Mark Langhammer – National Executive member of the Irish Labour Party
At last Sunday’s Venezuelan election, the incumbent President, Hugo Chavez was re-elected by a long distance. Chavez won 62.89% of the vote ahead of his main rival, Manuel Rosales, who polled 36.85% with final results expected some time next week.
As I write, I can anticipate the US backed ‘line’ that the election was fraudulent, that there was intimidation at the polls etc etc. Being in Caracas for the week preceding the election has be a privilege. Large street rallies have been held, invariably good natured, with latin american salsa music to the fore, and a carnival atmosphere. Its like no election I’ve ever been involved in. Think of Andersonstown if Antrim won the all Ireland, or Derry City centre if the Candystripes won the EUFA cup and you’d be getting somewhere close. I toured a range of polling stations across Caracas – in both “Chavista” and opposition territories, and long queues at polling booths were orderly. Turn out was high at 75% and the electronic voting system has been reliable and has earned confidence – in contrast to the shambles in electronic voting introduced under the Fianna Fail administration in Ireland. Opposition turned out thousands on the Monday following the election to protest – I can only say that it looked like as fair an election as I’ve seen. Bin any propaganda you hear to the contrary.
Over the past week, our delegation has had a hectic programme of events, many laid on by Venezuelan National Assembly member, Augusto Montiel. I will report next week on the community health programmes the literacy and education ‘Missions’, the youthful socialist media information and television, the barrios self help and cultural work, as well as the development of community councils. On arrival, I spoke on national radio of the solidarity of labour and trade unionists from Ireland. We met senior officials planning the economy of the future. It is a vision of involvement at every level, from small business to worker management in large enterprises which puts the development of the human being at the centre of all things. The oil company PDVSA has an active role in promoting and funding social justice. Another highlight was a forensic lecture from lawyer Eva Golinger on the background and history of US efforts to destabilize the administration, based on her Freedom of Information searches and her book, “Breaking the Chavez Code” (ISBN 959-09-0307-X).
From literacy projects to self employment preparation, from neighbourhood soup kitchens, to the Co-Op food Mercals, the Bolivarian Revolution has activated a layer of the poorest in Venezuelan society. The result has been a popular, empowering and humane revolution – with a highly politicized, involved and active civil society. It is a society that people from Belfast will instantly recognize, but one which reaches from the bottom to the top of all planning – economic, political and social. As someone involved in political life for over 20 years it is without question, the most inspirational, dogma free, non ideologoical, practical and encouraging vision that I have ever witnessed.
The Chavez factor is important. Chavez is a highly effective communicator, at once evangelical and caring – a man with a “big heart”, someone who has touched a very deep well of need. He has long worked for civilian and military collaboration – from the socialist camp for sure, but reaching way beyond factions and party formations.
His appeal is only recently overtly socialist, but is primarily national – or Bolivarian. He preaches national sovereignty, Latin American solidarity and unity and has broached the issue of a Latin American NATO and a single regional currency and will work for a restoration of the 18th Century Gran Columbia (Colombian, Venezuela, Ecuador unity), linking with Cuba, Argentina and Brazil to form a bulwark against neo-liberal and USA interference (of which there is plenty). But it the manner in which he has connected and activated previously disengaged and impoverished sections of society – the indigenous peoples, the campesinos (small farmers, 10,000 of whom rode on horseback through Caracas last year in support of Chavez) and women in society that has made the difference. And race hate by the wealthy and white settler goes some way to explaining the fear felt for the Chavez administration (the economic interests of the wealthy have been left largely untouched). Repeated US backed efforts to destabilize this very democratic, grass roots development are lavishly funded.*
The political system in Venezuela from 1958 to 1998 was nominally democratic. The two main parties were the hegemonic Accion Democratica (which could be loosely termed as Social Democrats) and Copei (Christian Democrats). Through the pact of Punto Fijo both sought to limit opportunity for other political groupings. Both had vast memberships, as joining was a means of getting on, getting influence or getting a job. Accion Democratica, in particular, enjoyed cosy relations with the Confederacion de Trabajadores Venezolanos (CTV) union movement (which in part, was funded through the American Federation of Labour (AFLCIO).
Equally, Civil servants in the Ministries, including Education, would be largely comfortable with the status quo and resistant to change. It should be noted that the TUC has established fraternal relations with UMT, a new and rival union movement which – whilst not necessarily pro-Chavez – accepts and works within Venezuelan Constitution and democracy.
In the 1960’s and 70’s the governments undertook significant infrastructural improvements, but the mass of a poor society were largely disengaged from political life. The economy slumped in the 80’s and was subjected to brutal neo-liberal reforms which sharply affected the poorest. Chavez’s rise was linked to the gradual politicization and mobilization of a vast ‘underclass’ of the excluded. It should be noted, however, that although the administration is redistributing oil revenue in programmes for the poorest, the basic structure of the economy has not been radically altered, and Venezuela’s wealthy classes have remained largely untouched.