To read the mainstream Western press, one would think that Hugo Chávez won the 7 October election because he simply bought votes. Well, programmes delivering housing, cheap food and health care can indeed “buy” a lot of votes. Chávez won because more Venezuelans believed their needs would be taken into account by the incumbent than by Henrique Capriles.
Hugo Chávez faces two major challenges as he heads into a new six-year term. He must prepare for a transition of leadership, and he must institutionalise democratic procedures for appropriation and distribution of oil rents. These two tasks stand in a symbiotic relationship to one another. Neither will be easy to achieve, but both are essential to the consolidation of a more ambitious project to achieve “21st-century socialism”.
Chávez’ most radical supporters read into the vote a mandate to replace representative democracy with the communal state, i.e., to “re-engineer” the territorial state and diminish radically, if not abolish altogether, state and municipal authorities. The “communes” are councils composed of delegates from the grassroots communal councils. If built on the basis of genuinely democratic and transparent social organisations, the communes can indeed be a major step toward socialism. But should they replace states and municipalities? Is that what Venezuelans want?
Most of the country’s citizens, even with their deep mistrust of parties and politicians, are not prepared to abandon entirely institutions identified with pluralist democracy. While the opposition has lost another electoral round, by competing for power within the bounds of institutions created by the 1999 constitution it has reinforced that document. The hemispheric consensus that has permitted the founding of CELAC and UNASUR, as well as Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur, includes a degree of consensus for parliamentary norms, and so a constraint on a radical overhaul of state structures.
Venezuela remains a petrostate. In the unlikely event that it will develop a sustainable non-oil economy in the near future, the country requires strong institutions to regulate and oversee the country’s relations with foreign investors, key markets, and fellow oil exporting states. Among other things this means a strong oil ministry independent of PDVSA (the state oil company) and a national legislature capable of reviewing and passing judgment on oil policies – setting taxes and royalties, examining joint venture agreements, examining the terms of loans to the industry, setting production levels — that properly belong to the nation as owner of national resources.
What the country needs, then, is an effective synthesis of the principles underlying participatory democracy and representative democracy. This is Chávez’s last chance to use his charismatic authority to advance that goal. The president already has lost a major opportunity to strengthen the internal democratic structures of his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), by insisting on a clean and transparent process for selecting candidates for the state elections in December and municipal elections in April.
The imperative for institutionalising internal democracy in the PSUV is magnified by the number of potential successors to Chávez, a list that includes moderates and radicals, former military officers and labour leaders, politicians with a popular touch and others likely to have support from business sectors that have benefitted from stage patronage – the “Bolibourgeoisie.” It is not just a matter of holding primaries, but reducing the influence of patronage and corruption in party ranks.
Throughout his thirteen years as president, Chávez has wavered between portraying himself as the indispensable voice of the “people” and more modestly emphasising the responsibility of militants in the PSUV to carry out the task of building a participatory, solidarity-based social order. Even if he is truly cancer-free at this moment, the prospect of his mortality should raise in his own mind the prospect that the Bolivarian Revolution too may be mortal.