Addressing the founding congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) on March 2, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez proclaimed the new party to be "a party for the social battle, for the defense of the homeland".
"If the homeland, the revolution were ... attacked in a direct manner by the empire or its lackeys, each militant of this party should convert themselves into a revolutionary soldier ..."
"The PSUV is born, destined to make history", Chavez said of the party whose creation he called for in December 2006 to unite the various groups and mass base among the poor that support the revolution. "Its fundamental role is to be ... the biggest guarantee of [the revolution's] permanence."
That same weekend, 1,600 delegates at the founding congress approved the program and declaration of principles of the new party. The previous weekend Chavez was elected president of the party and the congress granted him the power to appoint five vice presidents, the first of which is retired General Alberto Muller Rojas.
Then on March 9, over 90,000 spokespeople, alternative spokespeople and the five heads of commissions elected from each of the more than 12,000 battalions (branches) participated in the election for the 15-person national directorate, as well as 15 alternative delegates to that body.
Speaking to Green Left Weekly, Muller Rojas explained that "the party was a political necessity" for Venezuela's revolutionary process.
A veteran revolutionary, Muller Rojas headed Chavez's successful 1998 presidential campaign. Muller Rojas was appointed to the technical commission to help create the PSUV when it was first initiated.
Describing Chavez's old party, the Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR), as an "electoral club with diverse interests", Muller stated that until now "no structured force, with clearly marked out political objectives [and] which united" all pro-Chavez forces had existed in the revolution.
Between April and June of 2007, some 5.7 million people signed up to join the new party, an expression of popular enthusiasm for a political instrument to serve the revolution. Local battalions were created, with delegates from every 7-12 battalions coming together to form socialist circumscriptions (districts).
From these circumscriptions the delegates to the founding congress were elected.
Expressing satisfaction with the founding congress, Muller Rojas remarked that "you cannot construct a party in one year — we have a multitude of 5.7 million people who enrolled in the party and it will take years to build such a party, particularly due to the lack of political culture, after 40 or 50 years of the exclusion of the majority from politics".
Debates and tensions
The congress, which began on January 12, was marked by a number of debates and tensions. Chavez, citing Fidel Castro, stated in his March 2 speech that the party was "the revolution within the revolution".
The party has become a central battleground for the future of the revolution, as the grassroots attempt to impose its will on bureaucratic and right-wing sectors it feels are holding back the revolution.
Regarding the debate at the congress that occurred over whether to explicitly define the party as not only anti-imperialist (as the right wing attempted to limit the program to) but also anti-capitalist, Muller Rojas expressed his satisfaction that the congress had adopted a "definitive position against capitalism".
Other debates flared up over the supposed expulsion from the PSUV of National Assembly deputy Luis Tascon after he publicly raised allegations of corruption in the infrastructure ministry.
Although the congress never voted on his expulsion, two central leaders of the congress organising committee, Jorge Rodriguez and Diosdado Cabello (governor of Miranda, a leader of the Chavista right and brother of the former infrastructure minister implicated in Tascon's allegations) announced on state television he had been expelled.
Discontent among delegates forced a backdown, with the question of Tascon's expulsion deferred until after the congress.
There were also widespread concerns raised over the conduct of the congress, specifically the election process for the leadership of the party.
A letter to Chavez signed by a significant number of congress delegates argued it was necessary to "profoundly revise the internal processes that during the founding congress have unfolded and which we feel makes vulnerable democratic participation, transparency, internal unity, the confidence of militants, the image of the party in the country and the international community".
Gonzalo Gomez, a delegate from Caracas working-class barrio Catia and member of Socialist Tide (a collection of left militants in the PSUV) argued that although these issues were problematic, they were understandable in the context of the short time available to found the party and the urgency of the task.
These criticisms, he explained, need to be taken into consideration for bettering the internal processes of the party in the future.
Regarding the Tascon dispute, Gomez argued that besides the need to have first established the program and principles as a basis for who can and can't be a member, as well statutes to define a democratic procedure for expulsions, the real question is: "What is the biggest danger for the revolution? That people carry out actions outside of the framework of the discipline of the organisation, or is the biggest danger that of the violations of the principles and ethics of the party, and the existence of corruption within the revolution, the state and the government?"
Following a strong campaign by delegates, the declaration of principles was amended to include the following paragraph: "The inefficiency in the exercise of public power, bureaucratism, the low level of participation of the people in the control and management of government, corruption and a widening gap between the people and government, threaten [to undermine] the trust that the people have placed in the Bolivarian revolution."
Drawing on the lessons of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky — a bitter opponent of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin — Muller Rojas added that the biggest danger the party faced was bureaucratism.
He argued this "tends to create a new class, make party life much more rigid, where the party loses flexibility and where what happens is what happened to the party in the USSR".
This is more dangerous than the attacks from imperialism and the counter-revolution, Muller Rojas argued.
Asked about differences within the party, Muller Rojas said: "I personally see tendencies as something very positive. I don't believe in the idea of single thought nor dogmatic thought". He added that given the great majority of aspiring PSUV members don't come from the old parties of the left, there has not yet been the creation of organised currents or factions.
The great diversity of the party was reflected in the election of the national leadership, he added. "There we have everything — afro-descendents, indigenous, whites, youth with different ideological positions."
In the elections "people did not follow the slates that had been circulating supposedly representing different tendencies", Gonzalo said. "In regards to the national leadership, we could say that neither the most radical sectors nor the most conservative sectors were elected."
Forged in the midst of a revolutionary process, the PSUV has some enormous tasks ahead.
"We are the government and the government is the party", said Muller Rojas. "It is an intimate relationship. It is not just an external support to the government, we have to commit ourselves to finding the greatest efficiency in public policies, cooperating with the government in implementing these policies ... particularly the development of popular power with is an extraordinary task."
Gomez argued that "the party should be the promoter, the driving force of the policies of the government, so that it is not the government dictating to the party, but rather the government constructing its policies together with the party and with the social movements".