Venezuela: The revolution's prospects for the coming year

The illness of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has created uncertainty over the future direction of his government, and specifically its commitment to revolutionary change and socialism.

Throughout the 14 years of his presidency, the key to Chavez’s political success was the constant deepening of the process of change, which invigorated the rank-and-file of his movement.

Chavez’s political capital, which enabled him to decree radical changes, was well earned. It stemmed from the extreme courage he demonstrated with the coup attempt he led in 1992 against a corrupt government and the one led against him in 2002, as well as the compassion he has shown for the underprivileged.

Before travelling to Cuba on December 9 for an operation, Chavez called on his followers to vote for Vice-President Nicolas Maduro if circumstances required Chavez to step down. Maduro is a former trade union leader who was foreign minister between 2006 and 2012.

More than several other top Chavista leaders, Maduro supports certain far-reaching measures favouring the non-privileged sectors. Thus, for instance, he headed a presidentially appointed commission that drafted the new labour law that Chavez signed on April 30 last year.

Not all Chavista national deputies were in agreement with the law’s far-reaching provisions, and ratification was held up in the National Assembly for over five years.

The law eliminates the practice of outsourcing and creates a controversial system of severance pay that the main business organisation Federcamaras had always opposed.

Had it not been for his illness, Chavez would have undoubtedly taken advantage of the momentum created by the electoral triumphs of the October presidential election and the December gubernatorial ones by carrying out bold initiatives to deepen the process of change. These actions would have been in keeping with his strategy of striking out in new directions immediately after each victory.

Measures at the outset of his new presidency may have included expropriations of monopoly firms that have created shortages of important items in recent months, or punishment of corrupt officials to set an example for the rest of the public administration.

Whether Chavez retains the presidency during a lengthy period of recuperation or whether Maduro assumes the presidency in a fresh poll, the national executive is now less likely to surprise the nation with bold actions of this nature.

Chavez’s physical weakness would weigh in if he remains in power. Furthermore, regardless of his intentions, Maduro lacks Chavez’s political capital to enable him to overcome resistance from within his movement and from powerful interests outside it.

Nevertheless, two considerations are on the plus side of the balance sheet for the Chavistas. In the first place, the opposition is greatly demoralised. In fact, its defeat in 20 of the nation’s 23 states in the December gubernatorial elections was due in large part to the abstention of its supporters after its disappointing showing in the October presidential contests.

Second, regardless of the outcome of Chavez’s bout with cancer, the situation has thrust on the Chavista movement the issue of collective leadership. Many Chavistas, including intellectuals grouped in the outspoken Centro Internacional Miranda, have for some time expressed concern about the movement’s excessive reliance on one individual. In the month that Chavez has been absent from the nation, Maduro and Diosdado Cabello (the other main Chavista leader and president of the National Assembly) have worked as a team.

Political rivalry occurs in all political groups. In the case of the Chavista movement, there are concrete differences that underpin it. If Chavez eventually recovers and if in the meantime the Chavistas move in the direction of a collective leadership based on the recognition of diverse positions ― albeit just roughly defined ― then Chavez’s health ordeal may someday be considered a blessing in disguise.

[Reprinted from New Left Project. Steve Ellner has been teaching economic history at the University of Orient Venezuela since 1977. His latest book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon.]