Struggle ahead for Venezuela's grassroots

January 15, 2016
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has called for street assemblies and meetings to reflect on changes needed and make proposal

Facing possible austerity and a return to neoliberalism at the hands of a right-wing parliament, will the millions involved in Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution that has cut poverty and empowered the poor radicalise further and protect their 15 years of gains? Or will this be the blow that finally dampens their revolutionary joy and collective ambition?

Although the right-wing, US-backed opposition won December 6 parliamentary elections, the Bolivarian revolution still has the presidency, most governors and mayors. However, much of the national decision making and resources has shifted to the right-wing elites.

This has already resulted in some interesting small shifts within the revolution, among the various forces that make up the Bolivarian movement: grassroots groups, genuine revolutionary leaders with institutional positions, and those in the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) whose commitment to the socialist project has been questioned.

After a call from President Nicolas Maduro, grassroots street assemblies were held around the country after the disappointing electoral defeat.

In Merida state, various PSUV leaders, including the governor, were nowhere to be seen at the assemblies. It was the persistent, honest, hardworking, largely unpaid grassroots activists and groups, such as Tatuy TV, the alternative school, feminist groups, the more progressive PSUV youth and communal council members who were — and continue to be — leading up these meetings and promoting their decisions.

Jessica Pernia, community television activist with Tatuy TV, told TeleSUR English about her concern that decisions of the assemblies would not be taken seriously by some state and government leaders. Pernia said the assemblies were a “bit of a show”, but she believes that “the people aren't stupid and maybe they'll be creative and something new will happen”.

The media activist and other organisers say that people like the Merida governor — whom they say is socialist in party membership but not in practice — now have less interest in promoting grassroots organising if it doesn't serve them electorally. Rather, some of those with institutional power but opportunist politics are likely to tone down their discourse or even pander to the right-wing.

Others however may continue to make symbolic and tokenistic gestures towards participatory democracy if faced with pressure from their workforce or electoral base. The genuine socialist leaders will seize the opportunity to radicalise their area of control.

The grassroots will have the important task of protesting the right-wing legislature's policies — something possibly more straight forward for these groups than it was to criticise the internal problems in the revolution.

Unfortunately, those groups will also face more difficult conditions, with the possible elimination of progressive laws (such as legislation facilitating community media). The role of the grassroots may also be obscured as the focus centres on everything the right-wing tries and manages to do, as well a possible presidential recall referendum and regional elections for state governors this year.

Given these challenges facing the future of the Bolivarian revolution, Maduro and outgoing National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello called the street assemblies, as well as a “national communal parliament” — drawn from communes being organised from the ground up across the country.

Nonetheless, the urgency of the situation meant that Cabello called for the communal parliament with little to no consultation with leaders from Venezuela's close to 1200 communes — a key element of the Bolivarian revolution's move towards “popular power”.

Maduro also approved a number of progressive laws and laws meant to preserve the Bolivarian revolution's many social programs.

Pernia celebrated new laws passed by the outgoing socialist national assembly, but expressed concern about them being approved at the “last minute”.

“We spent so much time working on the Popular Communication Law, systematising our conclusions and applying pressure, and how long ago was that? [Likewise] the seed law [that bans GMO seeds], and the Humanised Birthing Law.”

After 15 years of Chavismo and around a decade of government-backed progressive politics in some countries in Latin America, people are now more politically mature and demanding of their leaders. Many activists in Venezuela say that they need the revolution to be “deepened”, and that the same old progressive policies — for example wealth distribution measures — are not enough anymore.

“Many people have demanded that imports be nationalised, a budgetary system of financing … socialisation of the land and the whole process,” she said. Yet with privatisations on the table, while millions of activists would agree with Pernia, even the smallest demands beyond preserving old social gains are now going to become hard struggles.

Venezuela's grassroots have gained the experience to deal with the difficult struggles ahead, but many questions remain. With a potential upcoming recall referendum and governor elections this year, will the PSUV consolidate itself as mainly an electoral party, or will the grassroots play a greater role?

Will communal councils and communes strengthen themselves as decision-making powers in light of the loss of power of the national assembly and, if so, how will the right-wing react to that? How will the PSUV relate to them?

[Abridged from TeleSUR English.]

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