In the aftermath of the December referendum defeat, internal tensions within the Chavista coalition have begun to deepen as various sectors duke it out to control the future direction of the Venezuelan Revolution. To be clear: this process is a necessary one. But recent weeks have see the so-called “endogenous right,” the well-known bloc of moderate, centrist, bureaucratic-minded Chavistas, landing a series of body blows to more leftist elements, threatening internal democracy and the radicalism of the Revolution in the process.
In this counterattack, the role of Chávez himself has been ambiguous, at times demanding revolutionary self-criticism and at times assailing such criticism as a threat to unity.
Tascón in the Crosshairs
Intra-Chavista tensions exploded after the president named José David Cabello, younger brother of conservative Chavista strongman and Governor of Miranda State (and arguably second-most-powerful Chavista) Diosdado Cabello, to head the Venezuelan tax agency (SENIAT). This choice itself was dubious: as infrastructure minister, José David Cabello had accomplished little of note. Further, former SENIAT head José Vielma Mora, a straight-shooter who could do no wrong in the agency, had revolutionized tax collection in the country (that is, established tax collection where there had been very little previously).
In response to what was arguably a political (and nepotistic) appointment, Chavista firebrand Luis Tascón (best known for making public a list of those who signed the 2004 petition for Chávez’s recall), an assembly member hailing from the combative state of Táchira, came forward with what he claimed was evidence of the younger Cabello’s corruption while in MINFRA. While the evidence was perhaps inconclusive, Tascón was merely following Chávez’s own recent demand that revolutionaries denounce corruption, and calling for an investigation into the matter.
The counterattack was fierce and swift, and came not from José David Cabello, but from his elder brother, Diosdado. Focusing his ire on the fact that opposition news outlet Globovisión had been invited to Tascón’s press conference, Cabello appeared on Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), dismissing Tascón as an “instrument of the Empire,” who was only sowing discontent and division within the Chavista ranks, a charge which was to be repeated by Assembly President Cilia Flores. Cabello went on to suggest that Tascón had “traveled for a month to visit Bill Gates,” saying that “that must have been where they injected him with a microchip.” Tascón, according to Cabello, represents “the false left, which is our true enemy.”
A “Unanimous” Expulsion?
Cabello was joined, moreover, by Jorge Rodríguez, until recently vice president and currently devoted entirely to the formation of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and both declared on national television that Tascón had been “unanimously” expelled from the yet-to-be-born party. This declaration was peculiar, not least because it would be near-impossible to get all 1,676 members of the Party’s Founding Congress to unanimously agree to anything. Further, since the party has yet to officially exist, no-one is more than an “aspiring militant” at this point. Tascón, an “aspiring militant” to a party which does not yet exist, was nevertheless allegedly expelled via a “unanimous vote” which probably never happened.
Tascón was no stranger to controversy within the Chavista ranks. When he released the “Tascón List” of recall signatories, he earned the adulation of many but also the ire of more than a few, and not only within the opposition (where he has come to be solidly hated). Tascón has himself boasted in recent days that he has been expelled on four separate occasions from the official organs of Chavismo (the MVR and PSUV), most recently for his defense, however limited, of Raúl Baduel, the retired general and longtime Chávez ally who openly broke with the President in November over the planned constitutional reform referendum.
“If I had criticized a mayor in any small town in the country, nothing would have happened,” insists Tascón. His only error, it seems, was to pick a fight with the brother of such a powerful figure. He went on to say what is more or less an open secret in Venezuela: “Diosdado [Cabello] is the head of the endogenous right.” Tascón, moreover, does not think his own revolutionary credentials are in any doubt: “Everyone knows that on April 11th [2002, during the coup against Chávez], I was in Miraflores [Palace], and on the 13th of April, I was with the 2nd [Army] Division in Táchira convincing the commander to resist the coup. Where were Diosdado and Cilia Flores?”
Diosdado Cabello is, according to Tascón, “very powerful, he is even more powerful than [former Chávez advisor Luis] Miquilena during his time in the government.” Miquilena, we should recall, was the chief representative of the “endogenous right” of a previous era: after a stint as Chávez’s chief advisor, wielding almost absolute authority behind the scenes, Miquilena left the Chavista coalition in early 2002, taking with him a legislative majority and eventually supporting the April coup.
In recent days, it has come out that the alleged expulsion vote against Tascón had not occurred at all, and that a debate was scheduled on the matter in the party’s founding congress for future days. But the fact that two Chavista heavy-hitters had spoken in the name of what is supposed to be a democratic and grassroots party certainly does not bode well. And the fact that Chávez himself has admitted to having intervened personally to demand Tascón’s expulsion, for a “lack of discipline and irresponsibility,” bodes even worse.
The “Uncontrollable” Lina Ron
For a few days, this tension simmered gently, but it returned to the surface with a bang. On February 24th, an explosive device detonated at the headquarters of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce (Fedecámaras), killing one. Fedecámaras, recall, has long been antagonistic to the Chávez regime, having participated in the 2002 coup, and it was none other than Fedecámaras president Pedro Carmona Estanga who would step in as interim president, dissolving all constitutionally-sanctioned powers and establishing a short-lived dictatorship. Since then, Fedecámaras has toned down their hostility slightly, but is still seen by most Chavistas as enemy number one (several revolutionary collectives staged a militant protest on its steps in early 2007). The victim, it has since been claimed, was a Chavista, and a member of the “Venceremos Guerrilla Front” which has allegedly claimed the bombing in an effort to “rescue the Bolivarian process.”
Three days later, February 27th, marked the 19th anniversary of the epic anti-neoliberal Caracazo riots of 1989, in which the army was deployed to the poor barrios of Caracas, slaughtering thousands. Repression was concentrated in the historically-militant 23 de Enero (January 23rd) zone of Western Caracas, and exactly 19 years later, 23 de Enero would again find itself at the center of police attention in the aftermath of the Fedecámaras bombing. In a symbolic occupation of the Archbishop’s Palace organized by Chavista students, National Assembly deputy Pedro Lander and revolutionary organizer Lina Ron denounced the police searches that had been carried out, and rejected the “criminalization” of the deceased Venceremos militant.
Ron even went so far as to deem the deceased a “martyr” of the revolution, coming dangerously close to supporting the Fedecámaras bombing. That the government would respond to such a claim would seem to be a strategic necessity, but the way Chávez did so raises some urgent questions.
Echoes of Chile?
Calling in to the Chavista evening show La Hojilla (“The Razor”), hosted by firebrand Mario Silva, Chávez went on the offensive:
“I can’t understand her I won’t say that she’s an infiltrator, no. I wouldn’t say that she’s consciously operating in the ranks of the counterrevolution, but it would be interesting to research the terrible damage that the ultra-left did to Salvador Allende, how the ultra-left was infiltrated by the CIA without realizing, and generated events that provided the justification for the right to do what they did Lina, you need to show some revolutionary discipline!”
This is a far cry from Chávez’s traditional line about Allende’s fall: that the revolution was unarmed, and that Allende failed to make arms available to the workers and the people through the creation of radical militias. In the early years of Chávez’s efforts to organize a clandestine revolutionary force within the military, this view even became a code that the rebels would use to greet and identify one another. Quoting Fidel Castro’s words, spoken in response to the 1973 coup, they would greet one another with the following: “If every worker, if every laborer had a rifle in their hands, the fascist Chilean coup would never have happened.” But now it seems as though Chávez wants to portray some armed popular organizations as the enemy, not the savior, of the revolutionary process.
This was not the first time Ron had been deemed “uncontrollable” by the President to whom she swears allegiance to the death. Within a span of months in 2002, Chávez had deemed her both “a soldier who demands the respect of all Venezuelans” and “uncontrollable,” and prior to that, as Chávez was briefly overthrown in an April 2002 coup, Ron languished in jail for her insistently radical street action. And nor will this be the last time the two tangle: it was only recently that Chávez named Ron to a PSUV steering committee, and once this conflict eases, she may very well find herself back in the good graces of her beloved Comandante. This back-and-forth, perhaps, is the inevitable result of the distance that exists between a revolutionary leader and a popular insurgent, but it is worrying nonetheless, and especially for what it suggests.
A Critical Moment for the PSUV
In this struggle, now thankfully out in the open, between the radical and conservative sectors of Chavismo, no strategic arena is more crucial than the nascent PSUV. But as we have seen, this conflict between Chavista left and right has led to an imposition of authoritarian solutions in what was meant to be a directly democratic party structure.
And this pre-emptive attack on party democracy didn’t stop with the expulsion of Luis Tascón. The party’s temporary “leadership” recently made public the list of candidates for upcoming elections to the party’s national directorate. While many had hoped that the party structure would allow local leaders, elected by their battalions, to reach the founding congress and occupy leadership roles, this has evidently not been the case, since all 69 candidates are national leaders. The right has a significant presence, too, in the candidacies of Cabello the elder, Rodríguez, Francisco Ameliach, Nicolas Maduro, and that pillar of opportunism Francisco Arias Cárdenas.
The way the candidates were chosen, too, remains unclear and reeks of top-down dedazo authoritarianism. Allegedly, each delegate from a local battalion was able to put forward three names. From these, it seems that Chávez himself (surrounded by advisors, por supuesto) identified which would stand as candidates (leaving the party base with no idea how many nominations each had received). Of these, 15 will be elected, to which Chávez himself will add 5 (thereby guaranteeing a “power quota” for all influential Chavistas). In another recent show of undemocratic party politics, Chávez was recently speaking to the PSUV Founding Congress, where he mentioned having seen the results of an earlier vote to close the Congress a week early. As he was talking, however, delegates began to shout that such a vote had never been taken. If we follow the embarrassment criterion, however, it would seem that Chávez was misled by Rodríguez and Cabello.
Radicals fighting it out within the PSUV’s founding congress have been left to scramble to compile a “leftist slate” for the national directorate election, but finding 15 leftists on the list is no easy task. Some have suggested:
* Vladimir Acosta, an outspoken professor and critic of bureaucratic and moderate tendencies within Chavismo who seek a truce with the opposition.
* Mario Silva, and avowed communist and host of VTV’s La Hojilla, who nodded in assent as Chávez attacked Lander, Ron, and Tascón, and who some fear may have close ties with the secret police (DISIP).
* Roberto Hernandez, National Assembly member representing the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV).
* Vanessa Davies, a former urban guerrilla with the once revolutionary Bandera Roja (Red Flag) who is now better known as a mild-mannered VTV television host.
* Elias Jaua, also of Bandera Roja but now Land and Agriculture Minister, who issued a scathing if abstract statement (carefully-worded given his cabinet post) against everything from divisions within Chavismo to collaboration with the national bourgeoisie.
* Erika Farias, head of the Guevaraist Frente Francisco Miranda, an organization focusing on ideological training for young people, which combines radicalism with dogmatism.
*Noeli Pocaterra, Edgildo Palau, national indigenous leaders.
*Lidice Navas, Fernando Soto Rojas, and Elisa Osorio, three members of the “Socialist Assemblies,” an umbrella group comprising various revolutionary collectives (like Liga Socialista, Utopia, M-28).
Again, not an easy task, and none of these candidates do justice to the most revolutionary sectors of Venezuelan social movements. But the objective, of which many speak openly, is to do anything to prevent Diosdado Cabello and allies Jorge Rodríguez and Francisco Ameliach, representatives of the bureaucratic and moderate Chavista right, from consolidating control over the PSUV at such an early stage. In this, as in everything, Chávez’s own role is ambiguous, as he has given public endorsement to three members of the “radical” slate: Silva, Davies, and Farias. But his support, strategic or otherwise, for Diosdado Cabello et al almost ensures them a spot on the committee, even if not elected (Chávez himself, as president of the PSUV, is able to name five additional members).
In one positive sign, retired general Alberto Müller Rojas was recently named by Chávez as the PSUV’s first Vice President. Müller, we should recall, only recently returned to Chávez’s inner circle after an acrimonious public debate in which the retired general, an advocate of decentralized militia structures and people’s war, accused the President of cowing to conservative members of the military hierarchy in his insistence on military “professionalism” and “apoliticism.” Both Müller’s substantive political positions and his willingness to express disagreements openly give cause for optimism, but against what backdrop?
It seems as though Chávez has taken the same lesson from his referendum defeat that he did from the 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power. Both prompted an immediate moderation in tone and an effort to build bridges with sectors of the bourgeoisie. (A notable exception in the present moment, of course, is Chávez’s surprisingly aggressive tone toward Colombian narco-terrorist Alvaro Uribe and sympathetic words for the FARC rebels with whom he had been negotiating humanitarian prisoner releases.)
But this is the wrong lesson to learn from the December referendum defeat. Rather than an alienation of the middle class, the low turnout in that election indicated the alienation of much of the Chavista base, the poor and most revolutionary members of Chavismo who remained unconvinced that the referendum would have deepened popular protagonism in the Bolivarian Revolution. In the past, such moderating moments in Chávez’s discourse have later been revealed to be merely strategic, providing the necessary subterfuge for radicalizing the revolution. Given that we are in the aftermath of Chávez’s first electoral defeat, we can hope with some justification that his attack on the radicalism of the “ultra-left” is similarly strategic, but if by historical accident this moderation becomes bureaucratically ingrained in the structures of the PSUV, its effects will be harder to expunge in the long-term.
Thanks to Federico Fuentes for providing invaluable information for this report.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley. He is currently writing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.