The narrow victory of Nicolás Maduro in the Venezuelan presidential election on 14 April should trigger serious reflection on the left about the limits of chavismo without Chávez.
Maduro won by 1.6% of the vote against right-wing neoliberal opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, with 50.7% compared to his opponent’s 49.1%. Pro-chavista apologists such as the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign were saying only days before the election that Maduro had a double digit lead over Capriles. Turnout was still high at 78%. There can be few excuses.
Hugo Chávez defeated Capriles 55%-44% last October and his PSUV had trounced them in 20 of 23 state governor races last December. Maduro would have expected to gain a strong sympathy vote after Chávez’s death in March. He was the comandante’s anointed successor, served as his vice-president and had effectively been running the government for months. He had the vast weight of the state machinery as well as the PSUV party machine behind him. Yet he scrapped home by the narrowest of margins.
Chavista apologists have long pointed to the popularity of Chávez as proof of his radical credentials. He did win four presidential elections, as well as other votes (losing only one referendum on extending his powers even further). What this vote shows is that the popularity of the “process” is fading electorally, almost to the point when the PSUV is in danger of losing power through the ballot box.
But a far deeper reflection is needed. Chávez’s regime was premised on the revenue from an oil rentier economy. He came to power with oil at $10 a barrel and died with it more than ten times that level. The oil revenues funded the social programmes, which undoubtedly narrowed income inequalities, but principally provided a social basis of political support for Chávez. But Venezuela still suffered from power cuts, shortages of basic necessities and vast corruption.
The left should not exaggerate Chávez’s achievements. Many Latin American states reduced poverty over the last decade. The programmes as well as the nationalised industries created a stratum of boligarchs and buttressed the private sector. The class structure of Venezuela was remoulded under Chávez, but basic class divisions remain in place – a capitalist state served by a bourgeois government.
The civic-military alliance at the heart of Chávez’s Bonapartist project remains intact, but is likely to fracture in the absence of its figurehead. Former military officers run 11 of the 20 PSUV-led state governments, and account for a quarter of the cabinet. The defence minister Admiral Molero Belavia claimed during the election that the armed forces should unite behind Maduro. But there is rivalry between Maduro (representing the civic side) and Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly and a former military colleague of Chávez. The prominence of the military indicates both the Bonapartist essence of chavismo and how far it is from a genuine working-class socialist project.
The political regime of chavismo has eclipsed the independent working class movement, where the unions are largely bound formally and informally to the Bolivarian state and its ruling party. The oil revenues still flow and with them some economic wriggle room for Maduro.
But the left should cease to be a mouthpiece for the Venezuelan government and champion the struggles of Venezuelan workers.