhelming as 26%.
I do not believe Chavez’ populist option was Venezuela’s best alternative in terms of taking advantage of the oil boom. It would have been more reasonable to avail himself of those favorable circumstances to impel a more coherent economic and social development project. That said, I believe this option was far better than any other previously practiced in the country, such as what we saw in the 1970s, when a rise in oil prices served to spawn a new bourgeoisie and swell existing fortunes disproportionately, leaving Venezuela adrift in shameful levels of inequality, as evidenced by the coexistence of the poorest favelas with gated communities, where the Venezuelan bourgeoisie was building the best of its possible worlds. From those gated communities, they were probably still able to hear the bursts of gunfire that took the lives of thousands, among a people who, in 1989, decided to reclaim its place under the sun.
The 2004-2010 period was the golden age of the Chavista project, but its two pillars would not remain standing for much longer. As of 2009, the price of oil began to fluctuate downwards, and Chavez, terminally ill, held his last electoral campaign in 2012, when he won with a margin of 10%. What followed was the comedy that comes after the tragedy. Under Nicolas Maduro, an inept politician whose sole virtue was his apparent belief in his own nonsense – the regime began to show all its cracks. Corruption became more evident, the Bolivarian bourgeoisie became more scandalously wealthy, the streets became less safe, the chronic “Dutch disease” more harmful, and daily shortages and inflation – the ogre of the middle classes – more devastating.
The Venezuelans who voted en masse against the government didn’t do so in support of a specific political option, as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) gathers everything from center to passionate, far-right groups. It evidently voted – consciously or not – to put an end to a period of the nation’s history. The society that voted Sunday is not the same in which Chavez assembled his project. Within it, we’ve witnessed growing social mobility processes, a people that has learned to value the importance of socially-minded governments and has gained in self-esteem, and a changing elite. All of this has been accompanied by regrettable disruptions with no shortage of violence, ruptures and ostracism, but its positive social and political results are undeniable.
Though the government begrudgingly acknowledged its defeat, there is talk of heated internal disputes and a hardline sector headed by Diosdado Cabello, who seeks to deny the results. Ultimately, the government has recognized the MUD’s overwhelming victory. Let us hope that means that the elite’s Chavista sector has understood what it has refused to see until now: that Chavez’ project has passed. Now, it is a question of working towards a post-revolutionary institutionalization that will guarantee the maintenance of social and political achievements. To attempt to do more, to transform the defense of the interests of the new elite into a “patriotic cause,” would be to protract a morbid situation and bring about more violence in the name of a revolution that has ceased to exist.
Someone in the opposition spoke of reconciliation and of maintaining those social achievements. Let us hope that means the opposition has arrived at the right conclusions about the origins of this disruptive process, about the value of social justice and the cost of undertaking vendettas against the broad social sectors that saw Chavismo as a true alternative to the existing state of things and benefitted from its measures.
If that weren’t the case, I fear history will return to settle accounts. Poet Roque Dalton said it when he wrote of the planet-wide headache that afflicted humanity: people will always look for an aspirin the size of the sun.