“I’ll be as bald as Yul Brynner”, Hugo Chavez told thousands of supporters outside the presidential palace in Caracas at the end of July, as he sang and danced to celebrate his 57th birthday writes Iain Bruce. He’d just returned from his first week of chemotherapy in Cuba. He also repeated his promise to stand again in the presidential elections at the end of 2012.
A few days later, the president did appear on TV with very little hair, some pictures of himself as a baby and some jokes about the comparison.
This frankness over his illness has disarmed President Chavez’ opponents. During his original absence in Cuba, they had worked Venezuela’s opposition-controlled media into a frenzy over his supposed incapacity to govern. As usual, the mainstream international media followed their cue. When it became clear that Chavez remained in full control of his faculties, some of them, including the opposition’s most likely presidential candidate, Capriles Radonski, suggested maybe he wasn’t ill at all. Maybe he was just seeking sympathy ahead of the electoral campaign. Chavez retorted that they were the only ones who were really sick.
There had been speculation about splits within the Bolivarian leadership. Possible power grabs had been mooted. In fact there were no purges, not even a cabinet reshuffle. Chavez kept in place his vice-president, Elias Jaua, widely seen as on the left of the government. Some of his comments pointed to a radicalization: “no pact with the bourgeoisie” and a “quickening of the pace of change”. Others combined a more moderate tone, the need to “win over the middle class”, with an implicit critique of those in his administration who think socialism can be achieved by wearing a red shirt or putting the adjective ‘socialist’ in front of every new road or government initiative: “socialism has to be built, on the basis of production”, he said.
Nonetheless, Chavez’ cancer is a serious challenge for him, for Venezuela’s revolutionary process and for the wider left in Latin America. At best, he will surely have to cut back on his marathon work schedule and therefore his micro-management of all government policy. At the other extreme, the revolutionary movement could have to discover very quickly whether it can survive without the figure who has been its main driving force and guarantee of cohesion.
This will not be easy. It will depend largely on the ability of the Bolivarian grassroots to develop and strengthen their existing forms of self-organization, and begin to project these directly onto the political stage. In the communities that means developing the Communal Councils – in theory there are more than 30,000 of them organising over half the population – into genuine bodies of local self-government, and linking them up in Communes to take on aspects of regional administration. The package of laws on communal and popular power passed at the end of last year provides an imperfect template for this. But in the end it will be the initiatives of the communities themselves that are decisive.
In the workplaces, it means pushing to extend the still incipient experiences of workers’ control. At the end of July thousands of Venezuelan workers marched to the National Assembly to demand swifter discussion and adoption of the draft Law on Workers’ Councils and the revised Labour Law. Both could be powerful instruments for workplace democracy. But in the steel works and other basic industries of Venezuela’s southeastern Guayana region, there is already a ferocious battle underway over workers’ control. It was here, at the ALCASA aluminium smelter, that one of the first attempts to introduce “revolutionary co-management”, in 2005, was stifled by the local bureaucracy. Since 2009, with President Chavez’ support, a new and wider wave of workers’ control initiatives has been launched as part of the Socialist Guayana Plan, involving ALCASA, the renationalised SIDOR steel plant and a number of other factories. Again, the right wing of the Bolivarian movement around the local state governor, some of the old managers and some of the old trade union bureaucracy, are doing all they can to resist. But this time there is also an ugly clash between different currents claiming to defend workers’ control, most significantly between the Revolutionary Front of Steel Workers and Trade Union Alliance supported by Marea Socialista, with accusations of corruption flying in both directions. Whatever the merits of either position, such disputes do not augur well for the challenge at hand.
For Venezuela’s revolutionary process has always had two main driving forces. Chavez’ extraordinary leadership ability is just one of them. The other is the local, grassroots self-organisation of the Venezuelan poor, capable of producing massive, national mobilizations. At key moments over the last 12 years, like the attempted coup of April 2002, it has been the convergence of the two that has saved the process from defeat and carried it onto new terrain. But this combination also entails problems. One is the missing middle – the absence of a convincing, collective leadership team around Chavez or of a layer of cadre below them with real roots and credibility among the masses. Another problem, closely related to this, is that the lack of debate at the top, and the resulting centrality of Chavez’ personal political choices, can end up limiting or frustrating his own drive to encourage participatory democracy from below.
If Chavez’ overwhelming presence were now to lessen, or even disappear, these delicate balances and tensions would have to shift. The decisive question then would be whether the radical grassroots could occupy that space on their own, and win a national majority for radical change. Or whether the mediocre, and often corrupt, middle layers would impose their much more conservative agenda, most likely preparing the ground for electoral defeat by the old right. It is hardly surprising that Chavez is so keen to insist that he will be standing again in 2012.