Nobody can quite believe their eyes and ears. More than 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has made it abundantly clear that his country is embarked on a socialist revolution.
On its own, the announcement that the strategic sectors of industry and the country's central bank will be brought under state control — like Venezuela's existing policies of income re-distribution in favour of the poor and expanding free health and education provision — is only astonishing because of the neoliberal context of recent decades.
Clement Atlee's British government took similar measures in the aftermath of the Second World War, as did many other capitalist countries during the early to-mid Cold War, while remaining loyal anti-communist allies of the USA. Even the USA itself, during the New Deal through which it survived the 1930s depression and the Great Society policies of the 1950s and 1960s, showed that it could prioritise welfare and the economy as a whole over the drive for profits at any cost.
But the revolution in Venezuela is not just about economics and welfare. The structures of popular participation that are developing, and the united socialist party that is being formed, are designed to secure a transfer of power from the rich to the working class and the poor.
If Chavez is successful in constructing socialism, the question arises: does it have a viable future? If it does, there is a prospect that the nature of politics around the globe may change again as people see the possibility in practice of a system that consciously manages natural resources and production in the service of the majority of human beings, rather than placing them at the mercy of the market and the corporations. This is the real threat posed by Venezuelan socialism.
The Washington Post in its January 10 editorial reassured its readers that socialism cannot work: "[Venezuelans] can look forward to steadily diminishing freedom — and if the history of socialism is any guide — national impoverishment." Yet it was the neoliberal reforms in the 1980s, not socialism, that led to Venezuela's national impoverishment and repression, from which it is now emerging.
A crucial requirement for economic growth in less developed countries is the ability to use and integrate world-class technology. This is the challenge for every less developed country: either to try to buy in the technology and in the process amass unpayable debt, or to allow foreign investment — thus risking the bulk of the revenues generated flowing abroad, and the loss of economic and political control at home.
The widespread perception that the USSR collapsed because its economic system was intrinsically flawed needs to be reassessed. During the periods when it had unrestricted access to cutting edge production-related knowledge and machinery, in the 1930s (mainly from the USA) and from 1945 to the late 1950s (from defeated Germany), the Soviet Union developed at a stunning rate. And contrary to what was promised, the reintroduction of capitalism in the former Soviet Union led to a smaller economic cake, shared out more unequally.
In a move that dismayed some on the left, Venezuela has announced its intention to pay compensation to the owners of the firms earmarked for nationalisation. This is not out of respect for the moral rights of foreign capitalists, but for a very sound practical reason: the need to continue to attract the inward investment necessary for economic growth.
Bill Clinton's famous election dictum, "it's the economy, stupid", needs to be revised. It's also about what you can do with the economy. And neither is it just about democracy — it's about what you can do with your democracy.
It was under conditions of liberal democracy that 2000 civilian protesters were massacred by the Venezuelan army in the 1989 Caracazo riots. The population's loss of confidence in the ability of liberal democracy and the corrupt two party system to represent their interests against the self-serving elites who controlled the media, state institutions and the economy, is what led Chavez, then an unknown army officer, to organise a failed military-civilian rebellion in 1992. Chavez's overwhelming victory in the 1998 presidential election was the electoral ratification of this insurrection.
Chavez has already begun to replace liberal democracy with a participatory democracy that is responsive to people's needs, not to the interests of capitalist elites. It is this, together with Chavez's economic program and anti-imperialist foreign policy, that has led the US and the corporate media to portray him as a dictator in the making. However, the people who are directly experiencing this transformation take the opposite view. A 2005 opinion poll by Latinobarometro found that more people in Venezuela consider their country "totally democratic" than any other nation in Latin America.
In order to understand what is meant by participatory democracy, it is necessary to explain that the existing state structures inherited from the ancien regime were riddled with corruption, remote and unresponsive to people's needs, and in many cases staffed by government opponents who used their positions to undermine service delivery and resist reform. As a consequence, a parallel state structure began to emerge. The hugely popular social misiones, which are based in the barrios and provide everything from free health care to subsidised food markets, are run at arm's length from government ministries. Critically, they are also subject to direct community involvement and control.
Building on the success of the misiones, this model has been extended to other areas of economic, social and cultural life. Communal Councils composed of 200-400 families (less in rural areas) have been established and will gradually take over key functions of the old state machinery, including managerial responsibility for public policy and projects. Further proposals for deepening popular power are currently being debated and will likely be entrenched in the new constitution, which is to be put to referendum later this year. Under a system of participatory democracy, a reversion to neoliberal policies would be unconstitutional without winning popular consent.
It is conceivable that the United States might respond by putting Venezuela under the same sort of economic sanctions that have been imposed on Cuba since its revolution, but it would prove extremely problematic.
Chavez is not isolated. His policies engage the overwhelming support — and increasingly the involvement — of the people of the country; and the left, in shades from "soft" to "radical", dominates the politics of Latin America.
Having survived a US-inspired military coup and a business strike, controlling huge oil reserves on which the US economy partly depends, with rising China ready to invest in its diversifying economy, with Russia committed to re-equipping its military forces, and with Cuba — that survivor of 20th century socialism — as an ally and inspiration, Hugo Chavez's claim that Venezuela's progress to socialism is "unstoppable" begins to seem more than bombastic demagogy.
[Calvin Tucker is co-editor of the web magazine 21st Century Socialism. Reprinted from <http://21stcenturysocialism.co.uk>.]