Overlooking the mass of revellers outside the Presidential Palace at 5am
August 16th, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías made the declaration
his followers were waiting for: "The recall referendum was not just a
on Hugo Chávez," he announced, speaking in the third person, "it was a
referendum of the revolutionary process, and a majority of Venezuelans
articulated their support! It is time to deepen the revolution!"
Thus, Venezuela's experiment in revolution has entered a new phase. The
reaffirmation (as Chavistas have begun calling the recall referendum) of
Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution by 60% of the population marks a
moment in the evolution of radical politics in Venezuela. Never before
Chávez or 'el proceso' been so widely supported in Venezuela, nor so
accepted - albeit reluctantly - by the international community.
For many, the upcoming regional elections, now tentatively scheduled for
late-October, provide the first opportunity to deepen the revolution.
momentum from the referendum and the opposition in disarray, Chavista
have the potential to gain important political territory.
Many current members of the opposition in key positions were originally
as Chavista candidates in the regional elections of 2000, only to switch
in 2002-03 when they felt the political winds turning against Chávez.
guessed wrong, and may now lose their posts for their base opportunism.
Yet Chavistas stand to do more than merely re-gain positions that
been theirs for the last 4 years. The 'No' vote in last month's
vote against recalling Chávez-won in 23 of 24 states, including the 8
currently governed by the opposition, though the vote was close in some
If those who voted 'No' in August, will vote for the Chavista candidate
October, this will reinforce the threat to the opposition in these
Yet it is appearing more and more that this may not necessarily be the
Though the opposition as a national conglomeration of anti-Chavists was
defeated in the referendum, individual candidates for governor and mayor
maintain local support. Furthermore, while a large percentage of
likely vote for the official candidate in the regional elections, there
an unknown number of Chávez-supporters, varying greatly from community
community, who may not.
This is a problem with roots deep in the gestation of the practical
defensive-politics that have necessarily dominated in Venezuela since
attempted coup against Chávez in April 2002 (if not before). During the
when the Venezuelan people flooded the streets all over the country, and
hundreds-of-thousands surrounded the palace to demand Chávez' return, a
siege-mentality set in. This mentality was further entrenched in the
months when Venezuela's economy was effectively (if temporarily)
the oil-industry shut-down.
The threat to the Bolivarian revolution was especially grave since this
strike" was led by the communion of Venezuela's corporatist union
the CTV, and the largest Chamber of Commerce federation; between the two
they were able to effectively shut down oil production for several
2003. No one, least of all the Venezuelan people benefiting from this
revolution, doubted the centrality of oil wealth in making 'el proceso'
The opposition's identification of Chávez as the embodiment of
they associate with this revolution, had the effect of confirming his
and his messianistic status in the eyes of his followers. It was the
mobilization of 'Chavistas' that deflected or reversed the constant
Chávez beginning with the 2002 coup. The effect has been to create a
and increasingly radicalized people, who are nevertheless Chavistas
Chavez has well understood the danger to the revolution posed by this
overemphasis of his own role. Since he came to power his administration
Bolivarian project has aimed at providing people with the tools to carve
autonomous, bottom-up path for the revolution. Thus, his focus on
which gives all Venezuelans access from basic literacy to university;
his emphasis on community-based power structures.
Yet in the heat of the battle over the last five years, much of this
community-based power structures was put on hold-there were serious
the revolution itself that understandably took precedence. Moreover,
immediacy of facing these threats required-in certain instances-Chávez'
unfiltered leadership. And of course, there is the reality of the
revolution still being based on a capitalist state that more than
continued to resemble the corrupt, paralyzed bureaucracy of the pre-1998
republic) Venezuelan state.
The Current Juncture
How to move beyond the barriers that have so far limited the Bolivarian
How to deepen the revolution even in the context of continuing threats
How to transcend the pattern of going from one electoral test to the
favor of permanent revolutionary creativity?
On August 20th, William Izarra-head of the ideology wing of Comando
the campaign coordination team-held a conference entitled "Deepening the
Bolivarian Revolution." When asked what the role of the Electoral
(UBE) and the 'Patrols' (groups of activists campaigning for the 'No'
the referendum) would be now that the referendum was over, Izarra
"Right now we don't have any specifics, but the patrols and the UBEs
continue as electoral battalions. More than that, it is not yet
don't have more specifics."
Yet the members of the UBEs and the patrols are not waiting for the
Comando Maisanta to give them direction-the answers to the above
being debated now, in communities across the country. And what
consensus has so
far emerged appears to be clear on at least one front: any deepening of
democracy must begin now; it cannot wait for after the regional
As a result, a series of plans are emerging as to how to create the
participatory structures and coordination that will form the foundation
which this new stage of the revolution is launched. This debate has
a special urgency due to conflicts surrounding candidates in the
elections-with disagreement over municipal candidates front-and-centre.
The experience of the 2000 regional elections clarified for many the
need for an
alternative, consistent method of selecting candidates. Yet last April
election date was declared (though the date has since been changed
instead of primaries, candidates were selected by the Comando Ayacucho -
disastrous predecessor to the Comando Maisanta. The need for primaries
raised, due to the Comando's apparent preference for candidates that
fit their rigid definition of chavismo, as opposed to those candidates
actually have a base in the communities in question. As a result many
candidates decided to run anyway-on a Chavista platform, but against the
official Chavista candidates.
In order for the Chavistas to take full advantage of the regional
unity is key. To avoid splitting the vote another mechanism for
candidates must be developed (and implemented). Unfortunately, instead
learning from the reluctance of the base and their candidates to give up
electoral ambitions simply because the Comando Ayacucho told them to,
seems to be repeating the same mistake. In last Sunday's weekly
address Alô Presidente, Chávez declared "We have already announced the
candidates, and these are the candidates. Those who don't want unity
the escualidos (opposition)."
Meanwhile several exciting, innovative examples of grassroots
emerging to solve this problem. Below, two brief examples illustrate
In one municipality in the interior in which various Chavista
decided to work together to consult the community, they created a
made up of agreed-upon members to organize the following three-stage
First, they would call a popular assembly in which each candidate would
his platform to the public. Second, they would conduct a poll, which
time constraints, would be limited to those sectors who had shown the
levels of support for Chávez in the referendum. Third, they would call
popular assembly in which supporters of each candidate would make a
presentation to give the commission an idea of each candidate's
Only after this process of consultation would the commission evaluate
results of each stage of the process, and pronounce in favour of a
candidate, at which point the remaining members would be incorporated
winner's campaign to foster unity.
The second example comes from a Caracas-barrio, and Chavista-bastion.
residents decided to support the official Chavista candidate, but
They have planned the "First Municipal Forum of Popular Participation:
Constructing Popular Power," a 3-day conference at which
conduct a series of workshops and hold debates designed to produce a
outlining the specific advances in popular power deemed most pressing.
manifesto will then be presented to the official Chavista candidate to
a condition for the support of the community.
Closing the Gap
Yet Chávez's most recent declaration seems to contradict these vibrant
of participatory consultative politics. And the existence of other such
experiments in institutionalizing popular participation in the selection
candidates suggests a dangerous disconnect between Chávez and his
This disconnect is not entirely new; it has existed in one form or
Chávez first came to power. However, the debate over the regional
well be the first time it is forcefully vocalized. If the goal is to
participatory politics that form the rhetorical basis of the Bolivarian
revolution-indeed to transfer these politics from rhetoric to
is no choice but to support each individual community's right to choose
own candidate (just as it is their right to vote for or against that
Up until last Sunday's program, Chávez was more aware of the abyss
him from his people than anyone. The very idea of a democratic
that, at least initially, all that is achieved with an electoral victory
leadership of the state. But it doesn't yet suggest, nor is it possible
to yet include, fundamental change in the state itself. Transforming
is perhaps the most strategic accomplishment the revolution can hope to
and it is one that will remain out of reach until the Venezuelan people
been mobilized to having fully institutionalized their right to
politics at every level of government-and beyond. That is to say, until
have internalized their right to participate in politics not only at the
of their community, state, or nation; but also at a regional, and even
Every advance in participatory democracy since Chávez was elected-and
often been realized through his direct influence-was designed to close
The educational, health, and employment missions all represent a form of
'parallelism' designed to bypass existing state structures that are
intrinsically unable to act as conduits for revolutionary
If that pattern is to continue, the debate over candidates demands
articulation, and official response. As the arena in which this debate
likely play out, the upcoming regional elections may, ironically,
most profound test of the Bolivarian revolution since the April 2002
for Venezuelan society as a whole, but as a focal point of debates
within Chavismo. At stake is the Bolivarian revolution's ability to transcend
defending Chávez, in favour of advancing the revolution itself; to make
transition from one stage in the revolution to another; to move from